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Computation takes the form of planetary infrastructure that remakes philosophy, science, and society in its image
Antikythera takes its name from the Antikythera mechanism, first discovered in 1901 in a shipwreck off the Greek island, and dated to 200 BCE. This primordial computer was more than a calculator; it was an astronomical machine — mapping, tracking and predicting the movements of stars and planets, marking annual events, and guiding its users upon the surface of the globe.
The mechanism not only calculated interlocking variables, it provided an orientation of thought in relation to the astronomic predicament of its users. Using the mechanism enabled its user to think and to act in relation to what was revealed through the mechanism’s perspective.
This is an augmentation of intelligence, but intelligence is not just something that a particular species or machine can do. In the long term it evolves through the scaffolding interactions between multiple systems: genetic, biological, technological, linguistic, and more. Intelligence is planetary phenomenon.
The name Antikythera refers more generally to computational technology that discloses and accelerates the planetary condition of intelligence. It is more than one particular mechanism, but a growing genealogy of technologies, some of which, like planetary computation infrastructures, we not only use, but also inhabit.
As a rules-based, output-generating operation, computation has general and specific definitions, some of which include biological analogical processing of very local information, others which include Universal Turing Machines, general recursive functions and the defined calculations of almost anything at all.
Antikythera presumes that computation was discovered as much as it was invented. It is less that natural computation works like modern computing devices but rather that modern computing devices and formulations are quickly-evolving approximations of natural computation –genetic, molecular, neuronal, etc.
Computation as a principle may be near universal, but computation as a medium is highly malleable. Computational technologies evolve. For example, in the decades to come, what is totally called “AI” may be not simply a novel application of computation, but its primary societal-scale form.
For our societies, computation is a means of world ordering. From the earliest marks of symbolic notation, computation was a foundation of what would become complex culture. The signifiers on clay in Sumerian cuneiform are known as a first form of writing; in fact they are indexes of transactions, an inscriptive technique that would become pictograms and over time alphanumeric writing, including base 10 mathematics and formal binary notation. There and then, the first writing is “accounting”: a kind of database representing and ordering real world communication. This artifact of computation already prefigures the expressive semiotics, even literary writing, that ensues in centuries to come.
Over recent centuries, and accelerating during the mid-20th century, technologies for the artificialization of computation have become more powerful, more efficient, more microscopic and more globally pervasive, changing the world in their image. “Artificialization” in this context doesn’t mean fake or unnatural, but rather that the intricate complexity of modern computing chips, hardware and software did not evolve blindly; it is the result of deliberate conceptual prefiguration and composition, even if by accident.
Given the scale and complexity of computational systems, what is the future of their deliberation and composition? Antikythera’s interest is less in calculation, formalization, quantification, and interoperability as such, than how computation as a philosophical technology provides orientation, navigation, cosmology: in essence, planetarity.
The term planetary computation has at least two essential connotations: first, as a global technological apparatus and, second, in all the ways that that apparatus reveals planetary conditions in ways otherwise unthinkable. For the former computation is an instrumental technology that allows new perceptions and interactions with the world; for the latter it is an epistemological technology that shifts fundamental presumptions about what is possible to know about the world at all.
The Stack: Planetary Computation as Global System
Computation is not only more than calculation; it is a planetary-scale cognitive infrastructure that impacts structures of knowledge, geopolitics and ecologies. Its scale extends from the global to the intimate, from the nanoscale to the edge of the atmosphere and back again.
As you stare at the glass slab in your hand, you are, as a user, connected to a planetary technology that both evolved and was planned in irregular steps over time, each component making use of others: an accidental, discontiguous megastructure.
Instead of a single megamachine, planetary computation can be understood as being composed of modular, interdependent, functionally-defined layers, not unlike a network protocol stack. Director of Antikythera Benjamin Bratton described these layers in The Stack: the Earth layer, Cloud layer, City layer, Address layer, Interface layer, and User layer.
Earthly ecological flows become sites of intensive sensing, quantification and governance. Cloud computing spurs platform economics and creates virtual geographies in its own image. Cities form vast discontiguous networks as they weave their borders into enclaves or escape routes. Virtual addressing systems locate billions of entities and events into unfamiliar maps. Interfaces present vibrant augmentations of reality, standing in for extended cognition. Users, both human and non-human, populate this tangled apparatus. Everytime you click on an icon, you send a relay all the way down the paths of connection and back again, you activate (and are activated by) the entire planetary infrastructure hundreds of times a day.
The emergence of planetary computation in the late 20th century shifted not only the lines on the map but the maps themselves. It distorted and reformed Westphalian political geography and created new territories in its own image.
