Helena Granström (b. 1983) is a Swedish writer, with a background in physics and mathematics. She is the author of six books, both in fiction and non-fiction, on subjects ranging from childhood and pregnancy, to technology and the history of quantum mechanics. Her latest book, published in 2016, is an essay on the cultural mythology of industrial civilization.

 

© Joakim Olsson

To meet another living creature entails a necessary loss of control. Faced with the other, I can direct my gaze towards him or her, but I can never know how it will be answered. I can speak, address, but the answer I receive will always be beyond what I am able to influence, as well as my own body’s response to everything that is going on: my blood vessels, my lungs and my heart participate in the conversation as much as those parts of me that speak, but what I call I has no influence over this.

I look into the face of the other and realize: You are like me, but you are not me. You think, feel and experience like me, but something different than I do. It is this realization that forms the basis of all true reciprocity: the realization of the simultaneous similarity of the other, and its radical otherness. The truly disturbing aspect of the other’s gaze – what is equally horrific and comforting – is that it is both a gaze and not one’s own.

And maybe it is this very basis for reciprocity that we now, in the name of technological development, are about to abandon – to actively discard. In the age of digitality, the boundary between myself and other is being muddled. When I believe myself meeting the other through a machine, I simultaneously meet the machine, I simultaneously meet myself in front of the machine – this machine, which in a sense is also my own creation.

But despite this, I say that I meet the other, just as we say that whoever speaks with an artificial intelligence is not alone, that the person who is updating his profile on social media is amongst friends, that the one who is held by a robot is in real terms being held. We construct our cities as if to convince ourselves that human purposes are the only purposes that exist, that humankind creates and controls its own reality, that through science, engineering, technology, we have made ourselves independent of the world which we once considered ourselves as being a part of.

As if to be sure, we eliminate all wild nature that would have reminded us of the opposite. And, as if to cover this loss, we change the basic categories we use to interpret the world. Farming with absolute monotony as a platonic ideal, forestry that by its actions bereaves the world forest of all meaning; to not only endure these practices, but to let what we call prosperity and quality of life rest upon them, what we mean by a forest must be altered, as well as what we mean by a living earth. Call tree plantations ‘forests’, and you will not have to see your own culture level the last forest to the ground; call nature ‘the environment’, so that you can forget that it has ever been anything but a buffer for the destructive effects of human progress.

And, correspondingly, we must learn to understand digital presence as presence, learn to understand the absence it causes as a presence in another, more real, context – learn to understand the loneliness we are never allowed to fully perceive as meaningless, and the community that we sense might exist as merely a more primitive form of the bodiless community of the digital sphere. Only if we refuse to do this will we be able to seriously confront the most obvious fact of digitalized life: A prerequisite for being present everywhere is to never be present where you really are.

To the same extent as we have turned our face towards our own creations, we have turned it away from the face of the truly living world. That there is a face means that there exists a you: there is no face, we say. All non-human animals, as well as of course all plants, lack consciousness, advanced intelligence and the ability to accommodate complex feelings – but by ourselves, we are capable of constructing our own sensing robots, smart phones, thinking machines; the subjectivity of which we rather acknowledge, since it is a subjectivity entirely under our control. The face of the other can currently only be perceived as a double exposure, always partly hidden behind our own mirror image. When everything in my world is created by me, created for me, created to simulate the experience of something I will, as a consequence, never experience in reality – where is that you that allows me to tentatively grasp what is me?

This article belongs to a series of scientific contributions about the phenomenon of “Unknown Cloud”. An interdisciplinary team led by the artist duo Lundahl & Seitl has developed the “Unknown Cloud Caretaker” app to interpret the signals of this cloud. Download the free “Unknown Cloud Caretaker” app anew each time you plan to experience Unknown Cloud from 12:00 same day on Google Play or the App Store to experience the “Unknown Cloud on Its Way to Berlin” on 21.07 / 25.07. / 28.07.2017 in Berlin at Tempelhofer Feld.

Please be aware that the app „Unknown Cloud Caretaker“ is in a stage of development. A frictionless download process and participation cannot be guaranteed at this stage.