This is part two of a two part interview by techno-optimist Jason Silva (Twitter), a fellow at the Hybrid Realities institute and host on Current TV. Read the first part. (Photograph of Dead Vlei, Namibia, by Frans Lanting / National Geographic.)
Richard Doyle, aka mobius, is a professor of English and science, technology, and society at Pennsylvania State University, and the author of Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of The Noösphere. The book contemplates the power of “ecodelic” plants and chemicals to help us process information about our world and expand our consciousness, with evolutionary benefits.
Jason: Richard Dawkins declared in 1986 that “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions.” To understand life, Dawkins wrote, “don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” How would you explain the relationship between information technology and the reality of the physical world?
Rich: Again, information is indeed physical. We can treat a sequence of information as abstraction and take it out of its context – like a quotation or a jellyfish gene spliced into a rabbit to enable it to glow. We can compress information, dwindling the resources it takes to store or process it. But “information, words, instructions” all require physical instantiation to even be “information, words, instructions.” Researcher Rolf Landauer showed back in the 1960s that even erasure is physical. So I actually think throbbing gels and oozes and slime mold and bacteria eating away at the garbage gyre are very important when we wish to “understand” life. I actually think Dawkins gets it wrong here – he is talking about “modeling” life, not “understanding” it. Erwin Schrodinger, the originator of the idea of the genetic code and therefore the beginning of the “informatic” tradition of biology that Dawkins speaks of here, knew this very well and insisted on the importance of first person experience for understanding.
So while I find these metaphors useful, that is exactly what they are: metaphors. There is a very long history to the attempt to model words and action together: again, John 1:1 is closer to Dawkin’s position here than he may be comfortable with: “In the Beginning was the word, and the word was god, and the word was with god” is a way of working with this capacity of language to bring phenomena into being. It is really only because we habitually think of language as “mere words” that we continually forget that they are a manifestation of a physical system and that they have very actual effects not limited to the physics of their utterance. The words “I love you” can have an effect much greater than the amount of energy necessary to utter them. Our experiences are highly tuneable by the language we use to describe them.
Jason: Can you talk about the mycelial archetype? Author Paul Stamet compares the pattern of the mushroom mycelium with the overlapping information-sharing systems that comprise the Internet, with the networked neurons in the brain, and with a computer model of dark matter in the universe. All share this densely intertwined filamental structure. Is it reasonable to expect a “pattern that connects” here?
Rich: First things first: Paul Stamets is a genius and we should listen to his worldview carefully and learn from it. Along with Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, whose work I borrow from extensively in Darwin’s Pharmacy (as well as many others), Stamets is asking us to contemplate and act on the massive interconnection between all forms of life. This is a shift in worldview that is comparable to the Copernican shift from a geocentric cosmos – it is a shift toward interconnection and consciousness of interconnection. And I like how you weave in Gregory Bateson’s phrase “the pattern that connects” here, because Bateson (whose father, William Bateson, was one of the founders of modern genetics) continuously pointed toward the need to develop ways of perceiving the whole. The “mycelial archetype”, as you call it, is a reliable and rather exciting way to recall the whole: What we call “mushrooms” are really the fruiting bodies of an extensive network of cross connection.
That fuzz growing in an open can of tomato paste in your fridge – mycelium. So even opening our refrigerator – should we be lucky enough to have one, with food in it – can remind us that what we take to be reality is is an actuality only appearance – a sliver, albeit a significant one for our world, of the whole. That fuzz can remind us that (1) appearance and reality or not the same thing at all and (2) beyond appearance there is a massive interconnection in unity. This can help remind us who and what we really are.
Mycelium, the mass of branched, tubular filaments of fungi
“For a ‘symbolic species’ that courts not only by butting heads (what Darwin called the ‘law of battle’) but through what Darwin called ‘charm’ – birdsong, discourse, poetry – the use of ecodelics could very well be the difference between leaving progeny and not leaving progeny.”
