The Singularity is Near-Sighted: Joseph Campbell's Vision for the Internet Age

Written by 

It's a great irony of Western Civilization that the scientific revolution, which emerged in the 15th century as a telescopic rifle aimed squarely at the Church, has lately been spotted distributing apocalyptic pamphlets in the public square.

Despite rhetoric steeped in science, these philosophical tracts are founded on metaphysical assumptions, resulting in a kind of techno-religion, replete with promises of immortality and transcendence.

The following beliefs form the basis for this technological utopianism:

  1. A projection of human consciousness onto machines
  2. A teleological world view whereby civilization is moving toward unity and global interconnection
  3. An implicit belief in the goodness of technology and the benevolence of machines

kurzweilIf we are witnessing the birth of a new religion, then its central prophet is futurist Ray Kurzweil. In the documentary Transcendent Man we learn of Kurzweil’s bold prediction, what he calls The Singularity: advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics will allow humans to exceed current capabilities, essentially causing them to merge with machines and transcend biological limitations.

It all sounds plausible, too, until the documentary reveals Kurzweil's obsession with bringing his father back to life. Then we see that Kurzweil might just be in need of a good Freudian analyst, and that, perhaps, his entire theory is driven by a hyper-inflated fear of death. Perhaps the apocalyptic metaphysics of the internet are mere wish-thinking? That is, could Kurzweil be reverting to a childish instinct that concocts elaborate fantasies to assuage the fear of death? In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud argues that the origin of religion is found in feelings of helplessness we experience upon realizing our mortal condition. This might explain why Kurzweil’s Singularity takes on religious qualities, relying on an appeal to metaphysics as much as physics.

Joseph Campbell would have been the first to point out the dangers of reading such science fiction as literal truth. In Campbell’s work, mythologies are never reduced to mere prophecy, belief, or individual religious sect; instead, stories often point toward underlying psychological phenomena that have universal significance and arise from a universal source, despite manifesting in specific cultural contexts. In other words, the cast of characters may change, but the essential plot remains the same. Read in this context, The Singularity could simply be a contemporary expression of an ancient mythological motif: the quest to cheat death. This theme, central to the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, has been around for at least 3,000 years in literature.

earth rise Campbell may have interpreted The Singularity and other techno-philosophies as traps and forms of false consciousness. His vision of a new myth for humanity is far more organic, and places technology in a subordinate role. In his PBS interview series with Bill Moyers, Campbell admits he cannot predict what form this new myth will take, but he believes it will transcend cultural boundaries and represent global consciousness:

“And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group. When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come.”

Campbell died in 1987, two years before Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web, but his vision of a united culture has some echoes in technological utopianism. Was Campbell glimpsing the dawn of an interconnected age? Did he foresee a global citizenry linked by a unified, planetary text, an HTML scripture? Would he have re-contextualized the Buddhist myth of Indra’s Net, a network of infinitely reflective jewels, in order to celebrate the internet as an omega point of human civilization?

star warsThis is extremely unlikely. Campbell was, in fact, suspicious of technology’s ability to deliver the spiritual goods. In The Power of Myth (the book version of his interviews with Moyers), he interprets Star Wars as a meditation on the limits of technology: “It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which [George] Lucas has dressed in modern idiom—the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.”

Though skeptical, Campbell would have been forced to address the civilizational changes caused by the internet. While Indra’s Net might appear to be a perfect metaphor for these always-connected times, our behavior has, so far, fallen short of this ideal. The intersections on Indra’s Net contain perfectly-polished jewels, each reflecting all other jewels with equanimity. In other words, each node on the network is empty of its own content, and exists as a pure expression of the entire net.

This is the opposite of the status update, the tweet, and the blog post. In the world of Web 2.0, where billions have access to instant publication on blogs and social networking sites, the only way to break through the noise and generate traffic is by calling attention to yourself. (Somehow the language around this has an aggressive, cattle-rustling quality. You’re supposed to hook the reader, rope him in, and build a brand.) We’ve all witnessed friends on Facebook posting something cryptic, such as, “Well, that was a terrible day,” creating both a sense of suspense and an obligation to respond. Scrolling through a news feed can be like walking through the New York Stock Exchange. Everyone is clamoring for attention, eager to buy and sell. On Indra’s Net, the mirrors are self-effacing, holding nothing for themselves. In the online world, they reflect the gaze of Narcissus. Each knot on the net is a well-wrought ego.

mazeIf Indra’s Net represents a failed ideal, the Greek Myth of Daedalus’ Labyrinth might offer us a way out. The story begins when the god Poseidon orders King Minos to sacrifice a snow-white bull. Instead of obeying, Minos keeps the bull for himself. Poseidon and Aphrodite punish him by making Minos’ wife fall in love with the bull, resulting in the half-man, half-bull offspring: the Minotaur. The unruly beast is so dangerous that Minos must commission Daedalus, the master architect, to build a labyrinth in which to conceal it. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell calls Minos’ act of retaining the Minotaur “an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement,” and an attempt to convert “a public event to personal gain.” This is a perfect description of social media at its worst. Like King Minos, we have hired civilization’s finest architects to create a space for the endless projection of our shadows onto the walls of the internet, where our darkest images dance among the trolls and spiders.

