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Excerpt: ‘The Terraforming’ by Benjamin H. Bratton

, Bookshelf

The latest book by design theorist and Strelka Program Director Benjamin Bratton outlines the argument behind The Terraforming, the new research project at Strelka Institute. Examining a new Copernican turn, it proposes a planetary design initiative for the next century to ensure that the planet will be capable of supporting Earth-like life. The book was released by Strelka Press.

The Terraforming is the new tuition-free Strelka education program beginning in 2020, directed by Benjamin H. Bratton. The program will be based in Moscow and will include two field trips—one within Russia and one to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Applications are being accepted until October 31.

Below is an excerpt from The Terraforming book—the chapter “Black Star.”

“The naive American contemplates the sky; the Russian, or at least that Russian, settles in the sky, and contemplates the Earth.”

—Chris Marker on Tarkovsky (1999)



Perhaps to our shame, there was never a grassroots campaign asking the question: “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of a Black Hole?” Nevertheless, one appeared in 2019 and immediately took its place among a small group of the most significant images made by human technology. But for what are these images significant, and how so? The darkness of a black hole is absolutely empty, so part of what makes this image significant is that it signifies true nothingness.



The thing we see as an “image” was constructed from data produced not by a conventional camera, but by Event Horizon, a network of telescopes harmonized to focus on the same location at the same time. The resolution of any image depends on the aperture of the camera, and this noncontiguous perception engine linked telescopes from Greenland to Antarctica— an aperture as wide as the Earth. To make this image, our planet itself became the camera, peering out and looking back in time at ancient light that traveled to Earth—indeed, in this case looked out at time. Locally, the eight sites of the Event Horizon array were locked into synchronization by a GPS time standard and after their scans, five petabytes of data were developed into the “image” of the black hole. The mechanism is less a camera than a vast sensing surface: a different kind of difference engine. What we see in the resulting image is the orangey accretion disc of glowing gas being sucked into the void of M87*, outlined by all the non-void it is about to consume. It is 6.5 million times more massive than our sun and roughly 53 million light years away. The light that hit the Event Horizon telescopic sensing array was emitted during the early Eocene period here on Earth, a time of dramatic climate methane flux. Much closer by, there is a supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way. That’s right, we have always been circling an omnivorous void.



The Black Hole image is part of a lineage of astronomic imaging, always based in the folding of minerals into sensory media that render for us stunning pictures of our planetary perch and others besides. Central among these are multispectral images of Earth’s biosphere and technosphere and thereby the computational profiles that constitute climate science. The first image of Earth from space was taken in 1946 by the United States using a captured V2 rocket—a sign of things to come. In the early and mid-1960s, lunar orbiters sent back images of Earth as seen from the orbit of its moon. The Soviet Mars orbiters, Mars-2 and Mars-3, took images of the Red Planet in late 1971 and early 1972. The former crash-landed, becoming the first human artifact on Mars (the first human artifact on another planet was the Soviet Venera-3 probe, which crashed onto Venus in 1966). Mars-3 also sent down a probe which managed a soft landing and was able, perhaps, to transmit back an image of something. It is unclear as to whether the image received before the lander went offline is of the Martian horizon, a sandstorm, or simply an interesting smear of black and white noise. Such is the apophenia of astronomic remote vision. If it was a picture of Mars, then this would beat Viking 1’s very clear images from the surface of Mars by four years. If not, then Venera-9, having successfully landed on Venus in 1975, sent back what would still be the first images from the surface of another planet.



