One of our great errors in thinking — another aspect of that unfortunate idea of human exceptionalism that makes it so hard for us to be at home in this world — is that the natural and the man-made are distinct entities. Like all other parts of the branching experiment, we make and are made by the living environment, and we have done so since before we were us. Without the forests of the Santa Cruz mountains, there would be no Silicon Valley. But Silicon Valley will make or unmake the forests of the future. No nature story, no account of environmental struggle would be complete without bringing on-stage all the human technologies that are to us what the invention of flowers and nuts and chlorophyll and mycorrhizal networks are to the forest superorganism.
Just as the emergence of tree intelligence forever changed the planet, so the emergence of consciousness (which long predated humans) forever changed the nature of evolution. Cultural transmission is orders of magnitude faster than genetic transmission, and digital transmission has accelerated the speed of culture a hundredfold or more. We may soon seem, to our artificial intelligence offspring, as motionless and insentient as trees seem to us. And here we live, trying to make a home between our predecessors and our descendants.
Will we double down on the great migration into symbol space, our decampment into Facebook and Instagram and Netflix and World of Warcraft, the road that we have already traveled so far down? Or will Big Data and Deep Learning allow us to grasp and rejoin the staggeringly complex processes of the living world? The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they’re inseparable aspects of the new ecology of digital life.
It’s surprising to realize that the rise of ecological and environmental consciousness was made possible by the advent of the Information Age. Life is simply too complex and interdependent for us to wrap our heads around without the help of our machine prosthetics. And now those prosthetics allow us to assemble, generate, contemplate, and interpret the hockey-stick graphs that prophesy our future. We came into being by the grace of trees. Now the fate of trees, and of the whole world forest, is squarely in our machine-amplified hands.
The question is what those machines are doing to our hearts, because without the heart and mind, the hands will get up to all kinds of things.
From a LARB interview with the novelist Richard Powers [via the still-reliable MeFi], who I’d never heard of previously, but will henceforth be seeking out assiduously. Any novelist who refutes the social/natural dichotomy is almost certainly gonna be my jam; that he name-checks Le Guin and KSR merely confirms it. (More than a whiff of Haraway in there, too, though she doesn’t get a mention.)
Anyone out there familiar with his stuff?
Surfacing briefly to note with pride that Now Then is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
I stumbled across Now Then during my first weeks in Sheffield, way back in the autumn of 2012, when I was desperate to make some connections to the local cultural scene, and to find a new venue to write music reviews for. Now Then is basically an ad-funded arts-scene free-sheet, and generally I don’t write for such publications on principle; as a rule they’re awful, full of shamelessly fawning promo passing itself off as commentary, with tawdry production values and even lower editorial standards. Now Then stood out immediately: its print edition (which doesn’t run during the summer, so as to save money) is always a gorgeous piece of printed product, fronted with original art commissioned to purpose; its reviews are written with genuine passion, and are permitted to be critical; it carries poetry, short fiction and humour, and it carries editorial and local-political content that puts both of the local “newspapers” to shame by comparison.
My PhD and other work has meant I’ve not been a very regular contributor to Now Then, but of all the free-to-air venues I’ve ever reviewed music for, it’s the one I’m proudest not only to tell people about, but to show them a physical copy. Perhaps the most solid endorsement I can offer is that I pick up a copy every month, whether my words are in there or not.
Sheffield’s a city with a fair few problems and difficulties, most of which are political in origin. But it teems with people working hard to make a difference, not just for themselves, but for everyone else. Sam and the gang at Opus are solidly in the latter category, and Now Then is product and platform all at once. I’m reyt proud to have contributed to it, in however minor a manner.
(You can read my latest review in this month’s online edition.)
Here, then, is what makes all members of the species Homo sapiens cultural animals. They come into the world quite incomplete, and pick up what they need to know, and more, by learning from life, and in very large part from one another. As at the same time social animals (and for them the social and the cultural go together, inseparably), they deal with life and with each other in large part by way of interpreting and making signs, managing meaning. And this is what culture is about: meanings and meaningful forms, more or less organized into wider complexes. In an oft-cited passage, Clifford Geertz […] concluded that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” The abstraction of that formulation, however, risks making it a bit misleading. There is not just a single, solitary spider in that web, but a great many—by current estimates, over seven billion of them.
From Hannerz, U. (2016). “Reporting from the Future.” In Writing Future Worlds (pp. 113-133). Springer International Publishing.
“Networks weird people.” Quinn Norton and Ella Saitta explain the yin-yang nature of network effects — and the complicity of hackers and “geek culture” in such — to the Chaos Communications Conference.
This is of considerable interest to me, for two reasons. First of all, because legibility is a big part of what my doctorate is about: the systems on which we depend are illegible to us, and in the same way that the state needs to “see” its citizens to interact with them effectively, we need to “see” our infrastructure; however, this would be counterproductive for those who own and control infrastructure, leading to the ironic endgame of the atemporal, wherein the illusion that society is separate from nature is both sustained by and projected upon the very metasystem which binds them inseparably together.
Secondly, because I’m increasingly convinced that an unexamined methodological positivism is at the root of solutionism and geek exceptionalism alike; it’s the dark side of scientific epistemology, a faux-empiricist position wherein that which cannot be quantified cannot exist. It’s also a central plank of neoclassical economics, and neoliberal political theory. Ironically, however, it has created the ultimate machine for forcing humans to confront the subjectivity of the human experience, namely the internet. This is the ideological paradox at the heart of atemporality: the more finely the metanarratives are shredded by our distrust, the more desperate we are for someone to stitch us together a comforting and authoritative story from the fragments. In such an environment, curatorship is power, as Rupert Murdoch knows very well; curation imposes a narrative on the fragments it collects together by excluding the ones it discards.
But what if you gave an exhibition and nobody came? Curation with no visitors is like art with no audience, a scream in the wilderness. So the complementary power to curation is that of distribution: the ability to not only shape the narrative, but to get it in front of the right audience.
He who owns the pipes controls the flow.