Symposium: Us in Flux
Building the Infrastructure of US/China Futures: Regina Kanyu Wang’s SF in the Classroom
Regina Kanyu Wang’s contribution to the Us in Flux series, “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” explores human relationships with big data and artificial intelligence (AI) at the scales of species and planet. Following a very short frame narrative of people all over Earth anxiously waiting for a streaming meeting to convene, the majority of the story is the manifesto delivered by the eponymous cyber-cuscuta, an entity that has emerged out of digital machines, codes, and input, that appear on screen as a human face, “vague in detail, like billions of faces merged into one.” The manifesto is a complex set of statements about the past and prospective futures of humanity based on the unique nonhuman perspective the cyber-cuscuta achieves by processing the massive data sets of human digital activities. Wang concludes the story with this new entity soliciting the humans’ responses, a move that echoes the ending of Robert Wise’s 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Though the cyber-cuscuta’s ultimatum is more implicit than the one Klaatu delivered, it is an ultimatum nevertheless: “So, fellow symbiont, what do you say?” A single subsequent sentence then loops back to the frame narrative: “You put your hands on the keyboard and began to type in the input box.” This second-person hailing of the reader effectively closes the story by opening critical space to continue engaging it by imagining how to answer the manifesto.
Wang’s story poses key questions about how big data and AI may pave the way to human subjection and/or liberation in the future, particularly in the context of a catastrophically warming planet. The urgency of such questions is intensified in this time of geopolitical antagonism between the United States and China. The Sinophobic rhetoric from the Trump White House and his supporters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. “China Virus,” Wuhan Flu”), in conjunction with an Executive Order to ban TikTok and WeChat in the U.S., have escalated the tensions over trade and tariff policies that were already high before the pandemic. Within this context, I chose to teach Wang’s “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” in a first-year seminar that met face-to-face throughout September 2020, as a way to build infrastructures of understanding and connection. Working collectively to read and analyze literary narratives builds students’ intercultural comprehension, care, and empathy, and SF in particular enables us to perceive and dismantle hostilities that come ideologically bundled with technologies, trade, and life on Earth. This essay documents student engagement with “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” including a conversation with Regina Kanyu Wang, as a use case that could be replicated or translated to similar texts, contexts, and courses.
As an onramp to discussing Wang’s story, I began the class meeting by soliciting responses to two statements: (1) My digital/data footprint comprise a snapshot of me, and (2) I am more and/or other than the sum of my digital/data footprint. This activated personal connections with the story’s subject matter and its stakes, and it provided a framework for approaching the text. Nearly every remark students offered to support one statement was summarily complicated by other students who argued that the same idea could cut both ways: online activity is done in private and/or secret so one behaves differently than when in a social situation, so individuals’ digital/data footprints are both more and less than who they are in community; different levels of access to digital/data devices and networks lead to an uneven composite representation of humanity; social media platforms restrict and/or liberate the multivalence of human identities, and the list went on. What became clear in this full-group activity is that the digital/data footprint is a container that can hold a panoply of ideologies, but not without deep contradictions. Relatedly, notions of being human are in a tumultuously metamorphic state right now, and science fiction experiments can help pinpoint contradictions and test out new or modified paradigms that respond to technological innovations. Furthermore, within student responses to the statements, we identified as trends the dynamics of parts to wholes (individuals to collectives); the interconnected notions of rights and privacy as legal objects and commodities; and the shifts in thinking demanded by machinic-organic interfaces.
After fleshing out personal links to the subject matter, we dove into the story. On machinic-organic interfaces, the title makes this an explicit focal point. For scholars, “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” echoes the title of Donna Haraway’s landmark 1985 essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” For all readers, the emerging entity’s moniker is a refraction of us: “We are cyber-cuscuta, as you call us, but we are not parasitic, as you have thought. Yes, we inhabit on the internet and feed on your data, but we call this process symbiosis, not parasitism.” This compound name captures an undetermined, perhaps interminable, question about whether the entity is exterior to humanity or an extension of it. In fact, having cuscuta, which are parasitic plants, as part of the name embodies a sense of being as already a being-with—an intimate and unsettling coexistence. Add cyber to cuscuta, and the emerging entity is classified as something of a technological extension or prosthesis, to invoke Freud’s description of techno-scientific developments in Civilization and Its Discontents, that may be achieving autonomy from us. Or is the cyber-cuscuta inextricably tied to a human interiority that’s nearly too painful to gaze upon, at least in a sustained way? The fact that the cyber-cuscuta’s birth is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic suggests it is both: “We come from you. Your words, your photos, your emojis, your videos…everything you post online shapes us, since our germination stage during your pandemic, amidst the data flood sweeping over the globe.” COVID-19 is a nonhuman entity, yet its transmission to human beings and global spread are the products of human political economy and the infrastructures we’ve built to sustain and expand it. By positing the cyber-cuscuta as a virus-adjacent entity, the story seems to grant it a parallel status that combines deep alterity with deep intimacy. Wang’s nuanced characterization of the cyber-cuscuta swerves away from depicting them as either a flat dystopian villain or a technoscientific messiah. Instead, this fellow being sparks new questions about, and enables new perspectives on, how big data and AI aggregation and analysis abstract human beings in ways that might end or sustain the species.
