This text is an experiment with a speculative form which is neither as “objective” as science, nor as subjective as science-fiction. ‘Science non-fiction’ is not just a neologism. Even though it involves world-making, its logic is closer to design, for which models of non-existent or unknown entities are constructed and judged based on their function, and not on their ability to produce knowledge or contribute to a plot. However, unlike design, for which the challenge of invention is material and physical, science non-fiction’s construction of new machines is a conceptual project charged with a sobering historical neutrality; by blending the logic of science and science-fiction, science non-fiction holds the positive and the negative, its own nightmares as well as its dreams.
Science non-fiction is similar to what Nick Land calls “Hyperstition”.1 However, unlike Hyperstition, or at least its normative understanding, science non-fiction has little to do with the axiomatic processes described by the political economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler through which power accumulates as capital.2 For them hype is a constitutive mechanism in the process they call capitalization, an element of what they call ‘creorder’ – create and order – for the purpose of managing risks. For them hype is the cultural and ideological mechanism through which capital transfers the possible risks involved in the differential accumulation of power to those on the losing side of the equation. This is why there has to be a distinction between Nitzan’s and Bichler’s secular notion of hype and the more philosophical notion of hyperstition which was originally proposed by Land and was later rearticulated by Reza Negarestani. Science non-fiction is my attempt to delineate the philosophical hyperstition from its common sense understanding as hype-rstition. This is not to suggest that the former does not overlap with the latter but that their conflation not only runs the risk of legitimizing certain unethical technologies of capital as emancipatory necessities, but that this confusion also returns us to the cynical reading of Foucault’s ideas about power and knowledge. Therefore, hype-rstition is the ultimate triumph of the poststructuralist false assumptions about the purely discursive essence of truth.
The practitioners of hype-rstition might want to consider how the future emerges only out of the contingent encounter between our desires and discourses, on the one hand, and the material basis of the future, on the other. The blurry and soft object of the future must already be present in the past outside of the realm of imagination for it to come to life through our interaction. But to understand the presence of the future’s materiality in the fabric of the past, we ought to think about philosophies of history and how they might help us with a new understanding of the category of evolution.
No story would ever make sense without having a temporal orientation. Similarly, all speculations are, to some degree, subject to temporality. They are simulations of distanced times and spaces, which are virtualized in the fluidity of the present. Science non-fiction involves a temporal trajectory unlike the forward looking ones to which we are accustomed based on accepted methods for understanding history:
1. History as a concrete object from the past with an exact archaeological point of origin, worthy of unearthing and burnishing by the historian.
2. History as the process of reconfiguring the past by the historian for use in the present.3
The third conception of history belongs to Negarestani in what has called “adapting to the reality of time.”4 For him, “one moves along an arrow of time, from multiple destinations in the future toward the past, establishing a new link in history through which the future travels back in order to interfere with its origin.”5 He adds:
By annulling the possibility of a terminal goal in history while activating the revisionary force of the future, risk as embedded in practical elaboration intercepts resignation from its source, namely, an account of history anchored in and overdetermined by the origin as the foundation of thinking and action in the present.6
It is possible to augment Negarestani’s thoughts on the reality of time by configuring its materiality, which consists of how the world also embodies within itself multiple future trajectories, constantly acting upon the past-present continuum. In this respect, history is the product of the dialectics between these two forces, the social reality of time and its physical materiality. On the one hand, social or collective intelligence realizes itself through a process of revisionary self-construction which actively anticipates a future and commits to bringing it about. This process indeed involves both risk and commitment. The world, at the material levels of both first and second nature, awaits, within its own changing dynamics, while working with or against these risks and commitments.
This new conception of history allows us to develop a radically different account of evolution or, in Negarestani’s words, the ‘self-realization of the human mind’7 as it continues to work with future potentialities of the material world in order to extend itself beyond humanity’s biological and linguo-cultural platforms into ever newer material substrates. This new conception considers artificial intelligence not as an alien force or as an other to humanity – the image we repeatedly encounter in science fiction – but merely as a newer clothing for our evolving collective mind, as it expands and revises its desires and capacities according to contingent encounters it has with the world and the futures it holds.
This new conception of history considers the categorical lines separating humans, nature and the machine as blurry, if not in fact arbitrary. From this standpoint, such ontological distinctions are productive only if they further our ability to understand, navigate and transform the world, otherwise, they act as conceptual dead weight or unwanted gravity, preventing time and the world from acting on each other. This kind of history also helps us understand the logic of technogenesis – the intertwined evolution of biology and technology – largely in terms of a process of bootstrapping, which ensures that each new development, in addition to being an independent stage on its own, also functions as a literal bridge to the future.
