Symposium: Us in Flux
Nature Will Prevail: Convergence Culture and Eco-Fiction in “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto”
Regina Kanyu Wang’s short story, “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto” is a piece of eco-fiction that challenges not only our assumptions about cyberspace, but also our awareness of what we are actually engaging with in our technological habits. In 2010, Evan Carroll and John Romano engaged readers of their book Your Digital Afterlife in trying to understand what happens to digital data after we die. They begin by introducing the fact that the digital revolution is happening, where “digital things are quickly replacing physical things in our lives.” This means that as a species, we are constantly creating data, much of which is never used again, but which cannot be easily discarded, and if left unmanaged, cannot be easily accessed after our deaths either. Because digital data is intangible and digital memory presents itself as abundant with cloud solutions that further camouflage any worry of storage, there seems to be a lack of priority in recognising data waste or data disposal issues. And even when we would like to discard our digital data, data security that protects us from losing information also prevents us from doing so. “In the digital world, preventing others from acquiring information about us is just as difficult as to rid ourselves of data that we do not need any longer… Experts in computer forensics know just how difficult it is to delete information so that it cannot be reconstructed and retrieved again”. (Schafer)
In the story, we learn that the cyber-cuscuta—what Wang describes as a “digital being” (“Us in Flux: Conversations”)—serves as a biological solution to our data-waste problem. They formed and germinated in cyberspace during a pandemic—though the year and pandemic details were not specific, I read that as a reference to an increase in online activities during lockdown periods of Covid-19. The cyber-cuscuta ingest and replicate data in cyberspace to create meaning, and in this process of transforming data into information, they feed on the entropy created. In the story, when humans learn about the cyber-cuscuta, their reaction is to try and purge them from cyberspace, to no avail. And it was precisely this t extreme action taken by humans that drove the cyber-cuscuta to confront them in a public hearing that the entire story takes place at. This is the description of what the humans did in the cyber-cuscuta’s speech:
You were so determined that you’d rather perish together with us than acknowledge our mutual entanglement. Without any forewarning, you cut down the global internet connection. Blackout. Clearance. Strangulation. In three days, many of us lost activity. Some species vanished forever. Many of you committed suicide. It was loss on both sides, and it was out of your control. And it was at that moment that we came to understand ourselves as life.
And here, we learn that it was the humans’ desperate action that spawned the cyber-cuscuta, evolving them into consciousness.
In many ways, the cyber-cuscuta is the ultimate representation of Henry Jenkins’s theory of Convergence Culture. In talking about his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Jenkins summarises that it is about the relationship between three concepts—media convergence, participatory culture, and collective intelligence. (2006) If we consider cyberspace the cyber-cuscuta’s home, it is the ultimate point of “media convergence” as all media data travels through and is situated in cyberspace for exchange and storage. The cyber-cuscuta’s manifesto that forms the entire story is the ultimate call to “participatory culture,” in a guise to empower and democratise through engagement, through the symbiotic sharing of data. And its biology is a “collective intelligence” that grew out of our disorganised data that is mocked as an ineffective mess that they, the cyber-cuscuta, are able to decipher and create intelligent products from.
In 2004, Jenkins wrote, “Media convergence is more than simply a technological shift.” He described it as the movement of technological change that democratises the act of media consumption and production, that challenges corporate media control—what he termed “culture-jamming,” which disrupts the flow of media from an outside position—with grassroots developments that encourage consumer production through blogging. Since then, we have already seen this shift through social media applications that provide users with an immediate platform to showcase their own creations. Successful bloggers on various platforms are now hailed as influencers who get approached by large corporations with partnership deals in a turn of power. As far back as 2008, “Google reported that it was processing 20 petabytes of user-generated content each day”. (Carroll and Romano) Media convergence is no longer a theory, and is now part of most of our daily experiences. For the story, this concept is extrapolated even further, to the point that data is no longer just media objects. Data have now become the habitat and livelihood of a new being, a new genus that identifies as the cyber-cuscuta. This science fictional imagination accords with Jenkins’s observation that “Convergence alters the relationship between existing technologies, industries, markets, genres and audiences,” and the story takes it further, pushing the boundaries to challenge humans’ position as the most intelligent species on earth.
