Courtesy Simon Fraser University Galleries

What conditions are needed to cognize worlds that do not yet exist?

Cosmology, in Bentley Allan’s analysis, is an amalgam of ontology, epistemology, cosmogony, destiny and temporality that – taken together – determine a sense of purposefulness within a particular historical context. In general, cosmology serves as a framework for orienting behavior, relations, and activity in a certain, choreographed way, and not another. Cosmology is not a ‘thing’, but rather the terrain of enablement from which modes of decision and orientation come to make sense, and are collectively figured as legitimate. Extrapolating from this, we may also infer that cosmology serves as the medium for constructing concepts of necessity, around which modes of economic valuation, technological development, resource allocation and incentive structures logically revolve. In this contextualization, technology – including blockchain specifically, is indissociable from the cosmological conditions that infuse it with determinations of purposefulness. Different cosmological conditions yield different purposes, incentives and therefore use values for technological development.

This research project centers on ‘necessity’ as a contingent premise, driven by questions as to how we come to evaluate it in and as social practice, and how this conceptual category can become an object for political traction. The central reason for this approach is to grapple with the ‘cosmological constraints’ embedded in our technologies, while not disavowing technological development as such – of not falling into the reductive pitfalls of techno-fetishism nor pessimism. If technologies are to work in the service of the many, new constructions of necessity are, quite simply, necessary.

Departing from blockchain technologies (BCT) as a case study, two features in particular can be noted: First, initial applications of BCT have largely been leveraged towards the proliferation of cryptocurrency markets, where we see a novel techno-structural backbone deployed for the banal, unnovel activity of accumulating private wealth. Second, the energy, or scaling problem inherent to BCT technologies evidences another instance of unnovel, cosmological preservatism – insofar as the picture of the human through which BCT have been built, remains largely a Euro-humanist one, for which Nature remains conceived as an external resource for human mastery and exploitation. What we can see in both instances, is that although we have novel technological means, they are used to pursue the same old, familiar purposes; we have novel means to persist in conservative narrations of humanist self-images. Despite claims of ‘radical change’ ushered in via new technologies, and there are of course social changes as a result of these innovation lease in the wild, in other important senses they don’t so much introduce novelty, but rather amplify and instrumentalize upon existing cosmological dispositions. Here we may note a difference in the type of ‘change’ between the continuous and the discontinuous.

The reason for this focus on the construction of necessity as a lens through which to approach our techno-political reality is threefold:

  • To analyze and put weight on territories (material and conceptual) of enablement as a target for activism commensurate with the non-linear dynamics of complex, planetary-scale systems within which we are governed, irreducible as they are to mechanical modes of agential causation.
  • To escape the limiting discourses surrounding technology in both techno-fetishist (solutionist), or techno-pessimist guises – but rather grapple technology as a co-evolutionary byproduct influenced by, and influencing social life at large.
  • To treat technology in its social dimension, entails intervening not only in its epistemic possibility (i.e. the capacity to make something at all), but in the speculative ramifications of that possibility in the wild, its meaning and narration in normative dimensions (i.e. how techno-scientific possibilities ought to be deployed, or not).

The project manifests as a long, diagrammatically illustrated research essay. The paper, entitled “The Valuation of Necessity,” was published in the Blockchains and Cultural Padlocks Research Report in May 2021. Read it here.

Diagram from Patricia Reed’s Valuation of Necessity, 2021. Commissioned by 221A for the Blockchains & Cultural Padlocks Research Report. Diagram by the artist as an illustration of N. Katherine Hayles conception of technics; the study of how technical objects emerge, solidify, disassemble, and evolve. As detailed in “How We Think: Contemporary Media and Technology” (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

Patricia Reed is an artist, writer and designer based in Berlin. As an artist, selected exhibitions include TIER, Berlin; Meet Factory, Prague; The One and The Many, CUAG, Ottawa; Homeworks 7, Beirut; Witte de With, Rotterdam; and HKW, Berlin. Recent writings have been published in Angelaki 24; Making & BreakingPara-Platforms(Sternberg); Post-Meme (Punctum Books, forthcoming); e-flux ArchitectureXeno-Architecture (Sternberg Press); Cold War Cold World (Urbanomic); and Distributed(Open Editions). With Victoria Ivanova, she co-curated the 1948 Unbound: Tokenssession with the House of World Cultures team, Berlin (2017), and was a theory researcher for Public Art Munich 2018. Reed is also part of the Laboria Cuboniks (techno-material feminist) working group whose Xenofeminist Manifesto (2015), was reissued by Verso books in 2018.