John Lobell addresses how new technology changes our consciousness, which in turn leads to cultural paradigm shifts. He received his degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and is a professor of architecture at Pratt Institute. His interests include creativity, architecture, cultural theory, consciousness, mythology, and movies. He has lectured throughout the world and is the author of numerous articles and several books.
Our world is no longer what we have thought it to be, and a new world is struggling to be born.
Visionary Creatives are driven to bring this new world to all of us.
4th August 2014

Hubris

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Standing on the world’s summit we launch once again our insolent challenge to the stars!
~ F.T. Marinetti, Italian Futurist poet, The Futurist Manifesto

I think when I find the code that generates our world, it will be about six lines.
~ Stephen Wolfram, British-American computer scientist, mathematician, and entrepreneur

Global Problems

We are acutely aware of the problems facing our world today: environmental degradation, poverty, repression, ethnic conflicts. At the same time, if we follow cutting edge advances in computers, information, biotech, materials, and methods of fabrication, we are aware that we are on the verge—even in the midst of—startling developments. What are we to make of these conflicting trends? The first thing that comes to mind has to be Charles Dickens’, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Let’s look at the entire first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us,
we had nothing before us,
we were all going direct to Heaven,
we were all going direct the other way–
in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of
its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for
evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Sounds about right. But we might also think in terms of a parable from the futurist designer, William Katavolos, who describes a fetus developing in the womb. This fetus is special in that it comes to consciousness around its third month. It is happy in its environment, and by the fifth month has begun to check things out. In the sixth month it concludes that something alarming is happening, it appears to be growing exponentially. By the seventh month it has confirmed that its growth is exponential and it becomes frantic. It sends out sound waves to determine the structure of its external environment and finds that it is not going to stretch indefinitely. It measures nutritional intake and waste output and finds that its situation is not sustainable; it will soon run out of resources and be knee-deep in waste. In the eighth month, finding that it is still growing, it panics and goes on a full-blown sustainability program, limiting nutritional intake, researching ways to recycle waste, and doing everything it can to stop its growth. Of course, what our fetus does not know is that in the ninth month its situation will change completely. It will be born.

The role of Visionary Creatives in all of this? The late literary critic Lionel Trilling proposed that literature—we could say Visionary Creativity in general—should be a corrective to political and economic thinking. Trilling sympathized with those who sought to right the injustices of the world, writing:

Life presses us so hard, time is so short, the suffering of the world is so huge, simple, unendurable—anything that complicates our moral fervor in dealing with reality as we immediately see it and wish to drive headlong upon it must be regarded with some impatience.

But what if current received wisdoms regarding our problems are wrong? Trilling advocates that the creative imagination should be free to explore problems in unconventional ways. Stated another way, rather than established thinking telling those with creative imaginations what to imagine, suppose we make openings for those with creative imaginations to influence established thinking; suppose we allow our Visionary Creatives to envision our world beyond the “ninth month.”

Recall our mention earlier of a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly. Evolution assures that the transition will be successful, but the caterpillar does not know that, and surrendering to the process takes an act of faith. As we look at our world and its problems today, we are tempted to latch on to current solutions and say, “this should be the safe way forward.” That approach will only assure a stagnant future that may not even be safe, as we have seen time and again with attempts at planned societies.

The alternative, allowing Visionary Creatives to envision things the rest of us cannot imagine, seems risky, and of course it is, it might not work, or it might work and we might not like the results. And it might also yield things that most today cannot imagine. In 1993 no one in the communications industry was talking about the Internet. In 1994, the industry was abuzz with the word. No one, not even in the communications industry, could see the most world-changing technology of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries coming just a year before it struck.

Of course those invested in current understandings and solutions may be no more happy with the challenges openness might bring than the art establishment was with the Impressionists, the physics establishment was with Bell’s theorem, or today’s evolutionists are with Lynn Margulis’s symbiogenesis. In the case of the Internet, it started so small, looked so much like a hobby, and seemed so unlikely to become a threat, that established industries ignored it. By the time it became apparent that the Internet was changing everything, it was too late to stop it, and many industries that had been successful in using their monopoly powers and their allies in government to stop previous advances are now being swept away.

Predictability yields a promise of safety that is an illusion. All it can assure is stagnation. Openness leads to risk, but also the possibility of flourishing. These are the choices.

Expanse

Watch the opening sequence for the television series, Star Trek: Voyager. A long plume of luminous gas arches diagonally across the screen, and as the camera pans we see the Voyager spacecraft plunge through a jet from a sun as it fills the screen and passes over us. It then plows through a blue mist, stirring it in its wake, and exists, arching over an ice moon of a large, Jupiter-like planet, a tiny rock moon hanging nearby and the Pillars of Creation in the background. Then Voyager approaches a Saturn-like planet, passes through the plane of its ice rings, and races its reflection as it rides over the rings. Finally it pulls away from the solar system as the sun emerges from an eclipse, passes an Earth-like planet, and jumps into warp drive, heading toward a brilliant nebula.

Today we are able to look out over the vast expanses of our known universe, now bordered only by the distance from which light has had time to reach us since its beginning. Our large Earth telescopes, orbital telescopes, solar system flybys, and computer enhancements give us magnificent views of planets, stars, and billions of galaxies. But short of the hyperdrives and wormholes of science fiction, we are trapped in our little solar system and will never travel to see most of these places up close. It will take months or years to reach planets in our solar system, and it would take hundreds of years to reach nearby stars and tens of millions of years to reach nearby galaxies. Depressing? Perhaps, but suppose we reject the idea that these places are inaccessible and assert that anywhere our imagination can go, we can eventually go.

