We are at a strange moment in human history. Things that for decades were the wild fantasies of science fiction are suddenly becoming reality. Military powers are developing autonomous killer robots and functional laser weapons; new nanomaterials with physics-bending capabilities are being employed in a myriad of industrial products; printable body parts, stem cell therapies and injectable tissue are on the verge of medical application; cameras and computers are shrinking exponentially, becoming ubiquitous in the fabric of our lives.
At the same time, the costs of our technological advance are becoming ever more apparent. Half the forests are gone, desertification threatens a quarter of the world’s land, and we are living through the sixth mass extinction of plant and animal species. Hundreds of millions of tonnes of plastic are decomposing in the oceans, releasing endocrine-disrupting chemicals into the global food chain.
The cultural responses to this unique epoch are similarly marked by paradox. For many, the solution to the problems created by technology is more technology: China has become the world leader in cloud seeding to combat drought, rocket-launching chemicals into the atmosphere to create millions of tonnes of extra rain. Our gaze turns skyward, contemplating the engineering of the atmosphere itself, while some dream of entirely transcending the ‘limitations’ of organic existence through the apotheosis of a technological Singularity.
At the same time, a cultural backlash against these visions of hi-tech triumph seems to be in play in the richest societies. The turn in fashion towards a rough-hewn, homespun aesthetic; the revival of handcrafts and home-baking; the popularity of drama set in historical periods or quasi-mediæval fantasy realms – all these seem to suggest an unconscious reaction against the unbounded, high-speed frictionlessness that now characterises electronic media, global finance and corporate hegemony.
In the midst of this network of cultural and material tensions, this issue of Dark Mountain – the first to focus specifically on one theme – takes as its subject not ‘technology’, but ‘technê’. Unfamiliar as it may be, the classical distinction between epistêmê – the realm of theory or knowledge – and technê – the practical application of art and craft – has continued to structure our thinking to the present day, dividing our humanities from our sciences, our intellectuals from our engineers, and our minds from our hands.
This book is intended to cut across this divide, weaving the global with the domestic, the theoretical with the pragmatic, the technological with the artistic. In the process, we hope to crack open the black box of a culture drowning in the digital and strangled by power lines. What stories underpin a technological mode of life? What role does skilled practice have in a world where everything Smart™ runs at the push of a button? Where are the boundaries between art and technology? Where does this experiment in total biospherical control end – in determinism or liberation, Singularity or despair?
Over the next seven posts on this blog, we’ll be offering some extracts from the new book which give some idea of its breadth and balance. We begin with an offering from the American writer and activist Bill McKibben, on the disturbing prospect of a technological ‘Singularity’.
Being Good Enough
I wrote a book several years ago called The Age of Missing Information, in which I recorded a rather odd experiment. I went and found the largest cable television system in the world, which at the time was in Fairfax, Virginia and had a hundred channels, and I got people there to tape for me everything that came across those hundred channels for 24 hours. So I had 2400 hours worth of videotape—a kind of day in the life of the Information Age pre-internet. And I took it back with me to the woods where I live, I bought a recliner, and I settled in and watched, trying to figure out what the world would look like to you if that was your main portal on it.
Of course, for many it is. And the book was filled with a lot of ideas and insights, but the central one—and I think the message that flows out of that coaxial cable, and out of every other instrument of our consumer society, is that you, sitting there on the couch, are the most important thing in the world. You’re the heaviest object in the known universe; everything should orbit around you. That’s a powerful idea.
It’s worth remembering, however, that there have been and continue to be different conceptions of who we are and who we can be. A certain strain of powerful thinking that we sometimes call spiritual, traces back at least as far as the Buddha for instance, and argues instead, that as we manage to makes ourselves somewhat smaller we become more fully who we are. Most human beings, in most times and places, have almost certainly defined themselves in connection to the tribe (the community), the divine, the natural world, some amalgam of those three.
And it’s not only spiritual traditions that lead us in that direction. To me, the most remarkable emergent science of the last century was neither atomic physics nor computerized mathematics. It was the insights of ecology, with its developing notion of balance and of niche.
