The Living Ocean: General Intellect, AI, and Information

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Reading Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris after so many years has been a pleasant surprise. I came across this passage:

After all, on that planet anything is possible. Far-fetched descriptions of configurations formed by the plasma are in all likelihood true, though usually unconfirmable, since the ocean rarely repeats its evolutions. Those observing them for the first time are staggered above all by their outlandishness and their vast scope. If they’d taken place on a small scale, in some swamp, they’d probably be written off as a freak of nature, a manifestation of randomness and the blind play of forces. The fact that geniuses and mediocre minds are equally at a loss when faced with the inexhaustible variety of forms of Solaris is an additional hindrance in dealing with the marvels of the living ocean.1

Yesterday I happened on a passage from Berardi who was deeply influenced by both Marixst, Baudrillardian, and Guattarian notions of General Intellect:

“The general intellect takes the form of an ocean, an infinite sprawl of depersonalized fragments of bio-time: capital picks up and recombines the digitalized fragments of work-time.

…from e-flux journal interview Running Along the Disaster: A Conversation with Franco “Bifo” Berardi 

My obvious astonishment was this reduction by both authors of an almost poetic display of metaphor which tries to grasp an unknown and even unknowable material system that is both real and yet cannot be reduced to scientific conceptuality or description, but is rather equated in analogous terms by the use of the metaphor ‘ocean’. Both thinkers, one a polymathic encyclopedist, a child prodigy who read the encyclopedia Britannica end to end as a child and had most of it memorized. The other, Franco “Bifo” Berardi as member of the Autonomy movement of Italy who became a friend of Felix Guattari, and would integrate much of the latter’s a-signifying semiotics or graph based non-representationalism into his own philosophical projects.

Lem is dealing with a singular life form, a living ocean of mind and intellect that humans discovered in their search for alien life. Scientists sent to study this planet have up to the point of the time Lem write’s about in the novel written over 600 books on the strange and bewildering intelligent ocean, none of which has yet succeeded to verify scientifically through empirical methods of scientific investigation just what this thing is and how it thinks, works, etc.(i.e., it is a mystery whose unknown mechanisms have yet to be identified or interpreted by scientific methods). Yet, the living ocean of energy and intelligence has produced anomalies that have both physical and mental affects upon the current scientists themselves which have no precedent in scientific literature so have left the three scientists who currently inhabit the laboratory situated just above this sentient ocean devastated by its impact. (If you’ve not read the novel I don’t want to say anything further on this score: go read it!)

Of course Lem would satirically analyze this human endeavor to know things as itself a sort of misguided pursuit:

For years and years there were furious discussions about what was actually happening within an extensor, millions of which litter the vastnesses of the living ocean. It was thought they were some sort of organs of the monster, in which it metabolizes matter or which contain processes of breathing, the transfer of nutrition, and other things now known only to dusty library shelves. Every hypothesis was eventually disproved by a thousand painstaking and often perilous experiments. … Naturally, the simplest conception was that this was no more and no less than a “mathematical machine” of the living ocean, a model created on its own scale for calculations it needed for some unknown purpose; but this idea, the Fermont Hypothesis, is no longer credited. It was tempting, to be sure; but the claim that these titanic eruptions, every tiny particle of which was constantly subject to the complicating formulas of the overall analysis, were being used by the living ocean to examine questions of matter, space, existence—this notion proved untenable. Too many phenomena were to be found in the giant’s innards that could not be reconciled with such a simple (some said childishly naive) depiction.

This notion of mathematical modeling, of computerizing math to resolve complex systems that could no longer through description or observation reduce and simplify to abstraction the data in question is at the heart of many of Lem’s novels. Sensory overload, complexity, the descriptions of science breaking down at the edge between reality/appearance, phenomenon/noumenon, etc. He’ll even imply that the models based on years of research into this ocean’s complexity would lead through human thought itself from Greek through Baroque:

There was no lack of attempts to come up with an intelligible model of a symmetriad, a visualization of it. One popular explanation was offered by Averian, who presented the matter as follows. Imagine an ancient terrestrial building from Babylonian times. Let it be built out of a living, responsive, evolving substance. Its design proceeds fluidly through a series of phases, taking on, as we watch, the forms of Greek and Roman architecture. Then the columns begin to grow narrow as stalks, the ceiling loses its weight; it rises, sharpens, the arches turn into steep parabolas and eventually fold and soar. The Gothic that has appeared in this way begins to mature and age; it dissolves into late forms, its former precipitous severity replaced with eruptions of orgiastic exuberance. Before our eyes Baroque excess proliferates; and if we continue this sequence—all the time regarding our changing formation as if it were the successive stages of a living being—we’ll finally arrive at the architecture of the space center era, at the same time perhaps getting closer to understanding the nature of the symmetriad.

