The strange prescience of Frank Herbert’s Dune

Dune Cover

As William Gibson always reminds us the real role of science-fiction isn’t so much to predict the future as to astound us with the future’s possible weirdness. It almost never happens that science-fiction writers get core or essential features of this future weirdness right, and when they do, according to Gibson, it’s almost entirely by accident. Nevertheless, someone writing about the future can sometimes, and even deliberately, play the role of Old Testament prophet, seeing some danger to which the rest of us are oblivious and guess at traps and dangers into which we later fall. (Though let’s not forget about the predictions of opportunity.)

Frank Herbert’s Dune certainly wasn’t intended to predict the future, but he was certainly trying to give us a warning. Unlike others who would spend the 1960’s and 1970’s warning us of dangers that we ended up avoiding almost by sheer luck- such as nuclear war- Herbert focused his warnings on very ancient dangers, the greed of mercantile corporations, the conflicts of feudalism, and the danger that arises from a too tight coupling between politics and religion. This Herbert imagined at a time well before capitalism’s comeback, when the state and its authority seemed ascendant, and secularism seemed inseparable from modernity to the extent it that it appeared we had left religion in history’s dry dust.

To these ancient dangers Herbert added a new one – ecological fragility- a relatively newly discovered danger to humanity at the time Dune was published (1965). In a very strange way these things added together capture, I think, something essential about our 21st century world.

The world the novel depicts is a future some 21,000 years, which if we were taking the date seriously means that it is almost certain that everything Herbert “predicted” would be wrong. The usefulness in placing his novel so far ahead in the future, I think, lies in the fact that he could essentially ignore all the major stories of his day, like the Cold War, or the threat of nuclear destruction, Vietnam, or even social movements such as those fighting for civil rights.

By depicting such a far removed future Herbert had no obligation to establishing continuity with our own time. The only pressing assumption or question that a reader would face when considering the plausibility of this future world was “where are the computers and robots?” for surely human civilization in the future will have robots!  Dune’s answer is that they had been destroyed in something known as the Butlerian Jihad. This is brilliant because it liberated Herbert from the fool’s errand of having to make technological predictions about the future, and allowed him to build a far future with recognizable human beings still in it.

Herbert essentially ransacks the past for artifacts, including ideas and social systems and uses it to build a world that will allow him to flesh out his warnings including new question of ecological fragility mentioned above .

Most of the novel takes place on the desert planet of Arrakis a planet that would be without importance for anyone but the Fremen who inhabit it were it not for the fact that it is also the only source of “the spice” (melange) a sort of psychotropic drug and elixir that is the most valuable commodity in the universe not only because once ingested its absence will lead to death, but because it is the source of the prescience humans need in a world without even the most rudimentary form of artificial intelligence as a consequence of the Butlerian Jihad, about which the novel contains only whispers.

Given our current concerns about the rise of artificial intelligence, when reading Dune now, the Butlerian Jihad jumps out at you. Could this be where it ends, not with superintelligence but with a version of Samuel Butler’s revolt against the machines depicted in his novel Erewhon,  only this revolt on religious and humanists grounds?

Yet rather than present a world that returned to a pre-technological state because it denied itself the use of even “thinking” machines at the level of a calculator, those roles become filled by human/biological computers the “mentats”. Who like our computers today are used to see into a future we believe to be determined.

It is the navigational computation of the mentats that allow space travel and thus exchange between the planets. The spice trade is controlled by two monopolistic corporate entities The Spacing Guild and the CHOAM that effectively control all trade in the interstellar empire.

It is in reference to our looming fears about artificial intelligence and trepidation at growing inequality where the kind of mercantilism and feudalism depicted in Dune  make the novel feel prescient even if accidentally so. There is an Empire in Dune, much as there is a global empire today in the form of the United States, but, just as in our case, it is a very weak empire riddled by divisions between corporate entities that control trade and rival families that compete to take center stage.

Then there is the predominance of religion. Many have been very surprised by la revanche de Dieu in the late 20th and early 21st century- the predominance of religious questions and conflicts at a time when many had predicted God’s death. Dune reminds us of our current time because it is seeping with religion. Religious terms – most tellingly jihad- are used throughout the novel. Characters understand themselves and are understood by others in religious terms. Paul (Muad’Dib), the protagonist of the novel, is understood in messianic terms. He is a figure prophesized to save the desert Fremen people of Arrakis and convert their world to a paradise.

Yet, however much he was interested in and sympathetic to world religions, Herbert was also trying to warn us against their potential for violence and abuse. Though he tries to escape it, Paul feels fated to conquer the universe in a global jihad. This despite the fact that he knows the messianic myth is a mere role he is playing created by others- the Bene Gesserit mentat order- to which he and his mother belong. In Dune religious longings are manipulated in plots and counter-plots over the control over resources, a phenomenon with which we are all too familiar.

It not just that in Dune we find much of the same, sometimes alien, religious language we’ve heard on the news since the start of the “Long War”, even the effectiveness of the Fremen insurgents of the deserts against crack imperial troops the Sardaukar feels too damned familiar. Though perhaps what Herbert had done was gave us a glimpse of what would be the future of the Middle East by looking at its past including figures such as Lawrence of Arabia off of whom the character of Paul Atreides appears to be based.

All this and we haven’t even gotten to the one danger that Herbert identifies in Dune that was relatively new, that is ecological  fragility.  As is well known Dune, was inspired by Herbert’s experience of the Oregon Dunes and the US Department of Agriculture’s attempt to control the spread of its sands created by millions of years of coastal erosion by using natural methods such as the planting of grasses.

Here I think Herbert found what he thought was the correct model for our relationship with nature. We would neither be able to rule over nature like gods, but nor would we surrender our efforts to control her destructiveness or to make deserts bloom. Instead of pummeling her with mechanical power (a form of exploitation that will eventually kill a living planet) , we should use the softer and more intelligent methods of nature herself to steer her in a slow dance where we would not always be in the lead.

The interstellar civilization in Dune is addicted to the spice in the same way we are addicted to our fossil fuels and that addiction has turned the world of Arrakis into a desert- for the worms that produce the spice also make the world dry  in the same way the carbon we are emitting is turning much of the North American continent into a desert.

As I was reading Dune the story of California’s historic drought was all over the news- especially the pictures. Our own Arrakis. As Kynes the ecologist imagines his dead father saying (how many other novels have an ecologist as a main character?):

“The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.” (272)

If Herbert was in a sense prescient about the themes of the first decades of the 21st century it was largely by accident, and his novel provides a metaphysical theory as to why true prescience will prove ultimately impossible even for the most powerful superintelligence should we chose to build (or biologically engineer) them.

Paul experiences the height of his ability to peer into the future this way:

The prescience, he realized, was an illumination that incorporated the limits of what it revealed- at once a source of accuracy and meaningful error. A kind of Heisenberg indeterminacy intervened: the expenditure of energy that revealed what he saw, changed what he saw.

… the most minute action- the wink of an eye, a careless word, a misplaced grain of sand- moved a gigantic lever across the known universe. He saw violence with the outcome subject to so many variables that his slightest movement created vast shiftings in the patterns.

The vision made him want to freeze into immobility, but this, too was action with its consequences. (296)

In other words, if reality is truly deterministic it remains unpredictable because the smallest action(or inaction) can have the consequence of opening up another set of possible possibilities – a whole new multiverse that will have its own future. Either that, or perhaps all Paul ever sees are just imagined possibilities and we remain undetermined and free.

 

Auguries of Immortality, Malthus and the Verge

Hindu Goddess Tara

Sometimes, if you want to see something in the present clearly it’s best to go back to its origins. This is especially true when dealing with some monumental historical change, a phase transition from one stage to the next. The reason I think this is helpful is that those lucky enough to live at the beginning of such events have no historical or cultural baggage to obscure their forward view. When you live in the middle, or at the end of an era, you find yourself surrounded, sometimes suffocated, by all the good and bad that has come as a result. As a consequence, understanding the true contours of your surroundings or ultimate destination is almost impossible, your nose is stuck to the glass.