With the word "archetype,” you of course invoke the psychologist Carl Jung, who saw archetypes as templates for understanding, ways of organizing our story of the world. There are many archetypes – the Hero, the Mother, the Trickster, the sage. They are very powerful because they help stitch together what can seem to be a chaotic world – that is both their strength and their weakness. It is a weakness because most of the time we are operating within an archetype and we don’t even know it, and we don’t know therefore that we can change our archetype. Experimenting with a different archetype – imagining, for example, the world through the lens of a 2,400 year old organism that is mostly invisible to a very short lived and recent species becoming aware of its creative responsibility in altering the planet – can be incredibly powerful, and in Darwin’s Pharmacy I am trying to offer a way to experiment with the idea of the plant planet as well as the “mycelium” archetype.
One powerful aspect of treating the mycelium as our archetype for humanity is that it is “distributed” – it does not operate via a center of control but through cross connection, “distributed” over a space. Anything we can do to remember both our individuation and our interconnection is timely – we experience the world as individuals, and our task is to discover our nature within the larger scale reality of our dense ecological interconnection. In the book I point to the Upanishad’s “Tat Tvam Asi” as a way of comprehending how we can both be totally individual and an aspect of the whole.
Jason: You’ve talked about the ecstasy of language and the role of rhetoric in shaping reality. These notions echo some of Terence McKenna’s ideas about language. He calls language an “ecstatic activity of signification,” and says that for the “inspired one, it is almost as if existence is uttering itself through him." Can you expand on this? How does language create reality?
Rich: It’s incredibly fun and insightful to echo Terence McKenna. He’s really in this shamanic bard tradition that goes all the back to Empedocles at least, and is distributed widely across the planet. He’s got a bit of Whitman in him with his affirmation of the erotic aspects of enlightenment. He was Emerson speaking to a Lyceum crowd remixed through rave culture. Leary and McKenna were resonating with the Irish bard archetype. And Terrence was echoing Henry Munn, who was echoing Maria Sabina, whose chants and poetics can make her seem like Echo herself – a mythological story teller and poet (literally “sound”) who so transfixes Hera (Zeus’s wife) that Zeus can consort with nymphs. Everywhere we look there are allegories of sexual selection’s role in the evolution of poetic and shamanic language.
And Terrence embodies the spirit of eloquence, helping translate our new technological realities (e.g. virtual reality, a fractal view of nature, radical ecology) and the states of mind that were likely to accompany them. Merlin Donald writes of the effects of “external symbolic storage” on human culture – as a onetime student of McLuhan’s, Donald was following up on Plato’s insights I mentioned above that writing changes how we think, and therefore, who we are.
Human culture is going through a fantastic “reality crisis” wherein we discover the creative role we play in nature. Our role in global climate change – not to mention our role in dwindling biodiversity – is the “shadow” side of our increasing awareness that humans have a radical creative responsibility for their individual and collective lives. And our lives are inseparable from the ecosystems with which we are enmeshed. THAT is reality. To the extent that we can gather and focus our attention on retuning our relation towards ecosystems in crisis, language can indeed shape reality. We’ll get the future we imagine, not necessarily the one we deserve.
Jason: Robert Anton Wilson spoke about “reality tunnels.” These ‘constructs’ can limit our perspectives and perception of reality, they can trap us, belittle us, enslave us, make us miserable or set us free. How can we hack our reality tunnel? Is it possible to use rhetoric and/or psychedelics to “reprogram” our reality tunnel?
Rich: We do nothing but program and reprogram our reality tunnels! Seriously, the Japanese reactor crisis follows on the BP oil spill as a reminder that we are deeply interconnected on the level of infrastructure – technology is now planetary in scale, so what happens here effects somebody, sometimes Everybody, there. These infrastructures – our food sheds, our energy grid, our global media – run on networks, protocols, global standards, agreements: language, software, images, databases and their mycelial networks.
“I honestly think we are still grappling with the fact that our minds are distributed across a network by technology, and have been in a feedback loop between our brains and technologies at least since the invention of writing."
