What follows are my extended thoughts and personal reflections
a week two weeks after watching Bruce Sterling deliver a lecture on Alien Aesthetics. It’s a look at the weirder side of cyborg life and our posthuman future. A glimpse at the many ways in which we try to see the unseen and embrace the cosmos. It’s about thinking like an alien and joining a Galactic Civilisation. But above all else it’s about climate change and what is to be done here on Earth.
I’m not even going to attempt to recap Bruce Sterling’s thoughtful lecture here. Not even in part. Well, OK, a little, but you know… With any luck the video, or at least audio, from it will appear online by the time I finish writing this, or soon after, and will sit above this paragraph. [Update pending…]
What I am going to do instead is run with a select few of the ideas Bruce laid down, himself riffing off a term Ian Bogost developed in his book Alien Phenomenology – I presume, I haven’t read it yet – which he outlines in this column for New Scientist “Aliens, but definitely not as we know them“, which I just did.
Rather than wondering if aliens exist in the cosmos, let’s assume they are all around us, and at all scales – everything from dogs, penguins and trees to cornbread, polyester and neutrons. If we do this, we can ask a different question: what do objects experience? What is it like to be a thing?
Bogost’s book is – obvious to everyone from ardent fans of the first season of True Detective to readers of contemporary philosophy – a work of Speculative Realism, or Object Orientated Ontology. We’ll touch on that idea again, as we work our way through this extended take on the Alien Aesthetic. But this is an explicit review – or more correctly, a reaction – to Bruce Sterling’s talk, not Bogost’s book. So best start skipping through this download of my personal mindfile on the subject then…
aesthetic [es-thet-ik or, esp. British, ees-]
- concerned with beauty or the appreciation of beauty.
- a set of principles underlying the work of a particular artist or artistic movement.
- something that tumblr weirdo’s say way too often and use it for every damn thing under the sun. A generally annoying word.
One of the things Sterling did early on in his talk was to define what an aesthetic is, then go on to question whether the New Aesthetic strictly is one. An aesthetic.
A point he made clear back in 2012, writing about it immediately after the famous SXSW panel on the subject:
It was grand work to find and assemble this New Aesthetic wunderkammer, but a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview. Look at all of them: Information visualization. Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s.
One thing the New Aesthetic unquestionably is is the native culture of network; prototypical network culture. An attempt to integrate machine vision – machine perspective, even – into the human worldview. On a philosophical and cultural level. It is definitely an effort to assist us in answering the question: “What is it like to be a thing?”
How do we try to visualize these invisible aspect of the world that is all around us, that we are so dependant on now? Especially we’re so busy not only adding new, artificial layers to reality and populating them; we’re starting to almost migrate there. Wherever there is. Can you point to the realm we used to call cyberspace, that’s now just an extension of everyday reality. There’s no there there.
When the last human is gone, has stopped tweeting or posting to Facebook etc etc, our machines will linger on for perhaps centuries, filling the EM Spectrum with data. Our increasingly cyborg ecology may be our lasting legacy. Long lived animals with data trackers being monitored by satellites, transmitting data to remote, solar powered server farms that push out updates to handhelds lying decomposing in the ruins of megacities.
How can we even begin to conceive of this… this world-without-us? A phrase – Sterling might call it a Theory Object – taken from the terminology Eugene Thacker’s develops in In The Dust of this Planet, another work of Speculative Realism. Hopefully these quotes from that work will serve to at the very least sketch out Thacker’s concept and its purpose (all emphasis mine):
On the one hand, we are increasingly more and more aware of the world in which we live as a non-human world, a world outside, one that is manifest is the effects of global climate change, natural disasters, the energy crisis, and the progressive extinction of species world-wide. On the other hand, all these effects are linked, directly and indirectly, to our living in and living as a part of this non-human world. Hence contradiction is built into this challenge – we cannot help but to think of the world as a human world, by virtue of the fact that it is we human beings that think it.
However, one of the greatest lessons of the ongoing discussion on global climate change is that these approaches are no longer adequate. We can, instead, offer a new terminology for thinking about this problem of the non-human world. Let us call the world in which we live the world-for-us. This is the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to or feel alienated from, the world that we are at once a part of and that is also separate from the human. But this world-for-us is not, of course, totally within the ambit of human wants and desires; the world often “bites back,” resists, or ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us. Let us call this the world-in-itself. This is the world in some inaccessible, already-given state, which we then turn into the world-for-us. The world-in-itself is a paradoxical concept; the moment we think it and attempt to act on it, it ceases to be the world-in-itself and becomes the world-for-us. A significant part of this paradoxical world-in-itself is grounded by scientific inquiry – both the production of scientific knowledge of the world and the technical means of acting on and intervening in the world.
