VAMPY: The use of new media technology in cross-species relations
The vampire squid is a deep-sea cephalopod that lives in the aphotic depths of mesopelagic and bathypelagic waters, 600 to 3000 m below sea level. These layers of ocean are perfectly dark and under very high pressure. The vampire squid inhabits the oxygen minimum zone, which makes it unique among complex organisms. Its relatively small body, reaching about 13 cm, resembles a jellyfish. Thanks to photophores scattered on its skin, the latter acts as a screen transmitting color messages addressed mainly to individuals of the same species. Using the analysis of the vampire squid presented as the antithesis of humanity in Vilem Flusser and Louis Bec’s publication Vampyrotheuthis Infernalis, the mobile app Vampy seeks a countermodel and transgressive example in the animated world in order to create new interrelated modes, structures and categories meditating the human encounter with other species.
The mobile app works much like Tamagotchi, where one has to perform actions to communicate with and take care of a virtual vampire squid. The application will be made for Android and iOS using Flutter – a Google cross-platform framework that permits the creation of a single source code that works on both mobile and desktop devices. An additional idea is to use the phone as a beacon, which would allow phones nearby with the Vampy app installed to send messages to each other via Bluetooth.
While we have an almost detailed representation of the topography of the continents, the oceanic abyss is still, luckily, a great mystery. An abyss is an absorptive and open space; it is a place that embraces memory, preserving but also mutating it. It has existed for a very long time, but its ability to diversify and recondition its internal parts tends towards the future. This unfathomable container, fertile for the practice of a milieu-specific philosophy, can be a useful tool for speculation on different, non-terrestrial models of existence.
The oceanic abyss is truly unknown, and unknowing can be a rare resource. In this realm of meaning, causality and intelligibility of organic processes are obfuscated by masses of liquid, noisy material. Here, the enormousness of space seems to be an obstacle to human penetration. In effect, this obscure gap in our model of the Earth arouses the poetic imagination. Working with the underwater world lets us encounter otherness, and is a good starting point for the imaginative process.
Thinking about the abyss and its aquatic life helps us overcome our attachment to groundedness, understood as a strong connection to land, ancestors, and spirits. This type of reasoning leads to the renunciation of nationalism and God as the foundational “ground”. Immersion in the abyss recalls Dzogchen’s reflection on space, which speaks of finding groundedness in the vastness of space which is everywhere, not just on the flat surface one stands on. Groundedness can involve spiritual attachments that elude logic. According to Rigdzin Shipko, one can fall in, whirl into or enter space in any non-linear movement without fear. A similar way of thinking can be seen in Doreen Massey’s social understanding of space, where space is the dimension of multiplicity.
Unlike the holistic model that subscends 1 our understanding of the whole and sees it as less than the sum of its parts, thinking about the abyss should take note of the gradations, subtleties and infinite iterations happening inside it. Being absorbed by the profound waters poses the question of how the senses behave in cognitively estranging conditions. How does the awareness of body parts change when one is immersed in depth and darkness? Does the sensory disturbance lead to neural excitement in one meta-sense, or do the senses amplify and divide the messages provided by singular receptors? How does it affect the emotional compass? In this unfamiliar (for humans) environment structured to echo infinity, it is possible to redirect goals and give up usefulness and production. As a source of alternative notions of being and knowing, the abyss could help us imagine a different future through conceptual bewilderment.
Vilem Flusser and Louis Bec dedicated their philosophical fable “Vampyrotheuthis Infernalis”, published in 1987, to the intelligent aquatic animal, and created a context of critical displacement in order to enable comparative analysis of humans and the vampire squid. The environmental background of vampyrotheuthian existence is crucial to keep in mind when developing a perspective that is almost the opposite of the human existence in the world: “We would be crushed by the pressure of its abyss, and it would suffocate in the air that we breathe.” According to Flusser and Bec, the materiality of the environment influences modes of orientation in the world and impacts knowledge production.
Flusser and Bec’s analysis presents two species that can be seen as structurally parallel only within an exaggerated fictional dialectic. Some of the researchers’ methodological strategies consist in looking for analogies (“the eye of the Vampyrotheuthis is analogous to ours. […] from two different courses of development they have arrived at the same function” ) or homologies (“the bioluminescence of the vampyrotheutis is homologous to our perspiration” ) in order to showcase evolution as a mechanism capable of realizing almost contradictory programs. By comparing the human program with the vampyrotheuthian program they displace terrestrial knowledge to the liquid setting in order to examine it and critique its achievements.
The vampyrotheuthian model of being in the world springs from the libidinal zone of the mollusc’s tentacular body, which exposes the almost excessive encephalization of human cognitive and emotional processes. Because its thinking derives from tentacular experience, the Vampyrotheuth’s reasoning and storytelling are more interconnected and flexible. Dona Haraway writes that tentare means to feel and to try, and by building on the intuition of many tentaculites, mental processes can ripple, swell, reach, creep and profit from the unconscious. This mode of gathering knowledge is deeply eroticized. The vampire squid’s reproductive organs are placed on its tentacles and they are used both to recognize reality and to copulate. The same tentacles make a diabolical representation of the animal in human fantasy.
The vampire squid doesn’t have many natural enemies because complex organisms can’t survive in low oxygen conditions, which makes it one of the top predators in the environment it inhabits. Flusser and Bec present Vampyrotheuthis as the supervillain or supermollusc that controls the abyssal depths. The animal uncoils and moves thanks to a release of energy that manifests its ferociousness. Because of its demonic fangs and sharp teeth it tends to be associated with an underwater vampire and a state that is transformative, unconscious, but also lonely and conflicted.
