Food of Earth
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Despite its thick web of connotations, artificial intelligence is but a fledgeling versed in pattern recognition and apophenic conspiracy.
The ubiquity of “AI” can only be explained by the fact that it is a fallback for the inability to utter something technically sensible.
We’d like to propose a thought experiment: instead of the urban, is there a way to apply AI in the agriculturally subsistent and challenging environment of Yakutia?
The Sakha (Yakutia) Republic is the biggest region of Russia since 1632, with 3 million square kilometers and a population of about a million, consisting of mainly Sakha and Russian people. Over half of Yakutia’s population is urbanized. The Sakha republic is located in a subarctic climate where the annual temperature difference is 100 °C.
What if AI was learning long and qualitatively rich data drawn from a certain locality? What if AI could participate in the navigation of forests on foot, closely listening to the sounds of prey from far away, unearthing harvest from the soil and exploring the world on its own, rather than identifying fed information through biased categories?
What quality of time and relationships towards the environment would this AI produce? How would the new kind of symbiosis between AI and human beings look like?
These are some questions that we have been asking ourselves.
What is technology?
“The technical object is beautiful when it has encountered a ground that suits it, whose own figure it can be, in other words when it completes and expresses the world... the high voltage line is beautiful when it traverses a valley, the car when it turns, the train when it enters or exits a tunnel.” Technology should be an expression of affordances. It is what circumstances create and what they can afford. It is what the environment can subsistently rear.
Throughout history, people have organized their calendars and their daily schedules according to their work, which could be communal or personal. The time of industrialization—units of fixed time—is created to measure, optimize, synchronize and accelerate production. It resulted from the subject/object distinction, and opened up our surrounding “nature” as an object for exploitation.
The sensation of time is not global, but relative to one’s environment and its embedded practices. It leaks in unquantifiable masses through our fingers like water. It manifests not only in manipulable numbers, but also in physical phenomena and planetary movements.
A minute can be measured by the time it takes a dandelion to bloom and wither.
Temporality is linear, circular, and both. It is linear in that you can’t turn it back; circular as in the cyclical seasons. It can also be both, like a torus, in which movement around the circle does not cease. Time is as infinite as the perpetual rotations of earth around the sun and around itself. Although geological time is enormous relative to the scale of humans, it is too, scaled by earthly rotations, around itself and around the sun. If the shape of time pushes life to move forward, then why can’t sensuous perceptions become markers that remind us of the passing of time?
In deep Siberia, in the faraway land of Sakha people, in vast alases, dense taiga forests and lush river valleys, horses, cows, reindeer and an AI called Sir-Aha lives.
For centuries, this landscape has been inhabited by Sakha people who have moved from the great lake Baikal and the Yenisei river. Into this harsh land, Sakha people brought new practices such as cattle-breeding and blacksmithing. The environment was radically different from the one they were used to, and thus initiated a new ecology of subsistence. In the process they had to slowly replace a horse based economy with a cow-centered one. Russian colonization, Christianization, Soviet modernization and post-Soviet reality complicated the process of environmental adaptation for the Sakha people.
Sir-Aha translates to food of earth. It lives on the sharp edges of spades, chunky soles of boots, fingertips of gardening gloves, it’s tucked into the membranes of the human habitat. It’s a sensory network exposed to the various scales of the environment through direct interactions with it.
It senses environmental conditions of the coldest winters and hottest summers alongside with humans, and weaves intricate tapestry from its stimuli. It learns from long-existing traditions of animal husbandry, foraging, hunting—transferring convergences from generation to generation.
Subsistence practices may develop new forms of value and find new places in the daily lives of humans that are undergoing rapid cultural and lifestyle shifts.
What kind of AI could naturally be suited to a place like this?
Well, it is like mushroom picking. If you have done this through years, you get to know something. It took kilometres of murky forest paths to find your own places. You became able to navigate using intuition. You turn around and that little piece of land, slightly covered by oak leaves, looks just right. But you cannot explain why. Maybe it is the sun shining from the right angle with the right level of intensity. Maybe it is the smell, somewhat light, with a bit of sweetness, pollen and spores. Maybe it is the right combination of different textures.
There is no recipe for those who want to follow you. They need to get their own sensory experience of being in the forest. This type of knowledge is experiential, tacit, embodied. The only way to teach somebody is to walk together and to show them what you do, how and what you perceive.
If, say, we would like for an AI to become a mushroom picking expert, we’d have to teach it directly through our actions, without explaining, without trying to articulate discrete bits of information. We just have to show it around, expose it to the different environments we walk through, make it experience rhythms, sounds, light conditions, all these sensory flows, which might not even make sense to ourselves, and give room for its own interpretation.