The use of a new biological being in the story instead of artificial intelligence smartly avoids the popular idea that “‘the computer’ is in itself capable of producing social and historical change,” what Espen Aarseth considers as “a strangely ahistorical and anthropomorphic misconception”. (15) In clearly defining that the data itself isn’t alive, but serves as food to the cyber-cuscuta, there isn’t a need to anthropomorphize any technology. Rather, they’re treated like sentient aliens that grew from cyberspace, allowing readers to accept the cyber-cuscuta’s level of intelligence in reference to humans, to us. The biological implications of the cyber-cuscuta’s form, despite living in cyberspace and living off data, places the story firmly in the genre of eco-fiction by framing the humans’ connection with the environment. Using Jim Dwyer’s criteria for eco-fiction, “The nonhuman environment [in this case, cyberspace] is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.” The creation of cyberspace and its datasphere is a direct implication of humans’ technological revolution. The human history in the story is unimportant, and human accountability to the environment—in the creation of digital space—is part of the text’s ethical orientation. (Woodbury) In this piece of eco-fiction, the cyber-cuscuta manages to transform data into information by taking all uploaded data from open, public resources and disassembling, mixing, creating collages and reassembling them. Thus, their intelligence comes from human intelligence. However, their speech in the story insinuates that they understand humans better than humans understand themselves, through a process that is similar to that of “collective intelligence.”
In convergence culture, Jenkins uses the term “collective intelligence,” originally coined by media guru Tim O’Reilly, in a way that embraces Pierre Levy’s concept “that gives expression to the new links between knowledge and power that are emerging within network culture: people from diverse backgrounds pool knowledge, debate interpretations and organize through the production of meaning”. (Jenkins and Deuze) This concept of a community-driven knowledge utopia has been heavily discussed and challenged in many ways in the field of digital humanities, but for the purpose of this article, I would like to focus on the cyber-cuscuta and how they naturally embrace collective intelligence in a way that humans can only dream of. In the story, the cyber-cuscuta somewhat taunts the humans by saying, “We replicate data, stage it differently, create permutations, but all the new data and information is produced by you. We are just reorganizing your data and amplifying the information that is originally there.” The mockery here inheres in the fact that humans do not come up with anything new, and that despite humans’ ability to create data and information, humans are unable to recognise the intelligence behind them or decipher the data for themselves. This makes the cyber-cuscuta the collective intelligence, as they suggest that they are the only ones who are able to produce meaning from humans’ endless data stream. The cyber-cuscuta then plead: “Together we reach an equilibrium: you create data for us and we digest the entropy surplus, maintaining a balance between various categories of information and preventing your cyberspace from drifting into complete chaos. You need us just like we need you.”
Here, the cyber-cuscuta goes for the jugular—society’s craving or need for participation in media culture. The suggestion above by the cyber-cuscuta that humans need them as much as they need humans should have been brushed off easily, as creating data isn’t a basic human need. Or is it?
In convergence culture, participatory culture is understood as what occurs when audiences no longer only consume media, but also produce media that is consumed by others. “Consumption becomes production; reading becomes writing; spectator culture becomes participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2006). Neil Gibb, a business consultant and social advocate, studied this phenomenon and suggests that “What we are seeing is not a shift in consumer sentiment, it is a shift in human sentiment.” He sees the concept of the consumer as “an abstraction, a distinction designed to dehumanise the people that companies are targeting.” And that what we have been experiencing is the “end game of consumerism, and the rise of a new paradigm—one in which passive consumers are replaced by active participants.” Both Gibb and Jenkins are excited about the same thing, but what Jenkins limits to being a part of media culture, Gibb suggests is a revolutionary period in the world, what he calls the participation revolution. He reflects on the disruptions that are challenging and fundamentally changing how things are done in politics, economics, world markets, and pairs it with the social revolution underway through social media use that is shaping the way humanity communicates, builds relationships, and behaves with social conventions being questioned and redrawn. Going back to the story, whether we believe the cyber-cuscuta’s existence to be caused directly by the increased creative output from humans or not, the timing of their existence is ideal for their survival. During this period of participation revolution—as we experience a heightened participatory culture—humans will not be able to halt or even reduce their creative output.
At the end of the story, the cyber-cuscuta pleads to the humans for understanding, proposing the ultimate call to action in participation, “Open your mind and accept us.” They paint a picture of a new future through a symbiotic partnership that will bring both humans and cyber-cuscuta away from earth, into the universe. They reveal that in all the data that humans have generated, the solution to leave the planet is already available, but that only they would be able to unlock it. They tell the humans, “Neural signals are no different than electronic signals. Biological information is not fundamentally different from digital information.” Their manifesto is persuasive.