The historian Michel Foucault called these “discourses,” but we need to connect these discourses to the nonhuman networks with which they are enmeshed, and globalization has been in part about connecting discourses to each other across the planet. Ebola ends up in Virginia, Starbucks in Hong Kong. This has been true for a long time, of course – Mutual Assured Destruction was planetary in scale and required a communication and control structure linking, for example, a Trident submarine under the arctic ice sheet – remember that? – to the putatively civilian political structure Eisenhower rightly warned us about: the military industrial complex. The moon missions illustrate this principle as well – we remember what was said as much as what else was done, and what was said, for a while, seemed to induce a sense of truly radical and planetary possibility.
So if we think of words as a description of reality rather than part of the infrastructure of reality, we miss out on the way different linguistic patterns act as catalysts for different realities. I call these “rhetorical softwares.” In my first two books, before I really knew about Wilson’s work or had worked through Korzybski with any intensity, I called these “rhetorical softwares.”
Now the first layer of our reality tunnel is our implicit sense of self – this is the only empirical reality any of us experiences – what we subjectively experience. Wilson was a brilliant analyst of the ways experience is shaped by the language we use to describe it. One of my favorite examples from his work is his observation that in English, “reality” is a noun, so we start to treat it as a “thing,” when in fact reality, this cosmos, is also quite well mapped as an action – a dynamic unfolding for 13.7 billion years. That is a pretty big mismatch between language and reality, and can give us a sense that reality is inert, dead, lifeless, “concrete,” and thus not subject to change. By experimenting with what Wilson, following scientist John Lilly, called “metaprograms,” we can change the maps that shape the reality we inhabit. Ecodelics seem to help induce a map of self that includes rather than excludes the scale of our ecosystemic interconnection.
I should add that I am writing about this because this was something I consistently observed in m own experiences. When the book went to press, I learned that Arne Naess, the founder of Deep Ecology, was profoundly influenced by his experiences of LSD. Howard Odum, another ecologist, tried to help metaprogram us into a more dynamic and interconnected sense of ecology and thermodynamics with his language of “energese.”
Jason: The film Inception explored the notion that our inner world can be a vivid, experiential dimension, and that we can hack it, and change our reality.
Rich: The whole contemplative tradition insists on this dynamic nature of consciousness. “Inner” and “outer” are models for aspects of reality – words that map the world only imperfectly. Our “inner world” – subjective experience – is all we ever experience, so if we change it obviously we will see a change in what we label “external” reality, which it is of course part of and not separable from. One of the maps we should experiment with, in my view, is this “inner” and “outer” one – this is why one of my aliases is “mobius.” A mobius strip helps makes clear that “inside” and “outside” are labels. As you run your finger along a mobius strip, the “inside” becomes “outside” and the “outside” becomes “inside.”
Jason: Can we put our inceptions out into the world?
Rich: We do nothing but! And, it is crucial to add, so too does the rest of our ecosystem. Bacteria engage in quorum sensing, begin to glow, and induce other bacteria to glow – this puts their inceptions into the world. Thanks to the work of scientists like Anthony Trewavas, we know that plants engage in signaling behavior between and across species and even kingdoms: orchids “throw” images of female wasps into the world, attracting male wasps, root cells map the best path through the soil. The whole blooming confusion of life is signaling, mapping and informing itself into the world. The etymology of “inception” is “to begin, take in hand” – our models and maps are like imagined handholds on a dynamic reality.
Jason: What is the relationship between psychedelics and information technology? How are iPods, computers and the internet related to LSD?
Rich: This book is part of a trilogy on the history of information in the life sciences. So, first: psychedelics and biology. It turns out that molecular biology and psychedelics were important contexts for each other. I first started noticing this when I found that many people who had taken LSD were talking about their experiences in the language of molecular biology – accessing their DNA and so forth. When I learned that psychedelic experience was very sensitive to“set and setting” – the mindset and context of their use – I wanted to find out how this language of molecular biology was effecting people’s experiences of the compounds. In other words, how did the language affect something supposedly caused by chemistry?
Tracking the language through thousands of pages, I found that both the discourse of psychedelics and molecular biology were part of the “informatic vision” that was restructuring the life sciences as well as the world, and found common patterns of language in the work of Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist, and Francis Crick, who won the Nobel prize with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for determining the structure of DNA in 1954. So in 2002 I published an article describing the common “language of information” spoken by Leary and Crick. I had no idea that Crick had apparently been using LSD when he was figuring out the structure of DNA. Yes, that blew my mind when it came out in 2004. I feel like I read that between the lines of Crick’s papers, which gave me confidence to write the rest of the book about the feedback between psychedelics and the world we inhabit.
