Media Theory for the 21st Century

March 11, 2008

Like ants farming arphids

Filed under: Discussion — tjdanner @ 9:45 pm

 Among Sterling’s neologisms (e.g., “spime,” “fabbing”) and reoriented concepts (e.g., “Internet of Things,” “Wrangling”), I am interested in exploring “arphids”–not a neologism as much as a phoneticism. We have discussed RFIDs in terms of concept and practice over the last couple weeks; undoubtedly, there can be much more ink spilled, breath expelled, and binary digits coded discussing the ramifications of RFID tagging as it relates to surveillance/privacy, mass production/consumption, identity, etc. What strikes me first and most about the term “arphid,” though, is not its meaning per se, but its non-coincidental graphemic similarity to “aphid”–the latter is a bug, but the similarity is a feature. I propose that it may be useful to analyze this point of contact between the two terms, which Sterling explicitly states (the term “subtly implies some newfangled, infestating, autoreplicating plague” (88)); while such an exercise may hardly produce any fruit from a sociological or digital media perspective, it can prove compelling as literary analysis. Aphids and arphids aren’t incredibly dissimilar in appearance. Consider:Arphid:“”Aphid:””Roughly the same size, cylindrical/spheroid, in possession of antenna(e): it is unsurprising that a good deal of science fiction involving RFID-like technology conceptualizes transmitters as having the appearance and behavior of insects (Michael Crichton’s Prey, for example, describes autopoetic surveilling nanobots that initially generate from mutated E. Coli, which mobilize based on swarming patterns and eventually invade victims’ bodies). Aphids are not swarming insections, however, but infesting insects; usually wingless, they overtake plants through crowding dynamics–they are destructive pests, often transmitting viruses to their host plants phloem (tissue) vessels. Their reproductive habits are unusual: only females exist in the spring and summer–during the fall, temperature changes lead to male births. Famously, aphids and ants can share a symbiotic relationship, with the latter “farming”/protecting the former in exchange for carbo-loading on aphids’ “honeydew” secretions. (I cite Wikipedia as the source for this font of Aphidoidea knowledge.) Sterling suggests the destructive potential of arphids: “[If not for real-world saturation of radio signals], “it would be an elementary matter to build a super-arphid reader inside some fiberglass van, and drive through rich streets trolling for rich people with a lot of arphid-tagged, purloinable stuff” (90). This “nightmare scenario,” though impractical, is not unimaginable; in fact, it is a corollary of a more idealized (though tongue-in-cheekly) scenario in which arphids constitute the medial nodes of a vast (all-compassing, as it were) Internet of Things. Sterling’s descriptions afford room for the “infestating” function of the a(r)phid–an cloud of signals not only filling airspace but controlling physical space–but I am curious about if and where the ant-aphid analog arises. Humans “farming out” arphids for informational nourishment is apparent, as is the capacity for misuse or illicit use (as in the exemplary case of the van-trolling thieves); is there a reading of this symbiosis that gives arphids, if not agency (in the ecological scenario, aphids cede “agency” or control to their formic masters, anyway), then at least reciprocality? That is, though it sounds anthropomorphizing, what do arphids get out of the deal? Aphids receive protection from predators and looser boundaries on food supplies in exchange for their secretions; it’s possible to back-formulate a degree of reciprocal utility onto the arphids, in that subsequently to being made operative by humans, they come to control/dictate human action, and even epistemological systems (along the lines of “the model is the entity, and everyone knows it” (96)). And since were hanging out down here in the soil–in a realm in which aphids can infect a whole plant systemically by squirting disease into its tissue–I wonder (with no conclusion offered here) how this arphid vs. bar code model relates to the rhizome vs. tree dichotomy–is there a connection in this worth exploring? I guess I’ll conclude this somewhat discursive post with that point of discussion.


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