Appeals to human origins are surprisingly common features of discourse in academic computer science and the commercial software industry alike. Startup founders tie their business plans to evolutionary psychology (Levy 2010); conference talks show indigenous people, framed as “primordial man,” using contemporary information technologies. Yuval Noah Harari, a medievalist who has found great popular success in a turn to species-scale histories like Sapiens (2014) and Homo Deus (2016), has been described as “Silicon Valley’s favorite historian” (Ungerleider 2017). If the ordinary work of programming computers to do things seems boring, like staying in one place and typing all day, these stories change it into transformative action on the largest possible scale.

We can think of these stories as scaling devices. They establish the scope of discussion, telling us that we are not talking about minor acts of coding, but rather enduring abstract problems of human existence. “Scale-climbing,” as Judith Irvine has argued, is an ideological operation: by claiming the broader view, people try to encompass each other within their own explanatory frameworks (2016, 228; Gal and Irvine 1995). Epochal software stories set human species-being within a computational frame, recasting practically all social activities as precursors to their narrators’ technological projects. David Golumbia, in The Cultural Logic of Computation (2009), has termed this expansionist tendency in the rhetoric of computing “computationalism,” which allows the work of computing to alternately lay claim to the future and the past: new companies figure themselves as both innovators and inheritors of timeless human truths.

Anthropology is well positioned to critique the accuracy of such stories because they often drape themselves in anthropological garb, as the titles of Harari’s books suggest. Michelle Rosaldo wrote of such appeals to origins in “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology” in 1980: “the ‘primitive’ emerges in accounts like these as the bearer of primordial human need,” but these vernacular anthropologies are typically stuck in an evolutionist mode, finding in their origin stories a universalized version of contemporary concerns, “the image of ourselves undressed” (392). While these just-so stories often borrow a sense of scientific authority from evolutionary psychology (McKinnon 2005), they are not factual in any concrete sense. Konstan is not really claiming that his allegory of the cave actually happened, but rather that it, or something like it, must have happened. Overload is taken to be a constitutive part of human existence, not merely a recent challenge to be answered by human sociality and technology, but a force that has shaped the evolution of humans and our techniques. It can be known from personal experience and readily extrapolated to any situation, however remote.

But a counter-reading, which Benjamin gestures toward in a footnote, draws the diminishment of the aura into question. This reading suggests that mechanical reproduction does not diminish aura, but rather creates it in the first place: without copies, there are no originals. At the heart of the hyper-Mona Lisa, a seething network of reproductions and alterations that encircles the globe, beats the original in the Louvre, which draws greater and greater crowds as copies circulate. (And those crowds, full of cameras, create more copies.) This fits with anthropological analyses of “authenticity,” which take it not as the stuff of unsullied originals, but rather as an active production, largely dependent on the construction of “inauthenticity” against which it is defined. Moreover, thanks to humans’ inexhaustible capacity for enchantment, one moment’s lifeless copies become the next moment’s auratic objects.

Cosmology has also fallen out of favor for anthropologists studying non-Western settings, as it has stood for the discipline’s classic ethnocentric sins: cosmologies imply a timeless, stable holism, a spiritual order to which all activity is irrationally subjected. Cosmologies in this sense appear essentially “primitive” or unenlightened, efforts “to bring the vagaries of the world at large under a unitary mode of cognitive or symbolic control" (Abramson and Holbraad 2014, 5). Stanley Tambiah, for instance, in his famous essay on the Thai “galactic polity,” described how a common radial arrangement of villages and political orders in Southeast Asia had been interpreted by anthropologists in “the cosmological mode” (1977, 72), as repeating the fundamental, pre-existing archetype of a mandala. But, Tambiah argued, the order of the galactic polity did not simply express an underlying cosmological order; rather, political and cosmological orders interacted with each other, within historical parameters. It was, he suggested, not possible to distinguish between cosmological and other domains—they were integrated into a social totality. Where cosmologies have seemed naively holistic and omnicausal, this may have been a consequence of anthropological analysis itself, which chopped up the social scene looking for coherent worldviews that prefigured the order found in other domains like kinship, economics, or politics.

Recent efforts in anthropology to recuperate an interest in cosmology (e.g. Abramson and Holbraad 2014) have sought to discard the concept’s more problematic ethnocentric entailments, typically rejecting the presumed holism and a priori status critiqued by Tambiah, and most commonly, rejecting the implicit hierarchy in the term. The West has its cosmologies, too (see, e.g., Sahlins 1988, Toulmin 1992, Chu 2010), and indigenous cosmologies should be treated symmetrically to those, as genuinely world-making in their own right (Latour 1993, Viveiros de Castro 1998).[1]

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1 Insofar as the recuperation of cosmology has been associated with the “ontological turn,” and its attendant interest in the multiplicity of worlds, I find Paul Kockelman’s definition of ontology a usably rough synonym for cosmology: “ensembles of assumptions regarding the underlying constitution of, or salient patterns in, the world” (2013, 3). For Kockelman, ontologies are the “roots and fruits” (2013, 3) of interpretation and experience in the world.

“Information,” John Durham Peters has written, “is a term that does not like history” (1988, 10). Like other scientific megaconcepts, and like myths, information is commonly taken to exist outside of historical time. It is there whether we know about it or not, as a common definition puts it, “independently of living beings in the structure, pattern, arrangement of matter and in the pattern of energy throughout the universe” (Bates 2006). Because information is pattern alone, it can move through time and space, across different substrates, without changing: the periodic flashing of a pulsar in distant space a thousand years ago, the electromagnetic waves it beamed across the galaxy, captured by a radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico in 1968, the drawing of those waves’ intensities on a roll of paper by an electromechanical plotter, the india ink tracing of that plot by a draftswoman at Cornell University, the publication of that image in an astronomy dissertation, and its eventual reproduction on the cover of Joy Division’s 1979 debut album Unknown Pleasures can all be described as the “same” information, in different media (Christiansen 2015).

