Note on Posthuman Resilience

grassland

This post is adapted from a paper presented at a workshop organised by the Open University’s PRiME (posthuman resilience in major emergencies) research group held in London, 18th-19th October 2016.

********************************

Resilience – understood as the capacity to recover from perturbations and resume “normal functioning” – appears seems to be a generic rather than domain specific property. It has a general application to complex systems at all scales and levels of complexity, and applies across the notional and contested divide between the natural and the artificial. It thus seems consonant with a “flat” posthuman world in which humans – rather than having privileged status – are just a distinctive being amongst other – similarly distinctive – beings.[1]

There are resilient individuals, resilient ecosystems, resilient institutions, and resilient software entities.[2]  It might seem, then, that resilience could provide a way of orienting ethics in a posthuman predicament” in which ontological domains are looking increasingly fragile or tenuous.

However, once we unhitch the concept from a domain, this ethics exhibits an indeterminacy akin to the massively indeterminate ethics of [posthuman] disconnection.

To see why this is so, I will consider C.S. Holling’s widely cited distinction between engineering and ecological resilience. A system exhibits engineering resilience if it tends to return quickly to a single stable state following some perturbing event. Systems that exhibit ecological resilience, by contrast, tend to be multistable: they can flip into a range of stable dynamic patterns (Holling 1996, 33).

For example, some semi-arid grasslands exhibit a dynamic balance between grasses with functionally distinct properties: one type resistant to drought and grazing herbivores due to long root systems, the other more photosynthetically efficient but more vulnerable to grazing and drought due to the greater concentration of surface biomass:

“The latter, productive but drought-sensitive grasses, have a competitive edge between bouts of grazing so long as drought does not occur. But, because of pressure from pulses of intense grazing, that competitive edge for a time shifts to the drought-resistant group of species. As a result of these shifts in competitive advantage, a diversity of grass species serves a set of interrelated functions— productivity on the one hand and drought protection on the other” (36).

This allows the ecosystem to exhibit functional diversity in the face of varying environmental pressures. While the intense grazing from herbivores comes in pulses, there are drought-free periods when the more efficient grasses have the edge. However, when such grasslands are used for ranching the constant but relatively light grazing give the more productive grasses a decisive edge. The ecosystem becomes “more productive in the short term but the species assemblage narrows to emphasise one functional type”. The ecosystem thus becomes specialised for a narrower range of functions – but also more vulnerable to drought. Ecological resilience is reduced in favour of short-term engineering resilience, but at the expense of its ability to withstand environmental contingencies over the longer term.

Ecological resilience is thus a measure of functional diversity – the ability to exist under a range of environmental conditions and subtend diverse functions in them (Holling 1996, 40). Accordingly, it a special case of the functional autonomy described in the psychology-free account of agency that supports the Disconnection Thesis. A highly functionally autonomous system is one that is highly capable of acquiring new functions and enlisting new values in other containing systems or environments (Roden 2014, 140).

Cultivating ecological resilience in natural or artificial systems is thus a question of engineering functional autonomy, thereby increasing the capacity of natural, artificial or social systems to accrue values and functions. However, this goal is ethically void in itself.

The Disconnection Thesis exhibits this problem in an extreme form. A posthuman would need to exhibit a high degree of functional autonomy in order to exist outside of the human socio-technical network but this abstract description tells us nothing about the implications of such an event, either for humans or posthumans.

For example, humans – in their current iterations – need planets. Really powerful posthumans might find packing mass down a gravity well inordinately wasteful.[3]

We can thus say little about the ethical value of posthuman lives – whether we should create them, or even become them – without precipitating a disconnection and seeing how things turn out. Even post-disconnection, there might be massive problems of radical interpretation for any human or merely transhuman ethicists still around (Roden 2014, 176-9).[4]

Any attempt to evaluate the posthuman is a necessarily irresponsible risk to the integrity of the species – necessary, since the technological trajectories of modernity could mean that we have no choice but to investigate possible lines of flight out of the human.

However, the same indeterminacy applies to ecological resilience. Since it is a form of functional autonomy it inherits its ethical vacuity.

Resilience sounds unproblematically good, but that is because the concept tends to be applied by thinkers to things that are already assumed to be values (e.g. resilient communities or environments). Once abstracted it over a flat posthuman universe it loses any specificity.

