Fantasies of life-like machines decouple life from living. It is only from the position of being stuck in the world that we learn to engage with it anew
1. The Deceitful Bodies of Cuttlefish
It is in the nature of cuttlefish to deceive. Like other cephalopods—the mimic octopus and bobtail squid, for example—cuttlefish are bosses of camouflage. The capacity for deceit is born of the relationship among their eyes, nervous system and three types of skin cell that scientists refer to as chromatophores, leucophores, and iridophores. The chromatophores expand or contract to create different colors and patterns. The iridophores and leucophores reflect light and iridescence. Cuttlefish turn a translucent white to blend in with a sandy seabed. Mottled shades of grey mimic a pebbly substrate. Reds, blues, and pinks blend in with coral in order to fool predators. Their skin not only changes color, but also texture. Smooth on the white sands. Rough, almost pitted for the pebbles. Scientists refer to this capacity for camouflage as background adaptation. It is a technique shared with chameleons, fish, and frogs. This protects cuttlefish from predators and enhances their ability to sneak up on prey.
But the cuttlefish’s capacity for skin patterning exceeds the achievement of conformity with their surrounding. Many species also use their skin to communicate directly. A fast moving pattern of black and white stripes, for example, turns their bodies into an hypnotic enigma from which small fish and crabs cannot turn away. Other patterns of light and dark send messages, warning conspecifics of potential dangers. Perhaps most unusually, some cuttlefish use their skin patterns to deceive one other. Every year, for example, thousands of the giant Australian cuttlefish gather in the Spencer Gulf on Australia’s southern coast to participate in a massive spawning event. In this intense trial of sexual selection, males outnumber the reproductive females by a ratio of up to 11 to 1. Such stiff competition produces conflict and the males fight one another for the chance to pass on their genes. Unsurprisingly, it is typically the more physically endowed males that meet with success. The smaller ones are wily, though. Some have learned to manipulate their skin and posture to mimic the bodies of females, performing a kind of biomechanical cross-dressing. By avoiding direct confrontations with other males, they are able to approach receptive females and pass on their genetic material.
Videos that demonstrate all of this are widely available on Youtube. You can spend hours watching cuttlefish deceive the eyes of humans, predators, prey and one another. I recommend this as a valuable use of time, particularly if you are keen to dwell on bodies skilled at pretending to be something that they are not.
2. The False Promise of Decoupling
In April of this year, eighteen “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens” released a document titled the Eco-Modernist Manifesto. The authors insist that this publication is “audacious.” Indeed, it has been described in the media as bold, refreshing, and a tour-de-force. Like any good manifesto, it has ruffled feathers, particularly the green ones of activists and academics who share an interest in ecological futures. The authors of the Eco-Modernist Manifesto (henceforth, EMM) insist that this is because it bucks the conventional wisdom of environmental thought. For decades, mainstream environmental politics has pushed for reduced rates of consumption in the global North, for “degrowth” and governmental regulations that might slow or redirect industrial production. But the authors of the EMM propose an environmental politics that abandons this tack. They insist that the true cause of our damaged ecologies is not our rate of production but our “continued dependence…on natural environments.” The EMM suggests that what we need is liberation from nature. The manifesto refers to this process of liberation as “decoupling.” So poised against the “people-haters” of radical environmentalism, the EMM avowedly embraces “an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.”
For the authors of the EMM, the engine of decoupling will be an embrace of human ingenuity and its capacity to innovate new technologies. In what seems like an unlikely move for environmentalists, the manifesto champions nuclear energy, agricultural intensification, and urbanization. These, its authors insist, will not only enable our decoupling from the constraints of “nature” and its finite resources, they will also liberate nature from the destructive tendencies of technological progress to date. Human society and nature will therefore be able to flourish. Separately.