The paper did hone in on the role that LSD played in the invention of PCR (polymerase chain reaction): Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel prize for the invention of this method of making copies of a sequence of DNA, talked openly of the role that LSD played in the process of invention. Chapter 4 of the book looks to the use of LSD in “creative problem solving” studies of the 1960s. These studies – hard to imagine now, 39 years into the War on Drugs – suggest that used with care, psychedelics can be part of effective training in remembering how to discern the difference between words and things, maps and territories.
In short, this research suggested that psychedelics were useful for seeing the limitations of words as well as their power, perhaps occasioned by the experience of the linguistic feedback loops between language and psychedelic experiences that themselves could never be satisfactorily described in language. I argue that Mullis had a different conception of information than mainstream molecular biology – a pragmatic concept steeped in what you can do with words rather than in what they mean. Mullis seems to have thought of information as “algorithms” – recipes of code, while the mainsteam view was thinking of it as implicitly semantically, as “words with meaning.”
As far as iPods, the Internet, etc: In some cases there are direct connections. Perhaps Bill Joy said it best when he said that there was a reason that LSD and Unix were both from Berkeley. What the Doormouse Said by John Markoff came out after I wrote my first paper on Mullis and I was working on the book, and it was really confirmation of a lot of what I seeing indicated by my conceptual model of what is going on, which is as follows:
Sexual selection is a good way to model the evolution of information technology. It yields bioluminescence – the most common communication strategy on the planet – chirping insects, singing birds, Peacocks fanning their feathers, singing whales, speaking humans, and humans with internet access. These are all techniques of information production, transformation or evaluation.
I am persuaded by Geoffrey Miller’s update of Charles Darwin’s argument that language and mind are sexually selected traits , selected not simply for survival or even the representation of fitness, but for their sexiness. Leary: “Intelligence is the greatest aphrodisiac.” I offer the hypothesis that psychedelics enter the human toolkit as “eloquence adjuncts” – tools and techniques for increasing the efficacy of language to seemingly create reality – different patterns of language ( and other attributes of set and setting) literally causes different experiences. The informatic revolution is about applying this ability to create reality with different “codes” to the machine interface.
Perhaps this is one of the reason people like Mitch Kapor (a pioneer of computer spreadsheets), Stewart Brand (founder of the pre-internet computer commons known as the Well) and Bob Wallace (one of the original Microsoft seven and an early proponent of shareware), and Mark Pesce were or are all psychonauts.
Jason: Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case has written about Techno-social wormholes, the instant compression of time and space created every time we make a telephone call, for instance. What do you make of this compression of time and space made possible by the engineering “magic” of technology?*
Rich: It’s funny the role that the telephone call plays as an example in the history of our attempts to model the effects of information technologies. William Gibson famously defined cyberspace as the place where a telephone call takes place. (Gibson’s coinage of the term “cyberspace” is a good example of an “inception”). Avital Ronell wrote about Nietzsche’s telephone call to the beyond and interprets the history of philosophy according to a “telephonic logic.” When I was a child my father once threw our telephone into the Atlantic Ocean – that was what he made of the magic of that technology, at least in one moment of anger. This was back in the day when Bell owned your phone and there was some explaining to do. This magic of compression has other effects – my dad got phone calls all day at work, so when was at home he wanted to turn it off. The only way he knew to turn it off was to rip it out of the wall – there was no modular plug, just a wire into the wall – and throw it into the ocean.
So there is more than compression going on here: Deleuze and Guattari, along with the computer scientist Pierre Levy after them, call it “deterritorialization.” The differences between “here” and “there” are being constantly renegotiated as our technologies of interaction develop. Globalization is the collective effect of these deterritorializations and reterritorializations at any given moment.
