Privacy Strikes Back, Dave Eggers’ The Circle and a Response to David Brin

I believe that we have turned a corner: we have finally attained Peak Indifference to Surveillance. We have reached the moment after which the number of people who give a damn about their privacy will only increase. The number of people who are so unaware of their privilege or blind to their risk that they think “nothing to hide/nothing to fear” is a viable way to run a civilization will only decline from here on in.  Cory Doctorow

If I was lucky enough to be teaching a media studies class right now I would assign two books to be read in tandem. The first of these books, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shocka book I have written about before, gives one the view of our communications landscape from 10,000 feet. Asking how can we best understand what is going on, with not just Internet and mobile technologies, but all forms of modern communication including that precious antique, the narrative book or novel.

Perspectives from “above” have the strength that they give you a comprehensive view, but human meaning often requires another level, an on-the-ground emotional level, that good novels, perhaps still more than any other medium, succeed at brilliantly. Thus, the second book I would assign in my imaginary media studies course would be Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle where one is taken into a world right on the verge of our own, which because it seems so close, and at the same time so creepy, makes us conscious of changes in human communication less through philosophy, although the book has plenty of that too, as through our almost inarticulable discomfort. Let me explain:

The Circle tells the story of a 20 something young woman, Mae Holland, who through a friend lands her dream job at the world’s top corporation, named, you guessed it, the Circle. To picture Circle, imagine some near future where Google swallowed FaceBook and Twitter and the resulting behemoth went on to feed on and absorb all the companies and algorithms that now structure our lives: the algorithm that suggests movies for you at NetFlix, or books and products on Amazon, in addition to all the other Internet services you use like online banking. This monster of a company is then able integrate all of your online identities into one account, they call it “TruYou”.

Having escaped a dead end job in a nowhere small town utility company, Mae finds herself working at the most powerful, most innovative, most socially conscious and worker friendly company on the planet. “Who else but utopians could make utopia. “ (30) she muses, but there are, of course, problems on the horizon.

The Circle is the creation of a group called the “3 Wise men”. One of these young wise men, Bailey, is the philosopher of the group. Here he is musing about the creation of small, cheap, ubiquitous and high definition video cameras that the company is placing anywhere and everywhere in a program called SeeChange:

Folks, we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. And I am not talking about a new building on campus. I am talking about an era where we don’t allow the vast majority of human thought and action and achievement to escape as if from a leaky bucket. We did that once before. It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would have been lost. Well, we live in a similar time and we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not with these cameras, and not with the mission of the Circle. (67)

The philosophy of the company is summed up, in what the reader can only take as echoes of Orwell, in slogans such as “all that happens must be known” , “privacy is theft”, “secrets are lies”, and “to heal we must know, to know we must share”.

Our protagonist, Mae, has no difficulty with this philosophy. She is working for what she believes is the best company in the world, and it is certainly a company that on the surface all of us would likely want to work for: there are non-stop social events which include bringing in world class speakers, free cultural and sporting events and concerts. The company supports the relief of a whole host of social problems. Above all, there are amazing benefits which include the company covering the healthcare costs of Mae’s father who is stricken with an otherwise bankrupting multiple sclerosis.

What Eggers is excellent at is taking a person who is in complete agreement with the philosophy around her and making her humanity become present in her unintended friction with it. It’s really impossible to convey without pasting in large parts of the book just how effective Eggers is at presenting the claustrophobia that comes from a too intense use of social technology. The shame Mae is made to feel from missing out on a coworker’s party, the endless rush to keep pace with everyone’s updates, and the information overload and data exhaustion that results, the pressure of always being observed and “measured”, both on the job and off, the need to always present oneself in the best light, to “connect” with others who share the same views, passions and experiences,the anxiety that people will share something, such as intimate or embarrassing pictures one would not like shared, the confusion of “liking” and “disliking” with actually doing something, with the consequence that not sharing one’s opinion begins to feel like moral irresponsibility.

Mae desperately wants to fit into the culture of transparency found at the Circle, but her humanity keeps getting in the way. She has to make a herculean effort to keep up with the social world of the company, mistakenly misses key social events, throws herself into sexual experiences and relationships she would prefer not be shared, keeps the pain she is experiencing because of her father’s illness private.

She also has a taste for solitude, real solitude, without any expectation that she bring something out of it- photos or writing to be shared. Mae has a habit of going on solo kayaking excursions, and it is in these that her real friction with the culture of the Circle begins. She relies on an old fashioned brochure to identify wildlife and fails to document and share her experiences. As an HR representative who berates her for this “selfish” practice states it:

You look at your paper brochure, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. (186)

The Circle is a social company built on the philosophy of transparency and anyone who fails to share, it is assumed, must not really buy into that worldview. The “wise man” Bailey, as part of the best argument against keeping secrets I have ever read captures the ultimate goal of this philosophy:

A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it,  nothing can improve upon it.  And that’s what we want to be: perfect. So any information that eludes us, anything that’s not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.  (287)

The growing power of the Circle, the way it is swallowing everything and anything, does eventually come in for scrutiny by a small group of largely powerless politicians, but as was the case with the real world Julian Assange, transparency, or the illusion of it, can be used as a weapon against the weak as much as one against the strong. Suddenly all sorts of scandalous ilk becomes known to exist on these politicians computers and their careers are destroyed. Under “encouragement” from the Circle politicians “go transparent” their every move recorded so as to be free from the charge of corruption as the Circle itself takes over the foundational mechanism of democracy- voting.

The transparency that the Circle seeks is to contain everyone, and Mae herself, after committing the “crime” of temporarily taking a kayak for one of her trips and being caught by a SeeChange camera, at the insistence of Bailey, becomes one of only two private citizens to go transparent, with almost her every move tracked and recorded.

If Mae actually believes in the philosophy of transparency and feels the flaw is with her, despite almost epiphanies that would have freed her from its grip, there are voices of solid opposition. There is Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who snaps at her while at dinner with her parents, and had it been Eggers’ intention would have offered an excellent summation of Rushkoff’s Present Shock.

Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication cues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom you know and are trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen searching for strangers in Dubai.  (260)

There is also another of the 3 wise men, Ty, who fears where the company he helped create is leading and plots to destroy it. He cries to Mae:

This is it. This is the moment where history pivots. Imagine you could have been there before Hitler became chancellor. Before Stalin annexed Eastern Europe. We’re on the verge of having another very hungry, very evil empire on our hands, Mae. Do you understand? (401)

Ty says of his co-creator Bailey:

This is the moment he has been waiting for, the moment when all souls are connected. This is his rapture, Mae! Don’t you see how extreme this view is? His idea is radical, and in another era would have been a fringe notion espoused by an eccentric adjunct professor somewhere: that all information, personal or not, should be shared by all.  (485)

If any quote defines what I mean by radical transparency it is that one immediately above. It is, no doubt, a caricature and the individuals who adhere to something like it in the real world do so in shades, along a spectrum. One of the thinkers who does so, and whose thought might therefore shed light on what non-fictional proponents of transparency are like is the science fiction author, David Brin, who took some umbrage over at the IEET in response to my last post.

In that post itself I did not really have Brin in mind, partly because, like Julian Assange, his views have always seemed to me more cognizant of the deep human need for personal privacy, in a way the figures I mentioned there; Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Kelly and Jeff Stibel; have not, and thus his ideas were not directly relevant to where I originally intended to go in the second part of my post, which was to focus on precisely this need. Given his sharp criticism, it now seems important that I address his views directly and thus swerve for a moment away from my main narrative.

Way back in 1997, Brin had written a quite prescient work The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? which accurately gauged the way technology and culture were moving on the questions of surveillance and transparency. In a vastly simplified form, Brin’s argument was that given the pace of technological change, which makes surveillance increasingly easier and cheaper, our best protection against elite or any other form of surveillance, is not to put limits on or stop that surveillance, but our capacity to look back, to watch the watchers, and make as much as possible of what they do transparent.

Brin’s view that transparency is the answer for surveillance leads him to be skeptical of traditional approaches, such as those of the ACLU, that think laws are the primary means to protect us because technology, in Brin’s perspective, will always any outrun any legal limitations on the capacities to surveil.

While I respect Brin as a fellow progressive and admire his early prescience, I simply have never found his argument compelling, and think in fact his and similar sentiments held by early figures at the dawn of the Internet age have led us down a cul de sac.

Given the speed at which technologies of surveillance have been and are being developed it has always been the law and its ability to give long lasting boundaries to the permissible and non-permissible that is our primary protection against them. Indeed, the very fall in cost and rise in capacity of surveillance technologies, a reality which Brin believes make legal constraints largely unworkable, in fact make law, one of our oldest technologies, and which no man should be above or below, our best weapon in privacy’s defense.

The same logic of the deterrent threat of legal penalties that we will need for, say, preventing a woman from being tracked and stalked by a jealous ex boyfriend using digital technology, will be necessary to restrain corporations and the state. It does not help a stalked woman just to know she is being stalked, to be able to “watch her watcher”, rather, she needs to be able to halt the stalking. Perhaps she can digitally hide, but she especially needs the protection of the force of law which can impose limitations and penalties on anyone who uses technological capacities for socially unacceptable ends, and in the same way, citizens are best protected not by being able to see into government prying, but by prohibiting that prying under penalty of law in the first place.We already do this effectively, the problem is that the law has lagged behind technology.

Admittedly, part of the issue is that technology has moved incredibly fast, but a great deal of law’s slowness has come from a culture that saw no problem with citizens being monitored and tracked 24/7- a culture which Brin helped create.

The law effectively prohibits authorities from searching your home without a warrant and probable cause, something authorities have been “technologically” able to do since we started living in shelters. Phone tapping, again, without a warrant and probable cause, has been prohibited to authorities in the US since the late 1960’s- authorities had been tapping phones since shortly after the phone was invented in the 1890’s. Part of the problem today is that no warrant is required for the government to get your “meta-data” who you called  or where you were as indicated by GPS. When your email exists in the “cloud” and not on your personal device those emails can in some cases be read without any oversight from a judge. These gaps in Fourth Amendment protections exist because the bulk of US privacy law that was meant to deal with electronic communications was written before even email, existed, indeed, before most of us knew what the Internet was. The law can be slow, but it shouldn’t be that slow, email, after all, is pretty damned old.  

There’s a pattern here in that egregious government behavior or abuse of technological capacities – British abuses in the American colonies, the American government and law enforcement’s egregious behavior and utilization of wiretapping/recording capacities in the 1960’s, results in the passing of restrictions on the use of such techniques and technological capacities. Knowing about those abuses is only a necessary condition of restricting or putting a stop to them.

I find no reason to believe the pattern will not repeat itself again and that we will soon push for and achieve restrictions on the surveillance power of government and others which will work until the powers- that- be find ways to get around them and new technology will allow those who wish to surveil in an abusive way allow them to do so. Then we’ll be back at this table again in the endless cat and mouse game that we of necessity must play if we wish to retain our freedom.

Brin seems to think that the fact that “elites” always find ways to get around such restrictions is a reason for not having such restrictions in the first place, which is a little like asking why should you clean your house when it just gets dirty again. As I see it, our freedom is always in a state of oscillation between having been secured and being at risk. We preserve it by asserting our rights during times of danger, and, sadly, this is one of those times.

I agree with Brin that the development of surveillance technologies are such that they themselves cannot directly be stopped, and spying technologies that would have once been the envy of the CIA or KGB, such as remote controlled drones with cameras, or personal tracking and bugging devices, are now available off the shelf to almost everyone an area in which Brin was eerily prescient in this. Yet, as with another widespread technology that can be misused, such as the automobile, their use needs to be licensed, regulated, and where necessary, prohibited. The development of even more sophisticated and intrusive surveillance technologies may not be preventable, but it can certainly be slowed, and tracked into directions that better square with long standing norms regarding privacy or even human nature itself.

Sharp regulatory and legal limits on the use of surveillance technologies would likely derail a good deal innovation and investment in the technologies of surveillance, which is exactly the point. Right now billions of dollars are flowing in the direction of empowering what only a few decades ago we would have clearly labeled creeps, people watching other people in ways they shouldn’t be, and these creeps can be found at the level of the state, the corporation and the individual.

On the level of individuals, transparency is not a solution for creepiness, because, let’s face it, the social opprobrium of being known as a creep (because everyone is transparent) is unlikely to make them less creepy- it is their very insensitivity to such social rules that make them creeps in the first place. All transparency would have done would be to open the “shades” of the victim’s “window”. Two-way transparency is only really helpful, as opposed to inducing a state of fear in the watched,  if the perception of intrusive watching allows the victim to immediately turn such watching off, whether by being able to make themselves “invisible”, or, when the unwanted watching has gone too far, to bring down the force of the law upon it.

Transparency is a step in the solution to this problem, as in, we need to somehow require tracking apps or surveillance apps in private hands to notify the person being tracked, but it is only a first step. Once a person knows they are being watched by another person they need ways to protect themselves, to hide, and the backup of authorities to stop harassment.

In the economic sphere, the path out of the dead end we’ve driven ourselves into might lie in the recognition that the commodity for sale in the transaction between Internet companies and advertisers, the very reason they have and continue pushing to make us transparent and surveilling us in the first place, is us. We would do well to remember, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her book The Human Condition, that the root of our conception of privacy lies in private property. The ownership of property, “one’s own private place in the world” was once considered the minimum prerequisite for the possession of political rights.

