Sep 25 2012

Caricatures Of The Satirists: A Review Of “Rapture Of The Nerds” By Cory Doctorow & Charlie Stross


I’m not a singularitarian, but I am a transhumanist which is close enough for… well, probably for Charlie Stross, who, on occasion, seems to rise up to smite the (defunct) extropians on his blog.  But more than anything else, I’m a man who loves satire.  Satire… ridicule… mockery.  Humans  incite it; every last one of us.  And the closer to home the better.  So, you see, I really wanted Rapture of the Nerds to slap me upside the head and then slap those other guys — those silly singularitarians — even twice as hard.

There’s this thing that happens to me when I read Cory Doctorow’s novels, of which I’ve read a handful.  At the beginning, I find myself thinking, “this is clever, and there are more au courant nerd tropes being dropped than panties at a campus kegger, but is it merely clever?”  And then, somewhere towards the middle of the book, I’m feeling more like,  “Wow. This is really clever and amusing!”… and I stop worrying about whether it’s going deep or not.  And then, by the end, it’s either surprised me by really getting under my skin; or it hasn’t, and it was just pretty damn amusing.  Which is OK. (I’ve only read two Stross novels, so I’ll resist the urge to characterize.)

Rapture of the Nerds is an entertaining romp that ends up in the mere “pretty damn amusing” category.   Its high concept has already been expertly condensed by Mike Godwin in a review for Reason’s Hit and Run, so I’ll spare myself some needless labor and quote from that:

Rapture…is premised on the notion that somewhere around the middle of this century, a “technological singularity” will have occurred, enabling most people on earth to upload themselves to “the cloud,” which at this point is a space-based fog of interconnected molecular computing machines built out of the disassembled inner planets (except Earth) and optimized to capture solar energy. This uploading, which gives the novel its title, leaves roughly a billion people on Earth: the ones who choose not to upload (or at least not yet), and who are taking their time figuring out how to handle all the post-singularity technological advances in their terrestrial, body-bound world.

Some of that technology comes from uploaded minds in the cloud, which occasionally “spams Earth’s RF spectrum with cataclysmically disruptive technologies that emulsify whole industries, cultures, and spiritual systems.” To manage this problem of “godvomit,” the world government of the unraptured, unuploaded human beings forms “tech juries” to act as gatekeepers—in effect, to hold a trial for any given technology to decide whether the left-behind embodied humans can handle it.

Pretty amusing, huh?  But selfish me — I wanted more.  I wanted to be ravaged.  I wanted to find myself begging for mercy.  I wanted the greatest nerd satire ever. I wanted to LOL!   And all I got was an amused mind and the occasional sideways smirk.

Nonetheless, I commend you to get with this book.  It goes down easy. You won’t be bored and you’ll be wanting more.  Well, actually, you’ll be wishing Terry Southern was still around, but then, that’s life (and death) in pre-singularity times.   Meanwhile, there’s still an opening for the singularity satire that really puts the boot in.

Mar 13 2012

How to Recreate Civilization From Scratch: Open Source Ecology

As wonderful as extreme tech can be, its existence depends on more mundane tech. Your computer is useless without a source of electricity, and you are useless without a source of food.

Marcin Jakubowski knows this, and a lot more. Realizing that his PhD in fusion energy was “useless,” Jakubowski started a farm in Missouri, but went broke trying to keep his tractor repaired. Having to build his own tractor inspired him to start Open Source Ecology, a network dedicated to creating an open source economy that uses resources sustainably without giving up modern comforts. Think classic Whole Earth Catalog, but even more hardcore: e.g., using a CNC precision multimachine to build things using aluminum you’ve extracted from clay.

Open Source Ecology intends to create a Global Village Construction Set (GVCS): a low-cost, DIY, open source, modular, user-serviceable platform for fabricating 50 essential machines needed to build a self-sustaining economy. This includes farm implements like a tractor and a baler, a 3D scanner and printer, a windmill, a compressed earth brick press, and even a car. Their successful Kickstarter project raised $63,573 to create a Civilization Starter Kit DVD, now released in version 0.01.

A post-scarcity economy without a Singularity? Perhaps. Whether or not they achieve their goal of “small, independent, land-based economies,” OSE could benefit poor farmers around the world and provide an invaluable resource in the event of a planet-wide catastrophe. Preppers (née survivalists) take note! Just make sure you can play that DVD after your electricity goes out.

