The year 2030 is a double deadline. By then, according to the projections of some climate policy-makers, serious climate change becomes irreversible if we don’t do something drastic about decarbonization. According to economists, the “social collapse” gets irreversible too, if the implications of the pervasive artificial intelligence and automation are ignored. In his book The Terraforming (2019, Strelka Press), Benjamin Bratton states that this double date with destiny is not coincidental, since both crises share the same cause: “The question of automation is inside the question of climate change and cannot be successfully engaged otherwise, while the question of climate change is inside the question of automation and cannot be addressed otherwise.”
There is no way around it than to embrace “the artificial”. The plan is to terraform—not other planets or their satellites, rather the Earth itself. Both terraforming and planning have a terribly bad rap, yet humankind has been doing them for thousands of years. After all, climate change is, as McKenzie Wark states in Molecular Red, “an unintended consequence of collective human labor”. Bratton is almost like a character out of Wark’s book, in which California and the Soviet Union join forces to get us out of the mess called the Anthropocene. He also carries a touch of Saxifrage Russell “Sax” from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Bratton, an LA-born Californian, is Professor of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego, and Director of a three-year design research program and think tank called The Terraforming at the Strelka Institute in Moscow, Russia. The latter is a program that is manifestly “pro-planning, pro-artificial, anti-collapse, pro-universalist, anti-anti-totality, pro-materialist, anti-anti-leviathan, anti-mythology, and pro-egalitarian distribution.” It heavily draws on Soviet and Russian utopian modernist thought—from sociology to astrobiology and climate science, from art history to urban ecology. As Bratton writes: “Speculative thought is mobilized to this task of preventing one future so that another might, with luck, come to pass instead: achieved because prevented.”
The unplanned, in the meantime, has struck back and struck hard. Covid’s terraforming is, as we speak, still unfolding. It is also the subject of Bratton’s upcoming book from Verso, The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-Pandemic World.
McKenzie Wark’s book Molecular Red was an attempt to reignite the pro-scientific passion of the left by combining the Soviet and Californian theory and praxis. We could say The Terraforming is very much aligned with this tendency. In fact, these two books seem like Siamese twins, with the obligatory love-hate dynamics between them. The tension revolves around this basic question: can one reconcile critical theory with world-building ambitions? In that sense The Terraforming is certainly molecular red, but also doesn’t want to shy away from the molar, big-picture, grand-plan red. It might not even be just red anymore.
I guess I’m a little split on this. On the one hand, I see strong correlations between what we both are thinking about in relation to the terraforming project. It’s the history of the pro-scientific, pro-technological macro-left. Some of the things that tie it together would be the idea that capitalism is both the thing that makes extraordinary technologies possible and the thing that prevents them from reaching their full social potential. The other parallel is the idea that the social and philosophical importance of the technologies is not just in what they allow us to do instrumentally—in their capacities for remaking the world—but also in what they reveal and disclose about the world.
What I call the Copernican turn in design and technology speaks to this more generally. I define it this way: we form durable abstractions about how the world works. We develop technologies that allow us to act upon the world and measure or investigate the world according to those abstractions, such as telescopes or microscopes. And sometimes the proper use or the active use of those technologies actually discloses or reveals that the world works quite differently than we imagined—even differently than the initial abstractions that brought those technologies. And at those points, there’s a kind of rupture and the need for a kind of stereoscopic resolution of the way we imagined the world works, the way in which it seems to work, and the way in which the technologies that we’ve constructed tell us that it works.
In projects that McKenzie was writing about—some of which are part of the history of Soviet modernism and some of which are part of Californian modernism—there is a sense of a much larger space of possibilities. How could the world be remade? By this I mean that technologies don’t merely enhance capacity through a transhumanist amplification, but that they actually have an epistemological function—they disclose the world in particular ways. This comes up in the strong Soviet emphasis on secular disenchantment. They had a new sense of what humans, or what they called “man”, really are, and a missionary dream for the development of society. These were not just things that the industrial technologies allowed us to do, they were things that industrial technologies revealed as a purpose.
