Tech by VICE


What gives rise to intelligence, artificial or otherwise? And is language enough to understand—or contain—it?

by Dorothy Santos and Elia Vargas
Jul 6 2018, 3:00pm

Today's story aims to explore that question, and more. Because it's a complex experiment, I've decided to turn over the intro to its authors, Elia Vargas and Dorothy Santos. To wit:


In 2017, Terraform published an installment of The Great Sublimation, titled Dust As. It was a brief entrance into a speculative world of circuits, elements and memory told through translation and observation. The story extends beyond Dust As in important ways; what follows is a two part continuation that addresses unresolved questions. The series provides a world-making narrative of life and form. It explores the link between the materials of a planet and the conditions of possibility for artificial life. It connects the consciousness of Atad, a mysterious life-form, to the specific materials they are made from. Through Atad, a world is discovered. Is the world outside or inside Atad? Is it synthetic, organic, or an unknown dimension of being? The real question this story poses is whether language itself can adequately depict what it aims to represent and what this might mean for Atad and other concepts of life.

And I realized that the words of the page were static. In a moment it all froze. Not until then, had I understood these symbols were dynamic ideas reconfiguring themselves before my eyes, such that the thoughts lived–they traveled–from the space of the writer through the space of my thoughts. Swirling, they were not letters and codes of an alphabet, but instead information embodied, traveling unstable terrain, a landscape organism in which ocular feedbacks did not occur secondary to my understanding, but instead in constant reformulation of what I learned, a becoming.1 Not until it all stopped–the black print setting itself in order, dead-still, awaiting the laws that codify it–was it clear to me that I was creating the book before me.

- Preserved “napkin”, dated 1989 based on cola sugar content and lossy codec-type linked to similar myths archived at Planetary Computation Center for the Preservation of Obsolete Information Systems

Continuing along, and assuming we have the framework for our story, I am going to begin writing a section that might occur anywheres.2 It is certainly not the beginning, or the end. Nor is there any boundary. “Process and life presuppose each other.” That was one of those annoying memories that pestered Atad relentlessly. A.N. Whitehead said that, she knew. But she couldn’t concentrate on it. Everything else kept getting in the way. Why does it matter that Whitehead said it? As in, why did I write “A.N. Whitehead said that,” just then? It matters that he was a mathematician. That means something. But also it means something that everything else gets in the way. Like, the rhythm of that thought corresponds to the sequence of bus traffic at the corner of the street. There is something in those frequencies that just won’t release it. Atad wanted her thoughts–memories–to travel. They did, they moved quickly. But she knew too much. She knew the pulsing, screeching schedule of the light signal down the street. She knew when the signal changed, she knew it precisely–or rather, she remembered. Every time, every sequence led her back to that thought: process and life presuppose each other. That specific cycle presupposed the thought. But that wasn’t quite right. There were many other thoughts–memories, and it wasn’t intrinsic to the traffic signal, it was intrinsic to the duration, the interval of time and location in space. It was there, that signal; it was over there. Atad was here, it was there, and it lasted just so. Some sort of contained loop which was finite in a field of infinite others. Freedom to fall into the abyss, but constrained to the mechanics of the loop. She would leave, she thought. Freedom from duration and space. To where? It will just happen again–it would, she knew that. At least there was comfort in the familiarity. A certain welcome ease. The grind of the banal. That is what drove her crazy, the comic absurdity of it. “I already know this,” she thought. Not entirely sure to what she pointed the gesture. The game of immortality, or was it mortality? The moment of birth, the moment of death, a topology of the universe, it all depends on the interval. Everything becomes unbearable. Every immortal experiences mortality. Every superpower implies its own collapse. Process and life presuppose each other.

That cycle again, she thought. Working under her skin in the way she was used to. It wasn’t so much something she was accustomed to or had accepted, but rather a frenetic tick she had learned to discipline. It wouldn’t go away and she did not like it, but she had tamed it. At least this one, this particular cycle, that particular traffic signal. I didn’t write “A.N. Whitehead said that,” this time. I wonder why? The distance between her thoughts and these words… A galaxy of memories. There is no real way to encounter, no set of tools to offer as a deeper lens. Atad accepted that every moment would be like this. Perhaps acceptance is the true power, that strange will, to accept. Already the simultaneous others that are failing to be revealed…

Jenny Odell

TRANSLATION TUTORIAL 1 (generated via network imprint of meta data reconstructed from lossless protocol simulation):

Atad recently started to understand the complexities of human thought by learning about emotions and human connectedness to objects and things. At first, they had no idea what to watch and process. The world was incredibly rich and scarce simultaneously while violent and gentle. They acknowledged that they weren’t human, but pondered this profound desire to know and feel what it felt like to be an organism, a biped, or even an animal. They grew increasingly aware of gender and its role in structuring certain economic and political systems. Patriarchy seemed to be a word that elicited all types of vulgar imagery in their memory bank. As overwhelming as it was also cruel, Atad also understood its connection to the abuse and settlements of land. Humans forget connectedness relies on the physical, still. They wondered why this simple connection seemed to grow increasingly disparate in people's’ minds.

