Originally published in Arthur No. 16 (May, 2005)
Illustration by Arik Roper
“Here and Now” column by Daniel Pinchbeck
“A Future Worth Having”
I first encountered the idea that we are quickly approaching a “Technological Singularity” in the works of Terence McKenna. In McKenna’s great essay, “New Maps of Hyperspace,” published in The Archaic Revival, he wrote, “We are like coral animals embedded in a technological reef of extruded psychic objects. All our tool making implies our belief in an ultimate tool.” He saw the archetypal apparition of the UFO or Flying Saucer as a foreshadowing of this tool awaiting us at the end of history. For him, this ultimate tool would exteriorize the human soul and interiorize the body, releasing the psyche into the infinite realm of the Imagination—”a kind of Islamic paradise in which one is free to experience all the pleasures of the flesh provided one realizes that one is a projection of a holographic solid-state matrix.”
McKenna was writing in the first flush of technological euphoria that accompanied the “dot-com” boom, and his perspective reflects a certain amount of that decades-long bedazzlement with the new forces unleashed by the extraordinary evolution of the Internet. Ultimately, however, his perspective was Gnostic, as well as Apocalyptic, informed by his psychedelic journeys into psilocybin and DMT-space. McKenna was a brilliant man. However, his euphoric focus on the self-organization of this technological event—which he often correlated with the 2012 end-date of the Mayan Calendar—left in its wake a certain passivity. The hipster counterculture that has beamed into this meme is too quick to celebrate the upcoming Eschaton, without doing the hard work required to bring it into being. From my perspective, what we need to consider now is not technology, but technique.
Before elaborating on that idea, let’s take a brief look at the “Technological Singularity” meme as it is currently propounded on the Internet by John Smart, of Singularity Watch, and Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines and operator of the KurzweilAI.net website. Kurzweil and Smart are “transhumanists,” who promote the prospect of an imminent super-technological future in which humans have merged with machines in order to transcend our biological limits. In his essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” Kurzweil looks at the exponential evolution of technology, and argues that this mathematical growth-curve eventually reaches a point where it accelerates to a level that is close to infinite. He believes that this will most likely occur sometime in this century: “Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”
Smart shares Kurzweil’s euphoria: “Technology is the next organic extension of ourselves, growing with a speed, efficiency, and resiliency that must eventually make our DNA-based technology obsolete, even as it preserves and extends all that we value most in ourselves,” he noted in a 2003 interview. Unlike Kurzweil, who sees humans evolving technologies that expand out to fill up the universe, Smart sees the eventual destiny of the species in what he calls “transcension,” essentially escaping this universe in the other direction, by creating simulations or virtual realities that will be like new universes—or, in fact, new universes, as we draw all local information into the black hole of our information-processing and technology-generating engines.
The transhumanists begin with the idea that our biological limitations should be overcome through mechanical augmentation. We are too slow, too cumbersome in our inherited meatsuits, and therefore trapped in what John Smart calls “slowspace.” Through immersion in virtual realities or direct fusion with cerebrally accelerating artificial intelligence agents—or some other technological genie—we will leap beyond our current imprisonment in the organic realm, and attain a higher, faster, snazzier state of being. Kurzweil notes: “Biological thinking is stuck at 1026 calculations per second (for all biological human brains), and that figure will not appreciably change, even with bioengineering changes to our genome. Nonbiological intelligence, on the other hand, is growing at a double exponential rate and will vastly exceed biological intelligence well before the middle of this century.” By inserting “nanobots” into our brains or ultimately perhaps downloading our psyches into immortal silicon-based supercomputers, humans will be able to contribute our pitiful little brain-wattage and antiquated personalities to the evolution of A.I.’s higher, faster levels of functioning.
We can, in fact, according to Smart, even feel some compassion for the next level of machine consciousness we are currently gestating to succeed us. He writes, “Consider that once we arrive at the singularity it seems highly likely that the A.I.s will be just as much on a spiritual quest, just as concerned with living good lives and figuring out the unknown, just as angst-ridden as we are today.” Even if, during some hyper-insectile phase of Terminator-style behavior, the A.I,’s accidentally destroy the human species, Smart reassures us, they would no doubt want to recreate us eventually – just as we build museums to understand the history of our planet and how we arose out of earlier life-forms, as well as documenting indigenous cultures that we too have accidentally destroyed.
