Field Modulation

The Progenitor race appears to sense, and possibly even manipulate, local fields an untrained human cannot perceive without mechanical aid, including at the very least electricity and magnetism. This sensitivity creates entirely new worlds of artistic endeavors for the race-or it may be developed into a powerful combat awareness that can foil any attempt at surprise.

– Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five, “Alien Analysis”

The world is bigger than we think it is. Not only in a physical sense – we can only ever visit a very limited number of places, and thus there is ever more world out there which we’ve never seen or will ever see. But this bigness also applies in a more subtle way – there are things we can not perceive because we quite literally lack the sensory apparatus necessary for apprehending it. Ultraviolet and infrared light, for instance, are imperceptible to the human eye, but it is nevertheless there as a thing in the universe. Some animals can see and react to it, and their visual experience of the world is greater than ours.

The fact that we can not see these things does not diminish their reality. It does, however, mean that the process of exploring the universe becomes ever so gradually detached from our sense of vision. We have to develop tools and technologies for perceiving what we can not see. Since we are blind without these tools, we become dependent on them to tell whether what we know to be there is actually there or not. Over time, we develop machine vision – a technological means to glimpse into what would otherwise be beyond our ken.

This means we have to put a non-trivial amount of trust into these machines. Not only do we have to trust that they are in full working order, we also have to trust that they work as we intend them to do. Given that these machines are our only source of information about these invisible phenomena, a flaw in the design specs might have disastrous consequences. Likewise, a faulty air traffic control radar monitor is a security risk for everyone involved.

Of course, a prudent course of action would be to seek multiple sources of confirmation before making a decision one way or the other. Science is nothing if not the art of corroborating data. But the sheer intimacy of these machines has a built-in tendency to make them invisible, as it were. They become extensions of the human body, as close as shoes or eyeglasses. To paraphrase Sean Cubitt: machine vision is implicit, immediate and imminent. In a very intimate way, the machines are us.

The Progenitors have the advantage over humans in that they can see more than we can without aid. Not only does this confer the immediate advantage of being able to navigate the world faster (due to having more information about it) – it also confers the long-term advantage of being used to making sense of it all. Even if given goggles that levels the visual playing field, a human would still be confused by all the additional input. A red blob over in the distance might not mean anything to the untrained eye, but a progenitor might instantly recognize it and move in to seize the tactical advantage. Merely having access to new planes of reality does not mean these are fully understood. Humans know how to build machines that can perceive field modulations; the Progenitors know how to make the fields sing.

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Progenitor Psych

And I stood before him, and I sang unto her, and it appeared to listen. His very countenance rippled like the sea, and the sound of my own voice came back to me, distorted. For a moment I thought she was mocking me, or it was non-sapient and mimicking me. Then I understood: the sounds were not important; it was how I affected his sounds and how she affected mine that transmitted the message.

 – Prime Function Aki Zeta-Five, “One Future”

Progenitor Psych is the first technology added by Alien Crossfire, and appropriately it centers on the titular aliens. In gameplay terms, a faction needs this technology in order to communicate with the Progenitors; it is akin to the process in first contact movies wherein understanding is gradually achieved through trial and error and misunderstandings and mutual acknowledgement of these misunderstandings and so on. Equally in gameplay terms, what happens after establishing communications with the aliens is that they immediately declare war on you, rendering the whole process rather counterproductive.

In literary terms, communication with alien life forms has a rich and complex history. To mention but a few, there is Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, China Miéville’s Embassytown, or, for good measure, Philip K. Dick’s Human Is. To say that there are hundreds of instances where the main plot element is awkward first encounters with alien intelligences would be an understatement; just about every science fiction television series there is has at least one episode containing such an encounter. Listing them all would be a massive undertaking, and I suspect it would glean some insight into contemporary social psych.

Aki’s quote highlights a specific aspect of the encounter between humans and progenitors, and that is what Levinas calls face. When humans interact, they face each other, and they also read each other’s faces. Levinas uses the face as a metonymy for the immediacy of interpersonal communication: when humans are physically close to each other, they are mediated not through language but through subtle cues, facial expressions being the least subtle of them. The other person is present, and your actions have an immediate effect upon their being in the world. Conversely, how they act affect you, and so the interaction flows. If you enter into a situation with a genuinely smiling face and a gentle demeanor, the situation unfolds differently than if you adopt a frown and a gruff demeanor. Again, the same goes in reverse too. The progenitors apparently do a very similar thing, albeit in the form of resonance: subtle shifts in energy wavelengths and sound frequencies. The interface is different, but the underlying principle is the same.

These initial moments of inter-species communication are particularly fragile, as everything is contingent and can go this way or that depending on the smallest of changes. Every gesture is under intense scrutiny, and what might appear to one part as an indifferent, non-communicative action is given immense significance by the other party. There is no neutral way of being in front of someone else’s face, and acting naturally is by definition an alien concept. It places Lögstrup’s conception of responsibility front and center: every time you are in the presence of another being, you are responsible for the ways in which you affect them. When encountering aliens this is extremely accentuated, but it is no less relevant when encountering other humans.