But there is hope. Unfortunately, it means we must resurface with the bull’s head in tow. (Branding him won’t be enough.) We must emerge from the labyrinth and incorporate our capture into a bigger picture. Campbell writes: “If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of powers, a vivid renewal of life.” This is difficult work. Daedalus, the creator of the labyrinth, barely escaped from his own work after completing it. Theseus, who slayed the Minotaur, was only successful after numerous Athenian citizens were devoured.

minotaur

The key to victory is found in the story of Theseus, the heroic founder of Athens, who volunteers to enter the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur. At the advice of Daedalus, Theseus is given a ball of thread to unravel as he explores the labyrinth. After finding the Minotaur and severing his head, Theseus follows the thread and retraces his steps. Though no etymological connection exists between the two words, the story of Theseus’s thread is often used to illustrate the importance of creating a “thesis,” otherwise known as an argument thread, in a written composition.

So, too, must we create a narrative thread that makes sense of our meandering. The technology cannot be allowed to define us. The maze, though spell-binding, is not the destination. We must unravel the story of how we got here, or remain lost in the catacombs. Why did we build this hyper-linked labyrinth, and what are we concealing within its walls? What might happen if we emerge on the other side?

The internet could certainly lead to a new understanding of existence, but not if we mistake information for knowledge. The information never stops, but it also never reaches an end. It’s noisy, but signifies nothing by itself. Humans might be the only storytellers the universe has ever known. If we’re looking for meaning in a technological age, we cannot allow the machines to navigate.

--

Postscript: Here's Joseph Campbell himself:

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy

17 comments

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Tuesday, 13 December 2011 16:36 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hi Andrew,

    As a fellow student of Campbell and mythology at large, I thoroughly enjoyed this. You're an excellent writer. I was extra-excited to leap to the comment section before even reading this thoroughly, because I've been studying this very subject all semester at grad school. I've read a couple of semi-geeky books and articles about cyborgs, AI, the global brain and Kelly's "technium." It's a strange world of pseudo-mythological themes that creep up in the scientific and technological imagination. You hit the nail on the head about the singularity being a "technological utopianism," that mirrors an eschatological Christian worldview, as well as the historical gnostics who sought escape from the body into higher, perfect worlds.

    Like a good mythologist, you point out that we should not literalize our myths. Not even the myths themselves are literal. They seem to self-emerge out of our narratives even when we wouldn't like them to.

    "The technology cannot be allowed to define us. The maze, though spell-binding, is not the destination. We must unravel the story of how we got here, or remain lost in the catacombs. Why did we build this hyper-linked labyrinth, and what are we concealing within its walls? What might happen if we emerge on the other side?"

    Really juicy stuff. This is, of course, the opposite view point of authors like Kevin Kelly who see technology as a force we *should* yield to, *should* allow to define us, because it allows us to be more than we are (perhaps also Kurzweil). But technology is always an externalization of our inward state. When we depend upon our projections to save us or transform us, rather than guide us and offer us an outer sign for an inner sight, we become like the machine. Mechanized. Robotized. Our humanity is spiritual (IMO at least - as well as the myth of Star Wars emphasizes).

    If we were to see the internet as a reflection of both ourselves, the human psyche, the collective consciousness, as well as those doorways to realities within ourselves ( Indra's Net, Universal Mind, etc), we have many mysteries in which to contemplative. Hopefully, we will also have a world which we can sublimate with a deeper and more appreciative consciousness.

    Wholeness, the sphere (rather than just the circle) was something Jean Gebser used to describe the a-perspectival age, the age of transparency, diaphanous unity, and the recognition of our "origin." These are all hopeful visions of a future, but they are in our potential to actualize. So long as we don't literalize the vision in technology, but see it as an aid, an incarnation.

    It seems the tale is always one of balancing incarnation and the transcendent heart and soul. And I'll leave the comment at this point. Thanks again for the wonderful article. Definitely sharing this.

