The Geopoetic Cyborg

Taken as an invitation to geopoetry, the effort to rename the current geological epoch from Holocene to Anthopocene is also an invitation to speculate, to  forgo in Donna Haraway’s phrase, “the solace in human exceptionalism”.  In the space opened by such a turn, perhaps a glimmer of something else can form, perhaps as she suggests, an ethical reworlding.

 

When the geologist Harry Hess first published his theory of plate techonics in 1962, he called his article ,History of Ocean Basins,  “an essay in geopoetry” to promote something similar.  The theory then was revolutionary but the data did not yet exist to prove it. Here, an appeal to the poetic paid off.

 Andrew C.Revikin, writing in the NY Times, discusses the recent progress in the effort to officially replace the name of the current geologic epoch. While the International Commission of Stratigraphy moves at an appropriately geologic pace, its Anthropocene Working Group has concluded that not only is the renaming appropriate, they have identified when it began – July 16, 1945.

Trinity_Test_Fireball_16ms[1]

Trinity Test July 16, 1945 16ms after detonation

The proposal… is that the beginning of the Anthropocene could be considered to be drawn at the moment of detonation of the world’s first nuclear test: on July 16th 1945. The beginning of the nuclear age, it marks the historic turning point when humans first accessed an enormous new energy source – and is also a time level that can be effectively tracked within geological strata, using a variety of geological clues.

The intersection of the Nuclear Age and the Anthropocene is bound up with another technological development – the computer.

Undoubtedly without WWII and the Cold War inventive humans would have developed both nuclear weapons and the computer without a common purpose.  Their actual paths of creation however, intersect and intertwine.

The atomic bomb, the fission bomb, requires certainly a high degree of precision to design and fabricate.  The mathematics needed for the project however, did not require computers.

The hydrogen bomb, the fusion bomb, is a different matter.  President Truman’s decision to order a crash course to develop the H-bomb was in effect a crash course to develop the computer. The sheer volume of calculations needed to design it simply were beyond human scale.  This is the subject of Turing’s Cathedral by George Dyson

Donna Haraway found this common heritage important in the development of her conception of the cyborg.

The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation….

The cyborg incarnation is outside salvation history….

In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense — a ‘final’ irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’ escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space….

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism…

Donna Haraway A Cyborg Manifesto

This Haraway-ian sense of “cyborg” is what I refer to here at Atomic Geography, rather than the literal sense of sci-fi and bio-hackers.  Not only do cell phones and self surveillance devices make us cyborgs, the resulting information driven environment, the dependence on massive extractive and fabrication industries do as well.  The way in which we produce our food, clothing and shelter all make us cyborgs.

I have argued here that “Anthropocene” is inadequate as a description of this state of affairs, that it does not capture the symbiosis of human and machine represented by the cyborg.  Instead I have used “Cyborgocene” to cover much of the same ground, but perhaps with a stronger geopoetic flourish.

Still, the continued progress of “Anthropocene” as an official designation is in itself is a significant development.  Not only does it claim that humans are largely responsible for the climate change currently underway, but that human activity is the defining feature of the earth’s surface.

Cyborgs on Edge

Since 1998 the digital magazine Edge has asked a question to a variety of accomplished people designed to contribute to discussions about issues facing humanity.  The overall project of Edge is to promote a “third culture” which  “consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

Edge generally poses these questions in a way open to a very wide net of interpretations and provocations.   This year’s question is:

2015 : WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK?

The editors frame this overall question with the following:

Just over a month ago, in early December, Stephen Hawking warned of the potentially apocalyptic consequences of artificial intelligence, which in his opinion could eventually lead to “the end of the human species”. But really, should we fear the danger of a future army of humanoids out of control? Or rather we should celebrate the extraordinary opportunities that could give us the development of thinking machines, and even sentient beings? Do such beings along with ourselves pose new ethical dilemmas? Would they be part of our “society”? Should we grant them civil rights? Would we feel empathy for them?

While the intellectual latitude is wide, Edge editors instructs its contributors to put aside the things of a child, such as fiction and movies, and to “grow up” with some rigorous thinking about Artificial Intelligence.  The post contains responses from 182 contributors.  I’ve sampled a fair number of them but I’m sure I’ve missed more than I’ve absorbed.

So given the editorial stance, no crazy talk about cyborgs or Buddhism here.  Even Andy (“we have always been cyborgs” fame) Clark strikes a mostly reasonable tone – although he does worry at the end of his essay that while unlikely, it is possible that machine intelligence may end up eating us.

Many of the contributors focus on the key words in the question: “think” and “machine” or the elements of related concepts such as “artificial” and “intelligence”.  Not only are such approaches useful, they are necessary.  My impression this is the plane that many of the essays are the most successful.