On the cusp of the internet and cyberspace Lem limns the early cybernetic era in the outlines of a living material ocean that is both data and intelligence. As he would say “a human being is capable of taking in very few things at one time; we see only what is happening in front of us, here and now. Visualizing a simultaneous multiplicity of processes, however they may be interconnected, however they may complement one another, is beyond us. We experience this even with relatively simple phenomena. The fate of a single person can mean many things, the fate of several hundred is hard to encompass; but the history of thousands, millions, means essentially nothing at all. A symmetriad is millions, no, billions, to the nth power; it is unimaginability itself.” (KL 1953)

What interests me is the use of the metaphor of ‘ocean’ itself as both material substrate and living thing as product of General Intellect, between Lem and Berardi notions that situate a distributed intelligence or General Intellect as both environmental exteriority or unknown horizon of thought, as well as it’s connection to a form of collective human subjectivation – or, some might say, hallucination: expression of complex processes or algorithms of an ‘energetic unconscious’ (Land) or ‘productive unconscious’ (Deleuze/Guattari). From a previous post Berardi told us of his vision of where technocapitalism was leading us in its use of the new convergent technologies of NBIC (nano-bio-info-communication technologies):

“I think that the next game will be about neuro-plasticity. Mapping the activity of the brain is going to be the main task of science in the next decades, while wiring the activity of the collective brain will be the main task of technology. The new alternative will emerge at this level, between the ultimate automation of the collective brain and the conscious self-organization of the general intellect.” (KL 2570)

He also foresees one of two paths forward: either a techno-scientific totalitarianism, an “ultimate neuro-totalitarianism, or a new form of trans-human Humanism”.

Will the general intellect be subjugated by the automatic machine, connecting individual operational brains deprived of any freedom and singularity? Or will the conscious conjunction of sensible and sensitive singularities be able to self-organize, and find pathways of sympathy, sharing and collaboration? Will the general intellect be permanently codified by the matrix and turned into a networked swarm, or will the general intellect be able to re-conjoin with its social body, and create the conditions for autonomy and independence from the matrix?  (KL 2015)

The point here is the difference between the millions of info-workers, the cognitariat, being bound through normative, cultural, and economics to adapt to a system of governance that captures their desires and intellect in a narrowly controlled social machine that enables further enforcement of the Oligarchic regimes of the planetary system of Capital; or, will humans resist such investment of their time, work, and value in such a system of enslavement? Berardi, Negri, Hardt and others who follow the Spinozoist-Materialist line of thinking have varying answers to this dilemma, some utopian some not. Yet, all agree that this outcome is not yet locked in and it is up to the knowledge-workers to decided their path forward else become so entrenched within the mechanisms of global governance that it may become too late to disengage and unplug themselves from a system that will eventually take over and enslave their very potencies while at the same time advancing through accelerated mechanisms of algorithmic culture to the point that what many term AI or Artificial Intelligence will arise out of the General Intellect.

What Lem and Berardi also imply is that this AI need not be human, nor conscious in our sense, that in fact it may operate in ways we as humans will be incapable of even knowing, much less understanding when it becomes independent of our control mechanisms. The point here is we may not even grasp that the AI is operative or intelligent when in indeed it actually arises within our machinic systems. We already see what is termed weak AI operative in the markets that have unleased deadly consequences in the Chinese markets recently to the use of advance AI Hedge Fund algorithms for speed-trading, etc. I’ve spoken of this before.

I think this is where we begin to see the need to return to such philosophers as Spinoza to truly understand the form of materialism his thought was enabling, and how different it is compared to the dialectical materialism offered by Hegel and his progeny. The difference between Transcendence and Immanence is night and day. Spinoza began the materialism of immanence, while Hegel that of Transcendence. Of course many others informed this thought… Kant to Hegel, Marx to post-Marxist thought. And the opposing camp: Spinoza – Schopenhauer – Nietzsche – Bataille – Deleuze/Guattari, etc. etc.

