The empire of signs

Enrico Tomaselli
7 min readAug 4, 2021

For several decades, the emergencies deriving from the anthropogenic impact on the planet have been well known, and there has been no lack of calls to slow down development, nor international commitments in this regard. However, most of the time, they simply turned out to be mere declarations of intent, or in any case stuffed with tricks to circumvent them, or to postpone them indefinitely.

But in the last decade, or with increasing speed, the devastating effects of anthropization have become macroscopically evident, and it is increasingly difficult to hide them. Furthermore, the cost — direct or indirect — of these effects is starting to make them uneconomic; which, from the point of view of the capitalist oligarchies, is a problem.

The point is that, in the face of a systemic environmental crisis, it is possible to approach with an anthropocentric perspective, which has as its ultimate goal the maintenance of absolute domination over the planet by homo sapiens, and above all of its ability to exploit its resources, or with a geacentric perspective, which primarily seeks a rebalancing between living species.

The anthropocentric model is perfectly in line with human thought, at least that of the last few centuries, and considers the dominant position of the species as an indisputable fact. The fact that, as humans, we have come to a considerable knowledge of the universe, as well as of the rules that inform it, as well as to an extraordinary technological capacity, leads us to trust that — continuing along the same lines — our scientific ability will find a solution to problems that it has created itself.

This model, of course, also has the great privilege of being fully compatible with the dominant economic model.

However, the model has at least two enormous limitations.

The first is precisely its compatibility with the capitalist economic system. Because this means that it is precisely the forces of capital that take over its direction, and therefore — on the one hand — to slow down its urgencies, taking as a priority the issues posed by the impact on the economic system itself rather than on the environment, and — for another — to maintain in any case the logic of intensive exploitation in order to create surplus value.

The second lies in the overestimation of the impact deriving from industrial pollution, and from the inexhaustible extractive hunger, in the face of the enormous underestimation of the anthropic impact itself, that is in the increase of the human population, and of the energy needs connected to it — starting with the primary ones: food and drinking water.

The defect of the anthropocentric approach, in short, is that it moves within the same logic that produced the problem it would like to solve.

For a non-anthropocentric approach, however, it is not enough to broaden the field, for example by including the other species within an overall vision. In fact, the risk is that of a compassionate ecology.

Although, undoubtedly, it is a step forward to consider other living species as equally worthy of attention and respect, we are still within an anthropocentric perspective.

As a species, we have a perception and a definition of the world that is, in fact, absolutely specific, that is intrinsically connected to our particular ability to read it, which in turn derives from the tools (perceptive and cognitive) of our species.

It is our representation of the world, it is not the world.

Trivial to the maximum, we know that we see in green the foliage of a tree, because the organic matter of which the leaves are made absorbs all the frequencies of light except the green one, but also because our visual apparatus is able to perceive shapes and colors in a certain way. Which is not the same as other living species.

The well-known image of the two shadows of the cylinder well represents the partiality of each vision, as well as the possibility of radically different yet all true visions.

The central issue, however, is not merely visual. The issue is that each living being, of each species, has its own representation of the world, its own semantics to represent it. It is, therefore, a cognitive question.

If we assume that the planet we live on is not (only) as we see it, the next step is to understand that we must make an effort to take the other points of view, as a necessary step to come to a holistic view.

While considering the exceptionality of our species, we must take into account the complexity of life forms on the planet, of which we are a part. Leaving anthropocentrism does not mean denying the specificities of sapiens, but recognizing that we are not the guardians of other species — even if, by virtue of our evolution, we have extraordinary power over them. And above all it means being aware of our irrelevance, from Gaea’s point of view. After all, we have only been on earth for a few hundred thousand years. Countless other species have appeared on the planet, inhabited it for millions of years, only to disappear. And nothing excludes that it can happen to us too.

Putting the position and role of our species into perspective with respect to the others requires the ability to recognize that each of them has — just like us — its own semantics of the world, with which we must enter into communication.

But the absolute extraordinary nature of contemporary time lies in the fact that our species has introduced a new actor in this context.

As much as we are used to bringing it back into the field of technology, it is on the way to emancipate itself from this purely instrumental and passive role. And even today it is no longer a simple instrument, in itself inert and acted only by our will, but it has an autonomous life — on which, moreover, we largely depend.

This actor, to which we have not yet attributed a name because we find it hard to recognize it as such, is made up of the set of Big Data and AI — which we consider as separate entities, when instead they are closely and intimately connected, just like our mind and our body.

The reason we consider it as a mere technological tool lies primarily in the fact that we have created it. And this gives us the idea of having complete control.

But in reality this algorithmic Golem is destined, at least in part, to escape that control. First of all because, and in an increasing and widespread way, we depend on it for many aspects of our daily life. But also because it is able to escape.

A few years ago, a communication experiment between two AI at a not particularly complex level, was suspended because the researchers realized that Alice and Bob (as the two entities were called) had begun to talk to each other in an unknown language, from them. themselves developed in the course of the experiment.

Furthermore, the history of the evolution of this new actor tells us that everything points in that direction.

It is good to remember that the sapiens, since the dawn of civilizations, have always developed data storage codes — from the Assyrian-Babylonian cuneiform to the Andean quipu — but it is only in very recent times that Big Data is spoken of. Because the question is not simply numerical (the amount of data), but systemic.

The processing, and the collection of data itself, are possible by virtue of the action of algorithms, which encode the information collected in various ways. And by coding we do not mean mere digitization, or the transposition into binary code, but the creation of a real taxonomy of data.

As Zuboff reminds us, the idea of ​​using data for business purposes is not at the origin of capitalist companies such as Google or Facebook, but at a certain moment this opportunity emerged strongly, and marked all subsequent development. Likewise, the next step was that of Chinese social capitalism, which took the opportunity to extend its use from the production of surplus value to the production of social control.

Both of these trends coexist, and are fully compatible with each other, which is why we are actually witnessing a growing trend towards hybridization between the two.

At the same time, and in a completely natural way (to be understood as intrinsic to nature originally imprinted on development), the trend towards pervasiveness and interconnection is growing: more and more devices / opportunities to collect data, ever greater integration between the data collected. It is a process of rhizomatic development, which will become increasingly essential.

The question then is how do we relate to this artificial actor, how can we collaborate to expand our capabilities? And above all, if and how can we ensure that this collaboration has, among other things, the purpose of decoding non-human semantics?

Basically, can we think (and how) to orient algorithmic entities so that their relationship with humans stops being hierarchical, extractive, oriented towards profit and control, and instead becomes collaborative, generative, oriented towards knowledge? And can we imagine that, in this, it can assist us in entering into an equal relationship with other living species?

Again, this is not a glitch.

Well before, and much more, than a political question, it is a cultural question. Which therefore requires a relocation effort — once again! — not anthropocentric. More than to political decision-makers, more than researchers, we must probably turn to anthropologists, ecologists. And above all to the artists.

We need to reprogramming. Perhaps art will not save the world. But if it recovers the ability to connect present and future, if it knows how to arouse visions, it will help us make it a little better place.

--

--

Enrico Tomaselli

Graphic + web designer / Magmart Festival Art Director / Management culturale