III. A Modest Proposal
Many historians are reluctant to comment on the present if a question presented to them contains a categorical assumption about the past; it’s a little like suggesting a diagnosis to an MD–no matter what is wrong with you, it’s not going to be that. Not after you cock-block nuance, it isn’t. This is the reason I gave you my pedigree before. I am gleefully devoid of such constraints, thought it serves to limit the seriousness with which some may take my arguments. So be it. I know no other way.
I can’t be too adamant about this point: humanity is changing. We are at the cusp of something huge here, described variously as transhumanism, the Singularity, or Artificial Intelligence, at least in the popular definitions of those terms.
In the late ‘70’s, the late Robert Anton Wilson, a counterculture icon and hippie mystic who made a living explaining general semantics and critical thinking, and lampooning conspiracy theorists and their deniers, began discussing the exponential explosion in knowledge as studied by some theorists of the time. I heard him give the following in an audiobook lecture, but what I heard is also available in Right Where You Are Sitting Now. It has become a commonplace trope in futurist speeches, without the blasphemy, and gives us something like a Moore’s Law for humanity:
Let us define the measurement of known scientific facts in the year 1 A.D. as “one jesus,” using the name of the celebrated philosopher born that year. Before going any further, let us ask how long it took to arrive at one jesus. One way of estimating is to take the estimated age of homo sapiens, in which case it took 40,000 to 100,000 years. How long did it take to double this accumulation of knowledge, to achieve two jesuses? It required 1500 years – until 1500 A.D. How long did it take to double again and obtain four jesuses? It required 250 years, and we had four jesuses in our larder by 1750. The next doubling took 150 years, and by 1900 A.D. humanity had eight jesuses in our information account. The next doubling took 50 years, and by 1950 we had 16 jesuses. The next, ten years, and by 1960 we had 32 jesuses. The next doubling took seven years, and by 1967 we had 64 jesuses. And the next doubling took 6 years; by 1973 we have 128 jesuses.There is no reason to imagine that the acceleration has stopped. Thus, we almost certainly reached 256 j around 1978-79 and 512 j in 1982. In short, we are living in a mental transformation space; that is, an omnidimensional halo expanding toward infinity in all directions. And the electronic center of this halo of mentation is possibly everywhere. It is all available to you right where you are sitting now. Just plug in a terminal. The machine doesn’t care who or what you are.
I have not read Right Where You Are Sitting Now, the book from which this was taken, but I’m willing to bet it contains the standard Wilson advertisements for good weed, tantric bo-bo lovin’, lysergic acid diethylmide, Aliester Crowley’s Thelema, Timothy Leary, Wilhelm Reich, and Wilson’s other love, semanticist Alfred Korzybski. So take it with a grain of salt, if you need to.
I don’t, because, other than being a fan of some of the advertisements, and of Wilson, the Jumping Jesus theory holds water. Or walks upon it. What have you. Sometime in the next few years, we will reach a point that futurist Ray Kurzweil calls “The Singularity,” where knowledge–not information processing, mind you–begins squaring faster than our ability to measure it. This means knowledge-spurred upheavals like WWII armaments, the Industrial Revolution, the British Empire, the Information Revolution, etc., may become daily, or hourly events.
Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey, of the Methuselah foundation, has decided aging is a disease and can be cured. He posits, quite seriously, immortality for some children born in this decade. de Grey is no idiot, no kook, and no charlatan. Look at his work, and consider his arguments. Your kids may live to see their grandchildren. All of them. Ever.
Stephen Wolfram, of Mathematica fame, has written A New Kind of Science, which is a large, difficult challenge to the Scientific Method that, if I understand it at all, may in fact replace our current best-method of wrongness about the world our senses build around us. It is available entirely online, for those who dare. Wolfram seems to be arguing that most natural phenomena are the result of several basic if-then statements that may be cosmic constants, which he demonstrates with very nice graphics and illustrations that look something like Free-Cell. To date, NKS has avoided the “that-guy-went-off-the-deep-end” treatment, and contintues, slowly, to gain adherents, but I fear that it was written prematurely, and will be of more consequence when someone as smart as Wolfram, but who can speak to the masses, comes along to contextualize its arguments, and when we have the gumption to make his theories applied, as opposed to pure.