And the wormhole example is instructive: the forces that enable such collapse of space and time as the possibility of time travel would likely tear us to smithereens. The tensions and torsions of this deterritorialization at part of what is at play in the Wikileaks revolutions, this compression of time and space offers promise for distributed governance as well as turbulence. Time travel through wormholes, by the way, is another example of an inception – Carl Sagan was looking for a reasonable way to transport his fictional aliens in Contact, called Cal Tech physicist Skip Thorne for help, and Thorne came up with the idea.
Jason: The film Vanilla Sky explored the notion of a scientifically-induced “lucid dream” where we can live forever and our world is built out of our memories and “sculpted moment to moment and lived with the romantic abandon of a summer day or the feeling of a great movie or a pop song you always loved.” Can we sculpt “real” reality as if it were a “lucid dream”?
Rich: Some traditions model reality as a lucid dream. The Diamond Sutra tells us that to be enlightened we must view reality as “a phantom, a dew drop, a bubble.” This does not mean, of course, that reality does not exist, only that appearance has no more persistence than a dream and that what we call “reality” is our map of reality. When we wake up, the dream that had been so compelling is seen to be what it was: a dream, nothing more or less. Dreams do not lack reality – they are real patterns of information. They just aren’t what we usually think they are. Ditto for “ordinary” reality. Lucid dreaming has been practiced by multiple traditions for a long time – we can no doubt learn new ways of doing so. In the meantime, by recognizing and acting according to the practice of looking beyond appearances, we can find perhaps a smidgeon more creative freedom to manifest our intentions in reality.
“It is really only because we habitually think of language as ‘mere words’ that we continually forget that they are a manifestation of a physical system and that they have very actual effects not limited to the physics of their utterance – the words ‘I love you’ can have an effect much greater than the amount of energy necessary to utter them. Our experiences are highly tuneable by the language we use to describe them.”
Jason: Paola Antonelli, design curator of the Museum of Modern Art, has written about “Existenz Maximum,” the ability of portable music devices like the iPod to create"customized realities," imposing a soundtrack on the movie of our own life. This sounds empowering and godlike. How is technology helping us design every aspect of both our external reality as well as our internal, psychological reality?
Rich: Well, the Upanishads and the Book of Luke both suggest that we “get our inner Creator on,” the former by suggesting that “Tat Tvam Asi” – that there is an aspect of you that is connected to Everything – and the latter by recommending that we look not here or there for the Kingdom of God, but “within." So if this sounds “god like,” it is part of a long and persistent tradition. I personally find the phrase “customized realities” redundant given the role of our always unique programs and metaprograms. So what we need to focus on this: to which aspect of ourselves do we wish to give this creative power? These customized realities could be enpowering and god like for corporations that own the material, or they could enpower our planetary aspect that unites all of us, and everything in between. It is, as always, the challenge of the magus and the artist to decide how we want to customize reality once we know that we can.
Jason: The Imaginary Foundation says that “to understand is to perceive patterns.” Some advocates of psychedelic therapy have said that certain chemicals heighten our perception of patterns. They help us “see more.” What exactly are they helping us understand?
Understanding! One of the interesting bits of knowledge that I found in my research was some evidence that psychonauts scored better on the Witkin Embedded Figure test, a putative measure of a human subject’s ability to “distinguish a simple geometrical figure embedded in a complex colored figure.” When we perceive the part within the whole, we can suddenly get context, understanding.
Jason: An article pointing to the use of psychedelics as catalysts for breakthrough innovation in Silicon Valley says that users “employ these cognitive catalysts, de-condition their thinking periodically and come up with the really big connectivity ideas arrived at wholly outside the linear steps of argument.” This seems to echo what other intellectuals have been saying for ages. You referred to cannabis as “an assassin of referentiality, inducing a butterfly effect in thought. Cannabis induces a parataxis wherein sentences resonate together and summon coherence in the bardos between one statement and another.”
Baudelaire also wrote about cannabis as inducing an artificial paradise of thought: “…It sometimes happens that people completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships fit to outdo the ablest masters of this preposterous craft. … [And eventually] Every philosophical problem is resolved. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods." Anthropologist Henry Munn also wrote about the power of mushrooms to stimulate a coherent kind of surrealism: “For the inspired one, it is as if existence were uttering itself through him…”
Can you expand a bit on how certain ecodelics (as well as marijuana) can help us de-condition our thinking, have creative breakthroughs as well as intellectual catharsis? How is it that “intoxication” could, under certain conditions, actually improve our cognition and creativity and contribute to the collective intelligence of the species?
