Written in Sponge
Between 1.8 billion and 800 million BCE, the earth was stuck in a geological period that’s colloquially known as “the barren billion,” or “the boring billion” – a period in which near-absent oxygen levels and resolutely stable temperatures resulted in an incredible billion-year stretch where the earth’s biological evolution ground almost completely to a halt. It’s believed that during this time, geological splits and shifts, continents rising from the sea, setting, and cracking - events that should have brought about cataclysmic atmospheric changes – had nearly no effect on the earth’s overall state. Slow action may have continued at the bacterial, eukaryotic scales, but all of the grandest, most sweeping entropic waves seem to have been dampened, swallowed by some cosmic expanse. This went on for nearly a quarter of the earth’s present timeline, a billion years submerged in a kind of mythical stasis.
The twenty-first century’s blinding rate of change operates closer to the other end of the spectrum – deep time has given way to hyperspeed. 90% of the world’s data didn’t exist 24 months ago, and this totality is forecasted to grow by nearly 70 billion gigabytes each day in 2018. Rising from every crease or corner, generating from every digitally-mediated action of any sort, this data’s molecular suffusion might be likened to the ancient earth’s bacterial ecology, festering persistently at scales too small to see; but far from remaining invisible or virtual, the present day’s surfeit of information feeds into a world of urgent material and ethical issues. From political manipulation at the hands of far-right technology firms like Cambridge Analytica to metadata-driven “signature strikes” by the US government, this noumenous digital world happens to stand at the epicentre of contemporary cultural, economic, and political action. Across 2018’s every surface we see reminders that these bits of data can quickly and easily take monstrous shape in physical, psychological worlds. Gone is the entropic sink that seemed to stifle the early earth’s every shift towards complexity, ensuring a billion years of geological stasis; the present days are marked by a political and mediatic volatility in which a misplaced tweet, a few meagre bytes of wayward data, carries the risk of igniting a nuclear skirmish.
A quick Google search of the word “Information” returns to me 8.5 billion results in 0.84 seconds. Search engines, databases, and general informatics have failed us completely – systems like Google might help us navigate certain preordained avenues of the everyday, but there’s a profound asymmetry of access here, a meaningful difference between probing, say, Google’s bank of commodified search words and the NSA’s sprawling “XKeyset” database. And when these commodified search terms stretch into veritably sublime numeration (as 8.5 billion results surely does), we so regularly find ourselves in a situation where, as theorist Lisa Gitelman phrases it, “an overwhelming amount of data [starts] to feel like everything there is,” and the wealth of crucial data inaccessible to us through Google ceases to matter. Far from remaining simply discreet instances, this sense of overwhelm refracts into the fabric of lived experience, and defines the contemporary, datafied world at an epistemological level. As media theorist Mark Andrejevic notes in his book Infoglut, an observed result of these kinds of predicaments, where every concept and situation appears too fiendishly complex to possibly grasp all at once, is simply the inability to come to conclusions, form knowledge, or take action of any sort – “the result of information overload is a kind of paralysis.”
Media scholar Daniel Rosenberg argues that libraries, indexes, and archives have been forsaken by informational paranoiacs since at least the 17th century, and, as we’ve seen, informatics tend to only reinforce already-existing political asymmetries. Even Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson’s famous notion of “cognitive mapping” has not only failed to recuperate for us any meaningful vantage onto the world’s complex totality, but has instead provided structuring material for the very neoliberal forces it aimed to counteract. As Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues in her recent book Updating to Remain the Same, “the rise of ‘Big Data’… perverts the aim of cognitive mapping, for…this mapping has not enabled individual subjects to understand and change the system; rather it has been used to pre-empt disruption and make users more predictable.”