Jan 08 2012

2012 And The Failure Of Imagination

Advocates of psychedelic drugs often claim that psychedelics expand consciousness and stimulate the imagination. To demonstrate this point a few famous examples are often repeated, such as Francis Crick envisioning the spiral shape of DNA while high on LSD; Kerry Mullis coming up with his Nobel Prize winning PCR DNA replication method while high on LSD; or Steve Jobs seeing a world of people connected by Apple computers while high on LSD. There is some truth to these few examples, enough truth to make hipster comedian Bill Maher exclaim that taking LSD makes you a genius in a rant about how putting LSD in Halloween candy might actually be a good thing. After decades of bad press and public mockery, it seems that psychedelics have finally escaped the fringes and are ready to be embraced by the mainstream as miracle cures. More and more average people are reading about the healing properties of psychedelics, and more public figures are warming to the notion that psychedelics can create powerful and lasting spiritual experiences. Scientific publishing in psychedelic research is at an all time high. And then there is something about Mayans and 2012.

Whatever else you have to say about psychedelics, the meme of 2012 is now inseparable from psychedelic thought. Just like the term “entheogen” has replaced the term “hallucinogen,” the meme of a catastrophic or epic evolution in human culture has now replaced peace, love, and unity. Concepts of freeing your mind and seeking inner peace have morphed over the decades into dramatic tales of impending apocalypse and revolution, ending in a singularity that will engulf and change history forever. And this event may or may not happen on December 21, 2012, which happens to be at the end of the great cycle of the Mayan calendar, which coincides with our sun aligning with the galactic equator during the winter solstice, which only happens once every 26,000 years, or so the mythology goes. But the exact science doesn’t matter. What matters is that instead of eating mushrooms and having a good time, or imagining a cure for cancer, or visualizing a cleaner car engine, you instead get pulled through a singularity and come out thinking your an immortal astral shaman waiting for reality to fold inward on itself at the end of time. And then you think you have discovered the biggest secret in all of human history and you call yourself a genius, and become obnoxious about how prescient you are. And then you think you might be crazy, but then read a dozen trip reports just like yours on Erowid or The Shroomery and you wonder if everyone else has already taken mushrooms and seen this movie. And the answer is yes; we have already seen this movie.

It is easy to point to Terence McKenna as the originator of the modern psychedelic 2012 myth; his Timewave Zero idea was first introduced in “The Invisible Landscape” in 1975. McKenna’s idea came from a mushroom trip in La Chorrera, Columbia, in 1971, and was mostly ignored as insanity for many years. When McKenna’s popularity peaked twenty years later in the mid 1990s, the 2012 meme had already been adopted by Jose Arguelles and John Major Jenkins, and the Mayan connection kicked the meme out of the psychedelic underground and into astrological and New Age subculture. By the time of McKenna’s death in 2000 the 2012 mythology had become so firmly embedded in fringe culture it was even mentioned in the 2002 X-Files TV finale as the date of the impending alien invasion, the hidden secret root of all evil government conspiracies. Even though the details of the 2012 singularity, or the Eschaton, were never well defined, the apocalyptic tinge of the mythology took on a life of its own. The doomsday prophecy is a common theme in human history, and the 2012 myth fit easily into recycled bits from other ancient doomsday prophecies that people are still waiting for. 2012 is a fascinating piece of modern mythology, fascinating enough to be taken seriously by a large group of people. Fascinating enough to become a global meme.

Popular psychedelic mythology may be fun and exciting, but analyzing the worth of the 2012 meme poses some hard problems. For instance, instead of studying physics or biology or computer science and making Nobel prize winning breakthroughs in biochemistry, like the examples mentioned above, many geniuses in the psychedelic underground turned instead to studying Mayan calendars, UFOs, and crop circles, and look everywhere for signs of the end times. This is what I call the first failure of imagination. Instead of following the paths of the few rare individuals who took psychedelics and produced discoveries of great scientific importance, young psychedelic explorers turned instead to tales of stoned apes, machine elves, mushroom aliens, Mayans, 2012, and the transcendent hyperdimensional object at the end of time, as if these were matters of great importance. If taking psychedelics is supposed to turn you into a genius, then all the geniuses taking psychedelics should have been able to distinguish scientific reality from the quasi-spiritual historical fiction comprising the 2012 mythology. It’s not enough that psychedelic imagination starts with the discovery of DNA and ends with everyone connected by iPads — that is not enough. There must also be a global paradigm shift. We won’t be happy unless we get our global paradigm shift. And the global paradigm shift must be so dramatic that it renders all previous human history as obsolete. And we want it to come on an exact date, in an exact year. And it will play out just like revelations with famines and floods and plagues and catastrophic global upheaval.