Question is, are we ourselves in the beginning of such an era, in the middle, or at an end? How would we even know?

If I were to make the case that we find ourselves in either the middle or the end of an era, I know exactly where I would start. In 1793 the eccentric English writer William Godwin published his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, a book which few people remember. What Godwin is remembered for instead is his famous daughter Mary Shelley, and her even more famous monster, though I should add that if you like thrillers you can thank Godwin for having invented them.

Godwin’s Enquiry, however, was a different kind of book. It grew out of the environment of a time which, in Godwin’s eyes at least, seemed pregnant with once unimaginable hope. The scientific revolution had brought about a fuller understanding of nature and her laws than anything achieved by the ancients, the superstitions of earlier eras were abandoned for a new age of enlightenment, the American Revolution had brought into the world a whole new form of government based on Enlightenment principles, and, as Godwin wrote, a much more important similar revolution had overthrown the monarchy in France.

All this along with the first manifestations of what would become the industrial revolution led Godwin to speculate in the Enquiry that mankind had entered a new era of perpetual progress. Where then could such progress and mastery over nature ultimately lead? Jumping off of a comment by his friend Ben Franklin, Godwin wrote:

 Let us here return to the sublime conjecture of Franklin, that “mind will one day become omnipotent over matter.” If over all other matter, why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which, however ignorant we may be of the tie that connects it with the thinking principle, we always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man be one day immortal?

Here then we can find evidence for the recent claim of Yuval Harari that “The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.” (268)  In later editions of the Enquiry, however, Godwin dropped the suggestion of immortality, though it seems he did it not so much because of the criticism that followed from such comments, or the fact that he stopped believing in it, but rather that it seemed too much a termination point for his notion of progress that he now thought really would extend forever into the future for his key point was that the growing understanding by the mind would result in an ever increasing power of the mind over the material world in a process that would literally never end.

Almost at the exact same time as Godwin was writing his Enquiry another figure was making almost the exact same argument including the idea that scientific progress would eventually result in indefinite human lifespans. The Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit was a book written by a courageous man while on the run from a French Revolutionary government that wanted to cut off his head. Amazingly, even while hunted down during the Terror, Condorcet retained his long term optimism regarding the ultimate fate of humankind.

A young English parson with a knack for the just emerging science of economics, not only wasn’t buying it, he wanted to actually scientifically prove (though I am using the term loosely) exactly why  such optimism should not be believed. This was Thomas Malthus, whose name, quite mistakenly, has spawned its own adjective, Malthusian, which means essentially environmental disaster caused by our own human hands and faults.

As is commonly known, Malthus’ argument was that historically there has been a mismatch between the growth of population and the production of food which sooner or later has led to famine and decline. It was Godwin’s and Condorcet’s claims regarding future human immortality that, in part, was responsible for Malthus stumbling upon his specific argument centered on population. For the obvious rejoinder to those claiming that the human lifespan would increase forever was-  what would we do will all of these people?

Both Godwin and Condorcet thought they had answered this question by claiming that in the future the birth rate would decline to zero. Stunningly, this has actually proven to be correct- that population growth rates have declined in parallel with increases in longevity. Though, rather than declining due to the victory of “reason” and the conquest of the “passions” as both Godwin and Condorcet thought they declined because sex was, for the first time in human history, decoupled from reproduction through the creation of effective forms of birth control.

So far, at least, it seems it has been Godwin and Condorcet that have gotten the better side of the argument. Since the  Enquiry we have experienced nearly 250 years of uninterrupted progress where mind has gained increasing mastery over the material world. And though,we are little closer to the optimists’ dream of “immortality” their prescient guess that longevity would be coupled with a declining birth rate would seem to clear the goal of increased longevity from being self-defeating on Malthusian grounds.

This would not be, of course, the first time Malthus has been shown to be wrong. Yet his ideas, or a caricature of his ideas, have a long history of retaining their hold over our imagination.  Exactly why this is the case is a question  explored in detail by Robert J. Mayhew in his excellent, Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet, Malthus’ argument in his famous if rarely actually read An Essay on the Principle of Population has become a sort of secular version of armageddon, his views latched onto by figures both sinister and benign over the two centuries since his essay’s publication.

Malthus’ argument was used against laws to alleviate the burdens of poverty, which it was argued would only increase population growth and an ultimate reckoning (and this view, at least, was close to that of Malthus himself). They were used by anti-immigrant and racist groups in the 19th and early 20th century. Hitler’s expansionist and genocidal policy in eastern Europe was justified on Malthusian grounds.

On a more benign side, Malthusian arguments were used as a spur to the Green Revolution in Agriculture in the 1960’s (though Mayhew thinks the warnings of pending famine were political -arising from the cold war- and overdone.) Malthusianism was found in the 1970’s by Paul Ehrlich to warn of a “population bomb” that never came, during the Oil Crisis slid into the fear over resource constraints, and can now be found in predictions about the coming “resource” and “water” wars. There is also a case where Malthus really may have his revenge, though more on that in a little bit.

And yet, we would be highly remiss were we to not take the question Malthus posed seriously. For what he was really inquiring about is whether or not their might be ultimate limits on the ability of the human mind to shape the world in which it found itself. What Malthus was  looking for was the boundary or verge of our limits as established by the laws of nature as he understood them. Those whose espoused the new human perfectionism, such as Godwin and Condorcet, faced what appeared to Malthus to be an insurmountable barrier to their theories being considered scientific, no matter how much they attached themselves to the language and symbols of the recent success of science. For what they were predicting would happen had no empirical basis- it had never happened before. Given that knowledge did indeed seem to increase through history, if merely as a consequence of having the time to do so, it was still the case that the kind of radical and perpetual progress that Godwin and Condorcet predicted was absent from human history. Malthus set out to provide a scientific argument for why.

In philosophical terms Malthus’ Essay is best read as a theodicy, an attempt like that of Leibniz before him, to argue that even in light of the world’s suffering we live in the “best of all possible world’s”. Like Newton did for falling objects, Malthus sought the laws of nature as designed by his God that explained the development of human society. Technological and social progress had remained static in the past even as human knowledge regarding the world accumulated over generations because the gap between mind and matter was what made us uniquely human. What caused us to most directly experience this gap and caused progress to remain static? Malthus thought he pinned the source of stasis in famine and population decline.

As is the case with any other physical system, for human societies, the question boiled down to how much energy was available to do meaningful work. Given that the vast majority of work during Malthus’ day was done by things that required energy in the form of food whether humans or animals, the limited amount of land that could be efficiently tilled presented an upper bound to the size, complexity, and progress of any human society.

What Malthus missed, of course, was the fact that the relationship between food and work was about to be severed. Or rather, the new machines did consume a form of processed “food” organic material that had been chemically “constructed” and accumulated over the eons, in the form of fossil fuels that offered an easily accessible type of energy that was different in kind from anything that had come before it.

The sheer force of the age of machines Malthus had failed to foresee did indeed break with the flatline of human history he had identified in every prior age. A fact that has never perhaps been more clearly than in Ian Morris’ simple graph below.

Ian Morris Great Divergence Graph

What made this breaking of the pattern between all of past human history and the last few centuries is the thing that could possibly, and tragically, prove Malthus right after all- fossil fuels.  For any society before 1800 the majority of energy other than that derived from food came in the form of wood- whether as timber itself or charcoal. But as Lewis Dartnell pointed out in a recent piece in AEON the world before fossil fuels posed a seemingly unsurmountable (should I say Malthusian?) dilemma; namely:

The central problem is that woodland, even when it is well-managed, competes with other land uses, principally agriculture. The double-whammy of development is that, as a society’s population grows, it requires more farmland to provide enough food and also greater timber production for energy. The two needs compete for largely the same land areas.