What we are doing draws on some of that but departs from much of it as well. The Terraforming, as a project, tries to define what we might mean by a viable planetary condition, or what is called “planetarity.” It’s based on a more open and astronomic connotation of a“universal” that is more inclusive of different cultural and economic processes. The question of what Yuk Hui calls cosmotechnics comes to play, but I think Yuk’s term has unfortunately been made use of by others in ways that are conservative, recuperative, and even reactionary. For that view, history is filled with a horizontal variety of cosmotechnical traditions—the emphasis being on traditions—such that the project going forward is reification, projection, and valorization of artificially autonomous cultural traditions as both an ends and means for what a technological condition should be. Our approach, on the other hand, is not only that technologies are framed differently by cosmological traditions, but that cosmotechnics must be continuously restructured and reformulated in relationship to what technologies reveal and make possible. The philosophy, in this sense, is based on a continuous revision of itself in relationship to the changes within a cosmological knowledge. Today, that means from Astronomy and Earth Sciences. Political philosophy must draw on these to formulate its ideas.
That said, the mode of the terraforming that we’re looking at is less European. It is more interested in the geotechnical, geohistorical, geophilosophical project of a viable planetarity. To be honest, it shares many of the bigger goals of 20th century emancipatory European political thought, namely the vision of a society predicated upon public reason and not arbitrary sacralized hierarchies, but we surely also don’t admire many of the dead ends in which European (and Western) social theory finds itself and jealously protects.
Specifically, I mean those based in the ongoing afterlife of post-’68 technophobia, a formulaic critical posturing that emphasizes deterritorialization and the ineffable above all other concerns. To me, these are still the core tenets of the Eurocentric philosophy of technology, and yes, The Terraforming project seeks to escape this on behalf of more planetary perspectives.
As I have said elsewhere, perhaps the ‘68 Boomer generation’s last revenge—its final violence—is the enforcement of the idea that verticality and structure are always suspect. The way forward for them was in the deterritorialized proliferation of viewpoints in a relativistic sense, and the subsequent dismantling of all forms of rationality. But now that has been a convention for quite some time. Obviously, the absurd conflation of the European project with “Reason” absolutely must be unglued, and I’m not saying this tradition didn’t make contributions. I grew up in this tradition but we’ve woken up in a world that works very differently. The rest of the world is more than tired of this local drama.
It became crowds wearing Guy Fawkes masks, drawing mustaches on de Gaulle posters again and again, burning Richard Nixon effigies again and again. It’s beyond historical amnesia; it’s Groundhog Day. As someone taught by that generation, I am trying hard to teach the next generation something more relevant and constructive for the world they will inherit.
So to be clear, the issue today is less about some kind of total oppressive order of reason that needs to be dismantled, but rather that the order we need does not exist. We need to create, compose, construct and defend the economics, political ecology, architecture, and urbanism that can compose and construct a world in which we want to live in. They must be projective, and more about putting one brick on top of another than “Sous les pavés, la plage!” Instead of only pulling bricks out of the street, the moment in which we find ourselves is more about taking those bricks, putting them back, and building a different city with them. We want to turn our attention to those traditions that have a greater comfort and facility with a worldbuilding project, and with the cosmopolitan capacities of science and technology. Unfortunately, I can report that too much of the critical discourse in the Arts and Humanities is satisfied to conclude that merely saying putting one brick on top of another, or that perhaps electricity could extend the day is to risk being called “Promethean” or “solutionist.” To me, that’s a way that many defend an irrelevant kind of social determinism that they hold dear.
The significance of 1968 is also very much connected to this stance of the Last Man. You can find a lot of that in Guy Debord, for example. And it’s not necessarily in a sort of Nietzschean, Kojèvean sense, but more in the sense of the Last Man standing.
Right, one idea of the Last Man is the last authentic person holding against the tide. It’s a deep tradition, from Rousseau through all manner of romantic individualism. In the U.S., it’s Thoreau and Ayn Rand. Within the liberal Western tradition, there is an axiom in the founding mythologies of the individual versus the collective. Freedom is found in the capacity for individuals to express themselves in as unconstrained a way as possible. The avoidance of any kind of capture by the overarching social authorities is the goal of the politics of authenticity. For that, there’s obviously Heidegger marching around as well. There are links to be drawn between that aspect of the politics of authenticity, and some of the kinds of politics of subjectivity that resulted in the post-structuralist traditions. These presumptions are part of the political orthodoxy of both left and right today.
