The My-Stery: Animism, Cybernetics and Adaptability


“Android/Negroid # 1” by Wayne Hodge

Ever since my mother received her smart phone, she has constantly been coming to me with numerous questions about how to use it. She has such a difficult time adapting to how it works no matter how many times I show her. No matter how much she uses the smart phone, I don’t think she fully connects or pays attention to it in order to learn. She cannot learn how to use the smart phone if she does not open herself to learning how to use it. Half the time when I am showing her what to do, I am not exactly sure what I am doing myself; I am figuring it out as I go along based on a set of knowledge I have learned already from smart phones and just playing around with it. I try to work with the phone based on how it might move or based on the signs it gives.

Sometimes, I think she sees technology as a magic device that will just do for her and she doesn’t want to take the energy to work with it, to move with it. Sometimes, I think that she thinks of God in that way, too. God is somewhat detached from herself as much as the technology is and she lets it remain that way. This experience with my mother stirred my thoughts on our interaction with God (or higher spirit) and technology. Maybe we should see God (or higher spirit) much like the character Lauren Olamina does in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. If “God Is Change,” I have to learn its fundamentals and adapt with it. I have to interconnect with it as if it is a part of me, as if we are extensions of each other, that I have to attach it to me and bend it to my image to survive and grow as much as it bends and changes my image. As for technology, it should be looked at in a similar fashion. It adapts to you as much as you adapt to it.

The other day I watched Professor George Lewis’ lecture “Why Do We Want Our Computers to Improvise” and he expressed how research into artificial intelligence stirs conversations about the simplistic binaries we set up between humans and objects, that it threatens the sureness of humanity and the certain distinctness from other bodies of existence. It threatens personhood, identity and social order; it blurs the states we are familiar with and mysterious things outside of ourselves. In his look at the improvisation’s connection to freedom and agency, Lewis highlights the blurred boundaries between the object and the subject, and that it is possible for the object to have agency, including when we look at the history of the objectification of the black body or the female body. He mentions that in some African societies, the musical object or instrument maintains a subjectivity or has agency, sometimes described as a human being or having a soul.

There is constant collaborative interaction between human and non-human (animals, environment, non-living objects), or as he references, “dynamic materialities” in an “extended sociality,” and that agency is achieved through action, through a rhythmic movement or a performance between these difference actors or agents. The object reacts and resists you as much as you react and resist to it. As Octavia Butler wrote,

“All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.”

Back to the my mother paying attention to the signs and moves of the smart phone, Lewis says that an object’s ability to sound is when it transcends it objectification, because it is value as a commodified object and not a subject is tied to its impossibility to speak; speaking gives it intrinsic value. I see speaking as more than just audible sound, but also giving attention to those intimate communications that are not expressed with audible sound, the signs that non-human beings give, similar to the way George Washington Carver listened to the plants:

“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour if we will only tune in”

and

“You have to love it enough. Anything will give up its secrets if you love it enough. Not only have I found that when I talk to the little flower or to the little peanut they will give up their secrets, but I have found that when I silently commune with people they give up their secrets also-if you love them enough”.

Lewis ends with a statement that hints at the link between spirituality and technology, where his study is kind of a “non-modern ontology where people and things are not so different after all.”

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