    PS: You might be interested in John Ebert's book "New Media Invasion," which analyzes digital technologies from a mythological point of view. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=reqBY2t0KKg

    Also, Bill Thompson has a great essay on this, riffing between technologists and mystics. He comes to a similar conclusion as you.

    Borg or Borges:

    http://www.imprint.co.uk/pdf/WI_Thompson.pdf

    "The mystics, starting with Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo in the first half of the twentieth century, also prophesied that we were at a new stage in evo- lution, but they saw consciousness surrounding technology, and compressing and miniaturizing it into an antique fossil of intermediate cultural evolution as we passed on into a post-human or ‘Supramental’ era in which we were welcomed back into the cosmic play."

  • Comment Link Joseph Camosy Tuesday, 13 December 2011 21:12 posted by Joseph Camosy

    Loved your analogy. However you left out one key part of the Theseus myth - Ariadne, it's the daughter of the king who provides a sword and the ball of string. It is via the feminine principle (subconsciousness) that we get the "clue" (clue=string) a.k.a Intuition to find our way out of the labyrinth. And in return, Theseus promises to free her and make her his wife - KEY! Symbolically what this indicates is that it's in how we treat the feminine and subconscious aspects that bring about the necessary saving intuitions. As the future moves forward, we are seeing just that - the feminine being brough to co-equality with the masculine, and the awareness of the shadow and other crucial awareness of the role of the subconscious. A promising future will be based on this.

  • Comment Link Dave E Tuesday, 13 December 2011 22:49 posted by Dave E

    Hi Guys,

    I've been following the Singularity theory with great interest for some time now and I've never heard it referred to as metaphysical, technological utopianism or a techno-philosophy as above. I'd be curious to learn more about the origin of those views or how popular they may be?

    My understanding is that the term "Singularity" itself, and a hallmark of the theory, was a reference to the fact that we couldn't reliably predict or hope to understand what might happen after such an event (the emergence of a technological super-intelligence). In the same way that we can't reliably predict what might happen beyond the event horizon of a gravitational singularity (black hole) since nothing can be observed beyond that point.

    That said, many of the people I've discussed the issue with have speculated that the possible dangers are just as great, if not greater, then the possible benefits. Check out:

    Wikipedia - Technological Singularity - Existential Risk
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity#Existential_risk

    Why we should fear the Paperclipper
    http://www.aleph.se/andart/archives/2011/02/why_we_should_fear_the_paperclipper.html

    I'd be much more concerned about the potential of us losing our coveted status as the dominant life-form on this planet than the prospect of being lulled into a false sense of hope for a utopian future!

  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Tuesday, 13 December 2011 23:00 posted by TJ Dawe

    Andrew - thanks for the image of the internet as a labyrinth. As I'm sure we can all relate to, it's all too easy to get lost in its endless corridors. The monster inside doesn't gore us, but rather abets our decay, erodes our relationships, zaps our attention spans and rewires our brains to get our dopamine hits with the arrival of new messages and tantalizing things to read, look at or watch. But it's a heroic act to find the jewels in the labyrinth, and find one's way back out without pausing too many times on the way out to see what people have posted on the Facebook newsfeed.

    Joseph - to build on your comment, at one point Campbell (can't remember where - maybe Myths to Live By, or Reflections on the Art of Living) said society is masculine, nature is feminine. And so this particular myth points out not only the necessity of integrating feminine and masculine wisdom, but also integrating society and nature. We need to balance our lives in the digital world with our lives in the physical world. Online relationships shouldn't take over the time we spend with the people immediately in our lives. And the exchanges of ideas on sites like this shouldn't replace engagement with the physical world.

  • Comment Link Andrew Neuendorf Wednesday, 14 December 2011 02:20 posted by Andrew Neuendorf

    Jeremy--Thanks for your comments! I'd like to respond at length some other time because your ideas demand it. I agree that the internet and technology should be seen as reflections of ourselves. After all, we have created them, for purposes that are both obvious and mysterious, and have put our thumbprint on them. I'm suspicious of notions like Kelly's that technology can somehow exist on its own, or as the 7th Kingdom of Life, as he puts it. Of course I could certainly be proven wrong. Anyway, I will read that Thompson essay. I've read a number of his books and really appreciate his use of literature and mythology, something that is mostly missing from Wilber's work. I've also been meaning to explore Ebert's work some more.

    Joseph--Every version I've read has Daedalus coming up with the idea of the string, and then passing it along to Ariadne to give to Theseus. Either way, I probably didn't portray that part accurately (if accuracy is possible for mythology) and I think your notion of the necessary feminine elements balancing out the masculine is a better way to look at it. I will make sure to include Ariadne the next time I tell this myth. Thanks!

