In Conversation: Jussi Parikka journeys through deep time to break open the myths of our machines
When the study of geology emerged as a science in the 1800s, there was a manifold effect on the minds of 19th century society. Once the material depths of Earth were realised, so too developed a new understanding of the depths of time. Out of the biblical belief in the planet as a few thousand years old evolved a picture of Earth as having been alive without us for millions of years, a picture that was framed by a widespread cultural fascination with the ground and the underground. From science fiction tropes to the emergence of industrialism and technological societies, early myths of a hollow earth were debunked and the underground became a key site of capitalist modernity. No site more so than the industrial mine, which, as Lewis Mumford wrote about in the 1930s, allowed humanity to at once journey into natural history whilst being entirely reliant on technology; as miners dug back into the deep times of the planet, they were enacting futuristic sites of production harnessed through new, artificial means.
Today the extraction of valuable minerals and metals from the earth rages on. Seeking to interpret this attachment to the underground in the context of new and emerging media technologies is Media Theorist and Professor in Technology & Aesthetics Jussi Parikka. As the writer on Emma Charles’ 2016 film White Mountain, premiered online in POSTmatter’s New Mythologies issue, he conjures the presence of an omniscient, invisible narrator in order to dig down into a man-made network of cybernetics. A poetic narrative emerges as the film reveals underground flora and fauna nestled amongst rows of flashing servers, described by Parikka’s narrator as: “Hydrocarbon fantasies turned into a secret life of data that is as buried as the fossils used to be.” Meanwhile in his short text The Anthrobscene, he critiques the environmental destruction caused by media technologies in the era of the Anthropocene.
From wires buried in the soil, data centres stored underground and the energy of our information pulsing through minerals, the material weight of the internet and technical media is swiftly being realised by artists and academics alike. When we first talk, Parikka tells me of one of his aims, “to narrativise this longer time attachment to the ground, the underground and deep times as a part of what we now think of as supposedly new and emerging media cultures.” In returning a sense of deep time to our understanding of media technologies through art theory and practice, is it possible to effect real change within the spiralling descent of environmental destruction? It is at this intersection of past and future, artificial and biological, myth and science, and art and theory that Parikka is reshaping how we think about time and technology.
He does so most recently in his partly historically-situated, partly theoretical arguments about the co-determination of what we consider technology and what we consider biology. Looking to refigure our understanding of how ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ relate to one another, Parikka muses on the idea that, “If we are nature, so is technology, and thus nature itself is technical.” This idea occurs most prominently in a trilogy of his texts on ‘media-ecology’, Insect Media, A Geology of Media and Digital Contagions, where he tackles the ecopolitics of technical culture to understand the legacy of our digital lives on, and beneath, the earth. By understanding technical media in its material and cultural forms as a continuum with what we call nature, his work follows from Donna Haraway’s seminal discussion of nature cultures to propose that technologies are not only extensions of Man.
If we are nature, so is technology, and thus nature itself is technical.
Rather than viewing nature as natural, he shares links with Deleuzian philosophers by seeing nature as full of dynamic processes in which human, nonhuman, organic and nonorganic are all equal. “This is not something that comes out of the very recent fad of object orientated philosophy, that is of thinking about the world from the point of nonhumans,” he tells me when we next catch up over Skype, but rather it is an attachment to new materialism, a project that emerged from a range of influences, including 1980s/1990s feminist theory. This radical idea is used to think about how our cultural realities are completely embedded in the material world that he reluctantly terms ‘nature’. It is to think of new media cultures, or emerging media cultures, as in fact a very archaic part of the planet; “Media that we think of as 200 or 2000 years old becomes about 500 million years old by looking at the earthly material that constitutes essential parts of computational technology,” he explains.
This narrative can be a challenge to adopt today, when said earthly materials are being fetishised and mystified to the point that users are alienated from and naive to the functionality of the technology they rely on. Parikka gives the example of a recent Apple watch commercial in which advertisement of the actual product is set aside for a quasi-artistic fetishisation of the gold, platinum and alloy materials that go into making it. In this case, inaccessibility is embedded on the level of marketing, but furthermore, embedded in the design behind the screen. “Technology and design is seen as magic and this replays itself as a rhetoric in the actual design of contemporary technologies,” he explains. “This inaccessibility that characterises modern technology is a way of mystifying it and mythologising it. That’s the reason why some open source activists and artists are interested in how to break the surface, to allow access to the functioning inside.” But in the case of much modern technology, if you break open your computer, not much is to be found beyond microcircuits and such. “The breaking of the black box is actually a technical and political question that then opens up the wider agenda of what’s ‘inside’,” he continues. “You’re not going to find a secret scroll that reveals a big conspiracy about modern capitalism but there is still massive value in the expertise that goes into understanding the reproduction of social power, a reproduction that functions through technological engineering and design.”
