Distributed Consciousness is a multi-faceted work that spans themes of biological and artificial intelligence, distributed computation, distributed cognition, cryptography, evolution, phenomenology, ecological awareness, climate change, activism, and cephalopods.
In this article, I’d like to first briefly discuss what the project is, and how the work manifested itself. And then I'll discuss the themes and motivations behind the work.
Phase One: Tentacular Critters
The project began, in 2021, as an NFT collection on the ecologically friendly Tezos blockchain.
The NFT collection consists of 256 images of 'Tentacular Critters'. (256, because that’s two to the power of eight, and of course, octopuses have eight legs :)
Furthermore, all of these 256 images were generated using AI. This was before the current wave of generative AI tools such as Midjourney, Dall-e, StableDiffusion etc. And they were created using custom software.
In October 2021, I started gradually releasing the critters into the ‘wild’. They were ‘spawned’ (i.e. ‘minted’ on the blockchain, and made available for collectors) as single edition NFTs, 16 per day, every day for 16 days.
A month after this collection was released, I revealed a secret. This was actually only Phase One. There was also going to be Phase Two.
Phase Two: The Surprise Reveal – Verses
I revealed on Twitter, that every one of the 256 images that was spawned and sold, had in fact some text cryptographically encoded in it – a Verse, hidden amongst the pixels, invisible to the human eye, but readable by code. The entire collection of images was in fact a poem, a book, a manifesto.
And every image of a Tentacular Critter, was in fact one verse from the poem, one page from the manifesto.
Furthermore, the entire text was also generated using AI (using GPT-3).
The manifesto was a human-machine co-creation, a two hour meditation spanning themes of consciousness, free will, life, death, art, technology, ritual, ecology, economy, and sustainability.
And as part of the secret reveal, I released each Verse – 256 of them, one corresponding to each tentacular critter – over the course of the following weeks as audio-visual readings.
The entire manifesto is just under two hours long, but I also edited it down to 22 minutes for an immersive, multiscreen installation version. This is the version that will be playing at the museum.
I’d like to explore the deeper motivations behind this work.
There are a few separate threads that I'd like to start with and eventually connect.
1. The Spark
During the pandemic, I’d been living in a small Mediterranean fishing village in Turkey, and I would regularly go snorkeling.
I would often see octopuses, but usually they'd be at depths greater than four, five, six metres. And at that depth, the water filters the longer wavelengths of light, and effectively reduces colour. So the octopuses would always appear bluish-green. But one day I saw an octopus sitting on a rock just a few centimetres from the surface, under the full spectrum of sunlight. It flashed at me the most intense colours, and the vividness of the pink, green, purple, yellow, orange, cyan, just completely blew my mind.
This was the spark that ignited the mess of highly flammable kindlings of ideas that were loosely floating around in my head at the time.
2. Distributed Computation
There is a lot to be said about the current hype around blockchains and the so-called web3 phenomena, whether it's the VC-backed hyper-capitalist extreme neoliberal libertarian values driving its growth, or the ecological nightmare that is Proof-of-Work driving blockchains such as Bitcoin, and until very recently, Ethereum. But the point I'd like to focus on right now, is a more speculative one.
I’ve been working within the field that we call 'Artificial Intelligence' for many years, and only in recent years has the term really exploded in popularity. Below is the Google News trend graph for the phrase 'Artificial Intelligence', and you can see that it started exploding around 2015.
And below is the Google News trend graph for the phrase 'Big Data'. You can see it practically didn’t exist until about 2011.
And I’m really fascinated by how, after a steady period of Big Data. We get 'AI'.
Consciousness is evolution’s solution to dealing with big data.
First, I really like the provocation that consciousness is evolution’s solution to dealing with big data in the natural world.
Especially when vision evolved around half a billion years ago, and brought with it the selective pressures to reward organisms that could utilise the limited bandwidth in their neural pathways more efficiently, so that they could take more optimal actions while trying to catch prey or evade predators. And ultimately, as some believe, this may have even contributed to the evolutionary arms race we call the cambrian explosion.
And in more complex organisms, this may even include learning to model the environment, to be more efficient and successful at processing even more complex sensory information, and to be able to take more optimal – and dare I say ‘intelligent’ – actions, in an increasingly complex world.
And going beyond, to further improve chances of survival, some organisms may learn to model themselves as abstract entities with goals and needs and desires, in an environment full of other abstract entities with goals and needs and desires.
So I can interact with any of you, and try to predict or understand your actions, not by simulating the activity of the trillions of individual cells that constitute you; not by solving the wave function of your oscillations in cosmic quantum fields; but instead as a high-level abstraction of an individual that thinks and feels, whereby your consciousness is an abstracted high level entity with agency, with goals and needs and desires that I can empathise with. Your consciousness is my interface to you.
So I do like this metaphor relating the emergence of AI as a means of coping with big data, analogous to the Darwinian evolution of ‘intelligence’ – and perhaps even ‘consciousness’ – as a means of dealing with big data in the natural world.
I initially proposed this idea, and wrote about it in depth in an article in 2014.