    TJ--I'm enjoying the cognitive dissonance involved with promoting this article on Twitter.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 15 December 2011 02:29 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Just wanted to reiterate some thoughts here that came up for me during the feedback process for this article.

    Before I do that though, thought I'd alert Dave E or others to a series of recent articles by the philosopher Michael Zimmerman on the notion of the Singularity. Lots of good background there on that whole topic.

    http://integrallife.com/member/michael-zimmerman/blog/singularity-and-integral-theory-humankind-transitional-stage-spirit%E2%80%99s-

    I appreciate the critique in this article, both of the possible technological utopianism of the singularity concept, and of the 'labyrinth' of narcissism on the internet and social media.

    On the first point I'm reminded of Heidegger's critique of technology. Here's how Jeremy Johnson nicely worded his understanding of this in a comment on my Surrealism piece:

    "Part of what I've had to read lately is a lot of theory and philosophy on technology, and the interesting thing Heidegger noted was that the "essence" of technology was not technology at all, but the "enframing" - Heidegger's own version of a structure of consciousness, that "challenges forth" reality to give up its resources, unlock its power and become a means to an end and standing-reserve for human destiny. In other words, another way of describing Gebser's deficient mental-rational structure of consciousness".

    I'd agree that this mentality has indeed been a driving force behind much of the technological development of the past two hundred years or so. And it's not a new idea to say we've unreflectively let our technology run away from our control, but I think it's bears repeating on ongoing basis. There was a famous interview with Heidegger late in his life (1966) where he spoke to this issue:

    SPIEGEL: But someone might object very naively: what must be mastered in this case? Everything is functioning. More and more electric power companies are being built. Production is up. In highly technologized parts of the earth, people are well cared for. We are living in a state of prosperity. What really is lacking to us?

    Heidegger: Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is awesome, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth. I don't know if you were shocked, but [certainly] I was shocked when a short time ago I saw the pictures of the earth taken from the moon. We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us] -- the uprooting of man is already here. All our relationships have become merely technical ones. It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today".

    http://www.ditext.com/heidegger/interview.html

    So while I appreciate the work of folks like Kevin Kelly and Kurzweil, I can't help but always also hear the specter of Hiedegger whispering in my ear when it comes to technology, and thought I'd add some of it to this thread, as I think also engaging this critical perspective is important.

    When it comes to social media and the labyrinth of narcissism we've created, I also like the the push in this article for us to intentionally create something deeper. What would that Net of Indra look like in our practice and our posts online? I don't know, but the question is workin on me. I personally feel that social media has great (r)evolutionary potential. This has of course shown itself in many of the social revolutions we've seen around the world in the past year, with people's abilities to organize etc. But I'm also talking about a general public space (like Facebook) where people get to share articles, information, culture etc., unmediated by controlling dominant interests. I'd been wondering if anyone out there had thought of the Internet and a new place for the "public sphere", and of course someone had!

    I found this (decent and fairly humorous) video on Youtube where a student gives a five minute animated summary on various thinking on the notion public sphere, finishing with the internet as a new emergent location of this. It's worth a quick viewing.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHixAB3NKo8

    The creator of the video is apparently a student of a professor of communications at Ottawa University named Michael Strangelove, who wrote a recent book called 'Empire of the Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-capitalist Movement'. Here is a couple review blurbs from Amazon:

    "No other book I am aware of argues so effectively, and in such a detailed, nuanced way, the potential of the Internet to undermine the current economic order as does Michael Strangelove's The Empire of Mind. Strangelove is a fine writer and he takes positions seldom articulated".

    "Where many critics see the Internet as an instrument of corporate hegemony, Michael Strangelove sees something else: an alternative space inhabited by communities dedicated to anarchic freedom, culture jamming, alternative journalism, and resistance to authoritarian forms of consumer capitalism and globalization... Strangelove contends that the Internet breaks with the capitalist logic of commodification and that, while television produces a passive consumer audience, Internet audiences are more active, creative, and subversive. Writers, activists, and artists on the Internet undermine commercial media and its management of consumer behaviour, a behaviour that is challenged by the Web's tendency toward the disintegration of intellectual property rights".

    Well, I should stop there as this is long enough. Jeremy and I can really get going on these kind of threads! I just wanted to add the perspective that the Internet still has loads of great potential for helping to create the kind of future that so many want and are currently struggling toward. I say let's definitely work to get out of the labyrinth by leading by example and forging something closer to that Net of Indra. Another world is possible, and awaits I believe.

    thanks Andrew!, hope some of that adds to the overall discussion here.