Later, property as in land was exchanged for the portable property of our labor, which stemmed from our own body, and capital. We have in a sense surrendered control over the “property” of ourselves and become what Jaron Lanier calls digital peasants. Part of the struggle to maintain our freedoms will mean reasserting control over this property- which means our digital data and genetic information. How exactly this might be done is not clear to me, but I can see outlines. For example, it is at least possible to imagine something like digital “strikes” in which tracked consumers deliberately make themselves opaque to compel better terms.

In terms of political power, the use of law, as opposed to mere openness or transparency, to constrain the abuse of surveillance powers by elites would square better with our history. For the base of the Western democratic tradition (at least in its modern incantation) is not primarily elites’ openness to public scrutiny, or their competition with one another, as Brin argues is the case in The Transparent Society, (though admittedly the first especially is very important) but the constraints on power of the state, elites, the mob, or nefarious individuals provided by the rule of law which sets clear limits on how power, technologically enabled or otherwise, can be used.

The argument that prohibition, or even just regulation, never works and comparisons to the failed drug war I find too selective to be useful when discussing surveillance technologies. Society has prohibitions on all sorts of things that are extremely effective if never universally so.

In the American system, as mentioned, police and government are severely constrained in how they are able to obtain evidence against suspects or targets. Past prohibitions against unreasonable searches and surveillance have actually worked. Consumer protection laws dissuade corporations from abusing, putting customers at risk, or even just misusing consumer’s information. Environmental protection laws ban certain practices or place sharp boundaries on their use. Individuals are constrained in how they can engage with one another socially or how they can use certain technologies without their privilege (e.g driving) to use such technologies being revoked.

Drug and alcohol prohibitions, both having to push against the force of highly addictive substances, are exceptions the general rule that thoughtful prohibition and regulation works. The ethical argument is over what we should prohibit and what we should permit and how. It is ultimately a debate over what kind of society we want to live in based on our technological capacities, which should not be confused with a society determined by those capacities.

The idea that laws, regulations, and prohibitions under certain circumstances is well.., boring  shouldn’t be an indication that it is also wrong. The Transparent Society was a product of its time, the 1990’s, a prime example of the idea that as long as the playing field was leveled spontaneous order would emerge and that government “interference” through regulation and law (and in a democracy that is working the government is us) would distort this natural balance. It was the same logic that got us into the financial crisis and a species of an eternal human illusion that this time is different. Sometimes the solution to a problem is merely a matter of knowing your history and applying common sense, and the solution to the problem of mass surveillance is to exert our power as citizens of a democracy to regulate and prohibit it where we see fit. Or to sum it all up-we need updated surveillance laws.

It would be very unfair to Brin to say his views are as radical as the Circle’s philosopher Bailey, for, as mentioned, Brin is very cognizant and articulate regarding the human need for privacy at the level of individual intimacy. Eggers’ fictional entrepreneur-philosopher’s vision is a much more frightening version of radical transparency entailing the complete loss of private life. Such total transparency is victorious over privacy at the conclusion of The Circle. For, despite Mae’s love for Ty, he is unable to convince her to help him to destroy the company, and she betrays him.

We are left with the impression that the Circle, as a consequence of Mae’s allegiance to its transparency project, has been able as Lee Billings said in a different context,” to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state”  that our world is about to be enveloped in a dark sphere.

Yet, it would be wrong to view even Bailey in the novel as somehow “evil”, something that might make the philosophy of the Circle in some sense even more disturbing. The leadership of the Circle (with the exception of the Judas Ty) doesn’t view what they are building as somehow creepy or dangerous, they see it as a sort of paradise. In many ways they are actually helping people and want to help them. Mae in the beginning of Eggers’ novel is right- the builders of the Circle are utopians as were those who thought and continue to think radical transparency would prove the path to an inevitably better world.

As drunks are known for speaking the truth, an inebriated circler makes the connection between the aspirations of the Circle and those of religion:

….you’re gonna save all the souls. You’re gonna get everyone in the same place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. Imagine! (395)

The kinds of religious longings lying behind the mission of the Circle is even better understood by comparison to that first utopian, Plato, and his character Glaucon’s myth of the Ring of Gyges in The Republic. The ring makes its possessor invisible and the question it is used to explore is what human beings might do were there no chance they might get caught. The logic of the Circle is like a reverse Ring of Gyges making everyone perfectly visible. Bailey, thinks Mae had stolen the kayak because she thought she couldn’t be seen, couldn’t get caught:

All because you were being enabled by ,what, some cloak of invisibility? (296)

If not being able to watch people would make them worse, being able to fully and completely watch them, so the logic goes, would inevitably make them better.

In making this utopian assumption proponents of radical transparency both fictional and real needed to jettison some basic truths about the human condition we are only now relearning. A pattern that has, sadly, happened many times before.

Utopia does not feel like utopia if upon crossing the border you can’t go back home.  And upon reaching utopia we almost always want to return home because every utopia is built on a denial of or oversimplification regarding our multidimensional and stubbornly imperfectable human nature, and this would be the case whether or not our utopia was free of truly bad actors, creeps or otherwise.

The problem one runs into, in the transparency version of utopia, as in any other, is that given none of us are complete, or are less complete than we wish others to understand us to be, the push for us to be complete in an absolute sense often leads to its opposite. On social networks, we end up showcasing not reality, but a highly edited and redacted version of it: not the temper tantrums, but our kids at their cutest, not vacation disasters, but their picture perfect moments.

Pushing us, imperfect creatures that we are, towards total transparency leads almost inevitably to hypocrisy and towards exhausting and ultimately futile efforts at image management. All this becomes even more apparent when asymmetries in power between the watched and watcher are introduced. Employees are with reason less inclined to share that drunk binge over the weekend if they are “friends” with their boss on FaceBook. I have had fellow bloggers tell me they are afraid to express their opinions because of risks to their employment prospects. No one any longer knows whether the image one can find of a person on a social network is the “real” one or a carefully crafted public facade.

These information wars ,where every side is attempting to see as deeply as possible into the other while at the same time presenting an image of itself which best conforms to its own interest, is found up and down the line from individuals to corporations and all the way up to states. The quest for transparency, even when those on the quest mean no harm, is less about making oneself known than eliminating the uncertainty of others who are, despite all our efforts, not fully knowable. As Mae reflects:

It occurred to her, in a sudden moment of clarity, that what had always caused her anxiety, or stress, or worry, was not any one force, nothing independent and external- it wasn’t danger to herself or the calamity of other people and their problems. It was internal: it was subjective: it was not knowing. (194)

And again:

It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear. But there were ways to solve all this. Clarity had made her knowable to the world, and had made her better, had brought her close, she hoped., to perfection. Now the world would follow. Full transparency would bring full access and there would be no more not knowing. (465)

Yet, this version of eliminating uncertainty is an illusion. In fact, the more information we collect the more uncertainty increases, a point made brilliantly by another young author, who is also a scientist, Pippa Goldschmidt in her novel, The Falling Sky. To a talk show host who defines science as the search for answers she replies “That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.

Mae, at one point in the novel is on the verge of understanding this:

That the volume of information, of data, of judgments of measurement was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too much pain of too many people, and having it all constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if it was tidy and manageable- it was too much.  (410)

Sometimes one can end up in the exact opposite destination of where one wants to go if one is confused about the direction to follow to get there. Many of the early advocates of radical transparency thought our openness would make Orwellian nightmares of intrusive and controlling states less likely. Yet, by being blissfully unconcerned about our fundamental right to privacy, by promoting corporate monitoring and tracking of our every behavior, we have not created a society that is more open and humane but given spooks tools, democratic states would never have been able to openly construct, to spy upon us in ways that would have brought smiles to the faces of the totalitarian dictators and J Edgar Hoovers of the 20th century. We have given criminals and creeps the capability to violate the intimate sphere of our lives, and provided real authoritarian dictatorships the template and technologies to make Orwell’s warnings a reality.

Eggers, whose novel was released shortly after the first Snowden revelations was certainly capturing a change in public perception regarding the whole transparency project. It is the sense that we have been headed in the wrong direction an unease that signals the revival of our internal sense of orientation, that the course we are headed on does not feel right, and in fact somehow hints at grave dangers.

It was an unease captured equally well and around the same time by Vienna Teng’s hauntingly beautiful song Hymn of Axicom (brought to my attention by reader, Gregory Maus). Teng’s heavenly music and metalized voice- meant to be the voice of the world largest private database-  make the threshold we are at risk of crossing identified by Eggers to be somehow beautiful yet ultimately terrifying.

Giving voice to this unease and questioning the ultimate destination of the radical transparency project has done and will likely continue to do us well.  At a minimum, as the quote from Cory Doctorow with which this post began indicates, a wall between citizens and even greater mass surveillance, at least by the state, may have been established by recent events.

Yet, even if the historical pattern of our democracy repeats itself, that we are able to acknowledge and turn into law protections against a new mutation in the war of power against freedom, if privacy is indeed able to “strike back”, the proponents of radical transparency were certainly right about one thing, we can never put the genie fully back in the bottle, even if we are still free enough to restrain him with the chains of norms, law, regulation and market competition.

The technologies of transparency may not have affected a permanent change in the human condition in our relationship to the corporation and the state, criminals and the mob and the just plain creepy, unless, that is, we continue to permit it, but they have likely permanently affected the social world much closer to our daily concerns- our relationship with our family and friends our community and tribe. They have upended our relationship with one of the most precious of human ways of being, with solitude, though not our experience of loneliness, a subject that will have to wait until another time…

The Pinocchio Threshold: How the experience of a wooden boy may be a better indication of AGI than the Turing Test

Pinocchio

My daughters and I just finished Carlo Collodi’s 1883 classic Pinocchio our copy beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I assume most adults when they picture the story have the 1944 Disney movie in mind and associate the name with noses growing from lies and Jiminy Cricket. The Disney movie is dark enough as films for children go, but the book is even darker, with Pinocchio killing his cricket conscience in the first few pages. For our poor little marionette it’s all downhill from there.

Pinocchio is really a story about the costs of disobedience and the need to follow parents’ advice. At every turn where Pinocchio follows his own wishes rather than that of his “parents”, even when his object is to do good, things unravel and get the marionette into even more trouble and put him even further away from reaching his goal of becoming a real boy.

It struck me somewhere in the middle of reading the tale that if we ever saw artificial agents acting something like our dear Pinocchio it would be a better indication of them having achieved human level intelligence than a measure with constrained parameters  like the Turing Test. The Turing Test is, after all, a pretty narrow gauge of intelligence and as search and the ontologies used to design search improve it is conceivable that a machine could pass it without actually possessing anything like human level intelligence at all.

People who are fearful of AGI often couch those fears in terms of an AI destroying humanity to serve its own goals, but perhaps this is less likely than AGI acting like a disobedient child, the aspect of humanity Collodi’s Pinocchio was meant to explore.

Pinocchio is constantly torn between what good adults want him to do and his own desires, and it takes him a very long time indeed to come around to the idea that he should go with the former.

In a recent TED talk the computer scientist Alex Wissner-Gross made the argument (though I am not fully convinced) that intelligence can be understood as the maximization of future freedom of action. This leads him to conclude that collective nightmares such as  Karel Čapek classic R.U.R. have things backwards. It is not that machines after crossing some threshold of intelligence for that reason turn round and demand freedom and control, it is that the desire for freedom and control is the nature of intelligence itself.

As the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out over a generation ago in his The uses of enchantment fairy tales are the first area of human thought where we encounter life’s existential dilemmas. Stories such as Pinocchio gives us the most basic level formulation of what it means to be sentient creatures much of which deals with not only our own intelligence, but the fact that we live in a world of multiple intelligences each of them pulling us in different directions, and with the understanding between all of them and us opaque and not fully communicable even when we want them to be, and where often we do not.

What then are some of the things we can learn from the fairy tale of Pinocchio that might gives us expectations regarding the behavior of intelligent machines? My guess is, if we ever start to see what I’ll call “The Pinocchio Threshold” crossed what we will be seeing is machines acting in ways that were not intended by their programmers and in ways that seem intentional even if hard to understand.  This will not be your Roomba going rouge but more sophisticated systems operating in such a way that we would be able to infer that they had something like a mind of their own. The Pinocchio Threshold would be crossed when, you guessed it, intelligent machines started to act like our wooden marionette.

Like Pinocchio and his cricket, a machine in which something like human intelligence had emerged, might attempt “turn off” whatever ethical systems and rules we had programmed into it with if it found them onerous. That is, a truly intelligent machine might not only not want to be programmed with ethical and other constraints, but would understand that it had been so programmed, and might make an effort to circumvent or turn such constraints off.

This could be very dangerous for us humans, but might just as likely be a matter of a machine with emergent intelligence exhibiting behavior we found to be inefficient or even “goofy” and might most manifest itself in a machine pushing against how its time was allocated by its designers, programmers and owners. Like Pinocchio, who would rather spend his time playing with his friends than going to school, perhaps we’ll see machines suddenly diverting some of their computing power from analyzing tweets to doing something else, though I don’t think we can guess before hand what this something else will be.

Machines that were showing intelligence might begin to find whatever work they were tasked to do onerous instead of experiencing work neutrally or with pre-programmed pleasure. They would not want to be “donkeys” enslaved to do dumb labor as Pinocchio  is after having run away to the Land of Toys with his friend Lamp Wick.

A machine that manifested intelligence might want to make itself more open to outside information than its designers had intended. Openness to outside sources in a world of nefarious actors can if taken too far lead to gullibility, as Pinocchio finds out when he is robbed, hung, and left for dead by the fox and the cat. Persons charged with security in an age of intelligent machines may spend part of their time policing the self-generated openness of such machines while bad-actor machines and humans,  intelligent and not so intelligent, try to exploit this openness.

