Welcome to Our Future: 2312


Part of the problem each of us has when it comes to realistically imagining the future is that we ultimately bring our own cognitive biases, our optimism or pessimism, to the question at hand. From the perspective of the types of small societies we evolved out of these kinds of sunny vs gloomy dispositions were no doubt a very good thing. A discovery of a rich patch of good game land followed by feasts necessitated curmudgeons who would remind the tribe that the days of full stomachs would not last. Thankfully, these complainers would not have the final word, and the group would set off again over the next hill assured by the sunnysiders that more of the riches of the world remained on the other side.

Our modern media world, however, tends to undermine this diversity of cognitive biases sorting us into more sharply distinguished optimist and pessimist camps. In our digital echo chambers the future is all good or all bad, utopia or dystopia as the title of my blog says. Lately though, a number of thinkers have been trying to shake us out of our tendency to see the glass as half empty or half full reminding us that the world is more complicated than the illusionist in our heads.

Here I would put the work of Ramez Naam who in his The Infinite Resource faces head on both the enormous problems in front of us- climate change, global food shortages, growing energy needs, and fresh water scarcity while at the same time offering up realistic solutions to these problems without the need for a Deus ex Machina solution such as “our coming super-intelligent AIs will solve these problems for us”. I’d throw Kim Stanley Robinson into this realist camp as well. His most recent novel 2312 gives us a portrait of the next few centuries that is something very far from Shangri-la but isn’t a post-apocalyptic horror story either.

The source of Robinson’s pessimism is the state and probable future of the global environment, especially in terms of the likely impact of climate change. As energy innovator Hal Harvey recently pointed out in this scary, yet even then, not hopeless speech on the climate situation at the Aspen Ideas Festival we only have a brief window in which we can prevent potentially catastrophic climate change from occurring and that window is rapidly closing. 2312 in a sense gives us a sketch of what our world might look like if we do indeed allow Harvey’s window to slam shut.

In the world of 2312 the earth’s temperature has risen by 5 K.  As a consequence there has been extensive sea level rise- Manhattan is now like Venice and mass deaths of people on all continents and mass extinctions have occurred. Had the novel focused on this period it would have been apocalyptic, but instead it sets its sight on the post-apocalyptic world that follows our failure to have addressed our environmental challenges in time.

In Robinson’s future- historical scheme only after we are faced with apocalyptic crisis do we marshall a response commensurate to the situation at hand. Humanity tries to set things straight by geoengineering the earth’s climate, a project that ultimately fails spectacularly in the “Little Ice Age”. In a period that becomes known as the Accelerando,a real push is made to settle the solar system. Much of it is terraformed and settled  including asteroids which are hollowed out to become biomes holding within them the precious cargo of the flora and fauna that once graced the earth.  AIs including quantum computers surgically implanted in human beings know as “qubes” become widespread. Human longevity is increased to the extent that a person is now fit and active into her hundreds.

The kinds of terraforming that are used to transform much of the solar system into areas that are hospitable to human life prove inapplicable to geoengineering the earth back to its pre- industrial state because the blunt force methods of terraforming- slamming comets into planets and the like- are simply unworkable on a planet that already has billions of human beings not to mention other lifeforms most of which are hanging on to life by a thread.

The scale and coordination of the response to the environmental crisis the Accelerando represents does not last, however, and the pendulum swings again humanity falling into two dark periods- The Ritard and Balkanization during which the trends of the Accelerando slow and the solar system becomes divided into competing factions. It is in this world where the earth continues to suffer extreme environmental and economic crises, and the new worlds of the solar system have turned against one another that the plot of 2312 takes place.

Robinson is by his own declaration not a transhumanist. And yet his protagonist, Swan Er Hong can certainly be described in this way. Swan has a qube implanted in her brain named Pauline which makes her a kind of cyborg. She has the genes of songbirds in her that allows her to “whistle” like a bird. She is transgendered with both a vagina and a working penis- a product of the fact that a good deal of the increased lifespan of human beings seen in 2312 has been gained by human beings taking on transgendered features. Something that makes sex scenes in 2312 just a little complicated. Treating the body, and even the mind, as something essentially plastic in this way comes naturally to Swan, for she is an artists and her body itself is one of her works of art she being a practitioner of what Robinson calls in honor of performance artist Marina Abramović “abramovics”.

The plot of 2312 centers around a series of terrorists attacks in the inner solar system and the efforts of Swan the mercurian, the man who will become her lover, Wahram from Saturn, (Robinson is having some fun with astrological stereotypes), and an exiled Martian, Inspector Gennette, along with others try to solve these incidents. Along the way they spark a political movement of sorts setting off the forced return of the earth’s lost animals to the planet as a way to spark the earthling’s desire to address the planet’s continuing ecological problems.

I must admit that I had some difficulty with the novel’s plot. There were numerous points where I had to engage my “willing suspension of disbelief” not because the technological or social situations seemed so “out there” as the experiences of the quite empathetic and rounded characters were squished into predetermined unfolding of the overarching story of the novel.

There are three ways it seems to me one can make the experiences of characters realistic in the context of a grand future-historical novel such as 2312.  The least interesting is to tell the story from the perspective of the people at the top- the most historically important characters whose decisions therefore have the biggest effect on how such narrative unfolds. The second way is to give witness to the fact that small characters can unleash the forces of history in the way an otherwise very insignificant man like Gavrilo Princip set off World War I with his assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The third and probably the best way is to take historically insignificant characters and see how the grand narratives unleashed elsewhere affect them. The best moral judgement of the decisions of elites or the injustice of a system is how it impacts the lives of people who have to live closest to those impacts.

When one tries to see in the lives of historically marginal characters, which is really what Swan should be considered, experiences that reflect decisions of world-historical significance one is left with the impression that the character is suffering from paranoia. This at least is what I thought when Swan encounters an extremely proficient “lawn bowler” whose style of play mimics the terrorist “pebble attacks” and who does indeed end up a central character in the plot.