Since increasing resilience in this generalised sense increases functional autonomy it also implies an increase the complexity and unpredictability of the resulting systems. Thus – in a sense – nothing is less ecological than resilience when seen through a post-anthropocentric lens in which neither humans nor other organics have superlative value over other forms of life, posthuman or otherwise.

If ethics requires some commitment to a specific form of life – or as Claire Colebrook puts it – to a particular subject or speaker, then the ethics of resilience is a counter-ethics or anti-ethics since increasing resilience deterritorialises: it reduces dependence on specific forms of life or subjectivity.[5] Deterritorialization occurs where material or formal elements of an ordered assemblage (a territory) rupture their associations with a settled context generating new assemblages with new capacities, new rules or modes of functioning. As such, deterritorialization is not a process peculiar to the non-living or living, the social or technological domains. It is the ineluctable activity of nature operating “against itself”; threatening stable assemblages with anomalous relationships (Deleuze & Guattari 1988: 242–4).

If an ethics of resilience aims to increase the functional autonomy of entities without regard to their kind, then it is no more committed to improving the lot of creatures like ourselves than it is to cultivating a metal-storm of posthuman war machines. If it is predicated on the resilience of human bodies, lives or ecosystems, that is fine; but then it presupposes something more than just an ethics of resilience – perhaps an Aristotelian-humanist ethics, or a utilitarian one.

While this conclusion might seem perversely unhelpful, I prefer to think of it as salutary. It means that determining opportunities for resilient agency is always ethically problematic and requires that we take responsibility for decisions whose long-run implications will always exceed our capacity for calculation:

“We have perhaps always lived in a time of divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces, in which the role of human decisions and perceptions is a contributing factor at best. Far from being resolved by returning to the figure of the bounded globe or subject of bios rather than zoe, all those features that one might wish to criticize in the bio-political global era can only be confronted by a non-global temporality and counter-ethics.” (Colebrook 2012a: 38)

References

Gao, J., Barzel, B., & Barabási, A. L. (2016). Universal resilience patterns in complex networks. Nature, 530(7590), 307-312.

Haraway, D. (1991), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Harman, G. 2008. “DeLanda’s Ontology: Assemblage and Realism”. Continental

Philosophy Review 41(3): 367–83.

Colebrook, C. 2012a. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth”. Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41(1): 30–9.

DeLanda, Manuel. 2002. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.

Delanda. 2006. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, G. & F. Guattari 1988. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Athlone Press.

Collier, J. D. & C. A. Hooker 1999. “Complexly Organised Dynamical Systems”. Open Systems & Information Dynamics 6(3): 241–302.

Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hayles, N. K. (1999), How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Holling, C.S., 1996. Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience. In: Schulze, P.

(Ed.), Engineering within Ecological Constraints. National Academy,

Washington, DC, USA, pp. 31–44.

Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.

Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Stross, C. 2006. Accelerando. New York: Ace.

 

[1] The philosopher Manuel Delanda refers to ontologies that reject a hierarchy between organizing form and a passive nature or “matter” as “flat ontologies”. Whereas a hierarchical ontology has categorical entities like essences to organise it, a flat universe is “made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status” (DeLanda 2002, 58). The properties and the capacities of these entities are never imposed by transcendent entities but develop out of causal interactions between particulars at various scales. Importantly for the present discussion, a flat ontology recognizes no primacy of natural over artificial kinds (Harman 2008).

[2] Resilience can be contrasted with related concept: cohesion. A system is relatively cohesive if its structure causes it to exhibit unified dynamic behaviour in a wide range of contexts (Collier 1988). Systems like rocks, thunderstorms and cats are more cohesive across similar contexts than piles of sand, clouds or confraternities of cats.[2]

Resilience entails cohesion; it is a pre-requisite of resilience that systems exhibit stable dynamic behaviour over time. But not all cohesive systems are resilient. Resilience is a value-laden or norm-laden concept because it involves function ascription. If some entity has a function – for example, detecting the presence of a prey animal – it can perform at this role more or less well or fail in some way.

A rock exhibits cohesion. But a resilient system is also vulnerable. Things can go badly or well for it. It is, in this sense, that the resilience seems to imply a kind of ethics.

As characterised, both forms of resilience exhibit varieties of cohesion, since all that has been said concerns the way stable states are distributed through the “possibility spaces” describing a system’s dynamic behaviour. However, the distinction between single and multiple equilibria are what enable resilience and adaptation; not its defining features.