Now, adjudicating the dispute between these two positions—this hyper-individualism and a kind of community—is of course difficult. Too much depends on the assumptions and even the mood in which you begin. But I would like to register by way of illustration a couple of small examples, reasons to think that perhaps more is not always better. Advocates of various forms of transhumanism or other improvements will routinely point to human memory as one of our most obvious defects. Marvin Minsky, for one, explaining why he didn’t ‘much like how people are now’, pointed out that we can only learn about two bits per second. Even a century’s worth of learning at that pace would leave us with only three billion bits of data, or less than what could be stored on the increasingly obsolete technology of a compact disc.
By now, doubtless we can store that much on a disc the size of a housefly’s thorax, and perhaps, as director of engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil, has written, ‘we’ll soon have knowledge downloading ports in the electronic version of our synapses, so there will be no need to read a book. The computer will just squirt the contents into your head.’ It’s easy, in a Midas-like mood, to yearn for perfect recall, but be careful, in this as in many things, about what you wish for. Isn’t one of the most remarkable features of the human memory precisely its ability to forget?
Take the even more prosaic example of human physical performance. It will in all likelihood prove possible to make us faster and stronger than we are at the moment, genetically, pharmacologically, by melding us with machinery. We will then by some measure be better than we are now. But to what end exactly? I’m an athlete, albeit a slow one. I run marathons and I race on cross-country skis. A number of years ago, I qualified for the Boston marathon. Now there was no danger that I would win it, of course. Of the 20,000 people who started that race, at best ten of us had any real hope of triumph. And yet it somehow wasn’t meaningless, indeed half the people who crossed the line with me an hour behind the victor were in tears, and only partly because they were in pain. More importantly, it had been a very dramatic example of that most human of activities: finding out about yourself. What your limits were, how you dealt with them, what it felt like to be you.
To imagine the scene a few generations hence when the same runners had been improved in utero so that their haemoglobin could carry four times the oxygen, or been machined in some way as to give them super speed, is to imagine the poverty of more. Yes, people would get to the finish line faster, but if getting there fast is the point you might as well take a motorcycle, or cross a person with a motorcycle for that matter.
The real point of the enterprise, self-discovery, would be fatally undermined, since you’d be discovering not yourself but your equipment. It might be worth thinking more deeply, because if the meaning of something as ephemeral as sport can be fatally damaged by improvement, then what of love? Of art? Of faith? Of the central and profound human experiences? What of life itself?
One thing that became clear to me as I wrote my book Enough, and as I read and talked to the many enthusiasts of the coming technological climax, was the degree to which this work was driven by a loathing of death. At some level this surprised me. Many scientists have long prided themselves on a willed immunity to the superstition known as religion, that so many weaker souls embraced in the cold shadow of our own eventual demise. But clearly scientists, some anyway, turn out to be as mortal as anyone at least in their fear of mortality. Here’s Michael West, the CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, which produced the first cloned embryos, and grew them to the six-cell stage: ‘all I think about all day long every day is human mortality and our own aging’, he said. Indeed he talked about admiring a t-shirt he’d seen with a picture of Einstein and the words ‘if he was so goddamn smart why is he dead?’
Damien Broderick, writing his book The Spike, stated that ‘we’re stuck at the moment with death’s pain, loss and grief. But in the longest term in the history of intelligent life in the universe, it’ll surely be the case that the routine and inevitable death of conscious beings was a temporary error, quickly corrected.’ Or the futurist Max More: ‘Involuntary ageing and death is a rotten design feature for our species. It really is vital that we understand the causes of ageing and how to intervene to stop it.’ And hence the crusade, not to extend the average human life toward the edge of our genetic possibility, which is about 115 years, but to surge past the Hayflick Limit and achieve some form of immortality.
Far be it from me to dismiss this deepest of human dreams—enough simply to raise a few doubts—less about the practicalities, though president for life would certainly take on a new meaning, than about the most basic questions of meaning. For all our terms as mortals, we’ve been mortal—the creature that knows it will die. Consciousness in many ways is the software for coming to terms with that knowledge. And without it, consciousness would have little to rub against. Absent mortality, no time. All moments would be equal. The deep, sad, lovely, immensely human wisdom of Ecclesiastes would vanish. If for everything there is an endless season, then there’s also no right season.