  • Comment Link Andrew Neuendorf Thursday, 15 December 2011 14:32 posted by Andrew Neuendorf

    Trevor---I recently watched a little of John Ebert lecturing on Heidegger (courtesy of Jeremy's website) and was surprised to find these kinds of perspectives in his work. I've mainly read the earlier work (What is Metaphysics? and more or less summaries of Being and Time...I wasn't brave enough to touch that one) and hadn't really thought much of him in an evolutionary or integral context. Hopefully I'll make the time and space to dig in a little bit more. Any recommendations for where to start?

    It's funny because I recently required some of my students to incorporate Twitter as a research tool, and their preconceptions of it were of a narcissistic, celebrity-obsessed technology where Ashton Kutcher's trips to the bathroom were the main attraction. Of course, this is partly true, but they were unaware of how readily it's been accepted by the professional world, how many educators, and stock brokers, writers, and journalists seem to rely on Twitter as what David Carr calls part of the "plumbing" of the internet. Any public sphere is going to have a mixture of leaders, loiterers, and lechers (that was all the "l" words I could think of, maybe lepers, too?)

    Marshall McLuhan as written as well about the phenomena of humanity surrounding nature. He saw satellites as enclosing the earth in a man-made environment. In a sense, if you view technology as an extension of our senses and consciousness, this seems to suggest the potential for technology helping jolt us into global consciousness, of seeing a world without boundaries, or perhaps a single "organism" (though probably not in a biological sense). This is why the moon landing and photos of earth from space are often regarded as some kind of turning point in our understanding of or relationship with the planet. It has the potential to make what was previously part of our subjective awareness an object.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 17 December 2011 18:57 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Andrew, I used to be just like your students before I went on Facebook and Twitter too. I just dismissed it out of hand. But over time, when I finally joined Facebook, I came to see how powerful it can be as a place to share/exchange information- videos, lectures, articles, humor, music, images etc. It's like a massive anthill of independent researchers and cultural transference. I also like the fact that for most people, including myself, we're 'friends' with people from many stages/periods of our life (many who I'd totally lost contact with). So Facebook becomes this great meme mash-up thing, where all sorts of values and lifestyles etc. are colliding in a way that they might not of otherwise. Somehow I think this is really healthy for society.

    I only got into Twitter because of our Beams and Struts account. But I quickly discovered it was this massive independent, rhizomatic network of information sharing. I was amazed to watch in real time the Egyptian protests, the Wisconsin protests and OWS, spread in the Twitter network like mad and then a few days later, once these links started to be posted to numerous blogs and sites (and Facebook), the mainstream media finally having to pick up the story. That's powerful stuff. The old days of being 'controlled' from above by the mainstream media is gone in my opinion.

    However, your point about the cacophony of egoic 'look at me'-ness is still an important one. Thinking more about the Net of Indra possibility, I think our posting would have to more reflect the whole to move in this direction . What's happening in our local communities, in other countries, what's happening to the Earth, what are we discovering about space, what's a great way to cook squash. I still think there's a possibility that the Internet and social media is a container allowing for a global mind, a global community to form, and that I'm excited by.

    In terms of Heidegger, the main text of his on technology is called 'The Question Concerning Technology'. The title essay is pretty short but a bit of a slog as he can be. But once you find his rhythm (slow!), it's pretty rich. Hubert Dreyfus is a good Heidegger scholar to look out for. And for a really excellent introduction to Heidegger's thought in general, check out this podcast. Episode 104 on Martin Heidegger.

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/entitled-opinions-about-life/id81415836

    well, those are some of the things that continue to come up for me around this article, I hope others bring out what arises for them. thanks Andrew!

  • Comment Link Fubar Saturday, 17 December 2011 19:28 posted by Fubar

    I came across Bernie Neville's (@latrobe.edu) work on Hermes on the Gebser Society web site several years ago. Hermes is the god of information, deception, slippriness, and transformation. Neville relates integral theory to Jung, Keagan, and James Hillman.

    http://www.cejournal.org/GRD/neville.htm

    "Specifically I want to look at our age from four different perspectives: postmodern social analysis, the history of consciousness, constructivist developmental psychology and archetypal psychology. "

    ---
    Alos see:
    http://www.gebser.org/download/IEX/IEXvol%207-%208.pdf

    Linked from: http://www.gebser.org/content/publications/IEX.html

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Friday, 30 December 2011 06:44 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    New cover article in Wired magazine worth reading about other faces of the social media revolution. '#Riot-How Social Media Fuels Unrest'.

    http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff_riots/all/1

    And Fubar, great links, thanks, didn't know the Gebser journal even existed, look forward to diggin into it.

