Empathy Machines

Emergent Organs for the Eco-Body?

Brian Holmes


You’re sad, you’re mad, you’re not so young anymore, and the climate’s going to hell on you every day. So you look in the mirror and think: “Maybe it’s time to adopt a pixel.” Fortunately you can get one for free, direct from the US Geological Service. It comes from a LandSat sensor that beams it down from outer space. Your pixel is a representative of Planet Earth: it corresponds to one specific piece of territory about 30 meters on a side. When it makes its appearance on the screen it’s a tiny, almost invisible dot in a scientific datascape: the smallest proxy of them all. The problem is, it’s an orphan, a nobody, with no personality, no qualities, and only a generic name (urban land, agricultural land, forest land, wetland, etc.). To adopt such a pixel, just mark any given spot with a handy GPS device and point your camera down at your feet. Click. Then turn south, east, north, and west, clicking a photo each time, and finally look up into the air where the satellites live. Click again. Send those six images back to USGS and the feedback loop is complete. Your little pixel has grown up: it knows what it is, where it is, who it is. You have contributed some “ground truth” to earth science.1 By becoming part of the remote-sensing machine, you help make abstract information into a place, a tangible reality that someone might actually care about some day.


Acting in this way, I’ve developed a relation with the pixels of the environmental sciences. Not just the ones borrowed from a random USGS webpage, but instead, those that can be found in a dizzying range of geographical images, emanating from public research labs across the planet. Since 2016 I’ve been building up a map of the Mississippi River and Great Lakes watersheds, whose dividing line runs through my home city of Chicago. To create this work, called Living Rivers, I’ve been adopting pixels like crazy, combining them into aesthetic forms and ground-truthing them whenever possible, through excursions around the Midwest.2 The hope is that this artistic process will help make people more sensitive to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground beneath our feet. Maps are crucial perceptual tools for the new political ecology, because they point outward, beyond themselves, beyond ourselves, toward the territory. They are proxies that do not feign, that do not hide, that do not even try to dissimulate (though their enemies will always accuse them of lying). They represent the biogeochemical cycles of Gaia, at scales from the microscopic to the macrocosmic. And they ask us to care about those biogeochemical cycles, as though they were part of our own metabolism.


The questions of this project involve complex structures of knowledge, mediated by aesthetic forms and disrupted by political conflicts. Yet at the same time, the questions are very intimate. What is ecological empathy? How do people establish a connection with worlds beyond their own perception? When does a proxy get under your skin?


Living Rivers explores four fundamental categories of territorial experience. Biomes are characteristic habitats combining plant, animal, fungal and bacterial species into recognizable constellations that are decisively shaped by particular landforms and water flows. Anthromes, or anthropogenic biomes, are violently simplified ecologies, engineered across vast spaces by human beings and their machines (one example is the endless corn-soy anthrome of the Midwest where I live). Wars are flash points where the human onslaught against what used to be called Nature reaches explosive proportions. Finally, Visions spring from the exercise of expressive capacities, overflowing the subject/object divide and reshaping the expressive agency itself through encounters with both human and non-human Others.


The cartography of the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds was developed in tandem with another map, Ríos Vivos, by Alejandro Meitin of the Argentinean group Ala Plástica.3 Meitin has been exploring precarious life in the Paraguay-Paraná river basin over the last twenty-five years. He works with island-dwelling villagers, environmental activists, scientists and artists, within the changing context of a vast river, wetlands and estuary system, itself surrounded by an expanding corn-soy anthrome. We developed our parallel inquiries within an exhibition project called The Earth Will Not Abide, which includes pieces by Ryan Griffis, Sarah Ross, Claire Pentecost and Sarah Lewison.4 The project explores the often devastating footprint of industrial agriculture in North and South America, with an additional look at peasant resistance in the new center of global economic development, which not coincidentally is also the world’s largest market for genetically modified grains, namely China.


It was an uncanny experience to make the map of Living Rivers in the summer and fall of 2016. As I worked, the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline grew. The “black snake” of DAPL writhed through the Upper Midwest, sinking its venomous fangs into the oil hub of Patoka in Southern Illinois. You could hear and feel the pain of the Native Americans, through the cries in the streets, the images in the papers, the videos on the net and the stories told by travelers coming back from North Dakota. “Water is life!” was the chant heard again and again. But as the struggle against DAPL unfolded, Trump was running his yet more venomous campaign. The worlds I was striving to visualize in the map were the ones he wanted to banish from all consideration. Trump’s people said that the NASA satellites should be pointed toward outer space, not toward the Earth.5 His administration is a direct attack on our civilization’s organs of perception. I felt like the eyes were being ripped out of my head. Why are these two things simultaneous? What makes love and hatred coincide in this way?