And none of the profound, daily, joyful heroism of bringing up a child in the full knowledge that she will supplant you. There might be some being called a child in this endless future, with whom you had some tangential biological or financial connection, but you would never pass on your life. Your child would be just one more figure in the sea of figures, owing you little or nothing in return.
The immortalists imagine that if one bite of the apple gave us consciousness, another bite or two, or really cramming the whole thing in our mouth at once, might take away the pain that came with consciousness. But it’s at least as likely that the next bite will erase human awareness instead, that meaning and pain, meaning and transience are inextricably intertwined. Immortality wouldn’t be more–it would be utterly different.
To quote Michael West again, answering a reporter’s question about whether immortality wouldn’t lead to overpopulation: ‘Perhaps it would,’ he said. ‘But why put the burden on people now living, people enjoying the process of breathing, people loving and being loved? The answer is clearly to limit new entrance to the human race, not to promote the death of those enjoying the gift of life today.’ Now, now, me, today. Forget about the future, this is an attempt to stop time. You may be able, with some combination of these new technologies, to live forever. But I have doubts about enjoying the gift of life eternally. The joy of it, the meaning of it, will melt away like ice cream on an August afternoon. I would suggest that living should be enough for us, not living forever.
Yes, as Max More has stated, proposing amendments to the human constitution, ‘we have limited senses, imperfect memories and poor impulse control.’ Yes, as Gregory Paul and Earl Cox pointed out in their book Beyond Humanity, ‘even the erect bipedal posture of which we’re so proud makes us so unstable that falling on flat ground can have devastating consequences.’ Yes, as Nick Bostrom has predicted, it may become possible to engineer us so that we will have orgasms and aesthetic contemplative pleasures whose blissfulness vastly exceeds what any human has yet experienced (although, speak for yourself).
But in fact, we already possess a singular and lovely ability—one unique to our species, and one likely to be drowned in the oncoming singularity, which merges us with the machine and re-engineers us for greater efficiency. And that unique gift is our ability to restrain ourselves—to decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. To set limits on our desires. To say ‘enough’.
This is, as I said at the start, an attribute that our spiritual traditions centre on, and that neither Copernicus nor Darwin has knocked askew. This deep tradition reminds us that meaning counts more than ability or achievement or accumulation. That turning the other cheek is rather more impressive than building some titanium-girded hydraulic-powered jaw that will let us chew gravel.
In recent times, we’ve begun to see again, and in very secular terms, how right that sense of the world may in fact be Scholars across a wide variety of disciplines have begun to ask in the last couple of decades a large question that academics have traditionally shied away from; namely, ‘are we happy?’ And the answer seems to be ‘not so much.’ Pollsters have annually surveyed Americans since the end of World War II. The number of my countrymen who will say they are very satisfied with their lives peaks in the 1950s and has declined slowly but steadily ever since.
Barely a quarter of us will now make such a claim, which is odd, since in that same span of time our prosperity has almost trebled. We’ve acquired huge new powers—jet travel has become routine, for instance. Our houses have more than doubled in size, even as the number of people living in them has shrunk. We have, for a vanishingly small cost, access to prodigious amounts of information. Every semi-musical sound emitted by anyone on any continent can be downloaded instantly, to that more or less permanently installed hard drive known as the iPod. We are more enabled, empowered, more astride the world than anyone anywhere at any time, so why isn’t it working so well?
Now, the singulatarian answer to this dilemma is to say ‘yet more’. Crank up the molecular assembler. Once we can have everything we want the instant we want it, we’ll finally reach happiness, not to mention solve global warming. There’s something charming and sweet in this answer, the endless triumph of hope over experience, but there’s something sad in it as well. As best as sociologists and economists can ascertain, the reason that we’re less happy than our statistics would predict is that we’re starved for human contact, for community. Starved, that is, for the chance to make ourselves a little smaller, a little less central to our lives.