Dartnell’s point is that we have been both extremely lucky and unlucky in how accessible and potent fossil fuels have been. On the one hand fossil fuels gave us a rather short path to technological society, on the other, not only will it be difficult to wean ourselves from them, it is hard to imagine how we could reboot as a civilization should we suffer collapse and find ourselves having already used up most of the world’s most easily accessed forms of energy.

It is a useful exercise, then, to continue to take Malthus’ argument seriously, for even if we escape the second Malthusian trap- fossil fuel induced climate change- that allowed us to break free from the trap Malthus’ originally identified- our need to literally grow our energy- there are other predictable traps that likely lie in store.

One of these traps that interests me the most has to do with the “energy problem” that Malthus understood in terms of the production of food. As I’ve written about before, and as brought to my attention by the science writer Lee Billings in his book Five Billion Years of Solitude, there is a good and little discussed case from physics for thinking we might be closer to the end of an era that began with the industrial revolution rather than in the middle or even at the beginning.

This physics of civilizational limits comes from Tom Murphy of the University of California, San Diego who writes the blog Do The Math. Murphy’s argument, as profiled by the BBC, has some of the following points:

  • Assuming rising energy use and economic growth remain coupled, as they have in the past, confronts us with the absurdity of exponentials. At a 2.3 percent growth rate within 2,500 hundred years we would require all the energy from all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy to function.
  • At 3 percent growth, within four hundred years we will have boiled away the earth’s oceans, not because of global warming, but from the excess heat that is the normal product of energy production. (Even clean fusion leaves us burning away the world’s oceans for the same reason)
  • Renewables push out this reckoning, but not indefinitely. At a 3 percent growth rate, even if the solar efficiency was 100% we would need to capture all of the sunlight hitting the earth within three hundred years.

Will such limits prove to be correct and Malthus, in some sense, be shown to have been right all along? Who knows. The only way we’d have strong evidence to the contrary is if we came across evidence of civilizations with a much, much greater energy signature than our own. A recent project out of Penn State to do just that, which looked at 100,000 galaxies, found nothing, though this doesn’t mean the search is over.

Relating back to my last post: the universe may lean towards giving rise to complexity in the way the physicist Jeremy England suggests, but the landscape is littered with great canyons where evolution gets stuck for very long periods of time which explains its blindness as perceived by someone like Henry Gee. The scary thing is getting out of these canyons is a race against time: complex life could have been killed off by some disaster shortly after the Cambrian explosion, we could have remained hunter gatherers and failed to develop agriculture before another ice age did us in, some historical contingency could have prevented industrialization before some global catastrophe we are advanced enough now to respond to wiped us out.

If Tom Murphy is right we are now in a race to secure exponentially growing sources of energy, and it is a race we are destined to lose. The reason we don’t see any advanced civilizations out there is because the kind of growth we’ve extrapolated from the narrow slice of the past few centuries is indeed a finite thing as the amount of energy such growth requires reaches either terrestrial or cosmic limits. We simply won’t be able to gain access to enough energy fast enough to keep technological progress going at its current rate.

Of course, even if we believe that progress has some limit out there, that does not necessarily entail we shouldn’t pursue it, in many of its forms, until we hit the verge itself. Taking arguments that there might be limits to our technological progress is one thing, but to our moral progress, our efforts to address suffering in the world, they are quite another, for there accepting limits would mean accepting some level of suffering or injustice as just the “way things are”.  That we should not accept this Malthus himself nearly concluded:

 Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are, the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator. (124-125)

The problem lies with the justification of the suffering of individual human beings in any particular form as “natural”. The crime at the heart of many versions of Malthusianism is this kind of aggregation of human beings into some kind of destructive force, which leads to the denial of the only scale where someone’s true humanity can be scene- at the level of the individual. Such a moral blindness that sees only the crowd can be found in the work the most famous piece of modern Malthusianism -Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb where he discusses his experience of Delhi.

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to the buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the  dust, noise, heat, and the cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened. (p. 1)

Striped of this inability to see the that the value of human beings can only be grasped at the level of the individual and that suffering can only be assessed in a moral sense at this individual level, Malthus can help to remind us that our mind’s themselves emerge out of their confrontation and interaction with a material world where we constantly explore, overcome, and confront again its boundaries. That the world itself was probably “a mighty process for awakening matter into mind” and even the most ardent proponents of human perfectionism, modern day transhumanists or singularitarians, or just plain old humanists would agree with that.

* Image: Tara (Devi): Hindu goddess of the unquenchable hunger that compels all life.

Life: Inevitable or Accident?

The-Tree-Of-Life Gustav Klimt

Here’s the question: does the existence of life in the universe reflect something deep and fundamental or is it merely an accident and epiphenomenon?

There’s an interesting new theory coming out of the field of biophysics that claims the cosmos is indeed built for life, and not just merely in the sense found in the so-called “anthropic principle” which states that just by being here we can assume that all of nature’s fundamental values must be friendly for complex organisms such as ourselves that are able to ask such questions. The new theory makes the claim that not just life, but life of ever growing complexity and intelligence is not just likely, but the inevitable result of the laws of nature.

The proponent of the new theory is a young physicist at MIT named Jeremy England. I can’t claim I quite grasp all the intricate details of England’s theory, though he does an excellent job of explaining it here, but perhaps the best way of capturing it succinctly is by thinking of the laws of physics as a landscape, and a leaning one at that.

The second law of thermodynamics leans in the direction of increased entropy: systems naturally move in the direction of losing rather than gaining order over time, which is why we break eggs to make omelettes and not the other way round. The second law would seem to be a bad thing for living organisms, but oddly enough, ends up being a blessing not just for life, but for any self-organizing system so long as that system has a means of radiating this entropy away from itself.

For England, the second law provides the environment and direction in which life evolves. In those places where energy outputs from outside are available and can be dissipated because they have some boundary, such as a pool of water, self-organizing systems naturally come to be dominated by those forms that are particularly good at absorbing energy from their surrounding environment and dissipating less organized forms of energy in the form of heat (entropy) back into it.

This landscape in which life evolves, England postulates, may tilt as well in the direction of complexity and intelligence due to the fact that in a system that frequently changes in terms of oscillations of energy, those forms able to anticipate the direction of such oscillations gain the possibility of aligning themselves with them and thus become able to accomplish even more work through resonance.

England is in no sense out to replace Darwin’s natural selection as the mechanism through which evolution is best understood, though, should he be proved right, he would end up greatly amending it. If his theory ultimately proves successful, and it is admittedly very early days, England’s theory will have answered one of the fundamental questions that has dogged evolution since its beginnings. For while Darwin’s theory provides us with all the explanation we need for how complex organisms such as ourselves could have emerged out of seemingly random processes- that is through natural selection- it has never quite explained how you go from the inorganic to the organic and get evolution working in the first place. England’s work is blurring the line between the organic and the most complicated self-organizing forms of the inorganic, making the line separating cells from snowflakes and storms a little less distinct.

Whatever its ultimate fate, however, England’s theory faces major hurdles, not least because it seems to have a bias towards increasing complexity, and in its most radical form, points towards the inevitability that life will evolve in the direction of increased intelligence, ideas which many evolutionary thinkers vehemently disavow.

Some evolutionary theorists may see effort such as England’s not as a paradigm shift waiting in the wings, but as an example of a misconception regarding the relationship between increasing complexity and evolution that now appears to have been adopted by actual scientists rather than a merely misguided public. A misconception that, couched in scientific language, will further muddy the minds of the public leaving them with a conception of evolution that belongs much more to the 19th century than to the 21st. It is a misconception whose most vocal living opponent after the death of the irreplaceable Stephen J Gould has been the paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and senior editor of the journal Nature, Henry Gee, who has set out to disabuse us of it in his book The Accidental Species.

Gee’s goal is to remind us of what he holds to be the fundamental truth behind the theory of evolution- evolution has one singular purpose from which everything else follows in lockstep- reproduction. His objective is to do away, once and for all, with what he feels is a common misconception that evolution is leading towards complexity and progress and that the highest peak of this complexity and progress is us- human beings.

