Of Pond Brains and Humanity 2.0 Part I: Theoteknosis

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Biosphere 2. Source: Wikimedia (User: Johndedios)

You’re not going to take people who lack skills,’ says Steve Fuller, ‘you’re not going to take homeless people, though that’s not official policy.’(i) Fuller is sociologist-in-residence for the Space Ark, a craft in conceptual development by Icarus Interstellar to take nature with us when the earth becomes a no-go zone. Given vast ecological change, Fuller and colleagues are getting restless about our earth-bound future.

The Ark is envisioned to take the form of a ball of genetically-engineered soil, an artificial biome 15km in diameter, inhabited by 50 to 500 humans deemed worthy of saviour and building on work into artificial, closed ecological systems started in the early nineties at the $200 million Biosphere 2 complex — now owned and operated by the University of Arizona. This audacious, though disappointingly terrestrial, ‘vivarium’, when originally conceived, boasted a miniature rainforest, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, desert, coral reef and an agricultural zone complete with goats, hens and pigs, all on a three-acre site. It was home to eight ‘bionauts’ for over two years who lived a hermetically-sealed existence in a radical experiment in self-sufficiency.

The ark’s theological inspirations are far from incidental. Fuller, a professor at the University of Warwick, as well as a Christian and proud transhumanist, argues for what he dubs theomimesis, the act of playing God. After all, he writes in his latest book The Proactionary Imperative, we are ‘aspiring deities’ with ‘divine potential’, and ‘not simply one among many species’. Welcome to Humanity 2.0, Fuller’s break away from boring old Humanity 1.0, with its human rights, creaky knees, and reactionary moral aversion to eugenics.

The Proactionary argument holds that the precautionary principle, much beloved of environmentalists, has become an impediment to our innate brilliance, lowering our aspirations and placing us amongst other lowly animals. This precautionary belief in ‘do no harm’, now built equally into policy and the popular consciousness (albeit, one should add, to little avail), should be replaced by the anti-Darwinian proactionary imperative. This would enable a departure from our evolutionary past, taking genetics into our own hands (Fuller is a proponent of non-authoritarian eugenics, a term which he deems wrongly maligned), hopefully taking leave from this space rock we call home, and ultimately replacing our weak bodies ‘with some intellectually superior and more durable substratum’. Phew. ‘Better to give hostage to fortune,’ writes Fuller, ‘than be captive to the past.’

Of course, if work on Humanity 2.0 were the writings of a lone maniac, this rich, heady vision of space ships and discarded corporeality could be laughed off as a fevered delusion, a Unabomber-style manifesto in a different key. Lone and isolated, though, this is not. Rather, transhumanism sits as the logical conclusion of much thought falling under the category of ‘ecomodernism’, ‘ecopragmatism’ or ‘postenvironmentalism’, embracing techno-fixes, Progress and our inheritance as unique beings to cultivate a ‘good anthropocene.’ It is high-priest of the ecopragmatists, Stewart Brand, after all, who reminds us that ‘we are as Gods and might as well get good at it,’ and the king of the transhumanists Ray Kurzweil who wrote, in his work, The Singularity is Near, that ‘one cubic inch of nanotube circuitry, once fully developed, would be up to one hundred million times more powerful than the human brain.’

Before proceeding, however, allow me to slow things down with a hint of schadenfreude. As the film-maker Adam Curtis noted, the Space Ark’s inspiration, Biosphere 2, should strike us as a somewhat tragicomic tale:

The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the “ocean” and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The “bionauts” began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another’s faces… Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches… At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.(ii)

Returning from Arizona to the lush British countryside, let me now introduce another fanciful, failed biological experiment, long forgotten, which I would like to compare and contrast with both the Space Ark and Biosphere 2. In the 1950s an Englishman called Stafford Beer founded a field called management cybernetics, given its most famous instantiation through Beer’s Viable Systems Model. Management cybernetics took its place as part of a transatlantic cybernetics movement which aimed to study regulation, control and communication in both living and non-living complex systems. Cybernetics itself, from the Greek word kybernetes, is a term translating as ‘governor’ or ‘steersman’.(iii)

While the American incarnation of cybernetics, which Steve Fuller draws transhumanist inspiration from, became embroiled in military uses such as intelligent anti-aircraft gun mounts, the movement in the UK, based around the close-knit Ratio Club, developed a seemingly more countercultural, almost pervasively spiritual approach, even developing some tenuous links with British anarchism at the time.

