Saturday, June 12, 2010

Technomystica: Consciousness in the Age of Technology - Chapter 1

During the next months I plan to publish here the first 5 chapters of my book: "Technomystica: Consciousness in the Age of Technology" which was published in Hebrew last year. You can read more about the book here and here (Hebrew).

Chapter 1 – Age of Speed

We live in a world rapidly accelerated by technology. This message has already turned into a kind of cliché, but the surprising thing about it is that acceleration has been occurring not only since the invention of the internet, television, radio or print. The technological acceleration of the world has actually been occurring ever since the big bang.

If we look back 14 billion years, we will find the beginnings of a constantly accelerated process which has been going on since the dawn of the universe. Whereas earlier on in the evolution of our universe, billions of years would pass until the creation of the first living cell, and hundreds of millions of years would slowly linger, until multi-cellular animals evolved, the evolution of mammals occurred in time frames measured in dozens of millions of years and the evolution of the hominids species which have led to Homo-Sapiens proceeded much faster, during the last few million years.

The first technologies used by early man, developed excruciatingly slow in comparison to modern technology, advancing not much faster in fact than biological evolution. The stone tools characteristic of paleolithic technology took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve, almost as long as it would take for a new biological organ to evolve. The evolution of human language occurred, according to most experts, around 50 thousand years ago, the agricultural revolution occurred around 10,000 years ago and the development of writing and the first cities all occurred during the last thousands of years.

The time frames in which we measure development become shorter as we move closer and closer to the present. We usually think of the last thousand dividing them by centuries and examine the 20th century by decades. Contemporary trends are taking place within the time frames of years and sometimes even months. Thus more novel occurrences are taking place during the course of one year today, than did during a million years, a billion years ago. Development is so rapid that the attempt to forecast the far future has been all but abandoned. Science fiction writers don’t even try to write about how humanity’s future might look 500 years from now. Who would even presume to know what might happen a few years from now?

As evolution accelerates, it also becomes more goal oriented. While evolution proceeds as a slow process based on the accumulation of random mutations, technological developments are based on well-directed action constantly striving for improvement. New technologies such as writing, the computer, or communication technologies are used to make the process of technological development even more efficient, constantly aiding in the further acceleration of the loop. Thus, while four million years have passed since the appearance of the first hominid to the appearance of homo-sapiens, a hundred thousand years passed from the appearance of homo-sapiens to the agricultural revolution, ten thousand years since the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution, and only a hundred years from the industrial revolution to the information revolution, in the midst of which we currently find ourselves.

The most pronounced symbol of the acceleration which stands at the basis of today’s information revolution is Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of computer manufacturer Intel who claimed in 1965 that the processing power of computer chips (or alternatively put, the processing power which can be bought for a certain sum of money) will double itself every 18 months. The predictions of Moore’s Law have been verified by the computer industry for the past 45 years. According to it, calculation abilities will double themselves by a thousand ever 15 years, by a million every 30 years, and by a billion ever 45 years.[1]

A growing number of scientists and technology experts claim that the process of acceleration is one of the basic principles overlying the cosmos.[2] According to them the process of technological acceleration is about to reach a zenith point which they term a “Technological Singularity”: a moment in which the speed of technological development approaches infinite proportions, a moment in which we will be the threshold leading to a new and fantastic technological age which will change most of what we know about life, the universe and ourselves.

Even if one choose not to buy into this far reaching scenario, it is difficult to ignore the actual phenomenon of acceleration. Whereas a few thousand years ago, one would be born, grow up and perish in the world, without the later being substantially changed, today tremendous alterations are happening in the world during the course of an individual’s life. Everything is turning more fragmented and accelerated: the rapid cuts on TV commercials, the number of stimulations appearing while driving on the road, the number of windows simultaneously working on our desktop, etc.

What does this mean? Does this process even mean anything? If you’d ask a hard necked materialist he will probably frown and tell you that the process of evolution is an absolutely random process in which man is nothing more then a meaningless iota. According to this kind of fundamentalist atheists the evolution of culture, religion and technology is an almost incidental event and the world is nothing but a random collision of electrons (physicists), chemicals moving in our brains (chemists, brain researchers and psychiatrists) or selfish genes continuously spreading themselves using organisms unaware of their higher goal (biologists). It’s not that they are all wrong. These stories are important because the world certainly is also electrons, chemical and genes. But each of these narratives is also a part of a wider pattern which, when apprehended, divulges a more complicated view of reality.

A group of scientists and thinkers which have been working during the past dozens of years offer an alternative and more holistic approach to the process of evolution. This view attempts to explain the universe with more holistic terms, putting what is generally seen by fundamentalist materialism as “coincidence”, within a wider cosmological scope.

