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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 18, 2007
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    Tinkering till the end of time
    Project: Polytopia
    Some interesting books were recently brought to my attention by Carel. In one of them, Barry Sanders’ “Unsuspecting Souls,” the author unfolds a theory that somewhere around the beginning of the 19th Century we began to lose our humanity. Sanders illustrates this with Gothic tales of ghosts, zombies, doppelgangers, robots and Frankenstein’s monster, all taking up residence in the human imagination around that time. He uses the inventions of capturing photographs and moving images of reality, as well as the revolutionary non-representational art of Russian constructivist Malevich, who was the first to eliminate the human figure from his paintings, as early examples of our increasingly disembodied, “unfleshed” condition.

    Further evidence of humanity’s disembodiment is demonstrated by his account of the ghastly technology-enabled slaughter of the American Civil War where men were shooting scores of other men slipping and sliding atop mountains of putrefying human flesh. Similar atrocities took place during the First World War when millions of people started to annihilate each other for no apparent reason; and so it goes, all the way up to America’s dehumanized torture practices in Iraq.

    The book quotes a New York Times Review of Books article listing the signposts on the road to modernity as “neoclassical economies, liberalism, Marxism, revolution, the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, imperialism and “industrialism,” all of which, according to Sanders were instrumental in “driving out the people as their theories helped to displace the humans. In other words, for the implementation of these “isms” the human beings had to disappear first.”

    It struck me that close to the beginning of the time-line covered by Sanders’ book — in 1866 to be precise — our present era of connectivity was launched in the form of the telegraph wire, which was heralded as “the nerve of international life, transmitting knowledge of events, removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.” Similar claims have been made for consecutive inventions like the telephone, television and now the internet, which many of us here consider an essential evolutionary step. But extending his reasoning to the present day, Sanders concludes that some of the metaphors of digital disembodiment we have been exploring here, could be just as easily be interpreted as a further dismantling of our humanity.

    Seen through that lens the interest we express in science and technology, mind habitats, the transhumanist impulse and the embrace of the metaverse would without a doubt meet with a barrage of negative connotations. Indeed, Sanders observes that “from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep, our days are filled with little but a continuous bombardment of information and demands on our attention that brings us out of our world and into a sterile one of inhumanity and abstraction. We are losing entirely any palpable attachment to our physical reality.” He notices that on the internet “people take on the wildest new identities, “constructing and deconstructing entirely fanciful lives with utter ease. People struggle, it seems, to regain some of that ambiguity on the very machine that robs them of it — by spinning new selves on the web. There is tremendous irony here, for they are being forced into that kind of splintering just to feel whole and alive — trying to feel more real on a virtual canvas…”

    There are of course good reasons to simply dismiss such contrarian opinions, but it is true that these technological developments can be a liability as well, since in the Western world the connectivity that enables the internet is firmly presided over by the corporate sphere.

    Douglas Rushkoff’s provocative new book “Life Inc.” provides us with yet another lens that shows how our humanity has been under attack for much longer than most of us may think. According to Rushkoff, after centuries of Corporatism, we have reached a stage where we so willingly adopt the values of corporations that we are no longer even aware of their all-pervasive influence. Supposedly, we have long since been living in a world where “real things such as human beings, land and resources only matter insomuch as they keep the credit side of the balance sheet bigger than the debit side.” Commerce, government and culture all have been reconfigured for corporatist purposes, and as far as the internet is concerned, “a technology that seemed destined to reconnect people to one another instead ends up disconnecting them in new ways. For example, on social networking sites “where real hugs can never happen, people compete instead for love in the form of numbers: how many “friends” do you have? The way to get friends, other than inviting people, is primarily to list one’s facorite books, movies, bands, and products. This results in a corporate-friendly identity defined more by what one consumes than what one does.” Somewhere down the line, brands have come to “substitute for the real connections we had to people, places and value.”