The most literally iconic images of Earth from space come from the Apollo program: Earthrise and Blue Marble. In 1972, astronaut Harrison Schmitt pointed his camera box out the window of his Apollo 17 spacecraft and took several images, one of which became Blue Marble—an image that would later adorn a billion t-shirts. In addition to providing a visual identity for the nascent ecological movement, it symbolized what Frank White would later term the “overview effect”: a numinous feeling of profound awareness felt by many who have experienced spaceflight and seen the entirety of our pale blue dot all at once. In 1948 (two years after that first V2 rocket picture of the horizon was taken, but before it had been made public), British astronomer Fred Hoyle surmised that “once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension [...] Once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” The notion of perceiving the whole from the outside would motivate Stewart Brand’s campaign to show us “a photograph of a whole Earth,” what he called a “mirror” that might bring a cosmological shift for all who would gaze upon it and honestly seek its lesson. The geopolitical implications had been outlined in Spaceship Earth, Buckminster Fuller’s 1968 manifesto for a planetary planning regime (!), that would lend its name to a tourist attraction at Disney World by 1982. And so it goes.



It is well known that the original image taken by Schmitt had the South Pole positioned “above” Africa, but that the version publicly disseminated deliberately rotated the perspective to place the Southern Hemisphere below the Northern in accordance with mapping conventions and primitive hierarchies. But what orientation is true? The Mercatur cartographic projection is a world picture drawn from a virtual perspective from “up” in space, and as such gave orientation to a global geopolitical era. To finally “decolonize” Blue Marble would, however, not be just to un-flip it, putting ‘up’ and ‘down’ back where they belong, but rather to affirm that all such orientations are arbitrary. The tradition is feeble. All horizons are in this way false. As Sun Ra put it, “space is not only high, it’s low. It’s a bottomless pit.”



Schmitt himself went the other direction, spending his career back on ground and giving voice to his version of climate change denialism. Is this surprising? From his position as a United States senator, he held that the scientific consensus regarding the crisis was an excuse to implement a planetary management regime that he compared, without joking, to “national socialism.” So what kind of “overview effect” did he experience up there? How similar was it to the effect experienced by, William Anders, who snapped the Earthrise image as the Apollo 8 crew orbited the moon? As they did, they took turns reading from the King James Version of the Book of Genesis to a worldwide television audience on Christmas Eve 1968, ceremonially dedicating humanity’s foray off its home planet to the principles of medieval creationism. Given this, is it such a surprise that despite the ubiquity of the globe-as-image, the solipsisms of flat-earth worldviews continue to persist? Wasn’t Blue Marble already an icon of geocentrism?



Decades earlier when, Edmund Husserl aimed to “overthrow the Copernican theory in the usual interpretation of a world view” because it upset “Man” from his early horizon, and because “the original ark [arche], Earth, does not move”— going so far as to say that “Galileo is not more true than Aristotle”—he testified to how deeply incomplete the Copernican turn was and is in philosophy. The lament of Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, heard in his 1938 lecture “The Age of the World Picture,” in which he warns us against how modern mechanical abstraction turns the world itself into a picture, seems chillingly quaint when re-read in the context of planets now assembling the physical media by which they scan outward into the depths. In “Only A God Can Save Us,” a 1966 interview with Der Speigel, Heidegger famously dictated, “I was certainly scared when I recently saw the photographs of the Earth taken from the moon. We don’t need an atom bomb at all; the uprooting of human beings is already taking place.” What kind of human does he mean, and what kind of roots are they supposed to have? He goes on to say, “We only have purely technological conditions left. It is no longer an Earth on which human beings live today.” Instead, we might put it differently by saying that only as humans are uprooted from geocentric intuition can they ever have a planet at all. The Earth that is lost for him is one that had appeared in the mystified aura of a world that is singular, original, and central, given by and for our being. Its horizons were grounding, up until the point at which we could look around the other side. Still, even as they might have alarmed some phenomenologists, images like Blue Marble are at best the work of a transitional humanism that did not and cannot decommission vestigial anthropocentric self-regard and self-representation nearly enough. For that, we would have to wait a few more years for Black Hole to appear, and probably a few more for its anti-significance to absorb us and uproot us.