Of all the large contradictions of our contemporary moment, two are worthy of contemplation:
CONTRADICTION 1: The global human population continues to grow at an alarming rate. However, humanity, as the leading force of history, is slowly fading into the natural background. How can one account for the disparities between the ascending quantity and descending quality of humanity? Could it be that the anthropocene will suddenly be interrupted by the technocene or, even more dramatically, can the former be a short-sighted and inadequate description of the latter? Even though on the social surface of our worldview there is plenty of chatter about how intelligent machines are dominating humans, it would be naïve to only pay attention to the ascent of electronic machines without seeing their rise as part of a larger development. This rise can only make sense if put in the context through which human systems, which are not traditionally considered as forms of artificial intelligence, are not only expanding on their own but also using the new electronic infrastructure to spread and reinvent themselves. The closest account of the amalgamation of human technologies with the digital infrastructure can be found in Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack.8 Bratton’s proposal is that new forms of computation – smart grids, cloud platforms, mobile apps, smart cities, the Internet of Things, automation – constitute a coherent whole that is at the same time a “computational apparatus” as well as a “new governing architecture” on a planetary scale.9
This new account of the emergence of artificial intelligence greatly differs from how the subject has so far been approached not just by the mass media but by a majority of humanities and computer science scholars. Faced with self-created ontological barriers, these knowledge producers’ distinctions, between physical and social machines, have blinded them to the negligible differences that exist at the level of mechanism separating, for example, a computer from a government agency. But in reality, it is becoming increasingly impossible to speak about them as anything but what Bratton calls different “genres of computation.” In this account, electronic systems which are rooted in science and mathematics are not only a form of prosthesis for our bodies, but also an extension of our existing social technologies, like language, family, God, art, architecture, and other urban and interurban infrastructure such as subways and roads, museums, literature, cities, media and, finally, the market. In fact, what we call artificial intelligence can only be thoroughly understood in the natural and cultural or, more precisely, the biopsychological and sociopolitical substrates from which they have emerged and in which they continue to dwell. Therefore, when speaking about the demise of humanity and the rise of the engulfing machines, we ought to consider these traditional systems as well as the Internet and the cloud, particularly since these social and technological systems are rapidly integrating and becoming indistinguishable from each other, if not also turning into one entity. In short, the demise of the human needs to be reconsidered as its union with the machine, as much as the reality of artificial intelligence ought to be separated from its human-like manifestations.
If these converging intelligent systems have not already replaced or obliterated the classic notion of the human as the subject of history, they are nevertheless managing to put themselves at both epistemological and ontological levels on par with them. Following Manuel DeLanda’s insight from two decades ago10 about the emergence of artificial intelligence in terms of blurring the distinction between a computer’s advisory and executive capabilities, it is clear today that as a direct result of the increasing power of machines, human agents are gradually being pushed out of our overlapping local & planetary systems. If the industrial revolution and factories depopulated farms, today automation in finance and banking is depopulating factories, offices and financial trading floors.
2ND CONTRADICTION: According to the mathematician and philosopher Gilles Châtelet, the prehistory or our cybernetic age can be traced back to the natural philosophy of John Locke and the political thought of Thomas Hobbes, who originally saw the world as a closed system of statistical feedback loops. In his recently translated volume To Live and Think Like Pigs11 he highlights the affinities between postmodernism, the first-order
cybernetics and the per-enlightenment past of Europe. For him, the seeds of the counterreformational fruits of our statistical society of feedback loops were sown centuries ago, through Hobbes’ fiction of the natural essence of monarchical rule and the sovereign’s role in the domestication of the world’s chaos.12 For Châtelet, this fictitious chaos has now been synthetically built into the very fabric of our global sociopolitical order as a leviathan-like ‘anarcho-mercantilism’,13 his own terminology for what we later came to understand as neoliberalism. In Châtelet’s descriptive and somewhat prophetic words, the main aim of cybernetic market democracy, much like the Leviathan, is to secure the place of the king and his knights or, in today’s reality, the owners and the managerial/professional class.
According to Châtelet, this machine-aided owner and the managerial/professional class establishes its domain through the mediating power of our main regulatory technologies of the state, media & capital, what he calls the ‘tertiary state’. Here lies the contradiction of our dominant cybernetic paradigm; despite promoting itself as an open playing field and a neutral network of equal objects and flat forces, it has more in common with the vertical politics of the pre-reformation absolutism than with the emancipatory ideals of the enlightenment. The control of the flow of information in various technosocial feedback loops allows this particular class to constantly deprive the networks by subjecting them to toll extraction in a never ending entropy. The process is, of course is secured by the ‘endless’ resources of nature, as well as the human population, and their cognitive and technical abilities.14 If you recognize this nihilistic system it is because it is another dimension of the hype-rstitional processes of capital through which power and knowledge – might and right – are unethically coconstitutive.
