In 1996, I was living in the Congo Brazzaville during almost 4 years. I was working with an NGO on cultural heritage. One afternoon, while killing time with my friend Armand, he showed me a dead tree lying on the street, and started to explain that, during the night, this tree would turn into a large 747 Boeing plane … then taking off from this street of a poor suburb of Brazzaville, it would fly into the sky toward Paris, to lend there on the Champs Elysée avenue. All this during the night. There, the witch and his colleagues would leave the aircraft, and open the doors of the shops, which sell technological goods, such as plasma screens, fridges, computers etc… to bring them into the aircraft. After that, they would take off from Paris Champs Elysées avenue and fly back to Brazzaville, until this street of the Bacongo neighborhood. Then they would unload the magical aircraft of all these goods, and transform it back into its original shape: an old dead tree… Believe me or not, this is true.
What my friend Armand, who was a computer analyst, described without any single doubt, remained stuck in my mind for many years, as an echo of the Western theory of the Cargo Cult in ethnological studies.
The Cargo cult was first described as a Melanesian movement encompassing a diverse range of practices and occurring in the wake of contact with the commercial networks of colonizing societies.
In traditional societies colonized by the modern Man, a form of reappropriation of the freedom to enjoy the attributes and technological goods of the invader has always occurred in many different ways.
The analysis synthesized by ethnologists, in the wake of the emergence of such myths, which show a break in time of the group’s traditional cosmogony, has come within the scope of social sciences as a way of reacting to the frustration of the native’s desire, that de facto confirms the superiority of the white man and above all of his modern attributes.
The modern scientific Thought has summarized as the “Cargo Cult” the production of beliefs relating to Modernity’s objects, such as domestic appliances, computers, etc… But no one has ever asked the question of traditional societies’ perception regarding the fact that traditional everyday objects or sacred ancient ones have been collected and gathered in Western modern institutions like ethnology museums.
And yet it seems that, in many respects, the way ethnological objects are worshiped and gathered in museums, where you have to line up, wait and pay your ticket to have the chance to admire such or such fetish, continues another form of belief, these objects refer to… The French ethnologist Monique Jeudy-Ballini used to live in the South of New Guinea, where the conservation of old masks has never existed, because the Papua New Guinea communities, especially from the Sepic society, used to destroy the masks as part of the ritual…
There, she explained to people living in very remote areas of New Brittany, that in Europe, we were installing old masks and statues from their area in places, where people could pay and see them. Here is what they answered: “So you get our old objects to put them in temples, worship them and meditate in front of them?”
Thinking about things in a complementary way (in an endless reciprocating way) is fundamental when one thinks the complexity of Human Kind’s structure.
That’s why it is important, beyond this theoretical and rational scholars’ synthesis, to be sensitive to the incredible flexibility of the magical that binds the technological in the “Cargo cult”. Because what sounds, for a Western anthropological modern mind, as an invention of myths due to ignorance and frustration, appears as another form of philosophy.
As the Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne says in “ African Art As Philosophy ”: “sacred or secular objects in traditional societies devoid of a system of writing, embody not an Art but a Philosophy”. The fascination for Western objects, observed as the “Cargo Cult”, leads to a production of new concepts, as an answer to the Western modern hegemony, helped by colonization.
But the core stake here goes beyond the social-economical and social-political injustice.
From the concrete limited social order to the immaterial infinity of beliefs, the widely open minded thought, the Cargo cult is about, draws the perspective from an animist conception of the universe, to the digital and its complex endless agency, which has no limits because based on algorithms…
The story of the transformed plane shows indeed clearly another form of repair, beyond the political position. From one natural element (a tree) to a cultural and technological one (a plane), this repair mimics a natural instinct for improvement, which has always existed within Nature, but here doing metaphorically the movement from Nature to Culture.
And there is more…
From a natural state to engineering of steel and gas, the myth of the appropriation of modern power is built here on a transformation helped by a belief in the magic. This transformation allows the fellow of the group to be part of the modern order, and then adapt to the new technological environment he’s confronted to.