In his 1961 short story, “The Overloaded Man,” JG Ballard depicted a business school professor losing his mind, overwhelmed by the world outside his head. Harry Faulkner secretly quits his job and sits all day on the veranda of his university apartment, in a modernist housing complex called “the Bin.” He has trained himself to cognitively dissociate from the world, using “cut-off switches” in his mind to render objects around him as unrecognizable shapes. Eventually, Faulkner loses touch with the world entirely, unable to bear “its overlay of nagging associations.” When his wife discovers him at home during the workday in a stupor, Faulkner’s effort to disconnect culminates in a depersonalized murder-suicide, described through an abstracted interplay of shapes and colors. Ballard captures some of information overload’s signature features: the description of the brain and perception in terms of manipulable mental circuitry, the prototypical overloaded person being a man, a businessman or intellectual, aggravated by the excesses of modern life into a state of unreason (see Erickson et al. 2013, How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind).

At the beginning of the Cold War, the year after she died, the Yale Poetry Review published a piece by Gertrude Stein: a paragraph titled “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” (1947/1998). Atomic bombs were simply too big to care about, she wrote: “if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there is nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about” (1998, 823). But where the overwhelming destructiveness of the bomb led Stein to apathy, it drove others into an unnatural frenzy. Stein concluded: “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story” (1998, 823).

Stein’s story captured the apathy and anxiety of everyday life as it first fell under the shadow of the bomb—what Joe Masco has described as “the overstimulation of the body produced by an all-or-nothing Cold War cosmology” (17)—but it also marked the beginnings of what would eventually be described as a new historical age: the Information Age. It was not the scale of nuclear war that drove people mad, according to Stein, but the scale of information, overwhelming their common sense. The following year would see the publication of Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1948), which formalized a definition of information that became so influential, spreading so quickly across scientific fields, that he was soon compelled to disavow “the bandwagon” (1956) that had carried it away from its technical roots in communication engineering. While scientists from biology to sociology tried to recast their fields in informational terms, in a dense post-war “epistemic ecology” (Boyer), anxieties about information and its growing scale spread through popular culture, as well.

The celestial jukebox was thus magical, in the anthropological sense. Like the Trobriand gardening spells cataloged in Bronislaw Malinowski’s Coral Gardens and their Magic (1935), the celestial jukebox conjured an ideal situation in which mediation was “costless”—free of the “drudgery, hazards and investments which actual technical activity inevitably requires” (Gell 1988, 9). “Yam roots will strike down into the soil with the swiftness of a green parrot in flight, and the foliage above will dance and weave like dolphins playing in the surf,” and anyone will be able to listen to their favorite song at any time in any place (Gell 1988, 9). Alfred Gell, making a case for the similarity between magic and technology, described magical statements like these as positing “an ideal standard, not to be approached in reality, towards which practical technical activity can nonetheless be organized” (Gell 1988, 8). Magic’s efficacy, then, was not a matter of occult operations, but the orienting power of idealized visions, which downplayed their practical challenges (see Elish and boyd 2017 on magical discourses in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and Singleton 2013 on this theme in relation to outer space and escape).

Theodor Adorno remarked in 1964 that “innumerable so-called utopian dreams […] have been fulfilled,” including the satellite dream of transcontinental communication, but “one is not happy about them. As they have been realized, the dreams themselves have assumed a peculiar character of sobriety, […] of boredom.” On unhappy holiday in the Swiss alps a decade earlier, Adorno watched the nightly transit of Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, from the roof of his hotel, writing that the satellite

could not have been distinguished from a star, not from Venus, had it not been tottering on its course. That is what mankind’s victories are about. What they dominate the cosmos with, the realised dream, is dreamily shaken, ohnmächtig [powerless and unconscious], as though it sought to tumble. (qtd. in Benzer 2011, 222)

Integral to utopia, for Adorno, is not the magical promise of ideal futures, but rather the actual experience of disappointment in the gap between the orienting vision and the present experience. In his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, also published in 1962, year of Telstar and La Pénsee Sauvage, he aimed this critique at the original, terrestrial jukebox, which he saw, like satellites, as distracting novelties for the feeble-minded: “the jukebox in an empty pub will blare in order to lure ‘suckers’ with its false pretense of revelry in progress,” embodying “the ‘rip-off,’ a fraudulent promise of happiness which, instead of happiness, installs itself” (45).

“The fulfillment of utopia,” Adorno claimed, “consists in general only in a repetition of the ever-same,” a dispiriting stasis, like gaining access to a majority of the world’s music and listening only to a familiar Dave Matthews Band album, again and again (Adorno and Bloch [1964]1988, 2). Or, as David Byrne would sing 20 years later, “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” (Talking Heads 1979).

Escape, Hannah Arendt noted in her prologue to The Human Condition, was the surprising theme attending the 1957 launch of Sputnik—the first human-made satellite. Instead of “pride or awe at the tremendousness of human power” that had launched a two-foot metal sphere into space, where it “dwelt and moved in the proximity of the heavenly bodies as though it had been admitted tentatively to their sublime company,” popular commentary instead expressed “relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to the earth’” ([1958]1998, 1). Arendt was appalled by this rejection of Earth, the place she considered “the very quintessence of the human condition,” which had once nurtured technological progress and now apparently constituted its past ([1958]1998, 2). “The fulfilment of the wish,” she wrote, “like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating” ([1958]1998, 4–5). What happens when satellite visions become real and the future finally arrives? Not a glorious climax, but the sad realization that history continues and utopia in practice is anything but utopian.