Planetary Life 2
The supreme irony of our planetary age is that the nightmare of the first phase - the nuclear winter - is the exact opposite of the nightmare of the second phase - runaway heating.
And we have mostly forgotten the fears and rituals of the cold war: no more emergency sirens and drills, no hiding in the basement. Much of the infrastructure of fear has gone underground, reappearing as the surveillance state on occasion.
Every once in a while you’ll hear someone talk about Climate Change as if it were a war; in particular, that we must mobilize against it like we did during the Second World War (we, of course, being the United States, from where I am writing this letter); the lament being why are we not all in like we were in the fight against fascism.
I have news for you: we may need that metaphorical war against climate change (and we may get that yet, if it’s combined with a real war against China) but we already live in the world created by the war: the vast machinery of destruction, surveillance and extraction set into motion by the Second World War and multiplied during the Cold War has never receded - it’s only found new enemies.
Confusing that machinery for its primary (negative) outcome, i.e., nuclear winter then, climate change now, is mistaking the woods for the trees. In fact, many of the deep insights of the past seventy five years, such as Lovelock and Margulis’ Gaia Hypothesis, flow out of the same knowledge regime that threatens us with nuclear winter and climate collapse. In fact, the Gaia hypothesis as well as the recognition of anthropogenic climate change were based on data collected under the surveillance apparatus spawned by the Cold War military-industrial complex.
We need to understand that regime, as a vehicle for insight and a force for destruction, for Gaia and for collapse.
Another way to think about the situation: the sciences that saw the greatest advances in the post war years weren’t physics or mathematics, both of whom had their respective revolutions in the first half of the twentieth century, but biology and the information sciences (computer science, cognitive science etc) and correlated developments in what might be called nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, complex systems science etc. The thread that runs through all of them:
They are all ‘planetary sciences’ in the sense they deal with earthly phenomena we can experience with our senses.
They blur, if not erase, the distinction between science and technology. Studying the world and changing the world are part of the same package.
Literal and metaphorical uses of concepts such as ‘network,’ ‘system,’ etc.
How to grasp this system of knowledge? Because systems science has direct impact on our lives, it has received many treatments in what’s called ‘Science & Technology Studies,’ which isn’t surprising for modern science is a special system responsible for the production of knowledge. A good place to start is a couple of books by Paul Edwards, one on computing and cognitive science during the Cold War and the second on computer models of Climate Change. Edwards:
Of all the technologies built to fight the Cold War, digital computers have become its most ubiquitous, and perhaps its most important , legacy. Yet few have realized the degree to which computers created the technological possibility of Cold War and shaped its political atmosphere, and virtually no one has recognized how profoundly the Cold War shaped computer technology. Its politics became embedded in the machines- even, at times, in their technical design- while the machines helped make possible its politics. This book argues that we can make sense of the history of computers as tools only when we simultaneously grasp their history as metaphors in Cold War science, politics, and culture.
Not just the Cold War - computers are the hidden link between the nuclear winter and the climate summer. IPCC reports, with their synthesis of thousands of publications and the balancing of scientific, economic and political interests are the quintessential products of Cyborg Science.
Here Cyborg means many things: it means the specific machines we built to coordinate missile launches and model carbon emissions, and later, check the number of likes on a Facebook post. It means the abstract machines studied by Turing and his followers that probe the limits of finite, mechanizable calculation. It means the models of natural and artificial intelligence, theories that explain how the mind works and how cells reproduce. Cyborgs are models for both pointing 👉🏾 and pushing 🥊, both it and bit. The Cyborg is the avatar (Kalki?) of another old, mystical concept: ‘form,’ minus its Platonic associations of an ideal world separate from ours.
Form in the world, but not of it?