A not so popular, but an interesting, TV series called The Expanse –an adaptation of a novel series of the same title– has a plot situated in a time when humans have more or less colonized the solar system. Earth has become the colonizer, Moon, Mars, and many moons of Jupiter, etc. have become the colonies. Among these colonies, Mars is more technological advanced than earth, since the Martians are on a military like operation to terraform Mars itself. The entire series –with nearly seven seasons– is about the terrible challenges, and even the potential politics, of colonizing outer space. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the series is when a mysterious ring appears out of nowhere, somewhere in our solar system. This ring is an astronomically gigantic circle that gives an impression of being two-dimensional but is in fact has immense depth. Not only that, it is also a portal to other habitable solar systems. The most interesting character of this ring is that it is conscious. It doesn’t simply allow anybody to pass through it, it requires a great degree of trust to cross the ring. It has a larger plan which it wants to enact, one that involves erasing our solar system. It does not take a genius to understand the plot of the series / novel once this threat is put in place. The ring uses many characters and eventually even objects, from the series, as mediums to understand the solar system, humans, etc. initially to become self-conscious, to understand that it is going through some pain, that it is hurting. Because the ring does not remember, literally, why it is huriting it gets wilder by the day to an extant that it wants to react to that feeling by destroying the entire solar system in a blink. This kind of journey of consciousness of astronomical objects (of the self and the other) is what one feels while reading Benjamin Bretton’s terraforming.
What Bratton asks us to do is to zoom out in space and time and look at the planet earth from an astronomical scale. In that scale, nothing appears artificial -in the sense of human made. Everything from the dawn of Earth to the ice-age, to the Holocene, to Anthropocene, etc. are nothing but mere stages in the growth of the planet earth itself. But what is the purpose of this development? The purpose of this development is for Earth to have a sense of the universe within which it is located. The agency of humans is only a means for the planet to understand its place in the universe. All technologies, all capacities to “see” by all creatures, are subservient to the telos of our planet’s journey of self-consciousness. The distribution of any form of intelligence in the planet is purely in servitude of this “into the wild” like solitary journey of our beloved planet. It is as if, like the ring from The Expanse, earth manifested intelligence itself in its efforts to become conscious. A fascinating point. Earth, in this reading, is like the Leibnizian monad, acting like a window into the universe. It is also acting like the pre-Socratic atom that is self-conscious to an extent that it knows that is must and it can escape the bond of fate –Marx knew this very well. It is like the Hegelian Spirit working at an astronomical scale. Benjamin’s Earth is acting like Heideggerian Being which needs a dasien and other beings to get a glimpse of its own being. Perhaps the closest allegory to Bratton’s thinking would be complex systems version of world as a wild cascading effect. Which implies that everything happens for no reason on one hand, and on the other hand everything happens only for Earth’s journey of self-consciousness. Bratton’s model of reality as a complex and non-linear cascading system is wildly free like the Epicurian atoms that swerve away from the bonds of fate.
Yet, in order to truly become self-consciousness, Earth requires the humans to develop all the technologies which not only offer a feedback loop about Earth’s own self, but also a feedback loop from the universe within which it is located. In this Earth’s journey of self-consciousness something like climate change appears extremely like a self-destructive moment in Earth’s history. Perhaps Bratton rightly asks, what would this journey really mean for not only Earth, but even for humans? Will it be all worth it? A haunting question. With this is overview in mind, let me try and draw a few thoughts on the ideas presented in Terraforming by Benjamin Bratton.
The naturality of Artificiality and the artificiality of naturality with a twist
Naturality of Artificiality: One of the ways in which the artificial is defined is an anomalous regularity. For instance, the difference between wild pine forest and an array of pine trees. At what scale does the naturality of artificiality makes sense? At the astronomical scale. At the astronomical scale if we are able to orient a telescope to study earth, we would have seen everything happening on earth as a long drawn earthly process. Something akin to watching the storm on Jupiter over the last few decades from Earth. In this view all human actions, and especially technological actions, that had a planetary imagination -telephone, air travel, space technology, astronomical study, computational machines, internet, fuel, and energy circulation, etc. appear, let’s say from Jupiter, like a miniature stop motion movie but one that is not a human doing, but a the doing of the planet itself. This stop-motion film is made of both intended and unintended composition of matter which when triggered started unfurling a planetary scale play of cascading things (entropy like) whose timescales are way beyond the finitude of human understanding and existence. But this complex system entropy is not as designed or organized as even the most complex domino set, instead it is a complex and anarchic, self-organizing, or even self-designing system equipped with a feedback loop capacity to improvise the composition on the fly. There is a teleology without any object. This aspect of the self-design or the tendency to self-design also brings this argument close the materialist reading of something like vitalism (if not pan-psychism, which is not a far-fetched argument in this vein). The basic idea of vitalism is that matter has a set of tendencies to organize every time in similar manner, no matter when and where. The simple example would be a heap of sand. Every time one pours a sand on a horizontal surface for long enough, and in a certain quantity, and aimed at one particular point, the sand will always tend to organize itself like a heap, every time. Perhaps a little more complex example would be the transformation of a seed into a specific plant or a tree each time. The seed seems to have the capacity to organize matter around it every time in a manner that it will always be able to sprout into the same plant, whose plant structure is comparable to another similar plant. How are such things possible? This can also be said of the conduction capacities of wires. Or, the communication capacity of radio devices, which reorganize matter and energy to reproduce the electromagnetic signals and convert them into sound / images. This implies that all things in this universe must be adhering to some fundamental logic -a prehuman logic that is acting as a drive, a determination, a jolt, a DNA, a code, a minimal schema, a diagram, etc. But one wonders if there is any real natural logic or even telos at play when the AI bots are being tinkered with to reorganize your Instagram feed. Perhaps your Instagram feed is too much of a surface variation of a deeper technological shift, and perhaps that background change is where the naturality of the technological medium is located? A very McLuhanesque argument, and rightfully so.
