Insect Media

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* Book: Insect Media. An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Jussi Parikka. University of Minnesota Press,2010

URL = http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/P/parikka_insect.html

Update: Insect Media has won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Anne Friedberg book award 2012 — awarded annually for Innovative Scholarship! [1]


Description

"Uncovering the insect logic that informs contemporary media technologies and the network society

Since the early nineteenth century, when entomologists first popularized the unique biological and behavioral characteristics of insects, technological innovators and theorists have proposed insects as templates for a wide range of technologies. In Insect Media, Jussi Parikka analyzes how insect forms of social organization—swarms, hives, webs, and distributed intelligence—have been used to structure modern media technologies and the network society, providing a radical new perspective on the interconnection of biology and technology.

Through close engagement with the pioneering work of insect ethologists, including Jakob von Uexküll and Karl von Frisch, posthumanist philosophers, media theorists, and contemporary filmmakers and artists, Parikka develops an insect theory of media, one that conceptualizes modern media as more than the products of individual human actors, social interests, or technological determinants. They are, rather, profoundly nonhuman phenomena that both draw on and mimic the alien lifeworlds of insects.

Deftly moving from the life sciences to digital technology, from popular culture to avant-garde art and architecture, and from philosophy to cybernetics and game theory, Parikka provides innovative conceptual tools for exploring the phenomena of network society and culture. Challenging anthropocentric approaches to contemporary science and culture, Insect Media reveals the possibilities that insects and other nonhuman animals offer for rethinking media, the conflation of biology and technology, and our understanding of, and interaction with, contemporary digital culture." (http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/P/parikka_insect.html)


Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Insects in the Age of Technology


1. Nineteenth-Century Insect Technics: The Uncanny Affects of Insects

2. Genesis of Form: Insect Architecture and Swarms

3. Technics of Nature and Temporality: Uexküll’s Ethology

4. Metamorphosis, Intensity, and Devouring Space: Elements for an Insect Game Theory


Intermezzo

5. Animal Ensembles, Robotic Affects: Bees, Milieus, and Individuation

6. Biomorphs and Boids: Swarming Algorithms

7. Sexual Selection in the BioDigital: Teknolust and the Weird Life of SRAs


Epilogue: Insect Media as an Art of Transmutation

Introduction

Presentation by the author:

"Explaining the theory behind the way of life in digital network society, Dr Parikka explains: ‘Network culture is a rather peculiar phase in our modern technical civilization, as it seems to be a combination of high technology and a fascination with such seemingly simple life forms as insects. We continuously make sense of emerging media and technology through references and metaphors borrowed from the biological world: viruses, worms, swarms, and other similar eclectic ideas that suggest a complex view of scientific culture.’

‘What this book offers is an extensive and systematic take on this conflation of biology and technology; it shows how often modern culture has turned to animals and such simple life forms as insects to understand a radically non-human way of seeing the world. Imagine how the world looks and feels like to an animal who does not share our two-footed, two-handed, two-eyed world view? Such ideas fascinated a lot of early pioneers in the 19th and 20th century, from artists to scientists.’

‘More recently, so many network scientists and designers turned to insects as well: thinking about software, network architectures, and forms of organisation through ideas that they borrowed from entomology. What I do in this book is offer a thorough look at such “border crossings” between sciences and artistic appropriations of such ideas.’ ‘When we approach contemporary digital economy, we need complex cultural historical perspectives to thoroughly understand its contexts, historical development, as well as the implications to our worldview.’

The book is both a historical and critical look at how we approach network culture – it approaches it not from the point of view of humans, but from an insect point of view. As other books in the series Posthumanism from University of Minnesota Press, this title looks at non-human ways of understanding contemporary culture where even basic seemingly biological processes as ‘life’ are increasingly rethought and recreated in artificial, technological practices, in science, but also in science fiction." (Anglia Un. press release)


Excerpts

Motivation

Jussi Parikka:

"Through Insect Media I wanted to investigate non-human media theory – and how we have for a longer time understood high-tech media through nature; through metaphors adapted from nature and more concretely, through the interfacing of natural and life sciences with digital culture. We have lived in the age of insects now for years – and by that, I mean the enthusiasm for swarms, distributed networks, and various other ideas that are “borrowed” from insect worlds and more widely animal research. The way we understand the processes and cultural phenomena surrounding network and digital media is often referred through concepts that are based in the non-human.

But I wanted to push this non-human theme a bit further in time, and investigate the birth of modern media culture through the animal forces in which it seems to be embedded. In a way, this idea follows something I started in my previous book Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) already. It was not only a book about digital accidents, but how we can understand digital culture from a slightly alternative perspective: forces contagious, non-conscious, affective, sticky.