Large cloud platforms took on roles traditionally assumed by nation-states (identity, maps, commerce, etc.) now based on a transnational network geography, while nation-states increasingly evolved into large cloud platforms (state services, surveillance, smart cities, etc.).
The division of the Earth into jurisdictions defined by land and sea has given way during the last few decades to a more irregular, unstable and contradictory amalgam of overlapping sovereign claims to data, people, processes, and places defined instead by bandwidth, simulation, and hardware and software chokepoints.
By 2017, it was clear that these stacks were fragmenting into multipolar hemispherical stacks defined by geopolitical competition and confrontation. A North Atlantic-Pacific stack based on American platforms was delinking from a Chinese stack based on Chinese platforms, while India, The Gulf, Russia, and Europe charted courses based on citizenship identification, protection and information filtering. Antikythera’s Hemispherical Stacks research track describes how the shift toward a more multipolar geopolitics over the last five years and the shift toward a more multipolar planetary computation, not only track one another, in many respects, they are the same thing.
The Planetary: Computation as a Philosophical Technology
Antikythera’s research is based on the appreciation of how computation has clarified the Planetary as a conceptual framework.
For example, the scientific idea of “climate change,” is an accomplishment of planetary scale computation. The idea of climate change is knowable because data gleaned from satellites, surface and ocean temperatures, and most of all the models derived from supercomputing simulations of planetary past, present and futures. As such, computation has made the contemporary notion of the planetary and the ‘Anthropocene’ conceivable, accountable, and actionable. These ideas, in turn, established that over the past centuries anthropogenic agency has had terraforming scale effects. Every discipline is reckoning in its own way with the implications.
Some of the most essential and timeless philosophical questions revolve around the qualities of perception, representation, and time. Together and separately, these have all been radicalized by planetary computational technologies, in no domain more dramatically than in Astronomy.
The Webb deep space telescope scans the depths of the universe, producing data that we make into images showing us, among other wonders, light from a distant star bending all the way around the gravitational cluster of galaxies.From such perceptions we, the little creatures who built this machine, learn a bit more about where, when and how we are. Computation is not only a topic for philosophy to pass judgment; computation is itself a philosophical technology. It reveals conditions that have made human thought possible.
Computation reveals wonders. To look up into the night sky with an unaided eye is to gaze into a time machine showing us an incomprehensibly distant past. It is to perceive light emitted before most of us were born and even before modern humans existed at all. To grasp that distance in space is also distance in time is only possible once their scales are first mathematically and then technologically perceivable. Such is the case with Black Holes, first described mathematically and then, in 2018, they were directly perceived by Earth itself having been turned into a giant computer vision machine.
Event Horizon telescope was an array of multiple terrestrial telescopes all aimed on a single point in the night sky. Its respective scans were timed with and by the Earth’s rotation, and thus the planet itself was incorporated into this optical mechanism. Event Horizon connected the views of telescopes on the Earth’s surface into ommatidia of a vast compound eye, a sensory organ that captured 50 million year old light from the center of the M87 galaxy as digital information. This data was then again rendered in the form of a ghostly orange disc that primates, such as ourselves, recognize as an “image.” Upon contemplating it, we can also identify our place within the universe that exceeds our immediate comprehension but not entirely our technologies of representation.
With computational technologies such as Event Horizon, it's possible to imagine our planet not only as a lonely blue spot in the void of space but as a singular form that finally opens its eye to perceive its distant environment. For Antikythera, this is what is meant by “computational technology disclosing and accelerating planetary intelligence.” Feats such as this are what planetary computation is for.
There are historical moments in which humanity’s imagination far outpaces its real technological capacities. At others, however, “our” technologies’ capabilities and implications outpace our concepts at hand to describe let alone guide them. The present is more the latter than the former. At this moment, technology and particularly planetary scale computation has outpaced our theory. We face something like a civilization scale computational overhang.
At such moments, the work of “philosophy” has different goals. Too often, the response is to force comfortable and settled ideas about ethics, scale, polity, and meaning onto a situation that not only calls for a different framework, but is already generating a different framework. For us, one way to “do Philosophy” is to play with the technologies that make philosophy possible.
For the 21st century, the instrumental and existential implications of planetary computation pose challenges and contradictions that demand deep political and philosophical reconsideration. Especially with the acceleration of AI, these challenge how planetary intelligence comprehends itself.
Instead of simply applying philosophy to the topic of computation, Antikythera starts from the other direction and produces theoretical and practical conceptual tools -the speculative- from the direct encounter with computational problematics.