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from the gnanosis-or-nagnosis? dept.
The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being
Damien Broderick is an Australian writer, educator, and futurist who has somehow managed to write a book that is both immensely fun to read and vitally important to our future. I highly recommend it to Beast Bay readers. Its 380 insightful pages have shaken me out of my complacency, and I cannot possibly approach this review with my usual smug philosophizing.
What Broderick describes is a scenario (or more accurately, a set of scenarios) of the future based on a reading of past and current trends in technology. No one can deny that the speed of technological change has a tendency to snowball, to grow exponentially. We see it in "Moore's Law" which states that computer chips double in circuit capacity every year or two. There's no scientific evidence for this "Law", but so far in the Computer Age it has generally held true.
Another example that Broderick offers is the growth in the speed of human transportation. If you plot a graph of the last hundred thousand years with the date on one axis and the speed of transport on the other you get a line that starts out 100,000 years ago at walking speed (four to five miles an hour) and stays virtually flat for over 90% of the chart, then starts gradually elevating to horse and wind and galley slave velocities (roughly 8 to 15 miles an hour) until about 200 years ago when trains first got people moving at 20 to 30 miles per hour. Since then cars, planes, jets, and rockets have had us moving at ever faster speeds, exceeding 25,000 miles an hour (5,000 times faster than walking!). Almost all the movement in our chart is concentrated in the last .2% of the time axis, rising in an asymptotic line which gives Broderick the inspiration for his title, the "spike".
But these examples of the spikes in computer capacity and transport speed are just the tip of the iceberg. If technological change continues to accelerate it has enormous implications for the future of human civilization. Enough quantitative changes eventually become a qualitative change. Some futurists envision a "Singularity", a time beyond which our forecasts based on past and present trends are unable to any longer attempt predictions, the "black hole" of the future, if you will. The consensus among these thinkers is that this will occur around 2020 at the earliest, but certainly by 2100.
It's the convergence of three different technological revolutions that is seen as key to the unpredictable future evolution of human culture: the achievement of artificial intelligence, nanotechnological manufacturing, and biotechnological gene engineering. Once the possibility for humanity to redesign itself, or design its successors, presents itself, the argument goes, it will eventually be taken. Things like material abundance on demand, immortality (at least of consciousness), and the merging of individuals into a group mind will all be within reach.
Many scientists and writers have played a part in the development of this scenario of the future, most prominently Vernor Vinge and Hans Moravec, though perhaps most representative of the promoters of the "Singularity" is Max More and his Extropy Institute. They forsee a society of total abundance and personal freedom for immortal superintelligent human beings and artificial intelligences (the differences between the two blurring with time).
But is this scenario really possible? Serious scientific critiques can be made of it, though it must be admitted that nothing is contemplated that is on the face of it a violation of known physical laws, though one possible limitation on the success of nanotech is that the relevant physical laws aren't entirely known and they may perhaps prevent mechanical processes at nanoscales.
As for artificial intelligence (much less superintelligence), my father-in-law worked for years on AI computer programs before he became convinced that he was trying to reach the moon by climbing trees. He was getting closer, but he still couldn't see ever getting there. Many other scientists share this view that self-conscious intelligence is more than just hardware and programming, still, they don't have any concrete evidence of the impossibility of artificial intelligence. Of the tripod holding up the "Singularity" genetic engineering seems the most inevitable at this stage, but by itself it won't cause the rapid and absolute transformation of humanity which is envisioned.
In spite of the various scientific objections which might be made I think it's foolish to deny that some such technological point of no return may fairly soon be reached, and it makes sense to start discussing the social implications now, just in case we want to take a different course than that proposed by "boosters" (who would happily shed their physical bodies and upload "themselves" into a computer for the chance at conscious immortality!). Understandably, many people prefer a different future for the Earth, and there are groups like the Turning Point Project that want a full airing of these issues before the logic of commercial and technological development leaves us without any choices.
So what are the implications of such a future for Thelema? Certainly the intensely individualistic, libertarian, and power-oriented milieu in which this "Singularity" culture is incubating is in no way antipathetic to Thelema. But their vision of the future, blurring all distinctions between the group and the individual, between the animate and the inanimate, sounds much more to me like the Maatian hive mind than the Horian company of stars. This could be quite a disappointment to smug Thelemites envisioning themselves as heroic founders of the 2000 year reign of the Hawk-Headed Lord. As Crowley wrote in his comment on verse III:34, the Aeon of Maat may arrive "a hundred or ten thousand years from now." Perhaps it is far closer to the former than the latter.
On the other hand, the overall gnostic implications might be somewhat different. Those gnostics who see their task as aiding the redemption of all planes of existence by the pure light will surely rejoice in the extension of consciousness to beings of previously inanimate matter. But just as surely some gnostics will see it as merely a further degradation and entanglement of the pure light in this physical realm.
What do you all think?
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