From Planetary-Scale Computation To Planetary Sapience

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Benjamin Bratton:

"The emergence of planetary-scale computation ... appears as both a geological and geophilosophical fact. In addition to evolving countless animal, vegetal and microbial species, Earth has also very recently evolved a smart exoskeleton, a distributed sensory organ and cognitive layer capable of calculating things like: How old is the planet? Is the planet getting warmer? The knowledge of “climate change” is an epistemological accomplishment of planetary-scale computation.

Over the past few centuries, humans have chaotically and in many cases accidentally transformed Earth’s ecosystems. Now, in response, the emergent intelligence represented by planetary-scale computation makes it possible, and indeed necessary, to conceive an intentional, directed and worthwhile planetary-scale terraforming. The vision for this is not to be found in computing infrastructure itself, but in the purposes to which we put it.


Planetary-scale computation is an example of what may be called, after the great Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem, an “epistemological technology.” The most important social impact of some technologies is not just in what they allow people to do, but in what they reveal about how the world works. This can lead to trouble. While anxiety about technology is expressed in accounts of its pernicious effects, that unease is sometimes rooted in what technology uncovers that was always there all along. Microscopes did not conjure microbes into being, but once we knew they were there, we could never see surfaces the same way again.

Such unrequested demystifications are disturbing, especially when they seem to demote us humans from a place of presumed privilege. Even as such technologies reorganize personal and global economies, their deeper philosophical implication concerns how they introduce a Copernican trauma, unsettling our previous understanding of the cosmos. Such traumas are not always recognized for their significance (including in Copernicus’ time) and usually take generations to reverberate.

The revelation of the planetary — so different from the “international,” the “global” or the “world” — is a condition that comes into view via the location of human culture as an emergent phenomenon of an ancient and deep biogeochemical flux. Planetary-scale computation may have first emerged largely from the context of a “Western” science and “humanist” inquiry, but its implications in the disclosure of planetary conditions will upend and disrupt the conceits of such historical distinctions as much as Darwinian biology evacuated the church of its final biopolitical authority."


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