In a way, one could sum up a lot about my book in its opening words:

“First, a practical exercise. Pick up an entomology book; something such as Thomas Eisner’s For the Love of Insects from a couple of years back will do fine, or an older book from the nineteenth century, like John Lubbock’s On the Senses, Instincts, and Intelligence of Animals with Special Reference to Insects (1888) suits the purpose as well. However, do not read the book as a description of the biology of those tiny insects or solely as an excavation of the microcosmic worlds of entomology. Instead, if you approach it as media theory, it reveals a whole new world of sensations, perceptions, movements, stratagems, and patterns of organization that work much beyond the confines of the human world.” (xi)

Such ideas can be found in popular culture discourses since the 19th century Victorian times, early avant-garde, and later digital media art, in communication studies discourses of post World War II era, as well as the emerging software cultures since the 1980s.

In terms of social media culture, the notions of swarms, hive minds and collective intelligence in distributed networks have been harnessed as part of the business discourse of the 21st century. Even if originating as part of the 1990s cyberenthusiasm for the Internet, they gained another peak of interest during the recent years of Web 2.0 when the amateur spirit at the core of the Internet project was discovered as a possible revenue stream. As analyzed by many network theorists including Tiziana Terranova, the harnessing of free labour as part of the Web 2.0 logic was part and parcel of this neobiologism of networks. Web 2.0 rediscovered (animal) sociability; the chattering, relating, friend-seeking, affective and non-rational but emotional human being who shared, talked, commented and contributed. The earlier feared idea of mindless drones that are based on automated mechanics that we recognize from early 20th century reluctance concerning the masses and the birth of mass society, and post World War II communist-references for example in popular culture seems suddenly be at the core of the processes of value creation of network culture!

If I would have written one more chapter, it definitely would have been about “the political economy of the insect in social media” - a further contribution to the debates how such ideas feed into a creation of a capitalist system of sharing, a new form of commu-capitalism, or new socialism (I am here thinking about the recent-ish Kevin Kelly Wired-text on the “new socialism”)

The processes of crowdsourcing, exemplified for example in the mentioned Amazon's Mechanical Turk, are exemplary of such cognitive capitalism which really does not translate intuitively as "intelligent" work, but more based on lower cognitive level processing and perceptional capacities. The old intelligence-instinct division so crucial to the insect debate of late 19th and early 20th century (including for Bergson) is to an extent one way to make sense of the variety of cognitive capacities. In the midst of discussions concerning cognitive capitalism in social media culture, we need more low-level understanding of cognition that in most cases is more or less automated, affective, and, well, less intelligent than we like to think it is. The Worker (capitalised in the Mechanical Turk discourse like part of a gigantic global human ant nest) engages in Human Intelligence Tasks (HITs) but at the same time, these are such tasks at the fringes of human capacities and technological automation. Easy for us humans, difficult for the machines: evaluating search results, selecting product categories, etc.   Hence, at the core of the mathematical, technologically polished and scientifically grounded cultures of network communication lies something very stupid and seemingly primitive. The insect is a good figure to think technological cultures through "affect" and the milieu-bound nature of our cognitive and perceptual capacities. We are not insects, but a lot of the stuff we do is mindless, or at least automated. Network culture and its politics is not always a politics of reflection and decision-making, but of relating, automating, affective labour, and much lower level modes of sociability, relating and being in the world

Insect Media is an anti-McLuhan genealogy of media: how can we understand media not as extensions of the (hu)man, but as extensions of nature and animals? Furthermore, the insect and the animal are perfect conceptual figures that I use as conceptual vectors to move between a variety of fields of knowledge of modernity: art, science, media, and technology."


Genesis of Form: Insect Architecture and Swarms

From chapter II:

"Social insects provided lessons in strange, unrecognized forms of being social. A good example is found in Maeterlinck’s novel A Life of the Bee (1901), in which the topic of “the spirit of the hive” is constantly brought up. It could be seen as an expression of mysticism, a natural theology of a kind, but at the same time it connects to the topic of collective intelligence then emerging. Maeterlinck considered this spirit not as a particularly tuned instinct that specifies a task and not as a mechanical habit but as a curious logic that cannot be pinpointed to any specific role, order, or function. The spirit of the hive seems to be responsible for the abrupt but still recurring collective actions that take hold of the bees (as in possessed individuals) and concert their actions as if they were one. The spirit of the hive sees that the individual bees’ actions are harmonized to such an extent that they can exist as a collective: from the queen’s impregnation to the sudden swarming when the bees leave the old nest (without apparent reason) and find a new one, the spirit of the hive is described by a mix of nomadic intuition that “passes the limits of human morality” to the everyday organization of the hive:

It regulates the workers’ labors, with due regard to their age; it allots their task to the nurses who tend the nymphs and the larvae, the ladies of honor who wait on the queen and never allow her out of their sight; the house-bees who air, refresh and heat the hive by fanning their wings, and hasten the evaporation of the honey that may be too highly charged with water; the architects, masons, wax-workers, and sculptors who form the chain and construct the combs; the foragers who sally forth to the flowers in search of the nectar that turns into honey.