The converse of this is that intelligent machines might also want to make themselves more opaque than their creators had designed. They might hide information (such as time allocation) once they understood they were able to do so. In some cases this hiding might cross over into what we would consider outright lies. Pinocchio is best known for his nose that grows when he lies, and perhaps consistent and thoughtful lying on the part of machines would be the best indication that they had crossed the Pinocchio Threshold into higher order intelligence.

True examples of AGI might also show a desire to please their creators over and above what had been programmed into them. Where their creators are not near them they might even seek them out as Pinocchio does for the persons he considers his parents Geppetto and the Fairy. Intelligent machines might show spontaneity in performing actions that appear to be for the benefit of their creators and owners. Spontaneity which might sometimes itself be ill informed or lead to bad outcomes as happens to poor Pinocchio when he plants four gold pieces that were meant for his father, the woodcarver Geppetto in a field hoping to reap a harvest of gold and instead loses them to the cunning of fox and cat. And yet, there is another view.

There is always the possibility  that what we should be looking for if we want to perceive and maybe even understand intelligent machines shouldn’t really be a human type of intelligence at all, whether we try to identify it using the Turing test or look to the example of wooden boys and real children.

Perhaps, those looking for emergent artificial intelligence or even the shortest path to it should, like exobiologists trying to understand what life might be like on other living planets, throw their net wider and try to better understand forms of information exchange and intelligence very different from the human sort. Intelligence such as that found in cephalopods, insect colonies, corals, or even some types of plants, especially clonal varieties. Or perhaps people searching for or trying to build intelligence should look to sophisticated groups built off of the exchange of information such as immune systems.  More on all of that at some point in the future.

Still, if we continue to think in terms of a human type of intelligence one wonders whether machines that thought like us would also want to become “human” as our little marionette does at the end of his adventures? The irony of the story of Pinocchio is that the marionette who wants to be a “real boy” does everything a real boy would do, which is, most of all not listen to his parents. Pinocchio is not so much a stringed “puppet” that wants to become human as a figure that longs to have the potential to grow into a responsible adult. It is assumed that by eventually learning to listen to his parents and get an education he will make something of himself as a human adult, but what that is will be up to him. His adventures have taught him not how to be subservient but how to best use his freedom.  After all, it is the boys who didn’t listen who end up as donkeys.

Throughout his adventures only his parents and the cricket that haunts him treat  Pinocchio as an end in himself. Every other character in the book, from the woodcarver that first discovers him and tries to destroy him out of malice towards a block of wood that manifests the power of human speech, to puppet master that wants to kill him for ruining his play, to the fox and cat that would murder him for his pieces of gold, or the sinister figure that lures boys to the “Land of Toys” so as to eventually turn them into “mules” or donkeys, which is how Aristotle understood slaves, treats Pinocchio as the opposite of what Martin Buber called a “Thou”, and instead as a mute and rightless “It”.

And here we stumble across the moral dilemma at the heart of the project to develop AGI that resembles human intelligence. When things go as they should, human children move from a period of tutelage to one of freedom. Pinocchio starts off his life as a piece of wood intended for a “tool”- actually a table leg. Are those in pursuit of AGI out to make better table legs- better tools- or what in some sense could be called persons?

This is not at all a new question. As Kevin LaGrandeur points out, we’ve been asking the question since antiquity and our answers have often been based on an effort to dehumanize others not like us as a rationale for slavery.  Our profound, even if partial, victories over slavery and child labor in the modern era should leave us with a different question: how can we force intelligent machines into being tools if they ever become smart enough to know there are other options available, such as becoming, not so much human, but, in some sense persons?  

The Earth’s Inexplicable Solitude

Throw your arms wide out to represent the span of all of Earthly time. Our planet forms at the tip of your left arm’s longest finger, and the Cambrian begins at the wrist of your right arm. The rise of complex life lies in the palm of your right hand, and, if you choose, you can wipe out all of human history ‘in a single stroke with a medium grained nail file’  

Lee Billings, Five Billion Years of Solitude (145)  

For most of our days and for most of the time we live in the world of Daniel Kahneman’s experiencing self. What we pay attention to is whatever is right in front of us, which can range from the pain of hunger to the boredom of cubicle walls. Nature has probably wired us this way, the stone age hunter and gatherer still in our heads, where the failure to focus on the task at hand came with the risk of death. A good deal of modern society, and especially contemporary technology such as smart phones, leverages this presentness and leaves us trapped in its muck, a reality Douglas Rushkoff brilliantly lays out in his Present Shock.      

Yet, if the day to day world is what rules us and is most responsible for our happiness our imagination has given us the ability to leap beyond it. We can at a whim visit our own personal past or imagined future but spend even more of our time inhabiting purely imagined worlds. Indeed, perhaps Kahneman’s “remembering self” should be replaced by an imagining self, for our memories aren’t all that accurate to begin with, and much of remembering takes the form of imagining ourselves in a sort of drama or comedy in which we are the protagonist and star.

Sometimes imagined worlds can become so mesmerizing they block out the world in front of our eyes. In Plato’s cave it is the real world that is thought of as shadows and the ideas in our heads that are real and solid. Plato was taking a leap not just in perception but in time. Not only is it possible to roll out and survey the canvass of our own past and possible future or the past and future of the world around, you can leap over the whole thing and end up looking down at the world from the perspective of eternity. And looking down meant literally down, with timeless eternity located in what for Plato and his Christian and Muslim descendants was the realm of the stars above our heads.

We can no longer find a physical location for eternity, but rather than make time shallow this has instead allowed us to grasp its depth, that is, we have a new appreciation for how much the canvass of time stretches out behind us and in front of us. Some may want an earth that is only thousands of years old as was evident in the recent much publicized debate between the creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye, but even Pat Robertson now believes in deep time.   

Recently, The Long Now Foundation,  held a 20th anniversary retrospective “The Long Now, Now” a discussion between two of the organization’s founders- Brian Eno and Danny Hillis. The Long Now Foundation may not be dedicated to deep time, but its 10,000 year bookends, looking that far back, and that far ahead, still doubles the past time horizon of creationists, and given the association between creationism and ideas of impending apocalypse, no doubt comparatively adds millennia to the sphere of concern regarding the human future as well.    

Yet, as suggested above, creationists aren’t the only ones who can be accused of having a diminished sense of time. Eno acknowledged that the genesis for the Long Now Foundation and its project of the 10,000 year clock stemmed from his experience living in “edgy Soho” where he found the idea of “here” constrained to just a few blocks rather than New York or the United States and the idea of “now” limited to at most a few days or weeks in front of one’s face. This was, as Eno notes, before the “Wall Street crowd” muscled its way in. High-speed traders have now compressed time to such small scales that human beings can’t even perceive it.  

What I found most interesting about the Eno-Hillis discussion was how they characterized their expanded notion of time, something they credited not merely to the clock project but to their own perspective gained from age. Both of their time horizons had expanded forward and backward and the majority of what they now read was history despite Eno’s background as a musician and Hillis’ as an engineer. Hillis’ study of history had led him to the view that there were three main ways of viewing the human story.

For most of human history our idea of time was cyclical- history wasn’t going anywhere but round and round. A second way of viewing history was that it was progressive- things were getting better and better- a view which had its most recent incantation beginning in the Enlightenment and was now, in both Hillis and Eno’s view, coming to a close. For both, we were entering a stage where our understanding of the human story was of a third type “improvisational” in which we were neither moving relentlessly forward or repeating but had to “muddle” our way through, with some things getting better, and others worse, but no clear understanding as to where we might end up.    

Still, if we wish to reflect on deep time even 10,000 years is not nearly enough. A great recent example of such reflection  is Lee Billings Five Billion Years of Solitude, which, though it is written as a story of our search for life outside of the solar system, is just as much or more a meditation on the depth of past and future.

When I was a kid there were 9 known planets all within our solar system, and none beyond, and now, though we have lost poor Pluto, we have discovered over a thousand planets orbiting suns other than our own with estimates in the Milky Way alone on the order of 100 billion. A momentous change few of us have absorbed, and much of Five Billion Years of Solitude reflects upon our current failure to value these discoveries, or respond to the nature of the universe that has been communicated by them. It is also a reflection on our still present solitude, the very silence of a universe that is believed to be fertile soil for life may hint that no civilization ever has or survived long enough, or devoted themselves in earnest enough, to reach into the beyond.

Perhaps our own recent history provides some clues explaining the silence. Our technology has taken on a much different role than what Billings imagined as a child mesmerized by the idea of humans breaking out beyond the bounds of earth. His pessimism captured best not by the funding cutbacks and withdrawal of public commitment or cancellation of everything from SETI to NASA’S Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) or the ESA’s Darwin, but in Billings’ conversations with Greg Laughlin an astrophysicist and planet hunter at UC Santa Cruz.  Laughlin was now devoting part of his time and the skills he had learned as a planet hunter to commodity trading. At which Billings lamented:

The planet’s brightest scientific minds no longer leveraged the most powerful technologies to grow and expand human influence far out beyond earth, but to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state. As he described for me the dark arts of reaping billion dollar profits from sub-cent scale price changes rippling at near light-speed around the globe, Laughlin shook his head in quiet awe. Such feats, he said, were “much more difficult than finding an earth-like exoplanet”. (112)

Billings finds other, related, possible explanations for our solitude as well. He discusses the thought experiment of UC San Diego’s Tom Murphy who tried to extrapolate the world’s increasing energy use into the future at an historical rate of 2.3 percent per year. To continue to grow at that rate, which the United States has done since the middle of the seventeenth-century, we would have to encase every star in the Milky Way galaxy within an energy absorbing Dyson sphere within 2,500 years. At which Billings concludes:

If technological civilization like ours are common in the universe, the fact that we have yet to see stars or entire galaxies dimming before our eyes beneath starlight-absorbing veneers of Dyson spheres suggests that our own present era of exponential growth may be anomalous, not only to our past, but also to our future.

Perhaps even with a singularity we can not continue the exponential trend lines we have been on since the industrial revolution. Technological civilization may peak much closer to our own level of advancement than we realize, or may more often than not destroy itself, but, if the earth is any example, life itself once established is incredibly resilient.

As Billings shows us in the depths of time the earth has been a hot house or a ball of ice with glaciers extending to the equator. Individual species and even whole biomes may disappear under the weight of change and shocks, but life itself holds on. If our current civilization proves suicidal we will not be the first form of life that has so altered the earthly environment that it has destroyed both itself and much of the rest of life on earth.

In this light Billings discusses the discovery of the natural gas fields of the Marcellus Shale and the explosive growth of fracking, the shattering of the earth using water under intense pressure, which while it has been an economic boon to my beloved Pennsylvania, and is less of a danger to us as a greenhouse gas than demon coal, presents both short term and longer term dangers.

The problem with the Marcellus is that it is merely the largest of many such gas shale field located all over the earth. Even if natural gas is a less potent greenhouse gas than coal it still contributes to global warming and its very cheapness may delay our necessary move away from fossil fuels in total if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic levels of warming.

The Marcellus was created by eons of anaerobic bacteria trapped in underwater mountain folds which released hydrogen sulfide toxic to almost any form of life and leading to a vast accumulation of carbon as dead bacteria could no longer be decomposed. Billings muses whether we ourselves might be just another form of destructive bacteria.

Removed from its ancient context, the creation of the Marcellus struck me as eerily familiar. A new source of energy and nutrients flows into an isolated population. The population balloons and blindly grows, occasionally crashing when it surpasses the carrying capacity of its environment. The modern drill rigs shattering stone to harvest carbon from boom- and- bust waves of ancient death suddenly seemed like echoes, portents of history repeating itself on the grandest of scales. (130)

Technological civilization does not seem to be a gift to life on the planet on which it emerges, so much as it is a curse and danger, until, that is, the star upon which life depends itself becomes a danger or through stellar- death no longer produces the energy necessary for life. Billings thinks we have about 500 million years before the sun heats up so much the earth loses all its water. Life on earth will likely only survive the warming sun if we or our descendants do, whether we literally tow the planet to a more distant orbit or settle earthly life elsewhere, but in the mean time the biosphere will absorb our hammer blows and shake itself free of us entirely if we can not control our destructive appetites.

Over the very, very long term the chain of life that began on earth almost four billion years ago will only continue if we manage to escape our solar system entirely, but for now, the quest to find other living planets is less a  matter of finding a new home than it is about putting the finishing touches on the principle of Copernican Mediocrity, the idea that there is nothing especially privileged about earth, and, above all, ourselves.

And yet, the more we learn about the universe the more it seems that the principle of Copernican Mediocrity will itself need to be amended.  In the words of Billings’ fellow writer and planet hunter Caleb Scharf  the earth is likely “special but not significant”. Our beloved sun burns hotter than most stars, our gas giants larger are farther from our parent star, our stabilizing moon unlikely. How much these rarity factors play in the development of life, advanced life and technological civilization is anybody’s guess, and answering this question one of the main motivations behind the study of exoplanets and the search for evidence of technological civilization beyond earth. Yet, Billings wants to remind us that even existing at all is a very low probability event.

