warehouse warehouse

We Ethnologists

by Dirk Rustemeyer,  translated by Pierre Schwarzer

Excursions into the Posthuman


  1. Bostrom, N.: Superintelligenz. Berlin 2016, S. 9. – cf. also Baecker, D.: Superintelligenz, und die Natur des Menschen. Here

  2. cf. Der Mensch denkt, die Maschine lenkt. In: FAZ Nr. 58, 9. März 2017, S. 18

  3. cf. Müller-Jung, J.: Das elektrisch verstärkte Denken. In: FAZ Quarterly, 02, 2017, p. 56-61

  4. Homo Deus. Eine Geschichte von Morgen. München 2017

  5. ibid, p.206

  6. Hanson, R.: The Age of Em. Work, Love and Life when Robots Rule the Earth. Oxford 2016

  7. ibid, p. 339

  8. ibid, p. 370, 373

  9. ibid, p. 379

  10. Harari, Y.N.: Homo Deus. A.a.O., p. 534

  11. Lévi-Strauss, C.: Traurige Tropen (1955). Frankfurt/M. 1978, p. 411

  12. cf. Lévi-Strauss, C.: Das wilde Denken (1968). Frankfurt/M. 19814, p. 11-48

  13. cf. Lévi-Strauss, C.: Wir sind alle Kannibalen. Berlin 2017

  14. cf. Siemons, M.: Die Regierung der gescannten Hirne. FAZ of the 19.02.2017

  15. Heraklit, Fragment 30. In: Heraklit. Fragmente. Hrsgg. v. B. Snell. München 1979, S. 15

  16. Bateson, G.: Ökologie des Geistes (1972). Frankfurt/M. 19903, S. 594

  17. cf. Latour, B.: Existenzweisen. Eine Anthropologie der Modernen. Berlin 2014

Explorations of an abstract space [wikimedia commons]

To alien intelligences, organically based human culture might one day appear like a falling star of meaning in an otherwise indifferent universe. With much effort, humans attempt to wrest somewhat stable forms from the cosmic pulsations of order and chaos. And yet, their “culture” contributes to unleash entropy. Especially the distinction between what is one’s own and what is foreign, also useful to distinguish human from nonhuman, anchors the germ of negation within human culture and encourages cultural orders to crumble. Often the distinction between the Own and the Foreign turns into the political distinction of friend and fiend. Humans are “political” beings not necessarily because of their natural talent for reason, but rather because of their tendency of allowing self-made distinction to violently escalate. It is that which distinguishes them from their relatives, gorillas. It is unclear how this would look like in a post-human machine-culture – there seems to be little reason for optimism. In light of the new ethnography of a digital triumph over human centred culture, the history of the cosmos according to homo sapiens is merely an episode of the past.

Even former transhumanists like Nick Bostrom are now working on strategies to keep potentially out-of-control-computers in check. “Should we one day build artificial brains surpassing human brains in general intelligence, then this super-intelligence could become overly powerful. And just like the fate of gorillas nowadays depends more on humans than on themselves, the fate of our species would depend on the actions of this machine of super-intelligence. (…) This is the supposedly greatest and most frightening task humanity has ever faced – and no matter whether we will master it or fail: it will probably be the last” 1.

Algorithms are already on their way to the human brain. Digitized Recordings of brain activity can be copied into other human brains and robots 2. Medical progress in the control of artificial body parts or flexible programs of industrial robots open up new technical horizons. “Mind control” feeds into the phantasies of neuro-engineers soon to “optimize” both sick and healthy brains. While stroke-victims and paraplegics hope for a cure, athletes, sniper-shooters or combat pilots train attention, fine motorics and memory 3. Bad learners, the Unhappy, migraine-sufferers, the nervous, the addicted or the demented become potential targets of the super-brain-industry thanks to transcranial direct currents stimulation (tDCS).

Maybe, says Yuval Noah Harari, the old homo sapiens will soon strip away the hardships of embodied existence and gain digital immortality as “Homo Deus” 4. In exchange for meaning, homo deus gains godlike power over the limitations of nature. “Humans weave webs of meaning, believing in it with all their hearts and yet, sooner or later, this web disintegrates. And looking back, we cannot believe how anyone could ever have taken it seriously 5. Aside from ideologies, in a sphere of pure information, the technically enhanced human could exist in virtual worlds as part of an all-knowing and all-powerful current of data – a vision of digital redemption in the algorithmic garden of Eden.

