Sunday, January 12, 2020

Benjamin H. Bratton's Terraforming

I have no idea what I'm doing writing reviews up here. I don't expect or even want anyone to read them. I do want to understand how the world operates, and Bratton has really helped me to do that. His massive tome - we call it the BIG WHITE BOOK among friends - it's actually called The Stack - is quite readable, and extremely eye-opening for its descriptions of aspects human life on the planet that I could never have represented to myself as well as Bratton has. I think everyone should read it, if only as journalism, for what it reveals about our now digitally overlaid planet.

This book opens with the bang of the crises we face; specifically the twin crises of climate change and artificially intelligent automation. Bratton (or is it the automatic computers he pulls from?) gives us ten years. His solutions are design-based and dependent on human agency.

As it happens (well, not exactly, I was fairly deliberate about this), I'm reading Bratton along with the highly readable Michael Pollan. I've learned amazing things about the human brain and how agency works in his How to Change Your Mind and now I'm learning amazing things about how contemporary humans on the planet have been engineered by corn (as in corn is genetically triumphant because of us humans) in The Omnivores Dilemma. That is one of those books I've had on my literal shelves (now in storage) for a long time. I borrowed it digitally for the read.

I wear cotton to keep from needing too many chemicals to prevent my stinking, even while I know how dirty the cotton industry is. I feel repelled by Patagonia, and have all those nasty prejudices when a Tesla goes by. I repress them, because there's nothing wrong with Teslas drivers - they're almost all likeable people to me. I think I resent that they think they might be mitigating some harm (if not doing any particular good) by driving a Tesla. It's still a car, and they're not. And I don't have enough money for either Patagonia or Tesla, which is really what bugs me about the whole deal.

I think that Bratton agrees with me that driving a Tesla resolves nothing. Not sure. But I have no idea yet why he thinks we can plan our way out of this mess in ten years. We can't even get rid of Trump.

As a lapsed wooden boat sailor, I'm mindful that with much more primitive man and horse driven technologies, the wooden boat building industry wiped out our old growth forests even before we did the Bison in, and, mostly by means of disease germs, the native Americans. I'm mindful of the catastrophe of agriculture itself, perhaps grace Harari Sapiens or his other book(s) (they seem to proliferate).

What is it about this current asymptotic limit now at close of a shockingly transformative industrial communications computational revolution starting no longer ago than Darwin - what is it that makes things feel so terminal? Well, duh, right? It would seem that we have to plan our way out of it. There's no god I know of about to swoop in to rescue us. We just don't seem all that relevant.

Except that I've always felt that our consciousness is the trouble. Bratton takes great pains to explain how much more carbon intensive what he calls "culture" is than most everything else about how we organize ourselves. In just the way that Michael Pollan traces everything back to oil and corn (I've only started), Bratton traces what happens when we "push" (as in electrostatically interact with by touch) a button on our iPhones.

I *think,* but can't know, that what's really happening *is* a change to consciousness; a change in what it means to be human. Sure, the computer has taken over our brains in some sense, but it's really money, isn't it? That's the technology for communication that harnesses my survival impulses on a moment by moment basis, as though I were hunting on some savannah. I love the trace through Amazon's website to find cheap gizmos for solving my very local issues of survival in my tiny house on wheels with solar panels. I love getting pinged about the recycled from China maybe cardboard box's progress to my (borrowed) door. I love solving those little problems, even while I *hate* Amazon with a passion normally reserved for Walmart; for its destruction of local business. (I used to love conducting the hunt by car, right?)

I think, but am still not sure, that Bratton wants me to embrace these things as inevitable and harness their titanic energy to save the earth instead of destroy it. I embrace his deconstructions of romantic distinctions between "natural" and "artificial" and his call for a further Copernican turn away from our continued anthropocentrism. We still act, as he writes, as though nature were the misty backdrop for our finest performance.

What I have trouble with is that, sure humans have been terraforming ever since the advent of writing and now it's coming to a head. But we've also been engineered by the planet. I don't know which has the upper hand, I honestly don't. Have we become disposable? Are we needed now as landfill? Who's the joke on, oh captain Irony my captain? (no really, Irony is my captain, no matter what Foster Wallace said.)

If by means of agency we might re-join rather than exit cosmic-grade evolution, I'm all for it. I just don't have a clue how Bratton proposes that we do that. At the moment I'm finding more hope in the magic mushrooms documented by Michael Pollan. I'm not about to - but maybe Bratton should - try a guided trip. I don't know, but his brain seems a lot like a really powerful computer to me, and I still do believe, in a not religious way, that there is more to cosmos than what materialistic science can describe.

I'm going to keep trying to read him because it feels hopeful. Once he understands that love is a cosmic motive power that's stronger than our pitifully local agency, I might get really excited (apparently mushrooms can accomplish that - who knew???). Anyhow, job one is to get Trump out of office and restore some sanity to our basic operations. We can't begin to save the earth if we live in LaLa Land, the movie.

Roger that, Benjamin! Just remember that neurologically speaking agency starts with emotive impulse. I *care,* I really do. I just don't understand what to do.

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