In the wake of all these failed theories, I haven’t yet given up hope. Writing for a recent compendium titled Speculation Now, economist and mathematician Satya Pemmaraju sharply summarizes our situation’s slipperiness, saying:
“The deep uncertainty, both metaphysical and empirical, regarding value, identity, and the future that marks contemporary life has created the necessity for formal apparatuses that reflect and engage with undecidability, uncertainty, indeterminacy, and incompleteness… speculation is not directed towards a finitude of possibilities and their fine, rigorous analysis; it is instead focused on the creation of new spaces of thought and action.”
Whereas “cognitive mapping,” and its unfortunate, nominal connection with the colonial enterprise of cartography, may have marked it for corporate, neo-colonial appropriation from its outset, speculation might be vague enough, sufficiently amorphous in its shape and function, to serve as the much needed cipher to the various questions that have implicitly arisen so far: is it possible for these epistemological asymmetries to be overcome? How can we reclaim the possibility to confidently think and act? How did all of this happen? Where did all of this damn information come from? Where did it start?
Eventually, we come upon the question to follow: where did it start?
If the earth was indeed once a place of unimaginable simplicity, how is it that we’re now swallowed by complexity? As Jameson decried so desperately, the late-capitalist world has swept every neat pairing of cause and effect behind an impenetrable barrier of encrypted transactions and shipping containers, but we still understand causality to exist, if only vaporously, invisibly circulating, hidden in plain sight. This predicament has an origin. And just as an epidemiologist must look for patient zero, track the virus’ causal chain back to its earliest node, it occurs to me that by following information back to its origin, finding complexity’s earliest seeds as they waded diaphanously through the ancient earth’s shallow seas, we might set anchor, establish for ourselves a stable piece of ground from which to examine further reaches of the post-digital wild.
And drawing from the only tenuously speculative theories recently proposed by Paleontologist Nicholas Butterfield, it appears that complexity’s engines did indeed begin turning in the shallow seas, roughly 850 million years ago, spurred by the momentous arrival of the sea sponge.
The oldest known ancestor to all animal life according to the fossil record, the sea sponge was the first creature able to survive the Neoproterozoic era’s impoverished oxygen levels. Composed of a malleable skeleton dotted with millions of interlinking canals and chambers, the sponge’s primary function as a living animal is to pump and filter water. Each of these internal chambers and canals are lined with little hairs called flagella that whip back and forth, coaxing their surrounding waters to flow through them. Also lining the sponge’s canals are legions of bacteria that initially digested the passing water’s phosphor and carbon, ejecting it as nutrients that fed the sponge. Gradually, the water began to clear, the rate of deep water decomposition slowed, and oxygen was able to circulate more freely. As a result of their propensities to mobilize and rearrange the ocean’s chemical composition, Butterfield suggests, the sea sponge, and its heterotopic bacterial assemblage, are responsible for the very atmospheric shifts that led to the “barren billion’s” end and the earth’s gradual oxidization.
Having traced this origin, one question is answered, but so many more remain. In the wake of all this, it occurs to me to ask: what else might the sponge have given rise to? I propose we ask: how much of the contemporary world owes its shape to the sea sponge?
One of the sponge’s earliest relations to human beings was padding the helmets and armor of Roman soldiers. John Durham-Peters has pointed out in his book The Marvelous Clouds that dolphins have been using sponges as a kind of armor for hundreds of thousands of years, to cover their noses as they divebomb fish at the ocean’s bottom – regardless, the thought that the sponge has been a human military tool for thousands of years carries with it an elemental strangeness. A further bizarre parallel comes into view when we note that contemporary military armor is also lined by a kind of sponge, or spongiform material, in Polyurethane, Polyester, or Polyvinyl Alcohol. The material index may have shifted, but these newly specialized petrochemical pads are simply revitalizations of the mystical tactility sponge have always exuded. But I suspect there’s much more to the situation than this.
Speculation one: sponges have served, since antiquity, as humanity’s technological muse.