    “Clearly, this is not how the early pioneers had envisioned the internet as they celebrated the decentralization they believed would soon occur on every level of society,” Rushkoff continues, “they saw in new media the emergence of a truly social and organic human collective (..) where new growth and value could come from anywhere, a rhizomatic culture constantly negotiating meaning and value wherever meaning and value needed to be determined – instead of through some arbitrary central authority.”

    He is right of course that the corporatization of the web is in full force today, but that hasn’t yet suppressed the enormous value that is being created online on a daily basis. Still, Rushkoff’s somber outlook gives one pause about the vulnerability of the connected mindset we have been advocating on SpaceCollective.

    That brings us back to Barry Sanders’ warnings in “Unsuspecting Souls” that today our only hope to save the planet is to “recover” our long lost humanity. The problem with his defintion of “humanity,” however, seems to be that, like so many academicians, he considers humans as rather static creatures, fixed in some evolutionary time-lapse. This in contrast to the vision of the future promoted by self-proclaimed proponents of exponential change like us whose aim it is to explore the limits of our human potential.

    Author of “Brave New World,” Aldous Huxley once said in a lecture that “we are pretty much the same as we were twenty thousand years ago. We have in the course of these twenty thousand years actualized an immense number of things which at that time and for many, many centuries thereafter were wholly potential and latent in man.” Pointing out that many other potentialities remain hidden in us, he urged his audience to develop the methods and the means to actualize them.

    Rather than Sanders’ static point of view, Huxley sees our species as an evolutionary work in progress. We may look more or less the same as the generations that came before us because we are physically still mostly defined by the laws of natural selection, but our appearances are no longer indicative of our actual capabilities. As a species, we have come to be defined by our technologies, which have radically increased our mobility, our tools, our life spans, the wiring of our brains, and whatever else is on the horizon. Even if one believes that some of these developments have robbed us of our “humanity”, there is no question that we have also made significant gains which have greatly effected our relationships, our intelligence and our values. Instead of a nostalgic longing for the recovery of our humanity expressed in these books , the solution to the world’s ills is more likely to be found in the ever ongoing discovery of our human potential.

    In the same vein as Sanders and Rushkoff, another brilliant writer, Bill McKibben, offers invaluable research about the precarious state of the planet today. His book “The End of Nature” warns us that with respect to our environment we have already done everything wrong as we have altered the earth’s atmosphere to our lasting detriment. Similarly, Al Gore’s well-researched documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” espouses that the untampered paradise we were once given has been permanently corrupted by the artificial world we have imposed on it.

    Novelist Michael Crichton once said about environmentalism that if you look carefully, “you see in fact a perfect 21st-century remapping of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and myths.” And indeed, the self-fulfilling prophecies implied by the apocalyptic visions referred to above belong more to the preordained fate we have been assigned by the Bible than to the evolutionary story in which we cast ourselves as active participants in a story arc of our own making.

    It is true that with every city block and road we have built and every acre of land we cultivated, we have been destroying “nature”, yet at the same time we have been diligently uncovering and actualizing our latent human potential while continuing to map uncharted scientific territory in every which way. In the words of futurist George Land, “inventing the future requires giving up control. No one with a compelling purpose and a great vision knows how it will be achieved. One has to be willing to follow an unknown path, allowing the road to take you where it will. “

    In the first ever fully realized science fiction novel, Dr. Frankenstein was considering similar existential matters as he wondered, “where should we be if nobody tried to find out what lies beyond..?” In many ways, Frankenstein is the most prophetic story of our time. The novel’s theme of the mad scientist playing god, grappling with his love and fear for technology, has since become a permanent part of pop culture. In Hollywood there are currently at least 6 movies in production that are cautionary tales about the loss of our humanity through technological progress. In an early post on SpaceCollective I accused the movie industry of:

    …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.

    In a typical moment of existential angst about the fact that “we have tainted every single aspect of the natural world with the stamp of man,” McKibben implores us “to remain God’s creatures instead of making ourselves gods.” To which he desperately adds “of course we can splice genes. But can we not splice genes?”