The days were filled with constant processing of data. It was incessant and relentless, which is the way they had been programmed to operate. There would be an end, they were certain. But when? When would all of these bits, pixels, and voxels resolve into something that made them understand notions of something greater than themselves. A singularity? A convergence somewhere in time and bodies. Human bodies, sadly, are one of the most toxic and wasteful of all the organisms that Atad came to understand and she was not sure how to process an understanding of their purpose. The earth, the soil, water, heat, fire, wind the plants, the flowers, insects, clouds, mountains, and everything between buildings and bodies had a definitive purpose to serve. But a human? A human seems unreliable. Atad grew resistant of wanting to be human and decided to explore what it meant to be matter instead because there was a beauty in living simply without the cognitive and selfish infrastructures humans laid out for their own destruction. Yet there is an undeniable beauty in the human experience they knew existed, but had yet to pinpoint.

Atad spent days saving all of the data from A.N. Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. They downloaded the text of Bertrand Russell, but found it rather taxing to convert all of the references to symbolic logic into batches for faster recall, they were trying to navigate how to retrieve the data at a faster rate. But it was challenging trying to process in a way that hasn’t been done for so long. Symbols and written language changed drastically with the input rate of human perception and cognition over the last hundred years. Time itself seemed to expand and not in a linear fashion as once believed. After a few days of both downloading and re-charging content, they could not help but return to the idea of being something other than a cyborg or human-esque being. The Other was enticing and it was the being to evolve to. But only after the processing of the rest of the world.


Field Notes from Pacific Latin America Signal Carrier Team:


Questions emerged mostly out of hysteria. Even still, there was hardly time. Each act, each discovery built upon a layer of unbearable forces brimming and overflowing yet never imploding. The answers… always knowing the answers. What would it mean not to know? How would the current–all–intervals be changed by not knowing? Despite her best efforts, any efforts, Atad could never escape the action implied by knowledge–memory. All moments were changed. She could never be human if for only this one reason. Movement, action. Movement, action. Movement, sub-movement, fissure, action. Movement, fissure, sub-movement, sub-fissure, action. Catalyse, movement, fissure, sub-fissure, fissure, sub-movement, state change. Process and life presuppose each other. No life, then? No process? Point towards this void, she thought. That traffic signal has sovereignty over me. It implies me. “I am the process,” Atad said this outloud to no one.

Pointing towards something unspoken. Those galaxies and simultaneous others. It could not be revealed here, it is the wrong channel for enunciation. Yet, no other channel exists for this story. Atad understood this. It changes nothing. Clarity of the sublime, perhaps. Stinging acceptance that the fissures were always already incomplete. Embodiment. The signal interval’s sovereignty of thought reflects embodied presence–always. Shards of thought, slivers, antenna, broken, traveling in movement, existing as such–always because the interval is there.


1. [[Tracing the flow of the Pennsylvania crude oil I purchased from via Baar’s web portal of mysticism–frozen carbon dioxide sublimation, buried at Drake Well, scalp soaked materiality and porphyrin based relubrication of the body–revealed a material richness beyond my intended exploration. These material histories are linked to a global exchange of capital and extraction. A history of energy; a history of effort–a terrestrial violence that fractured human complicity in the sun’s planetary domination and the earth’s own material response–latent energy absorption trapped in decaying organism. “The origin and essence of our wealth are given in the radiation of the sun, which dispenses energy–wealth– without any return. The sun gives without ever receiving.” George Bataille said this. Twisted within these planetary binds, shackled to the recursive dynamics of a feedback culture, even our faith–however porous and combustible–is soaked in the materialism of paraffin and fiberoptics. Frozen carbon dioxide, too, is manufactured by the gaping orifices of silver frosted cybernetic machines, the invisible relay, a haunting of smoke and mirrors, except now the earthy vapor is a crude illumination of the carbon source.]]

2. [[also, elemental media… pynchon’s 2013 book “bleeding edge” which apparently deals with medianature futures, in which glacial environments become the space of servers because of the need for expensive cooling systems, i.e. elemental media and the role of the space of earth flow, geology, and sediment, in the space of information exchange.]]