Network Ecologies

On Peter Watts’ Blindsight

So-called “network science” is perhaps not a science in and of itself, but a concerted effort to apply network models in multiple disciplines, which effort of application gets transcribed into an effort of subsumption under the aegis of the network. Peter Watts’ science-fictional novel Blindsight (2006) illustrates the non-disciplinary nature of the network perspective as well as the ambiguity of real nodal placement. Its narrator, Siri Keeton, is the anti-specialist sent with a crew of the human race’s “bleeding edge” specialists to investigate a signal coming from a suspected alien planet. Siri is a “Synthesist,” a “jargonaut,” whose job it is to observe the patterns of highly specialized information, without interfering, and to package that information into an accessible format for the “baselines” back on Earth, mission control. He is the perfect candidate for this PR-cum-translator position because after having a hemispherectomy at the age of 8 to prevent an epileptic disorder from killing him, Siri became a “Chinese Room,” as in John Searle’s famous thought experiment. [32] Siri no longer understands the sociopersonal languages as another participant inhabiting their meanings. Instead he can only process topologies: “patterns carry their own intelligence, quite apart from the semantic content that clings to their surfaces; if you manipulate the topology correctly, that content just comes along for the ride.” [33]

And yet, Siri’s syntheses remain “incomplete” until he recognizes, one, that his presence effects the crew members, and two, that the crew members themselves often “think” beyond their bodies proper. Both Isaac Szpindel, the crew’s first string biologist, and his backup, Robert Cunningham, are only so well suited to study forms of life because their own living forms have become inundated with prostheses, augmentations, replacements. Szpindel, “so massively interfaced with machinery that his own motor skills had degraded for want of proper care and feeding; this man who heard X-rays and saw in shades of ultrasound, so corrupted by retrofits he could no longer even feel his own fingertips without assistance—this man,” however, is perhaps not as alien as implied by the critical diction Siri uses to describe him. [34] Szpindel as well as Cunningham are both embodied laboratories, Stephen Hawkings by choice and reconfigurable to state of the art observational techniques and analytical supports. But this choice is far from a willed achievement, as Cunningham explains: “No, nobody forced me to get the rewire. I could have just let them cut out my brain and pack it into Heaven, couldn’t I? That’s the choice we have. We can be utterly useless, or we can try and compete against the vampires and the constructs and the Ais.” [35] The choice is in fact an imperative for those who refuse to be lulled into the contentment of a “post-scarcity economy.” “‘It’s vital to keep current,’ he says, tacitly undercutting the notion that life stops at the edge of chrome. Vitality derives from invention. ‘If you don’t reconfigure you can’t retrain. If you don’t retrain you’re obsolete inside a month.’” [36] Cunningham remains a cipher to Siri’s Synthesist training until Siri recognizes that Cunningham’s body and all of its unspoken, gestural communication exists well beyond the human body proper. “Robert Cunningham’s flesh could not contain him,” and Siri had mistakenly sought Cunningham within the boundaries of the flesh.

Then there is the vampire, a half-million-years extinct cannibalistic subspecies of Homo sapiens resurrected for their “omnisavantism.” Vampires can think in multiple spatiotemporal registers simultaneously, effectively granting them a four-digit IQ, although regular medication is required to suppress a reaction to the sight of Euclidean geometries (right angles) that sends the them into grand mal seizures. The crew’s vampire seems to have been making decisions, but it is later revealed that he had been serving as a conduit between the crew and the spaceship’s AI. In one scale—that of the human crew member with its fight-or-flight instincts—the vampire serves as a node; while in another scale—that of the computer’s game-theoretical cost-benefit analysis and predictive measures—he functions as an edge, a bridge connecting nodes between these two scales of reference. From our perspective, the novel’s denouement unwinds a static network of things into a dynamic milieu of creatures that relate within and beyond themselves through so many networks of values.

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