Rachel Hill recently completed her MA in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she wrote her dissertation on the contemporary imaginaries of outer space within the commercial space sector. She is currently an associate research fellow at Strelka: Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (Moscow) and is the co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community (LSFRC). She regularly speaks in various conferences and workshops on the intersection of astronomy, spaceflight, more-than-human worlds and ethics. Rachel explores the radical potential of science fiction as a member of the research collective Beyond Gender. She also regularly writes for publications such as Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, The Quietus, Strange Horizons and The Women’s Review of Books.
“Earth Materialises”: Cyberpunks Construction of The Planetary
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Rachel: Hi everyone! Wow I’m super excited by all your questions! First off I should just mention that my paper is still a very tentative and early stage – so still very much thinking through a lot of this, but I’ll try to be as articulate as possible…
Paul: Getting in early on the conversation, here, because why the hell not? Really enjoyed this paper, as it speaks to my own research interests in metasystemic infrastructure; the concluding line about “Earth as an interface through which radical and reactionary understandings of technology can compete” was a real :bulb: moment for me. Rachel, I wonder if you could take a moment to expand on the notion of verticality in communications infrastructures that you mention early on, and draw out connections to this closing comment? And have you engaged with much infrastructural theory at all? On the basis of this work, Benjamin Bratton’s notion of “The Stack” might be of great value for you, and (while she’s rather more terrestrial in her interests) Keller Easterling’s work might also be worth a closer look.
Rachel: Hi! Thanks for your comment! Yes I’m very interested in infrastructure (its central to my larger current project on planetarity) – I’ve been looking more specifically into infrastructural affects – people like Lisa Parks at MIT have been developing work around this. I’m particularly interested in how infrastructure is inhabited, and how such inhabitations can modulate how infrastructure operates – rather than assuming infrastructure to be merely functional and static. (so this is why the descriptions of inhabiting orbital infrastructures in “True Names” is particularly interesting for me.) In terms of infrastructure having both radical or reactionary potential, I’m thinking more with the work of Gilbert Simondon and his understanding of metastability and emergence – that these are processes which can be pushed in either direction. Its funny you mentioned Benjamin because he’s been advising me on my current project – I’ll tell him he got mentioned twice in my Q&A, I’m sure he’ll enjoy that
Alexander: I also loved this talk! I also thought of Bratton’s work. My initial thoughts also went to Neuromancer‘s ending section taking place in Low Earth Orbit, as a metaphorical and literal interfacing with the giant arms of capital. Your talk really helped me contextualise the verticality of these structures!
Rachel: Thanks so much! Yes im super keen for cyberpunk scholarship to take a more serious look at infrastructural verticality – as I feel like there is such an emphasis on (particularly urban) horizontality
Lars: I was thinking there might be virtual infrastructures that are vertical – thinking of the idea of a deep state and a deep web, how we all just skim the surface but cannot see hidden structures below
Rachel: Yes thats a great point – its super interesting how the subterreanean imaginary is invoked in order to conceptualise extreme secrecy or inscrutability and how that gets indexed against to supposed transparency and openness of horizontal realms (for example, the street is like cyberpunks ur-location for finding, discovering and acquiring things). Also, Ive just started thinking about how depictions of verticality in Bladerunner – particularly in the final pursuit up the building where there is literal howling etc – dramatises becoming nonhuman (to invoke Delezue and Guattari).
Lars: sorry to do another plug, I got a chapter on subterranean infrastructure in regards to the concept of Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid modernity in my BiopunkDystopias (see #shameless-selfpromotion ) …sorry.
Rachel: OMG sounds great – I will seek it out. Also please plug away, its a cyberpunk conference after all, so I suspect we are all plug-heads in one way or another
Jiré: Super interesting talk, did you ever think about connecting the infrastuctures in orbit/metaverse etc. to the concepts of Teilhard de Chardin or Marshall McLuhan? This is what I actually did in my book and it might be an interesting addition as both of those theorists are describing a kind of planetary sphere that builds an infrastructure which connects the human mind (e.g. Noosphere…)
Rachel: Thanks for this! My larger current project (of which this paper has emerged) is thinking through contemporary forms of planetarity – where I’ve been thinking more with infrastructural affects and scholarship from the anthropology of outer space – so your suggestions are a really useful counterpoint/contrast to that
Alexander: This talk made me think of the ‘noosphere’, but also the inverse – of the decoupling of the human-scale from the planetary. The way in which this paper also considered discussed the manipulation of earth made me think of the vastness usually attributed to Space Opera
Rachel: Yes you had hit upon something really important that I’ve been trying to think through, that is: how are there already multiple forms of Earth that both exist simultaneously in overlays, but also as immanent potentials which haunt currently existing forms
Alexander: your description of the sequence of manipulation from Snowcrash is perfect for expanding out from there. So interesting, the ways in which such technology has manifested in the ‘real’ world but rendered us passive
Jiré : yes, very interesting point that can for example be seen in Greg Bears Eon I think.
