Friday, June 18, 2021

Agency, Benjamin, Agency!

Benjamin H. Bratton is still in his rut. He thinks that all we need to do as humans in the cosmos is to get our collective agency organized and fix our planet. Nevermind that organized agency is the only problem we can't solve. Our attempts have reliably led us to the brink of destruction; a brink Bratton clearly apprehends.

Terraforming can't make sense unless and until we find ourselves meaningfully in some cosmos where we're not alone. This cannot be a physical connection, as our physics clearly demonstrates. So what, other than destruction itself - which is so easily imagined now - shall be our efficient "other?" 

Not God, certainly. Subservience gets us nowhere, and fast. Bratton would have us usurp God's agency by the simple expedient of re-defining God in human terms, as it ever has been. Man must now become the super-agent. Collectively, please! Oh, please!

It's a miscue to generalize the agency we might experience as individuals as even similar to the political agency which would be required for Terraforming. Bratton's most recent post reiterates most of his now well-worn themes, and his insights are, as ever, powerful. His distinction between "artificial" and "synthetic," for the best example.

Now let's apply that distinction to agency from the final line of his above-linked article. 
"Taking this new existential condition seriously demands a radically different sort of philosophy."  

Bratton doesn't quite propose such a philosophy, and yet he does imply it. I would contend that his implied philosophy is purest artifice, and not synthesis. That is even though I can't hold a candle to his brilliance. His artifice is because his sapience is devoid of emotion, the most important aspect of human mind. Sapience can never by synthesized without it, notwithstanding Bratton's ever-brilliant observations about how much sapience grows and changes by interfacing with artifice. That has been everso.

This is also why I do consistently label Bratton a masculinist, and why his envisioned planet feels so utterly totalitarian to me. Humans subject to a perpetual synthetic machine of sapience. Does this man ever read poetry? How about poetry in service to some purported God or to the State? What is the song he's singing? I think I've heard it many times before.

In my cosmos, the grey goo of individual preconscious brains composes narrative from the asynchronous mess of bodily perception. It has to be asynchronous, because communication internal to the brain is simply too slow. The narrative is a simple form derived from perception to compose the claims we might make for agency. Here you go agency, I've set the table for you. Now choose! Time has no direction without narrative.

At survival speed, cognition - what Bratton aptly calls sapience - is far too slow. Our decisions - all of them as they relate to survival, are made emotionally and in a flash and pre-consciously. No agency required. No agency wanted. Agency can only be in the way. Fight or flight, if you will. Bratton seems to believe that the grey goo of the brain is still the seat of sapience, even as he might grope toward a spread mind

A spread mind is an implicated mind, and at that scale there is no logic. There is only fractal chaos which moves backward as well as forward. Our past has already been conditioned by our future, and our chosen futures are as reliably a function of our extracted pasts. 

Past and future join, always, with a kiss. Entropy zero, forward and back. Sapience stands by for the credits, And what, you thought that agency could account for evolution? Entropy one, sapience zero buddy. You let God back in through the back door.

Collective agency - composed mostly of spoken and then written words, however much "technology" may extend those - can only build out on the basis of immediate steadiness. Surely Trump and simultaneous COVID-19 give the lie to any requirement that our collective narratives must be embedded in any kind of truth. Agency will simply never be equal to emergency. Except, perhaps, at the point of a figurative gun.

Agency has always been an illusion, built on pride from recognition. I did that, and now we must do this. That is, of course, how we have always envisioned and imagined God. A totalitarian God, for sure.

God never did die, but we did outgrow Him. Bratton would have us stuck on the stage where artificial Gods play. Authors, poets and now even scientists craving recognition because they know that they are right and good and true. And some of that knowledge will indeed transform how we live in relation to all that is about us. As Bratton points out, we didn't create the microbes, but we can't exactly live them down now that we know that they exist.

"While anxiety about technology is expressed in accounts of its pernicious effects, that unease is sometimes rooted in what technology uncovers that was always there all along. Microscopes did not conjure microbes into being, but once we knew they were there, we could never see surfaces the same way again.

Indeed technology has also uncovered the ugliness of the human heart; capitalism unleashed by any other name. Bratton catalogs that as well:

"The technologies of a planetary society are ongoing processes over which we have agency. In its current commercial form, the primary purpose of planetary-scale computation is to measure and model individual people in order to predict their next impulse. But a more aspirational goal would be to contribute to the comprehension, composition and enforcement of a shared future that is more rich, diverse and viable. (emphasis mine)

He purports to be decentering humans in a Copernican move - moving earth away from Eurocentrism toward a planetary consciousness. But very clearly, in the end, he has recentered man as designer. 

We didn't create our planet either, no matter the overlays that we might claim in and for our cleverness. The stack that we know that we inhabit is not the true stack. The designs that we admire now go quickly out of date. Individual man and individual planet depend on a basic truth in order to survive. Individuals count for nothing in the great scheme of things. Bad choice of words that. In the great being, how about.

So, what then, we must take them - all of our brave and new discoveries - in to our realm where accident has been defeated by agency? That a sort of hubris which I, for one, simply can't abide. If he can read what he himself has written, Bratton would not abide it either.

"[Terraforming is] the name of the project before us as we contemplate how to preserve, curate and extend complex life." The horror, the horror!

Complex life extends itself. Always has and always will. What you contemplate is termination, Benjamin. On purpose, no less. 

I only hope that your sense of irony remains intact.


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