Cosmic Overwrite

Eclipse

Technology overwrites the world. More specifically, advances in technology continually undermine and unground our concept of what the “world” actually consists of. A history of science shows us this fact under the guise of a Copernican Revolution, where a previously unshakable belief is upended or eclipsed entirely. It is a singularity event, a paradigm shift, something that we cannot recover, no matter how flat the planet might appear to us at night or how central the Earth seems in our placement within the cosmos. And yet, the prior returns.

A constant undoing is at play, where a new lens of analysis via an evolution of technology continually opens our senses to the unknown. Microscope and telescope introduce the atomic and the cosmic with a level of detail that could only be guessed at previously. And with such shifts in sensory ability, a certain need to categorize and taxonomize emerges to fill the previously unknown with new names, out of which new systems are formed. We will begin to see “system” as a relational technology, forming itself out of the discoveries made by advances in science and technology. The production of a system leads to a sense of cohesion, an ordering process that allows for sensemaking within its confines. In this sense, systems thinking is as much an act of creation allowed for by our technical and analytical capabilities, as well as a prior set of complex interactions that we’ve come to discover and arrange. Valerie Olson explains that it is through our creation of the “system” form that we then create subjects and their various modes of arrangement in social spaces, often in disparate and unequal hierarchies.[1]

When such systems thinking is applied to the cosmos, we often find ourselves mystified by the results, which come up vague, or baffle standard models and demand a recount. When we wonder where all the other lifeforms are, or what is this void of matter? Was the Big Bang a one-time event, and furthermore, what is that sound? In 2006, one of NASA’s attempts to measure heat emissions from the formation of early stars in the distant universe involved sending a giant balloon some 120,000 feet up into the atmosphere. Instead of detecting the subtle signals as expected, they received a sound six times louder than predicted, and after detailed analysis, the origin of the sound has still yet to be determined.[2] One possibility is that “the sound is so much sound, so much in excess of itself, that it is a sound that paradoxically has never been produced…This sound exceeds itself and thus eclipses its own point of origin.”[3] What kind of system forms from this? How does something eclipse its own origin, and is the act of eclipse a repetitive event, bringing more of the same, or does it imply a recursive property that builds upon and differentiates from what came before?

While the origin of the cosmic sound above is presumably actual and located in time, its eclipse is not the same as that which might be found in a Copernican-type event. If we try to separate systems of manmade origins and mythologies (like geocentric models) from maps of cosmic origins (the Big Bang), we continue to find ourselves falling into the trap of an observer caught within a system of their devising. This is still to say that by way of better understanding the universe through scientific and technological exploration, we reshape our understanding of humanity and its place in this universe, a constant act of revision that undoes various gods, death-of’s, and a priori’s. This undulating cascade of cultural shifts seems unending, with no ground in sight. With technology as our guide, we have exceeded ourselves and we have eclipsed our own point of origin. If each eclipse is a new origin, do these recursive models allow for a falling away of past truisms, previous selves and theories cast off from the here-and-now?

Falling

Hito Steyerl wrote a text in 2011 which opens: “Imagine you are falling. But there is no ground.”[4] This groundlessness, which removes “any stable ground on which to base metaphysical claims or foundational political myths,” produces a sense of a permanent state of free fall “for subjects and objects alike.” And yet, we don’t notice we are falling. For “falling is relational…whole societies around you may be falling just as you are. And it may actually feel like perfect stasis.” Steyerl continues on to provide a ‘brief history of the horizon,’ where our “sense of spatial and temporal orientation has changed dramatically in recent years, prompted by new technologies of surveillance, tracking, and targeting.” Gone is the dominance of linear perspective, as we grow more and more used to a “God’s-eye view” enabled by satellite technologies. Not to mention that there is the International Space Station, a satellite that flies at 27,000 kilometers per hour, a spacecraft that “stays aloft with bursts of fuel, but it is always in free fall. Speeding yet falling.”[5] Our highest inhabitants fall too.

But falling can also represent growth, as in old models falling to the wayside, detritus from previous iterations of knowledge and perception. What is falling like sheafs of time is an old order, a set of particulars that one can cling to or let go in their ordering and understanding of the world. Falling does not necessarily imply helplessness, or passivity. Falling, as a constant, requires adaptation to resist it (think: walking as controlled falling). As well, consider gravitational collapse as a mode of falling, which Charles H. Lineweaver highlights as the very conditions for allowing life to exist.[6]

Now, not only do we all have access to an overview effect,[7] we find that technical evolution removes the ground from our feet, revealing something more like “preexisting conditions”.[8] For example, it is “orbiting imaging and terrestrial modeling media (satellites, sensors, servers in sync) that have made it possible to measure climate change with any confidence.”[9] With climate change and planetary scale computation, a new system is named and conceptualized--in this case, carbon flows--due to the technical tools which produce these models that we can then formalize and act upon.