The Singularity

Earlier we referred to cutting edge advances in computers, information, biotech, materials, and methods of fabrication. Is our embrace of these technologies hubris? Of course it is, and this is only the beginning.

Ray Kurzweil, a technology entrepreneur, futurist, and a director of engineering at Google, is an advocate for what is called the Singularity, a future time when human and machine intelligence merge. Moore’s Law observes that the number of transistors that can be placed on a new cutting edge computer chips doubles about every two years. If this rate continues, in twenty years a single chip will have more capability than the human brain, and in forty years more capability than all of the brains of all of the people who have ever lived. Kurzweil, like many scientists, equates circuitry with intelligence, and intelligence with consciousness. We might question Kurzweil’s understanding of consciousness, but we should not question the potential of this exponential growth, which he points out is taking place not only in electronics, but in all information technologies—and more and more technologies are becoming information technologies. For example, beginning in 1989, the US Department of Energy project to do the first human DNA sequence cost $3 billion and took eleven years. Beginning in 1998, Craig Venter’s Celera project did it for $300 million in two years. In 2007 the DNA of James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, was sequenced for $1 million. In 2010 commercial sequencing cost $5,000, and in 2014 it cost $1,000. We now have enough data points to predict when it will be $100 and then $10.

For Kurzweil, the ultimate outcome of all this will first be a merging of human and machine intelligence and then a migration of intelligence outward from the planet. He writes:

The explosive nature of exponential growth means it may only take a quarter of a millennium to go from sending messages on horseback to saturating the matter and energy in our solar system with sublimely intelligent processes. The ongoing expansion of our future superintelligence will then require moving out into the rest of the universe, where we may engineer new universes.

Kurzweil is not speaking metaphorically. He has carefully mapped technological growth over the past hundred years, and he closely monitors ongoing technological developments. He is predicting the continued acceleration of technological growth to the point where intelligence, human and machine combined, encompasses the earth, then the solar system, and then the galaxy. But he does not stop there, envisioning this projection of intelligence outward into the universe, and even grappling with the limitations of the speed of light. But Kurzweil envisions even overcoming that:

Whether our civilization infuses the rest of the universe with its creativity and intelligence quickly or slowly depends on its [the speed of light] immutability. In any event the “dumb” matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence, which will constitute the sixth epoch in the evolution of patterns of information.

This is the ultimate destiny of the Singularity and of the universe.

Kurzweil is not the only one thinking this way. MIT professor Seth Lloyd, who calls himself a “quantum mechanic,” titled his 2006 book Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos. A task too complex to even imagine? Perhaps not. Recall that Stephen Wolfram says, “I think when I find the code that generates our world, it will be about six lines.” By contrast, the Windows computer operating system contains fifty million lines of code, but those fifty million lines are a part of the world, so they themselves could ultimately be generated by Wolfram’s six lines. We are in the realm of a totally new way of thinking.

At the turn of the twentieth century the architect and planner of cities, Daniel Burnham, wrote: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” Kurzweil, Lloyd, and Wolfram might have read that somewhere.

Values and Technology

But should we be thinking this way? Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching writes:

Do you believe you can conquer the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it.
The universe is sacred.
It cannot be improved.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it.

Who is right, Kurzweil or Lao Tzu? What is a good technology; what is a bad technology? What should be our response to all of this? These questions are today hotly debated; how might we address them? I suspect we will address them within the context of the stories we told at the beginning of this book. For those living in the Middle Eastern story of Job, all of this is not good. It is nowhere revealed that any of this is part of the creator’s plan, and it distracts us from our true task, submission. Indeed, it was the assertion of individuality and the pursuit of knowledge that led to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and it was human aspiration that led to the destruction of the tower of Babel. Those living in the Indian story of Arjuna would be comfortable with all of this, but they would caution against getting too excited about it. Universes end in fire all the time, and if we want to set ours ablaze, it will matter little in the long run, which is long indeed. And, they would say, it is better to renounce the fruits of action. Those living in the Chinese story of Monkey would feel the power to do these things, but would await permission to do so. Those living in the Greek story of Prometheus would be delighted. It is for all of this that Prometheus brought us fire and the arts and sciences. Our minds, our imaginations, our ambitions exist for these tasks. However, they would caution that we should not delude ourselves into believing that any of this will change our fates.

And what of those living in the West? We are descendants of those who built the Gothic cathedrals, circled the globe, and ventured into space. We need not accept modesty. We can indeed aspire to improve the universe, but the motivation to do so and the judgment of such actions must come from within each individually. Sounds scary. Do we trust people, or do we need to control them? Are we shamans, or the subjects of priests? The story of Percival implies that we are each here to use our own judgment, to realize our own potentials, to set not just the universe but ourselves ablaze. If we harness our potentials and set ourselves ablaze, we are liberated. If we decline, we are in a wasteland.

We may someday travel to the stars or we may find, through quantum entanglement, that we are already there. We may extend our physical lives to centuries through the manipulation of DNA, or we may find that we value a life like a work of art, not by its length but by its luminosity. We may reprogram the universe, or we may find new inner worlds. We await our Visionary Creatives to let us know on what new stage we will act out our lives.

No Boundaries

We read in Joseph Campbell’s Flight of the Wild Gander about the movement of our culture from one defined, bounded, and secured by tradition, to one that is free:

Within the time of our lives, it is highly improbable that any solid rock will be found to which Prometheus can again be durably shackled…. The creative researches and wonderful daring of our scientists today partake far more of the lion spirit of shamanism than of the piety of priest and peasant. They have shed all fear of the bounding serpent king.

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