Searching the Planetary in every grain of sand

Introduction to Digital Earth fellowship 2020–2021

Digital Earth
Jun 1, 2020 · 9 min read

by Lukáš Likavčan & Digital Earth

Maarten Vanden Eynde, Globe, 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Vent des Forets, Lorraine, France.

Some Estonian mythical stories describe a creature called Kratt, an artificial house assistant assembled from domestic clutter — a golem made of brooms, pots, and pans. The Estonian AI Task Force took this mythical creature’s name for their jurisdictional proposal, the Kratt laws, which would grant AI algorithms a legal personhood, allowing them to order groceries or services on your behalf, for example [1]. Odd at first, the Kratt laws are more than an unorthodox legal proposal: they fundamentally challenge long-held Western notions of technicity (a functional paradigm of a technology), rooted in modernity. Instead of juxtaposing the natural and the human — where the human employs the technical as a means of mastering the natural — the Kratt laws seem to be based on the assumption that technologies can have autonomous agencies.

What does and does not have agency, or how different entities relate to each other, these are questions of cosmology. The Kratt laws example hints at how, today, the question of technicity poses a challenge to our cosmological imagination. Machines are unwittingly drawing new cosmologies: for instance, the different models, graphs, studies, and satellite images harvested through the complex infrastructure that wraps the planet Earth offer us a very different worldview from the one where humans are sovereign masters of the planet. Instead, we see an image of ourselves as accidental triggers of complex processes far exceeding our control.

As we are confronted with a stage of a profound confusion in these times of planetary emergency, we intuitively feel a sense of urgency, yet we struggle to make it tangible.

As we are confronted with a stage of a profound confusion in these times of planetary emergency, we intuitively feel a sense of urgency, yet we struggle to make it tangible. We cannot identify the big picture of what the present is and what the future might be — it is no longer evident how we might formulate anything generic or common, anything trans-local or trans-historic. What is evident is that we must deploy some new navigational tools to evacuate ourselves from the deadlock of this cosmological confusion. As a contribution to this plot of the great escape from modernity, we thus ask: For which Earth do we create our intellectual, cultural, and artistic interventions?

The idea of the world as a whole associated with the old cosmopolitan regime — the regime of the Globe — has fallen apart; the cosmological, or even better the planetological, picture that would lay the groundwork for an alternative cosmopolitanism is yet to be fully articulated. Somewhere on the horizon there is an emerging figure of the Planetary, repopulating intellectual narratives around the world: from postcolonial and decolonial thinking, through media theory and Western philosophy to design thinking and environmental studies. The Planetary stands for an Earth taken as an impersonal (geochemical, geological and geophysical) process, not as an object, not as a scale, but as a dynamic reality of folding and unfolding complex adaptive systems at various levels (hydrological cycle of the planet, metabolisms of carbon or nitrogen, ecosystem food chains, etc.). This imagination of the planet appears right before our eyes as a complicated, precarious, and striated terrain. It does not allow for a smooth appropriation of vernacular cosmologies into one grand narrative of Western globalisation, itself only a provincial perspective. Instead, we need a framework of situatedness that puts every site on Earth on an equal footing: working towards cosmological multiplicity under a common frame of reference.

What we learn from anthropological studies of cosmograms is that they are not so much viewed as performed. They are danced, they are listened to.

Where then is the cosmological born today? Take the COVID-19 pandemic as an example: the sense that we belong to the same reality is generated by complex graphical interfaces, such as the homepage of Johns Hopkins University, probably the most visited website of the year. With climate emergency, the situation is similar — it is through visual interfaces of graphs and models that we are able to understand large-scale planetary metabolisms [2]. These days, the epicentre of cosmological creativity lies exactly in how we encode the world into technological infrastructures. However, technicity is never singular: we are surrounded by diverse technological contexts which operate according to different logics of what it means to be technical. The diversity of available technologies thus leads to cosmological diversity. The two are combined in the concept of cosmotechnics, through which we can see how technology is a precondition of cosmological thought [3].

Take for example the mechanisation of the universe in early European modernity: The idea of the mechanism is translated into non-technical domains, meaning that people suddenly see the universe itself working like a giant clock or an intricate engine. Today, we see how, for example, the principle of computation has become the general ontological background of reality. Opting in for always unpacking only one principle of cosmological wholeness quickly approaches the point of betraying the real.

The way to experience this cosmotechnical diversity is through the mediation of different cosmograms [4]. Consider cosmograms as diagrams of intrinsic logics of our universe. They diagram, for instance, the logic of relations between the domain of the human and non-human, or the divine and the profane [5]. Importantly, cosmograms do not come across as explicit discourses, rather they present implicit traces of different relations which might be repeatedly applied through different registers of reality. As an example, take the famous Bakongo cosmogram, which diagrams the crucial idea of constant change as the basic ontological principle; the trajectory of change mapped as it travels through different metaphysical domains [6]. However, instead of interpreting these cosmograms, we prefer to think about how cosmograms work, and what their function is [7].

The functional dimension of cosmograms lies in how they mediate our confrontation with the great exteriority of the Planetary: dynamics in our ecosystem are largely indifferent to our fate, but we can still navigate our fate by making sense of the structure and internal logics of the world we inhabit. This is also where the Earth comes to the center of the framework, shifting our focus towards a philosophical genre of comparative planetology. Here we can bring different versions of our planetary imagination to the plane of reference allowing for multiple perspectives: comparing our models simultaneously from the ontological, cosmological, geopolitical as well as geophysical point of view [8].