If improved prospects for reproduction can be bought through the increased complexity of an organism then that is what will happen, but it needn’t be the case. Gee points out that many species, notably some worms and many parasites, have achieved improved reproductive prospects by decreasing their complexity.Therefore the idea that complexity (as in an increase in the specialization and number of parts an organism has)  is a merely matter of evolution plus time doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Judged through the eyes of evolution, losing features and becoming more simple is not necessarily a vice. All that counts is an organism’s ability to make more copies, or for animals that reproduce through sex, blended copies of itself.

Evolution in this view isn’t beautiful but coldly functional and messy- a matter of mere reproductive success. Gee reminds us of Darwin’s idea of evolution’s product as a “tangled bank”- a weird menagerie of creatures each having their own particular historical evolutionary trajectory. The anal retentive Victorian era philosophers who tried to build upon his ideas couldn’t accept such a mess and:

…missed the essential metaphor of Darwin’s tangled bank, however, and saw natural selection as a sort of motor that would drive transformation from one preordained station on the ladder of life to the next one.” (37)

Gee also sets out to show how deeply limited our abilities are when it comes to understanding the past through the fossil record. Very, very, few of the species that have ever existed left evidence of their lives in the form of fossils, which are formed only under very special conditions, and where the process of fossilization greatly favors the preservation of some species over others. The past is thus incredibly opaque making it impossible to impose an overarching narrative upon it- such as increasing complexity- as we move from the past towards the present.

Gee, though an ardent defender of evolution and opponent of creationist pseudoscience, finds the gaps in the fossil record so pronounced that he thinks we can create almost any story we want from it and end up projecting our contemporary biases onto the speechless stones. This is the case even when the remains we are dealing with are of much more recent origin and especially when their subject is the origin of us.

We’ve tended, for instance, to link tool use and intelligence, even in those cases such as Homo Habilis, when the records and artifacts point to a different story. We’ve tended not to see other human species such as the so-called Hobbit man as ways we might have actually evolved had circumstances not played out in precisely the way they had. We have not, in Gee’s estimation, been working our way towards the inevitable goal of our current intelligence and planetary dominance, but have stumbled into it by accident.

Although Gee is in no sense writing in anticipation of a theory such as England’s his line of thinking does seem to pose obstacles that the latter’s hypothesis will have to address. If it is indeed the case that, as England has stated it, complex life arises inevitably from the physics of the universe, so that in his estimation:

You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.

Then England will have to address why it took so incredibly long – 4 billion years out of the earth’s 4.5 billion year history for actual plants to make their debut, not to mention similar spans for other complex eukarya such as animals like ourselves.

Whether something like England’s inevitable complexity or Gee’s, not just blind, but drunk and random, evolutionary walk is ultimately the right way to understand evolution has implications far beyond evolutionary theory. Indeed, it might have deep implications for the status and distribution of life in the universe and even inform the way we understand the current development of new forms of artificial intelligence.

What we have discovered over the last decade is that bodies of water appear to be both much more widespread and can be found in environments far beyond those previously considered. Hence NASA’s recent announcement that we are likely to find microbial life in the next 10 – 30 years both in our solar system and beyond. What this means is that England’s heat baths are likely ubiquitous, and if he’s correct, life likely can be found anywhere there is water- meaning nearly everywhere. There may even be complex lifelike forms that did not evolve through what we would consider normal natural selection at all.

If Gee is right the universe might be ripe for life, but the vast, vast majority of that life will be microbial and no amount of time will change that fate on most life inhabited worlds. If England in his minor key is correct the universe should at least be filled with complex multicellular life forms such as ourselves. Yet it is the possibility that England is right in his major key, that consciousness, civilization, and computation might flow naturally from the need of organisms to resonate with their fluctuating environments that, biased as we are, we likely find most exciting. Such a view leaves us with the prospect of many, many more forms of intelligence and technological civilizations like ourselves spread throughout the cosmos.

The fact that the universe so far has proven silent and devoid of any signs of technological civilization might give us pause when it comes to endorsing England’s optimism over Gee’s pessimism, unless, that is, there is some sort of limit or wall when it comes to our own perceived technological trajectory that can address the questions that emerge from the ideas of both. To that story, next time…

 

The Sofalarity is Near

Mucha Goddess Maia

Many readers here have no doubt spent at least some time thinking about the Singularity, whether in a spirit of hope or fear, or perhaps more reasonably some admixture of both. For my part, though, I am much less worried about a coming Singularity than I am about a Sofalarity in which our ability to create realistic illusions of achievement and adventure convinces the majority of humans that reality isn’t really worth all the trouble after all. Let me run through the evidence of an approaching Sofalarity. I hope you’re sitting down… well… actually I hope you’re not.

I would define a Sofalarity as a hypothetical  point in human history would when the majority of human beings spend most of their time engaged in activities that have little or no connection to actual life in the physical world. It’s not hard to see the outline of this today: on average, Americans already spend an enormous amount of time with their attention focused on worlds either wholly or partly imagined. The numbers aren’t very precise, and differ among age groups and sectors of the population, but they come out to be somewhere around five hours watching television per day, three hours online, and another three hours playing video games. That means, collectively at least, we spend almost half of our day in dream worlds, not counting the old fashioned kind such as those found in books or the ones we encounter when we’re actually sleeping.

There’s perhaps no better example of how the virtual is able to hijack our very real biology than pornography . Worldwide the amount of total internet traffic that is categorized as erotica ranges from a low of four to as high as thirty percent. When one combines that with recent figures claiming that up to 36 percent of internet traffic aren’t even human beings but bots, then it’s hard not to experience future shock.

Amidst all the complaining that the future hasn’t arrived yet and “where’s my jetpack?” a 21st century showed up where upwards of 66 percent of internet traffic could be people looking for pornography, bots pretending to be human, or, weirdest of all, bots pretending to be human looking for humans to have sex with. Take that Alvin Toffler.

Still all of this remains simply our version of painting on the walls of a prehistoric cave. Any true Sofalarity would likely require more than just television shows and Youtube clips. It would need to have gained the keys to our emotional motivation and senses.

As a species we’ve been trying to open the doors of perception with drugs long before almost anything else. What makes our current situation more likely to be leading toward a Sofalarity is that now this quest is a global business and that we’ve become increasingly sophisticated when it comes to playing tricks on our neurochemistry.

The problem any society has with individuals screwing with their neurochemistry is two-fold. The first is to make sure that enough sober people are available for the necessary work of keeping their society operating at a functional level, and the second is to prevent any ill effects from the mind altered from spilling over into the society at large.

The contemporary world has seemingly found a brilliant solution to this problem- to contain the mind altered in space and time, and making sure only the sober are running the show. The reason bars or dance clubs work is that only the customers are drunk or stoned and such places exist in a state of controlled chaos with the management carefully orchestrating the whole affair and making sure things remain lively enough that customers will return while ensuring that things also don’t get so dangerous patrons will stay away for the opposite reason.

The whole affair is contained in time because drunken binges last only through the weekend with individuals returning to their straight-laced bourgeois jobs on Monday, propped up, perhaps by a bit of stimulants to promote productivity.

Sometimes this controlled chaos is meant to last for longer stretches than the weekends, yet here again, it is contained in space and time. If you want to see controlled chaos perfected with technology thrown into the mix you can’t get any better than Las Vegas where seemingly endless opportunities for pleasure and losing one’s wits abound all the while one is being constantly monitored both in the name of safety, and in order that one not develop any existential doubts about the meaning of life under all that neon.   

If you ever find yourself in Vegas losing your dopamine fix after one too many blows from lady luck behind a one-armed bandit, and suddenly find some friendly casino staff next to you offering you free drinks or tickets to a local show, bless not the goddess of Fortune, but the surveillance cameras that have informed the house they are about to lose an unlucky, and therefore lucrative, customer. La Vegas is the surveillance capital of the United States, and it’s not just inside the casinos.

