A techno primitivist campfire for the practice of digital animism


How can cultural production evolve through expanded sensory experiences in the 21st century? The purpose of this project is to explore the potential to develop new forms of cultural and social organization by manipulating sets of environmental data.


[1] Problem Framing
[1a] Foundation
[1b] Past
[1c] Present
[1d] Future

[1] Problem Framing

This journey departs from several observations about the structural framework of contemporary globalised society. They relate to two of its core components, culture and economics, those being the system by which collective organisation and behaviour is defined and the system by which these values are translated into interactions with environment. What follows is an attempt to describe a set of problems that have developed over time within these core components.

[1a] Foundation

The basis for society is chemical, highly physical and intrinsically emotional. A group of nodes (cells, people etc) will organise around a collective identity and vision that they express through a communicative medium, this process crystallizes a culture which can steer the group through its environment. In the days before written language humans used primarily auditory and visual communication mediums to express intangible concepts and pass on cultural knowledge about our environments as mythological stories. From gathering together around the campfire, to the radio, to the TV set and now to the infinite scroll we learn what we need to know about how to operate within the cultural value hierarchy of our society.

As technology has advanced we have gradually begun to design-out ambiguity from our collective expression, this draws attention to the fact that the traits of the communicative medium of choice implicitly form the characteristics of a culture and so society (McLuhan, 1967). Honing in on the central metaphor of this project, the campfire, we find a much higher level of intuition and interpretation in the stories of aural tradition than with the contemporary written word. Before written language formalised our interactions and thought processes, we worked with chants and other musical mediums to ambiguously develop our collective cultures in small communities. These often centered around environmental spirits or forces that had the power to dictate change and so formed our value system. Because of this, our brains are hardwired to attach great emotion to sound.

[1b] Past

Dominant globalised society as we know it could be said to have been formalised from the 17th century onwards. Thinkers of the Enlightenment (and their ideological descendants) implemented a knowledge system that realised the concept of an objective reality, one which could be controlled down to minute details and in which decisions could be proven to be unquestionably ‘correct’. This (largely European, male) desire for dominion over and severance from what was diochitcally positioned as ‘nature’ caused ‘humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, to sink into a new kind of barbarism’ (Horkhiemer and Adorno, 1947). Barbarism is seen today in the relentless pillaging of resources and exploitation of populations that drives ‘advanced’ societies. This is not to say that the policy of rationalism has only damaged society, there have of course been many positive scientific advancements. However on a philosophical level, rather than advancing the human condition as it was believed the hunt for objective truths would, people have been left with imaginations wrangled into the service of utility (the working day) and at the mercy of power systems we cannot hope to engage with as individuals or more importantly communities.

[1c] Present

Surveillance Capitalism (Zuboff, 2018), as a technological system of economic and cultural manipulation, underpins many contemporary societies. It is highly effective at centralising power within large economic entities (most often Corporate in nature) through the collection and digital manipulation of vast data sets. There are of course positives to this system, accurate maps of the entire globe and messaging apps which connect people who are separated by great distances. But there are also plenty of questionable side effects, for example the wholesale influencing of large populations can easily form monocultures violently opposed to each other, and the forging of primarily digital relationships limits one's connection to the immediate environment. Building on the work of the Enlightenment in categorising and dividing physical reality into manageable components, the most important asset of the Surveillance Capitalist system is a compartmentalising of cultural values, ‘the production of subjectivity has been the primary work of capitalism’ (Anicka Yi). Ultimately this social ordering is mutating our fundamental senses of empathy, connection and responsibility, which in turn will breed a new form of human. To prevent this development from manifesting in a meaninglessly homogeneous culture under the control of a small group of oligarchs (as has been the trend with emergent social systems over the years) we must work to build platforms for alternative expression and small scale community organisation recognising that ‘while capitalist subjectivities allow the establishment of respective hierarchies, lived reality is actually a mesh of biochemical and electronic algorithms without clear boarders or finite individual hubs’ (Anicka Yi).