Which brings us to the second failure of imagination, which can be blamed on the media and popular culture in general. Of all the memes to come out of modern psychedelic thought none has gotten more popular traction than the meme of 2012 and the “end” of the Mayan calendar on December 21st, 2012. Talk shows and news programs run stories on 2012 and the Mayan calendar; conspiracy theorists pick up whatever thread they want and tie it to 2012, and prophets point to 2012 as a time of transcendence, when the impoverished illiterate masses of the world will spontaneously realize we are an enlightened tribe of mushroom children all dancing to the same cosmic drummer. There was a movie about 2012 called 2012 that was horrible, and all the documentaries on History or Discovery channel are so obsessed with apocalypse its hard to tell which end-time prophecy they wish would hit us in the face first. What does this say about the quality of intellectual property coming from the psychedelic meme pool? Of all the progress that has been made in psychedelic research, of all the shamanic exploration through the rainforest, the thing that gets the most imaginative play is how we will destroy ourselves when the big dial on the Mayan calendar clicks over to the next pictogram? Pinning your mythology on an arbitrary, rarely occurring cosmological event seems like a desperate move to me, the kind of thing you pull out of your ass when you’ve run out of good ideas.

If you remember back to the early days of psychedelic experimentation, there was a period of time before McKenna where taking psychedelics was for fun. People turned on, tuned in, dropped out, listened to music, partied, had sex, freaked out, had bummers, got crazy, and found their inner freaky flower child. Now people take psychedelics and get serious; they seek the shamanic cure to every modern malady, or that hole at the end of time where all of history collapses and everything happens all at once. Earnest psychedelic advocates preach about the coming evolution in global consciousness where paradigms shift and the planet transcends into utopia or chaos, or the technological singularity ushers in dystopia or immortality, or something along those lines. For a group of people who used to be so focused on “being here now,” the psychedelic community morphed into a group of New Age future watchers always getting hooked on the next big hype that can never quite live up to its promise. And the biggest hype of them all is 2012. We’ve lived with the promise of 2012 for so many years, how can anything less than elves of chaos erupting out of fractal wormholes possibly satisfy us? Is there any way 2012 can possibly deliver on the outlandish promise of the prophecy?

When McKenna first presented the Timewave Zero meme it was a novelty, it actually came in a package marked “Novelty Theory.” And for many years the 2012 meme was fun and interesting because it was like a thought experiment; it was something you could fiddle with like an algorithm or a piece of software. The 2012 meme allowed all kinds of people to have quibbling discussions over the i Ching and mathematics and Mayan prophecy and Bible prophecy and ancient aliens and so on. The 2012 meme lived on past McKenna’s death and was recycled by New Age writers looking for a new hook into astrology, spirituality, prophecy, movie screenplays, and so on. The 2012 meme was such a convenient hook that people didn’t need to use their imaginations anymore — the screenplay for the future had already been written. That is fine for a thought experiment or for a whim of the popular imagination, but now it is actually the year 2012 and it will be the year 2012 all year long. I was sick of the year 2012 fifteen years ago. I’m not sure how much more 2012 I can take. The closer the December date becomes the more fixated the public consciousness will become on what it all means. The inventory on the shelves of our modern mythology cannot move forward until then, our imaginations are stamped with an expiration date, and we will be forced to eat the same old 2012 apocalypse transformation meme over and over again until it expires at the end of the year. No new memes are allowed until then. There is a singularity in time blocking any planning forward into 2013. It is a blurry space clouded by the dark side of the Force. All we can do is ride out this disaster movie until it’s over, and then its over. When 2012 passes without major incident the public imagination will be bankrupt, our modern mythology will be devoid of meaning, and we will be forced to think about what happens next. And that is scarier than having to deal with any singularity.