Ubiquitous monitoring seems to be the price of Las Vegas’ adoption of vice as a form of economy. Or as Megan McArdle put it in a recent article:

 Is the friendly police state the price of the freedom to drink and gamble with abandon?Whatever your position on vice industries, they are heavily associated with crime, even where they are legal. Drinking makes people both violent and vulnerable; gambling presents an almost irresistible temptation to cheating and theft.  Las Vegas has Disneyfied libertinism. But to do so, it employs armies of security guards and acres of surveillance cameras that are always and everywhere recording your every move.

Even the youngest of our young children now have a version of this: we call it Disney World. The home of Mickey Mouse has used current surveillance technology to its fullest, allowing it to give visitors to the “magic kingdom” both the experience of being free and one of reality seemingly bending itself in the shape of innocent fantasy and expectations. It’s a technology they work very hard to keep invisible. Disney’s magic band, which not only allows visitors to navigate seamlessly through its theme parks, but allows your dinner to be brought to you before you ordered it, or the guy or gal in the Mickey suit to greet your children by name before they have introduced themselves was described recently in a glowing article in Wired that quoted the company’s COO Tom Staggs this way:

 Staggs couches Disney’s goals for the MagicBand system in an old saw from Arthur C. Clarke. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he says. “That’s how we think of it. If we can get out of the way, our guests can create more memories.”

Nothing against the “magic of Disney” for children, but I do shudder a little thinking that so many parents don’t think twice about creating memories in a “world” that is not so much artificial as completely staged. And it’s not just for kids. They have actually built an entire industry around our ridiculousness here, especially in places in like China, where people pay to have their photos taken in front of fake pyramids or the Eiffel tower, or to vacation in places pretending to be someplace else.

Yet neither Las Vegas nor a Disney theme park resemble what a Sofalarity would look like in full flower. After all, the show girls at Bally’s or the poor soul under the mouse suit in Orlando are real people. What a true Sofalarity would entail is nobody being there at all, for the very people behind the pretend to no longer be there.

We’re probably some way off from a point where the majority of human labor is superfluous, but if things keep going at the rate they are, we’re not talking centuries. The rejoinder to claims that human labor will be replaced to the extent that most of us no longer have anything to do is often that we’ll become the creators and behind the scenes, the same way Apple’s American workers do the high end work of designing its products while the work of actually putting them together is done by numb fingers over in China. In the utopian version of our automated future we’ll all be designers on the equivalent of Infinite Loop Street while the robots provide the fingers.

Yet, over the long run, I am not sure this humans as mental creators/machines as physical producers distinction will hold. Our (quite dumb) computers already create visually stunning and unanticipated works or art, compose music that is indistinguishable from that created in human minds, and write things none of us realize are the product of clever programs. Who’s to say that decades hence, or over a longer stretch, they won’t be able to create richer fantasy worlds of every type that blow our minds and grip our attention far more than any crafted by our flesh and blood brethren?

And still, even should every human endeavor be taken over by machines, including our politics, we would still be short of a true Sofalarity because we would be left with the things that make us most human- the relationship we have with our loved ones. No, to see the Sofalarity in full force we’d need to have become little more than a pile of undulating mush like the creatures in the original conception of the movie Wall-E from which I ripped the term.

The only way we’d get to that point is if our created fantasies could reach deep under our skin and skulls and give us worlds and emotional experiences that atrophied to the point of irrecoverability what we now consider most essential to being a person. The signs are clear that we’re headed there. In Japan, for instance, there are perhaps 700,000 Hikikomori, modern day hermits that consist of adults who have withdrawn from 3 dimensional social relationships and live out their lives primarily online.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of very cool stuff either here or shortly coming down the pike, there’s Oculus Rift should it ever find developers and conquer the nausea problem, and there’s wonders such as Magic Leap, a virtual reality platform that allows you to see 3D images by beaming them directly into your eyes. Add to these things like David Eagleman’s crazy haptic vest, or brain readers that sit it your ear, not to mention things a little further off in terms of public debut that seem to have jumped right off the pages of Nexus, like brain-to-brain communication, or magnetic nanoparticles that allow brain stimulation without wires, and it’s plain to see we’re on the cusp of revolution in creating and experiencing purely imagined worlds, but all this makes it even more difficult to bust a poor hikikomori out of his 4’ x 4’ apartment.

It seems we might be on the verge of losing the distinction between the Enchantment of Fantasy and Magic that J.R.R Tolkien brought us in his brilliant lecture On Fairy Stories:

Enchantment produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside; but in its purity it is artistic in desire and purpose. Magic produces, or pretends to produce, an alteration in the Primary World. It does not matter by whom it is said to be practiced, fay or mortal, it remains distinct from the other two; it is not an art but a technique; its desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills.

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

For Tolkien, the primary point of fantasy was to enrich our engagement with the real world to allow us to see the ordinary anew. Though it might also be a place to hide and escape should the real world, whether for the individual or society as a whole , become hellish, as Tolkien, having fought in the World War I, lived through the Great Depression, and was on the eve of a second world war when he gave his lecture well knew.

To those who believe we might already be living in a simulation perhaps all this is merely like having traveled around the world only to end up exactly where you started as in the Borges’ story The Circular Ruins, or in the idea of many of the world’s great religions that we are already living in a state of maya or illusion, though we now make the case using much more scientific language. There’s a very serious argument out there, such as that of Nick Bostrom, that we are already living in a simulation. The way one comes to this conclusion is merely by looking at the virtual world we’ve already created and extrapolating the trend outward for hundreds or thousands of years. In such a world the majority of sentient creatures would be “living” entities in virtual environments, and these end up comprising the overwhelming number of sentient creatures that will ever exist. Statistical reasoning would seem to lead to the conclusion that you are more likely than not, right now, a merely virtual entity. There are even, supposedly, possible scientific experiments to test for evidence of this. Thankfully, in my view at least, the Higgs particle might prevent me from being a Boltzmann brain.

For my part, I have trouble believing I am living in a simulation. Running “ancestor simulations” seems like something a being with human intelligence might do, but it would probably bore the hell out of any superintelligence capable of actually creating the things, they would not provide any essential information for their survival, and given the historical and present suffering of our world would have to be run by a very amoral, indeed immoral being.

That was part of the fear Descartes was tapping into when he proposed that the world, and himself in it, might be nothing more than the dream of an “evil demon”. Yet what he was really getting at, as same as was the case with other great skeptics of history such as Hume, wasn’t so much the plausibility of the Matrix, but the limits surrounding what we can ever be said to truly know.

Some might welcome the prospect of a coming Sofalarity for the same reasons they embrace the Singularity, and indeed, when it comes to many features such as exponential technological advancement or automation, the two are hardly distinguishable. Yet the biggest hope that sofaltarians and singularitarians would probably share is that technological trends point towards the possibility of uploading minds into computers.

Sadly, or thankfully, uploading is some ways off. The EU seems to have finally brought the complaints of neuroscientists that Henry Markum’s Human Brain Project, that aimed to simulate an entire human brain was scientifically premature enough to be laughable, were it not for the billion Euro’s invested in it that might have been spent on much more pressing areas like mental illness or Alzheimer’s research. The project has not been halted but a recent scathing official report is certainly a big blow.

Nick Bostrom has pondered that if we are not now living in a simulation then there is something that prevents civilizations such as our from reaching the technological maturity to create such simulations. As I see it, perhaps the movement towards a Sofalarity ultimately contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Just as I am convinced that hell, which exists in the circumscribed borders of torture chambers, death camps, or the human heart, can never be the basis for an entire society, let alone a world, it is quite possible that a heaven that we could only reach by escaping the world as it exists is like that as well, and that any society that would be built around the fantasy of permanent escape would not last long in its confrontation with reality. Fermi paradox, anyone?