Struggling for centuries against their environment by developing an endless ability to adapt, traditional cultures, newly colonized by the Western modern agenda, had to readapt to a new environment. An environment, where the secular relation between the individual and the social group you belong to was not more important, than the relation between the individual and the machine within a dogmatic hegemonic order called Modernity…
A metaphor of the movement between the natural gregarious instinct, the individual and groups shared in all traditional societies since Neanderthal, and the individualist cultural environment brought by the colonializing modernity, recalls de facto one of the main criterion of the theory of the evolution of species: adaptation to the environment’s shifts in order to survive…
So two polarized crucial issues emerge from this phenomenon named the cargo cult, in the light of the repair as a concept, and so, from the political to the magical…
On the one hand, the concrete one, the Repair articulates a socio-political and socio-cultural adaptation. On the other hand, the immaterial one, the Repair articulates a virtual adaptation that the rhetoric of illusion animist beliefs and digitalization share…
The Human mind constantly questions its time, its past, and its future, in order to endlessly adapt to its changing environment. It comes from thousands of years of teaching its brain to understand the world. This reaction repairs a state of unsuitability toward a new environment. The conclusion of my article “The Loop”, published in Supercommunity, day 44, answered the question: “Is the Universe a gigantic computer ? ” by “ The Universe is not a gigantic computer, but Human Kind is mimicking one. “
Adaptation to change is only a mimesis of the natural order of things, to which Human Kind is subordinated. They only reproduce the model of resistance through adaptation that exists among all living species.
It seems fundamental here to come back to the theory that has forever fixed the universal structure of the evolution of species.
This notion of natural evolution through adaptation has been at the core of modernity’s naturalist scientific thought, in the midst of the 19th century’s colonial and industrial era.
But it’s important to remember that this theory was not only put forward by Charles Darwin, as people commonly think.
While Darwin, already celebrated by the Linnaean Society, slowly works for 20 years on the writing of his theory of the evolution of species, he receives in 1858 the book of someone unknown in the scientific scene, named Alfred Russel Wallace.
Alfred Russel Wallace is a British naturalist, geographer, explorer, anthropologist, and biologist. Darwin barely knows him, because they just exchanged letters on the issue of evolution, but nothing more. Wallace is an autodidact, who had to drop from school at 16 to work with his brother because their father was broke. Darwin comes from sciences’ aristocracy. His grandfather Erasmus Darwin had left an important mark on that time’s contemporary sciences. Wallace is 35 when he sends his book to Darwin, who will be deeply depressed after reading it. Indeed, this book, gathering Wallace’s observations on the Malay archipelago, is word for word the theory that himself his writing, but with lightning reasoning and a quickness to conclude in a clear-sighted way.
Darwin later answered Wallace to invite him to develop the theory on the evolution of species with him, which will lead to the terminology “natural selection”.
They will remain friend all their life, despite a fundamental controversy on the issue of the natural selection, of adaptation, to which we shall now come back.
So Wallace reached the same conclusions as the old naturalist Darwin regarding the evolution of species. However, he does not use the expression “natural selection”, and considers the mechanism of evolution as the result of environmental pressure. Whereas for Darwin, it comes from a competition between the members of the same species. The difference is tiny, and they anyway worked together on the theory, until Wallace created a fundamental controversy. It will lead to a discord that will make Darwin write: “I hope you haven’t totally killed your and my child”
In 1869 he announced that, in the end, he wanted to limit the scope of the natural selection, when Man is concerned. One of his main arguments was that the brain of prehistoric men was disproportionate compared to their needs, which was a clear contradiction with the fact that natural selection works following the principle of immediate utility. He wrote: “Man comes from an inferior animal form, but (…) has been modified in a special way by another force, the action of which has come in addition to the one of the natural selection.” This force had an impact on Man’s environment and vice versa…
Actually, Wallace claims that basing the theory of the natural selection on the adaptation to a constantly changing environment or a competition between members of the same species means denying an absurd aspect of evolution of the human species. Indeed Human species had no reason to evolve since Neanderthal, because it was already able to survive in its environment with hunting and gathering, fishing, etc… Why then has it evolved until the era of the industrial revolution, the moment that marks the beginning of the end of environment because of pollution.
In both cases, the natural selection based on the superiority of the members inside one species, or on other species, for Darwin, and on a superior capacity to adapt to the pressure of environment for Wallace – the theory of evolution, has one mistake. An error due to the fact that the more Human Kind adapts to its environment, or grows, the more it develops, the more it destroys its environment and itself. Destroying its reason for being: environment. This environment that gives birth to it and makes it evolve, with which it has always had an interdependence connection, incredibly unbalanced by the human evolving intelligence and the basic need to survive. From this non-sense, naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace started to think that there is something else, a superior force that has produced this disproportionately useless cerebral capacity of Man, who at the Neanderthal stage was already able to survive for centuries, while at the same time creating the environmental pressures that have triggered Man’s capacity to always adapt more…
The questions Wallace raises here are : if the environment has pressured species in their evolution, why has the human species been privileged physically, whereas it is one the most vulnerable? And why does the interdependence relationship between species and the environment have the destruction of the environment as its unique outcome?