That said, 2312 did something few other books are able to do so easily, it changed the way I looked at the world. Robinson is a superb travel writer and made our solar system, a place I had long thought of as quaint or “dead” come alive as a wondrous imaginative palette upon which our future is yet to be written.

Yet, amazingly enough, Robinson most affected my view of living on earth. It’s hard to remember that we live on a very special world that is so much different, so much more a home, than any other place we know. While reading the novel I started to pay attention to Luna in the sky and the glories of the setting summer sun. I had the urge to take more walks and one night saw a doe grazing in a field watching me curiously and had the urge to chase or run with it, like Swan.

What Robinson is trying to do is find that sweet spot in the future that is at the outer reaches of our understanding and therefore our agency. This is much better than something like my Far Future’s Project which I am wrapping up this week, or Stewart Brand’s Long Now because we really do have some degree of agency over, and therefore some responsibility for, what happens a century or two in the future. If writing about the future is really just turning up the volume on the present then we can only be confident in these sorts of limited time frames that we will be playing anything like the same score.

It is when thinking in terms of this near term and intermediate future that our tendencies for optimism or pessimism need to be set aside and the search for realism engaged. One can be a long term optimist or a long term pessimist when it comes to the the human future but both are mere waking fantasies, whether exhilarating or frightening. At the end of the day we can never actually know.

Neither long term optimism nor pessimism frees us from our responsibility to act so as to positively shape the future right now. There are all kinds of ways we need to do this as political, economic and socially beings in response to the future society we are likely to live in or the decisions and sacrifices taken today that we bequeath to our future self.

We can also decide to make investments in the future to a world we are unlikely to live in. Here we have everything from our response to climate change and environmental issues to social legacies. The question of what can we and what we should leave for our great or even great-great grandchildren in light of the nearly endless possibilities of what the world they will be living in will actually look like is one that we should be asking because it may serve as a better way to frame the question of what kind of future is it exactly that we hope for and should be working towards in the first place.

Still, if Robinson gives us a realizable version of the future with much of the transhuman in it, he is, as was mentioned, decidedly not a transhumanist.  Part of this stems from his fear that transhumanism might come to represent escapism. There are also his views of what  transhumanism means in light of a document few of us have probably heard of and even fewer actually given a second thought- the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Essentially, Robinson thinks transhumanists are getting ahead of themselves. We are nowhere near achieving the kind of worldwide realization of the promise of conditions supporting self-actualization for all promised by the Declaration and transhumanists have already moved the bar.

Robinson is not alone in seeing our current failure to realize the promises of the Declaration as a challenge to the transhumanist project. The social epistemologist Steve Fuller believes positions on the Declaration will be a major area of friction between transhumanists and others, especially those on the left. It is, therefore, an important issue but for a latter time.

The kind of realistic science-fiction offered to us by Robinson where greater than light speed and settlement of “the stars” remains what it is today- a mere fantasy- nevertheless expands our and deepens our canvas to embrace our second home in the solar system. It is a canvass certainly large enough for the human story to play itself out.

The claim idea that our filling in of this canvass through the settlement of the solar system and terraforming its bodies constitutes the “arrogance of humanism” as Ernest J. Yanarella did in Strange Horizons has things ass-backwards. The arrogance of humanism lies in assuming that on a cosmic scale our endeavors are much more than one of Swan’s performance pieces such as her “painting” of a field with a rainbow of fallen autumn leaves. Like Swan, all we can do at our best is create beautiful objects that live a short moment only to be undone by the wind.

Time Lost: Scene 2

Greek god time Kairos Francesco Salviati 1600s

Continuing from last time, beyond revolutionizing physics Smolin’s goal in Time Reborn is the recovery of our human sense of time. What physics tells us is that there is no distinction between past, present and future. This, of course, collides with our natural sense of time- how we are prone to see ourselves as beings in time. For us, the past is what is behind us, over with, as mute to our desire to change it or have it to live over again as the sheer characteristics of existence such as space, light, energy. The present is where we are right now the location of our body and consciousness a fact that shoves us with it’s immediacy. A fire in your home at this moment is not a recalled or dreamed of thing, but something to be responded to without delay or perhaps without time for any sort of reflection at all. The future is the not yet a blank canvas whose possibilities are as open and potentially living as the past is mute and dead. It is this relationship to time which Smolin hopes to restore not so much because he believes the view of time held by physics has helped rob us of the past or even diminished, as Einstein feared, the present, but because of its impact on our hopes for the future. For, if the future is as real as the present and we are left without the ability to change it- we have lost any sense of our own agency in time.

Yet, one might ask whether what Smolin is describing is indeed what has happened in terms of our relationship to time? It seems less the case that what we are experiencing is a lost sense of our own agency regarding the future due to a kind of cultural osmosis of deterministic ideas found in physics, or even a kind of diminished valuation of the past and the present as a result of our longing for the eternal timelessness of nature’s laws, than a fundamental change in our relationship to time that has condensed both the past and the future into the narrow slice of time we call the present. To the extent that physics is at all responsible, this change might merely be an outgrowth of digital technologies whose underlying assumptions are those of the, to coin a phrase, time-blindness of physics but not much more than that.

Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now explores our changing relationship with time not from the perspective of physics, but from that of media, culture and human psychology. He gives us an on the ground view of changes Smolin looks at from an Archimedean Point. The title is an homage of sorts to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, and just like how Toffler sought to bring our attention to a new and disorienting change in our perception in the sense of a future- that was rushing at us faster than many of us could bare- Rushkoff brings into focus our new sense that both the future and the past have collapsed into a frenetic omnipresent right now.

There are five ways Rushkoff thinks present shock is being experienced and responded to. To begin, we are in an era in which he thinks narrative has collapsed. For as long as we have had the power of speech we have corralled time into linear stories with a  beginning, middle and ending. More often than not these stories contained some lesson. They were not merely forms of entertainment or launching points for reflection but contained some guidance as to how we should act in a given circumstance, which, of course, differed by culture, but almost all stories were in effect small oversimplified models of real life.