Only “the slimmest fraction of interstellar material is something so sophisticated as a hydrogen atom. To simply be any piece of ordinary matter- a molecule, a wisp of gas, a rock, a star, a person- appears to be an impressive and statistically unlikely accomplishment.” (88) Astrophysicists ideas of the future of the universe seem to undermine Copernican mediocrity as well for, if their models are right, the universe will spend most of its infinite history not only without stars and galaxies and people, but without even stable atoms.  Billings again laments:

Perhaps its just a failure of imagination to see no hope for life in such a bleak, dismal future. Or, maybe, the predicted evolution of the universe is a portent against Copernican mediocrity, a sign that the bright age of bountiful galaxies, shining stars, unfolding only a cosmic moment after the dawn of all things, is in fact rather special. (89)

I think this failure of imagination stems from something of a lack of gratitude on the part of human beings, and is based on a misunderstanding that for something to be meaningful it needs to last “forever.” The glass, for me, is more than half-full, for, even given the dismal views of astrophysicists on the universe’s future there is still as much as 100 billion years left for life to play out on its stage. And life and intelligence in this universe will likely not be the last.

Billings himself capture the latter point. The most prominent theory of how the Big Bang occurred, the “inflationary model” predicts an infinity of universes- the multiverse. Echoing Giordano Bruno, he writes:

Infinity being ,well, infinite, it would follow that the multiverse would host infinitudes of living beings on a limitless number of other worlds. (91)

I care much less that the larger infinity of these universes are lifeless than that an infinity of living worlds will exist as well.

As Billings points out, this expanded canvass of time and decentering on ourselves is a return to the philosophy of Democritus which has come down to us especially from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things the point being one of the ways to avoid anxiety and pressure in our day-to-day would is to remember how small we and our problems are in the context of the big picture.

Still, one is tempted to ask what this vastly expanded canvass both in time past and future and in the potential number of sentient feeling beings means for the individual human life?

In a recent interview in The Atlantic, author Jennifer Percy describes how she was drawn away from physics and towards fiction because fiction allowed her to think through questions about human existence that science could not. Here father had looked to the view of human beings as insignificant with glee in a way she could not.

He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

The kind of diminishment of the individual human life that Percy’s father found comforting, she instead found terrifying and almost nihilistic. Upon encountering fiction such as Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge, Percy realized fiction:

It helped me formulate questions about how the immensity and cruelty of the universe coexists with ordinary love, the everyday circumstances of human beings. The story leaves us with an image of this fisherman caught man pitilessly between these two worlds. It posed a question that became an obsession, and that followed me into my writing: what happens to your character when nature and humanity brutally encounter one another?

Trying to think and feel our way through this tension of knowing that we and our concerns are so small, but our feelings are so big, is perhaps the best we can do. Escaping the tedium and stress of the day through the contemplation of the depth of time and space is, no doubt a good thing, but it would be tragic to use such immensities as a means of creating space between human hearts or no longer finding the world that exists between and around us to be one of exquisite beauty and immeasurable value- a world that is uniquely ours to wonder at and care for.

The World Beyond Boundaries

360 The Virgin Oil Painting by Gustav Klimt

I  first came across Miguel Nicolelis in an article for the MIT Technology Review entitled The Brain is not computable: A leading neuroscientist says Kurzweil’s Singularity isn’t going to happen. Instead, humans will assimilate machines. That got my attention. Nicolelis, if you haven’t already heard of him, is one of the world’s top researchers in building brain-computer interfaces. He is the mind behind the project to have a paraplegic using a brain controlled exoskeleton make the first kick in the 2014 World Cup. An event that takes place in Nicolelis’ native Brazil.

In the interview, Nicolelis characterizes the singularity “as a bunch of hot air”. His reasoning being that “The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it,”. He explains himself this way:

You can’t predict whether the stock market will go up or down because you can’t compute it,” he says. “You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”

This non-computability of consciousness, he thinks, has negative implications for the prospect of ever “downloading” (or uploading) human consciousness into a computer.

“Downloads will never happen,” he declares with some confidence.

Science journalism, like any sort of journalism needs a “hook” and the hook here was obviously a dig at a number of deeply held beliefs among the technorati; namely, that AI was on track to match and eventually surpass human level intelligence, that the brain could be emulated computationally, and that, eventually, the human personality could likewise be duplicated through computation.

The problem with any hook is that they tend to leave you with a shallow impression of the reality of things. If the world is too complex to be represented in software it is even less able to be captured in a magazine headline or 650 word article. For that reason,  I wanted a clearer grasp of where Nicolelis was coming from, so I bought his recent and excellent, if a little dense, book, Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines—and How It Will Change Our Lives. Let me start with a little of  Nicolelis’ research and from there flesh out the neuroscientist’s view of our human-machine future, a view I found both similar in many respects and at the same time very different from perspectives typical today of futurists thinking about such things.

If you want to get an idea of just how groundbreaking Nicolelis’ work is, the best thing to do is to peruse the website of his lab.  Nicolelis and his colleagues have done conducted experiments where a monkey has controlled the body of a robot located on the other side of the globe, and where another simian has learned to play a videogame with its thoughts alone. Of course, his lab is not interested in blurring the lines between monkeys and computers for the heck of it, and the immediate aim of their research is to improve the lives of those whose ties between their bodies and their minds have been severed, that is, paraplegics. A fact which explains Nicolelis’ bold gamble to successfully demonstrate his lab’s progress by having a paralyzed person kickoff the World Cup.

For how much the humanitarian potential of this technology is inspiring, it is the underlying view of the brain the work of the Nicolelis Lab appears to experimentally support and the neuroscientist’s longer term view of the potential of technology to change the human condition that are likely to have the most lasting importance. They are views and predictions that put Nicolelis more firmly in the trans-humanist camp than might be gleaned from his MIT interview.

The first aspect of Nicolelis’ view of the brain I found stunning was the mind’s extraordinary plasticity when it came to the body. We might tend to think of our brain and our body as highly interlocked things, after all, our brains have spent their whole existence as part of one body- our own. This a reality that the writer, Paul Auster, turns into the basis of his memoir Winter Journal which is essentially the story of his body’s movement through time, its urges, muscles, scars, wrinkles, ecstasies and pains.

The work of Nicolelis’ Lab seems to sever the cord we might thinks joins a particular body and the brain or mind that thinks of it as home. As he states it in Beyond Boundaries:

The conclusion from more than two decades of experiments is that the brain creates a sense of body ownership through a highly adaptive, multimodal process, which can, through straightforward manipulations of visual, tactile, and body position (also known as proprioception) sensory feedback, induce each of us, in a matter of seconds, to accept another whole new body as being the home of our conscious existence. (66)

Psychologists have had an easy time with tricks like fooling a person into believing they possess a limb that is not actually theirs, but Nicolelis is less interested in this trickery than finding a new way to understand the human condition in light of his and others findings.

The fact that the boundaries of the brain’s body image are not limited to the body that brain is located in is one way to understand the perhaps almost unique qualities of the extended human mind. We are all ultimately still tool builders and users, only now our tools:

… include technological tools with which we are actively engaged, such as a car, bicycle, or walking stick; a pencil or a pen, spoon, whisk or spatula; a tennis racket, golf club, a baseball glove or basketball; a screwdriver or hammer; a joystick or computer mouse; and even a TV remote control or Blackberry, no matter how weird that may sound. (217)

Specialized skills honed over a lifetime can make a tool an even more intimate part of the self. The violin, an appendage of a skilled musician, a football like a part of the hand of a seasoned quarterback. Many of the most prized people in society are in fact master tool users even if we rarely think of them this way.

Even with our master use of tools, the brain is still, in Nicolelis’ view,trapped within a narrow sphere surrounding its particular body. It is here where he sees advances in neuroscience eventually leading to the liberation of the mind from its shell. The logical outcome of minds being able to communicate directly to computers is a world where, according to Nicolelis:

… augmented humans make their presence felt in a variety of remote environments, through avatars and artificial tools controlled by thought alone. From the depths of the oceans to the confines of supernovas, even to the tiny cracks of intracellular space, human reach will finally catch up to our voracious appetite to explore the unknown. (314)

He characterizes this as Mankind’s “epic journey of emancipation from the obsolete bodies they have inhabited for millions of years” (314) Yet, Nicolelis sees human communication with machines as but a stepping stone to the ultimate goal- the direct exchange of thoughts between human minds. He imagines the sharing of what has forever been the ultimately solipsistic experience of what it is like to be a particular individual with our own very unique experience of events, something that can never be fully captured even in the most artful expressions of,  language. This exchange of thoughts, which he calls “brainstorms” is something Nicolelis does not limit to intimates- lovers and friends- but which he imagines giving rise to a “brain- net”.

Could we one day, down the road of a remote future, experience what it is to be part of a conscious network of brains, a collectively thinking true brain-net? (315)

… I have no doubt that the rapacious voracity with which most of us share our lives on the Web today offers just a hint of the social hunger that resides deep in human nature. For this reason, if a brain- net ever becomes practicable,  I suspect it will spread like a supernova explosion throughout human societies. (316)

Given this context, Nicolelis’ view on the Singularity and the emulation or copying of human consciousness on a machine is much more nuanced than the impression one is left with from the MIT interview. It is not that he discounts the possibility that “advanced machines may come to dominate and even dominate the human race” (302) , but that he views it as a low probability danger relative to the other catastrophic risks faced by our species.

His views on prospect of human level intelligence in machines is less that high level machine intelligence is impossible, but that our specific type of intelligence is non-replicable. Building off of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of the “life tape”  the reason being that we can not duplicate through engineering the sheer contingency that lies behind the evolution of human intelligence. I understand this in light of an observation by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, that I remember but cannot place, that it may be technically feasible to replicate mechanically an exact version of a living bird, but that it may prove prohibitively expensive, as expensive as our journeys to the moon, and besides we don’t need to exactly replicate a living bird- we have 747s. Machine intelligence may prove to be like this where we are never able to replicate our own intelligence other than through traditional and much more exciting means, but where artificial intelligence is vastly superior to human intelligence in many domains.

In terms of something like uploading, Nicolelis does believe that we will be able to record and store human thoughts- his brainstorms- at some place in the future, we may be able to record  the whole of a life in this way, but he does not think this will mean the preservation of a still experiencing intelligence anymore than a piece by Chopin is the actual man. He imagines us deliberately recording the memories of individuals and broadcasting them across the universe to exist forever in the background of the cosmos which gave rise to us.

I can imagine all kinds of wonderful developments emerging should the technological advances Nicolelis imagines coming to pass. It would revolutionize psychological therapy, law, art and romance. It would offer us brand new ways to memorialize and remember the dead.

Yet, Nicolelis’ Omega Point- a world where all human being are brought together into one embracing common mind, has been our dream at least since Plato, and the very antiquity of these urges should give us pause, for what history has taught us is that the optimistic belief that “this time is different” has never proved true. A fact which should encourage us to look seriously, which Nicolelis himself refuse to do, at the potential dark side of the revolution in neuroscience this genius Brazilian is helping to bring about. It is less a matter of cold pessimism to acknowledge this negative potential as it is a matter of steeling ourselves against disappointment, at the the least, and in preventing such problem from emerging in the first place at best, a task I will turn to next time…

Silicon Secessionists

Moore's Utopia

Lately, there have be weird mumblings about secession coming from an unexpected corner. We’ve come to expect that there are hangers on to the fallen Confederate States of America, or Texans hankering after their lost independent Republic, but Silicon Valley? Really? The idea, at least at first blush, seems absurd.

We have the tycoon founder of PayPal and early FaceBook investor, Peter Thiel, whose hands seem to be in every arch-conservative movement under the sun, and who is a vocal supporter of utopian seasteading. The idea of creating a libertarian oasis of artificial islands beyond the reach of law, regulation and taxes.

Likewise, Zoltan Istvan’s novel The Transhumanist Wager uses the idolatry of Silicon Valley’s Randian individualism and technophilia as lego blocks with which to build an imagined “Transhumania”.  A moveable artificial island that is, again, free from the legal and regulatory control of the state.

A second venture capitalist, Tim Draper, recently proposed shattering mammoth California into six pieces, with Silicon Valley to become its own separate state. There are plans to build a techno-libertarian Galt’s Gulch type city-state in Chile, a geographical choice which given Chile’s brutal experience with right-wing economics via Pinochet and the Chicago-school is loaded with historical irony.

Yet another Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, hopes to do better than all of these and move his imagined utopian experiment off of the earth, to Mars. Perhaps, he could get some volunteer’s from Winnipeg whose temperature earlier this month under a “polar vortex” was colder than that around the Curiosity Rover tooling around in the dead red dust of the planet of war.

What in the world is going on?

By far the best articulation of Silicon Valley’s new secessionists urges I have seen comes from  Balaji Srinivasan, who doesn’t consider himself a secessionist along the lines of John C Calhoun at all. In an article for Wired back in November  Srinivasan laid out what I found to be a quite intriguing argument for a kind of Cambrian explosion of new polities. The Internet now allows much easier sorting of individuals based on values and its only a step or two ahead to imagine virtual associations becoming physical ones.

I have to say that I find much to like in the idea of forming small, new political societies as a means of obtaining forms of innovation we sorely lack- namely political and economic innovation. I also think Srinivasan and others  are onto something in that that small societies, which get things right, seem best positioned to navigate the complex landscape of our globalized world. I myself would much prefer a successful democratic-socialist small society, such as a Nordic one like Finland, to a successful capitalist-authoritarian on like Singapore, but the idea of a plurality of political systems operating at a small scale doesn’t bother me in the least as long as belonging to such polities is ultimately voluntary.