The authors of the EMM insist that it is a manifesto born of the contemporary moment. Others have praised it as a breath of fresh air to an environmental movement plagued by doomsday scenarios and appeals to slow or stop growth. This is the first deceit of the EMM. As Clive Hamilton has already noted, the EMM is better read as an anachronism, a resurrection of positions that emerged within earlier phases of the US environmental movement. Julian Simon’s 1981 text The Ultimate Resource is perhaps its most direct antecedent. Like the authors of the EMM, Simon pitted himself against an already unpopular environmental movement that called for changes to the status quo. He argued against “doomsday prophets” like Paul Ehrlich, insisting that human ingenuity would render the earth’s seemingly finite resources infinite. The architects of the EMM recommend strong governmental leadership in the production of these new technologies, while Simon was a notorious advocate for governmental deregulation. But the general contours of the debate that pitted ingenuity against environmental limits have officially been reanimated.
A second problem with the EMM is that it rests on a contradictory view of the relationship between humans and the environment. Much of Western philosophy has long operated on the assumption that humans and nonhumans face one another across a chasm of essential differences to be broached only by cultural interpretation or scientific inquiry. On one hand, the authors of the EMM reject this view and embrace a vision of nature and society as deeply entwined. They critique wilderness preservation and ecological reconstruction, arguing that we can no longer return to a past nature, purified of human influence. As William Cronon argued twenty years ago, wilderness is just as anthropogenic, perhaps even just as planned, as Upper Manhattan.
On the other hand, the authors of the EMM encourage expanding this historically produced rift between society and nature. They suggest that we might exceed the very constraints of the earth—to leave it, as it were, to itself—through new feats of engineering. An image circulated online in support of eco-modernism by an organization called Reconsider Nuclear is perhaps the best representation of this vision. On one side stands a photograph from the 1920s of a city street, crowded with men on bicycles. On the other, a single shining Tesla. The pairing offers a choice of potential futures: one thrust back into an unsavory past characterized by poverty and primitive transportation technologies, the other so exhilarating it would excite Filippo Marinetti and all those ignited by the Manifesto he penned in 1908.
Innovation, ingenuity. These are the catalysts for a future world in which humans master their own fate and the earth matters not at all. Presumably, the proposed advances in technology will allow us to leave life—the life of nonhumans—to re-wild on its own. Once our lives are no longer tied to its living, we will have the capacity to freely decide its fate. This is Las Vegas environmentalism, and not just because it is a sexed-up version of environmental politics, packaged for the masses. It is an environmentalism that suggests that we shall overcome the world that we inhabit; that we can raise a city in the desert for our pleasure, in ignorance of the promise of a future ruin; that there can and will be a “good,” even a “great,” Anthropocene. Bruno Latour has compared the promise of the EMM to that of electronic cigarettes: a way to smoke without actually smoking. As Latour has written, the EMM paints a world in which it makes “no difference to be with or without” the forms of life and ecological processes in which we are fully imbricated.
But the biggest deceit of the EMM is the claim that it pens a future born of an optimistic posture toward human capacities. Like the image, the future imaginary underlying the EMM depicts more than a social world without ecological degradation. It also describes a technocratic future without conflict, without politics. Indeed, it is without humans altogether. A world given over entirely to machines. Technological fetishism is the name we give to the tendency of technological objects to channel our desire and distract us from the conditions of their making. That Tesla Model S, the hover board promised on the horizon, the iWatch. These stand in for global “goods” that stand as measures of the quality of our lives and the wealth of our social worlds. These things fool us, not with camouflage, but by making invisible the conditions of their making. They divert attention from the social relationships that make them.
3. Laboratory Lies
I first learned of “cross-dressing” cuttlefish while conducting ethnography of a research laboratory in 2008. Two students ran a project that sought to understand the nature and speed of chromatophore change. I would stand with them in a darkened room, watching as they carefully set up video equipment and set off a large lightbulb flash over the cuttlefish tanks. Later they would use video analysis to model the rate of change in the chromatophore pigments.
