Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
My first idea for this post was aliens.
“Not,” I explained, “ALIENS—” and held up my hands like in the meme, elbows tucked in, eyes half-shut, hair somewhere between tousled and wild, “but aliens. As in that which is truly alien. Weird biology, weird chemistry. Science fiction likes to speculate about silicon as an alternative to carbon, that maybe aliens are out there, only we don’t recognize them because their biology is so different from what we expect. Different, I mean, from run-of-the-mill carbon-based life.”
Jes, who had been leaning against the counter when I ambushed her, her thumb still poised mid-scroll above her iPhone, paused to consider this.
“That, or you could,” she said finally, carefully, “write about Silicon Valley.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
I think what most fascinates me about silicon aliens is that their possible existence is less a problem for biochemistry than epistemology. Were we confronted with a non-carbon lifeform, would we recognize it? And not just would we—could we? Could we recognize a life that looks like no life at all, a life whose very existence baffles our basic assumptions about what being alive entails? Not without reason has Carl Sagan written about organic chemistry’s “carbon chauvinism.” Nor is it all that surprising that on the basis of similar thought experiments, biologists have hypothesized the existence of a “shadow biosphere,” one existing not on some off-world terra incognita but on the good old terra firma beneath our feet.
Aliens, it seems, could already be among us. In fact, they might well have been here long before any of us even showed up on the scene.
So I guess ALIENS, too, are the subject of this post. Despite my better angels.
In any case, silicon comes off as basically incidental to this whole line of thought. And that’s fair, really, because it is. Its status as favored element in extraterrestrial biochemistries owing mostly, I suspect, to displaced carbon chauvinism, silicon shares some structural similarities with its atomic neighbor to the north. Both silicon and carbon, for example, boast four electrons in their outermost orbitals. And because of these four electrons, both elements can form stable, though at times amorously complex, tetrahedral relationships with eligible bachelor-atoms and not-so-single-but-still-ready-to-mingle molecules.
This chemical promiscuity, which helps make carbon an ideal coconspirator for life on Earth, might also abet silicon in cultivating genuinely alien life—life that is not life, life that is other than life. Or at least that’s how the reasoning goes.
From what science has gleaned, however, silicon’s aspirations tend to be a sight lower and less outré than the propagation of alien beings. Not counting its secret machinations within Earth’s penumbral biomes, No. 14 on the periodic table generally prefers the stolid company of rocks and sand and clay, and of construction materials like bathroom caulk and cement.
And of tech. Obviously of tech.
We mustn’t forget tech.
Mass-produced—on the order of 13 sextillion units from the 1970s to 2018—silicon-based transistors are the reason we now live in a so-called “Silicon Age.” It is their minute games of stop-and-go with electrical traffic that make possible our go-go-go globe of hyperreal, hyperconnected blips and bits. It is these tiny but powerfully efficient switches that enable us to feel like a globe in the first place—a globe in which information from some far-off continent can reach us, quick and slippery as a fish, here at home and where literally unfathomable amounts of wealth can trade hands at the touch of a screen.
There is, of course, a tempting juxtaposition here. Physical vs. virtual. Reality vs. illusion. Indeed, what a delicious irony it is that silicon, which has given us the honest materiality of transcontinental highways and brutalist architecture, should also have breathed life into the ever-increasing abstractions of the Internet—of Chuck Schwab and Facebook and 4chan. And in fact what a temptation it is to stop right here, to park this essay now by leaning into a familiar but no less rousing call to action: “Unplug! Reinvest in real people! Go to actual places! Travel US Route 30, maybe! Or lose yourself in the unadorned ugliness of your favorite geometrically precise concrete building, perhaps!”
After all, it’s no coincidence that some sci-fi creators have imagined that the first silicon-based life would arise not from the stars but from our tech. At turns symbiotic and parasitic, our collective ghost in the machine increasingly seems beyond the limits of our control.
Yet such a view, I think, risks reversing the actual order of things—or at least it risks obscuring all the ways that the virtual not only gets entangled with the real but is inseparable from it. All that vast wealth, which hedge-fund managers paddle across abstract seas of 1s and 0s? It came from somewhere. More than that, it came from someone. And your uncle’s concern about Satan-worshipping, pedophiliac Democrats? That came from somewhere, too.
And Kyle Rittenhouse? The Proud Boys? Those vote-denying conspiracy theorists who will go to their grave believing the 2020 election was stolen from them?
They did not get radicalized in a vacuum.
Silicon is, I think, a good standard-bearer for the present, not because it’s the elemental symbol for the extreme abstractions of late capitalism, but because it reminds us that the abstract and the concrete are always intertwined. These days, the digital is every bit as material as the Interstate Highway System or the Geisel Library. And it’s on us—and, in particular, on sites like the post calvin—to remind people of that fact.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.