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marți, 11 septembrie 2012

The Singularity is Near-Sighted: Joseph Campbell's Vision for the Internet Age

It's a great irony of Western Civilization that the scientific revolution, which emerged in the 15th century as a telescopic rifle aimed squarely at the Church, has lately been spotted distributing apocalyptic pamphlets in the public square.

Despite rhetoric steeped in science, these philosophical tracts are founded on metaphysical assumptions, resulting in a kind of techno-religion, replete with promises of immortality and transcendence.

The following beliefs form the basis for this technological utopianism:

1. A projection of human consciousness onto machines;

2. A teleological world view whereby civilization is moving toward unity and global interconnection;
3. An implicit belief in the goodness of technology and the benevolence of machines.

kurzweilIf we are witnessing the birth of a new religion, then its central prophet is futurist Ray Kurzweil. In the documentary Transcendent Man we learn of Kurzweil’s bold prediction, what he calls The Singularity: advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics will allow humans to exceed current capabilities, essentially causing them to merge with machines and transcend biological limitations.

It all sounds plausible, too, until the documentary reveals Kurzweil's obsession with bringing his father back to life. Then we see that Kurzweil might just be in need of a good Freudian analyst, and that, perhaps, his entire theory is driven by a hyper-inflated fear of death. Perhaps the apocalyptic metaphysics of the internet are mere wish-thinking? That is, could Kurzweil be reverting to a childish instinct that concocts elaborate fantasies to assuage the fear of death? In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud argues that the origin of religion is found in feelings of helplessness we experience upon realizing our mortal condition. This might explain why Kurzweil’s Singularity takes on religious qualities, relying on an appeal to metaphysics as much as physics.

Joseph Campbell would have been the first to point out the dangers of reading such science fiction as literal truth. In Campbell’s work, mythologies are never reduced to mere prophecy, belief, or individual religious sect; instead, stories often point toward underlying psychological phenomena that have universal significance and arise from a universal source, despite manifesting in specific cultural contexts. In other words, the cast of characters may change, but the essential plot remains the same. Read in this context, The Singularity could simply be a contemporary expression of an ancient mythological motif: the quest to cheat death. This theme, central to the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, has been around for at least 3,000 years in literature.

earth rise Campbell may have interpreted The Singularity and other techno-philosophies as traps and forms of false consciousness. His vision of a new myth for humanity is far more organic, and places technology in a subordinate role. In his PBS interview series with Bill Moyers, Campbell admits he cannot predict what form this new myth will take, but he believes it will transcend cultural boundaries and represent global consciousness:

“And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group. When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come.”

Campbell died in 1987, two years before Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the World Wide Web, but his vision of a united culture has some echoes in technological utopianism. Was Campbell glimpsing the dawn of an interconnected age? Did he foresee a global citizenry linked by a unified, planetary text, an HTML scripture? Would he have re-contextualized the Buddhist myth of Indra’s Net, a network of infinitely reflective jewels, in order to celebrate the internet as an omega point of human civilization?

star warsThis is extremely unlikely. Campbell was, in fact, suspicious of technology’s ability to deliver the spiritual goods. In The Power of Myth (the book version of his interviews with Moyers), he interprets Star Wars as a meditation on the limits of technology: “It’s what Goethe said in Faust but which [George] Lucas has dressed in modern idiom—the message that technology is not going to save us. Our computers, our tools, our machines are not enough. We have to rely on our intuition, our true being.”

Though skeptical, Campbell would have been forced to address the civilizational changes caused by the internet. While Indra’s Net might appear to be a perfect metaphor for these always-connected times, our behavior has, so far, fallen short of this ideal. The intersections on Indra’s Net contain perfectly-polished jewels, each reflecting all other jewels with equanimity. In other words, each node on the network is empty of its own content, and exists as a pure expression of the entire net.

This is the opposite of the status update, the tweet, and the blog post. In the world of Web 2.0, where billions have access to instant publication on blogs and social networking sites, the only way to break through the noise and generate traffic is by calling attention to yourself. (Somehow the language around this has an aggressive, cattle-rustling quality. You’re supposed to hook the reader, rope him in, and build a brand.) We’ve all witnessed friends on Facebook posting something cryptic, such as, “Well, that was a terrible day,” creating both a sense of suspense and an obligation to respond. Scrolling through a news feed can be like walking through the New York Stock Exchange. Everyone is clamoring for attention, eager to buy and sell. On Indra’s Net, the mirrors are self-effacing, holding nothing for themselves. In the online world, they reflect the gaze of Narcissus. Each knot on the net is a well-wrought ego.

mazeIf Indra’s Net represents a failed ideal, the Greek Myth of Daedalus’ Labyrinth might offer us a way out. The story begins when the god Poseidon orders King Minos to sacrifice a snow-white bull. Instead of obeying, Minos keeps the bull for himself. Poseidon and Aphrodite punish him by making Minos’ wife fall in love with the bull, resulting in the half-man, half-bull offspring: the Minotaur. The unruly beast is so dangerous that Minos must commission Daedalus, the master architect, to build a labyrinth in which to conceal it. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell calls Minos’ act of retaining the Minotaur “an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement,” and an attempt to convert “a public event to personal gain.” This is a perfect description of social media at its worst. Like King Minos, we have hired civilization’s finest architects to create a space for the endless projection of our shadows onto the walls of the internet, where our darkest images dance among the trolls and spiders.

But there is hope. Unfortunately, it means we must resurface with the bull’s head in tow. (Branding him won’t be enough.) We must emerge from the labyrinth and incorporate our capture into a bigger picture. Campbell writes: “If only a portion of that lost totality could be dredged up into the light of day, we should experience a marvelous expansion of powers, a vivid renewal of life.” This is difficult work. Daedalus, the creator of the labyrinth, barely escaped from his own work after completing it. Theseus, who slayed the Minotaur, was only successful after numerous Athenian citizens were devoured.

The key to victory is found in the story of Theseus, the heroic founder of Athens, who volunteers to enter the labyrinth and slay the Minotaur. At the advice of Daedalus, Theseus is given a ball of thread to unravel as he explores the labyrinth. After finding the Minotaur and severing his head, Theseus follows the thread and retraces his steps. Though no etymological connection exists between the two words, the story of Theseus’s thread is often used to illustrate the importance of creating a “thesis,” otherwise known as an argument thread, in a written composition.

So, too, must we create a narrative thread that makes sense of our meandering. The technology cannot be allowed to define us. The maze, though spell-binding, is not the destination. We must unravel the story of how we got here, or remain lost in the catacombs. Why did we build this hyper-linked labyrinth, and what are we concealing within its walls? What might happen if we emerge on the other side?

The internet could certainly lead to a new understanding of existence, but not if we mistake information for knowledge. The information never stops, but it also never reaches an end. It’s noisy, but signifies nothing by itself. Humans might be the only storytellers the universe has ever known. If we’re looking for meaning in a technological age, we cannot allow the machines to navigate.

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