Beer, in exploring how organisations, from factories to communities and governments, could better adapt to the complex environments in which many of them failed, developed an interest in biological computing. Standard computers, he found, particularly the early forms that confronted him, do what their human programmers intend, but struggle to reconfigure themselves to emergent, chaotic and unpredictable phenomena.

Turning his back on them, Beer envisioned replacing human management, and all its attendant failures, misjudgements and foibles, not with computers, but with the lively agency of natural, exceedingly complex systems. He experimented with colonies of insects, mice, even the play of his own children, ultimately settling most attention on pond ecosystems.

If this sounds Space Ark-style crazy, so far, stay with me.

‘Pull the humans out of the factory, plug in a pond instead’ as Andrew Pickering summarizes the project, allowing the pond, the factory and the business environment to ultimately find some performative equilibrium. In an attempt to get pond ecosystems to care about us and our organisations, to act as a homeostatic controller, one idea was to induce small water fleas, called Daphnia, to ingest iron filings, and then apply magnetic fields which would represent industrial variables in their adapted environment. Another was to use light in a similar manner, with the light-sensitive aquatic protozoa, euglena. Though perhaps holding unfulfilled potential, Beer’s projects basically failed — the Daphnia simply excreted the filings, Beer moved on to other things, and pond organisms do not run organisations on our behalf. It’s interesting to note, however, that the project remains with perhaps unfulfilled potential. After all, Beer’s colleague Gordon Pask, another leading cyberneticist, had much-overlooked, though significant success with biological computing in the form of self-organising electrochemical threads that in effect developed an ear, the ability to intelligently respond to specific sounds as well as magnetic fields.(iv)

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Daphnia. Source: Wikimedia (User: Fritz Geller-Grimm)

At a glance, Beer’s out there experimentation could certainly be deemed naïve, hubristic, and anthropocentric; comparable in this way to Fuller’s theomimetic techno-project of an ontologically separate and transcendent Humanity 2.0 discarding their human meat sacks, not to mention the Space Ark, and Biosphere 2. These projects certainly all project the aura of a culture where anthropic pseudo-control pervades every significant human-ecological interaction. I would perhaps not even call the projects which opened this essay primarily technological, or theomimetic, however, but rather theoteknotic. Teknosis, a term coined by John Biram, in a now largely forgotten work by the same name, stands for the ‘disease of technical thinking,’ so chronic in so-called advanced societies. This disease, in a summary by Michael Shallis, ‘is an attitude of mind, part hacker syndrome, part Narcissus complex, whereby man worships idols of silver and gold and becomes like the objects of worship.’

And indeed Adam Curtis, in an accompanying piece to his documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, quoted from above, critiques a version of this teknosis, which he calls ‘the ecosystem myth’. Ecosystemic thinking which, he argues, culminated with cybernetics in the fifties, and Biosphere 2 in the nineties, commits a fallacy in thinking of nature as a computer, a stable machine of wholes tending towards equilibrium. Rather, Curtis posits that ‘nature is never stable, it’s always changing.’ For the film-maker, not only is this myth dangerous in itself but it is also grounded historically in the colonial thought of Jan Smuts, a racial segregationist, brutal militarist, and academic pioneer of the term ‘holism’. Smuts turned to a ‘scientific’ vision of wholes ‘to create a vision of a static world where everything is stable,’ racial inequalities included of course, ‘and your moral duty is to make sure that nothing ever changes’.