The analysis of vampyroyheuthian art and information transmission have an important place in Flusser and Bec’s reflections. The principal difference between vampire squid communication and human communication is the use of objects. The researchers claim that vampire squids transmit information through the body and genotype, while humans inscribe information on objects. They speculate that the vampyrotheuthian dialogue with other individuals is conducted by means of ephemeral media like sepia clouds, where the vampire squid does not copy the shape of its own body to deceive the predator, as some other cephalopods do. Its message is more elaborate. The vampire squid uses its eight arms connected by membranes to shape the sepia cloud. In this act the “Vampyrotheuthis transforms itself into an emitting surface and abstracts itself from the message”. This fictive part of the scientific story can be a field of critical analysis that explores the relationship between genetics and media technology as far as ephemeral media are concerned. However, comparing the use of ephemeral media to information “flow” raises the question whether the tendency to replace objects with a digital stream takes humans and non-humans to a safe place.
Meeting the vampire squid in Flusser and Bec’s writing establishes conditions for an encounter with other species. The main task of contemporary posthuman thought is to consider the various innumerable modes of being in this encounter as a non-arrogant collaborator.
Analysing Michel Serres’s observations on parasitical strategies in the arts and culture, Steven D. Brown concludes that communication between two entities needs a third mediating factor: a medium or being. In this understanding, two entities facing each other present two incommensurate perspectives and are not equal partners. A third actor is necessary to define the identity of each of them and to create an environment in which their characteristics and the characteristic of the encounter itself can be defined. The third actor enabling the encounter between a human and the vampire squid could be a virtual animal – Vampy.
Tamagotchi is one of the first devices to offer interaction with a virtual animal. It is an electronic toy produced in 1996 by Akihiro Yokoi and Aki Mait. In the beginning, it was shaped like an egg and equipped with three small buttons and a liquid crystal display. The interaction involved feeding, washing, cleaning after the pet, giving medication and later also punishing and consoling. Later versions of the game developed many other modes of interacting with the Tamagotchi world, such as a Tamagotchi currency (Gotchi points) which could be spent in the virtual shop on food or toys for the pet; or Tamatown – a virtual space where the pet could play, buy clothes and food, travel, watch movies or learn many new activities.
Many other interactive virtual pets emerged, like Nintendodogs, Petz, or Digimon. Most of the toys and programs are not goal-oriented and their main aim is simply to keep the animal alive by feeding it and giving it proper care. Producers claim that their releases help establish an emotional connection with the virtual animal, which enhances emotional competency.
“The goal of the Petz is to build an intimate relationship with the user. Therefore the pet’s primary motivation is to receive attention and affection. They feed off of this interaction. Without it they become lethargic, depressed, and if ignored long enough, they will run away”.
The human capacity to establish emotional and intimate relationships with digital animals has its origin in the belief that the world is an animistic place and in the tendency to anthropomorphize the unknown. The virtual pet also develops our empathic abilities by blurring the distinction between the virtual and the real. According to Yueh-Feng Tsai and David Kaufman’s research paper Interacting with a computer-simulated pet: factors influencing children’s humane attitudes and empathy, computer-simulated pets are a potentially helpful medium in children’s social and emotional development. During the study, children’s reactions, believing that the virtual dogs had their own interests and personalities, were seen as evidence of emotional engagement. According to Tsai and Kaufman, empathy can be enhanced through training and exposing children to diversified emotional factors, such as responding to virtual pets’ moods, which reinforces children’s cognitive and emotional abilities. They are more capable of seeing and feeling from the “other’s” perspective.
The essential question regarding the increasing presence of virtual animals concerns the role of the disappearance of animals and of their spectral existence in the development of digital animal worlds. Animals are hidden on mass production farms or pushed out to less reachable corners of the Earth. In this wrongful relationship with real animal entities, humans construct virtual pets after displacing animals that once lived close to them.
The mobile application Vampy is a subversive strategy that uses new technologies and the schema of popular gameplay to smuggle in reflection on inter-species relations. It simulates an encounter in which Vampy is a parasitical actor. By floating in the depths and controlling the water, the vampire squid proposes terrestrial detachment and freedom. As an invincible underwater villain, the animal expresses vital and powerful energies of the underwater world. At the same time, Vampy is petted, carried, caressed, and babysat. Moreover, Vampy offers affection and emotional engagement, but in fact the animal is not real and because of that probably cannot be trusted. Interaction with Vampy, a flawed mediator, exposes the fact that the relationship between species was established on wrong principles, but on the other hand, that interspecies connections are always complex and full of vibrations. Thinking about these issues helps us not to dwell on established realms and to look for other ways to reconnect with other species.
L. Bec, V. Flusser, Vampyrotheuthis Infernalis: A Treatise, with a Report by the Institut Scientifique de Recherche Paranaturaliste, Minneapolis-London 2012 (original edition Berlin 1987).
R. Braidotti, M. Hlavajova, Posthuman Glossary, London-New York 2018.
S. Brown, In praise of the parasite: The dark organizational theory of Michel Serres, Porto Alegre 2013.
D. Haraway, Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, e-flux Journal, 2016.
A. Kępiński, Lęk, Warszawa 1977.
M. Jue, Vampire Squid Media, Grey Room, Inc. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014.
T. Morton, Subscendence, e-flux Journal, 2017.
- T. Morton, Subscendence, e-flux Journal, 2017 ↩