Q&A on Gaia, the Anthropocene and Information

Q: The climate crisis has brought James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis into the center of discussion. Bruno Latour has interpreted Gaia as the “critical zone”, a relatively thin strip of atmosphere and earth that comprises the space in which life exists. According to Latour, it is within this critical zone that Lovelock’s self-regulating life system operates. And it is this critical zone that must be the focus of our attempts to avert or at least control in some measure the devastation effects of human intervention on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. How does this discussion relate to the digital transformation?

A: It is interesting that James Lovelock himself at the age of ninety-nine recently published a book in which he introduces a level of reality beyond Gaia, that is, beyond life and all the problems that threaten life in the Anthropocene. Lovelock calls this new age the Novocene. The Novocene is the age not in which human beings decisively influence the planet, but in which information becomes the most significant factor. This view has important consequences. First, it implies that information is what needs to be understood and not life. The discussion on climate change is not about life, but about information. Secondly, it implies that the so-called information age is a posthuman age. Many have heralded the posthuman and done this in many different ways. The end of the Anthropos can mean, for example, merely the end of patriarchy, of a male dominated society. It can also mean the heightened awareness of non-human agency and values. One speaks of animal rights or the rights of nature in all its forms over against human intentions. In this sense, the ecology movement can also be understood to be posthuman. But in a third sense, the posthuman can mean the end of humanism as a world view, as a set of taken for granted assumptions about what human beings are and what the world is. Humanism began in the modern West, gained prominence during that period of Western history that has been called the Enlightenment, and has become the set of beliefs that lie at the foundations of Western industrial society, capitalism, democracy, liberalism and socialism alike. Indeed, humanism could be called the “religion” of the modern Western world. In the age of globalization, where other cultures have come into view as serious contending interpretations of reality, humanism can no longer be taken for granted. Furthermore, the digital transformation seems to be ushering in a global network society that no longer subscribes to Western modernity. Finally, it has become apparent that humanism can not adequately account for or understand the world of information. If, as Lovelock claims, information lies at the heart of future developments in all areas, then we should talk less about human beings and about life and start thinking more about information. This is what the digital transformation is all about.

Q: The Gaia hypothesis and Latour’s description of the critical zone are based on a well-established theory of self-regulating systems which is fundamentally a biological theory. Gaia is often thought of as a kind of super-organism, a single, all-encompassing dynamic system. Cybernetics and general systems theory offer a wholistic model of how self-organizing, informationally and operationally closed systems come to be and how they function in relation to a constantly changing environment. It is within the systems paradigm that all discourse on climate change is located. Ecology has always been interpreted as a systems science as the title Earth Systems Science illustrates. If we are to shift to a different paradigm for understanding a world of information, would this imply that systems science can no longer serve as the foundation of ecology? What other paradigm is there to fill the gap when systems theory no longer works?

A: It is correct to say that there is currently no consensus on what a new information paradigm could be and on what it might mean to say that reality is fundamentally informational. The only well-known and widely accepted theory dealing with information comes from cybernetics and computer science and is often called computationalism. Lovelock relies on computer science and its notions of digital information as bits, that is, on/off circuits that register and process 1/0 differences in a computer. The basic model is the famous Turing machine, or universal computation machine, which processes information by means of a finite set of rules. But bits and bytes are only meaningful for human beings and human society when they become semantic information, that is, semiotically coded information which includes everything we can experience and speak about. If Lovelock’s cyborgs, the beings which he envisages will occupy the Novocene, do not communicate and cooperate with human beings and thus operate within society, they will have no significance whatever, they will make no difference. If information, as Bateson said, is a difference that makes a difference, then bits alone and all the computing power one could imagine will change nothing in the world in which we exist. Computation is only possible within society. Society and the world are not somehow located within or generated by computation. Computation is a part of society. Without being embedded in society, the computer would make no difference and digital information would have no meaning. But in fact, the computer, as all technology, is embedded in society and digital information is the end result of many complex social practices which have developed over hundreds, if not thousands of years of history. If we want a theory of information that does not put the horse behind the carriage, then we must start anew and not simply take over the assumptions of computer science.

Q: Speaking of a “digital transformation” places the computer or what could be called “computationalism” at the heart of what characterizes our time. Many assume that we are living in an information age. Sociologists speak of the information society and physicists have proposed information as the basis of reality. Biologists describe living systems as based on the internal construction of information. Oxford philosopher Luciano Floridi goes so far as to claim that human beings are “inforgs,” that is, informational beings, instead of cyborgs. Could it not be claimed that there is a computational paradigm based on digital computers which offers a coherent and encompassing theory of information allowing us to escape the assumptions of systems theory and its biological foundations?