Rich: I would point, again, to Pahnke’s description of ego death. This is by definition an experience when our maps of the world are humbled. In the breakdown of our ordinary worldview – such as when a (now formerly) secular being such as myself finds himself feeling unmistakably sacred – we get a glimpse of reality without our usual filters. It is just not possible to use the old maps, so we get even an involuntary glimpse of reality. This is very close to the Buddhist practice of exhausting linguistic reference through chanting or Koans – suddenly we see the world through something besides our verbal mind.
Ramana Maharshi says that in the silence of the ego we perceive reality – reality IS the breakdown of the ego. Aldous Huxley, who was an extraordinarily adroit and eloquent writer with knowledge of increasingly rare breadth and depth, pointed to a quote by William Blake when trying to sum up his experience: the doors of perception were cleansed. This is a humble act, if you think about it: Huxley, faced with the beauty and grandeur of his mescaline experience, offers the equivalent of “What he said!” Huxley also said that psychedelics offered a respite from “the throttling embrace of the self”, suggesting that we see the world without the usual filters of our egoic self.
The breakdown of our worldview can be very distressing as well as liberating, of course, and this is why it is crucial now to think about the best conditions under which ecodelics (a category that includes cannabis) should be used by human beings. First of all, that context should not be criminalized – imagine the effect of that “programming.” Now that medical marijuana is thankfully being legally dispensed in states across the US and around the world, we should remember how important the context of use is: patients should think about the best possible and most healthful contexts and programming for the use of their medicine.
And if you look carefully at the studies by pioneers such as Myron Stolaroff and Willis Harman that you reference, as I do in the book, you will see that great care was taken to compose the best contexts for their studies. Subjects, for example, were told not to think about personal problems but to focus on their work at hand, and, astonishingly enough, it seems to have worked. These are very sensitive technologies and we really need much more research to explore their best use. This means more than studying their chemical function – it means studying the complex experiences human beings have with them. Step one has to be accepting that ecodelics are and always have been an integral part of human culture for some subset of the population.
Jason: What do you make of the stoned-ape hypothesis, proposed by Terrence McKenna, that self-reflective consciousness was kick-started by psychedelic chemicals?
Rich: Well, I like it very much as a catalyst for discussing the the co-evolution of mind. It seems to really freak people out that something in our diet – rather than in, say, our DNA – kick started consciousness, so that helps highlight our attachment to this idea that we are somehow separate from the ecosystem out of which we have only very recently evolved. Of course it resonates with anybody who has ever had a psychedelic experience precisely because of the sensitivity to rhetorical conditions I discuss above: we can observe the creative role that language plays in our experience, triggering an “aha” moment about the power of language.
And in this instance we find ourselves becoming examples of precisely stoned primates having insights. The hypothesis, like my own (the ecodelic hypothesis) has the strength of being (somewhat) verifiable through first person experience. One of the things I want to do is collect examples of people coming up with this theory independently. The Beat poet Michael Corso had a routine focusing on morning glory seeds triggering human consciousness in the 1970s, for example, although he may have been remixing McKenna.
And there has been very strong work on animal use of psychedelics by researchers such as Samorini and Siegel, so it isn’t even controversial to suggest that ecodelic use is part of animal culture. Mandrilles have been observed using an ecodelic root, Iboga, in courtship. My argument is that the best model for ecodelic use in human culture is as “eloquence adjuncts” – they can have a very interesting and direct effect on our use of language, just as the bow and arrow has an effect on our ability to launch projectiles with precision and velocity. Think of how many of us use coffee to spur the writing process.
“Thanks to the work of scientists like Anthony Trewavas, we know that plants engage in signaling behavior between and across species and even kingdoms: orchids “throw” images of female wasps into the world, attracting male wasps, root cells map the best path through the soil. The whole blooming confusion of life is signaling, mapping and informing itself into the world.”