[1d] Future

We are starting to glimpse where society is headed, those born within recent years are not only digital natives, but the first indigenous members in the Supercommunity (e-flux, 2015) of the Stack (Bratton, 2015). An unintentionally connected mesh of digital, physical and ethereal systems built on flows of data and resources is coming to influence the culture of societies across the world through redefinitions of borders and regulations in its own image. Smart grids, cloud platforms, mobile apps, smart cities, the Internet of Things and more fold into this megastructure. It exists as an interconnected network of processes nested within each other, dividing and reallocating resources, knowledge and ultimately power. We are witnessing the emergence of a techno-cultural medium that exists simultaneously at such a macro and micro scale that no single government or corporate organisation can hope to control it (although many have and will continue to try). It has gradually begun to dictate and organise politics, culture and economics, putting pressure on popular forms of geopolitical governance (i.e. nation states) and promoting forms of society with entirely alien values. On one hand this intense and seemingly insurmountable sprawl of interdependencies has the potential to cause mass ideological uprooting as traditional forms of government and society collapse around it’s implausibly omnipotent frame, on the other it presents an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the human condition and reestablish the relationship between the body and the material world. Therefore it should be our task as humans in a social order experiencing its closing scenes to take ‘steps to an ecology of mind’ (Bateson, 1972) and make sure that our species is able to communicate with emergent and ancient forms of sentience alike.

[2] Theoretical Approach

Whilst it could be dismissed as an improbable oxymoron, Techno Primitivism is perhaps the most logical description of our desire to use the quantitative methodologies of Enlightenment rationalism to reconnect with the animisitic concept of spirits in the age of the Stack. As time enters this new paradigm we can neither afford to force our neo-luddite heads into the sand or to race blindly into transhumanist cyborgism, rather we propose a stance of synthesis to these approaches through design. ‘Design’s core value is synthesising disparate bodies of knowledge in order to articulate, prototype and develop alternative trajectories’ (Hill, 2012). Below is an outline of the key concepts of this journey.

[2a] Environment

The way an environment feels, meaning the way in which it is subconsciously interpreted both individually and collectively, is instrumental in defining any cultures that develop within it. This process of cultural evolution takes place constantly in communities across the globe, influenced by both macro and micro changes in the environments they inhabit, forming collective memories and identities through the compounding of individual sensorial experience. The factors that sculpt these interpretations are incredibly diverse, from the amount of sunlight that reaches a window in the morning to the number of trees lining a path, the volume and type of noises to the level of pollution experienced on a daily basis, tools used for work and frequency of interactions to speed of travel and humidity in a confined space. Environmental inputs are collectively responsible for shaping cultural production on a meta level, something that is difficult to be consciously aware of from our individual perspectives. As moods change, decision making is directly affected. It’s ethereal and difficult to quantify or measure, but everything is affecting everything. There is a relationship, connectedness and entanglement between daily, minor, mundane, tiny and small actions that go into making the whole cultural framework of society.

[2b] Culture

During processes of cultural production an environment is transfigured from space to place, in other words values are assigned to the physical location that dictate the way in which a society will interact with it. At the present moment the production of cultural values is based on a limited information framework centered primarily around capital generation and extraction of data and resources. But the process of cultural production is a two way synapse, we shape our environment and it in turn shapes us. But in the last few centuries we have become increasingly terrible at listening to the feedback we get from environment, deciding instead to follow courses of action which can best support short term and often self centered gains. In reality, returning to the earlier mentioned critique of Enlightenment, the entire distinction between man and nature is baseless. Culture, just as humanity, is a wholly natural occurrence. The collective desire of contemporary human society to drive techno-logic between us as the physical world has intensely limited our potential to develop a collective cognition that can comprehend the richness of life and so culture has suffered. The largely overlooked poetics of place holds the inherent potential for re-expanding consciousness and reconnecting with currently obscured environmental information. Through increased awareness of our surroundings we can enter a lived reality beyond fiscally driven society, cultural warfare and written language. Any attempt to increase the sensorial ecology utilised in cultural production, that is the system through which we gather data about our environment, could lead society toward different perceptions of environment.

