An Evening with Timothy Morton (and me) @ STRP

Op 30 januari 2020 had ik de eer om te spreken bij STRP, ‘in het voorprogramma van’ Timothy Morton zoals ik dat maar noem. Een fantastische avond, als een achtbaan voor de geest en voor het gevoel, want Morton blijkt iemand te zijn die een positieve vibe uitstraalt zoals ik dat nog niet eerder heb ervaren. Hieronder plaats ik alsnog de tekst die ik die avond uitsprak.

PS: here you can read the essay that Morton presented the following day at de Dépendance in Rotterdam, and which was published by Eurozine.

Photo: Boudewijn Bollmann

Tonight we are here under the heading of the post-anthropocene, which I want to make a bit more tangible by talking about fun, about the future, and about friction. The three f’s. Apparently, I found out, next to Friday’s For Future – the climate school strike movement – there is also something called Fuck For Forest. For me however Fun, Future, Friction.

But first let me try to explain why I think I’m here. My topic of interest is the philosophy and ethics of technology and data, while I was born and bred in literary studies, just like Timothy Morton, if I’m correct. I try to delve up and question the presuppositions and convictions in the worldview that underlies the belief in the good of data. These presuppositions are not usually discussed themselves, but bring along a whole set of ethical norms and values that define how is thought and talked about data, by policy makers, the public, and techies themselves.

This might seem somewhat different from what is at stake here tonight, but I’m convinced the two are thoroughly connected (technology and ecology). Not just because technology is what is causing a great many problems with global warming, which is obvious. Nor because the nature-tech divide seems obsolete already for a long time now. The interconnectedness is also there on a formal, more abstract level. Let me explain.

One of the insightful ways of understanding data technology for me, was to see how they are hyperobjects, after the concept of Timothy Morton: data, for example, is something that we talk about all the time, without even knowing what it is we’re talking about. That’s because data seem to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time, always already there and yet something of the future. Something so big no one has an overview or even knows what it contains, while also seeming ephemeral, light, unoriginal. We don’t even have to talk about it as big data – which by the way is an obscuring term used to blind us and thus sell us something. The notion of a hyperobject is much more illuminating, this blob that’s stretched out globally, unrepresentable while inescapable, without beginning or end in time or space. 

This may sound fatalistic but it’s not. Once we recognize the hyperobject for what it is, there is something we can do about it (and I will get back to what that is). This brings me to the second parallel between ecology and data technology. Both are also ethical crises that have no easy way out. They are crises of practice, of narrative. Thus, the two are connected in their demand for different stories, words, imaginations. 

It’s always a tricky question, what to do? I feel inspired by the notion in Morton’s work of having to develop such other ways of telling, thinking, being, even. It may be hard to do so, changing our ways of living is never easy. But that is where the fun comes in, the pleasure that is missing so dearly from visions about what to do, faced with ecological crisis and technological doom. 

In Being Ecological Timothy Morton writes: ‘ecological politics is about expanding, modifying, and developing new forms of pleasure, not restraining the meager pleasures we already experience because we are only thinking in ways that our current modes of doing things allows. What would pleasure look like beyond the oil economy?’ 

I take that as a cue to think about other modes of doing things more generally. And, as you will have guessed, I’d want to make this even more unorthodox and loosen the utilitarian association, according to which we are put under the guidance of pain and pleasure and argue for fun. Because what’s the sense in saving a future that has no fun?

There, we come to the second f, the future. There’s a lot of apocalyptic, scary, painful stories going round about it, perhaps also tonight. And on the other side, there are promises of a future that is supposedly beautiful but to me again rather scary – the future of the singularity, the homo deus, immortal being that has shed its body, doing whatever it does – I mean, what would it actually do? – with the efficiency of an algorithm, that knows no pain, only pleasures, and surely no fun.

Even with futurologists, the image of the future to come usually remains opaque and unclear. When it comes to homo deus, I can’t help but think about Houellebecq’s depiction in The possibility of an island, where humanoid clones live in lonely refuges scattered across the remainders of the earth, tending to their algorithms in a depressed state of mind. No fun there. Or I see this image from Clarice Lispector’s The passion according to G.H. (1964), in which the protagonist contemplates deep time and cockroaches:

‘What I had always found repulsive in roaches is that they were obsolete yet still here. Knowing that they were already on the Earth, and the same as they are today, even before the first dinosaurs appeared, knowing the first man already found them proliferated and crawling alive, knowing that they had witnessed the formation of the great deposits of oil and coal in the world, and there they were during the great advance and then during the great retreat of the glaciers – the peaceful resistance. . . .’ 