  • Comment Link Matt Wednesday, 11 January 2012 16:17 posted by Matt

    I do recall, however, that in one lecture, Campbell states that the science of one age becomes the religion of the next.
    In fact, his break from traditional Catholicism, based on first century science, was due to the inability of the myths of that religion to penetrate the science of the 20th century, in his case, modern biology.
    When we look at nanotechnology, computer science, medical science, quantum physics, etc., we have to agree that vast changes in our outlook on science are screaming toward us. Whether this is a Singularity, or not, I don't know, but as students of myth we will have to penetrate the veil of science to find the mystery within the knowledge it reveals.

  • Comment Link Andrew Neuendorf Thursday, 12 January 2012 14:46 posted by Andrew Neuendorf

    I recently watched Jeremy Johnson's wonderful interview with William Irwin Thompson, over at Evolutionary Landscapes

    http://evolutionarylandscapes.com/william-irwin-thompson-interview-occupy-arab

    and Thompson deftly critiqued the modern fallacy of confusing technology with human intelligence by referring to Whitehead's "Misplaced Concreteness," essentially the idea of confusing an abstraction with a concrete object. That would have been a helpful term to use in my article, and I think it explains so much about our relationship with technology.

    Do we think we're actually talking to Siri? Is Google thinking? I think we've confused computation with intelligence, personally. I don't know if it will be our undoing as a people or anything like that, but it's certainly an annoying trend that could lead us to debase the human brain (an artwork a few billion years in the making) in favor of an upstart digital alternative. Maybe we won't miss it. Or maybe it won't matter. Text me when a computer writes a good poem. Then maybe I'm interested.

    I got into an argument once with a student over whether or not you've actually "met" someone if you've only communicated online. I said yes, of course. In fact, I thought he was ridiculous. He even asserted that talking over Skype is not, technically "meeting" someone. Once, again, this could just be semantic gibberish, but I'm starting to come over to his side of the argument. If online relationships ("friends" "followers" and so on) are different than "traditional" relationships, aren't we obscuring an important shift in civilization if we don't choose different words, if we don't recognize that something is gained, something is lost, something is altered?

    I agree with Matt that our latest scientific discoveries will (and probably already have) taken on religious significance. When I read about the multi-verse, I can't help but see it as a new, inspiring creation myth.

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Saturday, 14 January 2012 05:37 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Hi Andrew, glad you got a chance to listen to the interview!

    I've noticed this too. Sometimes I partake in the giddiness, but I often notice the sensationalism around "life-like" robots or human-like responses from A.I. programs. Your Siri example is the latest and most case-in-point. We are intrigued and fascinated by it, but are we just projecting our own sense of consciousness into these technological mechanisms?

    I wouldn't say we've reached anything near actual intelligence, or even sentience with our computers. On the other hand, my girlfriend and I had to endure a good 5 months apart two semesters ago. It was tough, but Skype definitely alleviated the situation and made it far easier to bear than phone calls and letters alone. So in one sense, technologies are never a replacement for human contact and experience, but they are an enhancement, and sometimes, a fill-in when that connection is missing. This is something that Thompson's friend, Ebert, argues for in his book New Media Invasion: digital technologies offer us a virtual replacement for human sociability (Facebook replacing the village square, etc) - because Western civilization has been so over-run by automobiles and industry that human socialization has been systematically eliminated by machines and roads. Malls are a poor substitute for the intimacy of townsfolk and city squares. So technology has substituted - for a time, real human interaction. My guess is it is on the way back through great efforts to extend our virtual meet ups into real world events, collaborations and cultures. The village-square is returning, but it is not quite the same as before. Now it is uniquely local while also global. That's a mythical theme in itself!

    I'm also wondering how much esoteric, or mystical insights will make a come-back in our time. As they seem to be on an intriguing playing field with scientific myths about multiple dimensions, parallel realities and quantum physics.

    Thompson said this in another essay he has on technology, consciousness, and AI:

    "The mystics, starting with Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo in the first half of the twentieth century, also prophesied that we were at a new stage of evolution, but they saw consciousness surrounding technology, and compressing and miniaturizing it into an antique fossil of intermediate cultural evolution as we passed into a post-human or Supramental era in which we were welcomed back into the cosmic play."

    I don't know if technology will be excluded, per se, from this potential transformation. But it is interesting to consider that it will play a role in the incarnation of these multi-dimensional (or higher dimensional) forms of consciousness that may find their incarnational "body" through the symbiotic relationship of human and machine.

