Are everyday objects, such as apple pies or microchips, aliens? It depends how you think about what it’s like to be a thing.

This essay appeared in the April 7 issue of New Scientist and is based on my latest book, Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2012)

IF WE really want to understand the nature of the universe, then we must accept two principles. First, everything is an alien to everything else. And second, the experience of “being” something else can never be verified or validated, but only speculated about, even if rational deduction drives that speculation. In the 21st century, then, to fully understand the world in which we live, we are going to need poetry as well as science and philosophy.

We usually understand “alien” either in a political or a cosmological sense: a terrestrial alien is a foreigner from another country, and an extraterrestrial alien is a foreigner from another planet. Even when we use the term philosophically to refer to “otherness” more generally, regardless of whether they come from another nation or another galaxy, the other is someone we can recognise as being enough like us to warrant identification.

But why should we be so self-centred as to think that aliens are beings whose intelligence we might recognise as intelligence? As Nicholas Rescher, a philosopher at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, has observed, a true alien might well have an intelligence that is, well, alien to ours.

Rather than wondering if aliens exist in the cosmos, let’s assume they are all around us, and at all scales – everything from dogs, penguins and trees to cornbread, polyester and neutrons. If we do this, we can ask a different question: what do objects experience? What is it like to be a thing?

I came to this question by accident. Several years ago, I learned how to program the 1977 Atari Video Computer System, the console that made home video games popular. Nick Montfort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and I were working on a book about the relationship between the hardware design of the Atari and the creative practices that its designers and programmers invented in those early days of the video game.

To produce television graphics and sound cheaply, Atari designed the Television Interface Adapter (TIA), capable of rendering five moving objects. For good or ill, movement and collision became the grammar of video games. The TIA made bizarre demands on game makers: instead of preparing a screen’s worth of television picture all at once, the programmer had to alter data the TIA transmitted in tandem with the line-by-line scanning movement of the television’s electron beam. Programming felt more like ploughing a field than painting a picture.

As critics and engineers, we were interested in the Atari’s role in creativity and culture, in how computer hardware influenced game design and aesthetics. You can see the effects of the TIA’s line-by-line logic in Atari games – the rows of targets in Air-Sea Battle or the horizontal bars of horizon in Barnstorming.

Sensing considerable interplay between the game and the system parts, I couldn’t help but feel enchanted by the parts as much as by their output. The Atari was made to entertain, and in that sense it was “just” a machine. But a machine and its components are also something more – something alive, almost. I found myself asking, what is it like to be an Atari, a TIA, a cathode ray tube in a television?

Such questions may seem fanciful or mad, but why is it so strange to ponder the experience of objects, even while knowing objects don’t really have “experiences” as you or I do? Why is it so strange to be fascinated with all “things” – from apple pies to microprocessors, tree frogs to alternating current – and to embrace that fascination not just as engineers but also as philosophers? What if engaging in this way holds important clues about a future in which the boundaries between things are fast dissolving?

This kind of engagement will necessitate a new alliance between science and philosophy, one grounded in rational speculation. From a common Enlightenment origin, studies of human culture split. Science broke down the biological, physical and cosmological world into smaller and smaller bits in order to understand it. But philosophy concluded that reason could not explain the objects of experience but only describe experience itself. One extreme led to scientism, the belief that we can know the world completely by taking it apart; the other to relativism, the belief that we can never escape the mind, that the world conforms to thought, language and culture.

Despite this split, science and philosophy agreed on one fundamental: humanity is the ruler of being. Science embraced Copernicus’s removal of humans from the centre of the universe, but still assumed the world exists for the benefit of humankind. Even among proponents of science for sustainability, the beneficiary is always us. Occasionally animals and plants may be allowed membership in our collective, but toasters or TIAs certainly aren’t.

For their part, the humanities revealed the diversity of human experience, but only by straining everything through a cultural sieve. In so doing, religion, politics, science and engineering become expressions of human will or ideology, and reality a myth supplanted by semiotics and theories about sociality.

In 2009, Graham Harman, a philosopher at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, labelled these two positions “undermining” and “overmining”. Undermining positions understand reality as smaller bits, be they quarks, DNA or mathematics. Ordinary things such as sheep or battleships become fictions, tricks that deceive minds too naive to understand their depths. Overmining positions take objects to be less real than the processes and circumstances that produce them. Generally, the sciences tend to undermine, and the humanities to overmine.

In place of undermining and overmining, what if we decide that all things are equal – not equal in nature or use or value, but equal in existence? If ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being, then we need a flat ontology, an account of existence that holds nothing to be intrinsically more or less extant than anything else.

But why bother to hold such a position? In 1974, Thomas Nagel, a philosopher at New York University, famously asked what it was like to be a bat, concluding the experience could not be reduced to a scientific description of its method of echolocation. Science attempts to answer questions through observation and verification. Even so, the “experience” of all objects, from bats to Atari computers, resists explanation through experimentation.

It is not enough to ponder the role things have in human enterprise, nor to limit empathy to living creatures. Once everything is on the ontological table, our human choices become more complex. Such grand challenges as health, energy, climate or poverty can no longer be addressed as problems for humans alone. The world is not just ours, nor is it just for us: “being” concerns microchips or drilling rigs as much as it does kittens or bamboo.

published April 7, 2012