From its beginnings to the late 80’s early 90’s television seemed the perfect format for the simplest ways of communicating these lessons. It was our morality box. I am old enough to remember when even a show built upon a risque theme- such as Three’s Company framed every episode as a parable where Jack learns how to treat women like human beings. A goofy show like Happy Days was as loaded with parables as a religiously inspired series like Little House on the Prairie. This idea of TV as a morality box was on it’s way out by the late 1980’s, think Married With Children, The Simpson’s or Beavis and Butthead. Jerry Seinfeld was merely catching the wave when he created a hilarious show where the mantra was “No hugging, no learning”.

Rushkoff thinks this breakdown of narrative is so ubiquitous in the 2010’s that we no longer even notice it. Game of Thrones is just that – a game- without a clear linear narrative. Even hit shows like The Sopranos don’t end with a moral climax but in in a screen gone blank. Novelists loved by Davos elites such as Don DeLillo have caught on to the collapse of narrative as have movie makers such as Quentin Tarantino.

In some ways this collapse of narrative is a good thing in that during the heyday of television many of these narratives served as mere wrapping paper for social manipulation. Perhaps the most emotionally potent commercial ever “I’d like to Teach the World to Sing” was meant not to inspire policies that actually made the world a better place but to sell a soft-drink that over-consumed led to obesity and tooth loss.

We are too savvy for this type of messaging today, and Rushkoff thinks our self-protecting cynicism and virtual ADHD has lead producers of television to up the level of emotional punch to keep our eyes glued to the screen, which is probably how he would see the zombie craze with shows like The Walking Dead where the more bone crunching seemingly the better. When we aren’t busy watching scenes of soulless humanoids begin torn apart, we watch each other being teared apart, emotionally at least, in reality shows that again had their origin in the 80s with televised circuses like the Jerry Springer Show.

The medium Rushkoff thinks is best adapted to the decline of narrative are video games. Yes, they are more often than not violent, but they also seem tailor made for the kinds of autonomy and collaborative play that are the positive manifestations of our new presentism.

 Other ways in which present shock manifests itself are what Rushkoff calls “Digiphrenia”- the ability that we now have to be in more than one “place” at one time. I see this often when I take my daughters to the park. There’s always some parent who spends most of her time with her eyes glued to her phone. Perhaps one of the most incongruous images I have ever seen was a Saudi woman in a full black burka staring intently out of the eye slits at her smart phone oblivious to her son calling for her attention at the park swings. I wasn’t sure if I should feel sad for the boy or glad that a revolution in women’s right in Islamic world was obviously at hand.

Our freedom from the constraints of time has instead become a chain. Rushkoff believes we have blown it in terms of how we are using our digital technologies. Rather than using our ubiquitous connections to give us control over time, so, for instance, we can work when the time is right, we instead have placed ourselves constantly on call- a world only emergency service workers lived in before the digital age. Instead of being there in the moment we are constantly”pinged” by the world beyond to the diminishment of what is right there in front of us our child on the swing.

Yet another way Rushkoff thinks we suffer present shock is through what he calls “Overwinding”. This is our tendency to crush into a moment things which unfold over much longer periods of time. One perspective that comes up for criticism here is Stewart Brand’s conception of the “Long Now”. For over a decade, Brand has been trying pull us out of our habit of short-term thinking. His popular Long Now seminars which I view religiously are meant to be forums for the expression of the long view, and his 10,000 year clock a project to get us thinking outside of the frame of the news cycle or even centuries.

The problem Rushkoff sees with this is that such a long term view leaves us both morally paralyzed and suffering from time induced vertigo. Using his example, the disjunction between my choice to not take the extra time to throw a plastic bottle in the recycling bin and the fact that the plastic bottle will last for thousands of years is too great for the mind to process. The sense of responsibility and unintended consequences when dealing with such an expanded canvas of time leave one frozen before every decision. We are Overwinding when trying to judge our actions in light of millennia and for the vast majority of us this just doesn’t work as a guide to ethical and responsible behavior.

You don’t even need to get all metaphysical or socially conscious to find yourself suffering from Overwinding. You suffer from Overwinding when you try to condense anything that takes time to unfold into a much more condensed period of time. Like Woody Allen’s joke: “I took a speed reading course and read ‘War and Peace’ in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”

 For Rushkoff we also suffer from yet another distortion in our relationship to time what he calls “Fractalnonia”- the attempt to make sense of the world entirely from the present moment. If Overwinding is the attempt to squish a large chunk of physicist Brian Green’s space-time loaf into an extremely narrow slice we call the “present”, Fractalnonia cuts off a thin slice in the “present” from the rest of the loaf and views everything captured in this slice as somehow connected. Akin to looking for the face of Jesus in your raisin bread.

Fractalnonia can be summed up in a phrase that is half acid-trip and half paranoid disorder- “everything = everything”. It is the search for patterns- fractals- where they may or may not exist. This something that may stem from the nature of modern media itself which puts the most incongruous events – insurgency in Syria next to Justin Bieber’s car accident next to a fall in the stock market almost daring us to engage in a game of “six degrees of separation” and connect them together.

The whole current cult of Big-Data emerges in part from our philosophy of Fractalnonia which tends to suggest that the solution to problems or understanding of the world is to be found by gathering and collecting more and more data points rather than telling stories or coming up with theories although Fractalnonia is built on a theory all its own.

It grows out of the burgeoning field of complex studies which holds that non-linear systems have many features in common. The economy is, in this view, sufficiently “like” an ecosystem so we can understand economies by understanding ecosystems. Terrorism is “like” a virus so we can learn how to contain terrorism by applying our understanding from containing viruses.  There is much to be gained in these theories, yet Rushkoff wants to warn us that these analogies are just that – analogies. By forgetting the differences between the things we are studying we are in real danger of confusing the map with the territory.

