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Computational Landscapes and the New Sublime

Author: Captcha

As the boundary between the natural and the automated dissolves, the vast logistics infrastructures underpinning our economies point the way to new models of the sublime.

“A generation that had gone to school on a horse-drawn streetcar now stood under the open sky in a countryside in which nothing remains unchanged but the clouds, and beneath these clouds, in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions, we the tiny, fragile human body.”

W. Benjamin, Illuminations, 1955

In June 2013, Jay Parikh, the head of Facebook’s infrastructure and operations team, received a call about the company’s new data center in Prineville, Oregon. “Jay, there’s a cloud in the data center,” the caller said. “What do you mean—outside?” Parikh asked. “No,” the caller said. “Inside. It was raining in the data center.” In Prineville’s first summer of operation, the combination of high temperatures, low humidity, and a water-based cooling system led to the condensation of evaporated water in the aisles among the servers, creating indoor clouds.

A data center is a computational landscape that undergirds our frictionless technology-driven contemporary life. It is one of many new geographies that represent the built body of our virtual world. These spaces—located far from sight—are the physical counterparts of our digital actions, such as the act of buying online and the emerging architecture of fulfillment.

As architect and researcher Francesco Marullo wrote, a fulfillment center can be seen as a “real-time cross section of objectified desires, interests, perversions, and needs” that grows and shrinks with market demand. Generally placed close to heavy infrastructure such as freeways or railroads, the fulfillment center is impossible to locate in urban areas. In more than one sense, then, it occupies a backyard landscape. Its sheer size, often measured in hectares, and responsiveness to patterns of production and consumption represents the spatialization of the neoliberal market itself.

A fulfillment center is a plain, grid-based surface covered with markers to help orient robots and humans as they navigate the space. The ground is the only spatial coordinate that matters. Seen from this perspective, fulfillment centers are analogous to the radical architectural visions of the 60s and 70s.

Archizoom, an experimental design studio founded in Florence and one of the countercultural movements that emerged with the rise of neoliberalism, rose in prominence after releasing its breakthrough project No-Stop City (1970-72). The project—a design for an infinitely-expandable, non-architectural city where humans, appliances, and natural features exist side by side in the open—was a reaction to modernist architecture. With the birth of e-commerce and logistics, its vision of a continuous urbanization without architecture—one that provides infinite resources to mankind—has finally come alive.

These ideas were conceived as a critique and an attempt at subversion, through the acceleration of the space of consumerism. But today, they are embodied in the architecture of private logistics companies such as Amazon. These companies aim to satisfy desire on demand in the shortest time possible. “The best consumer service is if the customer doesn’t need to call you, doesn’t need to talk to you,” Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told an audience in New York in 2010. “It just works.”

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A logistics network is not like Archizoom’s No-Stop City; it is not a generator of equality and opportunity. It is, instead, the spatialization of private interests. It is a fragmented system made of servers, undersea fiber optic cables, and fulfillment centers that forms desolate landscapes and human-exclusion zones.

The Amazon fulfillment center’s main actor is Kiva—a small robot that drives around in a seemingly chaotic way, dodging its fellow robots and packages as it goes. It follows a gridded path. The path’s contours are traced by markers dotting the floor. Using arrays of sensors, clusters of autonomous Kivas follow algorithmic rules and react to the world around them. In that sense, they behave like super-organisms—groups of synergistically-interactive organisms of the same species. An ant colony is a super-organism made of eusocial insects. They behave like a single organism, with different roles and different functions performed by each individual. They have a common purpose—survival and reproduction—but they act without leadership.

In the same way, robots can act as a pack, following a common goal. For Amazon’s fleets of Kivas, for example, the goal is to stock shelves in the most efficient way. Like organic super-organisms, they seek homeostasis—a stable state of equilibrium maintained between all members of the group. Like organic super-organisms, they communicate through stigmergy: a social network of indirect coordination based on consensus between agents or actions. Just like ants leave behind traces of pheromones to communicate their passage, Kiva robots leave traces and place shelves that other robots can read with proximity sensors.