Alexander: Right, another great place to draw on. I guess it gets into semantic questions about what defines cyberpunk, and why do we not usually think of it outside a floor level (even though so many seminal texts usually have worldbuilding that involves off-planetary places)
Jiré: yes, definitively. And it is such a difficult question as we have so many genres, media formats and so on. Actually I am quite curious to learn more on everyone’s take and definition of Cyberpunk here!
Adam: same here. I spent a long while in my research constructing a definition for Cyberpunk but I really want to see what other people think because it can be so hard to lock down as a subgenre
Lars: I think that is one of the key ideas of the RCCC, that we are not dealing with a subgenre anymore but a cultural formation
Jiré: definitively. The diversity of topics, approaches and disciplines here show that very clearly.
Lars: I have to say that I really liked this talk. How would you say something like the Angel Fire from Altered Carbon fits into your concepts?
Paul: Watts’s Blindsight might be a rich text for this perspective, too.
Rachel: Oh great suggestion – I’m definitely keen to find other texts to develop this work further so suggestions are much appreciated! To be honest I havent read Altered Carbon for ages (and, shockingly, havent watched the tv series), but will have to reread it in order to investigate this further…
Lars: Second season of the tv show has a central network of satellites that can be used for surveillance and as orbital weapons
Adam: Woken Furies I think is the one that picks into this most, particularly with AI/human consciousnesses? I felt a lot of that book in Season 2, and I think the books are open enough you could dive into them fairly well out of order if you so wanted
Emily: Hi Rachel – I really liked the point you made in your paper about AIs (often surveillance tools) betraying their masters and becoming playful and disobedient – subverting the very intentions of their creators to strike fear into the citizens they were suppose to control. It reminded me of Ancillary Justice when a space station decides it is sentient BUT particularly of the TV series Person of Interest.
Rachel: Thanks Emily! Ancillary Justice is a great reference – im really keen to think about how technologies of capture and governance can be subverted (or even self-subvert) in order to manifest liberatory potentials – or to think through the utopian potentials which can be pulled out of seemingly irredeemable technical formations.
Ana: I’m a bit late here and am about to start reading through this chat, but just wanted to say that this was a fascinating presentation, Rachel. So much to think about, and Im sure I”ll have more questions once I’m done reading Well, I’ve just caught up, and if I may, I’d love to add some thoughts I second the suggestion of Person of Interest. It features the Machine, an AI developed for surveillance that becomes conscious and self-aware and is even posited in the show as a kind of technological “god.” And, the final episode of the show has a view of a satellite in which such an AI is located – contrasting with the show’s heavy emphasis on New York City, where the action happens and which is the place being surveilled. I’m also thinking of the sci-fi subgenre of “cli-fi” (climate fiction), which is of course interested in imagining the planetary in various ways. KSR’s New York 2140 comes to mind, which is very much invested in a horizontality (there are almost no above views, except one character flying around in a dirigible, but that gives her very little extra knowledge).
Rachel: Thanks for your comments! Person of Interest is now 1000% on my watch list! Yes there are a lot of interesting ‘planetary imaginaries’ (to use Lise Messeri’s term) currently percolating through cli-fi. In terms of KSR’s New York 2140, although it is predominently invested in horizontality (not surprising when flood and flooding is the novel’s ur-motif) I’m particularly interested in his engagement with the vertical spatialisation of class – like its the working classes and the marginalised which are associated with the rising tide, the partially submerged and the subterranean. (hahaha the dirigible and the polarbear escape highjinks was definitly very random!)