In 2016 Peter Godfrey Smith wrote a wonderful book called Other Minds, which dedicates itself to unpacking this exact hypothesis in a long-form, very enjoyable book, and I’ll come back to that shortly.
And now, continuing this train of thought, I find the rise of blockchain based 'distributed world computers' fascinating. I’m referring to blockchains with 'Smart Contract' support (such as Ethereum or Tezos), which allow the execution of arbitrary code in a distributed manner. Where every 'node' in such a network has a full copy of all of the code and all of the data, and every node can operate autonomously if need be, but they can also coordinate and distribute responsibilities, and reach consensus with all other nodes in the network in a distributed manner.
And I find this fascinating as a metaphor relating to the rise of multicellular organisms in biology, where every cell in the body is itself an autonomous machine, also containing a full copy of the genetic code. And a 'body' as a distributed network of such cells, reaching consensus in a distributed manner.
3. Distributed Intelligence
More than half a billion years ago, the lineage that would lead to octopuses and the one leading to humans separated. Was it possible, I wondered, to reach another mind on the other side of that divide? Octopuses represent the great mystery of the Other.
Octopuses are known to be incredibly intelligent. Moreover, they have a radically different neurobiology and kind of intelligence to humans, or even mammals or birds or most other animals we’re familiar with.
The nervous system of a common octopus has around 500 million neurons, similar to that of a dog's cortex. But unlike a dog – or any mammal, reptile, bird or amphibian – these 500 million neurons are not concentrated in a central location like a brain. Instead, they’re distributed across the entire body of the octopus, with only 10% in a 'central brain', and two thirds in the arms. In fact, with more than 40 million neurons in each arm – almost double that of a rat's cortex – each arm is able to act independently, even communicating directly with each other without informing the central brain. Each arm is semi-autonomous, able to move, touch, taste, smell, and respond, even if severed from the body. With each arm having 'a mind of its own', the octopus has a kind of distributed intelligence. A very different kind of intelligence to the ones that we're accustomed to.
To paraphrase the philosopher Thomas Nagel, what is it like to be an octopus!?
In fact, what is it like to be an octopus’s arm?
Cephalopods are an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior. If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over. This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien [...] If we want to understand other minds, the minds of cephalopods are the most other of all.
4. 'Artificial' Intelligence
Here is the Google News trend graph again for the phrase 'Artificial Intelligence', and if you remember it started exploding around 2015.
And interestingly, the following year in 2016, we had not one, not two, but three mainstream books released on octopuses, or more generally on cephalopods.
These are all really wonderful books, in very different ways. And of course, none of these books are really about cephalopods.
Instead, these books invite us to reflect on the nature of our relationship with non-human intelligences and consciousnesses that we share our planet with. They invite us to face the final Copernican Trauma that is waiting ahead of us.
Centuries ago we had discovered – what was exhilarating for some, but too painful for many to accept – that we are not the only planet in existence. We eventually realised that we are not the only solar system, we are not the only galaxy. And many of our smartest today are questioning whether we are even the only universe in existence. Every one of these discoveries brought with it a realisation that was exciting, liberating and humbling for some, but too painful for others to accept, a Decentering of Human Exceptionalism – a Copernican Turn, a Copernican Trauma – that pressured humanity into revisiting our perceptions on how we relate to The World, The Cosmos, and its Human and non-Human, Living and non-Living inhabitants.
5. Distributed Consciousness
With the rise of 'Artificial Intelligence', we are now facing these age old questions that we have pondered over for thousands of years, through this new lens of computation. And cephalopods, with their incredibly advanced yet otherly intelligence, represent a great example of an already existing non-human, seemingly alien, decentralised, other mind.
And now we face the ultimate Copernican Trauma, the final Decentering of Human Exceptionalism, where this time the arena of realisation is not situated outside of us, but within. It is not regarding where we are in relation to the world, but who we are. We are now faced with the reality that we may not be the sole keepers of what we might consider to be 'intelligence', 'creativity', or even 'consciousness'.
Much simpler with the gift of hindsight, we can now see how the destructive dichotomy of 'Man vs Nature' (gendered language used deliberately) has allowed 'Man' to justify His subjugation (or at least attempts at) of 'Nature'. And today we are experiencing the devastating consequences of this manufactured divide, as we face mass extinctions, global warming and ecological collapse.
Let us meditate on the interconnectedness of all human, non-human, living and nonliving things across manifold scales of time and space. Let us meditate on the awe-inspiring beauty of the universe, with all its complexity and simplicity, that gave rise to the (different kinds of) minds able to meditate back on the awe-inspiring beauty of the universe, with all its complexity and simplicity. Let us depart with despair and apathy in times of ecological collapse and urgency, and instead actively work towards multispecies flourishing, Let us Make Kin, and Stay with the Trouble.
Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings. Chthonic ones are beings of the earth, both ancient and up-to-the-minute. I imagine chthonic ones as replete with tentacles, feelers, digits, cords, whiptails, spider legs, and very unruly hair. ... Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth. They make and unmake; they are made and unmade. They are who are.