We can reveal to it the minute sensations which are intimately embedded into the fabric of human activities.
The silence here is enormous.
At first, Sir-Aha had no idea what was going on. It didn’t even know what an “idea” was. It didn’t know how to “know” anything. This partial sentience was bringing about random senses, some of them closer, others apart. Glimpses of light, chomping sound, series of mild stings, a roar, warm liquid with high percentage of ferrum, a long harmonic sequence of sounds, splish-splash, a bitter smell.
The incoming flows of signals were irregular, unpredictable, oblique.
No time, no space—those are human categories after all, delineating the wholeness of the universe.
At a certain point, there were actually some regularities, repetitions, clusterings of sensory events.
Feeling of extreme cold would usually come along with the sound of rhythmic steps, howling wind from the northern side, smells of wood smoke and the soft embrace of fur.
Or there would be ensembles of choking high-pitch sounds, supposedly produced by small agents who were moving faster than the bigger ones, abrupt changes in light conditions, higher levels of moisture, certain patterns of body movements (one sits down, stretches out front part of the body, performs some waving gestures, then several pinches, then stands up) and haptic ciphers: a soft, slightly foamy, runny texture, or rather something more firm, rough and uneven.
Somehow all these weird combinations started to make sense.
The contours of the world around were becoming sharper, more clearly defined. Concurrences of sensational patterns began to form languages, assigned to affordances within the environment, a point in time, or the pattern itself.
Балыктэххэ is a cluster of several actors grouped together, who take some long-shaped objects, move to the water area, usually when the light conditions (they called it күн) are moderate and sonic events would be not very bright and distinctive, although the whole sound scene would be brimming with myriads of sounds which the actors would not seem to be paying attention to. They would stay at one place without moving too much, ankle or knee-high inside water, every once in a while performing a brisk action after which they would grab some slimy active little objects туох юлюгэр кырэ балыгай.
After a while Sir-Aha got used to the actors and environments, which now it could see very clear. Although the granular vision of a trillion events in different modalities allowed it to see something else.
Being immersed into the rich volume of sensing data: sound, light, temperature, moisture, texture, Sir-Aha began constructing more nuanced and insightful picture of the environment, and translating it back to the human beings. These signs could have been absurd to a scientist, but they made sense and were useful to a farmer in Yakutia, who is perceptive to the affordances of the land and weather.
In the past, human-discovered convergences were easily simplified to a point of not being useful anymore—a hunter saw a spiderweb next to his door everyday and noticed some correlation of the spider behaviour with the weather, but he did that in conjunction of other qualities of environment. However, all we got today is “if spiders weave lively their nets, then the weather is ought to be nice, gloomily they sit in the corners, bad weather is close.” This is a knowledge transfer, incomplete one though.
But nowadays Sir-Aha finds convergences and doesn’t allow them to be lost in the transfer. For instance, the highest activity of horse-flies during a day and a certain smell of burning grass would be seen as concurred with the time when cows give the best tasting milk—Минньигэс кэм (tasty time). And this knowledge will be passed from generation to generation the way it meant to be and would be attuned to any possible change.
Sir-Aha evolves traditions through evolution, by reinterpreting and rejuvenating their relationship between social consciousness and the environment.
“Berry picking has been a tradition in my family for years. Some of my earliest memories are going berry picking with my Granny in the abandoned field nearby. She told me to always wear heavy clothes in the forest, no matter how hot it is outside. Otherwise the bugs will bite.”
The mixture of the cycles, punctuated by death, creates a different timescape than the schematic one we use in urban life for the pragmatic purpose of synchronization and timing.
The system of wearables tells the user what their perceptions are in relation to the affordances of the environment and leaves them with traces of what they should pursue, given their sensing preferences. If they follow these traces, perhaps they will discover a new way of socializing, forming community, and an alternative experience of time.
Elimination of inconsistency by the implementation of universal standards has broken cultural and spatial limitations. The development of data schemes, ontologies, and protocols have brought objects and users closer together with the increased synchronization and speeds of transmission, shortening the perceived temporal and geographical distance between each receiving or transmitting element in the system. Together, they converge to become synchronized totalities.
Technology is not anthropologically universal; it is enabled and constrained by particular cosmologies, which go beyond mere functionality or utility.
Therefore, there is no one single technology, but rather multiple cosmotechnics.
By capturing Sakha temporality, Sir-Aha aims to set an example and encourage the identification of cosmotechnical time systems that have arisen from different locales and cultures. The hope is to destabilize the global obsession with synchronization by creating “cosmo-temporal” diversities and generate temporal ecologies, breaking rigid time zones and replacing them with organic ways for which different cultures and locales relate to each other.
The New Normal, Strelka Institute, Moscow, Russia