Latching on to a science fiction end-times prophecy is not genius. It is not expanded consciousness. And it is not a triumph of imagination. 2012 is lazy thinking and empty ideological fatalism with no hope of delivering on its promise. The 2012 meme represents the most infantile aspect of psychedelic thought; the wish to get something for nothing, believing that major change will happen by doing nothing more than waiting for a date on the calendar. By adopting the 2012 meme the psychedelic community went from being that tie-dyed hippie saying “Peace and Love” to that tattooed burner with a sign reading “The End is Near” in under two decades. That a group so fascinated with love and peace would adopt such a nihilistic and grandiose mythology and that the public consciousness would be attracted to this meme over any other offering from the psychedelic community demonstrates a fundamental failure of public imagination. It is impossible to say how many millions of people have taken psychedelics in the past few decades, but if the 2012 meme is the fittest idea to come of the psychedelic community since 1971 than we are in trouble. The mushroom’s gift to humanity has trapped us in an end-time prophecy awaiting the impending singularity. That is just embarrassing. The mushrooms clearly need new writers. But that’s too bad, because new ideas are embargoed until 2013, when our imaginations can go back to work. We’ll need a bunch of new memes for the rest of the 21st century. Our old memes have expired.

Oct 04 2011

Posthuman Godhead

Consider transhumanism as a monotheistic religion.  Religion? Transhumanists share a belief in a coming eschatological event — their belief transcends rational conjecture about the advance of technology and posits wild and miraculous progress.  It does so without bothering to worry with the “mere engineering” that would lead to such radical transformations in individuals or societies.  There is an abiding faith that whatever needs to happen to fulfill the singular moment of deliberate evolutionary uplift will happen… somehow.

Monotheistic?  The Singularity is a singular event — but it isn’t simply an event or a phenomenon.  It is a meta-phenomenon in that it is imagined to be able to generate any number of future (post-singular) phenomena.  This is usually imagined to be done by the active will and imagination of the posthuman Singulatarian consciousness.

When we are all “postsingular”, we will also be post-plural: identities will flow into and out of each other with such speed and vicissitude that it will no longer be useful (or possible) to talk about individual beings.  All will be a swirl — a very powerful (organized?) storm of reality-bending consciousness.

That thing — that postsingularity storm — is what we may say transhumanism believes in and aspires to. That storm is effectively all-powerful and arguably supranatural in its ability to rewrite nature according to its own needs, desires, or whims.

Accepting transhumanism as a monotheistic religion gives us room to consider what any nascent priesthood or brahmin class will gain in the run up to Singularity.  Obviously, other parallels may follow: is it a pantheistic or panentheistic monotheism?  What rites are beginning to accrete around the discussion of the postsingular “storm”?  A whole theology of the Singularity may be emerging.

Arguments against this view of transhumanism (as a religion) may be many, varied, and compelling.  But so long as it is possible to see the urge toward posthuman culture as an emotionally driven system of belief, consideration and criticism of the movement may be possible in previously underexplored dimensions.

So to transhumanist friends: how do your original operating systems (or belief systems) affect the type of Singularity that’s “destined” to emerge?

Do you really want to live in the kind of paradise you’re building?

Sep 27 2011

“And Now, Faster-Than-Light Culture”

Last week’s discovery at CERN of neutrinos traveling faster than light – poetically announced on the autumnal equinox, when Venus goes direct in Scorpio as the evening star and Persephone emerges from the Underworld in our mythic imagination – has physics forums buzzing about the possibility that this is “solid” evidence of long-hypothesized additional dimensions.

This is big news.  For the first time in the modern world, the existence of invisible spatial dimensions is in the public discourse.  Science is the closest thing much of the literate planet has to religion these days, and this is far closer to the otherworldly transcendent mythos of early cities than the heady, highly existential relativity physics delivered to us from on high
by Einstein.

Truly mystic physics is making a comeback in the inevitable revelation that quantum “entanglement” only appears “spooky” when we think of each object-process as a distinct individual, rather than a nexus of pattern-vectors in space-time intersecting with every other in an endless fractal gem of co-causative influences.  The increasing number of DMT-initiated mathematicians and psychologists speak like gnostic sages about hyper-dimensional organisms that appear discontinuous to three-dimensional vision…while so-called “visionary” physicists and cosmologists argue that hyper-dimensional elements may constitute “dark matter” (the exact kind our best smashers, like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, are not going to detect).