    The implicit answer to this rhetorical question is that we are born from the hit and miss of evolutionary tinkering and transformation on a cellular level; it is part of our program, for better or for worse. As Joel Garreau puts it in his book “Radical Evolution”: “With the development of agriculture we controlled our food supply. In cities we sought safety. Telephones and airplanes collapsed distance. Antibiotics kept death-dealing microbes at bay. (..) Now we are aiming our technologies inward where they will start to merge with our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities, our progeny, and perhaps our souls.” With regards to the –isms which according to Barry Sanders began the erosion of our humanity, Garreau has the following to say:

    “We have been trying to transcend the limits of human nature for a long time. We've tried Socratic reasoning and Buddhist enlightenment and Christian sanctification and Cartesian logic and the New Soviet Man. Our successes have ranged from mixed to limited at best. Nonetheless, we are pressing forward, attempting again to improve not just our worlds but our very selves. Who knows? Maybe this time we'll get it right.”

    As the Frankensteinian scenarios proliferate in our time, we must finally give up on the old cliché of the mad scientist playing god, and learn a lesson from my favorite scientist, Nikola Tesla.

    This exemplary human being didn’t seem to care that his inventions were consistently ripped off by Thomas Edison and others, nor did it bother him that he was largely ignored by history. He was far too busy developing AC electricity and ways to wirelessly transmit electricity for free, while contributing to the invention of X-Rays, robotics, remote control, radar and computer science. He created man-made lightning, set off artifical earthquakes with mechanical oscillators, deviced a plan that could split the earth in two and, most importantly, succeeded in beating the sun at its own game by giving us the electric age.

    When Tesla was asked one day what motivated him, the greatest human tinkerer of all time didn’t miss a beat as he responded with a surprising mixture of hubris and humility, “all I ever really wanted was to stand proudly beside my creator.”

    Aldous Huxley would agree.

    Mon, Oct 19, 2009  Permanent link

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    rene     Mon, Oct 26, 2009  Permanent link
    The problem raised above is that Al Gore, Bill McKibben and other environmental activists invariably cast the great issues of our time, like climate change, as apocalyptic catastrophes in the making.

    For example, in his book “The End of Nature, ” Bill McKibben warns us that
    with respect to our environment we have already done everything wrong as we have altered the earth’s atmosphere to our lasting detriment.

    Last Saturday, McKibben rallied 4,300 demonstrators, from the Himalaya's to the Great Barrier Reef, all centered around the number 350, which is the upper limit for heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, measured in parts per million. If the gas concentration exceeds that for much longer, the planet will be in the throes of floods, droughts and famine. The current concentration is 387 parts per million. However, there are many voices who, like John M. Reilly of MIT, warn that "three-fifty is so impossible to achieve that to make it the goal risks the reaction that if we are already over the cliff, then let's just enjoy the ride until it's over."

    Which is of course exactly what we have been doing for years. A colleague of Nasa scientist James E Hansen who first warned the world about global warming a few decades ago, puts it like this in the New York Times: ...those promoting 350 or debating the number might be missing the point. The situation is analogous to people trying to embark on a cross-country road trip to California, but they've started off heading to Maine instead. But instead of working out ways to turn around, they have decided to argue about where they are going to park when they get to LA. If you ask a scientist how much more CO2 do you think we should add to the atmosphere, the answer is going to be none."

    Much as I admire Bill McKibben as a writer, I'm clearly not the only one who feels paralyzed by his message that we should "hope against hope" that we'll achieve the impossible milestone of 350 fast impressing upon our leaders to assume the moral obligation to match their actions to the science..."

    Clearly, I applaud the fact that some people are at least trying to do something...but I refuse to believe that this is the best we can do! Just one photograph of a group of naked kids running away from a napalm attack was a turning point in the Vietnam war,
    and one simple logo to revive New York City from the doldrums in the '70s and again after 9/11.

    The point is that with all due respect for the Bill McKibben's and the Al Gore's of the world, besides disconcerting fear, their message simply lacks emotion. Anyone to make history by devicing a campaign for climate change that actually works?