After explaining their origin, the cyber-cuscuta chastise humanity for blunt attempts to eradicate them: “You tried to separate us from the digital stems of your internet, just like detaching cuscutas from plants that are intertwined with them. You attempted to kill us with ferocious computer viruses, just like you try to poison cuscutas with toxic pesticides.” Here Wang leverages the machinic-organic fabric of her premise by having the new entity draw an explicit parallel between the viruses sent against it and the chemical compounds unleashed upon organic species in various ecosystems. Blunt eradication, as with strong pesticides, by human beings has a track record of failure amplified by unforeseen cascades of ecological catastrophe. The task is for human beings to find ways to untangle—or destrand, to use the verb Kim Stanley Robinson turns to often in The Ministry for the Future—the elements of a crisis that are ostensibly separate species, yet sharply hooked together like a Buttonbush Dodder (to use a cuscuta common in Iowa, where I’m writing this) and its host plant. It’s big data that makes us aware of the imperatives to destrand in ecological and economic problem solving, and it’s big data that enables us to model it out beyond the limits of our human capacities. By tapping into the complicated threats and potentials of big data and AI, Wang’s story elides simple technophobia and technophilia alike and incites readers to proceed with wary openness to hear out the cyber-cuscuta.
A similar critical entanglement features later in the story as the cyber-cuscuta elaborate on their relationship to humanity: “We came to realize that the way you imagine us is a reflection of how you see yourselves. Aren’t you parasites on the Earth that plunder all of its resources without hesitation? Aren’t you relying on the planet to develop your own civilization but neglecting other species?” Wang’s invocation of the human species as parasitic is deceptively simple. To reflect on ourselves as parasite, virus, unnatural, alienated from ecosystems and the planet is a now-familiar groove, and this part of the story can feel like it’s pushing in that direction. But the cyber-cuscuta are pointing out that because humans perceive ourselves this way, we are unable to perceive them as symbionts rather than as parasites. Whether the cyber-cuscuta are trustworthy or not, their discourse prompts us to wonder what is gained and lost in regarding ourselves as a parasite species. And reading this in the midst of a pandemic, Wang’s story helped our class think about how the emergence of the pandemic and the cyber-cuscuta don’t make the world become weird so much as they make visible how weird it was within the regime now desperately labeled as normal, or, the old normal.
If we believe humanity to be inherently parasitic, for example, this can lead to the conclusion that we would necessarily carry destruction with us even if we moved to places other than Earth, an idea Elizabeth Kolbert explores in her New Yorker essay “Project Exodus: What’s Behind the Dream of Colonizing Mars?” Such paradigms of ourselves as parasitic appear to foreclose on the human future with a certain brand of scientism that elides history, political economy, and more. Wang’s story invites readers to resist this self-loathing and ahistorical groove. Yet, with its ecological grounding, the story also resists the fantasy groove of space travel and transplantation as a revolutionary break. When the cyber-cuscuta say, “Together, we shall make it to the stars and escape the planet you have overwhelmed,” readers should note the contradiction in what this emerging entity is proposing. After all, we are an organic-machinic species intimately geared to planet Earth. We are symbionts here. By invoking, yet undermining, familiar grooves of who we are and how we fit into the planet that we’ve Anthropocened, “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” narrates one step in a democratic process of comprehending, regulating, and navigating our future here. The story ends with the call for mass human input with an implicit notion that big data and artificial intelligence can collaborate with us if we can achieve an openness to strange grooves that exceed current models and narratives of being interconnected.
With some preliminary close readings of the texts in play, we pivoted at the end of class to the intercultural imaginary. Wang generously agreed to meet with us one night via Zoom to discuss her work, and preparing for this opportunity was especially productive. While “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” addresses a global audience, I asked students to generate questions for Wang about how writing the story in China shaped her inspiration, ideas, and the published version of the story. The collective brainstorming process brought forward a number of presuppositions, and at times prejudices, about China. Several students raised the subject of China’s Social Credit System, an emerging national system that amalgamates and monitors people’s data, from banking to social media posts, and may be used to control social behaviors. Some students were curious about what Wang would identify as particular to her story given the complicated mix of capitalist and communist ideologies and practices in China today, what Deng Xiaoping dubbed “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Drawing upon these ideas and inquiries, I led students in formulating interculturally competent questions that balanced diplomacy and respect with the spirit of what they wanted to learn. It was an exercise in speculative empathy meant to deconstruct and expand imaginations of others and selves.