The Black Hole image is a kind of “world picture” that is crucially not a picture of our Earth, but rather a picture taken by the Earth of its surroundings—for which we served as essential enablers. Imagine the Earth wrapped in the Event Horizon telescope array as an amoeba-like creature, at long last opening its little eye to sense what is nearby. With its coordinated sensory cells, it sees not only that the space around it is empty, but also focuses in on a particular distant speck of hyperdense blackness, however unlikely that may be. The collected data is aggregated by tiny mammals who live inside the camera, and who render it into a visible figure that they can view and share. The image is the opposite of what they call a mirror, in that it shows them not themselves in the world, but the abyss in which they can never be reflected. True, the planet folded itself to make humans, who in turn fold the planet to turn it into an astronomic camera, and so much of the antecedent frameworks of cognition that the image implies are based on our way of looking, but that process reflected back in the image positions homo sapiens as a kind of auto-generated smart bacteria swarming around on the surface of that amoeba: a transitive enabling layer. In the sensory data rendered into an image, we see an abyss in which we cannot see ourselves as we now understand ourselves to be. The unconscious star-sucking void is blind and deaf to our orientations of horizon. Black Hole is, in the best possible sense, a terrifying image.



If Blue Marble signaled a revitalized alloy of humanism and creationism, made by a single human looking in the mirror and framing his sense of place looking down from above, then Black Hole reveals a far more powerful inhuman scope and condition that defies articulation, as it looks not only up but out. If Blue Marble implied a global village by putting apex creationists in charge of a mythical garden, Black Hole demands a different planetary regime by rendering humans as a privileged mediating residue that sets in motion further generalized cognition. The two worlds could not be more different. This is a new profile for us and one that will take some getting used to.



The incompleteness of the Copernican turn attests both to its difficulty and to its openendedness. The first Copernican turn entailed at once a disorientation of individual perception and interpretation (an apparently traveling sun now seen to be still), a dismantling of anthropocentric cosmological architectures (heliocentrism as common sense), a disruptive shift in the geopolitical and geoeconomic architectures that draw legitimacy from such models (“E pur si muove”/ “and yet it moves”—uttered in defiance by Galileo at his trial), followed by Kant’s critiques dedicated, in principle, to this turn. Today, the Copernican turn also means the reorganization of the Earth not only as it “truly is,” but as it may be. The traumatic difficulty of the turn comes from our own evolutionary accomplishments. Our intuition includes cunning and our cognitive models include narrative abstractions that motivate and mobilize extraordinary cooperation—even when obviously arbitrary—including the durability and coherence of institutions that mediate authority to enforce that cooperation. However, as our expanded cognition and agency developed coextensively with technologies, the new perceiving apparatuses would accomplish desired functions but would also sometimes reveal an utterly counter-intuitive reality in conflict with the model of the world that enabled them as technical innovations in the first place (models can imply the need for machines that, when used properly, prove that the model is false). This process is the basis of the Copernican turn in a nutshell: again, a conceptual model develops a technical system to extend how it understands the world, but what is revealed about the world by that technical system undermines the conceptual model that made way for the technical system. Resistance to this surprising revelation’s implications in order to protect the integrity of the initial model is a tenacious adherence both to a familiar idea of the world and also to the primacy of representation as such. Representations can resist interference by the represented.



As the Copernican turn is said to puncture human “narcissism,” as Freud suggested, this should be taken to mean not only a stubborn self-centering, but also a dangerous adherence to the reflected image. Is this what Blue Marble ended up doing? If so, this extends to the contemporary moment, in which representation is sometimes given a special status by which it is seen as more likely to cause the represented than to be caused by it. It extends to the notion that technologies always reflect, absorb, or otherwise discursively represent human culture more than they shape the context by which culture operates, and certainly more than any technology reveals any pre-discursive reality. Instead, as we look through the Black Hole image and back at ourselves, seen not in reflection but from an outside that would always precede us, the whole automated apparatus that we designed (and which designs us in turn) looks also back onto the Earth’s surface and asks the question that drives the research of The Terraforming program: “where should the cities go?”

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