In lacking understanding about how our machines function inside, are we lacking the ability to utilise them for any necessary activism or political intervention? As Parikka acknowledges, “This whole mythology is not only about the machine that sits on your desk. Infrastructure is an extension of this.” In other words, our technical products are just one access point to these hidden structures of power. It is a topic that many artists have addressed in relation to surveillance, but this lack of transparency is of equal concern in regards to our own understanding and awareness. “Do you know where your electricity comes from?” Parikka asks, “Do you know how it actually works in terms of electricity trading? How much of it is actually clean energy? All of these questions are infrastructural questions that relate to political power.” What sort of infrastructural power sustains the idea of technology as magical and as inaccessible and then, where is it located? This is ultimately what makes any symbolic or actual political intervention so difficult, because power has become so difficult to locate, and as Parikka notes, “going outside Apple headquarters and throwing tomatoes doesn’t really work.”
In the wake of recent political events, it is more clear than ever that, as Parikka explains it, “technology and communications are stunningly effective ways of modifying, manipulating and trickstering the world of things we see and things we don’t.” Modern media is a system of myth-making in its most contemporary form. But beyond the reality of media moguls and propaganda retelling national histories, the inaccessibility of media technologies has also steered our understanding of our own experiences. “Today, the real world is constituted increasingly by media technologies as an environment in which we live.” The ways in which we see, from interfaces to physical environments, he argues, are mediated through contemporary tools and filters. Whether that’s in terms of audiovisual design and software, the satellite mapped surface of the planet, or the visualised undergrounds, it seems that the lens through which we view the world has been embedded in us by the technical media environment.
Technology and communications are stunningly effective ways of modifying, manipulating and trickstering the world of things we see and things we don’t.
When we Skype Parikka is in Istanbul, in the midst of moving back to Winchester, UK. He’s been back and forth across the continent for the last two years, working as both a Professor in Technological Culture & Aesthetics in South East England and contributing to the Istanbul Design Biennale, SALT and Transmediale festival from Turkey. Through his engagement and collaboration with arts festivals, installations, media projects and various other methodologies, Parikka is interested in the constant interchange between art practice and critical theory. This is especially important when considered in spatial terms, moving freely across university, gallery and studio sites. A recent joint project of his on the cultural phenomenon of the Media Lab asks what it really means to practice ‘media studies’. It’s a project that reflects much of Parikka’s methodology in its spotlight on how narratives of the past can be veiled and distorted. How do we get access to history by way of devices that are seen in the lab? And furthermore, why does this become significant for the ways in which we understand digital culture?
When I ask if he has any ideas about how any significant political intervention might work moving forward, he is as fazed by the enormity of the challenge as any of us. From Parikka’s position as an educator at Winchester School of Art, he believes in the power of the institution, especially that of the University. But it is how to think bigger that is the challenge, when the problems that we face, such as climate change (or climate disaster as he prefers to call it), require massive infrastructural intervention on a global scale. “Instead of just symbolic interventions,” he wonders, “how do you come up with either concrete or speculative design sketches on a planetary level?” As someone who is hugely cognisant about the current political, economic and environmental dangers we face, there is temptation to succumb to utterly gloomy, nihilistic tendencies. However, he remains effectively driven by the resistance to the apocalypse, which he disregards as ever being a viable political solution. “I do have belief in the world. As privileged people, we should not be the ones who are thinking that we’re doomed. I can’t grant myself to be completely nihilistic because that would be too much of a privilege. Our theoretical apocalypse is really silly when looking at people's conditions in context of the global south.” Essential to this widening of perspective is the impulse to look beyond and beneath the surface of today’s world. Digging down to uncover the networks of power and the stories that we weave, Parikka is insisting on our effective attachment to political projects that will protect the future of the planet.
Melissa Ray is editorial assistant at POSTmatter.