A Global History of Post-humans

Cave painting hand prints

One thing that can certainly not be said either the anthropologist Ynval Harari’s or his new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is that they lack ambition. In Sapiens, Harari sets out to tell the story of humanity since our emergence on the plans of Africa until the era in which we are living right now today, a period he thinks is the beginning of the end of our particular breed of primate. His book ends with some speculations on our post-human destiny, whether we achieve biological immortality or manage to biologically and technologically engineer ourselves into an entirely different species. If you want to talk about establishing a historical context for the issues confronted by transhumanism, you can’t get better than that.

In Sapiens, Harari organizes the story of humanity by casting it within the framework of three revolutions: the cognitive, the agricultural and the scientific. The Cognitive Revolution is what supposedly happened somewhere between 70,000- 30,000 thousand years ago when a suddenly very creative and  cooperative homo sapiens came roaring out of Africa using their unprecedented social coordination and technological flexibility to invade every ecological niche on the planet.

Armed with an extremely cooperative form of culture, and the ability to make tools, (especially clothing) to fit environments they had not evolved for, homo sapiens was able to move into more northern latitudes than their much more cold adapted Neanderthal cousins, or to cast out on the seas to settle far off islands and continents such as Australia, Polynesia, and perhaps even the Americas.

The speed with which homo sapiens invaded new territory was devastating for almost all other animals. Harari points out how the majority of large land animals outside of Africa (where animals had enough time to evolve weariness of this strange hairless ape) disappeared not long after human beings arrived there. And the casualties included other human species as well.

One of the best things about Harari is his ability to overthrow previous conceptions- as he does here with the romantic notion held by some environmentalist that “primitive” cultures lived in harmony with nature. Long before even the adoption of agriculture, let alone the industrial revolution, the arrival of homo sapiens proved devastating for every other species, including other hominids.

Yet Harari also defies intellectual stereotypes. He might not think the era in which the only human beings on earth were  “noble savages” was a particularly good one for other species, but he does see it as having been a particularly good one for homo sapiens, at least compared to what came afterward, and up until quite recently.

Humans, in the era before the Agricultural Revolution lived a healthier lifestyle than any since. They had a varied diet, and though they only worked on average six hours a day, and were far more active than any of us in modern societies chained to our cubicles and staring at computer screens.

Harari, also throws doubt on the argument that has been made most recently by Steven Piker, that the era before states was one of constant tribal warfare and violence, suggesting that it’s impossible to get an overall impression for levels of violence based on what end up being a narrow range of human skeletal remains. The most likely scenario, he thinks, is that some human societies before agriculture were violent, and some were not, and that even the issue of which societies were violent varied over time rising and falling in respect to circumstances.

From the beginning of the Cognitive Revolution up until the Agricultural Revolution starting around 10,000 years ago things were good for homo sapiens, but as Harari sees it, things really went downhill for us as individuals, something he sees as different from our status as a species, with the rise of farming.

Harari is adamant that while the Agricultural Revolution may have had the effect of increasing our numbers, and gave us all the wonders of civilization and beauty of high culture, its price, on the bodies and minds of countless individuals, both humans, and other animals was enormous. Peasants were smaller, less healthy,  and died younger than their hunter gatherer ancestors. The high culture of the elites of ancient empires was bought at the price of the systematic oppression of the vast majority of human beings who lived in those societies. And, in the first instance of telling this tale with in the context of a global history of humanity that I can think of, Harari tells the story of not just our oppression of each other, but of our domesticated animals as well.

He shows us how inhumane animal husbandry was long before our era of factory farming, which is even worse, but it was these more “natural”, “organic” farmers who began practices such as penning animals in cages, separating mothers from their young, castrating males, and cutting off the noses or out the eyes of animals such a pigs so they could better serve their “divinely allotted” function of feeding human mouths and stomachs.

Yet this begs the question: if the Agricultural Revolution was so bad for the vast majority of human beings, and animals with the exception of a slim class at the top of the pyramid, why did it not only last, but spread, until only a tiny minority of homo sapiens in remote corners continued to be hunter gatherers while the vast majority, up until quite recently were farmers?

Harari doesn’t know. It was probably a very gradual process, but once human societies had crossed a certain threshold there was no going back- our numbers were simply too large to support a reversion to hunting and gathering, For one of the ironies of the Agricultural Revolution is that while it made human beings unhealthy, it also drove up birthrates. This probably happened through rational choice. A hunter gathering family would likely space their children, whereas a peasant family needed all the hands it could produce, something that merely drove the need for more children, and was only checked by the kinds of famines Malthus had pegged as the defining feature of agricultural societies and that we only escaped recently via the industrial revolution.

Perhaps, as Harrai suggest, “We did not domesticate wheat. It domesticated us.” (81) At the only level evolution cares about- the propagation of our genes- wheat was a benefit to humanity, but at the cost of much human suffering and backbreaking labor in which we rid wheat of its rivals and spread the plant all over the globe. The wheat got a better deal, no matter how much we love our toast.

It was on the basis of wheat, and a handful of other staple crops (rice, maize, potatoes) that states were first formed. Harari emphasizes the state’s role as record keeper, combined with enforcer of rules. The state saw its beginning as a scorekeeper and referee for the new complex and crowded societies that grew up around farming.

All the greatest works of world literature, not to mention everything else we’ve ever read, can be traced back to this role of keeping accounts, of creating long lasting records, that led the nascent states that grew up around agriculture to create writing. Shakespeare’s genius can trace its way back to the 7th century B.C. equivalent to an IRS office. Along with writing the first states also created numbers and mathematics, bureaucrats have been bean counters ever since.

The quirk of human nature that for Harari made both the Cognitive and Agricultural Revolution possible and led to much else besides was our ability to imagine things that do not exist, by which he means almost everything we find ourselves surrounded by, not just religion, but the state and its laws, and everything in between has been akin to a fantasy game. Indeed, Harari left me feeling that the whole of both premodern and modern societies was at root little but a game of pretend played by grown ups, with adulthood perhaps nothing more than agreeing to play along with the same game everyone else is engaged in. He was especially compelling and thought provoking when it came to that ultimate modern fantasy and talisman that all of us, from Richard Dawkins to, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi believes in; namely money.

For Harari the strange thing is that: “Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age or sexual orientation.” In this respect it is “the apogee of human tolerance” (186). Why then have so many of its critics down through the ages denounced money as the wellspring human of evil? He explains the contradiction this way:

For although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and the impersonal systems that back it. We do not trust the stranger or the next store neighbor- we trust the coins they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust. (188)

We ourselves don’t live in the age of money, so much as the age of Credit (or capital), and it is this Credit which Harari sees as one of the legs of the three-legged stools which he think defines our own period of history. For him we live in the age of the third revolution in human history, the age of the Scientific Revolution that has followed his other two. It is an age built out of an alliance of the forces of Capital-Science- and Empire.

What has made our the age of Credit and different from the material cultures that have come before where money certainly played a prominent role, is that we have adopted lending as the route to economic expansion. But what separates us from past eras that engaged in lending as well, is that ours is based on a confidence that the future will be not just different but better than the past, a confidence that has, at least so far, panned out over the last two centuries largely through the continuous advances in science and technology.

The feature that really separated the scientific revolution from earlier systems of knowledge, in Harari’s view, grew out of the recognition in the 17th century of just how little we actually knew:

The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has above all been a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. (251)

Nothing perhaps better captures the early modern recognition of this ignorance than their discovery of the New World which began us down our own unique historical path towards Empire. Harari sees both Credit and Science being fed and feeding the intermediary institution of Empire, and indeed, that the history of capitalism along with science and technology cannot be understood without reference to the way the state and imperialism have shaped both.

The imperialism of the state has been necessary to enable the penetration of capitalism and secure its gains, and the powers of advanced nations to impose these relationships has been the result largely of more developed science and technology which the state itself has funded. Science was also sometimes used not merely to understand the geography and culture of subject peoples to exploit them, but in the form of 19th century and early 20th century racism was used as a justification for that racism itself. And the quest for globe spanning Empire that began with the Age of Exploration in the 15th century is still ongoing.

Where does Harari think all this is headed?

