The talk I am preparing for next month’s science fiction workshop in Berlin (where I will be speaking together with Iain Hamilton Grant) (event listing here) is really an extended meditation (or consideration, if “meditation” is too pretentious a word) on the several passages from recent science fiction novels.
The first passage comes from Peter Watts’ First Contact novel Blindsight. It explains why the aliens from another solar system — who are immensely more intelligent and more technologically advanced than we are, but who seem not to be conscious in any sense we would recognize — have turned their attention to Earth, and why they judge us as a menace to them:
Imagine that you encounter a signal. It is structured, and dense with information. It meets all the criteria of an intelligent transmission. Evolution and experience offer a variety of paths to follow, branch-points in the flowcharts that handle such input. Sometimes these signals come from conspecifics who have useful information to share, whose lives you’ll defend according to the rules of kin selection. Sometimes they come from competitors or predators or other inimical entities that must be avoided or destroyed; in those cases, the information may prove of significant tactical value. Some signals may even arise from entities which, while not kin, can still serve as allies or symbionts in mutually beneficial pursuits. You can derive appropriate responses for any of these eventualities, and many others.
You decode the signals, and stumble:
I had a great time. I really enjoyed him. Even if he cost twice as much as any other hooker in the dome–
To fully appreciate Kesey’s Quartet–
They hate us for our freedom–
Pay attention, now–
There are no meaningful translations for these terms. They are needlessly recursive. They contain no usable intelligence, yet they are structured intelligently; there is no chance they could have arisen by chance.
The only explanation is that something has coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message; only after wasting time and effort does the deception becomes apparent. The signal functions to consume the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness. The signal is a viruss
Viruses do not arise from kin, symbionts, or other allies.
The signal is an attack.
And it’s coming from right about there.
The second passage comes from Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep. It describes the dominant intelligent lifeform of the Galaxy: superintelligent asteroids, each of which is, in effect, a silicon computer of immense processing power. These beings are described as being like Lucretian gods, calmly pursuing their own interests, and most of the time not concerned with what human beings and other sentient species do. Except there is one exception to their lack of interest in us:
‘The truth is there are billions of the fuckers. There are more … communities … like this around the solar system, in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper and the Oort, than there are people on Earth. And each of them contains more separate minds than, than—’
‘A Galactic Empire,’ said Lemieux.
‘Yes! Yes! Exactly!’ Avakian beamed.
‘How do you know this?’ Camila asked.
Avakian handwaved behind his shoulder.
‘The aliens told us, and told us where to look for their communications. Their EM emissions are very faint, but they’re there all right, and the sources fill the sky like the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang.’
‘Sure it ain’t just part of that?’
‘Nah, it’s comms all right.’ Avakian sucked at his lower lip. ‘The point to bear in mind is that our cometary cloud’s outer shells intersect those of the Centauran system, and, well—’
He shrugged. ‘Around a lot of stars, yeah, quite possibly. Trafficking, communicating, maybe even travelling. They have conscious control over their own outgassings, they have computing power to die for, and it only takes a nudge to change their orbits. It might take millions of years between stars, sure, but these guys have a long attention span.’
‘And what do they actually do?’
‘From the point of view of us busy little primates, they don’t do much. Hang out and take in the view. Travel around the sun every few million years. Maybe travel to another sun and go around that a few times. Bo-ring.’ He put on a whining, childish voice. ‘Are we there yet? He’s shitting me. I want to go the toilet.’
He laughed, a genuine and humorous laugh this time, and continued briskly: ‘But from their point of view, they are having fun. Endless, absorbing, ecstatic and for all I know,orgasmic fun. Discourse, intercourse – at their level it’s probably the same fucking thing.’ He underlined the obvious with a giggle. ‘They’re like gods, man, and they’re literally in heaven. And in all their infinite – well, OK,unbounded– diversity they have, we understand, a pretty much unanimous view on one thing. They don’t like spam.’
