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 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:


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.

About About Post #74

I just added to the menu bar here About Post #74.  The drop down menu provides links to 8 different iterations of the Post #74 process plus related posts.

This provides a picture of the project, which has since its conclusion, consisted only of its randomized residue.  As such, it has been I think mostly incomprehensible to new readers, and inaccessible to past readers.

Of course these characteristics are frequently those of ruins.  To remediate them is to rehabilitate the ruins themselves, that is, to make them no longer ruins.

I have been uncertain about doing this.  Is making Post #74 comprehensible and accessible in fact destroying it?  Perhaps so, but trying to preserve the status of the post as a ruin also to destroys it.

So fans of Post #74 (I know you’re out there), here it is, the boxed set!