For me, the most important philosopher of the 19th century was Darwin, and I don’t mean in Herbert Spencer’s sense of Social Darwinism. Darwin’s radical implication was comprehending being human in terms of the long arc of species evolution. The human being after Darwin is a biological, genomic, anatomical entity that has been constructed in relationship to the long evolutionary history of its own technological efficacy. It’s a sense of our deep entanglement with biological and technical systems, and a spectrum rather than hard points of difference between our species-being and those of others. From there, there is a kind of secular, biochemical epistemology that makes possible the subsequent comprehension of who we are and how we think through neuroscience, through biotechnologies. From there the human is open. All of this is fundamentally dependent upon the Darwinian disenchantment, the Darwinian demystification.
There are conspicuous reasons why, for example, Heidegger refused to address Darwin. I also read Nietzsche as a kind of neurotic response to Darwin, acting on behalf of a form of European romanticism. The phenomenological tradition attempted a kind of suppression: we’re not going to think about that, we’re going to try to recreate a history of Being that pretends none of that ever happened, that none of this Darwin stuff is worth talking about. We’re going to sideline it and box it as “natural attitude” and as something that is the opposite of an authentic relationship to Being. The philosophy of technology lost a century wasting time with Heidegger, frankly.
So to the extent that post-structuralism drew upon Heidegger, I do see it as a kind of cascading comedy of insults and evasions. The Darwinian epistemic revolution made certain trajectories of Western thought impossible, specifically in relation to the Western subject’s self-regard. A lot of 20th century philosophies were pre-emptive reactionary and restorationist projects that attempted to maintain a pre-Darwinian subject.
In The Terraforming, you say: “The rejoinder that we never have true control over the effects of a plan is both obviously true and quite different than concluding that we have no capacity to accurately model the effects of our artificial agency.” Is this plan “post-intentional”? Is it an attempt to go beyond the binary of markets versus planning, conscious versus spontaneous and unconscious?
There are a couple of modes of the terraforming—or three sorts of connotations—that I deal with. One is a retroactive definition of the Anthropocene as a kind of planless, headless, improvisational, emergent, terraforming initiative that has had some catastrophic outcomes. The term “terraforming” itself emerged in the mid-20th century, primarily from science fiction about the transformation of Mars and the moon. But it soon became clear that this is, in fact, what we’re already doing right here. As the concept of Earth as a planet began to become scientifically, historically, and philosophically possible, a displaced recognition of the Anthropocene’s terraforming process also developed, one which is still with us. It recognizes what’s happening in front of us, but places it onto other planets.
The second mode has to do with the idea that we are facing a continuous and dramatic terraforming of the Earth. The courses of the 20th and 21st centuries are catching up with us no matter what we do, in a short period of 100 years. Even if we all went full Kaczynski tomorrow, the results of this dramatic trip so far would still have terraforming-scale effects. To terraform or not terraform is not really a choice.
The question is, what composition of the planet do we want? What should happen? What are the terms of a viable planetarity that would include all the technical, social, economic, and cultural connotations of that concept? There’s probably something to be said about the way in which we deal with this question of planetarity versus the way in which, for example, Gayatri Spivak, or Achille Mbembe use the term. For them, the term refers more to a post-colonial emancipatory mutualizing literacy, which we agree is absolutely necessary.
That said, the program that this book is tied to does not stand in for the entire global initiative. Rather, it operates as a think-tank for a limited period of time, in which a number of people from different disciplinary, intellectual, and geographic backgrounds attempt to identify some of the points by which that viability could actually get some traction. We’re looking at the legal systems that would necessarily need to adjudicate this, so we’ve got projects around the jurisdictional and precedent history of space law. We’re looking around questions of agriculture and ingestion, like what the means by which you feed 9 billion people actually are. What are the cultures of food in order for this to work? What are the ways in which we even think about futurity? Are there ways in which we need to think about futurity itself differently?
We do projects around negative emissions technologies. A number of recent IPCC reports indicate that in order to achieve even the most modest temperature goals, we’re going to need to subtract billions and billions of tons of already existing CO2 in the atmosphere. The question of how to deploy technologies at scale that worked in the lab is less foregrounded in the discussions than it should be.
Maybe another question is, how would you compare The Terraforming to the idea of a global Green New Deal? In some ways, they’re similar, although we would probably take a bit more of an expansive and pragmatic approach. Most of the Green New Deals, as they’ve been proposed in the U.S. and in Europe, explicitly reject negative emissions technologies, nuclear energy, carbon pricing, and any kind of geotechnical interventions. They emphasize subtraction and perhaps degrowth.