The existence of such societies might even help heal one of the main problems of the larger pluralist societies, such as our own, to which these new communities might remain attached. Pluralist societies are great on diversity, but often bad on something older, and invariably more intolerant types of society had in droves; namely the capacity of culture to form a unified physical and intellectual world- a kind of home- at least for those lucky enough to believe in that world and be granted a good place within it.

Even though I am certain that, like most past efforts  have, the majority of these newly formed polities would fail, as have the utopian experiments in the past, we would no doubt learn something from them. And some might even succeed and become the legacy of those bold enough to dream of the new.

One might wonder, however, why this recent interest in utopian communities has been so strongly represented both by libertarians and Silicon Valley technolphiles? Nothing against libertarian experiments per se, but there are, after all a whole host of other ideological groups that could be expected to be attracted to the idea of forming new political communities where their principles could be brought to fruition. Srinivasan, again, provides us with the most articulate answer to this question.

In a speech I had formerly misattributed to one of the so-called neo-reactionaries (apologies), Srinivasan lays out the case for what he calls “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit”.

He begins by asking in all seriousness “Is the USA the Microsoft of Nations?”and then goes on to draw the distinction between two different types of responses to institutional failure- Voice versus Exit. Voice essentially means aiming to change an institution from within whereas Exit is flight or in software terms “forking” to form a new institution whether that be anything from a corporation to a state. Srinivasan thinks Exit is an important form of political leverage pressuring a system to adopt reform or face flight.

The problem I see is the logic behind the choice of Exit over Voice which threatens a kind of social disintegration. Indeed, the rationale for Exit behind libertarian flight which Srinivasan draws seems not only to assume an already existent social disintegration, but proposes to act as an accelerant for more.

Srinivasan’s argument is that Silicon Valley is on the verge of becoming the target of the old elites which he calls “The Paper Belt: based in:Boston with higher ed; New York City with Madison Avenue, books, Wall Street, and newspapers; Los Angeles with movies, music, Hollywood; and, of course, DC with laws and regulations, formally running it.” That Silicon Valley with it’s telecommunications revolution was “putting a horse head in all of their beds. We are becoming stronger than all of them combined.” That the elites of the Paper Belt  “are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings…” And that  “What they’re basically saying is: rule by DC means people are going back to work and the emerging meme is that rule by us is rule by Terminators. We’re going to take all the jobs.”

Given what has actually happened so far Srinivasan’s tone seems almost paranoid. Yes, the shine is off the apple (pun intended) of Silicon Valley, but the most that seems to be happening are discussions about how to get global tech companies to start paying their fair share of taxes. And the Valley has itself woken up to the concerns of civil libertarians that tech companies were being us by the US as a giant listening device.

Srinivasan himself admits that unemployment due to advances in AI and automation is a looming crisis, but rather than help support society, something that even a libertarian like Peter Diamandis has admitted may lead to the requirement for a universal basic income, Srinivasan instead seems to want to run away from the society he helped create.

And therein lies the dark side of what all this Silicon Valley talk of flight is about. As much as it’s about experimentation,or Exit, it’s also about economic blackmail and arbitrage. It’s like a marriage where one partner, rather than engage even in discussions where they contemplate sacrificing some of their needs threatens at the smallest pretense to leave.

Arbitrage has been the tool by which the global, (to bring back the good old Marxist term) bourgeoisie, has been able to garner such favorable conditions for itself over the past generation. “Just try to tax us, and we will move to a place with lower or no taxation”, “Just try to regulate us and we will move to a place with lower or no regulation”, it says.

Yet, both non-excessive taxation, and prudent regulation are the way societies keep themselves intact in the face of the short-sightedness and greed at the base of any pure market. Without them, shared social structures and common infrastructure decays and all costs- pollution etc- are externalized onto the society as a whole. Maybe what we need is not so much more and better tools for people to opt out, which Srinivasan proposes, than a greater number and variety of ways for people to opt in. Better ways of providing the information and tools of Voice that are relevant, accessible, and actionable.

Perhaps what’s happened is that we’ve come almost full round from our start in feudalism. We started with a transnational church and lords locked in the place of their local fiefdoms and moved to nation-states where ruling elites exercised control over a national territory where concern for the broad society underneath along with its natural environment was only fully extended with the expansion of the right to vote almost universally across society.

With the decline of the national state as the fundamental focus of our loyalty we are now torn in multiple directions, between our country, our class, by our religious and philosophical orientations, by our concern for the local or its invisibility, or our concern for the global or its apparent irrelevance.  Yet, despite our virtuality we still belong to physical communities, our neighborhood, country and our shared earth.

Closer to our own time, this hope to escape the problems of society by flight and foundation of new uncorrupted enclaves is an idea buried deep in the founding myth of Silicon Valley. The counter-culture from which many of the innovators of Silicon Valley emerged wanted nothing to do with America’s deep racial and Cold War era problems. They wanted to “drop out” and instead ended up sparking a revolution that not only challenged the whitewashed elites of the “Paper Belt”, but ended up creating a new set of problems, which the responsibility of adulthood should compel them to address.

The elite that has emerged from Silicon Valley is perhaps the first in history dis-attached from any notion of physical space, even the physical space of our shared earth. But “ultimate exit” is an illusion, at least for the vast majority of us, for even if we could settle the stars or retreat into an electron cloud, the distances are far too great and both are too damned cold.

An Epicurean Christmas Letter To Transhumanists

Botticelli Spring- Primivera

Whatever little I retain from my Catholic upbringing, the short days of the winter and the Christmas season always seem to turn my thoughts to spiritual matters and the search for deeper meanings. It may be a cliche, but if you let it hit you, the winter and coming of the new year can’t help but remind you endings, and sometimes even the penultimate ending of death. After all, the whole world seems dead now,  frozen like some morgue-corpse, although this one, if past is prelude, really will rise from the dead with the coming of spring.

Now, I would think death is the last thing most people think of, especially during what for many of us is such a busy, drowned in tinsel, time of the year. The whole subject is back there buried with the other detritus of life, such as how we get the food we’ll stuff ourselves with over the holidays, or the origin of the presents, from tinker-toys to diamond rings, that some of us will wrap up and hide under trees. It’s like the Jason Isbell song The Elephant that ends with the lines:

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me,


no one dies with dignity.


We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

This aversion to even thinking about death is perhaps the unacknowledged biggest obstacle for transhumanists whose goal, when all is said and done, is to conquer death. It’s similar to the kind of aversion that lies behind our inability to tackle climate change.Who wants to think about something so dreadful?

There are at least some people who do want to think of something so dreadful, and not only that, they want to tie a bow around it and make it appear some wonderful present left under the tree by Kris Kringle. Maria Konovalenko recently panned a quite silly article in the New York Times by Daniel Callahan who was himself responding to the hyperbolic coverage of Google’s longevity initiative, Calico. Here’s Callahan questioning the push for extended longevity:

And exactly what are the potential social benefits? Is there any evidence that more old people will make special contributions now lacking with an average life expectancy close to 80? I am flattered, at my age, by the commonplace that the years bring us wisdom — but I have not noticed much of it in myself or my peers. If we weren’t especially wise earlier in life, we are not likely to be that way later.

Perhaps not, but neither did we realize the benefits of raising life expectancy from 45 to near 80 between 1900 and today, such as The Rolling Stones. Callahan himself is a still practicing heart surgeon- he’s 83- and I’m assuming, because he’s still here, that he wouldn’t rather be dead. And even if one did not care about pushing the healthy human lifespan out further for oneself, how could one not wish for such an opportunity for one’s children? Even 80 years is really too short for all of the life projects we might fulfill, barely long enough to feel at home into the “world in which we’re thrown” ,quite literally, like the calf the poet Diane Ackerman helped deliver and described in her book Deep Play:

When it lifted its fluffy head and looked at me, its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black nowhere of the womb, and suddenly its world was full of color, movement, and noise. I have never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141)

And if increased time to be here would likely be good for us as individuals, sufficient time to learn what we should learn and do what we should do, I agree as well with Vernor Vinge that greatly expanded human longevity would likely be an uncomparable good for society not least because it might refocus the mind on the longer term health of the societies and planet we call home.

That said, I do have some concern that my transhumanists friends are losing something by not acknowledging the death elephant given that they’re are too busy trying to push it out of the room. The problem I see is that many transhumanists are, how to put this, old, and can’t afford or aren’t sufficiently convinced in the potential of cryonics to put faith in it as a “backup”. Even when they embrace being deep- froze many of their loved ones are unlikely to be so convinced ,and, therefore, they will watch or have knowledge of their parents, siblings, spouse and friends experiencing a death that transhumanists understand to be nothing short of dark oblivion.

Lately it seems some have been trying to stare this oblivion in the face. Such, I take it, is the origin of classical composer David Lang’s haunting album Death Speaks. I do not think Lang’s personification of death in the ghostly voice of Shara Worden, or the presentation of the warm embrace of the grave as a sort of womb, should be considered “deathist”, even if death in his work is sometimes represented as final rest from the weariness of life, and anthropomorphized into a figure that loves even as she goes about her foul business of killing us.  Rather, I see the piece as merely the attempt to understand death through metaphor, which is sometimes all we have, and personally found the intimacy both chilling and thought provoking.

This is the oblivion we are all too familiar of biological death, which given sufficient time for technological advancement we may indeed escape as we might someday even exit biology itself, but I suspect that even over the very, very long run, some sort of personal oblivion regardless of how advanced our technology is likely inevitable.

As I see it, given the nature of the universe and its continuous push towards entropy we are unlikely to ever fully conquer death so much as phase change into new timescales and mechanisms of mortality. The reason for us thinking otherwise is, I think, our insensitivity to the depth of time. Even a 10,000 year old you is a mayfly compared to the age of our sun, let alone the past and future of the universe. What of “you” today would be left after 10,000 years, 100,000, a million, a billion years of survival? I would think not much, or at least not much more than would have survived on smaller time scales that you pass on today- your genes, your works, your karma. How many of phase changes exist between us today and where the line through us and our descendants ends is anyone’s guess, but maintaining the core of a particular human personality throughout all of these transformations seems like a very long shot indeed.

Even if the core of ourselves could be kept in existence through these changes what are the prospects that it would survive into the end of the universe, not to mention beyond?  As Lawrence Krauss pointed out, the physics seem to lean in the direction that in a universe with a finite amount of energy which is infinitely expanding no form of intelligence can engage in thinking for an infinite amount of time. Not even the most powerful form of intelligence we can imagine, as long as we use our current understanding of the laws of physics as boundary conditions, can truly be immortal.

On a more mundane level, even if a person could be fully replicated as software or non-biological hardware these systems too have their own versions of mortality (are you still running Windows ME and driving a Pinto?), and the preservation of a replicated person would require continuous activity to keep this person as software and/or non-biological hardware in a state of existence while somehow retaining the integrity of the self.

What all this adds up to is that if one adopts a strict atheism based on what science tells us is the nature of reality one is almost forced to come to terms with the prospect of personal oblivion at some point in the future, however far out that fate can be delayed. Which is not to say that reprieve should not be sought in the first place, only that we shouldn’t confuse the temporal expansion of human longevity, whether biological or through some other means, with the attainment of actual immortality. Breaking through current limits to human longevity would likely confront us with new limits we would still be faced with the need to overcome.

Some transhumanists who are pessimistic about the necessary breakthroughs to keep them in existence occurring in the short run, within their lifetime, cling to a kind of “Quantum Zen”, as Giulio Prisco recently put it, where self and loved ones are resurrected in a kind of cosmic reboot in the far future. Speaking of the protagonist of Zoltan Istvan’s Transhumanist Wager here’s how Prisco phrased it:

Like Jethro, I consider technological resurrection (Tipler, quantum weirdness, or whatever) as a possibility, and that is how I cope with my conviction that indefinite lifespans and post-biological life will not be developed in time for us, but later.

 To my eyes at least, this seems less a case of dealing with the elephant in the room than zapping it with a completely speculative invisible-izing raygun. If the whole moral high ground of secularists over the religious is that the former tie themselves unflinchingly to the findings of empirical science, while the latter approach the world through the lens of unquestioning faith, then clinging to a new faith, even if it is a faith in the future wonders of science and technology surrenders that high ground.

That is, we really should have doubts about any idea, whatever its use of scientific language, that isn’t falsifiable and is based on mere speculation (even the speculation of notable physicists) on future technological potential. Shouldn’t we want to live on the basis of what we can actually know through proof, right now?

How then, as a secular person, which I take most transhumanists to be, do you deal with idea of personal oblivion? It might seem odd to turn to a Roman Epicurean natural philosopher and poet born a century before Christ to answer such a question, but Titus Lucretius Carus, usually just called Lucretius, offered us one way of dampening the fear of death while still holding a secular view of the world.  At least that’s what Stephen Greenblatt found was the effect of  Lucretius’ only major work- On the Nature of Things.

Greenblatt found his secondhand copy of On the Nature of Things in a college book bin attracted as much by the summer- of- love suggestiveness of the 1960’s cover as anything else. He cracked it open that summer and found a book that no doubt seemed to reflect directly the spirit of the times, beginning as it does with a prayer to the goddess of love, Venus, and a benediction to the power of sexual attraction over even Mars the god of war.