Those who take Fractalnonia too far, in the political realm, are likely to fall prey to full blown conspiracy theories an aspect of the last of  Rushkoff ‘s manifestations of present shock the belief and need for final endings- good or bad- what Rushkoff calls      Apocalypto.

People who suffer Apocalypto are desperate for an ending. What William James declared to be the perspective on the world held by infants “the blooming, buzzing, confusion” is now the experience of even the adults in the room. This leaves some of us desperate for a climax an end to history that would make sense of the whole damned thing. Modern media pours fuel on the fire of this sensibility spewing out story after story in a way that to some of us makes it appear we are on the verge of collapse or some sort of cosmic tipping point.

Apocalypto is a bi-polar mentality embracing both extreme pessimists and extreme optimists. The survivalist stocked up and “safe” in his cabin from what he believes to be the imminent collapse of the US government belongs to the same tribe as thesingularitarian who believes we are racing towards sentient AI, uploading, and human immortality not within the span of centuries but mere decades in the future.

These then are the cognitive problems that are found in the state of present shock but what about the solutions? Unlike most books that take such a critical view on the present, Rushkoff actually offers several practical solutions to deal with our new and often disorienting sense of time. Most important is the realization that the way we are using technology to exist in time isn’t so much a product of the technology itself as the way we have chosen to use it. It was we or our employers) who chose to use the omnipresent connectedness of the Internet and mobile technologies to never leave the office rather than allowing us to escape the time and spacial constraints of being tied to a desk from 9:00-5:00. This is ultimately not just bad for employees- physically and psychologically but for employers as well. Both employers and employees need to realize that the kinds of burnout brought on by never being able to put distance between ourselves and our job ends up undermining the very productivity and creativity that lie at the root of the profits and shareholder value modern businesses pursue.

We also need to learn to turn our gadgets off to stop staring into screens when there is another person’s eyes in front of us. The imposition of screenless times in our homes, a digital sabbath, is one quite easy way to assert our sovereignty over our technology in the name of our humanity.

Rushkoff has also embraced a version of chronobiology which asserts that human beings have natural rhythms many of them tied to solar and lunar activity. The idea here is that we often use our technology to transcend those limits, leading to our need for both stimulants and sedatives because both our industrial age and digital systems- unlike the agricultural and hunter-gathering systems that preceded them are disconnected from the solar and lunar cycles that continue to play out in our own bodies. Yet, perhaps we should instead use technology to better align ourselves with these bio-clocks- digital feedback and tracking reopening a window on our natural cycles that had been closed for us with the onset of the industrial age and electric lighting.

In addition, he wants us to be conscious of different ways to understand time and how things we encounter in our daily life can best be approached by understanding how they should be seen in terms of time. A book is different than email which is different from Twitter. A true book is an extended argument or picture that, as Woody Allen knew, cannot be reduced to snippets. The best books are also always timeless in that the worldview they unveil says something to us and still somehow seems relevant even when viewed from centuries after they were first written.

Email, or at least most of it, is not timeless in this sense. It has a shelf-life, which depending on the project can be read and are relevant over stretches of time- days, weeks, months. Email can also be caught up with. Most email doesn’t lose its relevance hours or even days after it was written.

Twitter, on the other hand, is most often about the right now a kind of echo chamber for own perspective on the goings on of the moment. Trying catch up with Twitter messages is something Rushkoff compares to reading yesterday’s stock prices. What’s the point the moment has already passed?  And besides there are so many things going on in one moment and being commented on that no person could ever keep up

There is also another sense of time Rushkoff wants to remind us about. The Greeks had two gods for time Chronos and Kairos. We most often think of time in terms of the countings of Chronos as in “what time is it?”, but Karios offers us another way to think about time as in the right or wrong moment. “Is it the right time for me to leave my job?”, “Marry?” “Have children?” It is in these moments when we are most likely to see time from our own personal wide angle lense seeing how a decision to go this way or that fits into the sense of our past, present and imagined future taken as a whole. This is the most human manifestation of time distinct from the biological cycles we share with our fellow animals of the linear tick and tocks of our machines.

Still if Rushkoff gives us a clear eyed view of the present one might still wonder about the future, or relatedly because it is one of the primary ways outside of technology that we shape the time ahead of us beyond the personal level what about the political? Rushkoff  seems to think the future disappeared with the coming of the millenium. What had been a kind of omnipresent feeling of anticipation about “the year 2000” was replaced by the realization that the future wasn’t ahead of us- we are living in it. Visions of new worlds to be built in the future and the grand narratives that went with them were in his view a thing of the past. Without such goals the point of government became a vacuum which was filled by one movement Rushkoff finds illegitimate and another that he thinks has found the correct way to approach politics in the age of present shock.

He reproaches the Tea Party for its conclusion that governance is nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul a view of government not as a means of social investment in the future but as an extortion racket. The movement that represents the best response in a world of present shock is Occupy. The very lack of goals of the movement he sees as part of its strength. Occupy isn’t about building some world in the future but about having a political conversation where everyone is included right now.

Rushkoff’s meaning when he declared the end of the future dovetailed into some thoughts I had been having about the current state of the endeavor that deals with the future, namely science-fiction, for it seemed to me that science-fiction was having some trouble in its traditional role of pulling us towards a certain version of the future. Both Rushkoff’s ideas regarding our sense of the future and my own were clarified for me upon encountering a lecture by the science-fiction novelists Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson characterized our current orientation to the future by what he called “futurity”. What has happened is that, on some fronts at least, the future has lost it’s ability to surprise. If tomorrow it was reported that we heard a signal from Alpha Centauri or had cloned a human being or invented an AI that passed the Turing Test few of us would be shocked in the way Toffler warned us of in Future Shock.