One can see how capitalism has materialized thought in actual objects over the past two hundred years that parallel the mental fabrications of culture so that both systems of materialism seem to take one or the other side of a Mobius strip in diagnosing and investigating this movement in historical terms. AI is not some impractical utopian longing, but is rather a very material and real process that has a long pedigree of material thought behind it. What form will it take? In my own opinion the science that is trying to base it on human consciousness is both erroneous and misguided, rather what will eventually emerge will be in the tradition of Spinoza a blind and unconscious productivity that will be both impersonal and immanent, inhuman. As Deleuze and Guattari will affirm in A Thousand Plateaus: “Transcendence: a specifically European disease (p. 18).”

If Deleuze and Guattari are indeed vitalists, they are vitalists of the inorganic – a dark vitalism that appraises things in a much more interesting light than organic vitalisms have displayed in their religious modes. This is not a religious vitalism nor is it even human, it is the inhuman vitalism of the universe itself and its processes. But then again we were never human, either. What we term human is an overloaded cultural construction that was produced over thousands of years by various social relations that have all evolved to defend us from our natural and inhuman animalistic sensibility.

In our time we seem to be reversing this trend in our notions of the posthuman. We seem to be merging with our creations, our technologies, our processes of inhumanification in ways that even scientists and philosophers feel apprehensive about. When I think of Nick Land or R. Scott Bakker I see individuals who have pushed the envelope of immanent thought to its logical conclusion. Land seeks to accelerate this impersonal process, while Bakker seems that there is no alternative yet is still fearful of what this actually portends. The truth is that it portends what we’ve always been, nothing more. It’s as if our long journey through the agricultural complex of stable and cultural civilization is finally coming to and end and we like children in a beautiful fairy tale of Eden and Paradise have realized this truth yet have imagined it as a tale of horror and terror rather than as emancipation.

We speak of progress and change all the time, but when it stares us in the face we begin to renege on our actual investments and begin to quake in our shoes when the debt finally comes due. Humanity is neither an end game nor an end in itself, it was always a transitional creature just like all other systems of organic and inorganic life in the universe. Nothing lasts forever, not even the universe as reported recently. We seem to fear the inevitable rather than being able to embrace its power. We seek to escape change through embracing artificial prisons: and, truly, this is what capitalism is – an artificial resistance machine that seeks its own unique form of immortality, to deny reality and the inevitability of death; that seeks to harness every last niche of organic and inorganic energy to stave off this final metamorphosis. But is so doing capitalism has actually built a perpetual death machine, a void around which it circles in self-reflective nullity. What Slavoj Zizek portrays as the dialectics of subjectivation is actually the truth at the hear of capitalism itself: the truth of capitals perpetual motion machine of death circling in the Void of its own blind processes.

Rather it is Spinoza and his children in both naturalism and those counter-traditions to Kant and his gang that have all along pointed to the immanent truth that no one wants to see. We have this inherent need to lie to ourselves, hide from ourselves the truth that is reality. Zizek wants to put a tissue of the Real between us and reality, a lack or gap between us and it: a dualism of transcendence that is itself a full blown illusory fiction of a religious mind. Zizek’s defense of Christianity is telling. Zizek seeks redemption. He tells us it’s all about materialism when it is truly about its opposite: an immaterialism of the spiritual and Hegelian modes of Transcendence out of this world. Even his recent passive stance in regards to Greece underlies this religious vision rather than an actual materialist revolutionary desire toward emancipation in this world. What he offers instead is a notion after Agamben of the “Courage of hopelessness.” I’ve spoken of this betrayal of actual revolutionary thought. Zizek’s is a mode of contemplation not action as he has been portrayed. His notions of Act do not lead to action but rather inaction. But this is not the place to critique Zizek.

I’ve had to make some strange and recently hard turnabouts in my own thinking and project, realizing that pragmatics as presented in both Deleuze and Gauttari, Pierce and his progeny opened a path that did not need consciousness or intentionality to produce intelligence; neither did it need Kant’s turn to epistemology and the theatre of the mind of Intuitionalism, etc.. Frankly, there is a war of thought going on within the sciences and philosophy, one that is so subtle that it could almost be overlooked. One that encompasses two very different materialist cultures. I’ve barely scratched the surface of this… yet, the central motif is Immanence vs. Transcendence. On which side of the divide are you?

  1. Lem, Stanislaw (2014-11-22). Solaris (Kindle Locations 1796-1800). Pro Auctore Wojciech Zemek. Kindle Edition.
  2. Berardi, Franco “Bifo” (2015-02-03). Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (Futures) (Kindle Locations 2542-2545). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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