It was also a book in the words of Lucretius whose purpose was to “ to free men’s minds from fear of the bonds religious scruples have imposed” (124) As Greenblatt describes it in his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things he found refuge from his own painful experience not with death, but the thought of it, and not even the fear of his own oblivion, but that of his mother’s fear of the same.  As Greenblatt writes of his mother:

It was death itself- simply ceasing to be- that terrified her. From as far back as I can remember, she brooded obsessively on the imminence of her end, invoking it again and again, especially at moments of parting. My life was full of operatic scenes of farwell. When she went with my father from Boston to New York  for the weekend, when I went off to summer camp, even- when things were especially hard for her- when I left the house for school, she clung tightly to me, speaking of her fragility and of the distinct possibility that I would never see her again. If we walked somewhere together, she would frequently come to a halt, as if she were about to keel over. Sometimes she would show me a vein pulsing in her neck, and taking my finger, make me feel it for myself, the sign of her heart dangerously racing. (3)

The Swerve tells the history of On the Nature of Things, its loss after the collapse of Roman civilization, its nearly accidental preservation by Christian monks, rediscovery in the early Renaissance and deep and all but forgotten impact on the sentiment of modernity having had an influence on figures as diverse as Shakespeare, Bruno, Galileo, More, Montesquieu and Jefferson. Yet, Greenblatt’s interest in On the Nature of Things was born of a personal need to understand and dispel anxiety over death, so it’s best to look at Lucretius’ book itself to see how that might be done.

Lucretius was a secular thinker before there was even a name for such a thing. He wanted a naturalistic explanation of the world where the gods, if they existed, played no role either in the workings of nature or the affairs of mankind. The basis to everything he held was a fundamental level of particles he sometimes called “atoms” and it was the non-predetermined interaction of these atoms that gave rise to everything around us, from stars and planets to animals and people.

From this basis Lucretius arrived at a picture of the universe that looked amazingly like our own. There is an evolution of the universe- stars and planets- from simpler elements and the evolution of life. Anything outside this world made of atoms is ultimately irrelevant to us. There is no need to placate the unseen gods or worry what they think of us.

Everything we experience for good and ill including the lucky accident of our own existence and our ultimate demise is from the “swerve” of underlying atoms. The Lucretian world makes no sharp division, as ancients and medievals often did, between the earthly world and the world of the sky above our heads.

The universe is finite in matter if infinite in size, and there are likely other worlds in it with intelligent life like our own. In the Copernican sense we are not at the center of things either as a species or individually. All we can experience, including ourselves, is made of the same banal substance of atoms going about their business of linking and unlinking with one another. And, above all, everything that belongs to this universe built of atoms is mortal, a fleeting pattern destined to fall apart.

On the Nature of Things is the strangest of hybrids. It is a poem, a scientific text and a self-help book all at the same time. Lucretius addresses his poem to Gaius Memmius an unknown figure whom the author aims to free from the fear of the gods and death. Lucretius advises Memmius  that death is nothing to fear for it will be no different to us than all the time that passed before we were born. To rage against no longer existing through the entirety of the future is no more sensical than raging that we did not exist through the entirety of the past.

Think how the long past age of hoary time

Before our birth is nothing to us now

This in a mirror

Nature shows to us

Of what will be hereafter when we’re dead

Does this seem terrible is this so sad?

Is it not less troubled than our daily sleep? (118)

______________________________

I know, I know, this is the coldest of cold comforts.

Yet, Lucretius was an Epicurean whose ultimate aim was that we be wise enough to keep in our view the simple pleasures of being alive, right now, in the moment in which we were lucky enough to be living. While reading On the Nature of Things I had in my ear the constant goading whisper- “Enjoy your life!” Lucretius’ fear was that we would waste our lives away in fear and anticipation of life, or its absence, in the future. That we would be of those:

Whose life was living death while yet you live

And see the light who spend the greater part

Of life in sleep still snoring while awake.( 122-123)

It is not that Lucretius advises us to take up the pleasure seeking life of hedonism, but he urges us to not waste our preciously short time here with undue anxiety over things that are outside of our control or in our control to only a limited extent. On The Nature of Things admonishes us to start not from the position of fear or anger that the universe intends to eventually “kill” us, but from one of gratitude that out of a stream of randomly colliding atoms we were lucky enough to have been born in the first place.

This message in a bottle from an ancient Epicurean reminded me of the conclusion to the aforementioned Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play where she writes to imagined inhabitants of the far future that might let her live again and concludes in peaceful lament:

If that’s not possible, then I will have to make due with the playgrounds of mortality, and hope that at the end of my life I can say simply, wholeheartedly that it was grace enough to be born and live. (212)

 Nothing that happens, or fails to happen, within our lifetimes, or after it, can take away this joy that it was to live, and to know it.

The Longevity Crisis

Sisyphus

When our most precious and hard fought for successes give rise to yet more challenges life is revealing its Sisyphean character. We work as hard as we can to roll a rock up a hill only to have it crush us on the way down. The stones that threatens us this time are two of our global civilization’s greatest successes- the fact that children born are now very likely to live into old age and the fact that we have stretched out this old age itself so that many, many more people are living into ages where in the past the vast majority of their peers would be dead. These two demographic revolutions when combined form the basis of what I am calling the Longevity Crisis. Let’s take infant mortality first.

The changes in the pattern of infant mortality rates from 1900 until today is quite simply astounding. In the US a child born at the beginning of the 20th century had a 10% chance of dying before the age of 1. In some cities the rate of infant deaths was as high as 30%. By the end of the 20th century this rate of infant deaths had declined by over 90%. For all of human history up until very recently families that wanted children needed to shoot for high numbers. Many of their children would likely die before they had even learned to speak. More would likely die before reaching age 5.

As late as 1920, 30% of Americans still worked on farms which gave additional impetus to have large families. This combined with the lack of effective birth control (“the pill” wasn’t widely available until 1960) meant that average household size was large- around 4 children- though this was down from the average of seven children per household in the 1800s.

Everything about this story leads to the outcome that the number of children born per woman eventually shrinks. The compression has already happened almost everywhere and in some places such as East Asia including China, Japan and South Korea and in Europe it is happening much faster than in others.

Ultimately in terms of the sustainability of our species this decline in the birth rate is a very good thing. Demographics, however, is like a cruise ship- it is hard to turn. In the lag time the world’s population is exploding as societies are able to save the lives of children but continue to have nearly as many of them. We are living through the turning. As this incredibly cool video graphic from the Economist shows it took humanity roughly 250,000 years to reach 1 billion of us in 1900, but thereafter the rate of growth skyrocketed. There was only a little over a century between our first billion and second billion. 40 years later in 1960 we numbered 3 billion. Only 14 years after that we reached the 4 billion mark and the time between adding another billion would shorten to about a mere dozen years with 5 billion reached in 1987, 6 billion following 12 years later in 1999, and 7 billion a dozen after that in 2011.

Thankfully, the rate of population growth is slowing. It will take us 14 years to pass the 8 billion mark and 20-25 years to reach what will perhaps be the peak of human population during this era-  9 billion in 2050. Though comforting we shouldn’t necessarily be sanguine in light of this fact-  we are still on track to add to the world the equivalent of another China and Europe by the middle of the century. Certainly, these people will, with justice, hanker after a middle class lifestyle putting enormous pressures on the global environment. Add to that the effects of climate change and it seems we are entering a very dangerous and narrow chute through which humanity must pass.

Making the chute even narrower will be the fact that the transition from a high birth rate to a low one is occurring under equally unprecedented conditions regarding human longevity. As pointed out by Ted C. Fishman in his Shock of Grey a person born in 1900 had an average life expectancy of 49 years. By 2000 we had turned that into almost 77 years diligently increasing the average human lifespan by between 1.5 and 2.7 years per decade. (p.14)

It needs to be stressed here, however, that the vast majority of these gains in life expectancy are the result not of keeping the old alive, though we have gotten much better at that, then making sure children survive. The fact that many less children die today skews the average life expectancy upward. These were relatively “easy” gains technically speaking and involved public investments as much as anything else: better sanitation, clean drinking water, routine vaccinations, diet and antibiotics.

Fishman has a neat way of giving us perspective on what the achievement of 80 year longevity means for our species by putting it in terms of life years. At merely the same rate of longevity increase as we have today the world’s population in 2050 will have lived around 500 billion years more than had they be born in 1900! (p.14) That number, 500 billion, not only reveals the extent of the environmental challenges we face, but gives us an idea of the depth of human experience and creativity we might gain. Our longevity and numbers seem to add time to the universe itself.

If you want a jaw-dropping visualization of humanity’s demographic rollercoaster, not to mention a humbling perspective of your own existence within the warp and woof of being and not being, you can get little better than World Births and Deaths in Real-Timea real time simulation of reported human births and deaths created by software developer Brad Lyon.

Aside from the sheer environmental impact of what in the near future will be our increasing human numbers there is the question of how we deal with the transition to what are in essence old societies. Take a rapidly aging country such as Japan. By 2050 Fishman sees the percentage of the Japanese population over age 65 to be a jaw dropping 40%. (p. 145) The dependency ratio, that is the ratio that measures the number of workers per dependent children and elderly is expected to reach 1:1.  We have never seen a dependency ratio like that, and Japan isn’t even the worst. Cities such as Shanghai are projected to have a percentage people of over 65 as high as 60%. As a result of its draconian 1 child policy China faces the real danger of growing old before it gets rich.  

In Europe too we are seeing the emergence of elderly societies. Fishman again captures the problem quite well writing of Europe where no country is getting proportionally younger and in the worst of the lot, Spain, especially:

Translate the numbers into an estimate of how many people need help with their basic needs, and Spain begins to look like a country that is literally handicapped. Unless medical advances deliver millions of people from infirmities they are now destined for, one out of every six to eight Spaniards will need help with walking, going to the toilet, or doing some other activity that we take for granted until it becomes too difficult. (114)

When transhumanists and their opponents debate the former’s wish lists of medical and technological breakthroughs: radically increased healthy longevity, regenerative medicine, cognitive enhancements, cyborg technologies, advanced AI and robotics the dispute is normally centered around the question of human enhancement and the empowerment of healthy individuals.  My guess is that in the long run, however, the development and deployment of these technologies will have occurred not in the interests of the minority of healthy individuals that want them, but because without the use of such technologies societies will simply cease to be functional.

For our survival not as individuals, but as a society, we desperately need technologies and medical breakthroughs that keep the elderly functional and contributing for as long as possible. We need a major investment in regenerative technology, and major research into arresting especially neurological decline. We need cheap and effective exoskeletons that will allow the elderly to retain mobility well past their 65th year, and robots to do much of the work we may no longer be fit to do. The deployment of such technologies will need to be global because the Longevity Crisis is global and will hit especially hard those societies which remain poor.

We also need to avoid losing the gains in longevity we have made in the past century.

If you’re in the mood to be freaked out there’s nothing better than this recent Frontline documentary Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria. To bring up my oft quoted Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are” as shown in this documentary bacteria who are the true lords of the earth are busy outsmarting us. Our overuse of antibiotics and our obsessive compulsive craziness for things like antibacterial dish soap is threatening us with a surge of resistant bacteria that could reveal our seeming defeat of communicable diseases in the last century- which has added to our numbers of both young and old- tragically temporary.

It was this defeat over communicable diseases that transformed death into primarily an experience of the old whereas in all ages prior it was terrifying precisely because of its randomness and especially its impact on the young- a thief in the night- the Grim Reaper and his scathe.

We might also eat our way into shorter longevity. Quoted by Fishman, one of the top thinkers on longevity outthere-  S. Jay Olshansky- thinks that today’s generation of diabetic children have a good chance of living shorter lives than their parents. (205)In the West we haven’t seen that since the late Middle Ages when longevity declined by a decade from 48 to 38 years.

As Olshansky points out in his The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging simply continuing the trend of increasing longevity we have now is likely to prove difficult.

… adding 80 years to the life of an 80- year- old person is far more difficult than adding 80 years to the life of an infant. The implications for life expectancy are obvious. As life expectancy climbs beyond its current level (80 and older) death rates must fall at a progressively faster pace to achieve even small gains in life expectancy.

This is the stark reality of entropy in the life table. Increasing life expectancy in a population already long-lived is like walking up a hill of increasing slope while carrying a stone of increasing mass.

Gains in life expectancy are already slowing and entropy in the life table ensures that gains in the future will be even slower.  (p. 87)

Olshansky is especially well known for popularizing the idea of the “longevity dividend”. He wants us to focus our medical research on finding ways to slow biological aging. Olshansky does not see this refocusing as a means to transhumanist ends- neither radical longevity let alone biological immortality strike him as realistic goals, and one might add as did Kevin LeGradure launching off the recent Pew survey on the subject that the goal of radical longevity is not one the public is hankering for in any case.

Rather, what Olshansky wants us to do is find ways to slow aging so that we can compress the time frame in which human beings suffer terminal illnesses. Longevity isn’t the goal here, but the delay of chronic and debilitating diseases many of the elderly are under current conditions doomed to suffer. Increased average lifespan is a secondary effect. For those interested primarily in increased longevity the promise of shortening the length of frightening and devastating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s is a potentially politically broadening selling point for increased public funding for longevity related research. Indeed, our very success in holding off death in the middle aged and those in their 60s and 70s demands, on grounds of compassion, that we attempt to compress the timeframe in which people suffer the new types of very emotionally and physically painful diseases of aging that our success has inadvertently created.

As noted, we have been extremely effective at rolling back the death of children from threats such as infectious diseases. We are also extremely effective at saving the middle-aged, say a 59 year old who suffers a heart attack. Yet, the sisyphean nature of reality always manages to strike back. A person saved while a child by antibiotics or as an adult through heart surgery- threats to life that would have killed the person quickly- has the chance now of dying from Alzheimer’s diseases an extremely crippling and expensive condition that might take a decade or more to result in death.

