Benjamin Bratton on the urgency of articulating new forms of collective reason and self-organization.
Strelka Institute’s The Terraforming program is an interdisciplinary design research think-tank convened to preemptively address the issue of planetary urbanism. The name refers to the need to fundamentally transform Earth’s cities, technologies, and ecosystems to ensure that the planet will be capable of supporting Earth-like life. Artificiality, astronomy, and automation form the basis of that alternative planetarity. For this, the question of governance—knowing, modeling, mobilization, regulation, distribution, enforcement—comes to the fore. This determines how some futures might be prevented so that others can be composed and realized.
For this, we emphasize the inflection point drawn by the culturally-bound confusion of “world” with “planet.” World is, in our case, Earth as experienced. A world is different for different people, creatures, and things. It does not exist until it is experienced, conceived, and formalized as such. Planet, however, is what makes worlds possible. Worlds emerge from a planetary condition that precedes them, that exceeds them, and that gives them form. Some worlds, namely those of human sapience but not exclusively, have come to reveal, discover, and conceptualize that planetary precedence as the precondition of thought. Recently, Astronomy and Geology have led and Philosophy and Politics have followed.
What then is the relation between planetarity and planetary governance? It is based on the position of intelligence from which such intervention might take place, and how that position might comprehend the situation of its agency. It passes through the agency of intelligence and the intelligence of agency. It must be a position and situation that safeguards and innovates forms of differentiation and order, not desertification and chaos. What does this entail? It means not simply the application of management as the already known, but as the cultivation of competencies that reflect the complexity of the project. It is not just the exercise of politics at a larger scale, but the reinvention of enforceable self-organization. It is not just the deployment of technology at hand, but the conjuring of geotechnologies that can enable the needed compositional aspirations. It is not just the invocation of extant social cosmologies, but the willed emergence of others based in the scientific cosmology of this century (and the next).
Our title is meant with a wink, to gently trigger those impulses against the very premise of planetary governance as being somehow intrinsically totalitarian, and to steer the connotations of this ominous phrase in more productive directions. Each of these terms, “new,” “world,” and “order” is in scare quotes because their term, scope, and implication are posed as questions not as conclusions, even as they define the direction toward which our invitation moves.
That said, the term “New World Order” deserves rehabilitation. That will be difficult. It comes from the early twentieth-century socialist globalism of people like H.G. Wells and only later comes out of the mouth of George H. W. Bush, but by then it had already become a work of collaborative speculative design by conspiracy theorists the world over to imagine an incipient one-world tyranny. They imagine the NWO happening in the background, everywhere and nowhere, and at all times. It is governance that perforates the borders and membranes so dear to nationalists and patriarchs. We like this part. In their minds, however, it is a top-down totalitarian regime of sadistic and even Satanic control for its own sake. I wonder, if perhaps they themselves actually want this thing they fear so badly that they project it as the doings of shadowy others? Sometimes they even hit on something interesting. As they imagine it, their version of Agenda 21 sounds rather intriguing, not to mention their recent fantastic vision of “Jewish space lasers” (why not?). But fevered eschatology isn’t the only history and it’s certainly not the only future of the idea. In fact, we need to ask again how order can be brought to a planetary condition so that it might be judiciously both preserved and transformed.
If the pandemic is a wake-up call that international anarchy can no longer hold, then the question is what forms may fill this void? Which way to guarantee preservation, to equitably distribute the populations of people on the surfaces? How to employ planetary-scale computation for what is most important? How may these and other propositions be seen not only in historical terms but even astronomical terms as well—that is, as modes of planetarity? These are the questions that should define what we mean by “new,” what we mean by “world,” and what we mean by “order.”
There is no time to waste. The pandemic and the crises of governance it laid bare were a sign of things to come. The international system could not respond to the planetary crisis because it was not built to do so; it is an architecture of and for another era. For the same reason, it will fail to properly address the climate crises, the political economy of automation, the human right to spatial access and so many other defining questions of our shared future. They are slow-wave conditions that cannot solve themselves through spontaneity; they must be met with new modes of planning, mobilization, and structures, but very likely not in forms recognizable to the international system as it exists.