The lab’s work on cuttlefish chromatophores was part of an effort to understand basic animal behaviors and biological processes. But other projects in the lab were part of a wider enterprise to harness the capacities of organisms for technological innovation as part of the growing field of biomimicry. Years earlier, the head of the lab had paired with other scientists around the country on a project that aspired to build a robotic lobster. They hoped to create autonomous vehicles that would reproduce the lobster’s highly refined chemosensing capacities to track chemical plumes underwater. Like the authors of the EMM, many advocates of biomimicry dream of building infrastructures for production that impress a less toxic burden on the world. But rather than decoupling from life and nature, biomimeticists proceed by seeking to appropriate life, to redirect it—by attempting, for example, to copy the antibiotic micro-geometry of sharkskin or the nanostructures that allow gecko feet to adhere to glass. Scientists and engineers collaborate in the field to create innovative technologies that make “nature work for us.”
I had explained at length to the scientists and students that I was interested in the political and social implications of this growing interface between bioscience and technological engineering. In that regard, I had not gained access to the laboratory under false pretenses. But I understated the fact that the lab came onto my radar because of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) role in funding the creation of their robotic lobsters. I did not tell them that I would write their laboratory into a story of the “biological turn” in national defense strategies, that I would piece together my observations of their daily activities with a larger narrative of how the field of biomimicry and its inventions were tied to US Empire, biopolitical calculations of human life, and geopolitical contestations over land and resources.
While the cuttlefish experiments in this laboratory were not connected to funding from the DoD, our understandings of cephalopods’ phenomenal capacity to disguise themselves in their own skin have long been driven by national security interests. These interests can be measured in millions of dollars doled out over the past decade to laboratories at institutions of higher education including Harvard, Rice, Duke, Texas, and the Universities of Bath and Bristol in the UK. Kevin Kit Parker, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics at Harvard, articulated the military’s interest in chromatophores succinctly in an interview last year, “throughout history, people have dreamed of having an ‘invisible suit.’ Nature solved that problem, and now it’s up to us to replicate this genius so, like the cuttlefish, we can avoid our predators.”
In many ways, biomimetic research falls prey to many of the same assumptions held by eco-modernists. Namely, its advocacy is often premised on the notion that knowledge and innovation alone will serve to transform the conditions of our planet; that we might engineer a “good Anthropocene” by changing our technological capacities alone; and that how we come to value inquiry into some organisms (and not others) is irrelevant to how we imagine and build futures.
At the same time, the biomimetic researchers make a markedly different set of claims than those of eco-modernists. They encourage a view that our innovations are not driven by human ingenuity alone, that the diversity of the world around us provides much needed inspiration and direction in the making of our futures. In another laboratory filled with robotic lobster prototypes, a neuro-ethologist explained to me his theory of biological intelligence. From lobsters to humans, he told me, organisms learn new things about the world whenever their usual ways of engaging with the environment cease to elicit the desired results. When a lobster, for example, finds itself wedged between rocks, it might at first extend its tail or move from left to right. But when these entrained patterns of movement fail, the lobster might ultimately begin to squirm. Squirming, he explained, was the expression of a chaotic firing of neurons. Through these experiences, the lobster might not only free itself from the rocks, but it might also discover new patterns of movement. It was a theory, he told me, that promised to generate a new paradigm for endowing robots with the capacity to learn. The military had already expressed an interest in investing in the research. But his emphasis on the relationship between squirming and learning suggests something more: that bodies are deeply embedded in the world. It suggests that our capacities to learn and change are possible because we are vulnerable to it; that we are caught—perhaps even stuck—in the world; and that it is in that condition of being stuck in the world that we might learn to engage with it anew.
Like the cuttlefish, it is in the nature of our bodies to change, alter, even to deceive. We do not create patterns for visual confusion with our skin. But with our hands we transform the conditions of our environment in accordance with our needs and tastes. We engage with other forms of life and technologies to generate new bodily comportments, new ways of being. Much like the military’s visions, the EMM give us a fantasy world in which our future will be conditioned by an entrained movement toward technological progress. This is a future in continued pursuit of fetishized technologies, one in which we might imagine decoupling from the earth and from one another. Against these fantasies, we must learn how to comport ourselves anew, to squirm for a bit in an effort to fight for a life lived in common.