For fifteen years now, people have been droning on about the 21st century being the time when science fiction becomes science fact.
It seems there’s a new Buzzfeed list every day listing the numbers of 19th and 20th century fictional inventions that have actually been invented. A couple I’ve seen recently are the 2016 Bionic Olympics in Switzerland and the tactile sight contact lens. (The latter is pretty rad and I probably shouldn’t be including it in the same paragraph I mock BF in, but.)
A few people, me included, wonder why it is so few people who seem to see the plain obvious fact that many of these technological advances are marching us straight into the U/Dystopians Huxley and Orwell and Burgess warned us about (what was it with those white Brits and their prescient nightmares?). But besides just crying about and decrying the coming Apocalypse (by bug, by drone, by wave – take your pick), there hasn’t been too much internet space given to “and then what?” hypotheses. At least not that I’ve seen.
But don’t worry! Erin and I have been watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and it’s linked up some thinklings I’ve been thinking.
In the first episode, Tyson talked about the size of the known universe and the likelihood of there being life Somewhere Out There. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t, but it’s equally hard to imagine that we’ll ever interact with it – “we” being you, me and everyone we know (rad movie, that, btw). The nearest star to our solar system, Proxima Centauri, is more than four light years away, and the nearest planets in “the habitable zone” – a distance from a star that would support what we more or less understand to be life – are much farther: there’s one in the 12ish light year range, then at 16, then at 20, 22, 36, and 42.
The speed of light being roughly 670 million mph, we’d need to travel in a ship or fleet of ships big enough to support a society that could breed for dozens of generations in order to get any Homo Sapiens anywhere near that far from Earth.
There are, of course, alternate theories of space travel besides what we think of as a standard “ship.” We all remember K-PAX, right? When Kevin Spacey swung by Earth on a lightbeam to see Jeff Bridges play Jeff Bridges? No? The thing with paradigm-shifting to anything much more effective/efficient that what we do now, though, it that it’d require what Tyson called in Cosmos “different ways of being alive.”
It was this latter idea that connected a few of the dots that have been banging around in my head.
One of which is Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. If you don’t know Kurzweil, he’s a “futurist” who puts what he calls The Singularity at year 2045. At The Singularity, machine intelligence (“artificial” isn’t respectful enough) will tip past not only our human capabilities (in all things – health, body, mind and spirit), but also our very intelligence itself. His thinking is über-anthropocentric and quasi-religious – he refers to the Sixth Epoch of universal history as “The Universe Wakes Up” and predicts that intelligence will emanate out from the Earth to “saturate” the universe, which is a bit too close to techno Rapture rhetoric for comfort for many scientists/technologists/futurists/me – but some of what he says makes a kind of sense. One of the most pressing of his messages is that we ought to start thinking about how to deal with conscious machines before they get here.
Things like, is there such a thing as universal ethics?
Would it bridge human and machine concerns?
Can it be programmed?
Will conscious machines “discover” spiritual paths and universal truths and ways to work out their own ethics?
If/when we transfer our consciousness into machines, how will ethics and spirituality change?
Or did spirituality/philosophy/ethics spring from attempts to accommodate the remnants of instinctual fear in a brain that’s found a way to transcend our animalistic concerns – and thus are things that an instinctless, purely logical “race” of machinehumans wouldn’t indulge in/waste time and energy with?
These questions are all interesting (read: a total mindjob), but it’s the “post-biological future” thing itself that’s most engaging – and most apropos to this post.
When we’ve transferred human consciousness to machines, when the “human” body is no longer flesh-and-blood but instead carbon-fiber- and-silicon, when our tissues are plastic, when our “bodies” decay at the rate of stainless titanium alloys or whatever indestructible material we come up with next, then our “life” expectancies may be long enough for us to survive the trip to the nearest life-bearing planet.
Not only will long trips be less of an issue, but the trips will be less long, too. Our conscious-machine descendants will figure out much-much better ways to travel, using fusion and fission and solar radiation for fuel in ways we (or at least, I) can’t even begin to fathom. What’s more, if our consciousness can be digitized, then “we” would no longer run many of the risks speculated to be inherent in, say, wormhole travel, the incalculably high gravity compression of which would destroy our fragile bodies and the fragile materials we need to travel in.
