Friday, August 18, 2023

SETI: Signs in space/ Enacting space

[From the SETI project, "A Sign in Space" (] 

“To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings,’ Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation 

In May, the SETI Institute Artist-in-Residence initiated a piece of collaborative performance–the decoding of an “alien” message, transmitted from the European Space Agency's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO). “A Sign in Space” is a simulation that enlists ordinary people in the work of “decoding” an alien message–one that you can download yourself. Along the way, SETI has hosted a series of workshops (including one from anthropologist Willi Lempert) designed to help participants through the decoding process–including hints on avoiding ethnocentric (and anthropocentric) assumptions about what this communication could be and what the intentions of extraterrestrial intelligence might entail. 

I am a very enthusiastic SETI advocate, but I wonder if “decoding” is really the best we can do here. I’m not entirely alone–the very lively Discord discussion around this project has included many, philosophical tangents that have questioned what exactly “interpretation” might mean in this context. On the one hand, semiotics (in that broader, Peircean sense) is something that all of us living creatures do. As Kohn writes, “All living beings sign. We humans are therefore at home with the multitude of semiotic life” (Kohn 2013: 42). All life as we know it is in communication with its environment–many of us living creatures along multiple semiotic levels. So it is certainly reasonable to assume that other life will also be involved in sign-making. 

But what about “decoding”? “Decoding” has a distinctly different valence than sign-making. It conjures up secrets: military maneuvers, economic competition, Incan quipu, Julius Caesar’s cipher, Alan Turing toiling over the Enigma Machine. The age of the internet is also the age of cryptography–the logical extrapolation of a digital capitalism. And decoding is also a kind of violence: decoding the secrets of nature, of the universe, of life itself. Something that will not yield its meaning readily, that will only succumb to force and intellect. 

More broadly, current approaches to coding/ decoding owe their existence to insights in and around the Josiah Macy Conferences on Cybernetics, a series of meeting held from the 1940s into the 1950s, and to which we owe much of our current understanding of information, neural networks and even natural language processing. The dream of the conferences was to provide a “lingua franca of science” where “not only scientific problems but even questions of art and human freedom could be treated in computational terms” (Geoghegan 2023: 23). 

In that, the Macy Conferences seems to have succeeded, and our whole world seems reducible to flows of code. Yet there were other possibilities raised in those landmark meetings on cybernetics, and reduction of the world to code is only one, at the expense of the alternatives. One example: the second-generation cyberneticist Gordon Pask built an installation called the “Colloquy of Mobiles” involving five robots (two “male” and three “female”) rotating towards each other on the bases of lights and sounds. What marks this off from other cybernetic machines, though, is its performative dimension. Pask meant for humans to interact with the Colloquy. As he wrote, “the mobiles produce a complex auditory and visual effect by dint of their interactions. They cannot, of course, interpret these sound and light patterns. But human beings can and it seems reasonable to suppose that they will also aim to achieve patterns which they deem pleasing by interacting with the system at a higher level of discourse” (Pask 1971, quoted in Pickering 2010: 359-360). Not “communicating” with the machines in the sense of a shared message but interacting with the Colloquy in order to produce light and sounds that they enjoy. 

 This version of cybernetics offered up a Situationist vision, where non-representational play would result in the emergence of new behaviors conjoining people with machines in cybernetic assemblages. In Pask’s models, performance would bring together all these agents in the space of cooperative assemblage, without the reduction of one or the other to codes. As Pickering explains (2010” 31-32), “The entire task of cybernetics was to figure out how to get along in a world that was not enframable, that could not be subjugated to human designs–how to build machines and construct systems that could adapt performatively to whatever happened to come their way.” 

On the one hand, it’s clear that “code” still has primacy: our lives are explicable to coding/decoding in more ways than ever before–from our biology (through genetics) to our social lives (through network analysis) and our physical well-being (through quantified self technologies). On the other hand, we are surrounded by a number of variously lively, nonhuman agents with which we interact without actually decoding. In fact, we have little sense of how algorithms that increasingly interpenetrate our lives even operate. Hidden behind proprietary training data, we cannot be sure why our job application was rejected, or why one YouTube video was recommended over another. Yet we performatively interact every day. 

In Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” heptapods hover over the Earth engaging humans in conversation. What is their message? There is, really, none. They come with neither threat nor scientific salvation. They only bring their language, which, in the spirit of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, alters Louisa Banks’s sense of time and causality. “For the heptapods, all language is performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize” (Chiang 2002: 138). The meetings with Banks–that was the message, and Banks “cracks” the code of language, but not the message of the visit. 

This, undoubtedly, is the point of SETI’s message as well. The “decoding” here is less important than the performance of decoding–the enlistment of global experts and ordinary people working together in (relatively) non-hierarchical ways. 

 Perhaps in the future we will discover a signal or an artifact. Will the point be to interpret meaning and intention? Or something else? Like the “Colloquy of Mobiles,” we humans might interact with the artifact and with each other without “breaking” the code of alien intelligence—which could have been the point all along. 


Chiang, Ted (2002). “Story of Your Life.” In Stories of Your Life and Others. NY: Tor Books. 

Geoghegan, Bernard Dionysius (2023). Code. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 

Kohn, Eduardo (2013). How Forests Think. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Pickering, Andrew (2010). The Cybernetic Brain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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