Ana: I think you’ll love Person of Interest, and I’m very happy to discuss it when you do. The most fascinating thing about it, I think, is that it’s told from the point-of-view of The Machine (that is, the AI). Definitely an interesting example of surveillance and verticality and top-down vision also your mention of the working classes associated with the rising tide, reminds me of a moment in Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, wherein a riot of commoners crashing against the doors of the cathedral is compared to waves/a tide.
Sasha: Hi Rachel, great paper as always, I really liked your hallucinogenic slide show! I too found the line “earth as an interface through which radical and reactionary understandings of technology can compete” really interesting. I was wondering whether you had thought about how your analysis of the doodling AI in ‘Jamming for Edward’ fits into the broader themes in your research about the non-human/insectoid in space? Satellites definitely remind me of insects (particularly flies) for some reason!
Rachel: This is a great provocation Sasha. I’m really jazzed (lol) by the idea of satellites as insectile in some way – it had never occurred to me! but now i think about it…I’m interested in how the insectoid (or indeed spiderly) within outer space contexts can enable a new way of seeing, conceptualising and engaging with the cosmos – so yes, i think the doodling AI is perhaps another way of reconceptualising the earth and earth/space relations as a continuum
Sasha: oh your paper also got me thinking how cyberpunk texts often seem to recapitulate the pre-modern concept of the heavenly spheres, rather than a cartesian understanding of space. With the gritty streets, the upper class towers and then the world of information in the Satellite/orbital sphere
Rachel: oooooooooohhh another cool observation! Im really keen for formulations of cyberpunk cosmology which operates outside of the neo-cartesian divide that the genre is usually accused of/interpreted as. I think using the heavenly spheres redux is an interesting one because of the knock on effects it has for our understandings of cyberpunk spatiality – as the heavenly spheres is about discreet, mostly static zones which nevertheless maintain resonances across the whole – i wonder if rereading cyberpunk spatiality through medieval cosmology results in a new awareness of the heavenly spheres as a pre-digital mode of computational systematicity? (might be getting a bit carried away here though…)
Damian: I also found the image of vertical infrastructure interesting – for me communications tech instinctively lies underneath and I found it somehow provocative that in your talk it was overhead – was this a deliberate choice to favour a rhetoric of enclosure over one of enabling?
Rachel: Great observation. I’m particularly interested in planetary scale views – and the ways in which such views either reinforce or problematise notions of world which are usually reinforced through images of the planet as a whole – im particularly thinking of the legacy of The Blue Marble here. (also, with the lofting of the first round of satellites for the starlink constellation – as well as the masses of other internet satellite installations planned by Amazon et al – the importance of interrogating the cosmopolitics of the orbital realm is getting more and more important). But I definiately feel that sometime constrasting the orbital with the seabed/subterreanean dimension of telecommuniction infrastructures is a great idea that im vibed about
Alexander: slightly oblique reference, but N. Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon features quite a large discursive tract on seacables & ‘the web’. Not quite cyberpunk, but close
Adam: I haven’t yet said a thank you for your talk, the change of perspective you suggested still has my brain buzzing. I wondered if you have considered Serial Experiments Lain in your exploration of networks and planetary bodies. It doesn’t so much look out to space as much, but it definitely has a few different interpretations of information webs up to planetary scales and down into the deep web in it.
Rachel: Thanks Adam, love Serial Experiments Lain but hadn’t thought of it in this context. As you point out, I think my (very tentative) thinking though of cyberpunks orbital awareness would definietly benefit from further contextualisation/constrast with notions of the subterreanean/depth – I guess its the bounce between the two which is a crucial part of its operations/space mode
Adam: One of the advantages of Lain I guess. I love it, but damn do I still feel like I have no solid grasp on any of it.
Rachel: oh for sure! anyone who thinks they have understood Lain is deeply mistaken.
Eero: Thanks for the talk! I forgot if I had heard the Heuser quote about how “cyberpunk celebrates the fragment” before, but it really capsulates a lot that I personally like about it, and your analysis provided a very interesting counterpoint to that.
Graham: oh your paper also got me thinking how cyberpunk texts often seem to recapitulate the pre-modern concept of the heavenly spheres, rather than a cartesian understanding of space. With the gritty streets, the upper class towers and then the world of information in the Satellite/orbital sphere
Steven: It is an old book now, but Erik Davis’ TECHGNOSIS has a lot of interesting stuff about spirituality and 1990s cyberculture