 Over millennia, small simple cultures gradually coalesce into bigger and more complex civilizations, so that the world contains fewer and fewer mega-cultures each of which is bigger and more complex. (166)

Since around 200 BC, most humans have lived in empires. It seems likely that in the future, too, most human will live in one. But this time the empire will truly be global. The imperial vision of domination over the entire world could be imminent. (207)

Yet Harari questions not only whether the scientific revolution or the new age of economic prosperity, not to mention the hunt for empire, have actually brought about a similar amount of misery, if not quite suffering, as the Agricultural Revolution that preceded it.

After all, the true quest of modern science is really not power, but immortality. In Harari’s view we are on the verge of fulfilling the goal of the “Gilgamesh Project”.

Our best minds are not wasting their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy investigating the physiological, hormonal and genetic systems responsible for disease and old age. They are developing new medicines, revolutionary treatments and artificial organs that will lengthen our lives and might one day vanquish the Grim Reaper himself. (267)

The quest after wealth, too, seems to be reaching a point of diminishing returns. If the objective of material abundance was human happiness, we might ask why so many of us are miserable? The problem, Harari thinks, might come down to biologically determined hedonic set-points that leave a modern office worker surrounded by food and comforts ultimately little happier to his peasant ancestor who toiled for a meager supper from sunset to sunrise. Yet perhaps the solution to this problem is at our fingertips as well:

 There is only one historical development that has real significance. Today when we realize that the keys to happiness are in the hands of our biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics, social reforms, putsches, and ideologies and focus instead on the only thing that truly makes us happy: manipulating our biochemistry.  (389)

Still, even should the Gilgamesh Project succeed, or we prove capable of mastering our biochemistry, Harari sees a way the Sisyphean nature may continue to have the last laugh. He writes:

Suppose that science comes up with cures for all diseases, effective anti-ageing therapies and regenerative treatments that keep people indefinitely young. In all likelihood, the immediate result will be an epidemic of anger and anxiety.

Those unable to afford the new treatments- the vast majority of people- will be besides themselves with rage. Throughout history, the poor and oppressed comforted themselves with the thought that at least death is even handed- that the rich and powerful will also die. The poor will not be comfortable with the thought that they have to die, while the rich will remain young and beautiful.

But the tiny minority able to afford the new treatments will not be euphoric either. They will have much to be anxious about. Although the new therapies could extend life and youth they will not revive corpses. How dreadful to think that I and my loved ones can live forever, but only if we don’t get hit by a truck or blown to smithereens by a terrorist! Potentially a-mortal people are likely to grow adverse to taking even the slightest risk, and the agony of losing a spouse, child or close friend will be unbearable.( 384-385).

Along with this, Harari reminds us that it might not be biology that is most important for our happiness, but our sense of meaning. Given that he thinks all of our sources of meaning are at bottom socially constructed illusions, he concludes that perhaps the only philosophically defensible position might be some form of Buddhism- to stop all of our chasing after desire in the first place.

The real question is whether the future will show if all our grasping has ended up in us reaching our object or has led us further down the path of illusion and pain that we need to outgrow to achieve a different kind of transcendence.

 

Edward O. Wilson’s Dull Paradise

Garden of Eden

In all sincerity I have to admit that there is much I admire about the biologist Edward O. Wilson. I can only pray that not only should I live into my 80’s, but still possess the intellectual stamina to write what are at least thought provoking books when I get there. I also wish I still have the balls to write a book with the title of Wilson’s latest- The Meaning of Human Existence, for publishing with an appellation like that would mean I wasn’t afraid I would disappoint my readers, and Wilson did indeed leave me wondering if the whole thing was worth the effort.

Nevertheless,  I think Wilson opened up an important alternative future that is seldom discussed here- namely what if we aimed not at a supposedly brighter, so-called post-human future but to keep things the same? Well, there would be some changes, no extremes of human poverty, along with the restoration of much of the natural environment to its pre-industrial revolution health. Still, we ourselves would aim to stay largely the same human beings who emerged some 100,000 years ago- flaws and all.

Wilson calls this admittedly conservative vision paradise, and I’ve seen his eyes light up like a child contemplating Christmas when using the word in interviews. Another point that might be of interest to this audience is who he largely blames for keeping us from entering this Shangri-la; archaic religions and their “creation stories.”

I have to admit that I find the idea of trying to preserve humanity as it is a valid alternative future. After all, “evolve or die” isn’t really the way nature works. Typically the “goal” of evolution is to find a “design” that works and then stick with it for as long as possible. Since we now dominate the entire planet and our numbers out-rival by a long way any other large animal it seems hard to assert that we need a major, and likely risky, upgrade. Here’s Wilson making the case:

While I am at it, I hereby cast a vote for existential conservatism, the preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust. We are doing very well in terms of science and technology. Let’s agree to keep that up, and move both along even faster. But let’s also promote the humanities, that which makes us human, and not use science to mess around with the wellspring of this, the absolute and unique potential of the human future. (60)

It’s an idea that rings true to my inner Edmund Burke, and sounds simple, doesn’t it? And on reflection it would be, if human beings were bison, blue whales, or gray wolves. Indeed, I think Wilson has drawn this idea of human preservation from his lifetime of very laudable work on biodiversity. Yet had he reflected upon why efforts at preservation fail when they do he would have realized that the problem isn’t the wildlife itself, but the human beings who don’t share the same value system going in the opposite direction. That is, humans, though we are certainly animals, aren’t wildlife, in the sense that we take destiny into our own hands, even if doing so is sometimes for the worse. Wilson seems to think that it’s quite a short step from asserting it as a goal to gaining universal assent to the “preservation of biological human nature as a sacred trust”, the problem is there is no widespread agreement over what human nature even is, and then, even if you had such agreement, how in the world do you go about enforcing it for the minority who refuse to adhere to it? How far should we be willing to go to prevent persons from willingly crossing some line that defines what a human being is? And where exactly is that line in the first place? Wilson thinks we’re near the end of the argument when we only just took our seat at the debate.

Strange thing is the very people who would likely naturally lean towards the kind of biological conservatism that Wilson hopes “we” will ultimately choose are the sorts of traditionally religious persons he thinks are at the root of most of our conflicts. Here again is Wilson:

Religious warriors are not an anomaly. It is a mistake to classify believers of a particular religious and dogmatic religion-like ideologies into two groups, moderates versus extremists. The true cause of hatred and religious violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things. (154)

For Wilson, a religious groups “defines itself foremost by its creation story, the supernatural narrative that explains how human beings came into existence.” (151)  The trouble with this is that it’s not even superficially true. Three of the world’s religions that have been busy killing one another over the last millennium – Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have the same creation story. Wilson knows a hell of a lot more about ants and evolution then he does about religion or even world history. And while religion is certainly the root of some of our tribalism, which I agree is the deep and perennial human problem, it’s far from the only source, and very few of our tribal conflicts have anything to do with the fight between human beings over our origins in the deep past. How about class conflict? Or racial conflict? Or nationalist conflicts when the two sides profess the not only the exact same religion but the exact same sect- such as the current fight between the two Christian Orthodox nations of Russia and Ukraine? If China and Japan someday go to war it will not be a horrifying replay of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

For a book called The Meaning of Human Existence Wilson’s ideas have very little explanatory power when it comes to anything other than our biological origins, and some quite questionable ideas regarding the origins of our capacity for violence. That is, the book lacks depth, and because of this I found it, well… dull.

Nowhere was I more hopeful that Wilson would have something interesting and different to say than when it came to the question of extraterrestrial life. Here we have one of the world’s greatest living biologists, a man who had spent a lifetime studying ants as an alternative route to the kinds of eusociality possessed only by humans, the naked mole rat, and a handful of insects. Here was a scientists who was clearly passionate about preserving the amazing diversity of life on our small planet.

Yet Wilson’s E.T.s are land dwellers, relatively large, biologically audiovisual, “their head is distinct, big, and located up front” (115) they have moderate teeth and jaws, they have a high social intelligence, and “a small number of free locomotory appendages, levered for maximum strength with stiff internal or external skeletons composed of hinged segments (as by human elbows and knees), and with at least one pair of which are terminated by digits with pulpy tips used for sensitive touch and grasping. “ (116)

In other words they are little green men.