These scientists and thinkers point to an unmistakable tendency in the evolution of the universe: The universe started as formless particles (physics) turning into complex molecules (chemistry) which developed into life processes (biology) which eventually create technological forms of life (technology). All this is occurring on a planet which is composed, as biologist Teilhard de Chardin observed, like an onion, layer upon layer. A geological layer (the geosphere), upon which a biological layer is created (the biosphere) and upon which an electronic layer of communication, thought and ideas are created (the noosphere).

The captivating thing about this process, is that it seems almost irrevocable. Once evolution reaches a new level, it never recedes. Once a new form of biological or technological organization like the DNA, the brain or language, appears, it does not disappear, but becomes the basis for more developed forms which develop right off it. Even in the event of an immense catastrophe, such as the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, life recovers quickly and continue in the journey towards more developed biological forms, as if nothing had happened.

This ceaselessly advancing journey of the universe, which is seen by mainstream science as a coincidental and meaningless process receives a more meaningful interpretation within the context of the scientific groups mentioned above. Scientists like chemist Illya Prigogine and astrophysicist Erich Jantsch have claimed that a principle of self-organization is underlying our universe. In other words, our universe is undergoing a process of self-organization in which it self-assembles itself like a puzzle, to higher and higher levels of order and complexity.

The idea of the universe being a bit like a puzzle also explains its accelerating nature according to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil: Not unlike the way that the assembling process of a puzzle becomes more and more simple as it nears its end and fewer pieces are missing, so as the universe advances and each step becomes the basis for the one following it (the development of molecules, the development of life, the development of the brain, technological developments), the completion of the process becomes hastier. In other words, the evolution of biological life upon the earth is a direct continuation of chemical developments which occurred earlier in the universe and the technological development which we are experiencing today is a direct continuation of biological processes.

We might fantasize about going back to a purely natural existence, about shedding the technological shells which we have assimilated during the past thousands of years, but that would be ignoring the big mission which we are facing, and one might also wonder if that would even be possible. When we understand that the universe has been undergoing a continuous process of evolutionary development occurring through biological and technological means during the past 14 billion of years, and that this process is accelerating and approaching a zenith in our times, the idea of turning our backs to it seems overly fantastic.

The Technomystical Challenge

In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, integral thinker Ken Wilber divides the whole of religious thought throughout history to two distinctive schools. The transcendent school is identified with masculinity and emphasizes the existence of God in the “heaven”, in a world above and beyond, a world whole and in a state of unity. Middle age thinkers such as Thomas von Aquin and Maimoindes serve as exemplars for such forms of thinking. The immanent school of thought is identified with femininity and emphasizes the existence of God in its myriad of forms on the earth. This school is closely related to nature religions and paganism.

According to Wilber, however, the most evolved spiritual vision belongs to the school which he call the non-dual school. Non-dual philosophers are thinkers which integrate transcendent and immanent perceptions of the divine. Among them, Wilber finds ancient Indian philosopher Nagarjuna, Greek philosopher Plato, German Idealist Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling and 20th century Indian thinker Sri Aurobindo.

For these thinkers divinity exists not only above or below, on the earth or in the heaven, but everywhere along the full spectrum: from the transcendent world in which all things are united and are not divided in any sense, to the world of immanent fecundity, the world in which we live, which is composed of the opposites between life and death, true and false and a numberless network of relations between things animate and inanimate, human, technological and beyond.

The great challenge, non dual thinkers tell us, is not in shooting to higher realms, but in succeeding to stay at both ends of the spectrum at the same time: above and below. To unite the opposites, to be able to connect with celestial dimensions and yet find God in the myriad forms in which it appears in the world (From Facebook to the line at your local bank); to be together with the creative and ever evolving multitude and yet to keep you relation to the world above at all times. To go to worlds above and beyond, and come back with a renewed understanding of the world of multitude.

This is the technomystical challenge. It begins with the realization that mysticism is technological. That in a world turning increasingly technological, we have an unprecedented opportunity to rein the opposed forces of multitude and unity to one action; that a world which is turning increasingly fragmentary offers us an unprecedented chance to commute with God in more channels and create a richer concept of God than ever.

The evolution of mankind has almost ceased to advance biologically. It proceeds outside our bodies, in the electronic gadgets which surround us. Man’s attempt to enter this hyper-technological and extremely confounding world and to try to stay devout within it is the great spiritual quest of our times.

[1] According to conservative calculations. According to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil a doubling of processing power occurs every year, and processing power is thus multiplied by a thousand every 10 years.

[2] In Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near one can view multiple graphs presenting the exponential acceleration in various domains such as the number of patents annually submitted for approval, the turnover of scientific paradigms, the number of servers on the internet, brain-scan resolution, data storage abilities etc.