Three years ago, I heard Eric K. Drexler, the father of nanotech, and the progenitor of the gray-goo scenario, speak at Arizona State. Summed, paraphrased and recontextualized, his future features athletes who can jump sixty feet in the air or run one minute miles. Or houses that change their shape for different purposes, by themselves. Or food created instantly, on demand. Or bots that kill cancers by strangling them, literally. Drexler gave us a fifty year timeline before the world paradigm had to adapt, or become irrelevant. I am not convinced I will ever leap over telephone poles (these knees, nanoed or not, alas), but his data were hard to argue with.
I would be more willing to bet on some middle ground, rather than a complete cataclysm; closer to my opinion, a recent RAND report on the impact of new technologies, including stem-cell therapies and nanotech, gives a less drastic, but still shocking prognosis–in twenty years, we will see a world much like that of Philip K. Dick’s/Steven Speilberg’s Minority Report. The RAND people are cautious, and I like that. But even being cautious, mankind appears to be in for some turbulence.
M-Theory, which gives us ten dimensions and multiple universes, promises to continue, if you believe it at all, reveal God’s blueprints for the universe. Its esoteric postulates and developing cosmology are beginning to look more like philosophy–and, gasp, faith–than science. What I glean from the disciplinary literature (I am no more a scientist than an historian, but so many damn things interest me, whether I master them, or not) is that the deeper you go into the plumbing and wiring of the Cosmos, the weirder things become, as opposed to everyday, human-scale consensus perception.
I see no reason why, if things in M-Theory continue to flake out as they are, zero-point energy, anti-matter propulsion, Saddam’s stargates, or the vaunted Ganesh particle, should they ever arise from the conspiratorial pseudo-science nowhere they inhabit currently, shouldn’t become the stuff of sixth-grade science textbooks. I mean, the cat is both dead and alive, right? And all of everything is made of wiggling strings that make the bombastic symphony of existence? And none of it is scientifically provable, or scientifically disprovable? Then why not the freaking Ganesh Particle1, which some of the folks who refuse to listen to 43 anymore believe lies at the very bottom of the M-Theory bucket, waiting to be revealed, and which, in their narrative, might be the font of collective consciousness shared by all things, and the force that burst the universe into existence ex nihilo.
The biggest change, admittedly related to some I have discussed above, and the one of most interest to Kurzweil’s crowd, and to our concerns in this essay, is the advent of human-machine interfaces that allow people to eliminate the CPU, as we think of it, as a tool for processing information, and instead plug directly into networks, hair and skin and blood and all, as seen in movies like The Matrix.
I’m no science fiction writer, but I can see the cars-are-good-but-traffic-jams-suck problems with this future; when everyone has access to everything, what good will education be? If you can buy a “college chip,” who gets Harvard, and who gets Pomona Community College & Trade? What of privacy? What of actual reality? What of the addictions to “sex” with the Jane Mansfield avatar that will cause some of me to be divorced, posthaste? What of movies, the novel, of the story? When all you have to do is program the holodeck for your favorite environment? Will we ever leave that space?Those questions will not be further entertained here, nor will they be answered. They belong in another essay, perhaps. At any rate, I don’t have a clue.
We’re talking about the phenomena of information control–who has it, who believes those who have it, who doesn’t, why, and where it’s taking us. The primary question for us here is this: how can we meet this likely world of instant access to everything in our very own heads proactively, without letting the fuck-sticks of the world–who are in large part Baby Boomers–determine its parameters for us? Net neutrality is so 20th century–what about reality neutrality?
The current concept of the “media” i.e., in the middle, is increasingly irrelevant, and its irrelevance grows, perhaps at the rate of Jumping Jesus, every day. Anyone paying attention to Time’s Joe Klein? Kvetching about bloggers? That, my friends, is the mewling of a paradigm in its death throes. Nobody’s reading newspapers in the West anymore; the televised news is dying. Klien’s Time should change its name to Out of Time. Shoe-leather Mike Roykoes and Studs Terkels are artifacts!2
When reporters don’t simply ignore information they’re unqualified to understand, or that would jeopardize their “access,” to people whose shiny rumps they like to smooch, they are filling the information channels with useless corporate propaganda, official-source spin and disinformation, and breathless updates on the sexual and pharmaceutical proclivities of vapid entertainers. While “they” try to figure out ways to save journalism–and it can’t be saved–people like you, me and Sepoy should be carving out the norms of a future world. To wit:
I propose journalism be made illegal.