This unexpected conclusion articulates two types of repair. First of all, the natural selection of a weak individual giving way to the strong one, according to Darwin’s thought, or of the one the most able to adapt to their environment and its changes, specific to Wallace. So if the environment, as Wallace thinks, is in a process of destruction, then there is an even more complex issue, which is the adaptation not to the environment anymore, but to the human being. Because if Wallace thinks the intelligence of an extra-human force has maneuvered illogicalities like the overdeveloped capacity of the human brain for simple activities, Human kind has been able to adapt to its changing environment, to dominate the other weaker species, as well as to its weaker fellows, but would it be able to adapt to its own superiority…?
What Wallace unveiled is the crucial stake of the human species adapting to the human species, to survive in the post industrial revolution era. For Darwin, this other force that would have created the illogical conditions of evolution for Man, and its superiority is a blind chance.
Wallace disagrees, because, for him, the theory of evolution proves that it comes from a succession of causes and consequences, and not from chance, otherwise Mankind would be a mistake.
Chance or mistake, the crucial question is :
– is it still time to repair this auto destruction agency, defined by Wallace, or is this unavoidable destruction agency the repair of the mistake, of which mankind would be the name ?
First of all, we need to understand that, according to Wallace and Darwin, a destruction of mankind means either, the end of Human kind through the end of the environment, or the end of Human kind, replaced by another superior intelligence created by him or that created him.
The question of Human kind’s destruction is not new. Cinema, literature, painting, music, religion, etc… have often treated this topic widely; it is still at the core of our contemporary images and haunts our minds. Within the contemporary psyche, the end of human kind is either coming from environmental disasters or from the competition between human and other superior technologies created by him or alien.
Without any modern technology, the Dogon people from Mali, like many other civilizations: the Incas, the Persians, the Arabs, used to practice astronomy. The Dogons have observed with naked eyes that every 60 years, a very bright star, was coming back in the sky. They named it Siguitolo…They have made it the main temporal axis of their cosmogony. Then every 60 years, they celebrate it with a ritual, named “ Sigui ”. Old and new masks of the Dogon country, like the famous “Kanaga”, dance from one village to the other for more than a year until the star leaves the sky…
We had to wait until the middle of the 20th century and new telescopes, to at last observe this phenomenon, and discover that it was in fact two stars joining on the same axis every 60 years: Sirius A and Sirius B.
Visible and invisible physical phenomenons have influenced the cosmogony of several civilizations, and the beliefs that came from them have also been at the basis of other discoveries. The grammar that was used, as scientific as it could be, wasn’t always figures, but words or images.
Because one always believes above all in images.
During the 9th Century, Ibn Al Khawasimi, who gave his name to algorithms, wrote his fundamental essay Kitābu ‘l-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisābi ‘l-jabr wa’l-muqābalah or Abstract of calculus by restoration and comparison. This book consists in 6 chapters. It does not contain any figure. All the equations are expressed with words. The square of the unknown is named “ the square ” or mâl, the unknown is “the thing ” or shay (šay), the “root” is the jidhr, the “constant“ is the dirham or adǎd. The word al-jabrn 3 was taken by Europeans and later became the word algebra.
From the 9th century until now, algorithms have changed our lives. They are everywhere, even where we don’t know yet that they exist. That’s the case of algorithms that look for things that we don’t know, and even more of those that deal with things we don’t know yet that they do not exist… Producing a formula to describe universes that we don’t even know that they don’t exist: this is the definition of algorithms, to which mathematicians like Donald Ervin Knuth refer as « Black magic ». The industrial revolution, that Alfred Russel Wallace was considering as the beginning of the end of mankind, has been transformed into an era of high technology, where the binarisation of everything is constantly increased.
We slowly slip toward a world, where the decaying physical environment will give way to another digital environment, which we build like this other perfect individual, mirror of our superiority. This virtual alter ego, made of billions of algorithms, some of which we have no idea of, has probably, given its superiority and the agency of repair that deeply defines the human species who created it, the goal to repair this mistake that has been human species.
To adapt to this human kind superiority, Wallace was warning us about, means actually to adapt to our artificial superiority, which is increasing disproportionately comparing with our average brain ability.
We can not compete with the velocity of algorithms combined with technology.
Regarding “black magic”, to which mathematicians refer in term of algorithms, that describe worlds we have no idea of, it is crucial to remember that this conception of immaterial powers parallel to the human world has always existed in ante-modern animist beliefs. It had the freedom to describe what we didn’t know and to enjoy this non-knowledge. Why ? Because the non-knowledge avoids any civilization to fall into certainty, as certainty is the beginning of madness and decadence…
This ambivalent relation between an artificial power described by Wallace, which seems to be more and more embodied by the endless digitalization of the universe, and old animist cosmogonies and their beliefs in immaterial powers, seems to describe a loop. A loop or a vortex, which endlessly reenacts itself, from the immaterial beliefs to the belief in virtual technology. Remember what I told you at the beginning of this lecture: “We do believe in images…”.
