Friday, November 30, 2012

Technology and a Changing Global Context

A presentation by Van Wishard, reprinted in its original form, unedited and in its entirety, with permission of the author.


Van Wishard
Westminster at Lake Ridge
October 22, 2012

We’re going to consider some interesting subjects this morning -- technology and a changing global context -- and some of you might like to consider this material further. If so, just be in touch with Heather Reich or myself, and we’ll see that you get a copy.

What does a changing global context mean, and by context I mean the mental framework within which we perceive life.

Most of us have some intuitive sense that the world is, and has been, passing through extraordinary times. We can’t quite define it, but we see it in the world news and in our daily lives. It’s men walking on the moon; it’s one person reaching millions of people via the Internet; it’s China, comprising every fifth person in the world, becoming a global power. We continue on with our daily routine; but we have an unarticulated sense that somehow the entire context in which we have lived our lives is changing.

Different people have tried to describe this changing context in different ways. The renowned anthropologist, Philip Tobias, says, “I regard the computer as the most significant leap since humans acquired the capacity for spoken language some two million years ago.”

I want to try to bring Tobias’s cosmic statement down to present-day reality.

In the 1980s, I had a luncheon with Alvin Toffler, author of the best-selling book, Future Shock – and he was one of the fathers of the “futurist” movement. I asked him what was to be the result of everyone having access to all scientific, religious and philosophical beliefs via the Internet. His instant reply was, “It’s the end of truth.”

I thought about that statement for years afterwards. Toffler wasn’t saying that truth wouldn’t exist; only that everyone would have his or her own interpretation of truth. Thus it would be more difficult for a society to abide by any underlying set of convictions. You can see that this is what has happened over the past decades. The more information technology we have developed, the more difficult it has become to cohere around any consensus on political or social issues.

That reality underlies much of the political and existential confusion we see in the Middle East today. From 4000 BCE to the recent removal of General Mubarak, Egypt was ruled by an authoritarian ruler. In the Middle East as a whole, the history of governance has been either by foreign powers, dictatorship, or sectarian or tribal leaders. Over the past decade, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter have fractured the authority of these groups, and opened different concepts of governance. The youth particularly became entranced by the glitter of Western democracy, and sixty percent of the Arab world is under the age of twenty-five. 

Now keep in mind that it took over five hundred years for the Western mind psychologically to mature from the Magna Carta in 1215, to the Rights of Man in 1789. Western democracy is not just a political system; it is a political expression of a certain psychological and historical evolution.

The Middle East has not had similar historical circumstances or the context in which to make a comparable journey. In my view, this is part of the deeper reason for the chaos we see unfolding across the entire Middle East. And thus George Friedman, founder of the strategic analysis company STRATFOR, writes: “The NATO approach to Libya assumed that the removal of a tyrant would somehow inevitably lead to a liberal democracy.” Indeed, this view has been the assumption of the West about Middle East in general, at least going back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Egypt has taken the first steps forward, but even if these steps are consolidated, there are more steps to go. In much of the Middle East there has not yet been the rise of effective democracies with their own security agencies governed by the rule of law.

I would offer five more trends, which help illustrate the changing global context. Then we’ll focus on a specific technological development and the questions it raises.

First trend, for the first time in history, the Caucasian race is no longer reproducing itself. No European country is reproducing its population; nor are Caucasians in North America reproducing themselves. The implications of this are so far-reaching that it’s difficult even to speculate what they might be.

Second, future ages may view man’s seeing the Earth from the Moon as the defining event of all subsequent history. Joseph Campbell, the renowned historian of myth and psychology, clearly considered it the most significant psychological event of the past several thousand years. Seeing Earth from the Moon vastly accelerated the collapse of all the boundaries that provide identity for nation, race, religion and class. Thus every nation, indeed, every person to some degree or other, faces a crisis of identity.

Third, the ability to create change, as well as the attitude that change is desirable, is now a global possession. Throughout history, in all civilizations, continuity rather than abrupt change has been the normal state of affairs. No society on the planet knows how to live with constant, radical change. Thus, for the first time in history, every nation is, concurrently with all other nations, in a state of profound upheaval as we try to adjust to an ever-accelerating pace of change.

Fourth, for the first time in history, what constitutes a family is being redefined. This has acute psychological implications for government, education, social cohesion, and what we broadly term “civil society.”

Fifth, our whole symbolic language has been devalued. For example, the word “heaven” used to carry a sacred meaning. It was the dwelling place of the gods, a place people hoped to go when they died, our link with eternity. Now, we speak simply of “space,” an endless void. Similarly, we used to speak of “Mother Earth,” which gives the Earth a creative, nurturing implication. Now, we speak only of “matter,” an abstract, lifeless substance. In this way, our symbolic language has been diminished. The function of symbolic language is to infuse into our conscious life some of the transcendent meaning that emanates from the unconscious realm, thus giving our daily lives a deeper vitality. That connection has been weakened, so there’s far less transcendent energy brought into our conscious life.