DuPont Chemical claims to have invented the first synthetic sponge in the early 1930s. While this is not true, they did invest a great deal of effort in crafting and selling early artificial sponges, and went on to develop the earliest forms of Polyester, which make up the majority of sponges one might presently find in Hardware stores. In the earliest days, cellulose was the only material available to produce synthetic sponge, but as Nazi chemical cartel IG Farben discovered foamed polyurethane in 1941, the same year Dow Chemical discovered Expanded Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, the sponge’s transformation into plastic followed inexorably. Looking through the US patent archives, though, the regularity with which these corporations likened their newly formed plastics to sponges is spectacular – no matter the substance, if it had a contiguous cellular structure and was perhaps, as Aristotle described the sponge, “squeezable,” corporations from Goodyear to Monsanto regularly identified their plastic substances as having “sponge-like” characteristics, even when they served wholly different purposes. When Robert Volz, working for the Scott Paper Towel Company, invented a method to reticulate any foamed structure in 1956, he mentions the word sponge in his patent 29 times.
Deleuze and Guattari are responsible for what is likely the most popular biological figure to spatialize and think through philosophical and political issues, in their figure of the rhizome -- it occurs to me that the sponge is serving a similar purpose in this exploration, except, I posit that the sponge’s metaphorical capacity stretches even beyond the rhizomatic imagery that Deleuze and Guattari wielded so deftly. However, the sponge may also be even more vulnerable.
Deleuze and Guattari’s emancipatory writings on the rhizome have famously been taken up by the Israeli military, assigned as required reading, and employed to better oppress its perceived dissidents; and as we’ve seen, Jameson’s “cognitive mapping” has allowed corporations to better observe and manipulate their subjects. The sponge wrenched the earth out of a stillness that might have otherwise gone on forever, but like these other examples, its role in global history has been, tragically, and by no fault of its own, anything but that of a saviour.
The screen operates as the mediatized world’s primary force-carrier. Digital screens now number in the tens of billions globally, offering countless partial windows, fragmentary glimpses into cyberspace’s immeasurable expanse. As many theorists have noted over the past century, the word screen refers at once to an object and a verb, a representational technology and a filtration system, all of which, ultimately, exist at a precipice between inside and out, serving as selectively permeable membranes between unlike but contiguous worlds.
Biological philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has recently observed that “the water canal system through the [sponge’s] body is so pervasive and generates such high rates of flow that it is more a continuation of the external environment than part of the organism itself.” Sustaining its life as a filtration screen, the sponge also operates, it seems, as a screen-membrane, hovering liminally between object and environment, generator and intercessor, self and other.
The bacterial colonies that inhabit the sponge’s canal systems are so dense that their combined biomass often exceeds that of the sponge itself.
In 2008, Donna Harraway, in her text When Species Meet, rhapsodically proclaimed that the human body is often composed, in near majority, of bacterial and viral cohabitants.
In 2017, John Cheney-Lippold observed that the amount of biopolitical power that had come to be invested in humans’ metadata profiles was sufficient to proclaim, and even title his book We Are Data.
Who started saying that our brains work like sponges? What kind of sponge, and why? Because we absorb things? Living sponges don’t absorb, they circulate, filter, feed, nourish – the only sponges that absorb water are dead ones, whose vital material has rotted away. If humans are like sponges, it’s in the sense that Harraway speaks of humans – as cyborgs, forever interpellated by outside things, both living and not -- as always already split between self and other, subject and object, figure and background.
The formal similarities between sponge, rhizome, and internet are overwhelming. Branching chambers, unexpected connections, asymmetrical forms, nodes and edges -- looking at any projected map of the internet, it’s easy to see why Wendy Hui Kyong Chun would conclude that “The Internet is allegedly a rhizome.” It looks like one.
But since the 1996 Telecommunications act sold the internet’s future to conglomerating entertainment and telecom companies, any rhizomatic, spongiform likeness to the internet’s structure has gradually given way to the claustrophobic striations that corral and organize it today – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on. Chun’s “allegedly” is the operative term: the appearances are there, but it’s all a terrible trick.