    I'm reminded of Teilhard's writings on consciousness (though they may be out dated in some sense), when he wrote that the evolution of consciousness intensifies when energies are "freed up" to extend themselves in new directions. Digital technologies do this to some degree. Our energy no longer is concentrated towards memory. Google is our extended memory. Does this mean our minds are now freed up towards a more creative and collaborative play of exploration and innovation? I certainly hope so.

    Enough rambling for now! Great thoughts here as usual...

    -Jer

  • Comment Link Guy Chambers Sunday, 15 January 2012 05:43 posted by Guy Chambers

    First and foremost I would like to say that i found out about this article via twitter: I do not know whether I would have found it if it wasn't for said media, but suffice to say, the information put forward is 'right up my street'! So I'd like to thank Andrew for the article, and all the commenters for their input too.

    Second, I would like to be able to address each point and write a masterful thesis (perhaps as a pet project I might do this) but i feel that is unlikely, so i won't try to do that. What I will attempt is to address, in an intuitive manner, some of the points that interest me most, and hopefully my contribution will be sufficient for my reading of it, and subsequent typing, to have not been entirely in vain!

    My first comment is sort of a meta-comment: that my interests are what drew me here (and I assume it is what likewise drew each commenter here) would be to state the obvious. But I think the obvious is often overlooked. Our mutual interests seem to be, in general, what draw us together. But it is our particular interest in the topic of 'totality' which seems to have drawn us each specifically to this page. So my first point is that our conscious movement towards interests seems to be what the medium of the internet, at its highest, facilitates. We are driven to know, and for that purpose, we are drawn into the labyrinth of information. Knowledge of the totality, I am suggesting, is the boon to which we each aspire. It is both an individual aspiration, and mankind's collective goal.

    Shining through the multitude of specialisms exhibited in this page (mythology, psychology, philosophy, science, technology, media and futurism - which is a specific aggregate of all of the above) there seems to be an underlying magnetism of unity intuitively guiding us towards completeness, or at the least a sense of it. As a conscious species, we have long sought a full and complete understanding of everything (the history of philosophy) even though, deep down, we may fear this is never possible. (Our 'mortal condition'). Technology, in the form of the internet, seems to offer us, as individuals, the potential for such knowledge. But can it be actualised? With the vast amounts of information flowing through fibre-optics and wireless connections comparable in scale to that of the activity of a single brain, perhaps the 'technological utopia' is the promise of the long-hoped-for completeness that humanity has sought all along. Perhaps we can at last put our minds to rest by getting Google or some advanced AI to answer all the mysteries! This may just be wishful thinking, but it could easily be a subconscious driving force of the techno-fantasy.

    But this would be the 'representation' or abstraction of completeness, and not identical with every individual knowing the totality. Whereas we may be able to develop machines capable of developing machines ad infinitum, which are capable of both formulating and answering the ultimate question: herein lies '42' (from the 'Hitch Hikers Guide To The Galaxy'). For once we have made the first self-replicating/improving intelligence (and this is of course the BIG IF) it is questionable whether we would be able to understand the questions they might ask, and therefore be utterly perplexed by the answers which issue forth! This is my understanding of the technological singularity: the state of evolving technology to the point where we can no longer understand its machinations.

    I for one, have no idea how to make 'an internet', or a computer, or an iX,Y or Z. Sure, I could train for the rest of my life and possibly gain some knowledge into the ins and outs, but for me, personally, I am happy to admit that I am at my own personal technological singularity. I, like most computer and internet users, am happy to treat them as a means to an end, seeing them not as ends in themselves, and fundamentally valueless without humans to input data into them. For again, if they work independently of humans and began developing their own algorhythms to work out the 'meaning' of all the data humans have inputted into them, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be able to grasp what their outputs were. Maybe somebody would, but then it would unlikely be an insight easily transmissable to the masses. Even if it could be reduced to 140 characters, it would likely be incomprehensible! Maybe a self-generated Google koan, or haiku would be tweeted to everyone, and that would be the end of the line? Somehow I doubt it.

    And so we come back to the 'net with all it promises. Strange that the Buddhist image of interconnectedness should fall along the lines of a net, or network, and that our very means of connecting to the world is via the network lying within brains. That the internet is a network of shimmering silvery wires with practically infinite data flow is not really a surprise - it is merely mirroring the universal pattern of well, the universe, writ small. The Buddhist idea of not-self is not one to lose sight of for the sake of comparison: Indra's Net might apply to a user-less internet, devoid of I's chattering about their day-to-day sense experiences. But that would be pointless. Each node would merely reflect the potential to be interesting, without there being anything of actual interest to reflect.