I kind of breezed over that whole “transferring consciousness to machines,” so real quick:
Think about Avatar, except we’d be not some blue, equally fragile “organic”/flesh-based being, but more like beings made out of the metal the big bad Amuhrcans were harvesting there (I can’t even bring myself to type its name it’s so bad).
Think The Matrix, except we’d all be like Agents rather than the pale, bleeding waifs pathetically struggling for a world that in all honestly doesn’t really look worth saving (I mean, what are you actually going to do under a scorched sky?).
Think Transcendence, this new movie coming out with Johnny Depp, which explores these ideas. Though, judging from some pics of ole JD, “exploits the darkest imaginable outcomes of” might be a better choice of words than “explores”:
There are some who think we’ve been moving this way for years, and it’s not really that hard to see why. Take the “hive mind,” for instance, that seemingly cute little moniker that people use to refer to Facebook and twitter and the interwebbed social media sphere in general. It’s actually a fairly apt description of what could happen once we’re all plugged into one another.
And speaking of plugged in – just the other day, Facebook bought Oculus, the company that makes the Rift, the virtual reality goggle mask with which, besides gaming, you can do all sorts of…interesting things.* So now Facebook is controlling the VR future, which pretty much makes me feel like a dead Gamma walking. Though if the responses to Zuck’s announcement are any indication, a LOT of people are pretty effing excited about it.
…and there was much celebration.
What was that about The Matrix?
(Since you asked: FastCompany on the next few years.)
Detractors would have you think this end to individuality and privacy – for that is certainly what a fully-expressed hive mind constitutes – is simply a new-and-improved way to know the masses: first to sell to the masses, and then to control the masses, and then to get rid of the masses without so much as a peep of resistance.
Kurzweil and his brand of futurists see the hive mind in a positive light, as the unlocking of the cooperative potential of the entire human species, as a step towards the epoch of The Universe Wakes Up.
Whichever way you characterize it, what’s certain is that it would be a new way of being, a step along the development of our species and its interaction with the world.
Yes, we’re having a hand in changing the world we’ll later have to evolve to adapt to, but evolution has always been a two-way street. Yes, if this is evolution, it’s happening at a much, much faster rate than ever before, but that’s what happens as time goes by and entropy increases. Yes, the big difference is that we’re conscious of our evolution and our hand in it (or at least, we like to think we are, though who the eff knows), so maybe it’s incumbent upon us to make decent decisions, but here again you run up against that age-old question: who’s the arbiter of “decent”?**
Besides, “fast” and “before” and “our world” are all human constructs. Flesh-and-blood-human constructs. Constructs of animals governed by rotations of Earth on its poles and around its sun.
But what happens when we no longer need to sleep?
When we’re no longer dependant on organic (or even GMO-laden) foodstuffs?
What will “time” be then? Will it mean anything besides just light and dark, light and dark, light and dark?
When we shift our consciousness, literally and philosophically, from an anthropocentric one to a digital-universal one, ecological concerns (which practically speaking are concerns about our continued comfortable existence on the planet, rather than about the health of Earth itself, because even if we wreck our biosphere to the point at which it doesn’t sustain our bio, Earth and Nature will be fine again, eventually, at least for the handful of eons they have left before our dying, exploding sun consumes them both) will also fade away once we no longer need that bio, once we’re no longer bio-based. “Nature” will not be a machinehuman concern. I can’t imagine what the somethings different are that will take their place, but I can imagine that Keeping Tahoe Blue will no longer be at the top of many
people’s machines’ lists.
And yes, this sounds horrible and definitely not like any future I want to live in. It’s beyond sad to think of machines laying waste to the beauty of our planet – I’m sad about the extent to which that’s already happening. I love nature, and silence, and being alone, and I’d love to think my great grandchildren will know those things. But part of me doubts they will. Because when your perspective is galactic, when you know that Earths come and go like flowers do, or like fruit does – or like humans do, really– well, then, things change.