For that, we will need to conceive and construct a different culture of governance. Societies must have the ability to not simply produce and consume mindlessly but to deliberately compose themselves. Planless emergence may be the background force of evolution, but deliberation and deliberateness have themselves emerged and must be re-embraced as the basis of collective agency. This is a matter of scale as well as leverage. If societies are able to sense themselves, model themselves, and act back upon themselves, then this also means recognizing that society is planetary and has been so long before Modernity. If we’re going to construct the basis of a twenty-second century worth living through, our capacity for self-composition must be the subject of our most intense imagination and reason.
Planetary vs. Global Governance
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were full of ideas for world governments. Some of which we look upon as hopelessly naive, some of which contain essentially good ideas that both did and did not pan out. Planetary governance must be seen not just as an extension of Internationalism but in contrast to it. Internationalism, such as the United Nations, is a kind of Federalism. It presumes the sanctity of the isomorphic Nation-State, and it understands the organization of the world as primarily the circumscription of plots of land. In many ways, it is fundamentally ethnocentric, fundamentally traditionalist, and as such its form represents a misalignment of the governor and the governed. Planetary governance must meet and align with the scale, tempo, and structure of the conditions with which it is asked to operate, not all of which are defined by human populations and their popular voice and will. If those problems are planetary, then trying to cohere them around the game theory dynamics of locally embedded sovereign zones called countries disables the paths that should be open.
None of this is to suggest that the State as such dissolves, but rather than it evolves. Instead of disappearing it may expand from circumscribed territory to a more hemispherical scope, something constructed in the image of provision and platform more than flag and fatherland. Fortunately or unfortunately, the default markers of the current International Order—individuation of populations, humanist populism, the legal division of public and private institutions, Federalism, Rights regimes, and even the sovereignty of legislation may also slip or slide into new guises and purposes.
If the near and long-term futures of planetary governance depart from the past and present of global governance—this will not be welcome news for those who defend the properly (capital P) “Political” from incursion by new realities. The reactionary physics of Carl Schmitt and his tributary thinkers on both the Left and the Right may have good cause to lament the crisis of “agonistic contestation” as both the authentic means and ends, but that may be because their comfortable political theology can no longer speak to what it is now asked to adjudicate any more than the King can code.
This shift has everything to do with the end of the “Post-Cold War Era” and its characteristic ideologies and commitments. In the West, the elevation of “the Political” as an ideal came with a corresponding denigration of “governance,” whereas in Asia, the inverse was perhaps more true. So many books got it so wrong. On the Right, the free market libertarians became convinced that bottom-up emergence was all that was needed. But in fact, this gave way to huge platforms, corporations, and technocracies that are based on deliberate, top-down, structured long-term planning, and are successful for it. On the Left, the deconstruction of governmentality was honed into increasingly fine filters. For many, the valorization of sovereign individuals or vitalist life that must never be captured by governing apparatuses became an article of faith. But if power is nowhere or everywhere, where does governance reside? Is it disqualified, and if so, is it any wonder that societal self-composition is now so difficult? Perhaps instead, this is where infrastructure and governance converge, by provision and mobilization?
We may look back upon what one hopes is the recently crested wave of revanchist populism not just as a fundamentalist response to reflexive modernity but also as the harbinger of a particular kind of globalization of politics. The funding networks, the consulting wings, the messaging gurus, the constituents’ profiles and demographics all show this to be a global movement within existing party politics structures. While sanctimonious opinion may decry the interference from “foreign” ideas, players and data, instead of responding to a nationalist movement by re-nationalizing politics it would be better to envision what planetary-scale party politics might really look like. What slates of candidates and platforms extended across the world’s democracies, such as they are, might be best able to facilitate viable planetary governance? Instead of seeing this as the interference of sovereignty, would it not be more accurate to see it as the removal of interference in sovereignty and self-determination?
For the near and long-term future of planetary governance, the role of planetary-scale computation is also likely paramount. As I’ve written in The Stack, we need to see planetary-scale computation as composed of interlocking modular layers, each of which can be replaced and displaced in different cycles and functions. For governance, the significance of planetary-scale computation is not just in calculation as a means or ends, but in its capacity to sense, model and recursively act back upon the planet from which it emerges and in which it is situated.