As water moves through the sponge’s chaotic arrangement of internal chambers, it ultimately converges to specific points of escape, its oscula, the large holes through which sponges eject their currents. If the internet has spongiform qualities, it’s only in relation to these restrictive, oscular patterns, as the internet’s ostensible fragmentation across multitudes of nodes and nets, ultimately reconvenes in Amazon’s cloud software or Google’s provided search parameters.
Sponges are prominent oceanic bioaccumulators, as their lifetimes of pumping and filtering leave them with dense build-ups of the indigestible elements that fill their environments. Like the layers of a rock or the rings of a tree, one can look to the sponge as a kind of biological archive of the material nuances that define a given environment at a given time. Once again, we see the triumphs of enlightenment technology idling in the ocean’s bottom, as bio-technological blueprints as old as animal life itself.
Media scholar Wolfgang Ernst suggests in his text Digital Memory and the Archive, that “the real work in archival science… is a process of selecting out, not of accumulation.” Here Ernst posits a sharp distinction between the archive and the database, the former being defined by some sort of selective or exclusionary criteria that the latter.
So is the sponge an archive or a database?
Both practices require a screen of some sort, and the sponge’s morphological makeup stipulates whole protocols of selection and exclusion. But the particulates, objects, and things that pass through the sponge’s screen aren’t vetted at all, which results in sponges regularly containing concentrations of oceanic plastic or petrochemical runoff.
Perhaps, in addition to forging the technologies Ernst contemplates, sponges at the same time simply confounded that distinction entirely. In any case, it’s clear that both archive and database forms found their origins in sponge biology – another oppressive technology derived from poriferan DNA.
Ambivalence seems to follow us like a shadow – I no longer know what to make of the sponge.
Built around these oppressive informatic technologies like flesh around a spinal cord, Post-Fordism is the term generally used to describe the twenty-first century’s digitized, globalized, informational labour ecology. Post-Fordism’s new proletariat class is known as the “precariat” due to the fundamental precariousness of their contract-, gig-, and project-based income. Sponge cells exhibit a unique behaviour that resembles, with eerie closeness, Post-Fordism’s metastructures. The only animal in the world to exhibit a behaviour like this, each of the sponge’s cells not only possesses the ability to transform into any cell in the sponge’s organic makeup (like a kind of hyper-able stem cell,) but also the ability to reverse this process, and subsequently change back into any other kind. This behaviour immediately brings to mind Deleuze’s claim that we now live within a “society of control,” in which the forces in power have learned to adhere to modulatory, shapeshifting logics, like “a sieve whose mesh [transmutes] from point to point.” This cellular lability also chillingly replicates the behaviour of a ‘precariat’ worker whose, say, four jobs in the sharing economy require them to readily jump from task to task, skill to skill, and back again, in order to simply survive.
As philosopher Steven Shaviro characterizes the predicament, “in the post-Fordist information economy, forms can be changed at will to meet the needs of the immediate situation. The only fixed requirement is precisely to maintain an underlying flexibility: an ability to take on any shape as needed.” We see here a characterization of neoliberalism’s most sophisticated form of extractive pressure, invisibly exerted across an entire class of often already marginalized people, and its summary sounds like it could have been read straight from a tome of sponge taxonomy.
We arrive at the end of this exercize farther from stable ground than ever. It may be that, as Hito Styerl warned, the free-fall we’ve entered truly has no ground beneath it -- perhaps there was never any hope for an anchor to take. Speculation has only lead us onto new questions. No way forward is clear.
I wonder if we could ask, or speculate, what other, radical, resistant secrets might lay hidden, inscribed across the sponge’s twisting chambers. It might behoove us to look, before another passageway is closed by encroaching neoliberal or technocratic forces. Living in hyperspeed, deep time having receded irretrievably, there’s a powerful feeling that the hour is getting late.