HTNM Lecture — Claus Pias, “Technologies of Simulation”

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Blog post from Kate Mattingly:


The night of Wednesday the 14th marked a double celebration: the first event of the History and Theory of New Media 2015-16 lecture series and the fifth anniversary of the series, which is organized by professors Abigail De Kosnik (Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, BCNM) and David Bates (Rhetoric, BCNM). It was fitting that the speaker for this occasion, Dr. Claus Pias, is a preeminent scholar of New Media at Leuphana University in Germany, who exemplifies the type of multidisciplinary research that makes BCNM such a critical nexus for students and scholars from across the Berkeley, and the indeed broader academic community.


Currently a professor at Leuphana University in Germany, Dr. Pias studied Electrical Engineering at RWTH Aachen and Art History, German Literature, and Philosophy at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. He received a PhD from Bauhaus-Universität in 2000 for his study of the pre-history of the computer game, published in 2002 as Computer Spiel Welten. This book is forthcoming in English as Computer Game Worlds, published by Amsterdam University Press as part of their book series, Recursions: Theories of Media, Materiality and Cultural Techniques.


Dr. Pias’ lecture examined a fascinating genealogy of machine translation (MT), noting intersections of philosophy, linguistics and computer science, and tracing lines of connection between multiple disciplines and research regimes that grew up around machine translation in Europe and the United States between the 1940s and 1970s. The lecture began with an analysis of how computer simulation opens new fields of scientifically treatable research, and changes the way we understand certain topics and questions in the sciences. Dr. Pias then shifted to the political and social premises of MT and traced its roots to computerized crypto-analysis, linguistics, and philosophical constructivism. Key figures in the development of MT include Leon Dostert, Victor Yngve, Silvio Ceccato, and Ernst von Glasersfeld, while key events include the MIT conference in 1952 and the 1954 demonstration at the IBM headquarters. For each of these events, Dr. Pias noted the institutional constructions and funding sources that were involved: for example, when Dostert co-founded the Institute of Languages and Linguistics at Georgetown University in 1949, this institute was part of the School of Foreign Service, and it was designed as a school for people training for the Foreign Service of the United States.


Dr. Pias’ lecture demonstrated how an excavation of MT histories reveals close affinities between philosophy and engineering, and how the formation of a constructivist epistemology has managed to “camouflage its technical-historical origins.” His analysis of relationships between language, thought, and representation revealed the complicated and intersecting histories of technology, politics, and philosophy, speaking to the generative possibilities of interdisciplinary research.


Check out the photos below!


2015 HTNM Pias


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To translate – at least in the starry heights of computer-scientific abstraction – is to convert the data structures of one system of order (the source language) into the data structures of another system of order (the target language). Unfortunately, natural languages are of course full of ambiguities – be they of a lexical, syntactical, or referential sort.  Such ambiguities manifest themselves through remote relations, ellipses, paraphrases, implicit knowledge, or through unbridgeable “translation gaps.” Over the past six decades, and despite the apparent impossibility of the undertaking, constant efforts have nevertheless been made to simulate the activity of translation with machines.


This presentation will focus on the history of machine translation, which has seldom or never before been considered from the perspective of simulation. Examining the cybernetic discussions that had taken place about the role of language at the beginning of the computer age, the lecture will concentrate on a particular type of theory that developed in response to simulations being conducted within a technical-experimental setting. Beyond this, an excursus about the now-forgotten Centro di Cibernetica and a brief discussion of primate research will attempt to demonstrate the role that simulations have played (particularly those conducted in the area of machine translation) in the formation of constructivist epistemology and how this branch of philosophy has managed to camouflage its technical-historical origins.


pias-stanfordClaus Pias is Professor for Media History and Media Theory at Leuphana University, Lüneburg. After studying Electrical Engineering at RWTH Aachen and Art History, German Literature, and Philosophy at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn he received a PhD from Bauhaus-Universität in 2000 for his study of the pre-history of the computer game, published in 2002 as Computer Spiel Welten. Before coming to Leuphana in 2010, Pias was Associate Professor for Media Technology and Media Philosophy at the Ruhr-University Bochum, Professor for Communication and Media Studies at the University of Essen, and Professor for Epistemology and Philosophy of Digital Media at the University of Vienna. He is the co-editor of Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft and of Kursbuch Medienkultur: Die massgeblichen Theorien von Brecht bis Baudrillard (1999). Some of the many books Pias has edited include Cybernetics/Kybernetik. Die Macy-Konferenzen 1946-1953 (2 volumes, 2003-4) as well as a volume of positions on media studies, Was waren Medien? (2010). Professor Pias’ research more generally focuses on the history and epistemology of computer simulation and the history of media studies.