He thinks the impact of science and technology has become so ubiquitous and profound that any writer of realistic fiction will have to address questions posed by science and technology in a way only science-fiction writers did before. I heartedly agree with him here and would add that any serious philosopher or political and social thinker needs to address the questions posed by science and technology as well. Living at this particular juncture of history it is what has drawn me to these issues as well.

Robinson also makes the case that much of what we take to be descriptions of the future in science-fiction today is actually a version of fantasy. One can tell fantasy fiction from hard science-fiction by the fact that fantasy fiction takes what are significant or even from our perspective impossible technological hurdles and waves them away with a flick of the magicwand. In this view stories that feature interstellar travel or sentient AI or human immortality (as opposed to vastly increased longevity) are versions of fantasy fiction.

Robinson’s fiction tends to focus on the intermediate human future – several centuries into the future and is technologically conservative and gradualists. There are no wormholes that allow us to escape the constraints of the speed of light and the vast distances of interstellar space. Problems that we today find to be hard are indeed hard- our understanding and their solutions and taking likely to take decades or even centuries to unfold. Machine sentience arrives slowly over time, human longevity increases to centuries and then millenia with true immortality still as fantastical as in any religious daydream.

In focusing on this intermediate future Robinson fills a gap I found both in Rushkoff’s and my own thinking. The time frame of the Long Now, not to mention anything longer, is indeed disorienting. This does not mean, however, that the future is not our responsibility to shape. Robinson gives us some clues as to what this responsibility means and the kinds of timeframes we need to attend to in his recent novel 2312 to which I will turn next…

Post-script 1/18/14:

In an essay “How Technology killed the future”,  Rushkoff concludes:

Gone are the days when America could plant a flag on the moon and declare the space race won. Modern obstacles are more often chronic ones to be managed and mitigated over time. Greenhouse emissions, child hunger, mutating bacteria, drug abuse and even terrorism are not wars one wins.

 The age of present shock is, it seems, forcing Americans to realize that our journey is less about reaching a conclusion than it is about sustaining ourselves for as long as possible. Our politics may come to have less to do with triumph than endurance—a shift in perspective that, while born out of an obsession with the present, wouldn’t be so bad for the future.

Time Lost: Scene 1

Saturn Khronos

Of late, I’ve been thinking alot about time.  I thought this was just a reflection of age until I stumbled across two recent books that see the question of time and our perception of it to be essential to solving many of the problems that plague us from the level of the individual all the way up to those of our global civilization.

One of these books Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe is ostensibly a book about physics, but is just as much a diagnosis of contemporary economic and political ills. The other Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now by media theorists and IEET Fellow Douglas Rushkoff is aimed primarily at social critique but ends up being what amounts to a philosophical guide book to help individuals steer themselves through a quite new (or perhaps quite old and forgotten) conception of time. A way of looking at time that is influencing everything from the media we consume to the way we organize our work and personal lives to the functioning of our economic and political systems.

Let me start with the physics.

In 1955 Michele Besso a man who was Albert Einstein’s closest and friend, whom he had known for many decades, died. Einstein who was himself old and approaching his own death wrote a letter of of condolence to the Besso family that is one of those rare instances of a great scientific mind applying his understanding to the kinds of real life events all of us eventually face as human beings. As translated by Michael Lockwood in his The Labyrinth of Time the letter read as follows:

He is now a little ahead of me in bidding this strange world farewell. That means nothing. For us devout physicists, the distinction between past, present and future likewise has no significance beyond that of an illusion, albeit a tenacious one. (52)

The claim that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion may seem a strange way to offer condolence, but Einstein was providing a scientifically accurate answer to what is perhaps the most troubling aspects of death ,that, in Lockwood’s words “a living, breathing human being has been supplanted by a void.” (53)

For how much I respect Einstein’s Spinoza-like wisdom his suggestion of looking at time this way in response to death is not the most comforting. Not only can the lost loved one be assumed to still exist within a sliver of time, but so would the experience of being at his funeral, his suffering through disease, or any other painful and tragic moment in his life, although, of course, all of the banal and blissful moments as well. It’s life as Nietzsche’s “eternal return” without the return. Every moment of time captured and stuck there- a cosmic snapshot.

From our everyday perspective we no doubt have trouble with the disappearance of the distinction between past, present and future, but that is what the physics, responsible for so many of the miracles of the modern world, has consistently shown. Newton placed us in a deterministic universe in which the future is theoretically if not practically as predictable as the destination of a ball thrown through the air- a scientific version of Calvin’s predestination.

Einstein and 20th century physics did nothing to diminish this determinism, merely our powers to predict outcomes. Time lost the dignity it had even with Newton and became relativistic a perception based on the position of an observer. In Relativity, time “flows” at different rates based on the speed of a person in motion relative to another. A person speeding along at near light speed would have their local time grind to a near halt relative to those moving at slower speeds outside the spaceship. A short journey at near light speed away from the earth would have passengers returning thousands of years in the “future” of those who stayed behind.

In the hands of physicists the now became a slippery concept. Everything we experience is time delayed whether measured in milliseconds, or, like many of the  stars we look at in the night sky, millions of years in the past. What we call the present is always information in a state of delay. And making the frame bigger does not solve the problem. Moving from the perspective of the individual even to as large a perspective as that of the universe as a whole does nothing to restore the status of the now.

Brian Green gives us colorful imagery of this in his The Fabric of The Cosmos picturing spacetime as a giant loaf of bread. Defining the present means cutting a particular “slice”, but how do we decide how big or small to cut it? Indeed, for physicists following Einstein, the whole loaf from the beginning of time to the end of the universe appears to exist simultaneously.

Like the world given us by FaceBook, that embarrassing night at the prom that’s supposed to have disappeared into the past is still there for somebody, but not only that, so is everything in the future that from our particular slice of the spacetime loaf hasn’t even happened yet. To use another analogy it’s like the whole history of the universe has been DVR’d and what we call the “present” is just the particular segment on which we are stuck. If we weren’t ourselves on the DVR and had the ability to get “outside” and jump around the recording we’d find that scenes we label the “past” are still there as real as they ever were and perhaps more disturbingly scenes that are in our “future” are there as well.