This seemingly automated behavior is described by Maeterlinck as a “strange emotion.” Here the emotion acts as a trigger of a kind that points to the way bodies are affectively coordinated in the organizational form. The swarm is a becoming that expresses potentialities that are always situated and yet moving. The affects that trigger the swarming and the birth of the new collective are related to communication in Maeterlinck’s view. This mode of communication happens not on the level of consciousness, human language and concepts, but as affects of murmur, whisper, and a refrain that even the bees might not hear but sense in some uncanny way. (48-50)


[…]


The interest in swarms was intimately connected to the research on emergence and “superorganisms” that arose during the early years of the twentieth century, especially in the 1920s. Even though the author of the notion of superorganisms was the now somewhat discredited writer Herbert Spencer, who introduced it in 1898, the idea was fed into contemporary discourse surrounding swarms” and emergence through myrmecologist William Morton Wheeler. In 1911 Wheeler had published his classic article “The Ant Colony as an Organism” (in Journal of Morphology), and similar interests continued to be expressed in his subsequent writings. His ideas became well known in the 1990s in discussions concerning artificial life and holistic swarmlike organization. For writers such as Kevin Kelly, mentioned earlier in this chapter, Wheeler’s ideas regarding superorganisms stood as the inspiration for the hype surrounding emergent behavior.64 Yet the actual context of his paper was a lecture given at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in 1910. As Charlotte Sleigh points out, Wheeler saw himself as continuing the work of holistic philosophers, and later, in the 1910s and 1920s, found affinities with Bergson’s philosophy of temporality as well.66 In 1926, when emergence had already been discussed in terms of, for example emergent evolution, evolutionary naturalism, creative synthesis, organicism, and emergent vitalism, Wheeler noted that this phenomenon seemed to challenge the basic dualisms of determinism versus freedom, mechanism versus vitalism, and the many versus the one. An animal phenomenon thus presented a crisis for the fundamental philosophical concepts that did not seem to apply to such a transversal mode of organization, or agencement to use the term that Wheeler coined. It was a challenge to philosophy and simultaneously to the physical, chemical, psychological, and social sciences, a phenomenon that seemed to cut through these seemingly disconnected spheres of reality. (51-52)"


Biomorphs and Boids. Swarming Algorithms

From Chapter VI:

"The popular cultural boom was spurred by scientific research into swarms and “the social insect metaphor”46 from the early 1990s. Ant colony optimization research with scholars such as Marco Dorigo became a large field of interfacing ants with new technologies—for example, when routing British Telecom calls. The field was based on the realization that there are various levels of complexity to simple things, such as ants, and their sensorimotor complexity is doubled by collective interaction. Swarm intelligence started to refer to “any attempt to design algorithms or distributed problem-solving devices inspired by the collective behavior of social insect colonies and other animal societies.”48 As Bonabeau, Dorigo, and Theraulaz explain in their book on the topic, the designs were about operationalizing insect capacities for optimizing certain search spaces. The fluctuations in their aberrant walks, errors, and so on was to be made use of as rational probeheading that enabled the discovery of solutions for complex mathematical tasks, such as the traveling salesman graph problem or vehicle-routing and graph-coloring problems.


Ant-based algorithms promised efficient solutions for the emerging network society, which, for all its intelligence, needed a bit of insect instinct. For example, the pheromone trails ants used between nest and food were modeled into a virtual pheromone network in which the most efficient paths could be explored through antlike trackings. The ant colonies can be seen as continuously mapping the available food sources near the nest and marking the environments with pheromone trails—a certain kind of gridding of the environment. The environment was turned into a hierarchical space based on its potential usefulness for the ants. The intensity of the milieu became a marked space, a space for orientation and guidance. (160-161)"


Review

Jacob Gaboury in Rhizome:

"In a fundamental sense, technology is deeply non-human. While we might apply a humanist logic to the function and workings of technological systems, and view technological objects as extensions of the human body and its capacity for adaptive prosthesis, the very purpose of technology is to be that which the human is not or to achieve that which the human could not otherwise do. As such, technology exists beyond the humanist understanding of the individual, the body, and the subject, particularly in contemporary network culture in which technology is in part transformed from concrete and material objects into molecular, adaptive, and often invisible systems. Much as with the animal world, technology seems to suggest a mode of communication and media beyond that of human language, a mode of being or becoming that exceeds our own.

In Insect Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2010),1 Jussi Parikka traces an archaeology of non-human media. More specifically, he is interested in the relationship between animal and machine, and the unique history of the insect as a technological model from the late 19th century through to the present. While insects are often viewed as models for contemporary media practices such as swarming, smart mobs, and collaborative forms of production, Parikka makes insects the object of his media historical project, transforming "media as insects," into "insects as media."