So Darwin’s Pharmacy suggests ecodelics kickstart eloquence – the capacity to "speak out” and focus attention on the patterns within that speaking and generate new patterns. For a “symbolic species” that courts not only by butting heads (what Darwin called the “law of battle”) but through what Darwin called “charm” – birdsong, discourse, poetry – the use of ecodelics could very well be the difference between leaving progeny and not leaving progeny. Consciousness – the awareness of awareness – would be an emergent phenomenon that develops out of this intensive competition for eloquence. Tweet that! Obviously this is just a schematic model, with much more in the book. More research is needed!
An image of the cosmic microwave background by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite
Jason: Kevin Kelly refers to technological evolution as following the momentum begun at the big bang. he has stated:*
“…there is a continuum, a connection back all the way to the Big Bang with these self-organizing systems that make the galaxies, stars, and life, and now is producing technology in the same way. The energies flowing through these things are, interestingly, becoming more and more dense… We don’t realize this. We think of the sun as being a hugely immense amount of energy. Yet the amount of energy running through a sunflower per gram per second of its livelihood, is actually greater than in the sun. Actually, it’s so dense that when it’s multiplied out, the sunflower actually has a higher amount of energy flowing through it… Animals have even higher energy usage than the plant, and a jet engine has even higher than an animal. The most energy-dense thing that we know about in the entire universe is the computer chip in your computer.”
Can you comment on the implications of that idea?
Rich: I think maps of “continuity” are crucial and urgently needed. We can model the world as either “discrete” – made up of parts – or “continuous” – composing a whole – to powerful effect. Both are in this sense true. This is not “relativism” but a corollary of that creative freedom to choose our models that seems to be an attribute of consciousness. The mechanistic worldview extracts, separates and reconnects raw materials, labor and energy in ways that produce astonishing order as well as disorder (entropy).
By mapping the world as discrete – such as the difference between one second and another – and uniform – to a clock, there is no difference between one second and another – we have transformed the planet. Consciousness informed by discrete maps of reality has been an actual geological force in a tiny sliver of time. In so doing, we have have transformed the biosphere. So you can see just how actual this relation between consciousness, its maps, and earthly reality is. This is why Vernadksy, a geophysicist, thought we needed a new term for the way consciousness functions as a geological force: noosphere.
These discrete maps of reality are so powerful that we forget that they are maps. Now if the world can be cut up into parts, it is only because it forms a unity. A Sufi author commented that the unity of the world was both the most obvious and most obscure fact. It is obvious because our own lives and the world we inhabit can be seen to continue without any experienced interruption – neither the world nor our lives truly stops and starts. This unity can be obscure because in a literal sense we can’t perceive it with our senses – this unity can only be “perceived” by our minds. We are so effective as separate beings that we forget the whole for the part. Sagan’s quote is beautiful – “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” – but equally beautiful is what Sagan follows up with: “The cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff.”
Perhaps this is why models such as Kelly’s feel so powerful: reminding ourselves that there is a continuity between the Big Bang and ourselves means we are an aspect of something unfathomably grand, beautiful, complex and unbroken. This is perhaps the “grandeur” Darwin was discussing. And when we experience that grandeur it can help us think and act in aways appropriate to a geological force.
I am not sure about the claims for energy that Kelly is making – I would have to see the context and the source of his data – but I do know that when it comes to thermodynamics, what he is saying rings true. We are dissipative structures far from equilibrium, meaning that we fulfill the laws of thermodynamics. Even though biological systems such as ourselves are incredibly orderly – and we export that order through our maps onto and into the world – we also yield more entropy than our absence.
Living systems – according to an emerging paradigm of Stanley Salthe, Rob Swenson, the aforementioned Margulis and Sagan, Eric Schneider, James J. Kay and others – maximize entropy, and the universe is seeking to dissipate ever greater amounts of entropy. Order is a way to dissipate yet more energy. We’re thermodynamic beings, so we are always on the prowl for new ways to dissipate energy as heat and create uncertainty (entropy). Consciousness helps us find ever new ways to do so. (In case you are wondering, consciousness is the organized effort to model reality that yields ever increasing spirals of uncertainty in Deep Time. But you knew that.) It is perhaps in this sense that, again following Carl Sagan, “ We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” That is a pretty great map of continuity.
