Talking with Earth, Talking Earth

One of my houseplants started to wilt last week. Wanting to stop more yellowing or decay, I gave the plant an extra watering. To my dismay, the plant seemed to wilt more rapidly after I doubled its dosage of H2O. I conducted a hasty search on the Internet, wondering what I was missing. After consulting several gardening websites, Wikipedia, and a horticulturist’s blog, I learned that the philodendron selloum, which I learned is scientific name of my particular plant, requires reduced watering during the winter months. Feeling somewhat foolish about my poor plant care, I followed some of the suggested tips and tricks from my internet research and hoped for the best.

This ironic experience—that in trying to heal this plant I caused unwitting damage to it—reminded me of this advertisement that Google ran last April Fool’s day. [I] The ad unveiled a groundbreaking new product called “Google Tulip.” Parodying the Google Home system, “Google Tulip” proclaimed itself to be the first plant-to-human mode of communication mediated through an AI language software which Google “developed” by studying the unique system of communication within the tulips’ root system. This-chatter is read and translated by the AI and then given a robotic voice, enabling it to both answer questions and communicate itself to the humans crowded around its pot. In the ad, the plants often make requests for things such as “More water, please!” or “No more soil, please!” or “I’d like to sit in the sun!” The tulips on display in the video also seemed to be excellent listeners, responding thoughtfully to the cares and worries of their human companions.

Though I knew the “Google Tulip” to be a work of marketing fiction, I couldn’t help but wonder whether more than just my inept plant care might be remedied by a real “Google Tulip.” These fantasies about AI mediating how I take care of my houseplants have recently got me thinking about other, more complex questions. How do I talk with the earth? And how does the earth itself talk with me?

In trying to find some answers to questions like this, my first impulse was to turn to the poetic tradition lain down by the likes of Wordsworth and Emerson, Tennyson and Frost, Oliver and Snyder. But I couldn’t shake my initial recollection of the “Google Tulip” ad and felt a desire to find a less abstract answer to this question of communion with nature. What if technology could indeed translate the cognitive unconscious of ecology at large such that humans could not only understand plants but empathize and negotiate with them? What would technology like this do for the current climate catastrophe we’re all living in?

Thinking about ways that technology might provide both a translatable channel of communication with the earth and potential resolution for the climate crisis reminded me of an article I read for a past class by N. Katheryn Hayles, an emeritus professor of literature at Duke. In the article, Hayles explores imaginative and literal affordances of technology by outlining the distinction between cognition and consciousness. Consciousness for Hayles differs from cognition in that cognition refers to “a much broader capacity that extends far beyond consciousness into other neurological brain processes.” [II] Furthermore, cognition is a shared characteristic of humans, non-human life, and technological intelligences. Therefore, highly evolved human consciousness is, at least for some tasks, inferior to a universal cognition shared between humans, non-humans, and technology. Hayles ultimately suggests that by thinking more technologically, that is to say cognitively rather than consciously, we may tap into a broader cognitive mode, allowing us to both coexist outside of ourselves and mediate our existence with the environment. Such modes would allow humanity to intertwine “biological and technological cognitions” on a massively literal and imaginative scale.[III]

The implications of Hayles’s suggestions are staggering to me. The idea that the cognitive power of technology can envision and negotiate climate change for us, that we may not need to pummel our brains or imaginations in order to get our heads around climate change (or even a consistent watering routine for houseplants) is a wonderfully optimistic prospect. But despite this auspicious vision of technology’s environmentally salvific potential, I also worry that technology may not bring about the intellectual or imaginative expansion that Hayles suggests it can. In fact, technological cognition may endanger the earth more than save it. What will occur when humanity becomes too cognitive and insufficiently conscious? Would such a proposal—to think more like a cognitive-only, machinic, posthuman being—cause humanity to stop caring about the environmental crisis at all?

Consider some of the most fundamental instincts of humanity: to live, to breathe, to eat, etc. These needs seem to me to be rooted in cognition rather than consciousness. They dictate that each individual person will, first and foremost, ensure its own survival before the survival of other organisms around it. Contrastingly, all of the scientific, political, and artistic attention on the climate crisis has come about due to human consciousness rather than cognition. Consciousness has also moved humanity beyond cognition, helping us to recognize, albeit imperfectly, that the fulfillment of some of our basic human impulses for survival are negatively impacting the environment. Consciousness helps us to feel, in the best cases, intellectual and emotional motivation to resuscitate the dying earth. How then do we balance the two?

Hayles’s methodology of technological cognition, opening both hopeful and horrifying prospects for the environmental crisis, made me consider the spiritual rather than technological avenues for resolving the current climate dilemma. For me, one poignant example of a productive union between the cognition and consciousness is found in Moses, chapter 7. In this chapter, Enoch marvels at the cognitive capacities of God, who in Enoch’s eyes possesses an infinite capacity to comprehend, mediate, and create. God can generate worlds, environments, and peoples on a scale of mass production beyond any algorithm, AI, or anthill. Enoch says, “were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations.” [IV] For Enoch, full cognitive comprehension all of God’s creations is impossible.

And yet, God’s conscious awareness of these creations is also confusing for Enoch, who asks, “How is it though canst weep?” [V] God appears to possess both cognitive and conscious awareness of all of His creations, illustrated by the touchingly intimate and emotional connection to the full spectrum of creation for whom God weeps. But none of this cannot register in Enoch’s mind and heart until God reveals to him how the earth, like God, experiences deep spiritual suffering, penetrating both the cognitive and conscious levels. Here the earth speaks, calling out to Enoch, saying, “Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face?”[VI] The earth not only suffers under the literal weight of polluting “filthiness,” but also beneath the spiritual weight of humanities weaknesses, sins, and wrongdoing. Only at this point does Enoch undergo a spiritual synthesis of his cognition and consciousness and fully hear the earth’s suffering. He then weeps for the earth, just like God.[VII] Thus, in harmonizing a posthuman cognition with a spiritual consciousness, we are presented with a pathway to become more like God – a being of true cognitive and environmental divinity.

For me, this passage constructs a spiritual bridge between the beneficial and dangerous revisions which Hayles’s theories bear toward the climate crisis. In addition to becoming a more responsible caretaker to my houseplants, I hope to keep cultivating this understanding of God as both an environmentally cognizant and intimately conscious being. Doing so provides me with hope that I can, in whatever small way, recognize and work against the dire environmental crisis of today and better co-exist with the nonhuman lives around me.

This post was written by Sam Jacob, Humanities Center Intern.

[I] Google Nederland. “Introducing Google Tulip.” YouTube, uploaded Mar 31, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nsPQvZm_rgM

[II] Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Cognitive Nonconscious: Enlarging the Mind of the Humanities.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 42, no. 4, 2016, pp. 783.

[III] Hayles, pp. 785.

[IV] Moses 7:30, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/pgp/moses/7?lang=eng

[V] Moses 7:29

[VI] Moses 7:48

[VII] Moses 7:49

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