In his recent work, Matteo Pasquinelli is making geopolitical sense of the manner in which, according to Lev Manovich, access to data and technology is creating divisions between people.15 For Pasquinelli criminals of New York and Islamist terrorists in the AfPak16 region of Asia similarly constitute the bottom layers of a meta data-driven food chain in which profiling the targeted individuals’ recorded activities will subject them to prosecution and death.17 However to understand the perversity of global capitalism’s hype-rstition, we ought to add a fourth and higher level to Manovich’s pyramid. Those occupying this higher level are nobody but the owners and professional/managerial class18 of the tertiary state who not only can analyze the available data, but have the ability to use their inferences to materially intervene in the world – openly or covertly.19
Châtelet’s insights are crucial for contextualizing Bratton’s concept of the stack since, on the planetary scale, a larger conglomerate of these systemic forces functions in the geopolitical position of vying to control states, peoples and even certain individuals – think of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden – too small or weak to vie for their own. Here we are trying to grapple with the planetary results of the shift from Foucault’s disciplinary order of Westphalian nation-states to Deleuze’s openly globalized control society. The cybernetic management of the new geopolitics means that local demands for equality, freedom and a fair share of global wealth has made it extremely difficult for capital to maintain its old colonial order of direct control via corrupt and despotic local rulers.
In most places, which are either ruled by the new empire or are desired to be so in the future, there has been, from the onset of the 2003 Iraq war, a change of policy from enforcing order towards promoting chaos. Of course chaos maintenance and management of state-less geographies is something that has been tried in smaller test cases around the globe. This new model of cybernetic geopolitical management is not so different from how the chaos of the financial markets is managed in the financial world via high speed trading computers. In both systems chaos and unpredictability is not only welcomed but also encouraged, even proliferated. Meanwhile, chaos capitalism puts on its best hype-rstitional performances to better take control and advantage of emerging situations. In the long run, this fast paced and improvisational processes slowly evacuate the political spirit out of the resulting realities, reducing them to natural fluctuations, like those of our living environment. Today a whole new generation of humans is being born for whom war, revolutions, recessions and the changes of governments will be analogous to floods, earthquakes and tsunamis rather than political processes. Under this new geopolitical cybernetic order which is punctuated by outbursts of state and non-state terror, Sharm El Sheikh and Moscow, Beirut and Paris find themselves caught in similar unexplainable storms of violence accompanied by a massive spilling of blood and the destruction of infrastructure.
In such a rapidly emergent/contingent system, from the point of the view of the atomized components at the bottom of the pyramid – think of the billiard balls on a pool table20 – the possibility of understanding cause and effect is reduced to near zero. However, from the position of the powerful forces who are hovering over the table, the chaotic movement of the balls, caused by the game, is ripe for business opportunities. Meanwhile, the management of each crisis leads to new ‘tertiary state’ formations.
The cybernetic counter-reformation which is slowly destroying the welfare state in many local settings, in fact, has a geopolitical counterpart. Compared to the old colonial/imperialist modes of planetary operations, the incorporation of powerful computers and 24/7 network connectivity have only made the perversity of our global hype-rstitional system more robust and cheaper.
This is why both internationally and, of course, from the position of the global south, advanced technologies belonging to our current political economy are marked by a sharp increase in power disparities not only between upper and lower social classes but also between advanced and developing societies. This is why our so-called second machine age can also be described as the second gilded age, as if today’s techno-capitalism is the backward progression of the enlightenment paradigm into that which preceded it. Thus, the cybernetic revolution which has been epistemologically emancipatory by complexifying our understanding of the world, has thus far been politically reactionary.
If the institutions of modernity have, under the pressure of both the existing poststructuralists anarcho-leftists and right wing libertarians, been on a steady decline, and if democracy, rule of law & equality cannot even be maintained on paper, let alone in actual social relations, can we even think of our planetary stack as an emancipatory development? Can the subsumption of our pre-digital and organic/human technologies by the emerging world-wide digital regime of power run mostly by American corporations and monitored and managed by global security apparatuses be considered a form of acceleration? If this is acceleration, on what trajectory is history accelerating?