Or, at least, made a taboo activity that alienates its practitioners from any respectable cohort, such as nursing a nagging, elbow itching, vein-crushing junk-habit, or an inclination to proselytize, or selling AmWay. Ten years from now, I submit, anyone who is a “known journalist,” should be greeted, upon entry to a room, with hisses, boos, and derisive laughter. Weeping parents will cry to their journalist children, making pleas like, “Oh, why couldn’t you have been a professional wrestler, like your brother?” Old people will point at journalists and bray invective in their directions, on city streets. Children will hug their parents’ thighs, and bury their heads into their mothers’ skirts, until a journalist has passed, in supermarket aisles.
But Farangi, how will we know what topics constitute consensus narrative?
Well, that’s kind of the point, though I understand we will need some way of prioritizing and evaluating information. That does not mean, however, that Rita Cosby belongs between the wireless access point and the antennae screwed into the base of my skull.
First, all information–what porn sites I visit, my banking records, your receipts from Wal-Mart, the CIA’s files, INTERPOL’s internal emails, the true GPS signal, Brad Pitt’s phone number, Pervez Musharraf’s iPod contents, all of it everywhere, updated constantly in real-time–must be public domain. Traditional notions of privacy, so often wed to notions of shame and taboo, have no place in the wireless world of everywhere; there will be no need for security, because there will be no secrets.
Privacy will be an accident of volume, as the amount of information available to everyone, anywhere, all the time, will be, quite literally, everything we know to that moment. Who will have the time, or the inclination, to pester Sepoy about that hirsuterwandandwarves.com subscription, when the query and the source of the query will be, also, wide open, logged and recorded? I don’t open his mail when I visit. And it would be quite awkward if he caught me doing it, were I so inclined. Same here.
And if all of us, and I by that I mean all of us who used to be homo sapiens, have become zeroes and ones, what need will we have for the nation state, for our ethnicities, our summary differences, and our idiotic Great Ape tendencies toward domination and competition for resources? I would like to think those problems will be quaint artifacts, curious objects of aesthetic, assigned to us by genetics, unless we, or our parents, chose otherwise; I live in a Craftsman Bungalow. I am also white. I chose one, both are merely architecture.
To spur this, radical transparency and submission of all data of whatever sort must be the prime directive. Perhaps, on the geopolitical level, verifiable compliance with the transparency directive would be a prerequisite to joining the WTO, while such dinosaurs of the pre-Singularity world continue lumbering past their primes. The network itself can be trained to look for gaps in information and freeze out parties, or entities withholding data, or supplying junk data. On a personal level, where access to the global wireless wonderland will be most important, individuals will learn that ubiquitous access and radical transparency are social norms, like not soiling oneself in public, or not wearing those squishy plastic Croc shoes I see everywhere these days.
Those who have notions of being journalists will have a different job to do. And when the time comes, we will gladly retrain them, to the extent they are trainable. Otherwise, they can sit in their parents’ basement smoking weed and playing World of Warcraft, which is what many would be doing in a properly ordered society, anyhow.
Journalists must stop pretending their job, in this brave new world, is to ferret out information and relay it to the public. We won’t need that anymore–and if we did, they have made such a mess of the matter that we don’t, to varying extents, trust them with it anyway.
Instead, journalists will pose questions to the network, tasking it to look for patterns in information, or to represent phenomena in human behavior, or collections of knowledge or schema or information of whatever sort. They will be performing an analytical function, not a “media” function. All their conclusions and claims will be instantly verifiable; their rewards, fame and notoriety will come from the quality of insight in their posed queries, and for the best, most elegantly and intuitively presentations culled from those disparate data streams. Their guiding principle must be the betterment of mankind–all mankind, not their tribes, their gods, or their governments. They will need not “truth-squad.” The truth will be there, waiting to be uncovered, by anyone with the right questions10.
For a taste, view Hans Rosling’s 2006 presentation at TED, Debunking third-world myths with the best stats you’ve ever seen. Rosling used algorithmic analysis and graphical representations of the data surrendered that are only possible with networked, high-powered computing. He saw something shocking, shocking: things are not at all what we thought them to be, and are certainly not as our lazy Boomer governors, nor our game-of-telephone media, portray them. which debunked myths of third-world poverty, and whose conclusions, if translated to policy, could do more to aid the development of the Global South than Bono, Sir Bob Geldof, UNESCO, The IMF and World Bank, USAID, and the Peace Corps, combined, on steroids. Now, imagine what a mind like Rosling’s could do with, well, anything and everything.
Rosling may well be the first “journalist” of the New Age.———