We, on the other hand, even go so far as to look at the role of the military. Fredric Jameson’s last book surprised a lot of people by making this big argument about why the military should actually be seen as the face of state socialism in most market economies, and that this should be understood as a point of leverage. Most proposed Green New Deals are looking at how to better focus every line item in a federal budget for the purposes of a really fundamental and rational transformation of the structures of society. They want to move towards the goals of that viable planetarity. That’s fine, but they overlook the largest line item in every budget, which is the military itself.
The military is publicly owned, publicly directed, and really, really good at logistics. It has excellent technology, it makes a lot of core R&D investments in emerging technology, it has millions and millions of well-trained people, it’s demographically diverse, and so on. If you’re thinking about the scale of transformation that is necessary, having an already existing institutional body such as this could actually come in handy. We’re looking at this with a kind of radical pragmatism, not just as a philosophical project but also a design project.
Wild-eyed realism, as you call it in the book.
Yes, and therefore informed by what we think is a more radical philosophical program. Pragmatism is not about repeating what we already know works, but about identifying the parameters of what’s needed and then working back from there to today, and being as open as necessary about what means might realize those ends.
The military aspect reminds one of Deleuze and Guattari’s passage from Anti-Oedipus on how the anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s great nomadic trajectory—from ethnological studies, to cybernetic schizoanalysis, to dolphins—ended in him becoming a tool of the military. Then again, they wrote Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which itself ended up being a warfare manual of the Israeli army.
Just to make sure people don’t misunderstand this: our program isn’t overlooking all of the pernicious effects of military systems. There’s the extraordinary waste of resources in every sense, mobilizing towards the defense of lines on a map, the enforcement and maintenance of nationalist traditions, petrochemical extraction, and so on.
Part of what that project is doing is to think about how to steer the actually existing institution military as we have it towards a different end given the need for the institutional capacity. How can you remake an institution like that? If you were going to realize the goals of the Green New Deal, you would need an institution like the military in order to actually achieve it. And so you can either invent one from scratch, or you can repurpose the one you have. Which is faster?
To a certain extent, it’s the same with the negative emissions technologies. This is a point that program member Holly Jean Buck makes. If you accept the fact that you need to bury hundreds of billions of tons of carbon, and that you need to do it very quickly, and that it’s really not negotiable, you’re going to need a climate-scale infrastructure that is able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. It also needs to be able to transform that into solids on a massive industrial scale.
Basically, what you’re talking about is the planetary pipeline, extraction, and logistical infrastructure of an oil company, but running in reverse. Instead of taking something out of the ground and spitting it into the sky, you’re taking something out of the sky and putting it into the ground. So you can either say, fine, we’re going to construct this mechanism from scratch, or you can take mechanisms that already exist and repurpose them. Decarbonization plus oil companies in reverse.
The idea of a plan is traditionally understood as a political intervention. But in your framing, geotechnology is antecedent to geopolitics. At the same time, you write that the scope of both is “the planning and governance of automated trophic cascades.” Doesn’t this sound like a loaded dialectic, one where a particular side is already weighted to win?
It may actually be a more direct combination of the two than a dialectic. This is obviously something I dealt with in The Stack. But I think there’s a misrecognition of the relationship between geotechnologies and geopolitics within traditional political science and international relations, especially at this particular moment. The normal way of looking at the relationship is, basically, that there are geotechnologies, and therefore we need to make political and legal decisions about how those things will play out. For that view, technology is something that law decides.
What I’m suggesting is that one of the shifts that we’ve seen is that de facto, functional decision-making—you could call it sovereignty, although I don’t think we even need this word—is built into technical systems in ways that are not available to legal manipulation or signification, as much as the lawyers think they are. Traditional Schmittian concepts about “the political”, or their reworkings in people like Chantal Mouffe, no longer really explain much. As a theory of technology more generally, we’re looking at ways in which technologies automate the act of decision.
Technology can even be defined as the automation of decision. You turn on the faucet and the water comes out. There does not need to be a meeting of the People’s Committee of Water Provision in order to decide whether that’s going to happen or not. And this automation of decision points within relays is part of what technology is and does.