Matrix, the story The Wachowskis have put in words and images, is particularly eloquent on this question. Especially the second part of this trilogy, when the Matrix is “reloaded”.
In this story, the hero “ Neo” reaches the center of the matrix after having overcome and destroyed almost all the obstacles, excepted agent “ Smith”, whose goal is to stop Neo. But Neo then discovers that two artificial intelligences of the matrix, the “ Oracle and the Architect ”, who have created and manage the matrix’s net, might have created him, and that he has already reached the center of the matrix five times before. But he doesn’t remember, because each time the matrix was reloaded. They have created him to challenge and destroy all the obstacles they have built in order to improve them, and protect the center of the matrix even more, from human rebels, agent smith, and Neo himself. So the more they reload the matrix the better its protection system is…
The only uncontrollable fact is that Neo is also human, and human are unpredictable. But even though, when he decides to sacrifice himself to kill agent smith, the matrix can be reloaded again.
Like Sisyphus and his rock, mankind is prisoner of an endless loop, condemned to be ruled by the machines and the algorithms.
This loop or more correctly this vortex process, because it is not perfectly repeating itself by going back at its original state, helped us to understand one of the crucial points of the repair of this unbalanced relationship between human kind and the disappearance of his concrete physical world into a virtual digitalized order of representations…
Remember that we do believe first of all and after all in images…
It is because we do believe in images that, at the Age of Reason, a concept, named by Emmanual Kant “ Correlation ”, emerged.
Neither an image nor an object can think by itself that it is an image or an object, and our mind as well. The thought depends always to a connection between the object and the mind… This connection, going back and forth between the object and the mind, has been conceptualized by Kant under the name of correlation. Renee Descartes’ “ Discourse of the method ” enhanced this concept with the use of inference. Between two different things the mind always draw an analogy, which is the “difference” they do share.
For a couple of years, a new way of thinking beyond and before the correlation, from the simple concrete thing to the universe, has emerged from French Philosopher Quentin Meillassoux in his essay “After Finitude”. A focus on the possibility to think beyond and before the Kantian correlation, which always drive our way of thinking, means thinking the thing within the thing, independently from the belief process based on the relationship. Actually, independently from the secular factor of causality. This new orientation from the classic modern standard of thinking correlatively, by considering the concrete object, shows how much this theory stigmatizes a fear. The human fear confronted to the endless disappearance of the physicality, first of all because of the “dataization” of the universe, called rationalism, second of all by the binarization of everything.
This fear of artificiality leads to artificial intelligence… The main actors of the global digitalization, like Bill Gates, Steven Hawking and other mathematicians, have been warning us about artificial intelligence for years now…
As said before, artificial intelligences are our alter egos. But to understand how artificial intelligences think, we have to build their archeology. Artificial intelligences continue the human modern mind’s creation. They are therefore also ruled by the principle of correlation. Like images, in which we do believe, artificial intelligences are actually algorithms thinking by the use of images on a process probably similar to correlation… Remember that the father of Algorithm, Ibn AL Khawazimi, did only use words and images in his fundamental equation. Here is one of the crucial frames of modern philosophy, which lasts until our contemporary digital era, through algorithms using the correlation to endlessly grow. As correlation is the keystone of our perception of the world, through the concept of the significant and the signified, we might have transmitted this dialectic of reading the images to artificial intelligences.
So the real stake is weather the frame of the thought, within this very limited pattern of the significant and the signified, will be able to be reinvented.
Monotheistic civilizations all have a system of writing, which makes them based on an eternal cognitive dialogue between the object (the significant) and its referent (the signified). The book is an object, but it does refer to an immaterial reference. What Serge Gruzinski explains very well regarding the system of writing and the psyche of civilization, which have disappeared, and their cosmogonies, is that when you look at a codex and watch drawings (ideograms), you think that the piece of corn for instance refers to corn and food. But actually it also refers to human flesh, as Aztecs were anthropophagous ( man eater ) during their ceremonies… The link between those multiple referents, a simple piece of corn can refer to, is even more complex for us, when we understand that it could also refer to the mountains or the sun, as well as to a bird… Non modern antic civilizations did not frame their thought within the limited geometricality of the significant and the signified, but on a variable geometry, where a continuum between things structured the endless universe. Beyond the object and the correlation, we have to reinvent an unpredictable way of thinking outside modernity’s old dialectic of the significant and signified.