Digital life from cosmological prespectives

by Yuk Hui

Chan Sook Choi’s work, Yin Yang Su Wha, is an invitation to contemplate the relationship between our digital lives and ancient Asian cosmology.

This invitation makes reference to a historical perspective, namely the binary number system of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), which the philosopher developed in dialogue with an old Chinese writing system. For Leibniz, the I Ching system of signs was China’s earliest writing system, and he saw it as a more perfect system of symbols than the Chinese writing system in use at the time; it is a sign system we refer to today as a charactaristica universalis.

Leibniz is perhaps the earliest digital thinker; not only did he establish the binary number system, but his “best of all possible worlds” hypothesis is also a principle in algorithmic information theory. Chan Sook Choi sees it as a dialogue between European and Chinese thought. The artist has titled her work Yin Yang Su Wha and has incorporated into it the five elements or movements.

These are fundamental to traditional Chinese cosmology, but can Chinese cosmology be reduced to an algorithm? Or does the digital age oblige us to rethink cosmology?

As digital technology has transformed our society, we have witnessed a consummation of the technological system, which is apparent in the totalisation of networking technology, automation, big data and artificial intelligence. Over 30 years ago the French philosopher Jacques Ellul described this system in his book Le système technicien (1977), and in my recent work, On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), I have endeavoured to expand on his thinking.

Today we can equate this culminating technological system with the Anthropocene. In this worldview, the cosmos is no longer the mysterious realm beyond the Earth, but is rather perceived as a technological system: Cosmology has become astrophysics. In my latest book, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2017), I have thus proposed to readmit the question of technology as per Heidegger. In the 20th century the philosophy of technology has remained within the bounds of Heidegger’s reasoning. The German philosopher bequeathed to us two concepts of technology: Technê, in the Ancient Greek sense, i.e. poiesis or the act of creating; and modern technique or technology, which stems from European modernity. Modern technology as an entity is no longer poetic or generative, but rather what Heidegger calls das Gestell, or “the framework”. All that exists can be commissioned or thought of as inventory. Digitisation is a progression of modern technology in the sense in which Heidegger established that cybernetics has completed occidental metaphysics. We are immediately faced with the problem that we cannot use the two terms to explain the technologies of other cultures. Chinese technology and African technology were not Greek technology, as their technologies are shaped by different cosmologies. We must therefore distance ourselves from an anthropological universalism in order to rethink the question of technology. I have accordingly developed the concept of cosmotechnics, which I provisionally define as the confluence of cosmic order and moral order by means of technological measures. Consequently we can redefine the global history of technology. Chan Sook Choi is therefore also inviting us to discover cosmology, as Yin Yang Su Wha reveals the artist to be enthused by the concept of Qi. Qi, often translated as energy in medicine, also means ‘gas’ and is a term that could already be found in the ancient Taoist Zhuangzi. The concept progressed in the Neo-Confucianism of the 11th century, above all through the work of the philosopher Zhang Zai (1020–1077). The efforts of NeoConfucianism amount to the reconstruction of a moral cosmology in the face of ethical decay and political corruption. In the vision of Zhang Zai, water and fire are two fundamental elements that comprise Qi. Various combinations of Qi produce three additional “movements”: wood, metal and earth. The mutability of Qi allows for an exchange between “ten thousand things”.

The moral cosmology of Neo-Confucianism propagates another principle of technology. This becomes clear upon perusing the encyclopaedia of technology in China, Tian Gong Kai Wu by Sung Yingsing (1587–1666), which was published a hundred years earlier than the French encyclopaedia by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. This book presents and explains a range of technologies such as agriculture and metallurgy while drawing upon Zhang Zai’s natural philosophy, in which Qi is fundamental to technological thought. This is in contrast to the French encyclopaedia in which readers can discern a sharp separation between technology and nature. Since the 18th century this separation has been pushed so far in Europe that nature could be imagined to be the offspring of a mother raped by technology. Modernisation in Asia in the past one hundred years has become a technological modernisation. This process has led to the disappearance of Cosmotechnics. Modern technology is the sole impetus for economic and social development. What now can the role of cosmology be?

Anthropologists like Phillipe Descola and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro have tried to show that we need multinaturalism more than we need multiculturalism, where the former is defined as the necessity to recognise a variety of cosmologies. It seems to me that in order to rediscover the diversity of cosmotechnics, we need to accept Chan Sook Choi’s invitation to use her spectacular presentation of Yin Yang Su Wha on the wall of the Humboldt Forum for contemplating the relationship between digital life and our lost cosmology.