Distraction Free Reading

Data Swarms Revisited – New Modes of Being

Editor’s Note: The new Platypus Thematic Series entitled “Data Swarms Revisited” will feature posts form computer science, philosophy and anthropology and connect to the Thematic Series Anthropos Tomorrow: Transhumanism and Anthropology inaugurated by Jon Bialecki and Ian Lowrie on Platypus in 2017. The posts will deal with overarching questions of the so-called “human condition” in times of accelerated computation, digitalization and technological infrastructures. Herein, the figuration of the Data Swarm serves as a playful and slightly ironic approximation to the threats and promises embedded in these on-going controversies.

an abstract painting of a fish school

Swarm! by Sam Cox (2014, Creative Commons)

Origins: Searching for New Modes of Humanism(s)[1]

At the end of September 2019, it was already the fourth time that both the Research Lab of the a.r.t.e.s. Graduate School for the Humanities Cologne and the Collaborative Research Center 806 “Our Way to Europe” had invited an interdisciplinary group of international graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to meet at the Cologne Summer School of Interdisciplinary Anthropology (CSIA). For an entire week, the participants delved into the many controversies about the so-called “human condition” and what it actually means to “be human” in the 21st century.[2]

After three years of discussing the latest material and practice turns along the Phenomenality of Material Things, in 2019, the CSIA relaunched its inquiries in new modes of being and humanism(s) under the theme of Beyond Humanism: Cyborgs – Animals – Data Swarms. With an apparent elective affinity to Donna Haraway (Haraway 2016b), we picked up where the last CSIA left by taking a closer look at what trans– and posthumanist agendas actually imply and how they relate to classic understandings of the human condition. Our goal was not simply dismissing these new modes of humanism(s) as mere social phenomena in an age of accelerated technological and cultural transformations but to take them seriously in order to better understand the shifts in contemporary concepts and controversies about being human. Through historically tracing back modes of humanism and their counterparts, as well as excavating their ontological and epistemological conditions, we identified three relational contestations of what it no longer means and three figurations of what it nowadays means to be human. The contestations are: (1) the distribution of human subjectivity and cognition, (2) the disintegration of human individuality, and (3) the dissolution of humanity as a unique ontological category.

Bringing these contestations into a fruitful contrast and comparison, we spent one week focusing on the intense exchanges between the triadic anthropological figurations of the (1) Cyborg, (2) Animal, and, finally, (3) Data Swarm. Together, these relational contestations and figurations served as interrogative tools for focusing on key questions regarding human/technology interfaces and formulating the idea towards an interdisciplinary anthropology and emancipatory epistemology:[3]

  • What are the multiple epistemological and ontological repercussions of transhumanist and posthumanist attempts to rethink and/or replace the human as cyborg, animal, or data?
  • How is the traditional understanding of the human as a subject belonging to a class of unique beings transformed if only one or two of the constituent properties (individual, subject, member of a unique class of beings) become contested? In other words, are post- and transhumanist agendas, politics, and concepts more humanist than proposed?
  • How are these new modes of humanism reflected in the arts and in public opinion? How do they transform everyday actions and perceptions of others (both human and non-human)?

As a playful opening to the summer school, we randomly assigned all participants one of six modes of being and printed on their name tags: Human, Trans- or Posthuman, Animal, Cyborg, and, of course, Data Swarm. Additionally, we adapted and modified Robert Pepperell’s “Posthuman Manifesto” (2003[1995]) into a Posthuman Self-Evaluation multiple-choice test for everyone to verify our random assignments. It quickly became clear that the Data Swarms were particularly popular among the participants and some even ‘arbitrarily’ changed their assigned mode of being without prior self-evaluation. However, it became equally clear during the week that, compared to its other rather popular and established companions, the figure of the Data Swarm posed considerably greater problems in determining its actual form of existence, distribution, and agency. This ambiguity between fascination and relative intangibility is what motivated me to revive the discussion here on Platypus and let some of the voices of the CSIA and associated colleagues share their thoughts and perspectives.[4] 

The Birth of the Data Swarms

The birth of the Data Swarm turned out to be less spectacular than one might guess. It happened during one of the early brainstorming meetings of the Summer School in 2018. From the beginning, it was central to us that we address the manifold issues of advanced computing, big data, and algorithms, especially when looking at trans- and posthuman agendas to free humanity from bodily limitations with the help of technology. We had already agreed on Cyborgs and Animals as fitting figures for the above-mentioned contestations of the human condition and connected key questions. And then, in a careless moment of an innocent mind and association game, we bred Cyborgs to Animals, and the hybrid Data Swarms were born — without really knowing what we had done, it somehow felt right.

Cyborgs, Animals, and Data Swarms – as evolutionary faux pas and climaxes – share strong genealogical connections that are, in themselves, concretizations of the 20th century contestations of the human condition. With their help, we were able to locate the intellectual legacies and different involvements of roughly three generations of diverse post-/trans-/anti-/meta-/more-than-humanism thinkers (Ferrando 2019, 2013).

