In the last post I outlined an argument for the social world being composed of multiple agencies besides the human and for these agencies being governed by their own immanent teleological intentionalities that are often at odds with one another. Melanie keeps bugging me about questions of ethics and politics, asking what ethics and politics this all entails. Truth be told, I don’t know. I know what humanist ethics and politics I advocate, but I believe this ontology broaches a whole set of difficulties that lead to very different ways of posing these questions. That said, within the framework of humanist ethics, I think we have to have an accurate understanding of the social world we inhabit if we’re to pose ethical questions well. If we don’t know what sort of beings we are and what sorts of agencies populate the social world in which we exist, I believe we’re doomed to pose the wrong sort of ethical and political questions.
In this post, however, I wanted to draw attention to a related point pertaining to an offhand remark I made in my last post. Having underlined that perhaps other agencies– and, in particular, agencies often reduced to human intentionalities such as technologies, media, economy, language, etc. –I made the offhand remark that the evolution of a technological system as understood by folks like Simondon and Stiegler need not involve any usefulness to be a very real evolutionary tendency in its own right. Here I contest the thesis that the being of technologies (and I’d make similar arguments with other systems) consists in their purposiveness for humans. Rather, there are dynamics internal to technical systems that call forth, as it were, particular technological innovations even if they’re not particularly wanted by humans or useful to humans. Just as an organ first evolves and then finds its use or adaptive function, there are probably all sorts of technological innovations that arise simply because of tensions internal to the technical system (and here I flag that I’m just using technology as a case study for a broader point).
However, in the same context I noted that technologies, like anything else, have to find ways to get themselves replicated and that one way they do this is by being useful to humans. Since most technologies have not yet developed a capacity to replicate themselves they still parasitically rely on humans to reproduce themselves. This entails that part of the “fitness landscape” of technologies consists of human brains, bodies, and social fields. A fitness landscape is the environment an entity must navigate in order to get itself replicated. This concept is closely related to that of “regimes of attraction”, but places the emphasis not on how “virtualtypes” (a play on “genotype” referring to the virtual structure of entities) actualize themselves, but rather on the selection pressures that preside over the evolution of an agency or a new virtual/actual type. If a particular technology is to get itself successfully replicated, then it must devise all sorts of strategies for navigating this environment, seducing humans, and thereby getting itself replicated.
This simple observation, I think, opens a rich and fertile field for the investigation of how various agencies evolve. Each agency has both an endological and ecological fitness landscape. The endological fitness landscape of an agency refers to the internal constitution of that entity and the tensions that exist within it playing a role in how the system subsequently evolves. The term “endology”, of course, is designed to evoke connotations of “ecology”. Let’s take the case of hominids to illustrate this point. When hairless apes such as ourselves became bipedal this generated all sorts of tensions (many of which we still suffer from to this day) in the internal architecture of our bodies that led, on evolutionary time scales, to engineering innovations in our body structure. To cite a humorous example, anthropologists have sometimes wondered why females in our particular type of primates have particularly pronounced breasts, whereas other species of primates don’t. One theory is that sex in other, earlier primates tends to take place a tergo. With the evolution of bipedal primates, a substitute for the posterior had to be found now that humans were now encountering each other primarily from a frontal point of view. Those earlier hairless apes that had more pronounced breasts were selected because, well, I won’t spell out the rest of the theory.
Perhaps more convincing cases of endological fitness landscapes in the evolution of hairless hominids such as ourselves would be the way in which weight is distributed differently across your lower organs when we adopt a bipedal form of locomotion. Suddenly new pressures are placed on our skeletal structure, our organs (in particular, our digestive system), and so on. Indeed, our upright stature is a key contributor to many of the problems so many of us suffer. This new distribution sets up an “endological” problem that gradually selects for various new bone, organ, and digestive structures. Endological evolution can be found all over the place. In the early years of the steam engine I understand that the steel used for railroad tracks had a tendency to curl up and separate from other sections of the railroad track. This caused all sorts of terrible train accidents. Here we encounter an endological problem within the steam engine technical system that presided over the development of new types of steel for railroad tracks. Immanent to the technical system itself was a field of tensions that played a role in subsequent evolution of the system. Similar endological evolution took place in the evolution of the governor in steam engines.
