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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 18, 2007
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    SpaceCollective’s Grand Narrative
    Project: The Total Library
    Western intellectual tradition looks at Body and Mind as separate things existing in different worlds, whereby the first is subject to the laws of physics and the second is a world onto itself constructed of language, feelings and perception, based upon which we build the tenuous story of our Selves. The whereabouts of the Self in relation to our physical body is somewhat of a mystery because it is impossible for us to imagine how something so intangible could be made out of flesh. In his classic book The Origin of Consciousness, psychologist Julian Jaynes describes the soul as “an introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all — what is it? And where did it come from? And why?”



    In his recent book Into the Silent Land neurologist Paul Brooks writes that the increasing ability of science to reveal in fine, bare detail the neuro-biological substrates of the mind may ultimately lead to the disintegration of the “self” which we have carefully assembled to negotiate our social environment. After all, these “brain mechanisms, tightly bound to language, are the channels through which biology finds expression as culture, a means of distributing mind beyond biological boundaries.” If this sacred myth of selfhood and souls were to be despoiled by science “it could threaten our ethics and systems of justice and our entire moral order, all of which are founded on the notion of society as a collective of individual selves.” On the other hand, science writer Jonathan Lehrer calls the brain the most complicated object in the known universe and argues that it is “not reducible to the callous laws of physics.” In his book Proust was a Neuroscientist he concludes that “we are made of art and science. Like a work of art, we exceed our materials. Science needs art to frame the mystery, but art needs science so that everything is not a mystery.”

    Which brings us to a post by Obvious, whose Manifesto for the Forthcoming calls for SpaceCollective to develop a new kind of forward looking narrative shaped by mythology that will allow science to become more than just a rational enterprise:
    One of the main problems facing the scientific community of today is that the general populous finds no 'meaning' in its enterprise. There is, and never has been, a drive from the rational community to order their percepts in terms of narratives or myths. In fact, according to what I have just said, it may very well be impossible to do such a thing - science is about truth, not about meaning and most especially not about narrative meaning.

    Nevertheless, he continues:
    The current stand-off in America between the religiously inclined and the scientifically enabled is a result of this contradiction. If science, rationalism and 'Utopian Singularity Thinking' is ever to make a mark on the masses it MUST reorder itself into narrative forms which innate human capacities can find palatable. The Grand Narratives of Religion, in all their dangerous naivety, have hold over the populace because they work with the human faculties of narrative and mythology.


    As it happens some of my favorite narratives are told by smart science writers like Steven Johnson (Emergence) as well as scientists like the earlier mentioned Julian Jaynes and microbiologist Lynn Margulies (Microcosmos) or for that matter the accounts of interstellar space by her ex-husband Carl Sagan. Currently I’m checking out Joel Garreau’s Radical Evolution, a provocative account about the curve of exponential change we are riding today and Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, which reads like a historical novel, recovering the lost history of our remote ancestors by unlocking our DNA lineages. Every one of these epic inquiries is a great example of the unfolding narrative of science which on some level can be considered the Greatest Story Ever Told. But it is by definition a work in progress with countless chapters yet to be written, and failing to deliver on Obvious’ mandate to assert ”a hold over the populace” because it doesn’t offer any character development nor the resolution people are demanding from their stories.

    Obvious' suggestion to put the story of Science in direct competition with the Grand Narratives of Religion is a task the classic science-fiction canon has often tried to undertake by making liberal use of Biblical conceits. The sci-fi genre as a whole is full of creation myths, messianic heroes, salvation and personal redemption. One time sci-fi author Ron L. Hubbard took this mentality to the next level by writing an actual Gospel for his Church of Scientology. And Vernor Vinge’s Singularity theory has overtly rapturous overtones, especially when promoted by Ray Kurzweill who has been writing the movement’s Bible. But none of these writers have come close to delivering on Obvious’ call for mass appeal either.

    If anyone can deliver on that score one would think that Hollywood’s scriptwriters should be able to give the Holy Scriptures a run for the money. What else are the movie studios but the pillars of an organized populist religion, filling the world’s cinemas with popcorn munching worshippers? Unfortunately, Hollywood has no inclination whatsoever to provide an alternative for religion’s Grand Narratives. To the contrary, when it comes to the subject of science most movies resort to Biblical fire and brimstone tactics, relentlessly manipulating the people’s deep-seated fears for the future. In one cautionary tale after another, mad scientists threaten to push mankind over the edge. And without fail, these characters who set out to change the world are depicted as Frankensteinian ogres whose final comeuppance warns humanity that tampering with the Natural Order will inevitably cause us to screw up.

    A striking example of how ill-equipped Hollywood is to tell the story of Science is provided by the numerous failed attempts to make a biopic about one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, Nikola Tesla. The long list of filmmakers who tried includes, among others, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch and Robert Zemeckis, not to mention bookshelves full of scripts. None of them however have succeeded at getting a movie off the ground based on this fascinating genius because his life does not fit the prerequisites for what Hollywood considers a good story.

    After all, instead of the usual female Love Interest, Nikola Tesla was in love with a pigeon; and he deprived his life’s story of a convincing Bad Guy by not feeling the slightest animosity towards Thomas Edison despite the fact that Edison ripped him off for billions of dollars, leaving Tesla destitute. On top of that, Tesla performed the most outrageous scientific feats such as creating man-made thunder and lightning as well as self-induced earthquakes with the unadulterated excitement of a mad scientist “playing God,” and yet he managed to steer clear of the typical comeuppance. Nevertheless, his defiance of every possible narrative convention doomed the heretic scientist who invented the Electric Age to everlasting obscurity.