Planetary-scale computation is also a way of making artificial space and artificial time that supports or challenges existing organizations of both. That is, while it distorts and deforms traditional political geographies, it also produces new spaces in its own image. Because it does this, geopolitical competition over planetary-scale computation—now predominantly between the United States and China—is a competition not just to claim and occupy that artificial space but indeed to define what it is in the first place. This is qualitatively different from a competition over land that may have driven earlier geopolitics, for which the line on the map might be contested but the ground itself is a given. For planetary-scale computation, the map is contested but the territory itself is absolutely not a given. In fact, the territory may be produced by the contestation of the map more than the map is produced by the territory.
Planetary-scale computation is both something that demands governance and something through which governance knows and acts. The very notion of “climate change” comes from the sensing, modeling, and calculation of the measurable change in a planet in ways well beyond direct human reckoning. The simulation of the past, present, and future becomes collective intelligence, both voice and tool for governing intervention based on its implications. If advertising is the negative example, then Earth Sciences is one positive model for what planetary-scale computation is actually for. “Control” then is an aspiration more than an accusation, because the real accomplishments of the collective model are epistemological: they disclose a reality that precedes and exceeds us. They allow for a recursive knowing which allows for a collective self-knowledge and the possibility of self-composition. Ultimately, this is what planetary governance means. To refuse or suppress this is to embrace ignorance as a false innocence; it is to abdicate the human species’ own sapience, reason, cunning, and responsibility. There is nothing more serious.
If good governance is, finally, the enforceability of a decision based on equitable and accurate modeling, then algorithmic governance is an automation of decision. This is even more deeply political than those who defend The Political can grasp. But what’s new and what’s different? What is not different is that humans are governed by the accumulation of many very small decisions about where they go, who they are, what happens next. What is new is that it becomes possible to pre-program the chains of decisions into the physical world itself, such that the world is simply something about which the law is deciding. Now the world itself decides. The gateway opens and closes for you, or opens or closes for me, because of how it is programmed, not because of the decision of the guard standing in front of it. For some, this is a prison, for others an escape route. Today, the automation of decision into infrastructures makes contact with governance more direct, immanent, material. This physical construction of space at the scale of the city, or the interface, or the public service, or the private protocol are all ways that governance works that do not require roundabout credentialization by legal prefiguration. Is this the State dissolved into things or the State absolutized or something altogether different? We shall see, but we do know that the city outlasts the regime that built it.
Planetarity and its Challenges
The challenges of planetarity shift the project of governance at its core. Instead of mediation of popular voice, it rotates toward the administration and allocation of viable ecosystems, inclusive of human societies and their myriad entanglements and semiotics. The luminary humanists of the last century see this taking shape in the haze but can’t quite make out what to do. The desperate languages persist.
Just when coordinated human rationality and solidarity are most needed, Bruno Latour asks us to rescind the hubris of “the Moderns” (a vague abstraction at best that gets yet more suspicious with each new book) and to recognize instead a “parliament” of always-local nonhuman actors. Curious. Even worse, Isabelle Stengers recommends the embrace of a neo-vitalism and animism for a “compositionism” so passive that it barely registers as action at all. These and other versions of Kitsch Posthumanism are bound by their arch-Europeanist moral renunciation of technical reason (other than as a presently unattainable ideal) and an indeterminate embrace of the space of difference that they imagine embodied by the Continent’s “Others” who are, in truth, not waiting around for permission to organize with all due instrumental rationality. For planetary governance, so many of their giant blind spots must be filled in, especially the inability to conceive of anything not on a menu of narcissistic liberalism, reductive economism, cartoonish totalitarianism, or their own sleepy slouch into post-secular comforts. Fortunately, other paths are open to us.
The discovery and recognition that humans are not metaphysically unique or separate from our planetary entanglements lead some to conclude that our capacity for sapient self-reflection and technical reason is also an illusion, and one to be chastened. We draw a different conclusion: that sapience, technical reason, prospective foresight, and the transformation of habitat into artifact is what planetary entanglement actually is and does. The planetary particularity of Earth is that these coalesce in our species, but they are hardly necessarily exclusive to us, and may be increasingly built into synthetic forms all around us. These are not offenses to “Nature” best left beyond comprehension, but they are, undeniably, equally as often destructive of the physical conditions of their own possibility. What then? Ultimately, the question is not just how to make the evolution of intelligence “sustainable” on the anthropometric scales of human culture but on the planetary scale of its astronomic uniqueness.