Artificiality of Naturality: If this was the only trajectory of this investigation, or terraforming, then, the logical end would be concluded that all events are occurring in accordance with the natural course of things. An argument that sounds terribly close the idea of ‘bond of fate’. Perhaps as a corollary, this line of argument tells us that the bond of fate is a wild one, where everything is a game of chance. It is at once a game and a play of chance -where things seem to have a larger logic, a grand design, yet seemed to be muddled with unwarranted and unexpected outputs, only to be pulled back into the loop of design, only to be swirled around in the thunderstorm of entropy. Perhaps this is what Manuel deLanda, following Deleuze, refers to as the space of possibility. However, Benjamin wants to give a twist to this astronomical cinema plot that he has sketched for us. That twist is to make a realist argument about the function of all planetary technologies. While technological developments may appear to be taking a very naturalistic course, regardless of push by military uses, political motivations, economic motivations, or simply the motivation of love or trauma, they are nonetheless a product of human and machine labor. In that sense, it might be possible to recompose the pieces of our current global cascade in a way that we can swerve away from an otherwise naturalistic end of the eight-billionth season of this series called Planet Earth where all human life is on the verge of mass extinction. The realist appeal or a realist case that Benjamin makes is to nudge the current composition of planetary technologies towards creating earth-like conditions on earth to continue the sustenance of life on earth after the Anthropocene. How is it a realist case? Well, to put it in a Sunday read mode, Benjamin presents several cases and potential cases of planetary use of technologies that it seems only “common sensical”, utterly plausible, logical, and even simple to reorient the composition of our contemporary techno-sphere to help address the contemporary planetary urgencies.
Intelligence of organized matter or matter of organized intelligence with a twist
Intelligence as self-organized matter: How to understand intelligence, especially from an astronomical / planetary scale? Perhaps the simplest form of intelligence can be seen as the ability to either store or respond to a feedback signal. For instance, I push a rock and it rolls down the slope. Even if the rock is receiving various signals in its rolling, it will neither hold the signal within, nor will it respond to the signal. On the other hand, a radio signal connects to a particular frequency, and on a specific radio device. The radio device buzzes to life, until the signal relay ends. Can we say then that the radio device has intelligence? Perhaps to the extent that it responds to a signal. But can it store a signal and respond to the signal on its own accord or will? Perhaps, if it is programmed to auto-matically respond, then it is a possibility. Is intelligence then a matter of auto-matism? If we agree that matter has the capacity to self-organize or self-design, then we should be willing to agree that intelligence is also nothing but a self-design of matter -and this self-organization is what has been referred to as auto-matos by the Greeks. Autos=self and matos=thinking, animated, willing. Perhaps we can say that automation is the basic characteristics of intelligence. This then can hold true to the workings of electromagnetic waves, atoms, molecules, RNAs and DNAs, viruses, cells, large uni-cellular creatures, complex bacteria a fungi colonies, plants, and organisms, and so on. But what kind of automatos is at work at what scale, is up for classification and debate. For instance, the kind of intelligence required to put together the international space station is certainly different from the hunt for iron by bacteria. To this almost naturalistic list of intelligence, it would not be unnatural to add the intelligence of computers, auto-bots in an amazon warehouse, server farms, or the planetary interplay of the techno-sphere which we have all come to rely on so much.
Benjamin brings our attention to the evolutionary aspect of intelligence. One of the aspects of animal intelligence has been the capacity to model the intelligence of another animal. The prey models the intelligence of the predator and other way around as well to an extent that it starts to adjust its behavior to either hunt or avoid being hunted. Machine learning models, Benjamin reminds us, are designed to model the world, the entities in the world, and even the intelligence of the entities in the world, including humans. Machine learning platforms are not only like Eliza on steroids, but also like Eliza with a inhumane scale memory where it keeps improvising the model of intelligence of things that the machine is interacting with.