CYBORGS became the dominant mode of being for a call of politicization and active engagement of academics in the post-Second-World War period, pointing to the imminent threats of neoliberal capitalism and its reproduction in forms of informational technology-led warfare and consumption. Cyborgs are incarnations for and multiples of the transformative powers of new technologies – both as promise and nightmare – for shaping the futures of postcolonial and feminist emancipation and anti-racist uprisings projects of the 1980s. All embedded in an emerging new world order that Haraway describes as the fundamental shift from the Organics to the Informatics of Domination (Haraway 2016b: 28f.), cyborgs also shaped the field of anthropology during the 1990s, consequently leading to “Cyborgology” (Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera 1995). As vividly expressed by cyborgologist Chris H. Gray during the CSIA, and emphasized by The Cyborg Handbook editors’ recently published Modified (Gray, Figueroa-Sarriera, and Mentor 2020), Cyborgs still matter and we must deal with this fact on an everyday basis.

ANIMALS, as Cyborg’s heirs and companion species account for a shift in perspective and urgency. They became the embodiments of a partly parallel, but mainly the Cyborgs succeeding development and expansion of intellectual and activist engagements with the decentering and radical questioning of the human condition and exclusivity. The planetary consequences of human presence and activities for the whole biosphere of the planet, encompassed most prominently in the life-threatening multiple-cenes (Haraway 2016a), led to the profound rethinking of human-animal relationalities as “companion species [that] is about a four-part composition, in which co-constitution, finitude, impurity, historicity, and complexity are what is“ (Haraway 2016b: 108).

Within this line of thought, DATA SWARMs are composed of companion species infested by next-generation Cyborg technology which only burgeoned at the time when the ‘original’ Cyborg was born. Thus, a Data Swarm is about relationality and radical contestation of our understandings of subjectivity, collectivity, mind, and agency as it is about living in/with a networked world enmeshed with technologies of control and surveillance. Swarming is ambiguous in itself; it is not just an algorithmic threat to individual autonomy, privacy, and the often biased datafication of the self. As “animal-machine becomings,” swarming is a new para-sitical “tactic” of political resistance and multispecies ethnography (Kirksey, Schuetze, and Shapiro 2011: 130; for a connection between swarms and parasites see Kirksey, Schuetze, and Helmreich 2014). Data Swarms “reformat” and cause “mutations in the contemporary body politic” (Thacker 2004). Hence, following Eugene Thacker a bit further, one might go so far and see in the Data Swarm a uniquely adapted Encoded Life form that builds on a network composed of computer and biological protocols (Galloway and Thacker 2007: 55ff.).

Nonetheless, the aforementioned ambiguity remains and still poses the key question: Have we as humans already transformed ourselves into Data Swarms, or are we rather determined and surrounded by these encoded creatures or even both as inseparably entwined? And if so, how does this transform our understanding and meaning of being human and, equally importantly, how does it demand and call for new methodologies and collaborative research enterprises?

The Thematic Series does not aim at giving a definite answer but only partial ones by following in each post one scholarly attempt and particular disciplinary perspective – from computer science, philosophy to anthropology – to shed some light onto these outlined complexities, connectivities, and more-than-human ambiguities.

Part of the Thematic Series are:

Human as the Ultimate Authority in Control by Anna Lukina

Angelology and Technoscience by Massimiliano Simons

Multiple Modes of Being Human by Johannes Schick

Swarming Syphilis: On the Reality of Data by Eduardo Zanella


Notes

[1] This post is based on the synopsis and CfP of the CSIA IV, which was collectively written by the organizers including the author and the author’s introduction and opening presentation to the CSIA IV.

[2] See for an overview of the general line of thought and a possible answer “Towards an Interdisciplinary Anthropology” by CSIA founder Johannes Schick (2019).

[3] Ethnography as an emancipatory epistemology is a rather work in progress project started by my anthropologist colleague and friend Souad Zeineddine and myself during the preparation for the CSIA IV in 2019.

[4] During the winter term 2019/20, I taught at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology an advanced Bachelor course on “Decentering the Human,” which was based on the CSIA and uncovered a similar fascination and intangibility with the students.

References

Ferrando, Francesca. 2013: “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations.” Existenz 8 (2): 26–32.

—. 2019. Philosophical Posthumanism. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Galloway, Alexander R., and Eugene Thacker. 2007: Nodes: An Encoded Life & Toward a Political Ontology of Networks & Biopolitics and Protocol. In The Exploit: A Theory of Networks, 53–77. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gray, Chris H., Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera, and Steven Mentor, eds. 2020. Modified: Living as a Cyborg. New York: Routledge.

Gray, Chris H., Steven Mentor, and Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera. 1995. Cyborgology: Constructing the Knowledge of Cybernetic Organisms. In The Cyborg Handbook, edited by Chris H. Gray, 1–14. New York: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016a. Making Kin – Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene. In Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 99–103. Durham: Duke University Press.

—. 2016b. Manifestly Haraway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Kirksey, Eben, Craig Schuetze, and Stefan Helmreich. 2014: Introduction. In The Multispecies Salon, edited by Eben Kirksey, 1–24. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kirksey, Eben, Craig Schuetze, and Nick Shapiro. 2011. Poaching at the Multispecies Salon: Introduction. Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 99/100: 130-134. http://www.multispecies-salon.org/swarming/.

Schick, Johannes. 2019: Towards an Interdisciplinary Anthropology? The Transformative Epistemologies of Bergson, Bachelard and Simondon. Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy (31): 103–135.

Pepperell, Robert 2003 [1995]: The Posthuman Manifesto. In The Posthuman Condition : Consciousness Beyond the Brain, 177–187. Bristol: Intellect.

Thacker, Eugene. 2004. Networks, Swarms, Multitudes (Part One). CTheory. https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ctheory/article/view/14542/5389.

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