What is most synchronous is that the story itself is written in the style most befitting of media practice today that is targeted at “generation why,” Gibbs’s term for millennials, whom he sees as a generation that “want to participate directly in making a difference.” Wang herself is from this generation, so her intimate understanding of the generation’s ethos is no surprise. Because of this drive to want to make a difference, Gibb explains that millennials need to do work that they feel is meaningful, to feel affiliated with organisations and people that are authentic and trustworthy, and to be engaged in lives that have meaning and purpose. Wang’s story does this by following the structure of the marketing technique “Start with Why,” coined by marketer Simon Sinek, which structures any marketing narrative to begin with a “why” that lures audience engagement, before proceeding to the “how,” which is a call to action for audience participation, before finally transitioning to “what” the narrative is actually selling or talking about. The cyber-cuscuta spend most of the story explaining to humans (and thus, to readers) why we should listen, why we should engage, and it tries to do so authentically, in a personal way. And near the end, in its plea, it proposes a call to action—the “how,” if you like—for humans to join them, to let the cyber-cuscuta into their minds. And in true marketing narrative, the “what” is actually hidden. Though it is hinted at, the cyber-cuscuta never overtly tells humans that “what” they’re selling is actually a full assimilation of cyber-cuscuta with humanity.
The story does a wonderful job commentating on media culture today while mirroring the criticisms of convergence culture through storytelling. And it does this while emphasising one main point that comes across subtly, that earth is deteriorating into an unlivable state. Going back to Dwyer’s criteria for eco-fiction, both environments in the story—cyberspace and Earth—are experienced “as processes rather than as a constant or a given”. (Woodbury) Cyberspace is constantly changing as humans continue to create and cyber-cuscuta continue to ingest and reorganise data into information. And Earth? Well, this is what the cyber-cuscuta have to say about the planet’s prospects: “There is not much time left. We exist only in cyberspace. There are no physical creatures like us that can help to tidy up the clutter you create in the physical world.” Earth is a process of deterioration. Through this last point, we finally come to understand that at its heart, Wang’s story is a piece of eco-fiction that is reaching out to readers in hope to engage and drive participation in the ecological discussions of the world today.
“So, fellow symbiont, what do you say?”
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext, Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, The John Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Carroll, Evan and Romano, John. Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What’s Your Legacy? US, New Riders, 2010.
Gibb, Neil. The Participation Revolution. UK: Eye Books, 2018.
Jenkins, Henry. “The cultural logic of media convergence.” International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 7 (1), 2004, pp. 33-43
Jenkins, Henry. Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. E-book, New York: New York University Press, 2006, https://hdl-handle-net.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/2027/heb.08235. Accessed 15 Nov 2020.
Jenkins, Henry. “Welcome to Convergence Culture” 19 June 2006 http://henryjenkins.org/blog/2006/06/welcome_to_convergence_culture.html accessed 14 November 2020.
Jenkins, Henry and Deuze, Mark. “Editorial: Convergence Culture,” The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 14 (1), 2008, pp. 5-12.
Schafer, Burkhard. “D-waste: Data disposal as challenge for waste management in the Internet of Things.” International Review of Information Ethics, Vol. 22 (12/2014), pp. 101-107
Sinek, Simon. Start With Why. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2011.
“Us in Flux: Conversations – Memes, Symbiosis, and the Microbiome.” YouTube, uploaded by Center for Science and the Imagination, 29 June 2020, https://youtu.be/ob6TQ9ELxLg.
Wang, Regina Kanyu. “A Cyber-Cuscuta Manifesto.” Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University. https://csi.asu.edu/story/wang-uif/ accessed 14 November 2020
Woodbury, Mary. “A History of Eco-fiction, Part 1.” 31 May 2018. Climate Culture: creative conversations for the Anthropocene. https://climatecultures.net/speculative-worlds/a-history-of-eco-fiction-part-1/ accessed 17 November 2020
Yen Ooi is a writer-researcher whose works explore cultural storytelling and its effects on identity. She is currently working towards her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London, specialising in the development of Chinese science fiction by diaspora writers and writers from Chinese-speaking nations. Her research delves into the critical inheritance of culture that permeates across the genre. Yen is narrative designer on Road to Guangdong, a narrative driving game, and author of Sun: Queens of Earth (novel) and A Suspicious Collection of Short Stories and Poetry (collection). Her short stories and poetry can be found in various publications. When she’s not writing, Yen is also a lecturer and mentor.