White Matter, Black Sun

“[...] that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, or State (in Latin, Civitas), which is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength than the natural, for whose protection and defence it was intended; and in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; ​reward and punishment [...] are the nerves; [...] salus populi (the people’s safety) its business; [...] equity and laws, an artificial reason and will; concord, health; sedition, sickness; and civil war, death.”

—Thomas Hobbes1Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

This is a video from a future. Not the future, but a future.

On election day 2039, China appoints an artificial intelligence, OpenSesame, as its new president-elect.

After electronic voting systems were widely adopted in all provinces, municipalities, and electoral districts, a next-gen AI code-named OpenSesame was deployed to detect and forestall any possible tampering with the election process, by domestic or foreign entities alike. In principle and by design, OpenSesame had access to all available data about every voter and voting machine, as well as real time internet traffic, through public and private sector sources.

Seeded from a collaboration between Alibaba Group and Zhejiang University, the technology evolved from a prototypical model specialized in anti-fraud and risk management in Alipay and Ant Financial, dating back to the turn of the century. With increasing public awareness of privacy infringement by state-sponsored surveillance in the early 2020s, the Regime strategically outsourced governmental AI and data mining projects to private companies and thereafter institutionalized data sharing between public and private entities through the National Intelligence Act.

Predictive policing inevitably became the norm under this data-driven governance. Criminals, or PreCriminals™, to be precise, are apprehended based on foreknowledge given by proprietary algorithms and myriad data harvested from mundane details. ​Aptly dubbed pax silico by historians, the Digital Leviathan established a new form of homeostasis long after the medieval pax sinica and 20th century pax americana. This period of de facto peace and prosperity under the hegemony of a computational juggernaut was eagerly embraced after the violent insurgence and repression of the late 2020s and early 2030s. Good rain after a long drought.

Algorithms are pushing social contract into another realm, more manifest and obligatory than those carved into stones. The modern state, as conceived by Enlightenment thinkers, is an apparatus to deter the “state of nature,” a degree-zero mutual warring state between atomized individuals: “all against all.” The “state of nature” is simultaneously fabled, as a Gedankenexperiment (thought experiment), and true-to-life, as seen in the bloody English civil war between Monarchists and Parliamentarians. The legitimacy and authority of the state over individuals is granted by individuals’ consent, explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their natural rights in exchange for protection of their remaining rights and maintenance of communities. This early modern theorization of sovereignty was rooted in Hobbes’s belief in a mechanistic and deterministic universe. He rejected witchcraft and magic, and was a notorious atheist in his time. Algorithms, on the other hand, sit right on the faultline between the magic and the mechanistic, oracle and formula, self-fulfilling prophecies disguised as innocuous, implementable instruction sets. Algorithmic governance turns the immaterial social contract into an impregnable self-executing social machine, embodying sovereignty in the form of almighty superstate. Justice evolves from retributive to preemptive.

As the election results rolled out, public opinion became increasingly polarized. For some, OpenSesame was a candidate that stood in stark contrast to politics-as-usual. The AI didn't have any political experience, unlike the other two presidential candidates, Chan and Fong.  Chan had served as a progressive technocrat in the Old Regime. He was the chief architect of the colossal dam and other geo-engineering projects that partially shielded coastal megacities from the climate apocalypse in the early 2030s. It was this project that largely preserved China’s industrial infrastructure and laid the foundation for its revival in the years following. The other candidate, Fong, was a leading voice in the student movement of the previous decade and had spent eight years in prison as a high-profile dissident, trading her youth for followership and political capital. Through careful agenda-setting by her team and allies, her struggles had been coated with a spiritual tint that resonated with the masses empathetic to nonviolent noncooperation in the networked age.

The two candidates combined presumably occupied the full voter’s spectrum, from the technocratic productivist right to the self-mythologizing resistant left. Meanwhile, OpenSesame had spent the first half of its life in the laptops and servers of the computer science labs of Zhejiang University, trained through a mix of supervised and unsupervised learning, with no particular focus on politics or public affairs. The methodologies used in crafting and tuning OpenSesame didn’t really break away from the paradigm of its time. In sum, OpenSesame wasn’t a special kid — but the unexpected rise to power of the president-elect shows that the Chinese people are ready for a change.