Once we begin to look, we find endological fitness landscapes and evolutionary processes all over the place. Marx theorized an endological development of contemporary society as a result of contradictions or antagonisms internal to capitalism. Riffing on the extended mind hypothesis, Ross wonders whether the intertwined bodies of lovers constitute a mind. Here, in the dance of lovers, both inside and outside the bedroom, there are certainly all sorts of endogenous tensions within the system they constitute, playing a key role in both how their relationship evolves (Badiou seems to be getting at something along these lines in his analysis of love as a truth-procedure) and how their bodies come to mesh with one another. Graham talks about how philosophers toil at concepts for years and decades, trying to mesh them together. Within a philosophy there are endogenous tensions that play a significant role in how the system subsequently evolves. Likewise, in a school of thought– say Lacanianism –there are always endogenous tensions that play a key role in how the school of thought develops over time.
However, for many of us it’s going to be the ecological fitness landscape that marks the place where the rubber really hits the road in our social and political analysis. The ecological fitness landscape refers to the relations entities share to one another and that create the adaptive field an entity must navigate to get itself replicated. Returning to the example of the evolution of technologies, much of the environment of technologies consists of human brains, societies, economics, and other technologies (there’s also the brute physics of our universe, the availability of certain resources, and so on). In the technology-human ecology, we here encounter a rich domain of analysis pertaining to human affectivity, embodiment, and cognitive capacities. As I suggested, one strategy a technology can devise to get itself replicated is by being useful to humans. Microwaves have been pretty successful because they’re useful in food production in all sorts of ways. However, there are a variety of other ways in which a technology can seduce humans to get itself replicated. A technology might merely amuse us, serving no particular use or function, as in the case of so many iPod aps that simply make us chuckle. Technologies might serve as markers of status or class privilege like Bentley’s, thereby carving out an ecological niche for themselves. They might appeal to our baser instincts like the manner in which the internet has, in part, gotten itself replicated throughout the world by evolving internet pornography as a strategy for seducing people to rely on the internet. It might appeal to our simultaneous desire for solidarity or connection and desire to remain separated as in the case of text messaging technology. It might even be that a technology simply “hacks” (to use Bogost’s term) our brain. This might be the case in certain highly addictive stupid games that we compulsively play. These games are much like the “Oscar Meyer Wiener” song that exploits certain characteristics of our brain such that we’re unable to get the damned thing out of our head once we hear it.
And, of course, technologies create all sorts of evolutionary tensions as a consequence of their ecological environment. Take the transition from DOS to Windows in the history of PC platforms. Insofar as the primary ecological space of computers consisted of human brains and bodies, DOS posed formidable ecological challenges in getting computers replicated because of the strong demands they placed on human memory and skill. For human users DOS required a costly expenditure of valuable bio-memory power and skill that simply wasn’t seductive to many users. For this reasons computers had to evolve strategies to get themselves replicated throughout the social sphere by creating operating systems intuitive to the embodied and cognitive systems of hairless apes such as ourselves (and, of course, it was not only computers seeking to advance their fitness in this ecology, but operating systems as well). Windows– and more justly Apple’s operating system –devised all sorts of seductive strategies by, to use McLuhan’s vocabulary, retrieving certain features of primate phenomenology (pointing, grabbing, storing in niches like squirrels and birds, the use of vision rather than representational code in the forms of icons, and so on) and exploiting these hairless ape characteristics. In this way it was able to seduce a public that didn’t see much value in knowing the complicated code behind the appealing icons. Of course, lurking in the background here is also economics as a fitness landscape. Apple made the fateful decision of targeting educational institutions, whereas PCs sought to seduce the business world.
A crucial point here is that these ecological fitness landscapes are not unilateral in the evolutionary drift they instantiate, but are often bilateral. It’s not simply that the PC, for example, exploits an already existing set of affects and cognitive capacities that we’ve inherited as a result of our meaty evolution, but rather that one strategy technologies and other agencies deploy consists in the actual domestication or cultivation of “human” beings. Technologies do not merely exploit existing embodied features to their advantage, but transform embodiment by generating new forms of affect, desire, and cognition. I did not need to blog before I began blogging. The software platform behind blogs and email lists created new forms of cognition, desire and affect that I didn’t have before. In this regard, blogging domesticates me, transforming me into a suitable host to replicate its software platform. Here then we need not only an investigation of how certain discourses, institutions, technologies, animals, etc., exploit our forms of cognition, desire, and affect that we’ve inherited from our ancestors, but we also need a form of analysis that investigates how these things generate new forms of cognition, desire, and affect that we then become entangled within and dependent upon.