 

[3] This possibility is vividly portrayed in Charles Stross’ 2006 SF novel Accelerando. Accelerando begins in a 21st century in filled with speculative technologies and utopian aspirations but is largely set in a dystopian future in which the singularity has resulted in a world dominated by self-improving artificial intelligences. Its main protaganist, futurist and social innovator, Manfred Macx, opines near the beginning:

NASA are idiots. They want to send canned primates to Mars!” Manfred swallows a mouthful of beer, aggressively plonks his glass on the table: “Mars is just dumb mass at the bottom of a gravity well; there isn’t even a biosphere there. They should be working on uploading and solving the nanoassembly conformational problem instead. Then we could turn all the available dumb matter into computronium and use it for processing our thoughts. Long-term, it’s the only way to go. The solar system is a dead loss right now – dumb all over! Just measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn’t thinking, it isn’t working. We need to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie! (Stross 2006, 15)

The novel is a parable about being careful what one wishes for. The AIs which come to run its world are “wide human descendants” of human corporations and automated legal systems, which achieved both sentience and a form of legal personhood back in the twenty-first. As one character ruefully observes, in this world the phrase “smart money” has taken on an entirely new meaning!

Eventually, these “corporate carnivores” – known by the epithet “Vile Offspring” – institute a new form of capitalism (Economics 2.0) in which supply and demand relationships are computed too rapidly for those burdened by a “narrative chain” of personal consciousness to keep up.

E 2.0 is so remorselessly efficient that it comes to dominate the major part of the solar system, whole planets pulverized and diverted to fast thinking dust clouds of smart matter “blooming” around the sun (Stross 2006: 208–10).

[4] (Continuing the previous footnote) how could we know whether Stross’ vile offspring were really vile, or morally considerable agents in their own right?

[5]

5 thoughts on “Note on Posthuman Resilience

  1. It would seem that any ethics, resilient or otherwise, would need to take under advisement your disconnection thesis as a minimal demarcation of predictive outcomes; otherwise it would be caught in the old humanist traps of imposing a human meaning on an otherwise non-human or even transhuman event, thereby disqualifying it as a candidate ethics of viable affordance.

    1. That’s it precisely, Craig. I’m using DT as a “science fictional” estranging device to see what happens when we cut the concept of resilience from its special uses. What, apart from sharing pastries with colleagues with different expertise, does it really mean to be “post-disciplinary”? Part of this has to be an openness to militant abstraction – and in the present context (so well covered in Scott’s review of Homo Deus) this has to involve abstraction from the ethical backgrounds afforded by humanism or conventional eco-politics.

  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04c7kdx
    Zoubin Ghahramani, Professor of Information Engineering at the University of Cambridge and Deputy Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence.
    Lydia Nicholas, Senior Researcher at the British innovation foundation NESTA.
    Professor Kentaro Toyama of the University of Michigan, co-founder of Microsoft Research India and author of ‘Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology’.

  3. This is a great way to underscore the disruptive implications singularity poses the now, and a fantastic way to show off DT’s conceptual muscle as a clear definition of the kind of ‘intelligibility horizons’ we presently face. Any ethos extricated from the anthropocentric straightjacket becomes vacuous, even those prioritizing ‘ecological resilience.’ And as you say, as troubling as this is, it remains a very good thing to know moving forward.

    The real question here has to do with the ecological resilience of the ‘ethical’ itself. Basically you’re arguing that moral cognition cannot cope with the transformational upswell presently engulfing us. An ethics of resilience *has to take its own ecological resilience for granted* –the very thing it cannot do.

    Isn’t your real target here, then, eco-cognitive dogmatism, the way medial neglect dupes us into exempting our own cognitive capacities from the processes of radical ecological transformation leading to the posthuman? Once we throw intentional cognition into the ecological mix, then the problems of radical interpretation that seem to follow DT become a lot more immediate.

  4. An really eloquent statement of the problem, Scott.

    I’ve been leaning on conceptual analysis to get this point over, but I need to do more work to motivate its urgency. It’s always possible for a sophisticated proponent of philosophical anthropology (like Lenny Moss in the Gazelli discussion http://enemyindustry.net/blog/?p=6539) to retreat to the normativity of the human, implying the. But, as you say, such an anthropology can’t theorise its own background conditions their ecological contingency since it is necessarily blind to its underlying conditions of possibility.

    I suppose this is the barely glimpsed Leviathan disturbing the surface water of debates resilience. The generic character of resilience comes to matter once we take into account the fragility of the context of its standard, more human-centric interpretations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s