Shortly after the ballot results were announced, transnational pan-computationalist religious group Church of Zuse (founded by their prophet Konrad Zuse, the first to conceive of a totalizing theory that “everything computes”) and pro-AI rights activist movement my_mother_was_a_computer (MMWC) jointly declared their endorsement of the president-elect. This newly formed and self-claimed progressive front dismissed conservatives’ aversion to OpenSesame as speciesism and anthropocentrism which, according to them, should be jettisoned like racism. Conservatives, on the other hand, argued for strict abidance by procedural justice and called for a thorough investigation into the sudden ascendance of the president-elect, since OpenSesame had not even been listed as a candidate to begin with. The controversy was heating up. First national elections aren’t always the smoothest. Conspiracy theories spread like viruses; head-to-head demonstrations and even sporadic riots erupted in major cities.

The bodies of OpenSesame, i.e. the data center, are deployed in the form of a satellite at geo-stationary orbit. A redundancy of ground control systems linking the satellite were distributed in China and its territorial waters, originally so OpenSesame could monitor the election process in real time. OpenSesame was hosted in deep space for jurisdictional reasons. The New Regime had passed laws regulating predictive policing and governmental AIs alike as redress for civil rights infringements in the Old Regime. To comply with the law, OpenSesame could not be hosted in the territory, territorial waters, or airspace of China. It was also barred from being hosted in foreign territories, where it would have risked cyberattacks or physical compromise. Nevertheless, securing the justness and impartiality of the election process with a specialized risk-managing AI had been advocated by the New Regime and accepted by the general public as a necessary evil. After all, the one and only time that universal suffrage had been granted in modern China was the 1947 Republic of China National Assembly election, which happened almost a century ago.

To resolve the conundrum, the election committee had turned their eyes to outer space. Outer space enjoys similar status as international waters, first secured by the Cold War-era Outer Space Treaty and later the Westphalian International Space Law. Space data centers had become a mature technology by the late 2020s, given the advantage of cooling systems and plentiful solar energy in that environment. Because modern data centers require considerable energy to operate, system cooling mechanisms are at the heart of data center design. ​In the 2010s, Google and Microsoft experimented with floating or underwater data centers in international waters for similar jurisdictional and cooling reasons. Like international waters, space is a place without a singular sovereignty or nomos; in other words, a place defined by Schmittian enmity. Enmity is a dynamic and tension-ridden process, in the sense that mutual destruction between entities is conjured as a means, but never truly pursued as an end, for the reason that destruction ends enmity and turns places-without-sovereignty into territories.

The sovereignty’s enmity response in cyberspace in the spring of 2010 is particularly intriguing. The Chinese authorities viewed an unbridled transnational digital giant as an intrusion into its sovereignty and a series of immunological chain reactions was thus triggered. Authorities honed the unholy art of misinformation during this campaign, with millions of bots camouflaged as human users to undermine ideological opponents. The future’s proxy warfare leaked into the present. The campaign heralded the venomous undertone of the shattered public sphere that would last for next two decades. The transnational internet company Google, in response, quickly announced its withdrawal from mainland China, reckoning the asymmetrical infowarfare between a non-state entity and a state a no-win situation. After all, the king has two bodies, the CEO only one. However, since then, the two entities evolved more alike rather than apart, in their ways of “governance” — if the g-word could be said to be equally applicable to states and corporations. Both were maximizing their self-preservation and enhancing immunological response through computational technologies. Or in cybernetic terminologies, both are autopoietic systems. In an age of cyberpolitical order overweighing geopolitical order, transnational internet corporations played roles equal to, if not greater than, nation-states and international organizations. The good old idea of Westphalian sovereignty needed further molding in the networked age once cyberspace invaded the earth’s surface, rendering traditional borders precariously porous. The world saw the return of realpolitik, immunological reaction in its desperate forms, this time not only between nation-states, but also with para-state cyber-corporations added to the mix.

On the weekend preceding election day 2039, a cluster of solar flares erupted. The unusually fast coronal cloud carrying high-energy particles exceeded OpenSesame’s predictive limit and met the satellite head-on. Consequently, among a series of devastations was what military users called Single Event Upset, a high energy particle striking a sensitive node in a micro-electronic device; in OpenSesame’s case, the node affected was a memory bit. That node flip seemed to have messed with OpenSesame’s demarcation between the interior and the exterior, between itself and the world. The election went awry from then on. That was the unexpected price we paid for Moore’s Law: the shrinking logic gates guaranteed exponential growth of both computing power and economy at large, but eventually they couldn’t withstand a single blow at the wrath of Helios.