    Infinitas     Mon, Oct 26, 2009  Permanent link
    Lots of interesting thoughts here (Tesla is my favorite too!) but I just want to say something about what I have been experiencing and delving into more and more. I find myself asking what the goal of human life is and I'm caught between the concepts of Buddhism and those of science and technology projecting us towards a more "glorified" state, one that could perhaps be compared to nirvana.
    In the words of futurist George Land, “inventing the future requires giving up control. No one with a compelling purpose and a great vision knows how it will be achieved. One has to be willing to follow an unknown path, allowing the road to take you where it will.

    I find this statement to explain Buddhist thought quite perfectly. It's about being the change, which is done by living in the present. You have to accept that you cannot control anything, and once you see this then you are totally free. It's especially important to note, however, that any type of "buddhist breakthrough" is solely personal. No one else will understand, let alone experience, what you are experiencing.

    I think this is where our current issue arises. The natural human inclination is to be completely happy, but because the media and big corporations have pervaded the minds of the general populace, people don't know where to begin solving this problem, let alone even believe that it can be solved. The basic beliefs and ideas behind most religions are extremely similar, but people must experience these concepts to at least wake up to the obvious and ongoing trouble. And since it's impossible for one person to give someone else an experience, religions, in a sense, have completely failed. In order to change the ways things are, I think it's imperative to change how people relate to each other, themselves and every aspect of life as we know it.

    But back to science. I agree that developing technology is another way to wake people up (though it still could lead to utter destruction), but, for example, is implanting electrodes in your brain to create a nirvana-like state the same thing as actually achieving nirvana naturally? In other words, does our intention affect the outcome? Is there a difference between understanding and experiencing the why of existence (ultimate happiness) and actually achieving it naturally, and taking a pill to mimic it even though you don't give two shits about the Nature of things?

    Rene: I am currently studying environmental science, and one of my classes is called Environmental Policy. We do all sorts of case studies and the one problem we environmentalists see again and again, is that people don't care. If we can change their mindset then all problems could be solved, but clearly that isn't the case.
    rene     Tue, Oct 27, 2009  Permanent link
    The point is that with all due respect for the Bill McKibben's and the Al Gore's of the world, besides disconcerting fear, their message simply lacks emotion. Anyone to make history by devicing a campaign for climate change that actually works?

    this campaign, for example, may well have been effective in getting Obama elected.

    meganmay     Tue, Oct 27, 2009  Permanent link
    Mariana Soffer     Tue, Mar 16, 2010  Permanent link
    This reminds me of a book from J. L. Borges called The book of imaginary beings. It was written and edited in 1957 as the original Spanish Handbook of Fantastic Zoology. It contains descriptions of 120 mythical beasts from folklore and literature. It contains stories about creatures like:

    1. The Ass with Three Legs - This massive creature is said to stand in the middle of the ocean. It has three legs, six eyes, nine mouths, and one golden horn.
    2.Eater of the Dead - Most commonly associated with Egyptian myth, the Eater attends to the "wicked". It is described as having the head of a crocodile, the midsection of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippo.
    3. Barometz - This "animal" is actually a plant in the shape of a lamb with golden fleece.
    shiftctrlesc     Wed, Mar 17, 2010  Permanent link
    “The vulnerability of the connected mindset”
    I like that lot.

    Reversal seems to be an inevitability in everything we do.
    Pushed to its limit the flow of cars becomes a traffic jam.
    The high of a drug becomes the low of addiction.
    The utopian dream of the connective becomes ....

    But we’re not there yet
    The real vulnerability right now
    lies in a dying, centralized, bureaucratic culture
    that’s hellbent on crippling the emerging connective.

    Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy
    by Jeff Chester is essential reading. It gives a detailed map of the political and corporate forces that have been conspiring for decades to turn the internet into glorified cable tv.

    And while there are countless big, life changing issues
    bearing down on us right now
    ... from wars to bank swindles to climate change and a global economic crisis ...
    there is a real urgency to protecting the shape of the internet.