Bakongo Cosmogram, Lubricate Coil Engine — Decolonial Supplication, 2017, Tabita Rezaire. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, South Africa.

As diagrams, cosmograms are tools for thinking; they are gestures that give a certain traction to thought. Abstracting from the level of visuality, we can now imagine cosmograms that might uncover the whole range of planetary sensorium available to us — diagrams that are also sonic, performative, haptic and embodied. What we learn from anthropological studies of cosmograms is that they are not so much viewed as performed. They are danced, they are listened to. The culture or imagination these modalities bring about can be juxtaposed with the smooth cosmogram of the Globe, embodied, for example, in the ‘digital earth’ imaginary of Al Gore, which epitomises a peculiar historical anecdote of the Western planetary imagination. Western globalism is a form of cosmology, and it presents an aesthetic problem for us at Digital Earth fellowship.

From what point of view is it possible to draw new cosmograms?

From what point of view it is possible to draw new cosmograms? While the Planetary is juxtaposed with the Globe, it also bears relation to the concept of the “local”. The Planetary brings the possibility of articulating each situated perspective as capable of uncovering the whole richness and spectrum of metabolic relations; the Planetary is hidden in every grain of sand. If you stand at any place on the planet, you can just look around within your surroundings and — as a garden within the garden — you can unpack the complexity of the metabolic relations which are flowing through that particular place at that particular moment in time. From that observation, you can, in an artistic manner, trace those relations that far exceed any given site of observation. Look out of the window and see the plants or buildings around you: the dust particles that gently fall on them have probably come from materials that travelled hundreds or thousands of kilometers, some of them originating from the liquified past of the Earth in the form of burned fossil fuels. The bath of solar radiation they indulge in originates in the molten core of a star 150 million kilometers away. The device you read this text on is composed of rare earth materials from distant locations you may never have considered.

The device you read this text on is composed of rare earth materials from distant locations you may never have considered.

It’s from this situatedness that we can see how technologies are always designed according to a specific cosmology. As such, they can also question the assumptions that lie at the base of our existential experience. But more importantly, they ask: what is the destiny of a world built in such and such a manner [9]. Our take is to begin with the Planetary as the origin site, with cosmograms as our central devices, and with technicity reformulated as a cosmologically productive force, not an instrument of turning nature into a mere resource that can be unproblematically digested by the human economy [10]. To answer the question “For which Earth do we create?” we must first answer another one: “What technicities are cosmologically productive in the current moment?” Just as the Kratts emerged from the clutter, there are new potentialities emerging from the cosmological clutter we live in, waiting for their articulation.

References:

[1] Kaevats, Marten. 2017. “Estonia considers a ‘kratt law’ to legalise Artificial Intelligence (AI).” Estonia E-Residency Blog. 25 September. Accessed January 19, 2020. https://medium.com/e-residency-blog/estonia-starts-public-discussion-legalising-ai-166cb8e34596.

[2] Benjamin Bratton notes that “[i]nterfacial regimes […] are more than visual technologies; they are indeed cosmograms.” Bratton, Benjamin. 2015. The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 243.

[3] Hui, Yuk. 2016. The Question Concerning Technology in China. An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Falmouth: Urbanomic.

[4] Schneider, Birgit. 2016. “Burning worlds of cartography: a critical approach to climate cosmograms of the Anthropocene.” Geo: Geography and Environment 3 (2); Latour, Bruno. 2017. Facing Gaia. Cambridge: Polity.

[5] Tresch, John. 2005. “Cosmogram.” In Cosmograms, by Melik Ohanian and Jean-Christophe Royoux, 67–76. Berlin: Sternberg.

[6] Gundaker, Grey. 2011. “The Kongo Cosmogram in Historical Archaeology and the Moral Compass of Dave the Potter”. Historical Archaeology 45 (2), 176–183.

[7] As bystanders, coming outside of the given community, we can at best speculate about their functional dimension, while the meaning might remain for good reasons opaque to us. Their interpretation rightly belongs to the communities that these artifacts belong to.

[8] See Likavčan, Lukáš. 2019. Introduction to Comparative Planetology. Moscow: Strelka Press.

[9] Campagna, Federico. 2018. Technic and Magic. London: Bloomsbury, 5.

[10] Heidegger, Martin. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology. Manhattan, New York: Harper & Row, 10.

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Digital Earth Fellowship 2020–2021 Open Call is out! Are you an artist engaged with the growing presence of the digital and its impact? Then we invite you to imagine Digital Earths to come. Apply by the 17th of July.

About the authors

Lukáš Likavčan is a researcher and theorist, elaborating on philosophy of technology and political ecology. He is a lecturer at Center for Audiovisual Studies FAMU (Prague), a faculty member at Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (Moscow) and a member of display — association for research and collective practice (Prague). Likavčan is a co-editor of Czech anthology of contemporary philosophical realism Mysl v terénu. Filosofický realismus ve 21. století (Display / VVP AVU, 2018), and an author of Introduction to Comparative Planetology (Strelka Press, 2019).

Digital Earth is a think tank of artists and scholars who are interested in the growing presence of the digital and its impact on the planet. Our aim is to produce, through artistic practice, new ways of knowing the inextricable planetary conditions propelled and mediated by digital technologies.

Digital Earth

Digital Earth is a global research network of artists and…