The Cybernetic Consciousness

At the core of the Cybernetic faction, we find methodological individualism. This might seem a counterintuitive statement, but if we look closer at this faction, we find that its basic premise is this: if we implant each and every individual with cybernetic implants, the sum of this change as a whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. Yet it is still the parts that are important, rather than the aggregate; change stems from the individuals, rather than from anything above or beyond them. We see this right from the get go in the leader quote:

Those who join us need give up only half of their humanity–the illogical, ill-tempered, and disordered half, commonly thought of as ‘right-brain’ functioning. In exchange, the ‘left-brain’ capacities are increased to undreamed potential. The tendency of Biologicals to cling instead to their individual personalities can only be attributed to archaic evolutionary tendencies.

– Prime Function Aki Zeta-5, “Convergence”

Leaving aside that the sharp distinction between left/right brain functions is overly simplistic and not supported by modern medical science, the vehicle for change in this quote are, ironically, individuals. Those who join the Cybernetic faction undergo a surgical procedure which enhances their capacity to perform computer-like tasks, for the small small price of their capabilities as emotional and intuitive beings in the world. By becoming a certain kind of human being, new initiates are brought into the efficient and rational Cybernetic fold. After the surgery, you are a better kind of human, and from this all societal changes follow.

A comparison to the University will serve to illustrate this point. The research advantages of the University stem from the fact that its academicians do not have to bother with explaining themselves to arbitrary external forces which demand their work to be immediately useful and applicable to contemporary problems. The cultural norms support the search for knowledge for its own sake, and thus allow researchers to do their thing rather than to endlessly apply for grant money from corporations or entities which could not care less about such things. It is not the human beings who have gotten smarter (although the University ethos would probably not frown upon performance-enhancing drugs or even cybernetic implants), but rather the institutional makeup that allows humans to devote more time and resources to scientific endeavors.

Contrasted with the Cybernetic proposition – you get the implants and then you are smart – we notice a stark difference. There is something of a missed opportunity here. The thought is not brought as far as it needs to go in order to be interesting, and we are left with the mere suggestion of a possibility rather than an exploration of it. (For an exploration of cyborghood, see the impossible Cyborg Handbook edited by Chris Gray.)

This stems in no small part from the fact that the Cybernetics as a faction were introduced in the expansion, and thus have less narrative screen time than the older factions. The way each technology, building or secret project have exactly one quote to accompany them, means that there are only so many opportunities to give voice to each new faction. Where the old factions are given pages and pages upon which to develop character, encounter new situations or just expound exposition in general, the textual totality of any given new faction can fit neatly onto one or two pages, depending on line spacing and font size. There is, in short, not much to work with.

The flip side of this is, of course, that the things we do have to work with gain that much more significance. We can use it to ask all manner of questions. What does “consciousness” in the faction name Cybernetic Consciousness stand for? The fact that this is their chosen name implies that it is more than the mere act of being conscious in general; it implies that this is some sort of defining communal aspect. Is it telepathy through means of computer telecommunication? Or is it more akin to Weber’s notion of rational behavior, where different individuals who have never talked to each other nevertheless converge upon similar courses of action, by virtue of those being the rational ways to go about things? Or is it simply that each and every implant contain the same algorithm, and thus each individual programmatically respond in similar ways to similar stimuli?

If we make another comparison, we can ask what differentiates the Cybernetic concept of rationality from the Hive’s. Yang’s imperative to “overcome the crass demands of flesh and bone” rings eerily similar to shedding the “illogical, ill-tempered, and disordered” parts of oneself, albeit through means of implants rather than social engineering. By getting rid of distractions, the opportunity arises to focus more on what is important, and to get things done. The question of what is important and what is to be done – the telos – is in one case decided by Yang, but who decides for the Cybernetics? Is it Aki Zeta-5, managing her minions through very literal biopower? Or is she a captive of a runaway process of modernity, where the internal logic of each subsystem (internal and external) inexorably leads towards the next step, without much input from individual (post)human beings? Are the implants iron joists of a better-ordered society, or bars in an iron cage? Where do human agency fit into the Cybernetic Consciousness? Is it rational to think for yourself when the alternative is so much more efficient?

All of these questions point back to a single thing: the tension between humans and their tools. Humans are not their tools (implants notwithstanding), but at the same time humans are also shaped by their tool usage to a considerable degree. When McLuhan called tools “the extensions of man”, this is very much what he had in mind. Conversely, when Haraway included an extensive critique of capitalism, the military-industrial complex and patriarchy in her Cyborg Manifesto, she did it to highlight just how much technology is shaped by these forces; the cyborg embodies these things through its coming into being, be it as terminator or gendered neutrum. Whether the Cybernetic ambition to part ways with the metaphorical “right-brain” portions of humanity is a resigned acceptance of the fact that this is the tendency of technology as it currently exists, or a conscious decision to go for it and make every effort to see it through to its logical conclusion – is the question that defines the Cybernetic Consciousness.

These answers to these questions greatly affect how a transcendent humanity under Cybernetic leadership would take shape. One possibility is that the faction simply autopilots itself to godhood, much like the player advancing through the tech tree, each next step determined by the steps already taken. Another possibility is that the accumulated cognitive brainpower is used to reorganize Planet into the most efficient entity it could be, where the question of just exactly what it is efficient at is left unanswered. A third possibility – one that I imagine you might have kept in mind since the first word of this entry – is the Borg.