Robin Hanson sketches a society in which “brain emulations”, scanned from human brains, develop a life of their own. For them, the human body would be but an organic attachment 6. Hanson takes today’s technological possibilities as grounds for combination with scenarios of a digital future from current social and cultural theory. After the Neolithic and industrial revolution, the digital one is supposedly next. While “Ems” would be the more robust and faster alternative to human labour, economists could please themselves with the potential growth of a cyber-economy. Ordinary humans would enjoy their existence as retirees – as long as the Ems do not someday decide to recycle their organic substrate. Copies of human brains could create their own society, in which the distinction between virtual and real would no longer matter. Because Hanson’s vision takes human brains as grounding, it attributes various anthropomorphic properties to the em-society. Nevertheless arises the question: „how inhuman might ems become“ 7? While wars would also become improbable when totalitarian regimes take control and ems take care of a „big increase in total happiness“, it very much sounds like a whistle in the dark when Hanson recommends positive thinking: „If the em world is nearly inevitable, then it would be good if literary and public conversations frame it as something to be accepted, and perhaps nudged into preferred directions, instead of as something to be aggressively resisted“ 8. A joyful ethnography, counting on the end of man, even encouraging him to face the tidings of joy of a more intelligent future, is his recommendation. “In sum“, so claims the resume, „to succeed in this new world, prepare to become what it needs“ 9.

The concepts have so far influenced the self-conception of man: nature, mind and society. Material processes, symbolic functions and political institutions mark the dimensions of human existence. The regularity of nature allows insight into its laws and their technical usage, while symbols like language, images and numbers allow an order of consciousness and formations like communications structure the dealings with others. Despite being interlaced, nature, mind and society remain sufficiently distinct for the care and alimentation of their borders. “Culture” emerges out of these negotiations. Digital couplings of mathematical with technical and organic forms question these regimes of delimitation. Hybrid modes of existence of technical, biological, physical, economic, medical and social arrangements turn classical anthropocentric ontologies around, projecting the symbolic diversity of mind onto the monosymbolic function of processing. Connections of organic, machinic, digital and social orders can push open formerly unknown windows of evolution. The bottom line of these changes would be the universal producibility of nature, mind and society in which old homo sapiens humbly vacates the crown of creation, following “the chinese river dolphins into oblivion” 10. By all means the mathematical-technical logic of the binary does away with the mulitiplicity of cultural differentiations. Paradoxical constellations await, giving humans a rough time to still differentiate the own and the foreign. The universality of binary logics tends to do away with the capacity of human cultures to make distinctions as decisions and thereby regenerate their internal contingency of their orders. The own and the foreign become blurred – not only on an anthropological level, but also on a political one. To meet machines with the political distinction of friend and fiend appears naïve.

Are we at the verge of a new civilization, soon to corral us, like gorillas, into reservations where we are to live as slaves to digital machines? The intelligence of machines probably also fascinates us because of its cold callosity when it comes to emotional and political distinctions keeping human cultures in suspense. How could digital machines count as “enemies”, if they offer themselves as tireless assistants, divining wishes, submitting suggestions or instituting virtual similarities? Machines dodge the registers of the political. They promise, if not slavery or teeth-gnashing “happiness”, an unconcerned efficiency. Their claim is so all-encompassing, that no totalitarian society dared to think of it before. As sneers on the ethical endeavours of a humanity involved in feelings and violence (albeit enamoured with universal equality) transparency, justice and peace would be algorithmically warranted in civilization 4.0. To societies unwilling to take anything as willing, equality becomes the moral and political measure for self-optimization. Automatic comparisons and adaptations paradoxically comply with the dream of universal moral calculation and infinite publicness. Computers process broader amounts of data than the human mind. Hopes for universal transparency, rationality and peace appear solvable via technology. Softly, the great leviathan would have taken offer, sneaked into the private sphere and invaded both computers and brains. Man would merge with its creations, from which they no longer wish to be distinct and would even be incapable to be so. – Are conceptual or pictorial representations even fit to describe an algorithmically organised culture or would computers also take on the role of the ethnographer in portraying culture as numeral strings? If cultural distinctions would without a loss be depictable as variants of algorithmic sequences, then an era of digital ethnography would have begun, promising to take away from humans even the task of self-reflection.

Not ethnographers, but tourists [wikimedia commons]

Digital scenarios of futures or endings repeat motives connected to thinking about culture all along. Reflecting on culture is a paradoxical enterprise as it is about reflecting a genuinely reflexive phenomenon: culture arises through comparisons and the unfolding of contingency. One unable to see the own as the foreign does not know of the own and one looking at one’s own for too long is blind to its otherness, so that everything else becomes foreign to him. Viewing societies from an outside is both impossible and inevitable if one wants to understand the functioning of “culture”. No one knew this paradox better than Claude Lévi-Strauss. On his expeditions he discovered formerly unknown peoples and cultures. Yet one who turns the distant into something close in explaining it with one’s own categories robs it of its authenticity. Insight destroys its object. As Lévi-Strauss knew, here lies the tragedy of knowledge of cultures whose ephemerality and brittleness is known by the ethnologist. “The world has begun without man and will end without him (…) Ever since man has begun to breathe and eat, ever since the discovery of fire to the invention of thermonuclear appliances, he has done nothing else – except for reproduction – than unconcernedly destroying billions of structures to turn them to a state in which they can no longer be integrated 11. On a first glance the ethnologists’s melancholy is akin to the apprehensions of the transhumanist Bostrom. Now the ethnologist’s scepticism applies less to the end of the end of mankind than to the tragedy of recognizing the own and the foreign. The myth of the foreign is turned into the myth of the own – of science. This also applies to the myth of a digital culture which does not know neither an outside nor a reflexion of the own and the foreign in its pride for its scientific rationality. The distinction between own and foreign, basic to an ethnology of culture, is lost to it and it runs the danger of dwindling into myth. To see the complementarity of myth and science requires an art of reflexion which does not hastily tie itself down and that understands the unfolding of that which is different in contrasting comparisons. Yet, reflexion lives from the difference of symbols.

