Unthought: Assemblage, Symbiosis, and the Migration of Cognitive Ecologies

…technical cognitions are designed specifically to keep human consciousness from being overwhelmed by massive informational streams so large, complex, and multifaceted that they could never be processed by human brains. These parallels are not accidental. Their emergence represents the exteriorization of cognitive abilities, once resident only in biological organisms, into the world, where they are rapidly transforming the ways in which human cultures interact with broader planetary ecologies. Indeed, biological and technical cognitions are now so deeply entwined that it is more accurate to say they interpenetrate one another.1 [my italics]

—N. Katherine Hayles: Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

Gilles Deleuze would make an interesting observation about our world and its prospects in Dialogues II, saying: “If there is a Kafkaesque world, it is certainly not that of the strange or the absurd, but a world in which the most extreme juridical formalization of utterances (questions and answers, objections, pleading, summing up, reasoned judgement, verdict) , coexists with the most intense machinic formalization, the machinization of states of things and bodies (ship-machine, hotel-machine, circus-machine, castle-machine, lawsuit-machine) . One and the same K-function, with its collective agents and bodily passions, Desire.” This interpenetration of the organic and technical in concert moving  into a vast cognitive assemblage in symbiosis has been an ongoing process for millennia. A process that for the most part went by without thought or recognition on the part of humans. We were so immersed in our biological cognitive ecologies that such thought went by the wayside. In some sense we were enframed within an environmental sphere in which the outside of thought was unable to penetrate beyond its membrane to see or become aware of such a processual assemblage in the making.

But what is an assemblage? Deleuze would define it: “It is a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures. Thus, the assemblage’s only unity is that of co-functioning: it is a symbiosis, a ‘sympathy’. It is never filiations which are important, but alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind.” (ibid., p. 69)

In her new latest work N. Katherine Hayles will speak of cognitive assemblages. As she will state it an assemblage “here should not be understood as merely an amorphous blob. Although open to chance events in some respects, interactions within cognitive assemblages are precisely structured by the sensors, perceptors, actuators, and cognitive processes of the interactors. Because these processes can, on both individual and collective levels, have emergent effects, I will use nonconscious cognition(s) to refer to them when the emphasis is on their abilities for fluid mutations and transformations.” (Hayles, p. 11-12) This notion of nonconscious cognition she defines as the preconscious cognitive capacity of brain or technical objects that “operates at a level of neuronal processing inaccessible to the modes of awareness but nevertheless performing functions essential to consciousness.” (Hayles, p. 10)

The moment you light up your mobile phone, press a app button, interact with a text message, talk to a loved one, seek a recipe on the web, etc. you are hooked into a global assemblage of organic and technical objects that mediate every aspect of your ongoing life. This process forms a symbiotic relationship that for most of us is so naturalized now that it goes without saying. Twenty years ago is was so new it was both a novelty and almost part of the folk mythology of our cartoon age of Dick Tracy and other such miracles of futuristic science. Now it is a mainstay and social necessity which keeps us informed, reminded, and connected. We all rely on these extrinsic processes in the same way we once relied on our brain to carry on all those difficult processes that kept us safely hooked to our external environment for survival and propagation.

Merlin Donald in his Origins of the Modern Mind hypothesized that the modern human mind evolved from the primate mind through a series of major adaptations, each of which led to the emergence of a new representational system. Each successive new representational system has remained intact within our current mental architecture,  that the modern mind is a mosaic structure of cognitive vestiges from earlier stages of human emergence.4

As he will emphasize humans did not simply evolve a larger brain, an expanded memory, a lexicon, or a special speech apparatus; we evolved new systems for representing reality. During this process, our representational apparatus somehow perceived the utility of symbols and invented them from whole cloth; no symbolic environment preceded them. (Donald, p. 3) For Donald the first transition was to a `mimetic” culture: the era of Homo erectus in which mankind absorbed and refashioned events to create rituals, crafts, rhythms, dance, and other prelinguistic traditions. This was followed by the evolution to mythic cultures: the result of the acquisition of speech and the invention of symbols. The third transition carried oral speech to reading, writing, and an extended external memory- store seen today in computer technology.