While Curtis is certainly on the right track here, there is some conflation of ideas, leading to a premature dismissal of holism, homeostasis and conceptions of the ‘ecosystem’. Even if ants do us the favour of vandalising our utopian experiments instead of obediently running our factories, I would still like to temper such judgement, and explore instead the different story and vision of the world acted out by Beer. For now, let’s call one version of this story closed holism, and the other open.

Biosphere 2 is a prototypical example of closed holism, as one presumes the Space Ark will be also. It performs a parable of what happens when the scientist or innovator assumes that they can build a picture of complete knowledge of a complex system, interacting with it in predictable ways. You seal off a portion of the world, replicate and represent what you think is necessary to the experiment, and try to intervene when things go wrong. Oxygen disappears, and you don’t know where it’s going. Humans suffer psychologically. Ants find their way in and you’re helpless in dealing with their vast power in numbers. The gene you self-eugenically tamper with turns out to control for something you didn’t expect. The world kicks back against this closure and its open complexity stymies every attempt at getting to grips with it.

Beer’s pond brain, and his other experiments, on the other hand, skip this stage of closedness, predictability and complete knowledge; instead, theoretically, placing the human in much more firmly humbled position. It realises that humans aren’t the only intelligence, let alone a transcendent or divine one, but instead this is a feature that pervades the world. As Pickering puts it, ‘Beer and Pask realized that the world is, in effect, already full of […] brains. Any adaptive biological system is precisely an adaptive brain in this sense.’ And not just any brain, but a brain beyond straightforward human comprehension:

Biological systems can solve these problems that are beyond our cognitive capacity. They can adapt to unforeseeable fluctuations and changes. The pond survives. Our bodies maintain our temperatures close to constant whatever we eat, whatever we do, in all sorts of physical environments. It seems more than likely that if we were given conscious control over all the parameters that bear on our internal milieu, our cognitive abilities would not prove equal to the task of maintaining our essential variables within bounds and we would quickly die. This, then is the sense in which Beer thought that ecosystems are smarter than we are—not in their representational cognitive abilities, which one might think are nonexistent, but in their performative ability to solve problems that exceed our cognitive ones.

Such radically alternative ways of seeing the world undermine Fuller’s false antinomy of precautionary and proactionary. You are neither presuming knowledge of likely outcomes and taking a complete precautionary step back from a world of flux, for pond brains are operative, changing, performative, intervening and learning all the time anyway. Nor are you attempting to escape involvement in the dirty, messy, Darwinian world by theoteknotic proactionary modernism.

Rather, you learn something more complex; that is to respect the reality of the nonhuman as entangled with the human, recognising itself in you and you in it, and neither in a position of dominance. We are part of the world’s becoming, as Feminist Karen Barad puts it succinctly, and part of a universe that we are trying to understand. The world is not a closed jar, but an open ecosystem of intelligence, always changing as Curtis correctly noted, and we can neither control nor remove ourselves from this. This, after all, is the core of its beauty. So why would we even want to?

Endnotes

(i) See http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/may/22/stars-in-their-eyes-architects-scientists-ponder-designs-ark-space
(ii) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/may/29/adam-curtis-ecosystems-tansley-smuts
(iii) The account of cybernetics presented here draws strongly on papers and monographs by the sociologist of science Andrew Pickering, particularly his book The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future
(iv) See Cariani’s (1993) article To evolve an ear: epistemological implications of Gordon Pask’s electrochemical devices in the journal Systems Research.

Tom Smith is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of St Andrews, where he focuses on topics including craft, technology, sustainability, non-representational theory, anarchism and objects. He is also the co-founder of a low-impact smallholding and ecological teaching hub in the west of Ireland, An Teach Saor (The Free House). http://st-andrews.academia.edu/TSmith

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7 thoughts on “Of Pond Brains and Humanity 2.0 Part I: Theoteknosis

  1. I will not pretend I understand a fraction of the science involved, nor the wider scope of this article. But my opinion is that we as a living world, may one day need to leave here if it is to survive. It makes sense to prepare for this somehow. Perhaps the moon, then Mars then who knows.
    However, to abandon the ‘precautionary principle’ is completely mad; it hasn’t been given it’s chance to work yet!