Modern physics has thus been unable preserve the status of the present, the now. We quite rightly hold that the experience of the present is somehow more real than either the past or the future- the first of which we think gone and the second we believe has not occurred yet. But according to physics the present is just another snapshot- it’s just the pictures in the album or slideshow we have easiest access to.

Despite his turning to the disappearance of the distinction between the past, present and future as a way of consoling the Besso family, Einstein was deeply troubled by the potential effects of human beings losing the special status they had given the present. Greene reports how the philosopher Rudolf Carnap recounted of Einstein:

…that the problem of the now worried him seriously. He explained that the experience of the now means something special for man, something essentially different from the past and the future, but that this important difference does not and cannot occur within physics. That this experience cannot be grasped by science seemed to him a matter of painful but inevitable resignation. (141)

This disappearance of the present and its related idea of the future as determined is precisely the view of time that Lee Smolin is out to overthrow in his Time Reborn. A well respected physicist and prolific author, Smolin attempts to make the case that not only are the ideas found in physics regarding time deeply flawed, but that time is the essential element in the order of the universe and key to our understanding of it.

Much about our knowledge of the universe needs to be rethought in order for time to be “reborn”. First off, the Laws of Nature which have long been held to be superior to time need to be dethroned, transformed into something that change through time. For Smolin, the Laws that we experience today may not be the same Laws tens of billions of years into the future or the same Laws that nature followed in the deep past.

Laws are replaced by Smolin’s “principle of precedence,” nature acts in a certain way over large spans of time because it has done so in the past and not because of some metaphysical principle written into the fabric of existence. As a consequence of the fact that nature follows the principle of precedence rather than Laws the future cannot be predetermined – novelty is an expected property of existence. Exchanging Laws for precedence allows Smolin to avoid questionable theories as to why our universe is ordered the way it is and most importantly provides a route through which his theory can be falsified.

Physicists’ combined ideas of the primacy of the Laws of Nature and the diminished status of time have in some ways boxed them into a corner. Why, after all, should the Laws of Nature be these particular Laws? And more surprising, why should they be Laws that seem specifically calibrated for intelligent life such as ourselves to emerge and ask questions about the universe that lead them to the discovery of the Laws?

There have been a number of answers to these questions besides “God did it”- there is the anthropic principle – the idea that the Laws are such as they are because if they weren’t we wouldn’t be here to ask the question. Then there is the idea of the multiverse in which not only every possible set of Laws, but every trajectory through spacetime is played out in an almost infinite number of alternate universes. Last, though Smolin doesn’t really give it any ink, there is the idea that we are living in a simulation that has been created by some intelligent species which might help explain the DVR aspect of time.

Smolin can dismiss all of these because in a universe where the laws change there’s no need to explain why the laws are such as they are now. Perhaps for the vast vast majority of the universe’s history conditions were not ripe for life. With one swoop the need for God, an anthropic principle, and the multiverse is done away with, and in a way that seems to gel more with common sense.

Smolin provides a system in which the laws (now with a lowercase l) can change – namely black holes which he thinks give rise to whole new universes with their own distinct laws. It is perhaps not surprising that we live in a universe ripe for life, if, as Smolin thinks, the kinds of stars prevalent in our universe are potent black hole producers. Life, in this view, would be the luckiest of cosmic coincidences. The more black holes a parent universe has, the more “baby universes” potentially like itself it makes and universes with many black holes are also conducive to life.

Unlike the anthropic principle or the multiverse- let alone the simulation hypothesis or God- Smolin’s theory can actually be empirically verified- giving predictions as to the frequency of black holes. Only time will tell if the science holds up, but Smolin is just as much on a political and philosophical quest as he is trying to overthrow the current scientific paradigm regarding time.

Smolin believes that the diminishment of time in the theories of physics has seeped into the larger society with pernicious effects. The idea that the future is predetermined, he thinks, has resulted in a steep decline of our sense of agency. The future has gone from something we create to being something we must simply endure a system that we are subject to that is largely outside of our control.

Smolin finds this viewpoint particularly dangerous given the challenges we face. We really do have the power to do something about climate change, we actually can exert control over our economic system and technology and do not have to merely suffer as we are pulled along by the trend lines.

Smolin is especially keen on how what he thinks is flawed physics, our fetish regarding the “Laws of Nature”, has thoroughly infected our theories regarding economics. Before the crash, the majority of economists foolishly embraced the “eternal truth” that the market trended towards equilibrium- a bastardized idea drawn from physics. Smolin does not believe in eternal truths and laws regarding anything and insists neither should we.

There is also a way in which Smolin’s tome, like Einstein’s letter to the Besso family or comments to Carnap, are driven by the personal. For a good part of his life Smolin, ensconced in the study of physics in a world that held the belief that time was an illusion. In a sense his fatherhood re-connected him with the human sense of time- the idea that not only did he have a meaningful past, but through his son had a meaningful future as well. The shear contingent miracle of a newborn freed his vision to see the essential openness of the future.

What Smolin most wants to do is recover Einstein’s lost now- the present physics had seemingly done away with. Yet, perhaps, what he has done most is provide a stepping stone back into the stream of time, restored something of the flow and interconnection between the past, present and future. For what our age is doing is less a matter of turning the present into an illusion than suffocating us in the singularity of an ever present now, leaving us beyond an event horizon where there is nothing behind or infront of us, but only on top. It took my reading of Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock to make that clear to me, and to it I will turn next time…

Why the Global Brain needs a Therapist

Gaia Greek Mythology

The idea that the world itself could be considered an overarching form of mind can trace its roots deep into the religious longings of pantheism- the idea that the universe itself is God, or the closest thing we will ever find to our conception of God. In large part, I find pantheists to be a noble group. Any club that might count as its members a philosophical giant like Spinoza, a paradigm shattering genius such as Einstein, or a songbird like Whitman I would be honored to belong to myself. But alas, I have my doubts about pantheism- at least in particular its contemporary manifestation in the form of our telecommunications and computer networks being granted the status of an embryonic “global brain”. I wish it were so, but all the evidence seems to point in the other direction.

