I, for one, welcome our new bacterial overlords

I am not the greatest believer in serendipity. However when it comes to academic interests I do pay heed when a certain number of persistent ideas begin to whorl around your immediate cognitive space.

Lately I have found that there has nary been a day without bacteria figuring in some new, wicked cool way. From solving urban decay, to showing susceptibility to humanities finest vibrations to (potentially) proving that life can take yet new forms. And I can’t help but attempt a synthesis here, to explain why I feel this prominence of bacteria is both timely and crucial.

As with a great deal of my thoughts I am indebted to Grant Morrison for the particular spin on this one: it’s from Chapter 4 of “The Filth” in which Ned Slade and Arno are trapped in the Desert of The Dead Skin. Arno begins to wax lyrical about the fact that the amount of bacteria in our bodies outnumbers human cells by a ratio of ten to one. I believe at the time I read this some lazy googling evidenced that this was not exactly the case but the sentiment was not far off. The Filth briefly touches on this with regards to intention and volition: it wasn’t Arno acting maniacally, it was the bacteria, controlling his thoughts. (interestingly there are studies which look into the impact of bacteria augmenting our intellect)

This forum directed me to some excellent quotes from Morrison himself.

So based on my own experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that the individual human body is no more, no less than one of the billions of skin cells we lose every day. Each of those cells was once bursting with youth and health before it lived its allotted span, shriveled and then fell as dust. Now, if a skin cell became conscious and forgot that it was only a temporary and recyclable part of a much larger living body, it too would no doubt feel the same existential trauma experienced by all living, sentient creatures

The Filth is very much the spiritual successor to another of Morrison’s wonderful headfucks (the Invisibles, a tome to which I am also indebted) and he outlines what I will clunkily label a scalar view of consciousness here. Human bodies are to Gaia what bacteria cells are to the human body. Are bacteria any more conscious of the super organism which they play a part in than we are of the Gaia like entity upon which our existences are expended?

The whole ecosophy of bacteria is never not important but the recent stories drove home how timely considering the issue is. The most staggering was the announcement of a Chinese research teams success in using DNA encryption to store data in Bacteria’s DNA. Though not dramatically new given that such research has been ongoing for at least a decade the Chinese research is a breakthrough in terms of volume and fidelity of data storage.

It was this latter point which truly gave me cause to pause. Bacteria are already a huge part of the human organism, and I always loved the intimation of what sharing the same enclosed space with so many other organisms actually meant for a coherent sense of self, the “I” which is equated to consciousness. Another oft trumpeted area which should impact our sense of self is our use of digital technology: that it constitutes an acceleration of cognition extension and a diffusion of the coherent, bounded sense of self that attended previous generations (it should be noted that extended cognition and the admittedly outmoded models of psychology which posited such a diffusion of self are opposed in principle, given that the former would hold that cognition has always been extended). Cloud consciousness was an apt label recently extrapolated in STRP festival that gets close to what distributed computing and increasingly online mediated existence may mean with respect to the inner sanctum of ‘mind’ and the conscious “I”.

So what if one day, the data into which we allegedly increasingly distribute ourselves finds itself encypted in other bioorganisms. It would be an amazingly palpable test study for pondering extended cognition along two strands which I think are really important: what constitutes embodiment, and the technology that we are extended into. And any musing of this nature begs questions of our consciousness in a number of ways.

LATE EDIT: As I pieced together this blog post I then happened across this bit of news, whereby bacteria have been programmed with logic gates. Which adds further fuel to the fire burning through my mind right now

I can’t help but want to test these theories out, so expect some sort of test project and series of experiment to culture (see what I did there) out these musings shortly

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~ by Stephen Fortune on December 12, 2010.

2 Responses to “I, for one, welcome our new bacterial overlords”

  1. I like. Bacteria as well. To me it is all processing information, all memory, all communicating, all the time. Micoorganisms were here first and have always been working to a “plan”. They couldn’t have pulled all this off without one. =-)
    I subscribed.

  2. […] considered from a sufficiently dissociated scale, biological viruses are useful in disrupting the cognitive cohesion of self in a manner similar to bacteria (indeed, arguably more so and one needn’t dive into ideas of zombies for proof). Which […]

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