    • Thanks for reading, and the feedback, Kevin. I think there are many reasons, practical (!) and philosophical, as to why preparing for leaving is a fool’s errand. But there are plenty who seem to think it’s a priority!

  2. Love this essay. Especially the thrilling description of the tribulations of the Biosphere crew, which reads like a secular Book of Revelations.

    Was just reading Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway just yesterday, which I consider to be a powerful contribution to the effort to reconceptualize the human without getting carried away by fantasies of singularity. She and Lynn Margulis give us glimpses of another kind of science, another kind of truth.

    • Thanks for the feedback Michelle! Someone like Haraway certainly seemed, at least for a while, to get a little carried away with futuristic cyborg-type tropes, which Barad mostly avoids. It’s why I like dealing with Pickering, to be honest, as he grapples with similar concerns in philosophy of science without any singulatarian undertones.

      Have an essay in the next Dark Mountain anthology (9) which deals with Margulis more. Hope you take a look!

  3. Very interesting post, Tom. I just would like to articulate a little bit more some points.

    – The dualism “American cybernetics = militaristic vs. British cybernetics = counter cultural” is a bit problematic. Alan Turing, who actively worked for the military, was a regular member of the Ratio Club. When Norbert Wiener complained about British cyberneticians lagging behind their American counterparts, he knew well that British were not receiving funding from the state—but chances are that they would have loved it, and it would have come from guess who? In that way, for example, Grey Walter would not had to go scavenging for military used parts for building his tortoises.

    – When you refer to the notion of “nature as a computer” (and I assume you would also say, more in cybernetic tune, “nature as a machine”), as fallacious, one has to be careful regarding what we mean by “computer” and “machine”. If by computer you mean your desktop and by machine your bicycle (or even the most powerful super-computer and the Large Hadron Collider, respectively), then the fallacy adscription would be easily granted. However, if by “machine” you mean what the cyberneticist William Ross Ashby meant by “machine”, then the assertion is no longer self-evident. The same goes for “computer”; perhaps a philosopher of information–and computer scientist–like Brian Cantwell Smith would say that since the very notion of computation is still up for grabs (and that since computation might have a more revolutionary outcome than physics), maybe the workings of reality turn out to be computational after all (computational in this broader, still undiscovered, sense). [As far as I know he doubts that reality is digital, but that is another, albeit related, issue–computation is not necessarily digital, of course].

    – Relying on “complexity” as a sufficiently rich framework for better relating to nature can arguably epistemologically explode in one’s face. The cyberneticist John von Neumann experienced that frustration with his kinematic model—the reason behind the subsequent turn into his Theory of Automata. Perhaps more interestingly, the cybernetician William Ross Ashby, after shocking the American attendees at the penultimate Macy conference with his Homeostat (beautifully attaining self-equilibrium out of “chaos”), had a sour experience after he increased the complexity in the subsequent machine, D.A.M.S. After observing it for a couple of years, he gave up on the hope of the machine finding any kind of “ultra-stability”. This British cyberneticist was likely aware of what Ilya Prigogine was later going to convey in his “Order Out of Chaos”, depicting the life-like “complex” behavior of crystals. In other words, classical cybernetics gives us a perfect instance where the exaltation of complexity as the fabled bridge to that that we did not put there in the first place, brought us nowhere. So we go: “Nature is very complex, therefore we have to match it with something as complex, to get some kind of insight into the dynamic, always-evolving, fluid fabric of reality”. Speaking of fallacious thinking. The crippling effects are my next point.