In a sense, the real challenge today is not finding a new or improved version of the world-for-us, and it is not relentlessly pursuing the phantom objectivity of the world-in-itself. The real challenge lies in confronting this enigmatic concept of the world-without-us, and understanding why this world-without-us continues to persist in the shadows of the world-for-us and the world-in-itself.
To confront this concept of a world-without-us necessitates the development of a whole new aesthetic. It requires the stretching of perceptions, the breaking of boundaries, the destroying of idols and the shattering of preconceptions. It implies that in order for to save the world – no, for us to even survive on this planet – requires us to take charge of our own personal and cultural evolution. It says that to stay on Earth we must become as Aliens. At the very minimum, alien-human hybrids.
Also, who’s to say the aliens aren’t machines?
Enter the cyborg.
Cyborgs of the Abyss
The popular classic conception of the cyborg probably owes a lot to the lingering memory of that old TV show, The Six Million Dollar Man. The cybernetic adventures of Steve Austin come back to us today in the character of Barry from the cartoon Archer, for example. A cyborg then is to many a person who’s physical attributes have been increased to near mythic levels, but still remains fundamentally human. They’re faster, stronger, can see further, etc etc but still retain – frequently cling to – their humanity. It’s a whole trope in fact to have the upgraded person be full of self-loathing, yearning for their baseline human existence, and any cyborg that embraces the near infinite possibilities of their new existence is frequently cast as the inhuman villain. Reality, as it frequently does, is proving to be much stranger. Which isn’t that surprising once you take a look at Steve Austin’s origin stories. High weirdness is everywhere.
That audio clip is a recording of Frank Swain’s hearing aid hack to ‘hear’ wifi:
For a project called Phantom Terrains, Swain and sound artist Daniel Jones hacked the writer’s hearing aids in order to translate the unseen world of Wi-Fi signals into alien soundscapes. Walking through the streets, Swain is able to listen to the changing melodies of wireless networks and gather a supplemental layer of information about his surroundings inaudible to anyone but him. With Phantom Terrains, Swain has effectively turned a disability into a superability.
It’s right there in the description – “translate the unseen world” & “alien soundscapes.”
The very construction of such sonic sculptures speaks of aesthetic considerations. Decisions have to be made in how what is nothing short of a new sense is artificially, algorithmically constructed. Algorithms, after all, are nothing but the encoding of a set of a principles:
The sound of each wireless network is based on a number of criteria. For example, the background layer—a crackling, clicking noise—reveals the density of networks in a particular area. The greater the number of networks, the denser the clicking. The data is geolocated, so the closer you get to any one router, the more frequent the clicking becomes; if it happens to be to your left, you’ll hear the sound in your left ear; to the right, and you’ll hear it in your right ear. In the foreground you hear a faint melody, like a song drifting into range from a distant radio. This is the network ID being translated to musical notes. Each letter and number elicits a different note, so while the mass of British Telecom routers might begin with the same pitch, the melodies will quickly change as the individual router numbers emerge.
This is indeed a superability; a superpower.
Our popular contemporary conception of the superhero, or superhuman – the mutant or the posthuman – now regularly features an innate ability to organically sense the machine world. This is to our minds the natural progression of our capabilities. Intuitively integrating with an ever more complex, layered idea of the reality.
Into realms our ancestors would’ve called the domain of spirits or demons.
…who can read electromagnetic wavelengths with mind power alone. Hacking into cellphone signals, television broadcasts, and Wi-Fi frequencies without any hardware is his specialty
In the film Lucy, one of the abilities she develops on her heroes journey to posthumanhood is the power to casually browse through the EM spectrum and find the frequency of a phone call taking place within the space she occupies.
Such god-like powers as instant ubiquitous surveillance we currently ascribe only to terrestrial entities like NSA. But as Frank Swain is demonstrating with his art project cyborg upgrade, they may soon enough be the kind of thing a punk transhuman kid will do for da lulz. (And da lulz are as subject to any aesthetic standard as any piece of high art is and another piece of native network culture, incomprehensible are both concepts are, even to members of some existing generation…)
Penetrating realms previously unseen, not even properly conceived of just a mere century or two ago… communicating with inanimate objects, given a weak kind of artificial life thanks to advanced technology… using ad hoc combinations of scientific instruments to create whole new senses… becoming one with the inhuman… such things are the enthusiastic recreations of the players charting the edge of this constantly evolving science-fictional space we call the Real. Such is life on the playground of the Lovecraftian Cyborg.
It will never be enough. One can never go far enough.