The latest installment in the theory of empathy comes from an unlikely source: the leading EU consultant on the emergent technologies of the Third Industrial Revolution.6 Noted author and distinguished professor at the Wharton Business School, Jeremy Rifkin is an American counter-culturalist who came of age in the 1960s. He’s from the East Coast, not California – so you can think of him as a hardball version of the hippie entrepreneur Stewart Brand. The complex of ideas that Rifkin sells to the Eurocrats is really very simple. Replace the corporate-military oil complex with renewable energies. Develop a smart electric grid to power small-scale distributed manufacturing. Promote equal exchange between associated producers via the latest in computer-orchestrated logistics. And use the markets of this new industrial system to entice China along the pathways of sustainable development in the twenty-first century. Unlike the usual dreamers, Rifkin is getting this done, via multi-million-euro projects in various EU countries. But just like the usual dreamers, he knows that success is all about empathy.


Rifkin has studied Renaissance literature and mirror neurons, and he understands empathy as a foundational process of human development, both in the life history of individuals and in the history of civilizations.7 Somehow you have to perceive the emotional landscape of the Other, and then internalize that landscape, however imperfectly. This allows you to experiment with an affective relationship in kinesthetic thought, in advance of those split seconds of real encounter that will make all the difference between love and hate, peace and war. Empathy is the highly uncertain, thoroughly speculative process of feeling someone else’s feelings, whether through dreams, fantasies, painted images, literature, film, electronic media or as-yet undiscovered means. It’s not an end point, but the condition of possibility for a response, an engagement, an action, whether directly or at a distance. Sure, you can be “Against Empathy” and in favor of a coolly rational compassion, as the author of a recent polemic would have it.8 But you might as well be “Against Imagination.” The point is not to attain the ultimate intellectual purity. The point is learning to make better use of a basic human faculty, which is currently being abused on a massive scale. Since the advent of Twitter, we are living in the age of the emo-wars.


Long before the populists grabbed the headlines of every newspaper, Rifkin cut to the heart of the conflict between love and hate. His key idea is that every expansion of the productive apparatus of civilization necessarily brings new communication techniques, which serve to control and coordinate the new production machines, while simultaneously enlarging and deepening our capacity for empathy. But every such expansion of the productive forces also brings greater capacities for destruction of the environment, resulting in fear, hostility and backlashes of all kinds. There is a double-bind at work here, an “empathic-entropic paradox,” whereby civilization’s increasing complexity continually threatens it with dispersal and dissolution. The empathic-entropic paradox has now reached planetary scale:


The early light of global empathic consciousness is dimmed by the growing recognition that it may come too late to address the specter of climate change and the possible extinction of the human species—a demise brought on by the evolution of ever more complex energy-consuming economic and social arrangements that allow us to deepen our sense of selfhood, bring more diverse people together, extend our empathic embrace, and expand human consciousness. We are in a race to biosphere consciousness in a world facing the threat of extinction.”9


Rifkin’s book, The Empathic Civilization, was written in the 2000s, during the rise of social media but also under the shadows of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It focuses mainly on the relations between humans of different classes, countries and races. But it’s clear from the book – and more broadly, from contemporary experience – that the “empathic embrace” of a viable twenty-first century civilization must extend beyond human beings, to the untold millions of other species that are menaced by imminent extinction. At the extreme, it’s about feeling out the emotional landscape of the landscape itself, in its radical non-human otherness. Only by doing so right now, through aesthetic as well as scientific means, can we generate a hitherto absent capacity to respond to the weirdly entropic spirals of all-consuming “progress” and “growth” that have engulfed the entire biosphere. Otherwise those entropic forces, typified by the release and ubiquitous dispersal of CO2 in the atmosphere, will push us dramatically beyond the so-called “limits to growth,” or what earth-systems scientists call “the planetary boundaries.” 10