A: Floridi’s inforgs are not computer-like cybernetic machines. They are constituted by a different kind of information than bits and bytes and process information not merely according to algorithms. They live in a world of meaning or what could be called semiotically coded information which Floridi calls the “infosphere.” It is not necessary to assume that the infosphere and the inforgs that exist in it can only consist of bits and bytes processed by mathematical rules. Whatever the information is that Floridi is talking about, it cannot be merely digital information. Nonetheless, even in Floridi’s account, it often seems that computation is the paradigm of what information is. At one point he locates the beginning of the information age with the invention of the computer, but at another the point he pushes the date back to the invention of writing about five thousand years ago. How people lived their lives for hundreds of thousands of years before this date without information is an open question. Obviously, information must be something other than what is usually thought. Apart from these uncertainties about the nature of information, it is doubtful that computationalism is really a different paradigm than systems theory. After all, computers are modelled as cybernetic machines. All theories of digital information remain within the boundaries of general systems theory which itself is fundamentally a biological theory. Artificial intelligence, for example, is modelled on the workings of the brain which is an organ of the human body. Understanding the brain as a computer amounts to understanding the computer as an organism. Computationalism blurs the boundaries between organism and machine. One speaks of “evolution” which is a term that only makes sense for living systems when talking about how cybernetic machines and even societies and cultures develop. And of course, it should not be forgotten that systems theory has also become dominant in sociology. Life, it would seem, remains the basis for understanding intelligence and information within computationalism. The machines that Lovelock sees taking over the world are artificial forms of life. Lovelock, however, denies this and sees intelligence moving beyond the biological substrate in which it has evolved. But what does this mean? What other models of self-organization, reproduction, and information construction do we have than the living system? As long as information is constructed and processed by a self-referential, operationally closed system it makes no difference weather information processing occurs in living tissue or in silico. Lovelock’s cyborgs are still self-regulating systems, just as any organism. Computer science seems to offer no better model of intelligence, that is, the creation and use of information, than the self-regulating machine that is modelled on living organisms. If we need a new paradigm, we must look beyond computationalism, or at least find a different basic model than the computer.

Q: If information is not digital but something else, what is it? How can information processing be modelled if not computationally? In other words, what could computation mean if not the rule-guided operations of a system?

A: Perhaps there is a notion of computation that is sufficiently general to encompass semiotic coding, that is, information understood as meaning. Perhaps the rules that generate and process semiotic information are different from those that generate and process digital information. Perhaps, as non-Cartesian cognitive science claims, meaning is not located in the brain. It could be that the very notion of information must be ascribed to a higher level of emergent order than physical or biological systems. We must speak of a level of emergent order beyond matter and beyond life. This would mean that information is something sui generus and not to be interpreted in the same way as something physical or even something biological. Furthermore, it would mean that the information of which physicists and biologist speak is not the basic form of information, but a derived and limited version of what information is. It may be that general systems theory is not applicable to information in the full and proper sense of the word and that a different theory is needed. Instead of deriving our understanding of what information is and how it operates from physics and biology, we must understand information in its own right and on its own terms. Physical and biological systems could well be derived from or have their existence within information, and even consist of information, but they do not found and explain information. If information is a higher level of emergent order, then it is coded in its own way and computation on this level is not the same as the kind of computation that a computer does, or for that matter, the kind of computation the brain does. This brings us to the question of how semantically coded information can be “computed” or to ask the same question more broadly, what is a general theory of computation that is based on a theory of information located beyond the physical and biological levels. This is the question that needs to be answered in order to speak about Gaia, climate change, ecology, and society beyond the systems paradigm.

Q: Alan Turing described a machine that used a finite set of instructions, an algorithm, to process information inputs into outputs. When the outputs become inputs and the instructions are to maintain certain values, this is a cybernetic machine operating comparably to the homeostatic operations of an organism. When environmental conditions select whether the values that must remain stable can be maintained, then we have what could be called natural selection. And when there is a mechanism that can randomly alter the instructions and the values so that under certain environmental conditions only certain systems will be able to operate, then we have evolution. Is there a theory of information or a version of computationalism, that does not correspond to this description, and which has the explanatory power to become a new paradigm of information?

A: If computation is defined in the most general way as the manipulation of information by means of rules, then this definition contains no assumption about what information is and what the rules may be. Information as well as rules can be different on all three levels of emergent order, the physical, the biological, and the level of meaning. Furthermore, if every higher level of emergent order integrates within it the lower level, then this explains how life can manipulate chemical reactions in ways that on the purely physical level of matter and energy do not happen. This is what emergence means. Emergence is the coming into being of something on the basis of, but not reducible to, something else. Life emerged in this sense from matter. We still do not know what life is and how it came into being, but we know that emergence has something to do with complexity. Theories of the emergence of life attempt to describe highly improbable increases in complexity, as for example, Assembly Theory proposed by Lee Cronin and Sarah Walker. Because of its higher complexity and variability, a higher level of emergent order such as life can use physical and chemical processes in completely unexpected ways. Life in its own way could be said to “engineer” nature. The genetic coding of life integrates the physical and chemical coding of matter into a higher level of order and thus can change it in ways that would not be possible on the physical level alone. This is what the Gaia hypothesis claims. Life is creating is own sustainable environment on the Earth. The advent of the Anthropocene in which human intervention has upset the homeostatic regulation of this Earth ecosystem has made these complex processes and interdependencies apparent.