‘Spam is, um, sort of mindlessly repeated advertisements and shit. Junk mail. Some of it comes from start-ups and scams, some of it’s generated by programs called spambots, which got loose in the system about fifty years ago and which have been beavering away ever since. You hardly notice it, because so little gets through that you might think it’s just a legit advertisement. But that’s because way down at the bottom level, we have programs to clean out the junk, and they work away at it too.’ I shrugged. ‘Spam and antispam waste resources, it’s the ultimate zero-sum game, but what can you do? You gotta live with it. Anti-spam’s like an immune system. You don’t have to know about it, but you’d die without it. There’s a whole war going on that’s totally irrelevant to what you really want to do.’
‘Exactamundo,’ said Avakian. ‘That’s how the ETs feel about it, too. And as far as they’re concerned, we are great lumbering spambots, corrupted servers, liable at any moment or any megayear to start turning out millions of pointless, slightly varied replicas of ourselves. Most of what we’re likely to want to do if we expanded seriously into space is spam. Space industries – spam. Moravec uploads – spam on a plate. Von Neumann machines – spam and chips. Space settlements – spam, spam, spam, eggs and spam.’
There is something similar in a third novel, David Brin’s Existence. Here, Earth receives alien artifacts, which also turn out to be spam. These artifacts contain messages from civilizations on other planets, whose sole content is an invitation to add our own voices, and send more of these artifacts out through the galaxy. Entire planetary civilizations are exhorted to devote all their material resources on proliferating these viral artifacts.
All three novels suggest something similar. Spam is communication without (Shannon) information, or a message that is nothing beyond its medium (McLuhan). Spam has no utility, and no cognitive point, for its only aim is self-proliferation. This is why Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens hate it, and seek to destroy it (or destroy its source).
Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains–cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.
In other words, spam is purposiveness without purpose: in Kantian terms, it is aesthetic. Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens would agree with Ray Brassier, who says: “I am very wary of ‘aesthetics’: the term is contaminated by notions of ‘experience’ that I find deeply problematic.” Computational systems don’t need any sort of aesthetic sensibility; this means that they don’t need “experience” or “consciousness.” Indeed, they function all the more efficiently without these things. Big Blue never could have defeated Kasparov if it were weighted down, like he is, with recursive self-consciousness. Brassier understands this dynamic, where most other similarly reductionist philosophers don’t. While cognitivists insist that “consciousness cannot be separated from function” (to cite the title of an article by Daniel Dennett and Michael Cohen), Watts (and to a lesser extent MacLeod and Brin) rather suggest that in fact consciousness cannot be separated from dysfunction.
This can be restated in Darwinian terms. Spam or aesthetics may have initially been a useful adaptation: this is the only way that it could have arisen in the first place (see Darwin on sexual selection, and Elizabeth Grosz’s recent gloss on this). But spam or art quickly outgrew this purpose; it has now become parasitic, and replicates itself even at its host’s expense (cf: peacock’s tails). It serves no further purpose any more. Spam or art is a virus; and, insofar as we have aesthetic sensibilities (including self-consciousness and dwelling just in the present moment), we are that virus. Our thoughts and bodies, our lives, are “needlessly recursive” and wasteful. Our lives are pointless luxuries in a Darwinian “war universe” (Burroughs). If we are the dominant species on Earth at the moment, this may only be — as Watts suggests — because we are in the situation of flightless birds and marsupials, in areas where the placental mammals have not yet arrived (cf. the biological histories of Mauritius, South America, and Australia).
Watts also suggests that, even on Earth, corporate culture is in process of “weeding out” anything like self-consciousness or nonfunctional recursion. (Evidently, this is why — for instance — humanities programs in universities are being whittled away or destroyed; even the supporters of such programs only dare to justify them in terms of economic utility). At the end of Blindsight, the narrator, off in deep space, but observing from a distance the way that a vampiric (both literally and metaphorically) corporate culture has taken control of everything, speculates that “by the time I get home, I could be the only sentient being in the universe.” And in fact, he is not even sure about himself; he knows that zombies are “pretty good at faking it.”
The logic of spam tells us that sensibility, awareness, and aesthetic enjoyment are all costly luxuries. From a political and economic point of view, they can only be promoted — and they should be promoted — on this basis.