What I don’t understand in Kelly’s work, and I need to look at with more attention, is the discontinuity he posits between biology and technology. In my view our maps have made us think of technology as different in kind from biology, but the global mycelial web of fungi suggests otherwise, and our current view of technology seems to intensify this sense of separation even as we get interconnected through technology. I prefer noosphere to what Kelly calls “the Technium” because it reminds us of the ways we are biologically interconnected with our technosocial realities. Noosphere sprouts from biosphere.
Jason: There is this notion of increasing complexity. Yet in a universe where entropy destroys almost everything, here we are, the cutting edge of evolution, taking the reigns and accelerating this emergent complexity. Kurzweil says that this makes us "very important”: “…It turns out that we are central, after all. Our ability to create models -virtual realities – in our brains, combined with our modest-looking thumbs, has been sufficient to usher in another form of evolution: technology. That development enabled the persistence of the accelerating pace that started with biological evolution. It will continue until the entire universe is at our fingertips.” What do you think?
Rich: Well, I think from my remarks already you can see that I agree with Kurzweil here and can only suggest that it is for this very reason that we must be very creative, careful and cunning with our models. Do we model the technologies that we are developing according to the effects they will have on the planetary whole? Only rarely, though this is what we are trying to do at the Penn State Center for Nanofutures, as are lots of people involved in Science, Technology and Society as well as engineering education. When we develop technologies – and that is the way psychedelics arrived in modern culture, as technologies – we must model their effects not only on the individuals who use them, but on the whole of our ecosystem and planetary society. If our technological models are based on the premise that this is a dead planet – and most of them very much are, one is called all kinds of names if you suggest otherwise, animist, vitalist, Gaian intelligence agent, names I wear with glee – then we will end up with a asymptotically dead planet.
Consciousness will, of course, come back should we perish, but let us hope that it learns to experiment better with its maps and learns to notice reality just a little bit more. I am actually an optimist on this front and think that a widespread “aha” moment is occurring where there is a collective recognition of the feedback loops that make up our technological and biological evolution.
Again, I don’t know why Kurzweil seems to think that technological evolution is discontinuous with biological evolution. Technology is nested within the network of “wetwares” that make it work, and our wetwares are increasingly interconnected with our technological infrastructure, as the meltdowns in Japan demonstrate along with the dependence of many of us – we who are more bacterial than human by dry weight – upon a network of pharmaceuticals and electricity for continued life. The E. coli outbreak in Europe is another case in point: our biological reality is linked with the technological reality of supply chain management. Technological evolution is biological evolution enabled by the maps of reality forged by consciousness.
Jason: Andrew Leonard beautiful puts it like this: “Computers, like psychedelic drugs, are tools for mind expansion, for revelation and for personal discovery. And to anyone who has experienced a drug-induced epiphany, there may indeed be a cosmic hyperlink there: fire up your laptop, connect wirelessly to the Internet, and search for your dreams with Google: the power and the glory of the computing universe that exists now… does pulsate with a destabilizing, revelatory psychic power.”
Rich: Albert Hoffmann accidentally discovered the effects of LSD-25 in 1943 while preparing a batch of the compound at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland. His account of the experience fits squarely within the contemplative mystic tradition even while Hoffmann worked in a modern technological context. Part of the impact of LSD in particular on our cultures was no doubt due to the fact that it came out of modern chemistry and its technological methods and contexts. Erik Davis talks about “techgnosis” – the continued effervescence of “magical” traditions through technology. Whereas technology for many promised the “disenchantment” of the world – the rationalization of this world of the contemplative spirit as everything became a Machine – here was mystical contemplative experience manifesting itself directly within what sociologist Max Weber called the “iron cage of modernity,” Gaia bubbling up through technological “Babylon.”
Now many contemplatives have sought to share their experiences through writing – pages and pages of it. As we interconnect through information technology, we perhaps have the opportunity to repeat this enchanted contemplative experience of radical interconnection on another scale, and through other means.
This is part two of a two part interview. Read the first part.