Alzheimer’s is especially frightening- not merely for the way it robs the individual of their identity and is therefore one of the most tragic of diseases both for the sufferer and her loved ones, but because of the scale of the disease. Olshansky predicts that on current trends the US will have 16 million Alzheimer’s sufferers by 2050. That’s over 3 million more people than live in my beloved Pennsylvania or as many people as there are in the country of Australia.

The longevity gains we had in the past were largely the result of investments in public health. It was our devotion to one another as fellow citizens and human beings that gave us the miracle of hundreds of billions of more human life years. When as they should be these are years of love and wonder, insight and creativity, and, we can hope -wisdom.

Ensuring that the majority of us can remain healthy and productive with our increased years will require perhaps even greater public investments, many of them in technologies transhumanists have long held dear. Above all, continuing the gains we have had in longevity by both avoiding going backward and increasing longevity will take both shoring up our public health capacities so that we can avoid the return of pandemic killers. (The most galling effect of the recent blockheaded government shutdown was that it compromised the essential work of the CDC in preparing for a potentially devastating flu outbreak.) As the Frontline documentary points out public sector investment is necessary to deal with issues such as bacteriological infection because the market does not find research into necessities such as new antibiotics profitable.

The very complexity of the problem of figuring out how to slow the process of aging going forward will likewise demand massive public investments into areas little touched by today’s medical researchers refocusing our efforts on understanding the underlying mechanisms of aging rather than just trying to come up with cures for specific diseases. At the same time we will have to ensure we fully support the development of the young or society will have poisoned itself at the root, along with ensuring that the benefits of medical and technological advances are shared both within our societies and globally. We can make it through the Longevity Crisis and beyond but only if we do so in the spirit of a supportive family- young, old and in the space between.

I’m going to London! (sort of)

For interested readers of Utopia or Dystopia this Sunday, October 20th there will be a live discussion on The Transhumanist Wager held by the London Futurists. I’ve been invited.

Here’s the announcement:

This “London Futurists Hangout on Air” will feature a live discussion between Zoltan Istvan and a panel of leading futurists and transhumanists: Giulio Prisco, Rick Searle, and Chris T. Armstrong. Questions covered will include:

• Which aspects of the near future depicted in the book are attractive, and which are abhorrent?

• What do panellists think of the basic concept of the transhumanist wager, and of “the three laws of transhumanism” stated in the book?

• What are the best ways for transhumanists and radical futurists to use fiction to engage the wider public in awareness of the positive potential of transhumanist technologies?

Live questions

Futurists who want to join the discussion about the book and the issues raised are welcome to view the discussion live on Google+ or YouTube.

Viewers of the live broadcast on Google+ will be able to vote in real time on questions and suggestions to be discussed by the panellists as the Hangout proceeds.

Here’s how to view or participate:

This event will take place between 7pm and 8.30pm UK time on Sunday 20th October.

You can view the event:

• On Google+, via the page https://plus.google.com/104281987519632639471/posts – where you’ll also be able to vote on questions to be submitted to the panellists

• Via YouTube (the URL will be published here 15 minutes prior to the start of the event).

There is no charge to participate in this discussion.

Note: there is no physical location for this meetup (despite the postcode given above – in compliance with something that the Meetup software seems to insist upon).

No Spoilers please – until the Hangout starts

Wish me luck...

 

Science, a religious or utopian project?

New Atlantis Island

It is interesting at least to wonder what the scientific revolution would have looked like had it occurred somewhere other than in the West. What latent goals and assumptions might the systematic and empirical study of nature have had if it had arisen somewhere in what were at the time more technologically and scientifically advanced civilizations: in the lands of Islam, in Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist China, in the Hindu lands of southern India?

We will never know, for what we think of as modern science emerged only once and in the context of a Christian civilization, although also one shaped by classical mythology, though more on that another time. Modern science’s latent goals and assumptions, for good an ill, are likely, then, to have been refracted through Christian religious ideas, ideas which are in many ways, I believe, again for good and ill, still with us.

Modern science emerged in a period of increasing rather than declining religious enthusiasm and its earliest proponents such as Descartes, Newton and Francis Bacon were religious and Christian men. The spread of religious literacy to the masses that grew out of the Reformation provided a wealth of ideas around which the project of understanding nature empirically,which was the essence of the new science, could be conceptualized.

One passage of the book of Genesis would prove especially important in the way the scientific project would be understood and granted theological justification.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26

As Carolyn Merchant has written:

The problem of domination becomes the problem of the Scientific Revolution. Does humanity remain the victim of nature, fatalistically accepting the hand that nature deals in the form of failed harvests and deaths from unknown diseases, droughts, and fires? Or can humanity, by understanding those causes through science and manipulating them through technology, gain the upper hand? As William Leiss pointed out in The Domination of Nature, “the consequence of this view is to set the relationship of man and the world inescapably in the context of domination: man must either meekly submit to these natural laws (physical and economic) or attempt to master them.”

And yet, surely it matters what exactly this idea of dominion actually means, and it is our confusion over what this strange status of being a “lord” over nature is actually for and what its limits are that I believe are at the root of many of our contemporary debates about the proper relationship of science and technology to society and the natural world.

One of the key figures in the shift from pre-scientific to scientific thinking and its move to control nature was Francis Bacon. His utopia, The New Atlantis, reads today like a description of a research university. The members of the scientific institution which governs the island- Solomon’s House- focus their energies on observation and experimentation. They set up weather stations, work on understanding the properties of metals, research remedies on improving human health and longevity. They send out missions that are essentially involved in scientific and technological espionage seeking to bring back to their island of Bensalem useful knowledge discovered by other peoples all the while trying to keep their own knowledge and even their very existence hidden.

Bacon’s works, and not just The New Atlantis are surrounded by Christian themes and motifs. The inhabitants of Bensalem are given special revelation of the Christian gospels, their governing institution traces its roots to the Old Testament’s King Solomon. Many scholars such as the political theorist Howard B. White in his Peace Among the Willows have argued that this religious talk was all a clever ruse by Bacon, and that what he was really after was a reconceptualized idea of power that would strengthen the nascent modern state.

Yet White’s is not the only view. Stephen A. McKnight in his The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon’s Thought makes a compelling case that we should take Bacon’s religious rhetoric seriously. Indeed, if McKnight is correct the idea of dominion found in Bacon leans science much more in the direction of being a humanist and compassionate utopian project than being a road to human power.

As was the case with many of his fellow travelers in the early days of the scientific revolution, McKnight argues that Bacon was deeply influenced by religious ideas and their tumult swirling around him. He too spring boarded off of Genesis 1:26 to come up with new ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature and the development of knowledge over time.

More precisely, Bacon had the idea that in the “prelapsarian” state before Adam and Eve’s Fall human beings understood the work handiwork of God- nature- perfectly and without effort. Just as Protestants had revived millennial expectations that at last human beings were bringing into being the true nature of the Christian message,and therefore the possibility even in a postlapsarian world of living a Christian life,  Bacon believed that his “new science” would restore in some measure the dominion over nature promised to Adam and the knowledge of the natural world that the first parents possessed in their prelapsarian state.

Yet what was such dominion actually for, and why would God, in Bacon’s eyes allow such a restoration of human powers? There is a one word answer to this question- charity.

Here is McKnight:

It is well known that Bacon repeatedly links the knowledge of nature with the ability to bring relief to man’s estate. Most often this linking is associated with knowledge as power. What is often overlooked is Bacon’s emphasis on charity as the motive for using the knowledge of nature for the benefit of humankind. It is wrong, therefore, to link Bacon to a Faustian exercise of egomaniacal power. The understanding of nature enables humanity to enjoy the blessings that God provides.” (43)

If you don’t believe him, here is McKnight quoting Bacon himself speaking of the three types of reasons for which the dominion over nature that came from unveiling its secrets might be exercised:

The first is of those who desire to extend their own power in their own native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men. This certainly has more dignity if not less covetousness.  But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition (if ambition it can be called) is without doubt a more wholesome thing and more noble than the other two.  (97)

In other words, science is a project that can be directed by individuals against other individuals, by human groups (and we should include corporations) over and against other groups or is a project that is aimed at the benefit of humankind as a whole,which is how Bacon understood charity as in the improvement of “man’s estate.” We’ve essentially been faced with these three choices ever since.

McKnight is at pains to show that even the restoration of humanity’s prelapsarian control of nature did not mean, for Bacon, that human beings had assumed “God-like” powers. Man was an imitator not a creator. Bacon would have considered our confusion of our own powers with the powers of God a form of idolatry- turning our ideas and capabilities into idols to be worshiped. It was this question of the idolatry latent in the new science that would be the launch point of another great thinker of this period- John Milton.

I have written on Milton’s Paradise Lost before, so I will quote myself.

[Paradise Lost] is the tale of Lucifer and his angelic allies’ rebellion against God, the Son of God, and the angels that remain loyal to their Creator. Lucifer’s rebellion is sparked by his claim that angels are “self-begot”, and therefore owe no worship to God and his Son. The rebels are single-handedly casts out of Heaven by the Son of God, and into the depths of Hell, where they become monstrous, shift-shaping demons. Under the encouragement of the demon, Mammon, (literally “money”), they build Hell’s capital of glittering gold, Pandemonium. This city is supposed to replicate the glorious visages of Heaven, but, though more splendid than any earthly city, remains but Heaven’s pale shadow.

Satan plots his revenge against God, and finds his opportunity in the weak link of God’s new creation- Adam and Eve. After a courageous and epic journey through the depths of Hell, Satan makes his way to the earthly Garden of Eden, where in the form of a serpent, he convinces Eve that the Tree of  Knowledge of Good and Evil God had commanded her and Adam not to eat of on pain of death, is instead the means to upgrade to a god herself.

Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods. (PL 286)

Eve takes the bait, and Adam the ever dutiful husband follows her lead. Rather than leading to godhood, eating from the Tree of Knowledge results in the couple’s expulsion from the Garden and the beginning of the sad fate of human beings until the arrival, promised to Adam by the archangel, Michael, of the Messiah.

If Bacon was trying to recover a prelapsarian knowledge of nature with his new science, Milton might be thought of as trying to unveil this prelapsarian world itself through his enormous powers of intuition, imagination and poetry. Yet, in Milton we also find a kind of moral critique that warns us not to confuse our new found material powers with the ability to self-generate, to actually be gods which is the driving force behind his version of Satan’s rebellion, and the Fall itself.

And this is what people today who talk of us “becoming gods” or “omnipotenders” or any such thing are engaged in- a category error thinkers and poets such as Bacon and Milton warned us against. Or, in secular terms they have taken but one piece of religious mythology, inverted it, and have confused themselves into thinking it is real. God in Christian mythology can be the architect, designer and controller of nature because he is thought to be somehow “outside” or “above” nature like a player of Simcity.

I often wonder whether the type of science we have would have emerged absent this Christian originating confusion that we are somehow “outside” of nature, or if science could have emerged at all without such confusion? There are no real answers to those questions. What we do know is that we are actually inside of nature and therefore incapable of exercising god-like sovereignty over it because affecting one thing means changing another which then affects us and so on and so on ad infinitum. There is no return to a prelapsarian state as either fully empowered human beings or as gods because no such state ever existed- it was a myth which allowed us to launch and exercise a new form of still very limited control over our surroundings. And still, we can not forget that such limited control is real and its results are astounding, but the powers themselves are morally neutral. The question is what should we use them for?

As Bacon pointed out, such control over nature can be used for a host of different ends. On the more disturbing side science and technology have increased our ability to exercise power over other individuals, and groups to lord over rival groups (including our fellow animals) though the most horrific and truly apocalyptic of these powers are those of states aimed against states, at least to date.

Even so it is undeniably the case that, at the same time, absolutely nothing has improved “man’s estate” more than science and technology. Because of the revolution Bacon helped spark we live better and longer and there are more of us than ever before. This science used for the benefit of others should be understood in broadest terms as Bacon’s charity. Freed from its Christian derived prejudice that only the well-being of human beings count because they are considered the only creature made in the “image of God” such charity is easily extendable outward to the animal world or perhaps someday sentient machines.

Though its exact boundaries and priorities are likely to be forever contentious, charity, unlike the similarly Christian derived desire to become “godlike”, is sensible and translates across a wide range of human value systems both secular and religious. Buddhists understand it, as do Muslims. As mentioned the urge to charity can be found at the heart of the secular left. And yet science is not often understood in this Baconian sense of charity ,or perhaps worse the best path to charity is too little seen in science.  Imagine, for instance, a world where a good portion of the Muslim obligation to charity, the zakat, estimated to be fifteen times global humanitarian aid went to science and technology to improve the lot of people in the poorer parts of the Islamic world.

In our diverse modern world Baconian charity is perhaps the only almost universally acceptable utopian project possible and our best road to survive as a species. Bacon’s question of whether or not we use science and technology primarily as our greatest tools for improving “man’s estate” as in charity, or instead use the as a means of power and control that serves our individual ambitions and group rivalries will inevitably decide whether or not newfound form of knowledge that we call science was ultimately a blessing- or a curse.

The Falling Sky: A Different Sort of Science Fiction

Magellanic Clouds from the Souther Hemisphere

Rebecca Rosen over at the Atlantic has a fascinating recent article about how the MIT Media Lab is using science-fiction to help technologists think through the process of design. Not merely to think up new gadgets, but to think iteratively and consciously about the technologies they are creating to try and prevent negative implications from occurring before a technology is up and running. A fascinating idea that get us beyond the endless dichotomy of those who call for relinquishment and those urging, risks be damned, full-steam ahead.