The same can be said of meaning. Meaning can be understood to have emerged from life. We do not know what consciousness, language, thought etc. are nor how these phenomena came into being. We cannot derive meaning from life or even the big brains of human beings. Meaning is a higher level of emergent order beyond life. The semiotic coding of meaning is much more complex and variable than genetic coding. It therefore has the ability to manipulate life and matter in ways that could not occur on these levels alone. Technology is a case in point. On the level of meaning, there is not merely material engineering but also genetic engineering. But what is technology? What is meaning? It could be that the answers to these questions tell us what information is in the most encompassing sense of the term. There is bits and bytes on the physical level, neuro-activity on the biological level, and meaning on the level in which we exist as informational beings. Considering that the lower levels of emergent order are always integrated into the higher levels and thus no longer have a separate mode of being, the Gaia hypothesis makes perfectly good sense. The physical processes of the Earth have become part of the life processes and are regulated by them. On the other hand, this implies that when speaking of Gaia, we must remember that Gaia, as the very notion of the Anthropocene suggests, exists within the level of meaning, that is, within what could be called “society”. Gaia is not biological, it is social just as the Anthropocene is not merely human, but technological. Because society is usually understood to mean the interaction of human beings among themselves apart from nature, Latour prefers to speak of the “collective” since matter and life are integrated into meaning. As Heidegger would put it, Being is meaning. Once meaning has emerged as a third level of emergent order there is only meaning and nothing outside of or beyond or behind meaning. The world in which we live, including the entire universe, is a world of meaning. All physics, biology and other sciences as well as culture in all its forms is meaning and exists within meaning. This is not idealism as opposed to materialism. Meaning is not a mental construction within the brain or even a transcendental consciousness. If meaning is Being, and this is what we are proposing, then everything that is, exists because it is information not because it is perceived or thought by some kind of knowing subject. Heidegger calls this the “hermeneutical ‘as’”, which is to say that whatever appears does so “as” this or that kind of thing. The hermeneutical “as” marks the emergence of meaning and locates reality on the level of meaning. This is one way to understand Floridi’s concept of an infosphere. For this reason, when discussing climate change and Gaia we should talk less about life and more about information.

Q: Even if one accepts this account of meaning as a higher level of emergent order beyond life, it could still be possible to model meaning as a system. Systems theory could be adapted to a theory of meaning and information. Has not Luhmann, for example, done precisely this? Luhmann asserts that meaning is a higher level of emergent order but describes cognition and social order as self-regulating, operationally closed systems. From the point of view of a general systems theory, meaning is simply a different kind of system. Why is meaning not a system? And what is meaning if it is not a system, that is, something basically similar to life or to cybernetic machines?

A:  Latour has offered an alternative theory to that of systemic order. For Latour social order, or the level of meaning, does not have the characteristics of a system, but the characteristics of a network. Networks are not systems. Networks are associations arising from processes of that Latour calls “translation” and “enrollment”. These could be seen as the “rules” that can be said to manipulate information in a network-based computational model. The application of these rules does not merely presuppose information, but constructs information by means of constructing relations among entities. The relations or associations that form networks are information and from out of these relations the entities themselves emerge “as” things endowed with meaning. It could be said that for Latour Heidegger’s hermeneutical “as” is networking. This is a relational ontology. Being is relation, association, networking. As opposed to systems, networks are not closed, but open and infinitely scalable, as they would have to be in order to constitute a world. As opposed to systems, networks are multipurposed, which systems cannot be, because a system operates in order to maintain fixed goals or values. This is what homeostasis means. A system that did not know what values it should strive to maintain, or which had to many and conflicting values could not operate in such a way as to ensure autopoiesis and self-reference. Furthermore, networks are not subject to any pressures of selection, since they have no outside, no system/environment difference, a difference which is constitutive for any kind of systemic order. There is no evolution of networks, only a dynamic of differentiation, contraction and expansion, diversification, and branching. Within a network paradigm, systems do not simply disappear. Systems can be understood as a specific kind of network, which Latour calls a “black box”, that is, a relatively stable input/output machine. This applies to what Luhmann has called semi-autonomous social subsystems such as business, politics, law, education, science, religion and so on. But society as a whole, despite what Luhmann claims, cannot be modelled as a system. Instead, society must be understood as a network. The implication of the network paradigm is that Gaia or the critical zone is a network and not a system. A further implication is that ecology is actually a network science and not a systems science. Gaia is not a super organism, but a network. As a network, and this an important point that has been completely ignored in the entire Gaia discussion, Gaia is a form of meaning and not a form of life. After the emergence of meaning, the Earth, indeed, the entire universe, does not live, it “means”, or in other words, it “networks”. The important question in relation to climate change is therefore what is the best way to construct the network, or in other words, how can one construct information in the right way. As Latour has pointed out, this question can be understood as the question of design. Geo-engineering and climate regulation are not primarily social and political problems. As almost all experts say, they are not technological problems. They are design problems. But what is design? The digital transformation could be interpreted as the challenge to redesign human agency in terms of meaning construction. Information designing information is perhaps what Lovelock meant by envisioning a world of cyborgs beyond the Anthropocene. Governing the collective, Latour’s name for society, becomes a question of design.