” All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture” : Artificial Intelligence as Alien Intelligence

“Arguably,” argues Bratton, “the Anthropocene itself is due less to technology run amok than to the humanist legacy that understands the world as having been given for our needs and created in our image. We hear this in the words of thought leaders who evangelize the superiority of a world where machines are subservient to the needs and wishes of humanity… This is the sentiment – this philosophy of technology exactly – that is the basic algorithm of the Anthropocenic predicament, and consenting to it would also foreclose adequate encounters with A.I.” The Anthropocene in this formulation names the emergence of environmental or planetary consciousness, an emergence sometimes coupled to the global circulation of the image of the fragility and interdependence of the whole earth as seen by humans from outer space. It is the recognition that the world in which we evolved to flourish might be impacted by our collective actions in ways that threaten us all. Notice, by the way, that multiculture and historical struggle are figured as just another “algorithm” here.

I do not agree that planetary catastrophe inevitably followed from the conception of the earth as a gift besetting us to sustain us, indeed this premise understood in terms of stewardship or commonwealth would go far in correcting and preventing such careless destruction in my opinion. It is the false and facile (indeed infantile) conception of a finite world somehow equal to infinite human desires that has landed us and keeps us delusive ignoramuses lodged in this genocidal and suicidal predicament. Certainly I agree with Bratton that it would be wrong to attribute the waste and pollution and depletion of our common resources by extractive-industrial-consumer societies indifferent to ecosystemic limits to “technology run amok.” The problem of so saying is not that to do so disrespects “technology” – as presumably in his view no longer treating machines as properly “subservient to the needs and wishes of humanity” would more wholesomely respect “technology,” whatever that is supposed to mean – since of course technology does not exist in this general or abstract way to be respected or disrespected.

The reality at hand is that humans are running amok in ways that are facilitated and mediated by certain technologies. What is demanded in this moment by our predicament is the clear-eyed assessment of the long-term costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific interventions into finite ecosystems to the actual diversity of their stakeholders and the distribution of these costs, risks, and benefits in an equitable way. Quite a lot of unsustainable extractive and industrial production as well as mass consumption and waste would be rendered unprofitable and unappealing were its costs and risks widely recognized and equitably distributed. Such an understanding suggests that what is wanted is to insist on the culpability and situation of actually intelligent human actors, mediated and facilitated as they are in enormously complicated and demanding ways by technique and artifice. The last thing we need to do is invest technology-in-general or environmental-forces with alien intelligence or agency apart from ourselves.

I am beginning to wonder whether the unavoidable and in many ways humbling recognition (unavoidable not least because of environmental catastrophe and global neoliberal precarization) that human agency emerges out of enormously complex and dynamic ensembles of interdependent/prostheticized actors gives rise to compensatory investments of some artifacts – especially digital networks, weapons of mass destruction, pandemic diseases, environmental forces – with the sovereign aspect of agency we no longer believe in for ourselves? It is strangely consoling to pretend our technologies in some fancied monolithic construal represent the rise of “alien intelligences,” even threatening ones, other than and apart from ourselves, not least because our own intelligence is an alienated one and prostheticized through and through. Consider the indispensability of pedagogical techniques of rote memorization, the metaphorization and narrativization of rhetoric in songs and stories and craft, the technique of the memory palace, the technologies of writing and reading, the articulation of metabolism and duration by timepieces, the shaping of both the body and its bearing by habit and by athletic training, the lifelong interplay of infrastructure and consciousness: all human intellect is already technique. All culture is prosthetic and all prostheses are culture.

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