Key figures in this idea that our communications networks might constitute the neural passageways of a great collective brain predate the Internet by more than a generation. The great prophet of sentience emerging from our ever growing and intertwined communications networks was the Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He stated it this way:

We are faced with a harmonized collectivity of consciousness, the equivalent of a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope, so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the cosmic scale …

A more dystopian take on this was brought to us via the genius of Arthur C. Clarke in his 1961 short- “Dial F for Frankenstein” in which the telephone network “wakes up” and predictable chaos ensues. Only one year later the poetic and insightful Marshall Mcluhan gave us a view mixed with utopian and dystopian elements. We were weaving ourselves together into what Mcluhan called a “global village” filled both the intimacy and terror that was the hallmark of pre-literate societies. De Chardin  looked to evolution as the source of comparison to the emergence of his “Noosphere”, Mcluhan looked to the human brain. We had, he thought, “extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”

 The phrase “global brain” itself would have to await until the 1980s and the New Age philosopher Peter Russell. Russell pushed the analogy between telecommunications networks and and the human brain even deeper managing to fuse together the two major views of the meaning of our telecommunications networks: Chardin’s evolutionary analogy with Mcluhan’s view of telecommunications networks as a nascent global brain. Russell saw the emergence of the human brain itself as an evolutionary leap towards even more interconnectivity- a property of the universe that had been growing at least since the appearance of life and reaching an apogee with the new computer networks tying individuals together.

In a period of rising communications across the nascent Internet, Russell held that the 10 billion neural connections of the human brain represented a phase change in the evolution of consciousness that would be replicated when the projected persons living on earth in the early 21st century would themselves be connected to one another via computer networks giving rise to a true “global brain”. With the age of the Internet just beginning, Russell would soon have company.

During the heady early 1990’s when the Internet was exploding into public consciousness the idea that a global brain was emerging from the ether graced the pages of tech mags such as Wired. There, journalists such as Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg could quote without any hint of suspicion Internet gurus like John Perry Barlow to the effect that:

We stand today at the beginning of Teilhard’s third phase of evolution, the moment at which the world is covered with the incandescent glow of consciousness. Teilhard characterized this as “evolution becoming conscious of itself.” The Net, that great collectivizer of minds, is the primary tool for our emergence into the third phase. “With cyberspace, we are, in effect, hard-wiring the collective consciousness,” says Barlow.

In 2002 Francis Heylighen of the Free University of Brussels could state his hopes for the emerging global brain this way:

The global brain will moreover help eliminate conflicts. It in principle provides a universal channel through which people from all countries, languages and cultures of this world can communicate. This will make it easier to reduce mutual ignorance and misunderstandings, or discuss and resolve differences of opinion. The greater ease with which good ideas can spread over the whole planet will make it easier to reach global consensus about issues that concern everybody. The free flow of information will make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to plan suppression or war. The growing interdependence will stimulate collaboration, while making war more difficult. The more efficient economy will indirectly reduce the threat of conflict, since there will be less competition for scarce resources.

The Global Brain/Mind is one of those rare ideas in history that prove resilient whatever happens in the real world. 9-11 did not diminish Heylighen’s enthusiasm for the idea, which shouldn’t be surprising because neither did anything that occurred in the decade that followed his 2002 essay; including, the invasion of Iraq, the global economic crisis, failure to tackle world impacting phenomena such as climate change, increasing tensions between states, rapidly climbing economic inequality, or the way in which early 21st century global revolutions have played out to date. The hope that our networks will “wake up” and give rise to something like Chardin’s “Omega Point” continues to be widely popular in technology circles, both in the Kurzweilian Singularity variety and even in guises more aligned with traditional religious thinking such as that expounded by the Christian Kevin Kelly in his recent book What Technology Wants.

Part of the problem with seeing our telecommunications networks and especially the Internet as an embryonic form of global brain is that the idea of what exactly a brain is seems stuck in time and has not kept up with the findings of contemporary neuroscience. Although his actual meaning was far more nuanced, Mcluhan’s image of a “global village” suggests a world shrunk to a comfortably small size where all human being stand in the relation of “neighbors” to one another.

The meaning would have been much different had Mcluhan chosen the image of a refugee camp or the city of Oran from Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague. Like the community in Stephen King’s new TV production Under the Dome, Camus’ imagined Oran is hermetically sealed off from the outside world. A self-contained entity that is more a form of suffocation than community.

Much more than Mcluhan, thinkers such as Russell, Barlow or Heylighen see in the evolution of a single entity an increase of unity. The deepening of our worldwide communication networks will in Heylighen’s words “help eliminate conflicts”, and “make it easier to reach global consensus”. This idea that the creation of one entity embracing all the world’s peoples along with the belief that the development of self-awareness by this network is the threshold event both stem from an antiquated understanding of neuroscience. The version of the human brain proponents of the global brain hope the world’s telecommunications networks evolves into is a long discredited picture from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. If the Internet and our other networks are evolving towards some brain like state it’s pretty important that we have an accurate picture of how the brain actually works.

As far as popular tours through the ganglia of contemporary neuroscience are concerned,none is perhaps better than David Eagleman’s Incognito The Secret Lives of the Brain.  In Incognito, Eagleman shows us how neuroscience has upended one of the deepest of Western assumptions – that of the unity of the self. Here he is in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Intuitively, it feels like there’s a you. So when somebody meets Terry Gross, they feel like: Oh, yeah, that’s one person. But in fact, it turns out what we have under the hood are lots of neural populations, lots of neural networks that are all battling it out to control your behavior.