We carry remnants and vestiges of these previous stages in our brain, and yet with each transition the very make up of our brain and our external adaptations produced changes that are irreversible. That very recent changes in the organization of the human mind are just as fundamental as those that took place in earlier evolutionary transitions, yet they are mediated by new memory technology, rather than by genetically encoded changes in the brain. The effects of such technological changes are similar in kind to earlier biological changes, inasmuch as they can produce alterations to the architecture of human memory. The modern mind is thus a hybrid structure containing vestiges of earlier stages of human emergence, as well as new symbolic devices that have radically altered its organization. The structural relationship between individual human minds and external memory technology continues to change. (Donald, p. 4)

As we’ve off-loaded memory, externalized many of the brains thought processes into technical systems, and allowed our own cognitive powers to dissipate and go into abeyance we’ve become more and more dependent on these technical assemblages we interface with on a daily basis to think for us. The price we as humans are paying has yet to be appraised. Yet, it is this symbiotic relation to these external devices that is reorganizing both our mental and social landscapes beyond recognition. For all intents and purposes we are no longer natural beings, we’ve become fully artificial creatures in a vast series of technical assemblages. Do these systems serve us, or we them? Is there a difference? If as Hayles suggests these nonconscious systems think without awareness of thinking what does that entail? If we are modeling thinking machines on the very processes of the cognitive capacities of the brain’s functions where will this lead?

If one thinks of it as a slow process of dis-connection from our ground – from the planetary environment within which we have emerged – then these various stages in the evolution of mind across time and their respective representational systems that have produced gaps, cracks, and tears in the reality within which we’ve all been emebedded, and that have reorganized the brain and our views of reality as the outgrowth of such accumulated efforts then what is next on the horizon? This symbiosis between mind and technics, the grafting and externalization of memory, thought, and capacity into the very external systems of intelligence modeled on human mental functions is producing something new and as yet not fully understood.

If as Hayles suggests cognition is a process: this implies that cognition is not an attribute, such as intelligence is sometimes considered to be, but rather a dynamic unfolding within an environment in which its activity makes a difference. (Hayles, p. 25) And, if as my friend R. Scott Bakker has iterated in every varying examples consciousness is an illusion, a system of error in which the brain filters out most of the information about reality, and leaves us with a realm of symbolic tools of mathematics and language that are at best ad hoc and based on neglect and lack in which we try to fill in the blanks with fictions and fantasies. Then what is the underlying power of the brain’s unthought in Hayles sense?

One of those strange fantasies of a philosophical nature that has haunted me is Nick Land’s notion of capitalism as intelligent: “There’s only really been one question, to be honest, that has guided everything I’ve been interested in for the last twenty years, which is: the teleological identity of capitalism and artificial intelligence.” (see my article) As we know teleological arguments (or arguments from design)  begin with a specialized catalogue of properties and end with a conclusion concerning the existence of a designer with the intellectual properties (knowledge, purpose, understanding, foresight, wisdom, intention) necessary to design the things exhibiting the special properties in question. In broad outline, then, teleological arguments focus upon finding and identifying various traces of the operation of a mind in nature’s temporal and physical structures, behaviors and paths.

If you’ve been following me so far then this process of externalizing the mind’s capacities into technical systems is not new but a very old idea in which humans have delved ever since the first automatons in Greece were assembled. Our fascination with copies of ourselves in machinic systems that mimic our behavior and our thoughts has been a part of the whole gamut of engineering feats from the early Greeks onwards. Why this fascination to build a perfect image of ourselves in a technical artifact? What has drawn us to invent such a world in which such technical beings may in coming times surpass us and become the higher forms of planet earth? Were we already in our core machinic beings? Is this slow externalization of the organic functions into inorganic forms a teleological process? Are we just fulfilling some already well thought out pre-existing plan, strategy? This notion obviously goes against the grain of all materialist thought in which such designs and designers are mere shadows of Platonic other worlds to be left in the dust bin of strange ideas that were in error. But were they? Why have we continued to seek out and invent external forms of our minds and bodies in technical systems? What drives us to do this? Land would surmise the outcome:

It might still be a few decades before artificial intelligences surpass the horizon of biological ones, but it is utterly superstitious to imagine that the human dominion of terrestrial culture is still marked out in centuries, let alone in some metaphysical perpetuity. The high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’! where human culture will be dissolved(293).5

This notion that cognition is migrating out of the organic (human) and into a more permanent technical artifact of machinic phylum is for many a horror show in the making. But what if it is happening? What if this is not a philosophical fantasy but something happening even as we speak? What then? How do we live with such knowledge? How act? Continue to blindly believe its just a fantasy, that it could never happen to humanity? That we will continue as the supreme species, become more intelligent, wiser, and evolve into a more refined and equitable society in which the non-human actants in our midst are subservient to our will? Or, is this just a pipe dream of wishful thinking? Can we accept the possibility that our species like all organic species has a limited time on earth, that inevitably like ninety percent of all species that has died out before us we too will go unwillingly into that cold night? Are we giving birth to our replacement, our machinic children?

Of course many will point out how kludgy our efforts in this direction are so far, that it would be impossible for machines to ever think like humans, much less surpass our creativity and inventive abilities. But is this true? We’ve already seen the projections of machinic systems over the next thirty years replacing both menial and knowledge worker jobs across various disciplines. What happens to the humans replaced by hardware/software? What will they do? What place will they have in such a world? What dignity and self-worth will remain for a workerless society of humans with nothing to do? A new excluded world of workers and non-workers? A world at war with the machinic world such as in the Artilect Wars.6

Is this all silly thinking? One of the characters in R. Scott Bakker’s novel Neuropath thinks out loud to himself after discovering that we are our brains, and that most of what we think of as Self and World is illusion; and, not only illusion, but that what little we know of ourselves and the world is a limited fantasy gifted to us by a brain that limits us to a blind world of repetition and neglect:

Part of him understood the monstrous implications of what Neil was saying, but it seemed little more than an amusing abstraction, like boys with sticks playing guns. The greater part of him wondered, even revered. What would it be like to walk without self or conscience, with plans indistinguishable from compulsions, one more accident in the mindless wreck that was the world? What would it be like to act, not as something as puny or wretched as a person, but as a selfless vehicle, a conduit for everything that came before?(327-328).7

Even N. Katherine Hayles a humanist and advocate for the humanities in a time when such a world is falling away into abeyance tells us that “biological organisms evolved consciousness to make this kind of quantum leap from individual instances to high-level abstractions; core and higher consciousness in turn ultimately enabled humans to build sophisticated communication networks and informational structures such as the web. In large-scale historical perspective, automated cognizers are one result of evolved human consciousness. It is likely, however, that the evolutionary development of technical cognizers will take a different path from that of Homo sapiens. Their trajectory will not run through consciousness but rather through more intensive and pervasive interconnections with other nonconscious cognizers. In a sense, they do not require consciousness for their operations, because they are already in recursive loops with human consciousness. Just as from our point of view they are part of our extended cognitive systems (Clark 2008), so we may, in a moment of Dawkins-like fancy, suppose that if technical systems had selves (which they do not), they might see humans are part of their extended cognitive systems. In any case, it is now apparent that humans and technical systems are engaged in complex symbiotic relationships, in which each symbiont brings characteristic advantages and limitations to the relationship. The more such symbiosis advances, the more difficult it will be for either symbiont to flourish without the other.” (Hayles, pp. 215-216)

Are we prepared for such an eventuality?


  1. Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (p. 11). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Gilles Deleuze (Author), Claire Parnet (Author), Hugh Tomlinson (Translator), Barbara Habberjam (Translator). Dialogues II.  Columbia University Press; revised edition edition (April 24, 2007)
  3. DeLanda, Manuel. Assemblage Theory.  EUP; 1 edition (August 30, 2016)
  4. Donald, Merlin. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (March 15, 1993)
  5. Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007. Urbanomic/Sequence Press (July 1, 2013)
  6. Von Garis, Hugo. The Artilect War: Cosmists Vs. Terrans: A Bitter Controversy Concerning Whether Humanity Should Build Godlike Massively Intelligent. Etc Pubns (February 28, 2005)
  7. Bakker, R. Scott. (2010-04-01). Neuropath (Macmillan. Kindle Edition.)