According to artist and philosopher Koert van Mensvoort, the boundary between the artificial and the natural is blurring. In the Anthropocene, it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognize whether a natural process has been impacted by human activity. At the same time, we have become so dependent on certain technological processes that we consider them natural. Bill Gates, for example, lives in a house without light switches. The light simply turns on when he enters a room. Is this natural or cultural?

For van Mensvoort, at the heart of the distinction is a question about autonomy and control. “Culture is that which we control,” he writes. “Nature is all those things that have an autonomous quality and fall outside the scope of human power.” In this taxonomy, a tomato grown in a greenhouse is as controllable as an item of furniture in a factory—and a computer virus or an algorithm are as autonomous as a weed or a pest. “Real nature is not green,” van Mensvoort writes. “Rather, it is beyond control.”

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What we experience when faced with the unknown—or that which we cannot understand—is a feeling that has long been investigated by philosophers: the sublime. This concept has generally been used to describe the intimacy of perceiving and experiencing nature or natural processes. But with the world of technology increasingly resembling nature—and with nature becoming obsolete—where can we find the contemporary sublime? Two 18th century philosophers point the way forward.

In 1756, the Anglo-Irish polymath Edmund Burke wrote A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. For him, the sublime was something that is “dark, uncertain, and confused”—something that can inspire fear. In its most terrible manifestation, nature becomes a source of the sublime; natural disasters and extreme weather inspire strong feelings that are not the product of contemplation of the thing itself, but rather of the awareness of the unbridgeable distance between object and subject—the self and the incomprehensible.

Today, we see nature as something recreational—a Disneyland for grown-ups—more than something unpredictable and dangerous. We no longer connect with the same feelings of the sublime that troubled Burke, or the Romantic poets of the 19th century. Instead, van Mensvoort says that “our image of nature is being carefully constructed in a recreational simulation,” and that it is designed by bureaucrats under the pretext of recreating a lost heritage. In other words, nature is demystified and reduced to a nostalgic trope.

But the Burkeian sublime persists in the unknown. When we face new computational geographies, we are confronted by impenetrable and uncontrollable landscapes. They represent a new nature. It scares us, but also seduces us. Looking at them, we are the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog—the explorer in Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, standing firmly at the top of a rock and looking towards the violent waters below.

In his Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant builds on and departs from Burke’s notion of the sublime. He divides it into two typologies. The first, the dynamic sublime, is similar to Burke’s in its relation to local natural phenomena that inspire fear. The second, the mathematical sublime, describes what we experience when we dig into our noumenal consciousness, when we try to think the absolute. It is the sensation we get when we try to count to an infinite number. As Timothy Morton wrote in his essay Sublime Objects, for Kant “the sublime is an experience of inner freedom based on some kind of temporary cognitive failure.”

A cognitive bug is exactly what we feel when we face computational processes that do not produce predetermined outputs. They are chaos-generating machines—not closed systems, but open ones. A new incomprehensible infinite.

The sociologist Luciana Parisi said that computational systems could be thought of as an extreme rationalization of life. At the same time, Parisi could not imagine “a world in which rationality has been replaced by arbitrariness of information. Far from it: computational randomness corresponds to infinite volumes of data that are meaningful contingencies which refuse to be fully comprehended, compressed and sensed by totalities. (…) From another standpoint, the emphasis on the new tendencies of algorithms to be overshadowed by infinite volumes of data explains the ingression of computational logic into culture.”

More than this, due to dependency on the data we produce, complex systems based on computation can be seen as a distorted reflection of what we do and who we are. The artist Hito Steyerl described them as a new divination; the elaboration of data can predict the behavior of certain physical actions that we and our surrounding world can produce. In one of her last projects, Steyerl used software consisting of an algorithm which could predict the future behavior of a pit fire. The algorithm did so based on data from a short video of a real pit fire. The result was as unpredictable as divination: the digital fire was recognizable, but it appeared in unrealistic new configurations.