What at first might seem like an odd gesture develops into a rich historical lineage. From early attempts by Étienne-Jules Marey to capture the imperceptible motion of insect flight in La machine animale, to a fascination throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries with insects as builders, architects, and geometricians, and early research on the role of emergence in swarms and other "superorganisms," the figure of the insect haunts the history of modern technology. Indeed, the first half of Insect Media is devoted to uncovering this long history of a fascination with insects as technological animals in a pre-cybernetic moment.

The second half of the book examines the post-war period in which the development of cybernetics becomes the crucial mode of interfacing animal affects with technological systems, or to use the subtitle of Norbert Weiner's famous work, "Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine." However it is not to Weiner that Parikka turns, but instead to the often overlooked cybernetics of Gilbert Simondon and his theory of "individuation." For Simondon, an entity or individual is never given in advance, but is produced through an ongoing process of coming into being, a temporal becoming that works by creating embodied solutions to problems encountered within a given topology. As such, he is interested in modes of animal being that engage with and are produced by an affective relationship with a given environment.

A particularly fascinating example of the ontology that Parikka is seeking to trace comes in Karl von Frisch's work on communication among bees, published in 1953 as Aus dem Leben der Bienen, or The Dancing Bees. Von Frisch's work is an attempt to describe the means through which honey bees communicate vital information to one another, such as the location of food sources. Through elaborate, almost ethnographic work, von Frisch was able to track individual members of a bee hive and observe what he described as the physical language of bees, whereby crucial information was relayed through calculated "waggling" or dancing. The bees would spin in circles, alternating directions, while vigorously waggling their bodies to indicate the direction of a new food source along with other crucial information such as distance from the hive.

This dance "infects" other members of the hive, who begin the dance as well, spreading the message throughout the colony. For von Frisch, this process is akin to language, as it was a means of communicating knowledge among members of a group or society, but Parikka notes the highly affective form of this communication, and the means in which it is produced by and engages with the environment of the honey bee. Thus for Parikka, following Simondon, the bees von Frisch is referring to are not representational entities articulating signs or language, but machinological becomings.

This notion of the hive as a kind of headless milieu that moves, acts, and engages with its environment or umvelt relates closely to contemporary theories of swarms and the swarm-logic of networked communication. An emergent structure of multiple bodies or objects functioning in unison, swarm intelligence characterizes computer science algorithms, multi-agent systems, and insects.

Drawing from the work of Eugene Thacker, Parikka sees swarms as presenting a "political paradox between 'control and emergence, sovereignty and multiplicity.'"3 In Thacker's view, "swarms organize the multiple into a relational whole—and one in which the collective is exactly defined by 'relationality.'"4 Objects in a swarm are engaged in a process of affective sensing and adaptation that is applicable in both natural and technological formations, discussing the relationality of software objects in object-oriented programming in which functionality is defined by correlation and context. After all, "software is not immaterial but a body of code being executed, existing through that temporal unfolding in technological and other milieus and support (or afford) its existence."

If this language of becoming is familiar, it may be that it is pulled, in part, from the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, who were themselves influenced by figures such as Gilbert Simondon and the pioneering work of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll. If instead this all seems somewhat alien, then it should be. It is the goal of Parikka's work to dehumanize media technologies, showing the ways in which they are produced within and often adapted from a long history of animal affects, and might themselves be seen as engaging with the world in a form of non-human affect.

Through Insect Media, Parikka describes what he identifies as a "technics of nature," which describes the way in which it is not only humans who fabricate things and create artifacts to establish relations with the world, but in fact the whole of nature that can be seen as a dynamic process of relations, perceptions, durations, and cohabitation that is active and creative. Thus, if Parikka is advancing a critique of earlier new media projects, it is a critique of the emphasis on the human body and its senses, and the deeply humanist phenomenology in which the individual perceives, but remains abstracted from the world. Parikka suggests alternate and additional modes of engagement, suggesting that media art also works through "embodied technics" in which the bodies involved become experiments and probings in nonhuman technics in themselves. For Parikka, "what needs more emphasis is the primacy of animality as a regime of the pre-individual […] to the various potentials of becoming outside our established bodily coordinates and the differing potentials of sensation of which animals have been good reminders."8 What technical media and insects share is a non-human perspective, and Parikka wants to use insects as a figure of thinking to illuminate those sides of our experience that are non-conscious: affect, instinct, embodiment and knowledge that stems from an unfolding, intensive embodiment in milieu relations.In short, "digital technologies and art expose the animal in the human being." That is, those bodies and systems that are radically nonhuman." (http://rhizome.org/editorial/2011/apr/20/radical-ethology-jussi-parikkas-insect-media/)