“If men cease to believe that they will one day become gods then they will surely become worms.” – Henry Miller
Technology is an evolutionary force, sling-shooting the species forward as never before. We are fast approaching a new renaissance, an age of wonder and radical possibility. A recent essay from NextNature entitled EntryParadise spoke about Paradise Engineering and the evolving role of design, saying that “design is about to undergo a paradigm shift – today design starts at the level of the atom. We are drifting into the world of the invisible: virtual realities, nano and biotechnology are increasingly influencing our aesthetics and providing new construction kits for our reality.” While some people might balk at the idea of humans expanding their design palette to the level of the atom, the reality is that every technological shift has ushered in new forms of human flourishing. Technology acts like a scaffolding, a prostheses that expands our sphere of creative expression and perception. Consider these thoughts by Futurist Kevin Kelly: ”Can you imagine how poor our world would be if Bach had been born 1,000 years before the Flemish invented the technology of the harpsichord? Or if Mozart had preceded the technologies of piano and symphony? How vacant our collective imaginations would be if Vincent van Gogh had arrived 5,000 years before we invented cheap oil paint? What kind of modern world would we have if Edison, Greene, and Dickson had not developed cinematic technology before Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin grew up?” Breakthroughs in technology are always embraced by creatives and unleash new worlds of experience and expression. Technology expands our perceptions and consciousness. Simply look through a microscope or telescope and you’re immediately treated to a dazzling reality you’re ordinarily not privy to.
The next two big emerging technologies are biotech, which is mastering the information processes of biology, and nanotech, which is infusing intelligence into matter. Physicist Freeman Dyson recently spoke of a fast approaching “Age of Wonder,” where “a new generation of artists will write genomes with the fluency that Blake and Byron wrote verses.” NextNature writes, “Nanotechnology is reorganising the natural laws of physics, chemistry or biology at atomic level. [...] Tomorrow collaboration between biologists, electrical engineers and designers, a hitherto inconceivable proposition, will be something we take for granted.” And Andy Clark, author of Natural Born Cyborgs, describes the success of game changers like the iPhone as feeding into this urge for creative transformation. “No wonder smartphones like the Iphone are changing the world,” Clark says. “People are not investing in new toys; they are buying Mindware Upgrades, electronic prostheses capable of extending and transforming our personal reach, thought, and vision.”
The iconic technologist Stewart Brand once said that “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.” In other words, we need to take responsibility for our actions, which increasingly, are planetary in scale. We are indeed as gods- our tools make us so. In symbiosis with our technologies, our powers continue to expand at an exponential rate, and so too, our possibilities. As Alan Harrington wrote in The Immortalist, ”we must never forget we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order that kills everyone.” And he’s exactly right. We are the species that transcends its limitations. Our function is to expand our boundaries and extend our reach. Who can resist the tug of the stars?
Edward O. Wilson wrote that “we have decommissioned natural selection and must now look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.” Harrington, for one, has decided for us. He boldly proclaimed that ”having invented the gods, we can turn into them.” These are more than self-serving illusions of grandeur. This is a calling for us to ‘own our role’ as cosmic heroes. What we need now is a new conversation about who and what we are. Just as when the astronauts first saw Earth from the vantage point of space and decided we needed a new story for ourselves in that context, now as we propel towards a technological singularity we’re again in need of a new narrative. The story we craft is of crucial importance if we are to put ourselves into galactic context. I believe the narrative should emphasize the role of the artist and poet as pivotal to communicating the ‘vision of human becoming’. The scientists and engineers who are building the future need the poets to make sense of it. In his book Proust was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer 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.” The dance between art and science, if done correctly, should ‘epiphanize’ audiences into a state of rapturous awe.
As technology continues to increase our possibilities, the lag time between what we dream about and what we create is shrinking. I was reminded when reading Darwin’s Pharmacy by Rich Doyle that “dreams do not lack reality–they are real patterns of information.” All that exists in the modern world began as a dream. The complexity of a cell phone call is the physical manifestation of our dream to send thoughts to one another across impossible distances, a form of technologically-mediated telepathy.
We’ll have to take poetic license to do this. Philosopher and writer Alain DeBotton wrote that the artist is “willing to sacrifice a naive realism in order to achieve realism of a deeper sort, like a poet who, though less factual than a journalist in describing an event, may nevertheless reveal truths about it that find no place in the other’s literal grid.” We need the philosophers and the artists to make creative extrapolations on where we’re headed.
“Look what is coming,” says Kevin Kelly. “Technology is stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves, entire continents of machines conversing with one another, the whole aggregation watching itself through a million cameras posted daily. How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?”
Jason Silva will be speaking this Saturday, October 15 at the Singularity Summit at the 92nd St. Y in NYC.