There is no way to approach the question of planetary scale computation and governance without also staring straight into the ecological and material costs of computation. Inclusive of this are the costs of training very large models based on brute force deep learning, but also weighing what is and isn’t the purpose and cost of intelligence as such. The emergence of synthetic intelligence that is non-carbon-based but of comparable complexity and scope, even if necessarily non-anthropomorphic, is absolutely worth a high cost (and so is artificial intelligence which mimics that). That is, in considering the planetary costs of synthetic intelligence, also consider the planetary costs of natural intelligence, the churning caloric-intensive violences from Homo habilis to the caves of Chauvet, Lascaux, and Lubang Jeriji Saléh, and in doing so ask if the long-term evolution of intelligence—human, other animal, silicon-based, and massively distributed hybrids of all of these—isn’t the closest thing to a planetary telos we are likely to find.
Harking back to my original set of questions, it is impossible for me not to observe a dark parallel between the evolution of human sapient intelligence, bound as it was and is to the abstractions of war and politics, and that of computational intelligence, bound as it is to the wounds of extraction and ecological degradation. Both overlapping positions of reason are built of not only aspiration and inspiration but also of gore and cruelty. If planetary intelligence is to succeed in the very long term, it must heal the conditions of its own appearance. It is born into a crisis that it must now address, or risk extinction.
This moment is defined by the attempt to make sense of the evolutionary predicament of being sapient as a rare and precious planetary circumstance and of how this intelligence is itself seen in the reflection of the violence and destruction that is indissoluble from its own emergence. The question asked by that reflection looking back at us is whether this violence was a necessary condition of the emergence of planetary intelligence, and even if so, if the growth and expression of that intelligence for the future is now to account for and graduate from that violence? Perhaps the futurity of planetary intelligence is now just as inextricable from the disappearance of irrational destruction as its evolutionary appearance was from the rolling waves of destructions that made it possible in the first place?
If so, then intelligence remakes itself by remaking the planet. Its specific talents for social self-organization based on communicable abstractions and technical mediation is not just something that happened on Earth; it is something that the Earth does. Over millions of years, this particular planet has folded itself in such a way to form mammalian brains and through them diverse forms of cunning and reason, including those of the human, which eventually came to ascertain its uniqueness and its aloneness in the astronomic neighborhood. It is not only capable of remaking the planet in the image of its industries, both petty and mighty, but also to comprehend and conceptualize the significance of this fact.
And so it has now come to a fork in a very long road. Is the revelation of its position of agency a cause for the abdication of that power, given the destruction that the angel of history retroactively surveys? Or, is this revelation of consequences a kind of threshold of maturation after which, this intelligence—a human intelligence because a planetary intelligence—might now, finally, be able to act back upon the planet with care, precisely because it now bears the ponderous weight of its precarious isolation?
Finally, there is no way to approach the question of planetarity without considering with wonder that we are an embedded species capable of mapping its own astronomic isolation but also of contemplating the significance of that isolation. The idea that our universe was teeming with life nearby persisted in the scientific community even into the 1970s, but it is a hope that has been dashed. It has been replaced by the Rare Earth hypothesis that suggests not only that advanced technological civilizations are rare, but life itself is incredibly rare. It is incredibly unlikely that we would find ourselves in this moment. It is unlikely that this moment would even be a thing. What is not entirely unlikely, unfortunately, is the extinction of the only species that we know of that is capable of understanding this moment as a moment in this way. That species realizes not only that it can compose itself, but that if such awareness and understanding as such is going to survive into the deep future, then it must compose itself and its condition. And that, in essence, is the definition of “governance” to which we should aspire: not simply the exercise of public authority, but the exercise of collective reason or, more specifically, what I call general sapience. Planetary governance is, or should be, the exercise of our capacity for collective self-composition, not just of the planet but as the planet.