Lévi-Strauss brings into play an idea: complementing the supposed, yet itself mythomorphic alternative between science and myth with a third one – art. Tiptoeing on the limits of contemplation and ruliness, bricolage and method, artworks connect unity and multiplicity in the aesthetic evidence of a work unfolding within itself the particular perspectives on a whole 12. Science, myth and art begin a play of observations sustaining itself through the difference of signs. In this game, a neutral observer that rules simultaneously over all options or processes them, is impossible. Ethnological analyses such as those of Lévi-Strauss, often resemble virtual transformations of meaning and distinctions precisely because of their structuralist combinations, akin to magical or artistic plays with similarities and contrasts. Instead of reducing difference to simple variants of algorithmic functions as done by the myth of the digital, the ethnological art of observation unfolds tableaus of analogue forms bringing about subtle correspondences between drops of milk, atomic explosions, the human life-cycle, ornamental practices and crowns of counts, dukes and emperors 13. For western cultures the availability of the third value of “arts” is essential to establish a sphere of reflexion keeping distinctions variable. Visions of a digital future of mankind do not consider, unlike Lévi-Strauss, the erosion of the distinction between the own and the foreign as even a small tragedy. With this distinction, the self-conception of man as a “political” being is at one’s disposal. A transhuman society would be a post-political culture. Monosymbolic orders and binary logics of either-or wreck the multiplicity of sense arising from the difference between signs, along which mind and world arrange themselves into nonhomogeneous infinities. Lévi-Strauss would probably have struck visions of digital superintelligence with the myths of reason blossoming in societies taking everything to be scientific. Because digital orders equalise everything, they remain foreign to that which Lévi-Strauss thought to be equally precious as mysterious of the foreign. While the ethnologist seeks the foreign – and tragically encounters the own – visionaries of the digital see a better grasp and more rightful version of the own – without any tragedy 14.

Scientists or logicians might scorn at the promiscuity of signs, yet a logos oscillating between myth, science and art unleashes productive powers within culture. Instead of providing answers, it delivers mystery. What is real and what is fiction, what is theatre and what is the everyday, where the foreign looms within the own, depends on perspectives, situations, humans, times and places. Imaginary and real need to be carefully distinguished at each step. The trust Lévi-Strauss places into art is not something that one can technically simulate. Every digital simulation repeats the monosymbolic narrowing of sense. Celerity and mass of information processing are unfitting criteria for a notion of “sense”. It would be unfortunate, were human brains to take arms when faced with the myth of Em, mistake their creativity for slowness and renounce a sceptical observation of computers and Ems as bizarre coevals with the curious glance of ethnologists.

The universe can be considered an infinitely productive process uniting creation and destruction. “This very world-order has not been created by god or man, it always was and will be: indelible fire, flaring and fading at large” 15. Life is more than mere biological reproduction, it is also an idea. Understanding this requires, according to Gregory, learning to think in a new way” 16. Thinking, which understands itself as a moment of universal reflexive process instead of an algorithmic blueprint does not run the danger of mistaking itself for technical myths or scientific professions of faith. Reflexion – neither pure mind nor pure nature – embodies a creative principle within it. Science, myth or art alone do not solve the riddles of the universe, but their interplay supplies human cultures with sufficient jest as to prevent them from surrendering to binary distinctions without discarding the occasional value of binary distinctions. Narratives of digital civilizations whose sovereigns would be supposedly intelligent machines, do away with an understanding of freedom. This idea however grounds that, which western cultures have understood as “truth”, “person” or “god”. Without this idea the cultural (self)images of man would have come to be different. Always anew, “freedom” questions certainties and identities: those not knowing truth are the ones that have to look for it; a person remains distinct from the communication in which it becomes visible and one asks for a god when interested in the world. Before humanity worships the Great Computer, it would be well advised to send a few ethnologists into the digital jungle that shake the algorithmic trees to look for the gods tumbling down from their branches. On their expeditions through rugged landscapes of validity, good ethnologists round up peculiar beings living within modern culture – and listen to their mumblings 17. They also lend their ear to the murmurs and whispers of servers without needing to take its advice. Nowadays, travelling has gotten more comfortable than in the days of Lévi-Strauss. With a bit of luck, the ethnologist can find the foreigner already in its neighbour.

Dirk Rustemeyer teaches Philosophy at the University of Witten/Herdecke und Pedagogy at the University of Trier. His research focusses on a Philosophy of the formation of signification, cultural semiotics and forms of knowledge.