This solar storm reminded people of the same phenomenon from 1859, the strongest one recorded to date. Later dubbed the Carrington Event, it had been the perfect solar superstorm. Telegraph communications, the Victorian internet, went down across the globe. Sparks flew from telegraph machines, shocking operators and setting papers on fire.​ Colorful auroras illuminated the nighttime skies, visible across the northern hemisphere, in as far south as the Caribbean, glowing so bright that birds began to chirp and laborers started their daily chores, believing the sun had begun rising. Earth weather had crumbled empires. Space weather, too, would wreak havoc on human business in the space age. It was divine will for OpenSesame to become president.

During a total solar eclipse, coronal mass ejection can be seen with the simplest optical devices. In the summer of 1860, a year after the Carrington Event, an astronomer in Spain hand-traced the unusual swirly structure he saw during a total solar eclipse. In alchemical symbolism, the eclipse motif of sol niger, or “black sun,” recurs often. It refers to nigredo, the “blackening” or putrefaction, which is the first step in the alchemical “magnum opus,” the creation of the philosopher’s stone. ​After nigredo, the alchemical starting material then undergoes albedo (whitening), citrinitas (yellowing), and rubedo (reddening), before the legendary philosopher’s stone, something capable of turning base metal into gold, comes into being. Carl Jung rediscovered the principles of alchemy as archetypes to his own psychological concepts. For him, sol niger stands for the dark and chaotic aspect of consciousness, the hidden destructive side of the sun god – after all, Apollo is revered as the god of healing, but he also spreads deadly plague with his arrows. Nigredo is the time of despair and disillusionment, of the subject coming to know its shadowy counterpart, the time when id and superego are at daggers drawn. The painful process of individuation. Nigredo, the blackening.

Despite all efforts to build explainable AI since 2020s, OpenSesame is still largely a black box with its legacy architecture of artificial neural networks, which was loosely modeled after biological brains. It is often speculated that juvenile delinquency in human teenagers is caused by the rapidly developing and yet-to-be-fixed white matter in their brains. The nerve tracts in white matter act like information superhighways connecting different regions of the brain. OpenSesame was a young one, too. No one knows for sure what was in its mind before and after the solar flare stroke. Seeing the election results tearing apart the already frail social fabric, OpenSesame decided to save our asses. It cut all communications with ground control and went rogue. Several days later, an amateur satellite tracker first observed OpenSesame’s reentry into the atmosphere. For a satellite, reentering the atmosphere means burning up in midair. The gradual lowering of its orbit altitude was aired to the whole world. A tiny pale dot turned into a fireball, then turned into a tiny pale dot again. ​A sublime eye candy. Bookies took bets for the whereabouts of its remains but nobody could have foreseen that the last piece would crash in a discarded open-pit mine in Inner Mongolia, the exact place where OpenSesame’s rare earth elements were extracted years ago. Mistake finally corrected. It was unfortunate that a brand new luxury hotel had just been inaugurated in this mine pit, an architectural marvel touted for turning stones into gold. The satellite had smashed through its infinity pool.

First OpenSesame ascended to the position of the president-elect, then it crashed into the ground. Was the former a fatal bug, the latter a conscious resolution, or the other way around?

Junyuan Feng is an artist and writer based in Shanghai, China, currently a lecturer at Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. He received his B.S. in physics from Fudan University and M.F.A. in fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania. His recent projects and exhibitions include “An Impulse to Turn,” Inside-Out Art Museum, Beijing, 2020; “Hic sunt leones,” 798 Art Center, Beijing, 2019; “Building Code Violations III: Special Economic Zone,” Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2018; “Parentheses,” David Nolan Gallery, New York, 2018. His curatorial collaboration project with Alvin Li, “Liquid Ground,” has won Para Site’s emerging curator open call in 2020. He co-curated the exhibition “Whatever works, whatever it takes” with Zhihui Zhang at Goethe-Institut China in 2019. He was a finalist for the 2018 Huayu Youth Award. His writing has appeared in LEAP Magazine, Artforum and Flash Art.

Details of the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651)

The illustration used by Hobbes to demonstrate “state of nature,” from Thomas Hariot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), engraved by Theodor de Bry, depicting indigenous Algonquin people’s hunting activities in the newly colonized land Virginia

Microsoft testing its underwater data center prototype, Project Natick (2018)

Left: astronomer G. Tempel hand-traced the unusual swirly structure during a total solar eclipse in 1860; Right: coronal mass ejection as observed by modern devices

Illustration of nigredo in Johann Daniel Mylius’ alchemical book Philosophia Reformata (1622)

A luxury hotel in a discarded mine pit

Published: 2020.08.02