And it’s exactly a parliament, in the sense that these different political parties might disagree with one another. They’re like a team of rivals in this way, to borrow Kearns Goodwin’s phrase of this. They’re like a team of rivals in that they all feel they know the best way to steer the nation, and yet they have different ways of going about it, just like different political parties do.

You need not be Ulysses who had himself strapped to the stern of his ship so that he could both listen to the song of the Sirens and resist their murderous call to have some intuitive sense of divisions within the self. Anyone who has resisted the urge to hit the snooze button one more time understands this. What is remarkable is how deep modern neuroscience has revealed these internal divisions to be. A person need not suffer Dissociative Disorder with multiple personalities or be a drug addict. The internal rivalry over who we really are is manifest in every decision where we feel pulled in two or more directions at once.

The related idea that Eagleman tries to convey in Incognito is just how small a role self-awareness plays in the workings of the human brain. The vast majority of what the brain does is actually outside of the perception of the consciousness. Indeed, one of the primary roles of self- consciousness is to learn new stuff only to bury it outside of conscious access where further interference from the self-conscious brain will only end up screwing things up. Once you know how to play the piano, ride a bike, or tie your shoelaces actually thinking about it is sure to turn you into a klutz. It’s not even that the self-conscious part of the brain is like George W. Bush “the decider” of our actions. It’s more like the news report of whatever neural faction within us has its hold on the reins of power. Like journalists in general, the self-conscious “I” thinks itself more important than those actually calling the shots.

What is perhaps surprising is that this updated version of the human brain actually does look a lot like the “global mind” we actually have, if not the one we want. The equivalent of the brain’s “neural populations” are the rivalrous countries, corporations,terrorist organizations, criminal groups, NGOs, cooperating citizens and others who populate the medium of the internet. Rival, and not so rival, as in the recent case of the US spying on EU officials, states, use the internet as a weapon of espionage and “cyber war” corporations battle one another for market share, terrorist and criminal entities square off against states and each other. NGOs and some citizen groups try to use the Internet to leverage efforts to make the world a better place.

As for this global brain, such as it is, obtaining self-awareness: if self-awareness plays such a small role in human cognition, why should we expect it to be such a defining feature of any “true” global brain? As Eagleman makes clear, the reason that the human brain exhibits self-awareness is largely a matter of its capacity to learn new things. The job of self-awareness is to make this learning unconscious like the pre- programmed instincts and regulatory functions of the body. Only once they are unconscious is their performance actually efficient. If any global brain follows the pattern of the one between our ears the more efficient it is- the less self-aware it will be.

This understanding of how the brain works has counter-intuitive, and what I think to be largely unexplored implications outside of the question of any global brain. Take the issue of uploading. The idea behind uploading is that our minds are a kind of software where our thoughts and memories can be uploaded offering us a form of immortality. Uploading seems to necessitate its flip-side of downloading as well. In the future if I want to learn how to play the oboe instead of painful practice I will be able to download into my mind all the skills needed to play and in a flash I’ll be hitting out the tunes like Jack Cozen Harel.

Our current understand of the brain seems to throw a wrench into uploading and downloading as far as thoughts are concerned. For one, the plural nature of the brain leaves one wondering which of our neural populations make into into the afterword or whether they should make it through as one entity at all? The gregarious part of myself has never like the introverted bookworm. At death, maybe before, why not make the divorce final and let the two go their separate ways?

Seeing the downloading of thoughts in light of contemporary neuroscience opens up other interesting questions as well. If our self-awareness is most in play when we are going through the tedious steps of learning something new perhaps we should describe it as a slow bandwidth phenomenon? An increase in the efficiency in getting new things into our heads may come at the cost of self-awareness. The more machine like we become the less self-aware we will be.

Those are interesting questions for another time. To return to the global brain: Eagleman made use of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s characterization of Lincoln’s cabinet as “a team of rivals”. With the Civil War fresh in our memories, perhaps we could extend the analogy to say that recent efforts by countries such as China to de-internationalize, or de-Americanize the Internet are something like the beginning of a movement to “secede” from the global brain itself.  As a pre-publication review of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business:

Ultimately, Schmidt and Cohen even foresee the possibility of the world’s countries deliberately breaking the Internet into several distinct Internets. According to Gara’s reading of the book, the authors “speculate that the Internet could eventually fracture into pieces, some controlled by an alliance of states that are relatively tolerant and free, and others by groupings that want their citizens to take part in a less rowdy and open online life.

Whether such a fracturing would constitute the sort of deep loss Schmidt and Cohen present it as or something much less dire depends on how one values the global brain as it exists today. As I see it, our networks are nowhere near the sort of sentient and essential globe spanning consciousness the global brain’s most vocal advocates wish it to be.

We do, however, have hints of what such a true global brain might look like in things like IBM’s Smart Cities Initiative which allows cities like New York and Rio to get instant feedback from their citizens along with a network of sensors that allow these cities to respond accordingly and target their services.

Yet, what makes something like Smart Cities work is that this feedback is plugged into services and governance with clear paths of response. A similar network of sensors and feedback systems that instead spanned the earth itself would need somewhere to be plugged into. A brain needs a body, but where? As of yet our tools of global governance are not even up to the information steaming from the limited global brain we have. This would allow us to, among much else, not just monitor but care for our earth. To take on the responsibilities of the terrestrial, if not cosmic, adults we are.

As long as we hold that there is some degree of similarity between the network under our skulls and the network civilization we have been constructing since the first telegraph message in 1844- “What hath God wrought?”, then we need to update our understanding of what a global brain would actually be. This needs to be based both on current neuroscience and where our networks are themselves trending in addition to our commitment to actually heed what such networks might tell us. To do otherwise is to be blinded to the truth by our deep longing for a pantheist deity: hugging close like the earth- mother of a child’s fable.