We call certain unusually “far-seeing” people visionaries, but the word reveals more about our own media-conditioned preference for visual stimulus, still on its way out in an age when video content is a miracle reminder that we evolved for oral traditions, than it does about those minds able to articulate these dimensions – not higher, but along an other axis entirely – in a way more familiar to us.  CERN won’t find these invisible landscapes for the same reason that shooting a laser pointer through smoke reveals only shifting line segments, not the full arabesques of drifting incense.

At any rate – sub- or super-luminal – Einstein is never going to be proven “wrong.”  Relativity theory is ultimately a statement on what we can and cannot perceive as embodied animals – a sibling to Cubism and Literary Deconstruction, not an attempt to build from its own realization of plurality into a model of resonant synchrony.  His work will not be replaced but engulfed, just as once free-swimming bacteria now live on symbiotically as mitochondria in our nucleated cells; just as agriculture was packed away into the belly of industrial society; just as we still have a place for the flying rocks of Newtonian dynamics within the greater explanatory atmosphere of plasma cosmology.

Relativity, though, is the study of relationships between things, not the omnidirectional unified theory for which it left us groping – much in the same way that the fad of deconstruction bottomed out and eventually even hard-line postmodernists like Foucault went looking for something sincere to believe in.

We as living creatures have sensory systems that evolved to notice differences.  We will continue to see two things, and call them two things, for the purpose of making our way in the world.  But this is not the perspective that will unify physics; Einstein himself said that “the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  In order to see the dynamic super-fractal that heals our “optical illusion of consciousness,” we need to take a step sideways from Einstein’s laser-like insights, out of the planar view of the discrete individual, and witness an endless pattern of inter-flowing in which everything contributes as both cause and effect to everything else – more a living creature than the static “hologram” of David Bohm‘s own unification attempts.

The next step in physics is to contemplate the full implications of a fractal paradigm, to recognize the Copernican likelihood that we are not the highest order of conscious complexity but are quite probably living as cells inside the body-mind of Something Greater, and that it too lives in Something Even Greater…no “First Cause” or “Omega Point,” except as perspectival artifacts like the horizon.  Just as ants appear to us as living in three spatial dimensions but cognitive experiments reveal that they only experience width and length, we too are almost certainly unaware of our own relative ability to climb “over the rock,” as it were, and not just walk around it.  Faster-than-light neutrinos aren’t moving faster than light.  Just like “quantum tunneling” electrons, they’re impishly pointing the way through a door into another dimension, beckoning us through.

And we seem to be on the verge of confronting this new reality, this encounter with the transcendent unknown, on a mass cultural level.  As increasing numbers of us spend all day immersed in the ethers of cyberspace – as shared experience becomes more spontaneous, immediate, and rich, and the boundaries of discrete selfhood are called into question – it gets easier to see how cultural historians like William Irwin Thompson argue that the spirit world is again an inescapable aspect of modern experience.

This discovery at CERN is a perfect expression of the zeitgeist.  Instant messaging seems more and more like telepathy with training wheels.  Reincarnation is rewritten as the nonlinear resonance of DNA crystals in one body with anothers, no more “entangled” with one another than two harmonics on the same carrier wave.  The mythology of television is recast as a story of spiritual possession, finding obvious parallels with both Plato’s allegory of the cave and our swiftly-approaching ability – courtesy of population biology and cognitive neurophysiology – to watch collective brain scans in real-time as memes mutate and reproduce across an entire population.

It’s the historical channel down which we started rafting as soon as we saw the first photographs of Earth from orbit.  Now we’re in the class-five rapids when that sense of planetary solidarity hits us just in time for us to synchronize our paddling, before we fly over the event horizon of that waterfall just ahead – this thing we’ve alternately called “Singularity” or “Apocalypse,” the moment at which we all acknowledge a new level of selfhood and a new level of collective, unified by our common experience of the tremendous mystery in which we’re all participating.

It’s not the End of the World; it’s the end of the End of the World.  Electronic communication and “light-speed culture” is about to be upgraded.  Get ready for time-space, teleportation, instantaneity, immanent infinite, galactic super organisms, and a newly-humble immersion in wonder as the human species takes our tottering first steps into faster-than-light culture.

Paleontologist turned performing philosopher, Michael Garfield‘s multimedia maps of the evolutionary landscape and our place in it are an attempt to demonstrate that everything is equally art, science, and spiritual practice.