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Just as the pit fire is reflected through computational systems, we can see ourselves reflected, and maybe distorted, in data-based divinatory visions. An algorithm appears to know us. It can predict our actions. This is scary—and it is seductive.

But it is also much more than that. The new sublime is more complex than Burke’s “delightful horror.” It is an unstable mix of impossibility (of control), ignorance (of the unknown), and fear (of our reflection). The computational landscape is the geographical representation of this new sublime.

Cables, pipes, robots, servers. These noumenal objects become elements of a new techno-ecology that treats everything the same way, whether natural or inorganic. This is the “mutual programmed harmony” between mammals and robots that poet Richard Brautigan described in his 1967 poem All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: in “a cybernetic forest” inhabited by “pines and electronics,” animals “stroll peacefully past computers as if they were flowers.”

Imagine a computational geography as a techno-ecological landscape where autonomous algorithm-driven machines meet the biological sphere in symbiosis. Imagine this landscape is a fulfillment center. Expanded, the fulfillment center becomes a logistics landscape so big that it cannot be reduced to an architectural scale. As it grows, it begins to meld with the biosphere.

The grid that spans the fulfillment center’s floor becomes the support for a logistical choreography. Autonomous machines—Kivas—are freed from their architectural limits and can finally connect with the biosphere. There are no walls or ceilings in this logistical landscape.

Now imagine the consumer—a virtual flâneur—peacefully sitting on the same landscape. She is watching the machines pass by while scrolling through Amazon’s offerings. She finds a product and taps “Buy.” This triggers an electronic signal that shoots through a vast network of underground and underwater cables. It reaches a server in a fulfillment center, which transmits this as a specific order.

The Kiva reacts immediately. It begins to consider the most efficient way to fulfill its task. It moves rapidly along the gridded surface of the logistics landscape, mapping its movements along the markers on the ground. This surface is little more than a series of electronic chips that the machines use as paths. Around the markers and chips that span this vast logistical landscape, vegetation begins to grow. It occupies every free space, using the restless movement of Kivas as biological vectors.

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The Kiva finally reaches the shelf holding the desired product. It carries the product to another series of machines that, with an extremely rapid process of repetitive and hypnotic movements, move, wrap, and scan the product until it is ready to be delivered.

Here, the Amazon Prime Air—a drone—arrives from its cybernetic nest. It lands and takes the package. Like a synthetic bird, it pollinates a meadow full of blooming flowers as it passes. It becomes an agent of biodiversity. Flying above the logistics landscape, the drone dodges swallows migrating for the summertime. It then delivers its package to the consumer.

In this world, nature—machine-determined nature—is free of the nostalgic presumptions of untamed wilderness. It is the result of market dynamics. It breaks every culture/nature dualism. The Kiva robot, the shelves, and the Amazon drone are as natural as the indigenous weeds infesting the grid through which the machines move.

Contemplating a logistics landscape, we face the immediate physical effects of our virtual actions. These effects appear as a distortion of ourselves, perhaps making us feel stupid. Hard as we try, we cannot understand the real mechanism behind this logistical apparatus. The logistics landscape makes us aware of the uncontrollable power of the machines surrounding us.

When we contemplate a logistics landscape, we access the new sublime.

The computational landscapes with their systems (algorithms) “are no longer or are not simply instructions to be performed, but have become performing entities: actualities that select, evaluate, transform, and produce data,” Parisi wrote in Contagious Architecture. They “construct the digital spatio-temporalities that program the architectural forms and urban infrastructures, and thereby modes of living.”

A computational landscape can then become what Brautigan called “a cybernetic ecology” where we are finally “free of our labors and joined back to nature, returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,” and where we can experience a new sublime while cradled by a natural automated technology that is looking over us and taking care of us.


Founded by Politecnico di Milano alumni Francesca Luci, Margherita Marri, and Andrea Mologni, CAPTCHA is a research platform that investigates the field of techno-ecology. The collective recently curated the exhibition Machine(s) of Loving Grace for Milano Arch Week 2019.