I’m just simply making the point that from today’s standpoint—and from the standpoint of the conventional distinction between the political and technological—the infrastructural, political, and economic transformations that would constitute a viable planetarity may look more like a geotechnology than geopolitics. But I’m also saying that geotechnology might look more like geopolitics too. A carbon tax and the vast technical calculative infrastructure necessary to implement it is one example. Even people who are optimistic about reconciling technology and liberal democracy get nervous when you start talking about geotechnical intervention in this way.
The other aspect of this has to do with cause and effect. Even if we’re holding the distinction between the geotechnical and the geopolitical, that is a highly conditional difference. One of the implications is that geotechnology might be the thing that brings about the transformation in geopolitics. I am not saying that is necessarily how it should work, or that that’s the way it will work, but this is something that we should absolutely allow for, and yet this is too often disqualified in advance.
Our approach is in contrast to Extinction Rebellion, or other kinds of more aesthetic approaches. These groups hold that there first needs to be a psychological transformation, which then becomes a cultural transformation, then a political one, then economic, then finally technical. In that view, eventually, the atmosphere gets changed as a reflection of our inner moral state. This chain of relays down the line presumes a tremendous degree of subjective agency for human legal systems. Even just in terms of the timescales, all of this is extremely roundabout. The presumption that political transformation causes technical transformation as a kind of article of faith is not borne out by the study of the history of technology and its relationship to political systems. It should not be held as axiomatic in terms of the way in which we would approach these kinds of issues.
The Terraforming project is trying to allow for the rehabilitation of a discredited term, more than it is to try to put all of the eggs in the basket of that term. This goes back to some of our discussion about ‘68 and deterritorialization. I think part of the cause of the situation in which we find ourselves has been the sort of absence of any kind of deliberate steering and coordination of the previous terraforming project that has taken place. The opposing emphasis has been, at least during the neoliberal era, an almost axiomatic emphasis on the preferability and power of the horizontal spontaneous network emergence as the best way for complex adaptive systems to govern and organize themselves. Here, I’m identifying everything from Hayekian neoliberalism, which sees everything as a kind of spontaneous emergence, to the libertarian Silicon Valley ideology of the 1970s. There’s also the kind of post-’68 bourgeois anarchism that holds that the immediate, spontaneous interaction between authentic subjects is the best way in which societies can work.
To go back to the earlier point about Eurocentrism, I think this post-’68 era should be contextualized with a post-’78 one. As the values of 1968 turned into neoliberalism in the West, we had Dengism begin in China. The history of the 1960s and 70s in China is obviously a totally different kind of story. The relationship between centrality and horizontality, and between emergence and planning characterizes China’s political and economic shifts in that era. Its success, and I think we can call this a success, from the Deng era going forward has been the coordination of an economy where some of the Western dichotomies between socialism and capitalism just don’t make sense. And yet Western theory persists with its facile little ideological quadrants. I read a lot of Chinese political and economic theory, particularly in relation to technology. Suffice to say, the way in which these distinctions between capitalism and socialism are constructed in the West are not the same distinctions and models that are deployed within China or the rest of the world for that matter.
The question of planning, then, is also a general question of global governance. Such governance is not necessarily about being the state in a Hegelian sense, or in a Kojèvean sense, or even in a Xi Jinping sense. It’s more in the kind of positive Foucauldian sense of the capacity for systems to enforce themselves. I would link this into the way in which Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams talk about the relationship of democratic means and ends in their book Inventing the Future, where the logic of democracy, as they pose it, has to do with the ability for societies to deliberately and actively compose and construct themselves in relation to some sort of collective direction. That implies to me the capacity for self-knowing, that there’s some way in which that society is able to sense itself, model itself, even simulate itself, so that it can act back upon itself with some kind of degree of deliberate reason, rationality, and intentionality. That would be a sort of democracy of ends rather than the libertarian-horizontalist focus on an absolute democracy of means.
Now that raises the question of that capacity for self-knowledge, and of actions. What are the geotechnical and geoeconomic mechanisms and infrastructure that would allow for that to happen at the scale of the issues that we’re actually talking about? There has to be some capacity to actually comprehend problems we’re trying to solve at the scale at which they’re operating so that they could be acted upon with a degree of self-awareness. This is obviously where some of the issues of planetary-scale computation might come back in. Climate science is a model of planetary-scale computation that is probably closer to the models of planning and recursive governance that we’re interested in. It stands in comparison to the ways in which planetary-scale computation has been deployed for the acceleration of advertising, for example.