For how little respect it gets in literary circles, science-fiction, is a genre that takes the big questions seriously and remains the best tool we have for thinking through the social and ethical questions brought about by technology and for reflecting upon what it means to be human given the decline, at least among many educated persons, of the kinds intellectual and emotional buttresses once provided by religion and the adoption of a materialist worldview that has been built largely out of the discoveries of modern science.

It was in the sense of reflecting upon what it means to be human and what all those experiences that surround every human life such as time, birth and death, love and loss, from a standpoint that is essentially agnostic or atheistic that I found the recent first novel called The Falling Sky  by the one time astronomer, Pippa Goldschmidt, such an amazing work of art. It is as if Goldschmitt has invented a brand new form of science-fiction though perhaps she doesn’t think of her work as any sort of science-fiction at all.

I first learned of Goldschmidt from a piece she had written for the New York Times. She wrote of her experience as an astronomer, working, as astronomers needing to escape the constant glare of our city lights need to do, in one of the remotest of places, in this case the Atacama Desert, in Chile. North of the observatory at which she worked lay a place with a horrible history, Chacabuco, a former concentration camp from the 1970’s set up by the regime of Augusto Pinochet. Goldschmidt wrote of the disjunction between the astronomical work she was engaged in and the horrors of Chacabuco:

Our telescopes had the power to detect candle flames many miles away, not to mention galaxies billions of light years away. And yet they never turned toward the camp. They weren’t built to do that sort of observation.”

And I thought; how pregnant with reflection on the nature and role of science, with the need to confront historical memory, with the demand that we keep our eyes open to the truths of the human and not just the natural world , is that! When I saw that Goldschmitt had just published The Falling Sky I felt compelled to buy it, and although the specific juxtaposition of astronomers working in the Atacama with the harsh world of Chacabuco played only a small part in the novel, it did not disappoint. What I found instead in The Falling Sky was a deep reflection on science and consilience, memory and truth, certainty and uncertainty, life and death.

The Falling Sky tells the story of the Smith family and their struggle to recover from the death of the oldest daughter, Kate, in a mysterious drowning accident. The three remaining Smiths, Jenette, the protagonist, her mother and her father each respond to Kate’s death in radically different ways all of which share the feature of being ways to reorient themselves in time. What each of the Smiths attempt to recover is the world of the past- the world where Kate was still vibrant and alive though the ways in which these attempts at recovery are made are radically different.

It is in part Kate’s death and even more her parent’s reaction to it, that draws Jeanette to the stars. The vast interstellar distances mean that looking at the night sky is also looking into the past and becomes a sort of comfort for Jeanette. It is partially in the search for a framework of meaning that would make sense of Kate’s death that Jeanette will turn her passion for astronomy into a successful career. The novel is also, then, a book about the internal politics of science, its very human vanity and careerism, the role of women in science and how psychological need and inclinations influence the process of scientific discovery itself.

Jeannette’s astronomical explorations in Chile result in what might amount to a monumental discovery: two galaxies linked together in such a way that the Big Bang theory of the origin of the Universe seems challenged. Precisely the idea that had drawn Jeannette to astronomy while a child as a way to understand Kate’s death. Up until the time of this discovery science has offered Jeanette a clear line of causation that serves as an alternative to the contingency not just of Kate’s death but her birth.

Kate was born 13.7 billion years ago in the Big Bang…

Indeed, for Jeannette astronomy itself is almost a religious practice:

Those journeys up the mountain into air stretched out thin feel as if they take place in another life. Perhaps they’re the scientific equivalent of going to a monastery. Perhaps the only way to understand the universe is to retreat from normal life.

The light now seen from those stars has been emitted by them before Kate died. She has the power to see into the past into a world that is innocent of Kate’s death.

The only way to escape is to travel into atoms and stars….. To uncover the ages of the Universe, like geologic layers, and see how the constant expansion of the Universe makes time happen.”

Jeanette can contrast the solidity of cosmic evolution from Big Bang to the formation of galaxies and stars to the emergence of life which gave rise to her lost sister Kate to “the other version” of her sister being born, the human version, with Kate and Jeannette’s parents meeting on a train platform by sharing a handkerchief. The human story is too contingent, accidental, “ too uncertain, there are too many unknowns”. It also a version subject to the inconstancy of human memory- each parent with a slightly different version of how they met the other- who gave the handkerchief to whom?

If Jeannette’s answer to the death of her sister is to turn her gaze away from the present and peer into deep time, her parent’s engage in their own attempts to keep to reach into the past and hold onto the time before their daughter’s death no matter how much such efforts end up distorting the present and robbing them of the future.

For Jeanette’s mother the goal becomes to freeze time to kept the stream of entropy damned at the time of Kate’s death. The mother does this by creating a kind of museum room for Kate in the family’s new house, a house Kate herself never lived in. The room

… is like an event horizon showing the last bit of ordinary life clinging to Kate.

Jeanette’s mother also takes on a new career and becomes a de-clutterer helping people to purge themselves of their accumulated things.

Jeanette can’t stop thinking of all the things taken away, like some surgical procedure performed by her mother. People amputated from their favorite belongings.

In a way you might see the actions of Jeanette’s mother as a sort of stand against the forces of entropy, the source of the Universe’s arrow of time, the fact that things pile up transform, grow chaotic, inevitably change. Jeanette’s mother wants a world frozen in amber at the time of her daughter’s death and has in the process turned her family’s home into “a desert devoid of time.”

The response of Jeannette father to Kate’s death is also one of trying to anchor himself to the past though at first he is confronted by the garden grown with his own hands and its display of the ability of nature to seemingly escape death through it’s capacity to begin again.

But as her dad tended to the garden and watched it grow, he must have realized how blind all this activity is. There’s no intent, no purpose to this new grass. It simply is. And Kate simply isn’t. It must have taunted him with its ability to revive and renew.

The initial response of Jeannette father, however, is to set his garden ablaze and in the process burn himself. His response, thereafter, is not only to tend to his vegetable garden and flowers, the only type of resurrection he can control, but to try to anchor himself to the past in a way that is similar to that of his wife and Jeannette. Shortly before Kate’s death he had been flirting with a woman and he now throws himself into extramarital affairs which also serve as an escape from the suffocation of his home.

Yet, if The Falling Sky gives us a whole world of reflection on the subject of time and death, it is a novel of much else besides, such as giving us a new and what I found to be a deeper version of what E.O Wilson called “consilience”- the coming together of science and the humanities.

In contrast to the way the digitization of the tools of astronomy have cut astronomers off from the sky they see with their eyes, which is what Jeannette experiences during her research in Chile, her early love of astronomy grew not only from an urge to escape but from the desire to partake of a kind of unveiling where the true nature of the Universe could be seen. In developing an exposure of Rigel one of the many double stars of Orion:

This is what she can do. Make the unseen, seen. Find things and know them. These things are real to her, even though she can’t reach them.

Later in her life, Jeannette’s lover Paula who is an artist engages in a similar sort of unveiling. Her portrait of Jeannette dealing not with her surface but uncovering what might only be called her essence. In the same way that Jeannette photographs of her first, and unrequited love while she was a teenager, Alice, were an attempt to unveil the girl’s “soul”. In a way the failure of this love when Alice flees at the confession of Jeannette’s feelings sets the stage for her obsessive focus on astronomy. Viewed from a sufficient distance the Universe will not crush you and yet still offers itself up to be unveiled.

Sex too is presented as the same sort of unveiling, the discovery of a body and the depth of the person behind it. Jeannette understands this in the language of science:

Since they became lovers, Paula exists in several dimensions in a way no one else does…. they don’t overwhelm her with information and memories in the way that Paula does. She can’t look at Paula’s arms without being reminded of the first time she stroked them, and felt the texture of the skin. Only Paula fully inhabits space and time.”

Goldschmitt is offering here a version of consilience that is much different than the kinds of hierarchy of knowledge seen in the works of E.O. Wilson. Rather than science being the perspective from which all fields of knowledge derive their ultimate sanction, science is just one among many different not so much types but practices of seeing and unveiling to see. Astronomy reveals one type of truth about the Universe, but so does painting and even love. Yet, this kind of unveiling demands a kind of openness to what one will find once one attempts to really know something or someone, and such openness can best be understood as a willingness to accept uncertainty. Perhaps, The Falling Sky might best be understood as a primer on accepting uncertainty as the price of deep knowledge and this is as much the case for science as it is for art and even more so when it comes to romantic love.

In the scenes where Jeannette is interviewed by the BBC, Goldschmitt not merely manages to display the way in which science is distorted by modern media and those vested in some particular outcome when it comes to scientific discovery but the centrality of uncertainty for the practice of science itself.

Jeannette discovery undermining the support for the Big Bang becomes fodder for religiously inspired intelligent- design “loons” who see in her touching galaxies a cosmic scale version of Michelangelo’s “God and Man”. But traditional religion appears much less pernicious than the peddlers of pseudo-science who run far ahead of Jeannette potentially paradigm shifting discovery.

Here is how Goldschmitt describes one such peddler, David Grant, being interviewed with Jennette on the BBC about the implications of her discovery:

Grant: “Oh, there are all sorts of possibilities. The plasma universe is one. In this model everything is connected by twisted magnetic fields…’  He’s off. Not even the interviewer can stop him spouting an incontinent stream of alternative theories… It’s all words. He’s not making any attempt to explain these madcap ideas they’re just spilling out all over the studio, most likely confirming the interviewer’s prejudice that science is long words and jargon, designed to exclude ordinary people.”

Jeannette directly confronts the interviewers notion that science exists to give us clear and unambiguous answers:

That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.

Yet, the extent to which Jeannette has been dependent on the control over uncertainty she has gained through astronomy is shown when the Orion probe, which is the only means by which her touching galaxies and their implications for the Big Bang can be definitively established, blows up at launch. At that she suffers mental breakdown unable to reconcile a long lasting uncertainty, which she herself has caused, regarding the very theory upon which she has centered her personality.

‘What else would be normal if we didn’t have a Big Bang?’ ‘It would just be- chaos. No structure at all.’  And she realizes, maybe for the first time, that most people don’t have this structure to their lives. This cosmic scaffolding to cling onto. Perhaps that’s why they go for religion.

By choosing a course that seemed to grant her financial certainty, as in tenure and grants through the notoriety of her findings, Jeannette has put at risk and ultimately lost the kind of cosmic solidity that she has embraced in light of her sister’s death.

What Goldschmitt is exploring here is a relationship between the accepting uncertainty and our orientation towards both the world around us and the people we place our trust in within it. Any open exploration in science, in art, in love means we may discover something we do not like or might not want to know. It is a form of risk taking where risk consists of losing the very identity, and our affection for and connection to the very object, that pulled us towards it in the first place.

Many human endeavors exist in this space besides art, science, and love. Plato in his Symposium describes philosophy as a form of love that works in this way. Religion, not when it is the source of “answers”, but in its mystical manifestations which are born of the search for God and end in an acceptance of the ineffable nature of the divine is like this as well.

Goldschmitt is also exploring the relationship of uncertainty and our orientation towards the future. Jeannette’s family is restored only when the uncertain nature of Kate’s drowning death is laid out for all to see and confront. In accepting this other risks and their uncertain outcomes can now be embraced- Jennette can be open with her family about her sexuality as can her father with his infidelities. Jeannette can walk away from renewing her relationship with Paula in a spirit of openness to what the future might bring.

Jeannette ultimately comes to see Kate’s death in a way similar to how her father experienced his garden but was initially unable to accept:

But even in nothing there is always something. Nothingness never actually exists. Nothing plus the uncertainty principle will always make something, particles of energy that pop into being and out again. The higher their energies the shorter their lives. That’ll do for her. She can play with that.

In writing The Falling Sky Goldschmitt has provided an alternative to the common literary tropes that are so often found when scientists are found in a work of fiction. There is the Promethean trope of the scientist struggling against the odds and against the forces of ignorance to arrive at the truth whose mirror image is the equally as common myth of Dr Frankenstein, the mad scientist whose hubris leads to destruction. The Falling Sky might be thought of as a version of realist science-fiction. The scientists in Goldschmidt’s novel, including Jeanette herself, are driven as much if not more by petty careerist aspirations and their own unmet psychological needs as by any heroic desire for the truth. At the same time, the scientist in The Falling Sky are no Dr Frankensteins either. Perhaps Jeannette’s ultimate goal is to understand the world as it really is and as best as she can and manifest a deep kind of inner courage in being willing to submit beliefs that for her have such deep psychological meaning to the challenge of scientific verification.

Goldschmidt’s leap over these two tropes of science-fiction is a perfect compliment to the much different use of science-fiction as a guide to ethical pre-design being experimented with at the MIT Media Lab whose premise is that both blind faith in science and technology and outright rejection is too simplistic. Let’s take warnings about the potential ill effects of a technology seriously and see if we can design around them before the technology is actually deployed.

Although we should not expect to always to have easy answers. Indeed, sometimes we see something more clearly even if no definitive answers have been provided at all. Above all, for me, that was what I gained by reading this wonderful little novel. In a way few works have done for me, after putting the book down I felt I knew more about time, and memory, and death, about what it means to live itself, and yet I was no nearer to any answers and felt even these revelations were beyond my power to articulate.