Evolutions of Kin Re-worlding the digital now and the biotech present part 2

An essay by: Angelique Spaninks

Part 2/3

An essay by Angelique Spaninks

(read also part 1).

For ages, mankind have been labouring to unravel and fathom, as systematically as they possibly can, the natural phenomena of the world in order to use them to their advantage.

This is the foundation of the technology we surround ourselves with and the development of the natural sciences. A world without technology has become unthinkable, we are entirely adapted to it and without our technological tools, from hand axes and flint knifes to writing and steam engines to computers and CRISPR/Cas9, life on Earth would look entirely different.

However, where the development of this technium (8) progressed rather steadily for several millennia, we now find ourselves in a rapid acceleration caused by global industrialisation and worldwide economisation, lightning digital developments and fundamental discoveries in the field of biotechnology.

This acceleration is often epitomised as the Anthropocene. Derived from anthropos, the Greek word for man, this is another hyperobject. As far back as the early twentieth century, the Russian geologist Alexei Pavlov introduced the concept in geological circles.

It took until 2000, however, before a joint publication9 of meteorologist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer succeeded to gain wider recognition for the Anthropocene as the era of irreversible and far-reaching human influence on Earth and its atmosphere.

‘Without major catastrophes like an enormous volcanic eruption, an unexpected epidemic, a large-scale nuclear war, an asteroid impact, a new ice age, or continued plundering of Earth’s resources by partially still primitive technology […] mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come.’

From then on, the debate about the Anthropocene is raging in numerous departments. How anthropocentric and ultimately arrogant the concept of the Anthropocene actually is, or isn’t. How we should learn to think ecocentrically instead of anthropocentrically and how we should put the Earth first. And whether it wouldn’t be more accurate to speak of the Capitalocene, as all trouble is intractably linked to global neoliberal capitalism, or the Plastocene because it is mainly plastics, from microplastics to plastic soup, that will be traceable in geological sediments as a lasting legacy of our infectious human presence on Earth.

Another subject of ongoing discussions is the exact start of the Anthropocene. According to Crutzen, it already began in the eighteenth century with the Industrial revolution, but others stick to the second half of the twentieth century, following the first nuclear detonations. Either way, both these relatively recent points of origin are quite unique in the sphere of hyperobjects, and even more to the domain of geology, the ultimate science of eons. Normally it takes significant climatological and ecological changes laid down in layered rock formations over millions of years before a geologic epoch can be acknowledged. And now the Holocene, which was on its way for little over 11.500 years, has been succeeded by the Anthropocene in a matter of centuries.

Given the importance of climate and ecology in the formation of the Anthropocene, it should come as no surprise that this are exactly the areas that we humans are increasingly trying to master by technological means. This is not just because lakes are turned into deserts by our doing, because the seasons have lost their biological clock or polar ice sheets are melting at an alarming rate. It is our ultimate dream to control our environment to the extent that we can make it rain on a specific day. This is even reflected in the way we name different, new things.

Take the metaphor of the Cloud we use for our digital network. In reality it is a mass of fibre optic cables on the ocean floor linked to large halls full of energy-intensive, heat-producing servers – quite the opposite of the soft and airy image suggested by its nebulous name. Yet the metaphor of the Cloud did not just come tumbling from the sky. As artist/writer James Bridle puts it in his recently published New Dark Age: ‘…the story of computational thinking begins with the weather’. (10).

He relates the story of Lewis Fry Richardson, a mathematician who found a way, during the First World War, to capture the first complete calculation of atmospheric weather conditions in a numerical process; the first computerised weather report without a computer. Obviously, Richardson wasn’t so much interested in describing the weather as in predicting it. In 1922, he contemplated the possibility in a paper titled Weather Prediction by Numerical Process (11).

‘Perhaps someday in the dim future it will be possible to advance the computations faster than the weather advances and at a cost less than the saving to mankind due to the information gained. But that is a dream.’

With this dream he actually anticipated Vannevar Bush and his predictive As We May Think that is the inspiration for this sixth Guangzhou Triennial. And just like Bush’s ideas about the memex have been overtaken by the smartphones in everybody’s pocket, Richardson’s dream has long since become a daily reality. What is more, due to the unprecedented computing power now available to us, we think we might forecast not only the weather, but the future of the Earth in all its unpredictability as well, perhaps even control it – which takes us right back to the Anthropocene.