When asking the question of how planetary-scale computation can contribute to the mitigation of climate change, we need to realize that the very idea of climate change is understood as a statistical, regular pattern. It’s identifying a comprehensive, long-term climatic transformation over multiple generations. But this is absolutely not perceivable by a single phenomenological subject, no matter how hard they stare, or how hard they think about it. Seeing it is dependent upon a massive infrastructure of sensing and computational abstraction, which has produced an image and model of the planet and planetarity itself. This model invites all kinds of ways in which we want to act upon its implications.
And acting upon the implications of that model is the political issue. It’s not as though we need to know how much climate change is happening to an even more precise decimal point. The issue is that we don’t have the ability to actually act on the implications of climate models in the same way that, for example, financial markets act on their own implications. The question then is what technical mechanism can actually produce the models on which collective governance at that scale can actually happen. That’s what I mean by plan.
One could say that the starting point of The Terraforming is a distrust of the democratic process as it stands. But it delineates itself from some other tendencies in that regard—alluded to with words like “patchwork”, “meltdown” or “lifting worldly weights.” You mentioned Williams and Srnicek’s book, and some of the things you said clearly resonate with their Accelerate Manifesto. I’m thinking especially with this sentence: “The command of The Plan must be married to the improvised order of The Network.” Would you say that the left-accelerationism hashtag still holds?
I would say that I generally avoid hashtagging my work. Instead of explaining anything, it makes me usually end up spending more time walking back incorrect associations or qualifying the associations. The ideas are what they are regardless of how someone wants to categorize them.
It’s a certain laziness. Hashtags or colored pills make things approachable, but it’s also a way of not thinking. It’s like, here’s an entirely pre-constructed set of beliefs and interpretations. You just need to pick which political quadrant you like and swallow. To some extent, that has to do with people trying to find their identity in a complex world, but I just don’t find it useful for me. It’s not worth trying to reduce all of this work to some colored pharmaceutical pellet.
Honestly, “accelerationism” is a term that’s used for so many different kinds of things that have nothing to do with each other, that I don’t even know what the term refers to. Is it referring to the eco-modernists, to neo-Keynesian cybernetics, is it referring to Nick Land or Lyotard, or is it referring to school shooters?
Maybe one of the distinctions between right and left accelerationism—and I talk about this a little bit in a book I’m writing on the pandemic—is looking at the center of the culture split around the pandemic as a kind of war between what Foucault called sovereign power and biopower.
The idea of sovereign power is that power is basically held in the body of the king, in the symbols and structures of the community, the flag, the anthem. It is physically instantiated in patrilineality. Just look at the response of Trump, Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson to the pandemic. There was this kind of emphatic denial of the underlying epidemiological, biochemical reality of the situation. They tried to mobilize a defense by constructing myths around the body, individuation, patriotism, nativism, as though there was some other force that could somehow suppress or have some effect against the virus. It’s hard for me not to see this as an old—premodern in the Foucauldian sense—logic of sovereign power, which has come back through the wave of right-populism in ways that are really strange.
The other side of this is biopower, which Foucault usually talked about as an equally negative thing. It’s in Giorgio Agamben and the rest, and their phobia that the mystical human body would be reduced to bare life. I don’t think the conceptual reduction of the body to biological materialism is an insult at all, it’s just a recognition of what bodies actually are. The viable politics going forward would be one that absolutely would be active, and would be a biopolitics. It would be based upon this recognition of the species, and of the underlying—even spooky and uncannily weird—physical and biochemical reality of existence. One of the things that happens within that existence is that some of that matter, which is us, is able to form rational abstractions about those processes and act back upon those processes in deliberate ways.
Long story short: it’s the old adage, scratch a libertarian, and you find a monarchist. One of the corners in which I think right-accelerationism has painted itself into is its alignment with sovereign power. It’s found itself in a position where it’s parroting the logics of sovereign power in ways that are, to me, totally at odds with some of its other critiques of liberalism. That said, oftentimes a lot of that work’s descriptions and predictions of what will happen next are misunderstood for normative preferences, and for others, it’s vice versa.
Another quote: “Today, planetary self-sensing does not cause climate change. In essence, culture does.” It’s almost a situationist point, where the spectacle of culture is a distraction from the urgent issues and is terribly costly at that. Is this an utterly novel definition of what is countercultural?