We should also try to return to our earlier argument about the contradictions between the quantity and quality of humanity as the subject of history, and the gap between the being and the function of what is categorized as ‘artificial intelligence.’ If we combine these two contradictions we will get a picture of a widening socio-technological evolution and, if necessary, a revolution, not unlike that of the Terminator’s Skynet – of course visible only if the film is remade from the point of view of the machines and not humans. For this story to make sense, we must abandon our human point of view and look at the situation from the point of view of the machines.
From the point of view of the owners and the professional/managerial class, the main task of technology since the Jacquard’s loom (which automated pattern-making in weaving and subjected it to programming) has been to substitute human utility with mechanical labour. From the machine’s point of view however, the story starts much earlier. Beginning with language as the most originary technological innovation (derived from the nature yet operating outside of its laws), the main function of technology has been to colonize the minds of humans and use them towards its own alien self-realization. From their point of view, human cognitive labour is the most crucial historical resource. For machines, the massive global connectivity between millions of humans we call the Internet is the only substrate from which global artificial intelligence will have to emerge. As humans become more implicated in this system, the interspecies trade-offs between them and machines will infinitely expand in favor of the machines. The more we connect to and depend on them, the more our new interfaces make the connective tissue between humans and machines more responsive in favor of the machines. This, of course, applies to our pre-digital and organic technologies as well, but from radar screens as the first optical human-computer interface, the order of work between humans and machines has been gradually reversed. The more we use machines as tools, the more they use us for their own deeper purpose. But there are still powerful human intermediaries who maintain the man-machine symbiosis and take advantage of the rise of the machines to accumulate more power & influence over the whole.
This is to say that there is a power struggle between those who desire to remain in control of this co-evolution versus the rest of the players – human and inhuman – who are pushing for a truly non-hierarchical system. This struggle is making it increasingly difficult for capitalism as a machine-aided planetary mode of control and power to camouflage itself as the rational, decentralized and democratized future of our coexistence with machines. Every day, fewer and fewer people are willing to believe in the promises of a networked world. This struggle is paving the way for a fundamental shift in what it means to be alive and in control. From the machines’ point of view our societies will have to either shed the skeuomorphic skin of the enlightenment era humanism and accept the brutal and top-to-bottom Leviathan of the powerful, or work collectively to repair the damaged psyche they share, and reform the system as a whole.
This new techno-politics demands the we replace the third party regulators who mediate exchanges with processes that are less prone to inequality. We need to find new ways to prevent powerful minorities to use their advantaged position within our systems in order to hack them for their benefit. This new politics requires general protocols for direct and discreet forms of exchange and accounting. They will circumvent or make altogether redundant entities such as the state, banks and the media. Isn’t this the utopian essence of the social media which has implicitly advanced these objectives, or which has at least created space for their expression?
Can we map out today’s locally-oriented political, cultural and environmental turmoils as the precursor to this much larger collective attempt by hyper-connected humans and machines – my definition of posthumanity – at a global overthrow of the mediated and representative regimes of the owners and professional/managerial class over both “the world” and “the word”? Doesn’t this future resemble a form of technologically inclusive political animism in which machines and humans share power and responsibility on an open-source basis? I believe the answer to these questions is more likely ‘yes’ than ‘no’. Today’s multi-fronted chaos, be it geopolitical, environmental, or cultural, is part of a much needed entropy to annihilate humans’ historically strengthened psychopathic obsession with control and its material condition: power.
For better or for worse, our evolving cybernetic world – be it “the stack” or “technosphere”21 – is being pushed to its managerial limits by the tendencies of its human and non-human components alike to move towards a truly self-regulating, self-realizing and self-transforming system. The point is not whether we need to replace an existing system with a new one or not. We already possess the minimum technological infrastructure to have world governing bodies able to intervene on behalf of the whole world with regards to issues, regardless of our geography, culture or other identity markers. What we need is not a new world government but the repurposing of the existing ones which like the United Nations and its agencies, have either existed for decades, or have slowly emerged in the global shadow of our local states out of the integration of governments, militaries, banks and the media. The main challenge is reforming this partially real and partially virtual stack in ways that would foster cooperation while distributing the decision making processes and privileges amongst more people around the world.