I expect to make my way through more of the essays, and to do so with more focus and attention than the skimming I have done so far.  I expect to discuss my thoughts in future posts.  Meanwhile check it out for yourself.

The Paradox of Photography

Every photograph is an illustration of Zeno’s Paradox. By seeming to frame time with the release of the shutter, the photograph seems to frame time as infinitely divisible into moments, into halfway points between an infinitude of 2 other points. Whether starting or ending with starting or ending, the infinitude of these points prevents the possibility of starting or ending.

People have noticed something like this about photography pretty much as soon as its invention. The specificity of the moment and subject of a photograph contrasts with its potential infinitude of meaning and authorship. Even more, this aspect of photography provides a snapshot of the paradox of art in a disenchanted, rationalized age.

Expanding on this in an interesting way has been a series of posts at still searching – An Online Discourse on Photography.  The site hosts a series of bloggers, each who writes several posts over a period of time. The posts by Ekaterina Degot I found especially worthwhile.  Her posts were augmented by the comments of “co-bloggers” Casey Smallwood and Matthew Jesses Jackson.  Additionally, Prof. Degot linked to a book chapter by Boris Groys.

virtually all contemporary artists today are working FIRST as photographers and SECOND as artists. The ubiquity of the photograph as a means of basic art communication — as a painting jpeg on Contemporary Art Daily — or as performance documentation — or as film still that platforms a video — means that that artists are always “thinking photographically” as they produce their work. So, the mind is imagining the “photographic aspects” of works and in this sense we could argue that photography has accidentally became the defining medium of our time.  Matthew Jesse Jackson

'Fountain'_by_Marcel_Duchamp_(replica)[1]The art environment had already been altered by the dynamics that made Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain not only possible, but deeply influential.  The all but complete replacement of the chemo-mechanical production, reproduction and display of photography with the digital enabled these dynamics to fully flower.

What is spotlighted instead is a contemporary art that is less of an object and more of an essay, a piece of writing, a bit of a theory, presented in “research installation” form with a vast spectrum of media, where photography can be also used—but, indeed, used rather than fully acknowledged in its “autonomy.”  Eketrina Degot

Furthermore Casey Smallwood suggests that in this environment, the artist or photographer becomes less one who executes a medium and more one who curates it.

Perhaps the accumulation of contexts and content within the medium of photography along with the ubiquity of digital photography in combination with the accessibility of sophisticated software and instantaneous filters has put formerly monetary and labor-intensive techniques into even more hands than analog photography film put automatic cameras. If the conversation and celebration of technical skill was disrupted in painting with photography, then it seems – that same conversation is being disrupted now. We are less impressed with technique or the mastery of a medium, now, more than ever before. So, if technical skill is not the criterion of an artist, perhaps curation is. Casey Smallwood

In times celebrating collectivity, the communal, both mundane and cosmic, every piece of art was singular, individual. This singularity was a manifestation of the collective Invisible and its all-encompassing unitary nature.

Boris Groys explores this terrain in the book chapter Prof Degot links to:

The digital image is a visible copy of the invisible image fi le, of the invisible data. In this respect the digital image is functioning as a Byzantine icon—as a visible copy of invisible God…

In this respect, how iconoclastic religions have dealt with the image could probably help. According to these religions the Invisible shows itself in the world not through any specifi c individual image but through the whole history of its appearances and interventions. Such a history is necessarily ambiguous: It documents the individual appearances or interventions of the Invisible (biblically speaking: signs and wonders) within the topography of the visible world—but at the same time it documents them in a way that relativizes all these appearances and interventions, that avoids the trap of recognizing one specifi c image as the image of the Invisible. The Invisible remains invisible precisely by the multiplication of its visualizations. the visible. From Image to Image File—and Back: Art in the Age of Digitalization

In times of disenchanted rationality the Invisible disappears from art. It no longer adheres to the image. It is set adrift from the chromatic progression of a specific image’s history, untethered to its copies, its repeated re-enactment of form and content.

The Invisible is in fact what makes copies possible. Copies are always in some sense themselves. They do not occupy the same space as the original, they are imperfect compared to the original. Copies are possible not so much through technologies of reproduction, but through their function to stand in for the original.

As the Invisible becomes unsensed, the individual work of art looses its ability to represent the collectivity. Each work of art becomes not a representative of the Invisible but part of a searchable database.

Photography, in its current form of endless propagation, produces, more than any art form, the revealing of Being as searchable.

Every iteration of an image is neither copy nor original. Its form and history are incidental to the specificity of the display it shows up on. Nothing adheres to it other than its searchability, its findabiity.

This can appear as an opening of possibilities, its ahistoricalness a liberation from the either/or of ideologies. Or it can appear as merely another database