If you think about it, that makes a certain sense of the statistics; after all, it was in the 1950s that we isolated ourselves in the suburbs, in the first of the series of screens that now dominate our lives. And we’re beginning to figure that out. Just as a small example of what might be changing, the number of farmers’ markets doubled and then doubled again in the last decade They’ve sprung up in rich communities and in poor ones, partly because people have begun to realize the environmental benefits of local food networks (they can cut the energy intensity of your dinner and hence its carbon emissions by a factor of ten), partly because people want better food that tastes like something, and partly because people want community.
A team of sociologists shadowing shoppers last year reported that those at farmers’ markets had ten times more conversations than shoppers at supermarkets. In order of magnitude, less energy, in order of magnitude, more community, and all with an innovation—the farmers’ market—that in technological ways of thinking is less efficient than the conventional model it replaces. Food for thought.
As you can tell, I fear very much the further rationalization of our societies, promised by these singulatarian technologies. I fear very much the further extension of our hyper-individualist model. I hope very much that as democracies, we can summon the will to draw on our better angels, and draw the lines that might prevent their full enactment—just as in the last century we struggled to bring under control the possibilities represented by the atom.
In some cases, I think it’s become clear where those lines should be drawn. Germline genetic manipulation, I think, should be banned, while those extensions of more traditional medicine, represented by stem cell research or somatic gene therapy, should be permitted, albeit closely monitored. In other areas, nanotechnology, say, I don’t think we know just where a wise democracy would set the boundaries yet.
Now I understand that the very idea of boundaries intensely irritates some people. The idea that individual enterprise and expression might someday bow to community judgement. I know that to those who style themselves the Columbus’s of these new voyages such ‘flat-earthism‘ seems hopelessly irrational. Still, given the stakes, and as I say I think the stakes are nothing more and nothing less than the future of human meaning, it seems to me worth taking all this slowly if we can.
One way to think of this is: is there some goal to our existence, some endpoint towards which we’re heading? If so, then perhaps it makes sense to speed up so we’ll get there faster. What is it that we need all this new computer power to do? All this extra intelligence to figure out? I’ve tried to weigh the practical possibilities in cases like global warming and I find them dubious.
But in any event, my reading of this movement’s literature leaves me thinking that practical applications are, in fact, a small part of the excitement. Rather, that an eschatological fervour really drives a lot of this work. Let me give you a few quotes. ‘It will allow us a deeper understanding of what truly we are’, says Rodney Brooks. ‘Our new biology’, adds Gregory Stock, ‘will allow us pierce the veneer of inside things so that we may reach the naked soul of man.’ In the words of Jay Hughes, ‘Re-engineered minds will permit us to think more profound and intense thoughts.’
Forgive me for saying so, but these sound like sentiments shared in the parking lot on the way out of a Phish concert. Look, environmentalists—and I am one—may overvalue the present and underappreciate the glories of the techno world to come. But I don’t get it.
The great Princeton geneticist, Lee Silver, in the conclusion of his book, Remaking Eden, on the gen-rich future, describes the immortals that we will build with all our new technologies, as different from humans as humans are from the primitive worms of tiny grains that first crawled along the Earth’s surface. He can’t find the words to describe these celestial beings; intelligence, he says, does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. Knowledge can’t explain the depth of their understanding. Power is not enough to describe the control they have over technology that can be used to shape the universe in which they live. So what do these sublime creatures do all the days of their endless lives? In his view, they dedicate their time to answering three questions: Where did the universe come from? why is there something rather than nothing? and what is the meaning of conscious existence?
With all due respect, these strike me as profoundly uninteresting, at least compared with the deep human questions, like how are you feeling, and can I give you a hand with that, and do you think you could ever love me too. It’s there that I end my defence of the world that we now inhabit.
This essay is based on a talk presented at the 2006 Singularity Summit.
Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel’. His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, a planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement.
Cover design by Andy Garside.
Andy Garside is a North Wales based graphic designer. When not moving text and images about a computer screen in a pleasing manner he spends the rest of his time as a partner in an independent record label (www.drumwithourhands.com), playing bass (www.mechanicalowl.co.uk) and DJ’ing with vinyl. A self confessed music obsessive who prefers cycling to driving. www.andygarside.com
There’s more where that came from!