Of course, the power of prediction will not satisfy the true techno-utopians. Relying on geo- engineering and the Western dichotomy between man and the rest of the world, they are firmly convinced they will once control the weather, nature and Earth itself. No technological solution is deemed too megalomaniac, from sun blocking shields that orbit the planet and UV reflective foam covering the oceans to rain-inducing iodine clouds where desiccated farmlands could use a little extra water.

Grounded in and building on the modernistic industrial worldview, they approach the protesting Earth as a machine that can be fixed at will. And in the unlikely event that things won’t work out, they usually have a rocket handy to start all over, somewhere in the universe, in line with so many Hollywood sci-fi scenarios. Except that they might not look back on that marvellous blue-white marble anymore, like all the astronauts before them.

The question remains, however, if we would ever be able to control the weather and the Earth when we continue on our present course. The answer, growing louder every day, is no. The technofix will not work. A nostalgic return to mother nature, however, has serious limitations as well, making it a very unlikely solution. Or as Australian professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton puts it: ‘We can no longer withdraw and expect nature to return to any kind of ‘natural’ state. There is no going back to the Holocene. We may have acquired it foolishly, but we now have a responsibility for the Earth as a whole and pretending otherwise itself is irresponsible. So the question is not whether human beings stand at the center of the world, but what kind of human beings stands at the center of the world, and what is the nature of that world.’ (12)

In short: not only do we create the Anthropocene and climate change, we know we do. We know our choices matter when we are grocery shopping, flush our toilet, start our car or when we go on a holiday. This everyday moral sense, which people fifty years ago were hardly aware of but is now being taught to children in elementary school, is inextricably related to the notion that we and the world are one, that there is kinship between all things, all humans and non-humans. It is a revolutionary insight, if not a paradigm shift comparable to Darwin’s theory of evolution and Copernicus’ revelation that the Earth is orbiting the sun. We know, and it won’t do just to learn to live with it: we must learn to act accordingly. Not just the politicians and the environmentalists, but all 7.7 billion of us.

Such is the nature of science though: the more we find out, the more our ignorance grows. Because contrary to many people’s beliefs, science doesn’t revolve around facts or the truth, as paleontologist Henry Gee clearly states in the introduction to his book The Accidental Species: ‘science is the quantification of doubt’. (13) In his own way, Timothy Morton acknowledges this feature of science, calling it asymmetry: ‘We know more than ever before what things are, how they work, how to manipulate them. Yet for this very reason, things become more, rather than less, strange. Increasing science is not increasing demystification.’ (14)

Fundamental questions and profound doubt is all the Anthropocene seems to bring; doubt of ourselves and of the world we thought we knew. Doubt, caused by the growing awareness that we may set many things in motion but control very few, that we are just along for the flight and have nowhere to withdraw from Earth’s dynamics and turbulence. And we have to relate to it nonetheless; we want to relate to it. Apart from uncertainty, this also offers hope.

This shifting world view implies an equally shifting view of mankind. Just like the natural sciences are occupied with the ever-accelerating technology associated with the Anthropocene and all the ensuing uncertainties, the social sciences dive headlong into the new era by questioning the humanistic anthropocentric concept of man. Philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, economists and cultural scientists, along with artists, film makers and designers, lay out scenarios positioning mankind and all their activities in the Anthropocene world, now and in the future. They do so, knowing that these scenarios are mainly built on the quicksand of doubt and speculation.

Maybe we should all learn to doubt more proficiently instead, to face the fact that all the certainties we once believed in have lost their ground. That we can’t arm ourselves against it with an improved storm insurance and a few drops of climate policy? Perhaps we should promote doubt to be the motor of our existence, and be open to the strange strangers we are bound to meet more often, according to Timothy Morton. We should dare to imagine and represent the new human beings Hamilton refers to. Simply because there is no turning back; we can’t deny what we know, can’t unknow what we know.

Read further, part 3

 

Foodnotes:

8 Technium is a term coined by Kevin Kelly in his book What technology wants (Viking, 2010): “The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions and intellectual creations of all types.It includes intangibles like software, law and philosophical concepts. And most imporatant, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections.” p.11-12
9 Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, The “Anthropocene” (IGBP Newsletter 41, May 2000) p.17-18
10 James Bridle, New dark Age. Technology and the end of the future (Verso, 2018) p.20
11 Lewis Fry Richardson. Weather Prediction by Numerical Process. https://archive.org/details/weatherpredictio00richrich
12 Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth. The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Polity Press, 2017) p.47
13 Henry Gee, The accidental species. Misunderstandings of human evolution (The University of Chicago Press, 2013) p.xii
14 Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) p160-161