Based on my presentation given to the MICA First Year Forum
This is a diagram of a network. The dots at the edge are nodes. These are end points, and starting points. Information enters through a node and information is received by a node. Connected together by channels of communication, these nodes form a network. Protocol, allows nodes to communicate with each other in a standardized way.
This is important to consider because networks, particularly in combination with the economic protocol they facilitate, represent important power dynamics, that regulate relationships, human and beyond.
In essay, I’ll outline how:
- Humans are intensely scrutinized by network platforms, which see us as nodes, producing information related to our ability to conduct transactions.
- Climate change and geoengineering efforts will shift this gaze so that it is distributed across both humans and the natural world.
- This shift will surface plants animals and ecosystems as agents capable of holding value and perhaps even legal personality, but in ways that are limited to a market framework.
I’ll begin this by thinking about Youtube. When watching a video, data is collected. Video preferences, demographic information, browsing history, and previous purchases are analyzed in order to algorithmically auction ad space. Through this process, actions are translated into profit for the platform.
This power relationship is not limited to Youtube. It is true anywhere one is surfaced as a node. While networks make the power relationships more diffuse, I believe, along with others, that the work done on platforms represents a form of labor. This makes me wonder: if my data is labor, can the same be true of a plant, or a cow, or a national park?
I’ll circle back around to this question later in the essay. For now, I want to note that this arrangement of surveillance capitalism was not inevitable, but the result of specific historic circumstances that came together.
These, circumstances are shifting dramatically with our warming planet. Climate change isn’t just bad for the environment, it’s also bad for markets and networks which depend on reliable access to commodities and power.
In order to maintain networks and their protocol, it is likely that we will see geoengineering efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. Such projects includes stratospheric aerosol injection — launching sulfide gasses into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight; or iron fertilization, which would entail the release of iron into the ocean to create algal blooms. However, geoengineering can also be understood as the creation of border walls, in response to the social conditions of climate change.
These undertaking would all require significant network power. A border wall requires surveillance, drone footage, finger print data-bases, facial recognition software, and so on. Similarly, iron fertilization would be accompanied by in depth modeling efforts, large data sets monitoring algal blooms, and vast carbon accounting data bases.
This is where we get to the focus of my research. As the value of services such as carbon sequestration increase, and as the demand for offsets grows, greater accuracy will be required. It will no longer be enough to asses the offset capabilities of large-scale projects, rather individual, plots, trees, organs, perhaps even individual cells will be identified, monitored and assessed. Carbon sequestration will all be measured with a high level of precision, to ensure maximum liquidity within the carbon marketplace.
This task perfectly matches the capacities of the protocol now running on our networks. Adapting to an alternative source of data, the protocol will begin to shift its framework. With a few small procedural changes, plants and animals can be become nodes participating in exchange. With a shifting incentives, the more than human world will become a focus of network mechanisms. Just like data that’s collected from youtube, data will be collected as plants photosynthesis, compiled to generate profit within carbon market places.
So the question you may be asking: will platforms be able to sell ads to these organisms?
Probably not — at least not in the way we understand ads now. However, advancements in the blockchain space are making it possible for non-human entities to participate in the market in other ways. On the blockchain, it is possible to achieve the autonomous exchange and ownership of value through the creation of a DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization. A DAO employs the legal framework of a corporation as a shell, while decisions are made by the execution of protocol. Rather than human decision makers, rules are hard coded, and executed depending on contextual circumstances. This enables novel organization structures. It also extends a framework for non-human participation in the market. An AI, plant, animal, or other could not only be represented by a DAO (since corporations have legal personality), but could also make trades, buy and save.
Check out the Terra0 white paper for a great example of this.
The result is a market refutation of an anthropocentric worldview that has predominated legal, cultural and economic structures. This comes at a crucial moment, with ecologies pushed to the limit by human activity. This opens the possibility for a reoriented world, where animals plants ecosystems and other non-human beings are viewed as having value and place within a planetary system of exchange.
However, it is unclear if this is a liberatory shift. The new order that is emerging has a liberal understanding of agency. At the same time, it associates the potential for labor, and market exchange as the defining criteria for personhood.
Merging the vital needs of organisms with a market protocol is likely necessary for earthly survival. However, if such an ontological shift happens within an extractive framework, it seems the results can be nothing but harmful. Conceived within an extractive model, there will inevitably be a loss in fidelity. If ability to be recognized as having the capacity for labor is a prerequisite to being recognized as a node, we have to consider who and what is surfaced, and what is lost. How will ecologies be simplified?
One thing that’s been on my mind is compatibility with protocol as an evolutionary selector. Only those that can be surfaced as nodes within a network will survive. Will only the organisms most compatible with geoengineering efforts, that is, making their bodies compatible with market protocol, be allowed to survive. Is this a way to understand the mass extinction the earth is now experiencing?
As the fidelity of ecologies are lowered, the earth’s surface will simultaneously be simplified by geoengineering efforts to maximize market efficiency.
The result is an earth that is transformed to resemble a computer model of itself: a low poly render of our small blue and green sphere.
Cybernetician Stafford once described the Irish Sea as the most perfect calculating device. What this tells me is that there are ways to unify the needs of organisms and market forces that don’t require domination. Is it possible to invite the protocols of the natural world into our networks, and into our economies? Perhaps, but achieving this requires looking outside the frameworks of platforms that dominate networks today.
First we should examine indigenous ontologies and how they may conceive of the more than human world. How Forests Think By Eduardo Kohn, is a great starting point in the investigation of non-human agency .
Another valuable source is Donna Haraway. I recommend The Companion Species Manifesto as an introduction to the layers of colonialism, and patriarchy that overlap when we think about the more than human world.
As we approach this plane of immanence, where computation and nature do not diverge, but emerge from the same source, we need to do our best to determine what economic models will guide these relationships. What kinds of protocol will we nurture?