So too with conceptions of the horizon. The horizon line, an “extremely important element in navigation,”[10] where early navigation “consisted of gestures and bodily poses relating to the horizon,” and further refinement produced instruments like the astrolabe, quadrant, and sextant. These imputed stabilities allowed for guidance and coordination when navigating the world. This formation of a flat and stable horizon is also seen in linear perspective, where the “perspective is aligned to culminate in one single vanishing point, located on a virtual horizon defined by the eye line.”

Linear perspective demands negations, where first, “the curvature of the earth is typically disregarded. The horizon is conceived as an abstract flat line upon which the points on any horizontal plane converge.” This abstraction is separate from any subjective experience, and acts as a model in a similar way as the projections of climate change do. Abstractions and linear perspectives also lend to computation, where a “mathematical, flattened, infinite, continuous, and homogenous space”[11] can be substituted for reality. Key to this space is its ability to be “calculable, navigable, and predictable.” Such metricization allows for constructions of future risk, which adds in the production of “linear time, which allows mathematical prediction and, with it, linear progress.” Linear perspective, linear space; linear time, linear progress. The inversion in productive forces is interesting, where perspective produces a concept of space, and time produces a concept of progress.

Let’s return to that sound, that “cosmic sub-bass”[12] six times louder than predicted. That sound without an origin hints at a new order of navigation waiting to be discovered, or leads to the futility of even trying to taxonomize our way to the heavens, or more likely points toward both. Certain origins may remain locked within previous orderings of the universe, whether in this cycle or, as Roger Penrose proposes, in past universes. Penrose’s (contentious) Conformal Cyclic Cosmology proposes an infinite iteration of universes (instead of a single Big Bang event), with those universes open to penetration—to a certain extent—by that which came prior. Perhaps the cosmic sub-bass hints at an accumulation of origins (or multicosmic accretion), detached from any singular universe or point of origin and occuring resolutely outside us, while paradoxically within—once again an overview effect, this time from behind the Big Bang. Our abstractions and calculations readjust, and the recursive model continues to prune and grow.

Now with our abstractions on the run, we see our simulations and models as lacking a center. Modeling, while producing overview effects accessible to each of us (via climate change, or Google maps), has removed its subjects. We are not the center of this model. It runs in opposition from populist political programs which have “shifted from a politics of reason to a politics of personal experience."[13] The tension generated between abstract models upon which to to base our actions, and the personal affects that guide our intuition, begin to twist and grate upon the other, one vociferously, the other mutely displayed. The priors of personal experience and mythologies of cosmic order return, providing obstacles to the politics of reason and the expanding gyre of technical scope. One can hear a planetary sub-bass in the personal, consuming the model, eclipsing that which eclipsed it. All while the fall continues.

Notes

[1] Valerie Olson, Into the Extreme (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 11.

[2] space.com/space-roar-loudest-sound-in-the-universe.html.

[3] Euguene Thacker, “Sound of the Abyss,” Unsound: Undead, 87-89.

[4] “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective,” Hito Steyerl, E-Flux #24, e-flux.com/journal/24/67860/in-free-fall-a-thought-experiment-on-vertical-perspective.

[5] Into the Extreme, 1.

[6] “In this paper we try to clarify the idea that the origin of all sources of free energy can be traced back to the initial low gravitational entropy of the unclumped matter in the universe (e.g., [36]). The gravitational collapse of this matter produced galaxies, stars and planets and is the source of all dissipative structures and activities, including life in the universe.”

[7] A term coined by Frank White, which described the overwhelming sense of wholeness or oneness of the planet when seen by astronauts from space.

[8] “18 Lessons on Quarantine Urbanism,” Benjamin Bratton, strelkamag.com/en/article/18-lessons-from-quarantine-urbanism.

[9] The Terraforming, Benjamin Bratton, theterraforming.strelka.com.

[10] In Free Fall.

[11] Id.

[12] Sound of the Abyss.

[13] “Thoughts on the Planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe,” newframe.com/thoughts-on-the-planetary-an-interview-with-achille-mbembe.

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