Today’s neo-populism denies those limits, which threaten its partisans at the core of their real or imagined privileges. For them, the threat is not objective, it has nothing to do with science, remote sensing or ground truth. Instead, it arises from anything that would force them to admit the existence of other beings with different priorities. “Stay white” is their grotesque call of identitarian solidarity (and you can bet it also means “stay straight”). Trumpism in particular stands squarely against two things: environmental policies and the liberation of those whom the dominant elites still call “the minorities.” The populist refusal to countenance the affective presence of the multi-racial and multi-species Other is matched by a direct emotional appeal to the fears and aggressions of a declining national/imperial constituency: the cattle kings, the engineering moguls, the coal-oil-and-gas extractivists, the military, the manufacturers, the shoot-from-the-hip police and the financial aristocrats who profit from all the simmering resentment. That’s a tremendous alignment of forces, but a desperate one, which constantly seems to be collapsing from its own contradictions. And the response to this white supremacist, anti-environmental fascism has been impressive. On the streets, on the net, in workplaces, on campuses, in the mainstream media and even out in the almost-forgotten countryside, Trumpism is being opposed with the biggest, broadest, deepest wave of activism, legal obstructionism, philosophical condemnation and popular disdain that I have seen since my tender childhood back in the late 1960s. The emo-wars are in full swing, and no one can yet predict the outcome.


Big Picture


So what about those satellites? They are to ecological activism what cell-phone cameras are to #BlackLivesMatter. They provide streaming images, graphic representations, proxies of the real. When the videos of officer-involved murders are adopted and expressed by outraged black and brown activists, you get the huge, cross-racial movement against police impunity. When the cool, abstract data of the environmental sciences are adopted and expressed by impassioned individuals and groups, you get the Climate Justice Movement. Spanning the globe with its powerful proxies, the climate movement turns data into knowledge, then it turns knowledge into aesthetic forms, and finally it turns aesthetic forms into action. The middle phase, where empathy emerges, is not the least important.


Ecological empathy machines constitute a new and particularly urgent realm of aesthetic production – even when they are devoted to the daunting vastness of biogeochemical cycles, or to the unsettling connections between human beings and the “deep time” of geological change. Some leading exponents of these aesthetic forms, which have directly inspired us in the Midwest, can be found in the artists of the World of Matter collective.11 Yet there are innumerable such examples, in cinema, literature, photography, experimental media, and in the sciences themselves, or out in the streets. Operating both within and far beyond the institutionally recognized disciplines of art, the influence of these expressive assemblages has already been profound, and it will undoubtedly continue to grow. As current dynamics in the US reveal, that influence is fundamentally political. What I am calling “empathy machines” are the latest face of an age-old contradiction, whereby the instrumental means of capitalist control and coordination become the expressive instruments of liberation.


At a time of extreme social polarization, when it is necessary to take sides in massive conflicts where one remains suspicious of all sides, it has become particularly interesting for artists to reach out to scientists. It’s clear that the latter are finally taking on explicitly partisan roles in the face of crude efforts to silence them (particularly by defunding their laboratories12). What’s at stake, however, is not only the defense of publicly conducted research. Nor is it only an imperative to “politicize science,” as though one could simply do away with the centuries-old attempt to attain a position of objectivity. Instead, the real stakes for aesthetic production are to be found in the possibilities that the environmental sciences offer for a fresh extension of human perception, and therefore of civilizational empathy. The fact that this most recent extension of empathy should be carried out through the highly rational images of science, rather than those of Romantic poetry, speaks of a new constellation that leaves the old reason/emotion debates far behind.


There are some other things to think about concerning the turn toward empathy machines. By accepting to become part of the feedback loop that brings existential “ground truth” into the datascapes of satellite-based science, one integrates oneself to the planetary mapping infrastructure of the World Geodetic System, as I pointed out years ago.13 Yet the reduction of individual autonomy that follows from this integration to the remote-sensing machines holds a hidden promise, which is only now coming into view. It is the promise of gaining a species capacity to perceive our interdependence with the vast oceanic and atmospheric circulations that are part and parcel of the evolution of life on earth. As I’ve suggested in a recent text, the major technological challenge of the present is not the simple refusal of big data and invasive surveillance technology. Instead, the major challenge is to actively shape a more highly integrated cybernetic regime, whereby we can collectively temper our damaging behaviors at the level of the population.14