You can just see the roaches replicating in exactly the same way, three hundred and fifty millions years. That’s usually not what the singularitarians have in mind. It does feel a bit post-anthropocenish to me.

Talking about the post-anthropocene. The strange thing is that ‘post’ usually is a term used to describe a present state. A present state that takes place after something that has become part of the past. For example, postmodernism is the present after modernism, post-war describes the present or even past period after a past war. Post-anthropocene, then: does it describe our present, in which we have left the anthropocene behind, or does it direct our gaze towards a far future, beyond the present of an anthropocene in which we live now? And if it points towards the future, which I kind of feel like it does, doesn’t it jump over the problems of our time too easily? Doesn’t it give up on the creatures, human and non-human living through the anthropocene, me and you and everyone we know, waving away their suffering as if it counts for nothing?

Let me make a statement that is so obvious that it might seem controversial: The future does not exist. It seems obvious enough – I mean, time doesn’t even exist, right? – however, the future is more often than not presented as some pre-ordained destiny waiting to be fulfilled by us. In politics as well as for the CEOs of the world, and especially tech-CEOs, I can assure you, the future often has a very distinct shape. 

This is a future like a reservoir that lies in the distance, waiting, like a hollowed-out form ready to be filled up, as Simone de Beauvoir puts it. While the future, as she also states, is perpetually open. Otherwise, nothing would ever happen.

This idea of an open future, says Timothy Morton in his Dark Ecology, has become taboo. He writes, ‘If we want thought different from the present – if we want to change the present – then thought must be aware of this kind of future. It is not a future into which we can progress. This future is unthinkable. Yet here we are, thinking it.’ 

I take this to mean that the future, to put it blandly, is what we make of it. This also means that to talk about the future, we should really direct our attention to the here and now. It is in the here and now that we need to develop these practices of pleasure or fun – because they will be the practices that actually shape the future.

So, one of the problems with the technology and ecology and ethics conundrums, is this idea that the future more or less exists already, it only has to become a physical reality. Of course, when the future is presented as inevitable you can be sure that for someone it is an end that will justify the means. If the future will bring full automation, there’s no need to worry about precarious or violent working conditions in the here and now. If in the future humans will evolve into some god-like species (but only the lucky – or not so lucky – ones), then there’s no use in protecting the well-being of the silly apes that we are now. And if humans, or any other species for that matter, will go extinct altogether, why bother? The one will be replaced by another and in the end the world will keep on turning. People, panda’s, and polar bears are just placeholders, that function in the service of a big idea: the future.

Here another concept of Timothy Morton’s is useful: that of subscendence. Instead of following the truism that ‘the whole is greater than its parts’, he says, the whole should be considered less than the sum of its parts. This feels counter-intuitive. He can maybe expand on it himself when necessary, but let’s make it practical all at once: subscendence would mean, for example, recognizing that the whole of data capturing, is far less than the bits and pieces that make it up. And once you see that the whole – such as what is called ‘big data’ – subscends the parts, is smaller than its parts, it is possible to see alternatives. In fact, the marketing concept that is big data, wants you to refrain from talking about the bits and pieces and the datum in the singular, to stop you from trying to find out about your own data, about how data is born and bred, because then the folly of big data would be exposed and alternatives would become thinkable.

Anyway, back to the future. The future, we could say, subscends the road towards it, which starts in the present. The future is smaller than the sum of its parts, which start in the present. The future is a placeholder for very poor ideas, actually. They will break down once you recognize that the future is very small to begin with.

And this is where the third f comes in, and where I will close: friction. Friction is a notion that I use in my book on data ethics. Friction is for example what makes a fire with sticks and stones. Friction is what makes a wheel turn on the road and move forward and the absence of friction is why we slide away on a frozen surface. And friction is what is being designed away in digital applications and data technology: friction free design is the ultimate goal of big tech, the opposite of subscendence. But frictionlessness is also a state in which nothing new can develop, as De Beauvoir again reminds us. It is the closing off of a future where things can actually happen. That makes friction into a strategy of opposition. An ethics, even. One for the here and now.

Friction starts with refusing to do what you’re told. And have fun with it. And this is where the idiot comes in, as a conceptual persona to serve us as an example. The idiot is the one who creates friction. Instead of going along with the automation of everything, the idiot de-automates. Instead of an automaton, she’s a de-automaton. She tells us about the power of refusal, of upside-down perspectives, of the connectedness that resides in the experience of friction (you need two to tango, right). She’s unpredictable, artistic, romantic, postmodern, deconstructive. She jumps into the unknown, the vast space beneath her, that will only gain a form at the moment her feet touch the ground.

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