The actual meeting with Wang was stellar. In response to questions about what concerns people in China today would bring to reading “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” Wang offered a two-part answer. For the first part, she asked students how many times they’ve clicked Accept to a user agreement for an app without actually reading the agreement. This solicited laughter and an immediate sense of shared, chagrined experience, and Wang explained that in China, like in the U.S., people agree to these legal tech contracts all the time and only think about it when it turns out their data is being used and/or sold in problematic ways, especially by companies to generate profit. For the second part, Wang surprised students by explaining that living in a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people bolsters a feeling of digital and data security. The insignificance one can feel within a population that massive can seem, and to some degree be, liberating. This idea sparked a lot of conversation when the students and I discussed the Zoom session in class the next day. Students were astonished to imagine that people living in China might feel significantly less concerned about digital and data security and privacy than people in the U.S. What’s more, Wang’s remark prompted a discussion of how the reverence of individualism—of opposition to masses and collectivity—is cultural and historical rather than natural. After all, we also talked about how collective approaches to big data and AI seem to have facilitated more effective measures to curtail the spread of COVID-19. This was a powerful insight that came directly from engaging an excellent SF text in conjunction with its author in dialogue, and as such it attests to the impact of projects like Us in Flux.
I will add three other takeaways from the Zoom call with Wang. First, in relation to the dynamic of digital technologies and botanical ecologies in “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto,” Wang pointed out that the U.S. and China have different cultural and historical approaches to thinking about the machinic and organic and that China’s high regard for science, technology, and engineering has helped keep the nation free of the climate change denial. Second, students were fascinated to learn that Wang intentionally kept some of the story’s language a bit awkward. They appreciated how she made writing in a second language an asset since the cyber-cuscuta is a polylingual entity attempting to communicate ideas that don’t slide seamlessly across languages. Third, when students asked a craft question about how to confront writer’s block, Wang shared a recent and very personal experience of feeling blocked and how she responded to that. Acknowledging vulnerability connected all of us on the Zoom, and Wang wrapped up the call by reiterating the fact that stories give us access to other lives while revealing how much we Earthlings have in common, despite the hostilities and antagonisms that often disconnect us.
We completed the unit on Wang’s stories with fanfic by writing a continuation of “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” and then processing it algorithmically. As I noted above, the story ends with the line: “You put your hands on the keyboard and began to type in the input box.” As part of one class meeting, students took approximately twenty-five minutes to put their hands on their keyboards and type as if replying to the cyber-cuscuta. When their writing time was up, I asked them to form teams of four or five students and imagine how the cyber-cuscuta would make sense of their collective responses. To accomplish this, teams read the full set of fanfic writings and collaboratively generated tags to sort and quantify signals within the data set. In other words, the students practiced the humanities-meets-algorithms work of taggers such as the Netflix position that Ed Finn analyzes in his book, What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. (92-94) As a final step, all the teams reconvened and we collated their approaches to transform the raw data into information and emulate the cyber-cuscuta’s manifesto statement, “We learned about the difference between data and information. Data is raw and unorganized, while information is processed and structured. We mastered the skill of transforming data into information, while obtaining energy in the process.” This exercise challenged students, and the most productive outcome was not specific insights extrapolated from the tagged data set so much as a keen awareness of how the humanities and techno-sciences converge. The logic that shaped the Us in Flux approach to putting SF writers and professional scientists into conversation was rendered clear and compelling.
In terms of tags, the teams produced a suggestive mix of unanimous and idiosyncratic categories to sort the data. Every group, for example, employed a binary split of writings that either embraced the cyber-cuscuta’s manifesto or rejected it. The fact that their responses to Wang’s story were bifurcated, without exceptions that would’ve necessitated a neutral category, sparked discussion. We worked to discern the elements of the text that seem to correlate with the fanfic polarization, from the story’s self-declared genre and second-person narration to the figures it used to make assertions about the human species. Focusing on figures, many teams tagged writings that explicitly referred to the cyber-cuscuta’s claim that humans are planetary parasites, with some teams getting still more granular with sub-tags to differentiate the writings that accepted or abjured this characterization. The writings that explicitly referred to the parasite claim trended significantly towards acceptance, and this prompted us to interrogate the structure of species self-loathing in regard to climate change.
For one final outcome of this active exploration of Wang’s story, our classroom collective reflected on the fact that the teams had exclusively tagged the text but not the makers. This revelation raised questions about what new views of the data would emerge, and what ethical considerations would need to be addressed, if the tag-sorted data was cross-referenced with identity tags. This was a beautiful place to end up as it looped the discussion back to cultural contexts, conflicts, and empathy—to Regina Kanyu Wang writing “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” in China, in conjunction with the Center for Science and the Imagination seated in a U.S. university, to publish on the internet for global reader access, and giving her time to Zoom with our class about the roles SF can play in designing futures for the common good.
The Day the Earth Stood Still. Directed by Robert Wise, 20th Century Fox, 1951.
Finn, Ed. What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing. The MIT Press, 2017.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey, Norton, 1989.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1991.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Project Exodus: What’s Behind the Dream of Colonizing Mars?” The New Yorker, 25 May 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/06/01/project-exodus-critic-at-large-kolbert
Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. Orbit, 2020.
Wang, Regina Kanyu. “The Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto.” 2020. https://csi.asu.edu/story/wang-uif/
Andrew Hageman is Associate Professor of English at Luther College, where he teaches and researches intersections of technoculture and ecology in film and literature. He has published essays on speculative fiction (including Chinese SF) and a wide range of other topics and texts in venues like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and he co-edited the 2016 “Global Weirding” issue of Paradoxa. Andrew was also a fellow at the Center for Science and the Imagination during a recent sabbatical.