What I had hoped was the Wilson would have used his deep knowledge of biology to imagine alternative paths to technological civilization. Couldn’t he have imagined a hive-like species that evolves in tandem with its own technological advancement? Or maybe some larger form of insect like animal which doesn’t just have an instinctive repertoire of things that it builds, but constantly improves upon its own designs, and explores the space of possible technologies? Or aquatic species that develop something like civilization through the use of sea-herding and ocean farming? How about species that communicate not audio-visually but through electrical impulses the way our computers do?

After all, nature on earth is pretty weird. There’s not just us, but termites that build air conditioned skyscrapers (at least from their view), whales which have culturally specific songs, and strange little things that eat and excrete electrons. One might guess that life elsewhere will be even weirder. Perhaps my problem with The Meaning of Human Existence is that it just wasn’t weird enough not just to capture the worlds of tomorrow and elsewhere- but the one we’re living in right now.

 

Living in the Divided World of the Internet’s Future

Marten_van_Valckenborch_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_-_Google_Art_Project

Sony hacks, barbarians with FaceBook pages, troll armies, ministries of “truth”– it wasn’t supposed to be like this. When the early pioneers of what we now call the Internet freed the network from the US military they were hoping for a network of mutual trust and sharing- a network like the scientific communities in which they worked where minds were brought into communion from every corner of the world. It didn’t take long for some of the witnesses to the global Internet’s birth to see in it the beginnings of a global civilization, the unification, at last, of all of humanity under one roof brought together in dialogue by the miracle of a network that seemed to eliminate the parochialism of space and time.   

The Internet for everyone that these pioneers built is now several decades old, we are living in its future as seen from the vantage point of the people who birthed it as this public “thing” this thick overlay of human interconnections which now mediates almost all of our relationships with the world. Yet, rather than bringing the world together, humanity appears to be drifting apart.

Anyone who doubts the Internet has become as much a theater of war in which political conflicts are fought as much as it is a harbinger of a nascent “global mind” isn’t reading the news. Much of the Internet has been weaponized whether by nation-states or non-state actors. Bots, whether used for in contests between individuals, or over them, now outnumber human beings on the web.

Why is this happening? Why did the Internet that connected us also fail to bring us closer?

There are probably dozens of reasons, only one of which I want to comment on here because I think it’s the one that’s least discussed. What I think the early pioneers failed to realize about the Internet was that it would be as much a tool of reanimating the past as it would be a means of building a future. It’s not only that history didn’t end, it’s that it came alive to a degree we had failed to anticipate.

Think what one will of Henry Kissinger, but his recent (and given that he’s 91 probably last major) book, World Order, tries to get a handle on this. What makes the world so unstable today, in Kissinger’s view, is that it is perhaps the first time in world history where we truly have “one world”, and, at the same time have multiple competing definitions over how that world should be organized. We only really began to live what can be considered a single world with the onset of the age of European expansion that mapped, conquered, and established contact, with every region on the earth. Especially from the 1800’s to the end of World War II world order was defined by the European system of balance of power, and, I might add, the shared dominant, Western culture these nations protelytized. After 1945 you have the Cold War with the world order defined by the bipolar split between the US and the Soviet Union. After the fall of the USSR, for a good few decades, world order was an American affair.

It was during this last period of time, when the US and neo-liberal globalization were at their apex, that the Internet became a global thing, a planetary network connecting all of humanity together into something like Marshal Mcluhan’s “global village.” Yet this new realm couldn’t really exist as something disconnected from underlying geopolitical and economic currents forever. An empire secure in its hegemony doesn’t seek to turn its communication system into a global spying tool or weaponize it, both of which the US have done. If the US could treat the global network or the related global financial system as tools for parochial nationalist ends then other countries would seek to do the same- and they have. Rather than becoming Chardin’s noosphere the Internet has become another theater of war for states, terrorist and criminal networks and companies.

What exactly these entities were that competed with one another across what we once called “cyberspace”, and what goals they had, were not really technological questions at all, but born from the ancient realities of history, geography and the contest for resources and wealth. Rather than one modernity we have several competing versions even if all of them are based on the same technological foundations.

Non-western countries had once felt compelled to copy the West’s cultural features as the price for modernity, and we should not forget the main reason that modernization was pursued despite it upheavals was to develop to a level where they could defend themselves against the West and its technological superiority. As Samuel Huntington pointed out in the 1990’s, now that the West had fallen from the apex of its power other countries were free to pursue modernity on their own terms. His model of a “clash of civilizations” was simplistic, but it was not, as some critics claimed, “racists”. Indeed if we had listened to Huntington we would never have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet civilization is not quite the right term. Better, perhaps, political cultures with different ideas regarding political order along with a panorama of non-state actors old and new. What we have is a contest between different political cultures,concepts of order, and contests for raw power, all unfolding in the context of a technologically unified world.

The US continues to pursue its ideological foreign policy with deep roots in its history, but China has revived its own much deeper history of being the center of East Asia as well. Meanwhile, the Middle East, where most states were historical fictions created by European imperialists power in the wake of World War I with the Sykes-Picot agreement, has imploded and what’s replaced the defunct nation-state is a millenium old conflict between the two major branches of Islam. Russia at the same moment pursues old czarists dreams long thought as dead and encrypted as Lenin’s corpse.

That’s the world order, perhaps better world disorder, that Kissinger sees, and when you add to it the fact that the our global networks are vectors not just for these conflicts between states and cultures, but between criminals and corporations it can look quite scary. On the Internet we’ve become the “next door neighbor” not just of interesting people from all the world’s cultures, but to scam artists, and electronic burglars, spies and creeps.

Various attempts have been made to come up with a theory that would describe our current geopolitical situation. There have been the Fukuyama’s victory of liberal democracy in his “end of history” thesis, and Huntington’s clash of civilizations. There have been arguments that the nation-state is dead and that we are resurrecting a pre-Westphalian “neo-medieval” order where the main story isn’t the struggle between states but international groups, especially corporations. There are those who argue that city-states and empires are the political units not only of the distant past, but of the future. All of these and their many fellow theories, including still vibrant marxists and revived anarchists takes on events have a grain of truth to them, but always seem to come up short in capturing the full complexity of the moment.

Perhaps the problem we encounter when trying to understand our era is that it truly is sui generis. We have quite simply never existed in a world where the connective tissue, the networks that facilitate the exchange of goods, money, ideas, culture was global but where the underlying civilization and political and social history and condition was radically different.

Looking for a historical analog might be a mistake. Like the early European imperialists who dressed themselves up in togas and re-discovered the doric column, every culture in this big global knot of interconnections we’ve managed to tie all of humankind within are blinded by their history into giving a false order to the labyrinth.

Then again, maybe its the case that what digital technologies are really good at is destroying the distinction between the past and the future, just as the Internet is the most powerful means we have yet discovered for bringing together like- minded regardless of their separation in space.  Political order, after all, is nothing but a reflection of the type of world groups of human beings wish to reify. Some groups get these imagined worlds from the past and some from imagined futures, but the stability of none can never be assured now as all are exposed to reality of other worlds outside their borders. A transhumanist and member of ISIS encountering one another would be something akin to the meeting of time travelers from past and future.

This goes beyond the political. Take any cultural group you like, from steampunk aficionados to constitutional literalists, and what you have are people trying to make an overly complex present understandable by refashioning it in the form of an imagined past. Sometimes people even try to get a grip on the present by recasting it in the form of an imagined future. There is the “march of progress” which assumes we are headed for a destination in time, or science-fiction, which give us worlds more graspable than the present because the worlds presented there have a shape that our real world lacks.

It might be the case that there has never been a shape to humanity or our communities at any time in the past. Perhaps future historians will make the same mistake we have and project their simplifications on our world which was their formless past. We know better.