Matter of organized intelligence: Benjamin’s appeal or twist to the question of intelligence or machine intelligence is to think of realistic ways of organizing or recomposing this intelligence towards planetary urgencies, like the appeal to reorganize the function of various hyper-technical objects mentioned above. One way to do this is to think of a synthetic-intelligence where neither human nor machine intelligence is undermined but these two forms of intelligence are re-oriented towards solving planetary problems. It is not very far from what Latour in 2004 referred to as the difference between matters of concern and matters of fact. Benjamin, like Latour, is making a case to turn the focus of planetary politics not just towards matters of fact, but to matters of urgent questions. In other words, to know that intelligence has its own evolutionary history is a fact we all can agree upon, perhaps. But, are able to direct that historical development or recompose its function towards the things that concern us urgently? Perhaps it calls for reigniting a planetary scale design ambition that Fuller had initiated.
What about stupidity
In this schema of the evolution of intelligence, one wonders where is the space for stupidity? Or are we to understand that there is no such thing as stupid automatos or stupid self-organisation / self-design? A nagging reminder from the psychoanalysis and the Hegelian camp is that humans have always acted against their best interest. For instance, despite knowing the fact that it is fatal to smoke cigarettes, it is nothing less than sex appeal, a cultural phenomenon of the widest and wildest appeal, it triggers a strange dark desire to be able to open that cigarette pack in a certain manner, to hold the cigarette on one side of your mouth, slightly bend forward, to flip that lighter smoothly, and light that cigarette. Even with the matters of everyday actions, we know understand certain things to make our lives better. However, our stupidity comes in way of performing that intelligent action. For instance, you meet your favorite philosopher for the first time, and instead of having a conversation with him/her we sometimes blurt out things like “did you get my email?”. Think about also when you want to ask out a person on a date, or you want to express condolences to someone. More often than not we blurt out really stupid stuff, despite all the signals that urge us to act intelligently. Wonder what is the role of the rise of planetary scale stupidity? This question also pops up because it would be too narrow to define stupidity as any action that is not an intelligent response. For instance, carnal desires, imaginations of fantastical beings, etc. are not necessarily only intelligent responses in the typical sense of the understanding of intelligence. It would perhaps even be narrowing to say that all acts of design inform a sense of intelligence. Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley tell us otherwise in “Are We Human”: design acts have been a strange search for beauty -another thing that cannot be fit in the schema of intelligence in a strait jacket manner. This brings us also to one of the arguments about culture in Terraforming. On the one hand, Bratton agrees with the necessity of dissolving the assumed division between nature and culture. Something that we have seen above. On the other hand, Bratton is not convinced that humanities need more financial support or patronage because, according to Bratton’s reading, cultural economy is everywhere around us and planetary intelligence and the planetary technosphere is overtly put in use of the cultural economy –we can even say technology is stupendously put in use of the cultural economy. One can understand the necessity to sometimes push the argument to its limit in order to make a point, but it would also be narrow in assuming that contemporary culture is only limited to the cultural economy. If anthropology, ethnography, archeology, history, etc. have taught us anything about culture, then it is that the cultural sphere is the domain of the artificial that also includes the scientific and the technological. Of course, we know better today that this sense of artificiality is not just limited to humans but is part of many life forms. Which takes us back to the point of the naturality of artificiality and the artificiality of naturality. While there is merit in dissolving the constructed notion of the nature/culture divide, there is also a merit in holding the idea of culture as one of the things among many other things in the universe and not as a pampered domain of humans, in capable of things.
- It is truly difficult to distinguish between what we call nature and what we refer to as artificial. That should be irrelevant in any case for our contemporary emergencies unfolding at the planetary scale. If the artificial world can get the job done of swerving away our destiny from what appears to be a terrible fate of the current affairs, then so be it. We need to mobilize / design the planetary scale technosphere towards the end of changing our fate.
- On the one hand intelligence is organised matter. In other words, intelligence is one form of emergence possible from the capacity of matter to self-organise into various forms. The planetary scale computation and machine learning is the latest way in which matter has reorganized itself -using the agency of human intelligence towards this goal. However, it would be an utter waste of this evolution if it cannot be used to tackle planetary scale problems. Once again, like the technosphere, we should mobilize / design this emergent sphere of intelligence -like a phronimo-sphere (from Phronesis) to help us spin out of the course of fate we seem to be heading towards. Perhaps the figure that is at play with respect to contemporary technology is Janus. We are pulled between the stupendous and intelligence at the same time. Perhaps the most hopeful, interesting, and noteworthy aspects of Terraforming is the realist or the pragmatist possibilities of the technosphere that we have constructed towards the planetary urgencies. The potentials of which are really at reach if we are willing to undertake a planetary scale recomposition of how we have come to distribute the technosphere.
- In that sense the key terms of note in Bratton’s Terraforming are:
- planetary scale agencies and possibilities (which has always been there all along).
- Current compositions and future re-compositions of the technosphere, intelligence, biosphere, politics, etc. Composition and recomposition are also other terms for design.
- Self-organization is the inherent nature of all matter. All self-organizing moments of matter produce new and emergent things. Design is an act of directing this capacity of self-organization towards a specific end. The way in which we direct this energy is evidence of intelligence. In that sense, every design is self-design.