    Indra's Net, whilst perhaps one of humanity's most beautiful images, is bound to fall short in practice: the clammering I-ness of Twitter and Facebook, and social media in general, is to be expected, as this media is but an extension of our individual (person to person) and social (group to group) intercourse. Unless every user acted as a 'not-user' and posted content that related in no way to their personality, and merely reflected their interests without the pronoun 'I' or any relation to feeling, then it is difficult to see how this image could be actualised. But perhaps that is the point: Indra's Net might represent the mere mechanism of the network as an abstraction, the potential for resonance (interest) to be established between nodes (users), and not its content, which can come about only through human interaction with the machine (input of data based on ideas sourced from either the external or internal world). In order for the totality to be interesting as a whole, it is to be composed of the interests of its parts, and the totality of reflections then actualised would form that global consciousness, with all resonances buzzing around infinitely within the system. Under the image of Indra's Net, the internet could then be seen as the neuronal platform for digitised perception, providing the framework for content, but providing no intrinsic content of its own.

    So, in a certain way, the internet is a means for individual human beings (as nodes) to share in all the myriad ideas that present themselves in the world directly (through unmediated experience) and indirectly (via mediated experience: talking, writing, reading, broadcasting, recording) in that most ultimate quest for knowledge. If the individual is the Hero, or Theseus then the internet could be seen as the labyrinth; knowledge as the boon; the incessant buzz as the bane; the string as reason through language; culture as the sharing of whatever any one individual makes of this totality-experience. The totality, if Whitehead was correct, is an impossible attainment for the finite mentality, yet it is the magnetic force, pulling us ever onwards. Myth is that image of the world which best abstracts the totality into a such a way that the finite ego can get a grasp on its own existence, and thereby allay it's fear of of it's own certain demise.

    Perhaps.

  • Comment Link Guy Chambers Sunday, 15 January 2012 05:54 posted by Guy Chambers

    sorry, that 2nd from last line should have been "...the totality in such a way..."

    fluffed it right at the end!

    sorry for the rant, the topic got me fired up!

  • Comment Link Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera Wednesday, 01 February 2012 23:39 posted by Giorgio Piacenza Cabrera

    Rational progress without an embodied attention to a mythical, irrational, past elicits disasters. If I read Salvador Panniker's concepts well (especially his concept of "RETROPROGRESSION"), humans are inevitably urged to honor a universal chaos attached to universal possibilities as much as to seek definition, control, science and certainties. Every move forward should truly embrace the ways of the previous stage or else there may be difficulties in continuing life. Salvador Panniker is a Spanish philosopher that tries to make sense of the best of modernity and postmodernity, also attempting to avoid the pitfalls of the latter's extreme deconstruction. He does use an enormous cultural background plus the findings of quantum and relativistic science and the mathematical theorems devised by Gödel, Tarsky and Turing. I think that Panniker would also consider Ray Kurzweil's main proposals as "near-sighted" and as following a necessarily insufficient or incomplete 'myth of pure progress'. Without a healthy backward move accompanying any 'progress' would be disaster or a pathological embrace of past ways of being (including intolerance and certain non-adaptive fundamentalisms). An informative conversation in English pertaining to Panniker's ideas and to a broad reconsideration of 'human nature' can be found at: http://obrasocial.catalunyacaixa.com/osocial/idiomes/3/publicacions/nexus/nexus33.pdf

  • Comment Link Benton Kopfler Tuesday, 11 September 2012 11:23 posted by Benton Kopfler

    I've had that same debate about meeting IRL being a requirement as a means of defining meeting . Given the various allegations that 50%
    of FB pages are " not real in that they do not describe an actual person but instead some sort of mask perhaps a "shadow persona ".?
    It appears that IRL is going to become a way to define relationships :

    Perhaps akin to the German language where there is a clear distinction between the formal "Sie" used to indicate a more formal and distant relationship between speakers as opposed to the ' du' form of You. Both words refer to a person only one is clearly much more intimate in the manner it is used. (the du)

    It has also recently come to my attention that failure to have a Social Media or Blog or Website indicates a failure to conform to the unstated expected norms /mores' of Society. To not engage in one or more of these is to become a less than legitimate person or a deviant possibly having serious issues antisocial or even criminal behavior if one fails to conform. This is one phenomenon that appears to argue against any " union of individual consciousness." via technological means or Singularity. The issues are complex and to me the idea of such a unity as appealing as it sounds simply won't happen sans an artificial means to suppress the Egotistical and Narcissistic aspects of our human nature.
    One last point: if one looks to the past thoughts re: the effects of simple TV upon culture and society it is quite apparent we are changing long established behaviors as we adopt new technology
    See Marshall McCluhan's works on Media and society.

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Newest Discussions