Planetary Fluff: On e-flux‘s Supercommunity Day 29


I picked up e-flux’s elegantly produced Supercommunity online journal with considerable anticipation – the topic was ‘Planetary Computing (Is the Universe Actually a Gigantic Computer?)’.  This idea, of course, has been quite fashionable for a while in cosmology circles, and I briefly return to it below.  But I was particularly interested in what light we as artists, and arts writers, could shed on the conversation.

It started promisingly enough – the header ( wrote that 3-D modelling software basically simulates the laws of motion, so as to realistically model movement. I would add: fluid dynamics (to model explosions or water), light’s interaction with gas, solid, and liquid, 4-D complex numbers (to better model rotations), and fractals (to get that natural look of ‘nature’).

Allora & Calzadilla and Kader Attia had great contributions – poetically wandering around the brief. Attia considers the idea of repair, as in, fixing things that are broken or dealing with mistakes and failure. These are inherent in the process of making physical art.  In the digital realm, ‘Ctrl+Z’ is so powerful that mistakes rarely are visible, and leave little permanent trace.  Attia somehow linked repair to cosmology and mathematics – I don’t get it, but I like thinking about it.

Reading on, I came upon Adam Kleinman’s essay.  This essay evidenced extensive research and the broad erudition of its author, a respected curator associated with dOCUMENTA (13) and the Witte de With Center.  It also highlighted certain features of art writing that I find a noxious cocktail of viewpoints that are both painfully orthodox and right-on, and that don’t really offer much insight into the world, or art.

Random Associations

The essay starts with an anecdote about a DARPA project: a 1.8 gigapixel surveillance camera with 368 lenses. It then quickly makes an associative leap to another programme that funds solar-powered drones that can stay aloft for five years.  The connection is via an aside on the Greek myth of Argus, Juno, and the peacock’s feathers, and the section ends with an obligatory rhetorical question (presumably accompanied by theatrical hand-wringing)

‘How did such terrors come to pass?’

Backatcha…or…an Essay About Nothing

As I read the essay, I noted a remarkable feature – the number of times (three, by my count) Kleinman, in a rather self-conscious tone, brought up the e-flux brief:

‘Coming back to the concept of cosmology though…’

‘In the brief for this meditation, I was asked: Is the universe a gigantic computer?…’

‘If a universe is a supercomputer, then…’

Yet, for all that repetition, the portentous question remained unexplored.  Each one of these statements leads to a flight of fancy, and, in one case, simply somersaulted into three questions back at the reader.

‘Is the universe a gigantic computer? Instead, I would like to ask: Are supercomputers universal—in the sense of equality or universal justice—or are they simply ubiquitous?  Furthermore, do they have a cosmology? And lastly, what is their nature when we train them on our planet?’

WTF ?? how does one even constructively think about that? These are strings of words that are grammatically and syntactically correct but convey little, or no, sense.  I’m not sure they even read well as poetry.

Art Writing Shibboleths

The essay then goes on to give a potted account of how the Internet developed out of various U.S. Defence Department and corporate projects, and somehow jumps from that hackneyed topic to the following non sequitur:

‘And like the rise of the drones and the rise of the bots, the rise of secretive and proprietary inter- and intra-nets, which link both private and secure supercomputers, needs more discussion today.

‘If a universe is a supercomputer, then we should be able to zoom in and check whether differing galaxies and solar systems are contained within it. On a low level of magnification, we might eye the so-called internet and its “evil twin,” the darknet.’

Things continue in this vein, making the obligatory stops to hammer Facebook, high-frequency trading, and the section ends with an anodyne statement about how computers replace human and human labour.  If one substituted ‘technology’ for ‘computers’, this reflection on the relationship between machines and the labour of man could easily date back to the shutting of U.S. steel factories in the 1980s, Detroit’s car factories around the same time, extinction of market-makers today, maybe computer programmers tomorrow….neither novel nor insightful.

Finally, proving that if you trawl broadly enough, you will catch some decent fish, Kleinman relates (or rather, quotes copiously) an interesting story about the Soviet effort, in the 1960s, to network factories and government bureaux, with a view towards increasing efficiency and reducing personnel.  The Soviet experiment never got off the ground, but may have inspired American efforts to develop what would eventually become the Internet.  Kleinman doesn’t really explore the political implications of this – or what this anecdote had to do with the universe or art. All we got was another gnomic utterance:

‘Juno stripped of the state is simply the goddess of the family, or, more directly, the goddess of motherhood. As we continue to nurture more and more supercomputers, and possibly populate not only the earth, but the entire sky with them as well, we have to ask: Are we really going into this whole thing as responsible and mature adults?’

Simulation (or Simulacrum)?

But rather than continuing to pick apart that essay, I wanted to gloss the nominal topic of this e-flux module, since none of the contributors seemed to do so: the thought experiment that our universe may, in some sense, be a great simulation running on some rather advanced computer.

Nick Bostrom is the best-known advocate of this position.  His hypothesis, strictly speaking, one part of a group of three statements, all of which cannot be untrue (, is that there is a good chance that we (humans singly and collectively) exist as simulations within some sort of computer.  The creators of the simulation are ‘post-humans’, that is, entities that are our descendants, who, for some reason, want to simulate what the universe was like in the time of flesh-and-blood organic humans.

In this view, the universe is a simulation ‘running on some computational substrate’ (Ray Kurzweil quoted in Is Our Universe  A Fake? and ‘physical laws are sets of computational processes’ (ibid).  The philosophy, and physics, involve fall out of scope of this essay, but an immediately interesting question arises: how we might be able to tell if we are subjects in a simulation.  It might be possible to test the laws of physics to work out whether there are slight errors, inconsistencies, or unexplained phenomena that might be evidence that the world we live in is not quite ‘real’.  These traces may be left by the programmers unintentionally, or may be ‘back doors’ intentionally left in the programme, to be found by the inhabitants.

As an analogy consider a 3-D CGI simulation: if an advanced (say artificially intelligent or self-aware) character could somehow look behind a wall, at a so-called hidden-surface, and find that the programmer, to reduce rendering time, had chosen not to model or ray-trace light reaching the hidden surface (because the surface is invisible to the camera), he/she might interpret that as evidence of a simulated environment.

A readable article on this topic, that, given it is in The New Yorker, is as equally about Bostrom as it is about his philosophy, may be found in the November 23, 2015 issue. There are a number of researchers who take issue with Bostrom’s arguments, and indeed, the very idea that the mind is at all computable: see Sir Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind (1989) or Ken Wharton, in The Universe is Not a Computer ( ).

On Poetry

Judging by the trouble I have had in concisely summarising the Simulation Hypothesis, I do sympathise with the approach taken in the e-flux essay: essentially repeat the question, then talk about something else.  Whatever it is trying to say, I would, inelegantly, summarise it as

‘The military-industrial complex is building (lots of) spies in the sky that are watching over us (all the time). Something like this has happened before in the 1960s and led to the internet.  The Soviets might have done it first but it would have trashed the Worker’s Utopia. Oh dear, I’m not sure where all this technology will all lead.’ [more vigorous hand wringing]

Perhaps a certain type of art-writing is not to be judged on content, but rather, as poetry, on style.  A style of writing where one strings together fancy words, quickly jumps from topic to topic, throws in some truisms, garnish all the above with a splash of Greek mythology, and nod sagely in an auburn haze of profundity and critical-engagement.