Alejandro Meitin, with whom I worked on Living Rivers/Ríos Vivos, holds similar ideas. He believes that the dynamic equilibrium of the South American river basin where he lives – or what he calls, cybernetically, the homeostasis of the watershed – is not maintained by the state and the engineering companies, but instead by the grassroots physical labor of the people who inhabit it, through their forms of cultivation, animal care, habitat protection, stream maintenance, pollution and flood control, etc. Much of his work takes place at the expressive and communicational level, strengthening the inhabitants’ capacities for intuitive collaboration. Could a more empathic civilization rediscover such directly democratic practices at an industrial order of magnitude? Here again we would have to explore a possible integration with informational technologies constituting emergent perceptual organs for a very different kind of body than the one we have hitherto known. The mapping projects seek in that direction: they are both perceptual prosthetics and fields of ecological imagination, like the landscape paintings of centuries past, but under wildly different environmental and social conditions.


In any event, it is clear that a new circuit of perception, imagination, expression and action at the species level is already a driving force. The scientific perception of global climate change lies behind the adoption of renewable-energy technologies and small-footprint manufacturing toolkits, which Rifkin and hundreds of other high-level planners are now struggling to make into a viable industrial norm. In this effort, empathy machines will not make all the difference. But they will make some of it.


Starting Fresh


This has been a short but wildly speculative text. It deserves to end on a visionary note. Maybe the pixels of the environmental sciences, those tiny little emissaries of Planet Earth, have actually been adopting us all along? I’m thinking of an essay by Dorion Sagan, from a book he co-published with his mother, the remarkable microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Pursuing the Gaia theory developed by Margulis and James Lovelock, Sagan attempts to “imagine a child of a present or future culture inculcated from childhood to believe that the planetary surface formed a real extension of his person.”15 It strikes me that Sagan himself might know something rather personal about that kind of childhood. It’s most curious: he is conceiving a time, maybe even the present, when the proxies of the environmental sciences have quite literally gotten under the extended, trans-individual skin of what used to be called humanity. He continues his reverie of the Gaian child: “The mountains between earth and air would seem to him anatomically placed, as ‘our’ skeleton is between ‘our’ bone marrow and flesh.” Then he abruptly switches genders to conclude his intimate flight of scientific fancy:


Imagine someone from this culture picnicking. She believes her environment to be part of her self. The grass on which she sits is a patch of tissue lining the inside of the superorganism of which she forms a part. The bark at her back, the dragonflies, the birds, the clouds, the moist air, and the ants tickling her foot – all these sensations represent, from her point of view, self-perception. Like the ants, ‘she’ senses what is beyond ‘her.’ When ‘she’ pulls her T-shirt over ‘her’ knees, this is no longer human, but one locus of sensation within the kaleidoscopic entrails of a planet-sized photosynthesizing being.”16


You’ve been human long enough. Let it go. Imagine the eco-body.


Try it for yourself at https://lta.cr.usgs.gov/adopt_a_pixel. In geography, “ground truth” refers to the first-hand observation that is necessary for the initial classification and secondary corroboration of remote-sensing data.


See it for yourself at http://ecotopia.today/livingrivers/map.


Ríos Vivos can be accessed from the navbar of Living Rivers, or at http://ecotopia.today/riosvivos/mapa.html. See also http://alaplastica.wixsite.com/alaplastica.


See the exhibition website: www.regionalrelationships.org/tewna.


O. Milman, “Trump to scrap Nasa climate research in crackdown on ‘politicized science,’” The Guardian, 11/22/16.


J. Rifkin, The Third Industrial Revolution; How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011).


J. Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (Tarcher/Penguin, 2009).


P. Bloom, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (Ecco, 2016).


J. Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization, op. cit., p. 26.


J. Rockström et. al., “Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity,” Ecology and Society 14(2): 32 (2009).


Check it out: www.worldofmatter.net.


Opening today’s paper. I found a perfect example, alas: H. Rosner, “The Climate Lab That Sits Empty,” The New York Times, 7/28/17.


B. Holmes, “Drifting through the Grid: Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure” (2003), at http://amsterdam.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0305/msg00055.html, and in Springerin 3/04.


B. Holmes, “Bis drei zählen: Jenseits des kybernetischen Entweder-oder,” in A. Franke, S. Hankey and M. Tuszynski, eds., Nervöse Systeme (Matthes & Seitz Berlin, 2017).


 L. Margulis and D. Sagan, Dazzle Gradually: Reflections on the Nature of Nature (Chelsea Green, 2007), p. 210.


Ibid., p. 211.