Calling this “counterculture” is a bit of a pun, I realized. It is maybe more anti-cultural. I am trying to throw a little bit of sand into an increasingly hegemonic discourse about the relationship between technology and climate, which is predicated on some of these environmentalist fallacies that we’re getting at here. The suspicion of technology doesn’t begin in 1968, obviously. When I was writing this piece, I was actually thinking a bit more about Nietzsche, Benjamin, Heidegger, Mumford, and the way in which those traditions set up a rather explicit distance between techno-rationalism on one side and the autonomy and authenticity of cultural production on the other. Through Marcuse and all the rest, this has influenced that whole ‘68 generation of thinking.
In more contemporary terms, I don’t think you can pick up a magazine these days without finding at least one op-ed that is arguing we need to humanize AI, that the real problem in the world is that artificial intelligence is not human enough. And, of course, every arts and humanities conference will make this point, because it will want to argue for why arts and humanities are the solution, and if we had more arts and humanities, everything would be alright. And they’ll declare that the real problem behind everything has been this extraordinary cost and expenditure in technoscience. The real villain in this version of the ecological story is techno-science. The story goes that it is this moral attitude that has caused all of the violence of the Anthropocene. Technical demystification, it is said, constitutes the colonial epistemology that is the basis of the Anthropocenic predicament, and therefore the viable post-Anthropocene eras are the ones that would overcome technical demystification on behalf of a recuperation of cultural determinism without limit. This is sometimes called the ontological turn. In other words, the conventional story is that culture will save us from technology and that the path forward is in shifting those ratios. Clearly, I’m suspicious of this algebra.
When we’re talking about the ecological footprint of planetary-scale computation, from extraction to the energy-burning data centers, about this enormously hungry physical apparatus, it’s worth noting that the carbon footprint of all of Earth Science put together doesn’t equal a fraction of what Instagram does in a few days. That’s a microcosm of the absurd circumstances in which you have, for example, tens of thousands of people flying to Venice to get to show each other works about modeling carbon footprints and what should be generally done.
The cultural sector more broadly, and the acts of human signification—nearly 8 billion primates signaling to one another, making meaning and contesting meaning with one another—that’s the thing that has the enormous carbon footprint. That’s not going to save us from technoscience, that’s the thing we need to use the technoscience to save ourselves from. I’m not trying to say that we should stop having meaning, I’m saying we should stop presuming that somehow the production and defense of meaning-making is going to be the leverage point that saves us from the nightmare of purely instrumental rationality. This is measurably false.
“The meeting of the people’s assembly for water provision can adjourn and go home.” This sounds like the best joke in the book. I have a certain feeling everything is automated at home too. And, obviously, you’re not talking about the privacy and individualism of home. People are so scared of automation, although Robert Bresson long ago wrote: “Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism.”
Yes! I guess I meant it more directly: they’re not needed anymore. Stop bothering us. A phrase that you hear a lot, at least in the U.S., is that technology is depoliticizing something, that technology has fantasies of being nonpolitical or something like this. And also, that the proper response should be to re-politicize the technology, or even demand that things that had been made technical, could be untechnical so that they could be politicized again.
I was simply pointing out that this is perhaps based on a misrecognition of the relationship between the technical and the political. We depend, thankfully, on the fact that certain things do not have to be political in order for everyday life to be enjoyable. I do realize that there are some people for whom the idea of contesting the circumstances of the world from morning to night in some kind of endless agonistic agora, as the entire horizon of their being, would be the pinnacle of their authenticity. But I don’t think they speak for everyone.
I was also trying to make a point that the depoliticization of something into technology is, in many cases, a democratization of the provision of that resource. There are certain infrastructures that we take for granted, like electricity and energy and water, and free movement. These highly artificial provisions, and also ones that form the basis of freedom, fun, improvisation, and a good standard of living. I think part of the goal is to increase the number of things that are universally and generally provided to people. Raising the general standard of living through that provision, that requires politics. But once the politics has done its work, it will be forgotten and become depoliticized in that regard. If you had circumstances where every sort of basic provision was something that was constantly available to negotiation, it would also be constantly available to capture by a small group. We should see things like public infrastructures as, essentially, triumphs to be defended and extended, rather than as things to be dismantled and renegotiated. Otherwise, you’re going to quickly wish you hadn’t.
It’s like that Chekhov quote against Tolstoy, that there’s more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism.
Yeah, I think it would be a good t-shirt. I will wear it.