Marginalia 15: viral computing

It's probably quite foolish to write this in public — especially after such a long break between posts — but I'm hoping to turn Marginalia into a fortnightly publication. This probably will mean a slight tweak to how it's presented, but ultimately this was always supposed to be a kind of outlet for sharing articles, books, and my thoughts about them, in the way I liked to think I did on Twitter when I was a regular addict uh, user of the site.

Anyway, on with the show...

In Marginalia 11 I wrote about mushrooms, mycelium, and (among other things) the way they complicate any attempt at neat taxonomy. Back in April last year, about 500 months ago, Uneven Earth published a piece on the only topic of conversation. What are viruses? Are they alive? What does that mean? What are limits? What can viruses tell us about them?

All tales told, viruses seem to fit the risk society pretty well. This is the idea that our contemporary society has shifted to an obsession with safety and the notion of risk, and has dramatically shaped its organisation in response to these risks. From a class society where the motto was “I’m hungry”, and where social struggles were organised around this, the risk society’s motto became “I’m afraid”. This created a different set of demands, mostly revolving around the need to feel safe.

Re-reading it now, ten months distant, the article seems more exploratory and intriguing to me. At the time I knew it was saying something important but it was impossible for me to process it properly. There was a lot to think about in April 2020.

Turns out hard-to-classify life forms aren't just good for helping us re-think our assumptions, or frying up to eat with butter and toast. Claire Evans reminds us that “computers are basically just smart rocks”, introducing the weird world of “unconventional computing”. This is computing via slime moulds or mycelium networks, instead of silicon and electricity. It might bring a whole new meaning to the idea of “server farms”. But Evans thinks this through further than just getting excited at the prospect of “greener” or “natural” ways to use computers in the same way.

computing is not so much an industry as a way of seeing — an interpretation of the world. “If we are inventive enough, we can interpret any process as a computation,” [Andrew] Adamatzky says. If you’re looking for a computer — even if you’re looking under a rock — a computer is what you’ll find.

This sort of thinking is why Randy Connolly suggested last August that Computing belongs within the Social Sciences.

To be deinon is to be both wondrous and terrifying at the same time. “There are many deinon creatures on the earth, but none more so than man” sings the chorus in Sophocles' tragedy Antigone.

Within computing we have generally only focused on the wondrous and have ignored the terrifying or delegated its reporting to other disciplines. Now, with algorithmic governance replacing legal codes, with Web platform enabled surveillance capitalism transforming economics, with machine learning automating more of the labor market, and with unexplainable, non-transparent algorithms challenging the very possibility of human agency, computing has never been more deinon.

This datafication of everything without thinking too hard about the consequences is of course not a new observation. Technology Review explored it seven years ago in The dictatorship of data. I also wonder if Connolly knows about ANU's amazing 3Ai.

One small but fantastic (in every sense of the word) project that sometimes turns computational and taxonomic thinking against itself is the Decolonial Atlas. Check out Britain as Palestine, or the Eora map of Sydney Harbour.

See you in a couple of weeks.