As the Cylon known as Brother Cavil rants, in what is to my mind the best (and ultimately redeeming) scene in the whole fictional universe of the Battlestar Galactica reboot:
But in reality, more and more humans are integrating with technology and finding that the only limit is their imagination; and expanding on that in the process. Finding new territories on the map of the world-for-us and claiming ground from the world-without-us.
The cyborg sensorium is possible because, as it turns out, the human brain is quite happy to accept whole new forms of peripherals. Neuroplasticity, we now know, is the natural state of the brain; we’ve only just developed the technology to properly take advantage of it. It’s like we were always meant to merge completely with the machine world. To fuse into a new kind of organism.
One of the most common transhuman body modifications – a rite of passage for many Grinders – is implanting very small magnets in a person’s fingertips. [Would you like to know more?] What many people soon report thereafter is the ability to unconsciously sense magnetic fields:
“There are two distinct feelings I get from fields. For a static field, like a bar magnet, it feels like a smooth pressure. Imagine running your hand slowly through lukewarm water, and brushing your finger across the top of a large invisible marshmallow. That is the closest description I can give. Oscillating fields, such as electric motors, security devices, transformers, et cetera, vibrate the magnet. This sensation is much more sensitive and noticeable.” ~ The Magnetic Sense
And then… And then there are those most uncommon cyborg upgrades, such as are possessed by the posthuman explorers, out on the very fringe. Those who aren’t just expanding on what they can see, hear or touch, but are fully moving into inhuman realms, exploring perception at whole new scales.
One such adventurer is Moon Ribas. She is constructing a “seismic sense”:
An online sensor stitched to her skin sends a vibration through her arm any time an earthquake is detected, anywhere on the planet.
As she explains in this TED Talk:
After perceiving this universal movement, and after this motion became an emotion, this is when I felt cyborg. It’s when I felt that my body and cybernetics had united.
Another explorer of the hitherto hidden is Neil Harbisson.
He is one of the world’s most prominent cyborgs; it even says ‘Cyborg’ on his passport now. His visually arresting implant overcomes his inability to naturally see colours (put simply, he’s colour blind.) Similar to Frank Swain’s hearing aid hack, Harbisson now ‘hears’ what he can’t ‘see’ – “a sensor converts color frequencies into sound frequencies.” Which is about as non-trivial as it sounds. Neil has fundamentally altered and extended his body – for one thing, the antenna is fused with his skull:
The antenna consists of 4 different implants: two antenna implants, one vibration/sound implant, and a Bluetooth implant that allows him to connect to the internet.
Also like Frank Swain, Neil is using his enhancement to perceive aspects of reality that are occluded from a so-called normal human being. Both of them have leapfrogged “the normal”; going from disabled to possessing supernormal senses. Superabilities. Because why stop at baseline human, when it’s just a matter of a hardware upgrade and/or software patch to move beyond that? In Neil’s case to see – or, more correctly ‘hear’, but we’re doing nothing but break boundaries here – into the ultraviolet and infrared spectrums. To gaze into unseen realms.
But why stop there? Speaking just a few days ago he said that…:
…his next challenge was to use an internet connection built into the latest version of the antenna to permanently connect to satellites, enabling him to “hear space”.
Expanding on that elsewhere to also comment, just as Moon Ribas did, on how organic the process feels:
“We can use cybernetics to extend our perception… Now that I’ve become a cyborg, I feel more connected to the world and to nature than machines,” he said.
He is also not limiting himself to this Earth. Harbisson’s antenna is connected to cameras on the International Space Station, and he is beginning to investigate the colours of space.
Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas are exemplars of the idea of the Lovecraftian Cyborg. (Attentive fans of the cosmic horror writer will even recognize a reference to one of his short stories in the above paragraph.) By extending their senses, far from feeling inhuman – from feeling alien – they feel more connected to the planet, to the natural world than ever before.
The Lovecraftian Cyborg is the naturalised citizen of an incredibly rich world-for-us; one that obliterates distinctions between organic and artificial. That collapses distance, feeling the sensation of vast, unseen forces on geological scales. Internalising such feelings as an emotions.
We can’t even imagine the transformation of consciousness that such upgrades will enable, without installing them ourselves.
They are the pathfinders, leading the way into the posthuman future we’re all drifting toward together, whether we’re conscious of it, or not.
Feeling the world tremble and shake as emotion, integrated into the core of their consciousness. Hearing the colours of space. Building a new aesthetic to tell us about the shifting boundaries between the world-for-us and the world-without-us.
But this merger with machines isn’t just taking place at and individual level. Our entire technological civilisation itself… the world-for-us, in Thacker’s terminology, is developing its own, entirely new senses too.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2 – THE COLOURS OUT OF SPACE…
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We’re gonna win.