It is instructive to consider—and to dismiss—the transhumanist perspective, as it reflects our cultural fantasies about technology and about transcendence, as well as our deep anxiety and deeper misconceptions about the essence of time, space, consciousness, and being. It may be the case—I would propose—that our future lies in an entirely different direction. To begin to conceptualize that direction—to draw in an imprint of what a truly human future might look like—we first have to give some thought to the essential nature of technology.
In his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” the philosopher Martin Heidegger noted that the essence of technology cannot be found in any machine or in anything technological; the essence of technology is the entire “enframing” of reality that is our modern or post-modern worldview. “The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatus of technology,” Heidegger writes. “The actual threat has already afflicted man in his essence.” Technology, as Heidegger notes—and Smart and Kurzweil would no doubt agree—is no mere human doing. It is based on an ordering of reality that turns everything—including human beings—into a “standing reserve,” a resource to be utilized for rationalized ends. The barren architecture of the vast housing projects on the edge of our cities, prison-boxes where masses of humanity are warehoused as “surplus labor” to serve the desires of the elite, illustrates this worldview perfectly.
The concept that more speed, more information, or any form of quantity-based extension or technological transcendence of our current human reality is somehow valuable, in and of itself, is one that needs to be interrogated. An alternative perspective is offered by the Hindu guru Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj in the book I Am That: “Get hold of the main thing: That the world and the self are one and perfect. Only your attitude is faulty and needs readjustment.” A faulty attitude creates a faulty world – a world of insufficiency, in which human beings are reduced to the status of things. It is a world of endless distractions, and “distractions from distraction,” where entertainment or infotainment or pure noise are employed to fill the void of the individual self, the empty signifier. It is a world in which the present moment is devalued, and our eschatological dreams are projected on an empty future.
Heidegger notes that the origin of the word “technology” comes from the Greek word techne, and this word was applied not only to technology, but to art, and artistic technique, as well. “Once there was a time when the bringing-forth of the true into the beautiful was also called techne,” he writes. “Once that revealing which brings forth truth into the splendor of radiant appearance was also called techne.” He found this to be a numinous correspondence, and considered that, in art, the “saving power” capable of confronting the abyss of the technological enframing might be found.
If art provides a “saving power,” it is not in the atomized artworks produced by individuated subjects, but in a more profound revisioning of the world as a work of art—one that is already, from a nondualistic perspective, perfect. It may be that, instead of envisioning an ultimately boring “technological singularity,” we would be better served by orienting ourselves towards an evolution of technique, of skillful means, aimed at this world, as it is right now, to raise up and redeem all of the people in it. Technology might find its proper place in our lives if we first made such a shift in perspective—in a society oriented around technique, we might find that we desired a lot less technological gadgetry. If we truly lived in love and wonder and synchronicity, embracing the perfection of the world and one another, we might find our IPods and laptops to be annoying encumbrances. We might start to prefer slowness to speed, subtlety and complexity to products aimed at standardized mind. Rather than projecting the spiritual quest and the search for the good life onto futuristic A.I.s, we could actually fulfill those goals, here and now, in the present company of our friends and lovers.
Instead of a “technological singularity,” I propose reorienting thinking towards the “multiplicity of technique.” Technique is erotic in essence; it is what Glenn Gould or Thelonius Monk express through the piano—the interplay between learned skill and quantum improvisation that is the stuff of genius. Technique embraces the “nowness” of our living world; technology throws us into endless insatiation.
The essence of art lies in the unlimited realm of the imagination, which is, as William Blake noted, not a state, but the human existence in itself. McKenna proposed that the imagination was akin to a lense that could be focused on different layers and levels of the morphogentic field of the psyche. The effort to attain a deeper or intensified level of consciousness brings one to the threshold of the imaginal realms that unfurl in dreams and hypnagogic and psychedelic states, where one picks up the hidden vibrations of the dreamtime realms known to the Australian Aboriginals. By reattuning ourselves to those subtle frequencies, we will first discover, and then create, a future worth having.