    As it happens, I’m writing this post while visiting the campus of UC Berkeley, the famous research university in Northern California, which is the birth place of both the atomic bomb and the Unix computer operating system as well as the intellectual home of 61 Nobel Prize winning scientists, most of whom are suffering from obscurity. Because narrative tends to be closely related to the Humanities, the discipline’s stories are much wider spread. As opposed to Science, which is always in flux and fully prepared to be proven wrong by the most recent discoveries or breakthrough lab results, the Humanities effectively promote the traditional narratives from which societies are built.

    Looking out through the window of my hotel room I see hundreds of students from all over the world scurrying like ants across the campus, collectively carrying the wisdom of the ages in their bulky backpacks full of books. Many of these backpacks are likely to contain a thesis or a book whose contents may inform these students throughout their lives, like the characters in the sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451, each of whom memorized a literary masterpiece to save its contents from oblivion in a book burning society.

    Ironically, one day ago I interviewed Brewster Kahle who runs the Internet Archive, which he envisions as the digital equivalent of the fabled library of Alexandria that was burned down by the masses who were complete strangers to the knowledge that was gathered there (coincidentally dimitridb recently posted a movie of Carl Sagan talking about the subject here).

    According to Kahle there are roughly 26 million books in the library of congress, the largest print library in the world. This may seem like a lot of books, but in the digital age it doesn’t represent that many data. On the web, for example, an equivalent amount of information as is printed in the total number of books is posted online every two months.

    When you consider that at the moment it takes one person a year to scan 3000 books, it means that all 26 million titles can be scanned by the population of Detroit in the course of one long weekend. In terms of computer storage the entire content of a book on average takes up only one megabyte. Twenty six million megabytes translates into 26 terabytes, which can easily be stored in a box that comfortably fits on one small shelf.

    Thus, the Wisdom of the Ages which was once verbally passed on from one campfire to the next, then copied in long hand, published in print and now made available online, is bound to lose some of its mythical aura, just like Paul Brooks’ speculations about the detrimental impact the mapping of our brains might have on the sacred myth of our selfhood and souls.

    But the flipside of this potential disillusionment with our innate proficiency is that our overall knowledgebase keeps on growing exponentially as we are acquiring online access to virtually everything known by man. Now that technology is merging ever closer with our minds, it is to be expected that our brains will soon be able to intimately interact with vast amounts of intelligence at the speed of thought, and potentially much faster than that. Unlike the characters of Fahrenheit 451, our augmented minds will not just contain the subject matter of one book, but the equivalent of the library of Alexandria as well as the aggregated content posted by billions of internet users.

    Just as I was grappling with all this, Obvious popped up on SpaceCollective to remind us of the book project he intends to launch at the inauguration of our new project interface. His initiative, which is generating considerable enthusiasm on the site, may seem somewhat at odds with this post, but on a deeper level it isn’t. As opposed to the massive amount of ephemeral online information, the books that represent our evolutionary history are most likely to persist as the intellectual fossil record of our civilization while our Grand Narrative continues to evolve as a living, nonlinear, open-ended work in progress.


    Thu, Mar 6, 2008  Permanent link

    Sent to project: The Total Library
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    Rourke     Thu, Mar 6, 2008  Permanent link
    Your choice of references, and your very kind words, fuel a fire.

    There is an archaeological necessity in defining the books that surround a culture, any culture. The narratives which evolve us tend to arise from our perceptual limitations, or our attempts to try and break those limitations. 'Progress' is the catalytic reaction of the present on the forms of history. As we devise ever newer ways to interact with the reality that sustains us, so we delve deeper into the forms that make that reality. We examine an artifact with the tools at our disposal, and as those tools evolve so the very artifact we examine evolves with them. Meaning is defined merely by the abilities we have to look, to perceive. Shine a series of lasers on the surface of a renaissance painting and pencil marks 'lost' for 500 years become real. Bounce sound waves off the stone remnants of a settlement, now buried 50 metres under the earth, and we 'see' the past - we know of it more than those who dwelt there ever could. Books are no different. Each book is a palimpsest, a multitude of layers that appear ever more thickly the longer and harder we gaze upon them. New technologies, new ways of seeing, actually define reality in ways it has never been defined before. Pasts become where never before there were pasts. Truths that even the artists themselves did not perceive about their work come to us in droves, fill our hard drives to bursting, tempt us yet further into the labyrinth, tugging at Ariadne's thread with ever great tenacity.

    Books only really begin once culture has attended to them, has re-appropriated them, has translated them, has stolen from them, has lost and found them, has turned them into dusty clichés, has copied them and lost the originals.

    This is 'The Grand Narrative' I long to see, one which acknowledges the making of the past in the development of the future. One in which all things become, only as we redefine them, only as they remake us in mirrored union. As books become obsolete data conveyors, so they re-become the very greatest conveyors of data. Nothing is ever lost, things merely get re-imagined as we re-define them.

    If Space Collective can redefine, then it can build from scratch. If it can discover anew then it can create the never before. The grand narrative will write itself.
    Robokku     Wed, Apr 9, 2008  Permanent link
    I wrote a comment, but it became long, and so I put it here, out of the way.
     
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