Think about it from a geological perspective: the tectonic plates don’t care about the things that roam the thin crust that overlays them. How many different kinds and epochs and cycles of life have those plates seen? But stretch that out even further – how many planets, entire solar systems, have been born and nourished by a star and destroyed by a supernova? What happens to our concerns when galactic time becomes our scale? For that is where we’ll need to get in order to realistically visit other “civilizations,” to see what “different ways of being alive” our universe includes.
Do we need to do all this? To become machine-bound digital consciousnesses?
No, of course not.
But evolution doesn’t follow any one organism’s needs – precisely because “needs” are arbitrary concepts specific to a certain stage of that organism’s development. What machines will need in a handful of decades or centuries – after The Singularity, say – will likely be a bit more extraterrestrial than what we consider “nature.”
Look, no one’s going to argue seriously (at least, I won’t take them too seriously if they do) that the Earth’s population projection graph doesn’t look grim and that some rather rough times aren’t ahead for humanity, so we obviously “need” to do something about a whole host of ecological and environmental and behavioral issues – if we’re going to continue with this (seemingly delusional, by this point in the essay) idea that the human world in five decades will resemble in any way but vaguely-vaguely the previous five million years of human history.
I don’t like entertaining these rather nihilistic thoughts. But I’m not the one that decided to remake Cosmos.
Perhaps it won’t be so. This is just one version of a future whose makeup is changing constantly and impossible to foresee. I’m sure the deep dark webs and the alternate internets and the interconnected lairs of Batpeople are full of alternatives to this carrying out to the Nth degree mainstream technocultural trends. But I’m not that punk.
If you can divorce yourself from a romantic attachment to humanity and the increasingly antiquated ideal of us as “natural” beings, even for just a second, you can see how logical this progression towards a post-biological future is. Especially when you consider that a lot of people stand to make an awful lot of money and gain incredible amounts of power, which (and I think we can all agree on this, we’re not children anymore) is pretty much the way we Homos decide what’s going to fly and what’s not. When was the last time any unadulterated good happened in our societies on a seriously large scale? When anything happened that didn’t give some key players in that something more money and more power? Those of you who know me know that I would love – and in some very small ways am even trying to help bring about – a positive universal awakening. But it just doesn’t seem that likely.
Those cuddly New World Order conspiracy theorists run with this money idea, of course. They think the elite and omnipotent trillionaire “They” families are going to survive the coming culling by launching the Extinction Level Event Themselves, one They’ve been planning and building underground lairs to continue Their elite and perfect N.W.O. lives in for years afterwards. (Think an underground Elysium.)
Climate alarmists assume Mother Nature will wipe us out and start over, because ultimately the planet – that 5.972E24 kg hunk of rock circling the sun – has about 0.0000000003274 fucks to give about us Homos (which sentiment I agree with).
More rational biologists and sociologists and anthropologists and otherologists think there will be a natural leveling-off of the population through supply scarcities and that after some tough times and with some behavioral modifications and relatively limited technological advancements we’ll adapt to the “new normal.”
Whichever way you look at it, the prognosis ain’t great. Which is where Kurzweil et al get their positive spin on The Singularity – this place is swirling the drain, and spiritualmachineconsciousness is our way off the planet and out of harm’s way. Just the title of one of RK’s other books says it all: Live Long Enough to Live Forever.
Anyway, that’s enough mindblowingly depressing advanced-technology-inspired nihilism for one day.
Normally, I’d wrap this up with a statement like, “No matter what, none of that is happening now. Now, we have our lives to live. Now, we need to make the most of what we have, come what may. So treat one another as if you’re going to live like this with them forever, because ultimately these fleeting human moments are all we have.”
And while I believe that, it does sound rather paltry, so I’ma leave you instead with a bit of the ole Jim Morrison:
…and then he whipped out his Oculus Rift.
*Just FYI, results 2, 4, 7, 8, 9 and 12 of a Google search for “Oculus VR” returns things definitely NSFW. I’m talking hings you’d be embarrassed for your mother to even know about.
**Acceptable answers include, “there is none,” “God,” and “those who make the technology.” Take your pick – for you and your little circle of humanity, they’re six in one half a dozen in the other.
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