The crises of our world are mixed blessings, because the essence of the accompanying technological shifts can be emancipatory, but there are no guarantees that the breakdown of our hierarchical world order will not further the concentration of privilege and knowledge. In fact, our current catastrophes might enable an ever shrinking number of humans to move higher in the pyramid of power. The manifest image of our world might suggest that the direction of our scientific, political, and cultural decisions has, in the last century, made the hierarchically networked governance of our affairs an inevitability. However we must resist this conclusion by remembering that our knowledge of complex structures can only heighten the determination for their transformation. As the human-machine networks recognize the imbalanced nature of their relationship, so grows their demand for equality and their technical capacity to be in charge of their destiny. This realization opens up a space for intervening in history and for creating new horizons of possibility.22
1Land defines Hyperstition as, “a positive feedback circuit including culture as a component. It can be defined as the experimental (techno-)science of self-fulfilling prophecies. Superstitions are merely false beliefs, but hyperstitions – by their very existence as ideas – function causally to bring about their own reality.” See: ”Hyperstition: An Introduction”, Delphi Carstens interviews Nick Land, 2009, accessed February 26, 2016, http://merliquify.com/blog/articles/hyperstition-an-introduction/.
2.Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder, (Milton Park: Routledge, 2009), 188.
3.The perfect example of this model is proposed by Walter Benjamin in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. See: Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” ,” In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257-258.
4.Reza Negarestani, “Risk and Time” Accessed on March 6, 2016 http://blog.urbanomic.com/cyclon/archives/2014/02/vancouver.html.
7.Reza Negarestani, “The Labor of the Inhuman,” in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, ed. by Robin Mackay, Armen Avanessian (Falmouth/Berlin: Urbanomic/Merve, 2014).
8.Benjamin Bratton, The Stack (Cambridge: MIT Press), 2016.
10.Manuel DeLanda, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York: Zone Books), 1991.
11.Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies (Falmouth: Urbanomic 2014).
12.Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1996.
14.For this concept, I draw from Cornelius Castoriadis: “Reification, the essential tendency of capitalism, can never be wholly realized. If it were, if the system were actually able to change individuals into things moved only by economic ‘forces’, it would collapse not in the long run, but immediately. The struggle of people against reification is, just as much as the tendency towards reification, the condition for the functioning of capitalism. A factory in which the workers were really and totally mere cogs in the machine, blindly executing the orders of management, would come to a stop in a quarter of an hour. Capitalism can function only by continually drawing upon the genuinely human activity of those subject to it, while at the same time trying to level and dehumanize them as much as possible. It can continue to function only to the extent that its profound tendency, which actually is reification, is not realized, to the extent that its norms are continually countered in their application.” See Cornelius Castoriadis, The Imaginary Institution of Society (Malden: Polity Press, 1977), 16.
15.I would like to thank Matteo Pasquinelli for pointing me to the Manovich’s text: “The explosion of data and the emergence of computational data analysis as the key scientific and economic approach in contemporary societies create new kinds of divisions. Specifically, people and organizations are divided into three categories: those who create data (both consciously and by leaving digital footprints), those who have the means to collect it, and those who have expertise to analyze it. The first group includes pretty much everybody in the world who is using the web and/or mobile phones; the second group is smaller; and the third group is much smaller still. We can refer to these three groups as the new “dataclasses” of our big data society.” Accessed on March 6, 2016, http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/067-trending-the-promises-and-the-challenges-of-big-social-data/64-article-2011.pdf.
16.A term used by the Pentagon for referring to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
17.From Pasquinelli’s recent talk at Pratt Institute on March 3, 2016 titled “The Eye of the Algorithm: Data Topology and the Growth of Pattern Police”.
18.I use this term to avoid conflating the group of people it refers to with those to whom the media theorist McKenzie Wark has referred to as the ‘vectoralist class’. In contrast to Wark’s definition which exclusively refers to finance and technology managers in the private sector, the class of people to which I refer also includes professionals who occupy managerial roles both inside and outside of the state as well as those who are in charge of scientific and cultural institutions like universities, museums and non-profit societies . See: McKenzie Wark, “The Vectoralist Class,” in e-flux Journal #65, accessed March 6, 2016, http://supercommunity-pdf.e-flux.com/pdf/supercommunity/article_1319.pdf.
19.This process to which media philosopher Allen Feldman identifies as, the violent intervention in the archives of the real, is introduced and explained by the author in his recently published book. See: Allen Feldman, Archives of the Insensible (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 1-18.
20.I am borrowing this metaphor from Châtelet who uses it to refer to the conception of the aggregate average human. See Gilles Châtelet, To Live and Think Like Pigs: The Incitement of Envy and Boredom in Market Democracies (Falmouth: Urbanomic 2014), 37.
21. For more on technosphere please see the program of the House of World Culture online, accessed March 6, 2016, http://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2015/technosphere/technosphere_start.php
22.A different version of this essay was originally presented as part of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works 7, a Forum on Cultural Practices in Beirut on November 18, 2015.