    – Francis Bacon criticized the Ancient Greeks for a reason. Admiring nature in all its richness, beauty and complexity arguably leads one nowhere scientifically. Of course this awe gives ground for poetry, literature and the like. In fact, Andrew Pickering after his several “mangles of x” increasingly begun to sound like a hybrid between Brian Cox and Jason Silva—probably more of the latter. “Reality is so amaaazing! Ra-ra-ra!” The problem with this startling awe for “complexity” (whatever any scholar means by that these days) is the inaction, scientifically and even politically, that such epistemic attitude entails—epistemic attitude that you capture so inspirationally in your last paragraph. Bacon sharply recognized that in the Greeks, which made them incapable of having come up with the scientific method, let alone exercised it.

    – One could switch gears from the epistemic to the ethic, and argue that all this linear, rigid, straight, mechanical thinking is precisely the problem. It has become the default “common sense”, the epistemics of power, where male white Euro supremacy has guaranteed its perpetual dominance masking it under the rubric of “modern science”. One could then say that the philosophical concern rather is about the weak and vulnerable, those without a voice. That’s where we reach a full circle: only some kind of modeling of reality, drawing a line somewhere, can allow us for some kind of representation. Any kind of representation—political included. A view that paralyzes the subject, justified by respect and awe towards nature and reality effectively neuters any scientific progress or political representation. Let us not forget that Simone De Beauvoir had to “tweak” Jean Paul Sartre’s crippling nihilism (which he attempted to defend under “humanism”) so that feminism, and the defense of those underrepresented, could emerge.

    – In that vein, if I understand Steve Fuller correctly, he is aiming to explore the possible post-modern venues that the notion of “human” (and no, we do not mean an essentialist notion of “human”: he is a Catholic educated by Jesuits) will have to undertake vis-à-vis pervasive biotechnologies that will alter us at the cognitive, genetic and overall biological level. Fuller acknowledges that the differences between the rich and the poor, between the northern and southern hemispheres, which will be radicalized due to these technologies, will have to be addressed. There is a concern for human suffering, particularly for those who suffer more. Arguably transhumanism is not a monolithic worldview, and he had his fair share of ad intra disputes. For example, he is concerned about the deeply libertarian positions of many in the transhumanist flanks (aware that, if history tells us anything, these individuals will likely end up working for big corporations, thus fueling the stuff for nightmares). In that case, if you have any left-wing leniency, you will perhaps accept that the state might be the least of evils. I read a non-essentialist defense of whatever we will be calling human in the near future. Now, if the post-humanist position (as opposed to a transhumanist one) is neutral regarding the suffering of the poor, sick and destitute (usually living in other geographic regions than them), favouring the flourishing of non-human species instead, that is another story.

    Alcibiades

  4. Hi Alcibiades.

    Thanks for your thoughtful and lengthy response which, to summarise my perspective, doesn’t cause me to rethink much of what was originally written. The crux of the first half, I suppose, (and ignoring the ad hominem of Pickering) comes down to the point of your acceptance of art/science dichotomy and Bacon’s distaste for Greek admiration of nature. If my ‘epistemic attitude’ leads to ‘inaction’ (although I don’t agree and would instead posit merely a different form of action. Non-action/inaction is often enough, paradoxically, a form of action) then so be it. I simply don’t have the fondness of Bacon’s scientific method that you do.

    As for the second last point, on the neutering of scientific progress, see above. Regarding the demise of political representation, so be it, we’ll have to agree to disagree on its importance.

    Your final point is a straw man. Of course the post-humanist position isn’t to ignore suffering of the poor and destitute! I have no doubt that there are intra-movement disputes amongst transhumanists, but that isn’t to say the vision isn’t largely similar. It’s very easy to pay lip service to acknowledgement that radical differences created by such technologies will have to be addressed. It’s less easy, given the history of industrialism, to have confidence in his ability to do so. So I’m afraid I don’t have this ‘left-wing leniency’ you speak of.

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