[2c] System

Essential then, to the reformulation of society for the next age, is a refocusing and rescaling of cultural economic systems. In their present form there is little room for the sensitivity and nuance which is so essential to balanced and sustainable development. For example, within the value system of contemporary globalised society we regard abstract cultural concepts such as our position in a hierarchy as essential to fulfilment, when in actuality this has very little bearing on holistic prosperity. One way to increase nuance is by simultaneously collapsing and combining individualist and nationalist hierarchies into a fluid organisation that, from a single person's perspective, is not based around disectable organisations of groups and individuals but rather a free flowing journey through states of being. On one hand this will create a state of social anarchy, which many would deem a fate worse than Communism, however the side effect will be the conditions for a rapid decrease in the reliance on abstract social organisations based purely on culture. This in turn frees us to reroot society around distinctions in environmental data, basing our process of cultural production around the concept of rhythmanalysis (Lefebvre, 1992). To pull the sensory wool from our eyes it would be sensible to take advantage of the great potential of contemporary technology to gather and quantify information into bits. Continuing the past theme of relinquishing distinctions, it is important to mention that as an extension of the body, technology is also a natural occurrence. The chipset in your phone is not made from alien substances, it is made from precious metals which are found in the earth.

What is proposed is a shift from society formed around cultural hierarchies to one formed around places, and the geopolitical structures that connect them in the world of globalisation. How can a new system of cultural production be used to build identity between disparate groups that collectively contribute to the production of daily life. To do this we need tools that convert places into spaces through feedback from environment, existing as a network of conduits from which a nervous system of roots can grow. Or put poetically, techno primitivist campfires for the practice of digital animism. These adaptive conduits can evolve in line with environmental conditions, representing physical reality in a way that can be interpreted by a person's senses but also pushing the boundaries of how this representation takes place. The aim is to spark new playful curiosity in people through the act of collective deep listening to place, exemplified in the concept of psychogeography (Situationist International,1957). When taken as a networked system they function as new kinds of community centers, or nodes, for collective organisation in different environmental hyper localities or systems. There is not separation from national identity to be found in smaller scale community organisation but rather stronger ties to other entities and a uniqueness, or diversity, beyond individualism.

‘Matter thus resolves itself into numberless vibrations, all linked together in uninterrupted continuity, all bound up with each other, and travelling in every direction at once. Like shivers through an immense body’ (Bergson, 1896).

[3] Pragmatic activation

Using the data processing capabilities of computer networks is it possible to reinterpret the bits of information a city generates on a daily basis into a cultural product. A network of sensors can be used to collect data from the fabric of the lived reality, from light levels to distances between objects, clips of sound, physical vibrations, frequency of online interactions, etc.

This network feeds a system which blends information together into audio offerings. The configurations of the sensors as well as the instrumental motifs employed by the computer will alter the output and thus can create a variety of cultural artefacts. These can then be used to explore and define contemporary mythologies through the use of aural tradition techniques. How do a group of local residents respond to the music the machine has made based on their neighborhood? What does it mean to them and what values can be attributed to it?

In Sensori a modular system of 8 ‘Sense Makers’ is used to collect data from various locations travelled through by a protagonist. Using a conduit device it is possible to ‘play’ this data, forming a connection between environment and the user through a push and pull relationship in sound.

Their names are: Air taster, Pulse Seeker, Water Catcher, Colour Reader, Vibration Eater, Noise Watcher, Light Sniffer, Code Listener.

Sensori’s investigation into the world around us can reveal the unseen and complex relationship between agencies, raising curiosity. In the end it is a question rather than an answer about new possibilities, imagination, and dreams that could become reality in the future. It can reinject a sense of mystery and curiosity into the overly formalised environment with which we surround ourselves.