So this is part of the larger context within which all other discussions about life—Syria and the Middle East, the upcoming election, our relationship with China, and all else takes place.

And now we are at the beginning of another technological development potentially far more consequential than the Internet. Ray Kurzweil is a computer scientist who has received thirteen honorary doctorate degrees, and has been received by the White House for his work in helping the blind and the deaf through the use of computers.

I came across Kurzweil’s work in the ‘80s and have more or less followed him ever since. He has written several books, one entitled The Singularity, in which he describes the time ahead when, he argues, computers will merge with human brains and create a superior form of life. “We’re now very dependent on our computers,” he says. “We no longer have our hand on the switch, so to speak, because our civilization is so dependent on the machines, and bit by bit the machines are getting more and more intelligent…At some point, there’s going to be a merger.”

Kurzweil asserts that due to what’s called “Moore’s Law,” which says that with every passing two years, the miniaturization of computer chips roughly doubles their speed and cuts their cost by half, that by 2030, computers will be powerful enough to run programs reproducing the 10,000 trillion electrical signals that flash every second among the twenty-two billion neurons in the human skull. They will also have the memory to store the 10 trillion recollections that a typical brain houses. By about 2045, Kurzweil believes computers will be able to accommodate all the minds in the world, effectively merging carbon- and silicon-based intelligence into a single global consciousness.

Kurzweil was a lone voice when he started. Gradually, he built up a following in the scientific community. Now he’s head of a PhD. haven called Singularity University in Silicon Valley. DARPA, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, has begun employing some of his work in their forward planning. DARPA’s “Brain Interface Project” is now looking at the possibility of molecular-scale computers, built from enzymes and DNA molecules rather than silicon, which could be implanted into soldiers’ heads. DARPA hopes that more advanced models will give soldiers some of the advantages of machines by speeding up their synaptic links, adding memory, and even providing wireless Internet access. In similar vein, DARPA’s “Silent Talk Project” is working on implants that will decode preverbal electrical signals within the brain and send them over the Internet so troops can communicate without radios or e-mail. One National Science Foundation report suggests that such “network-enabled telepathy” will become a reality in the 2020s.

So on and on it goes, potentially leading to a change in what it means to be a human being.

But dissenting voices exist. Dr. Susan Greenfield, one of Europe’s foremost psychiatrists, warned that “ignoring the way digital experience rewires the brain—literally ‘blowing the mind’—may one day be akin to doubting global warning.”

Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and whom the Economist magazine describes as the “Edison of the Internet”, says of Kurzweil’s experiments, “I think it no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states.” Joy suggested that the only solution is “to limit development of certain technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.”

The Economist magazine asks the critical question: “Is the speed of technology development exceeding humanity’s moral and mental capacities to control it?”  

And finally, Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired magazine and author of several books on technology and its future. Writes Kelly: “In the great vacuum of meaning, in the silence of unspoken values, in the vacancy of something large to stand for, something bigger than oneself, technology—for better or worse—will make our decisions for us.” This, from one of the leading spokesmen of America’s technologists

Well, with DARPA involved, we’re past the point of any concerns being taken seriously at this point, no matter how valid they may be. To be sure, there some are tremendous benefits to Kurzweil’s inventions.

But Kurzweil also believes what he’s doing is the next step in evolution, and will lead to a global consciousness and, ultimately, immortality.  At this point, I’m reminded of what the physicist Freeman Dyson, who worked on the atomic bomb, suggested.  In talking about the development of nuclear weapons, Dyson wrote, “To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky…it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power…this is what you might call the technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”

So motives can be mixed in the research and development of some aspects of contemporary technology. Some of it may be altruistic; some may stem from intellectual arrogance; and some from an existential vacuum.

Thus far, we’re on a beneficial course. Using the same brain/enzyme combination as I described earlier, DARPA has developed an artificial arm that can be used simply by thinking about it. Such artificial arms or legs will be of inestimable value to veterans who have lost limbs as a consequence of their service to the country. 

But when Kurzweil talks of evolution, a global consciousness and immortality, I believe he fails to take into account the deepest reaches of the human psyche.  That level is the shared unconscious level of the soul. This is a collective sub-strata even deeper than our personal unconscious mind. This mutual unconsciousness is shared by the whole human family. It is from this deeper level our religions, myths, legends, intuitions and premonitions emanate. They all express the same basic psychological truth, but in different cultural images deriving from different historical circumstances.

The hard evidence of the existence of this sub-strata is that anthropologists tell us that hundreds of thousands of years ago, when there were only a few million people on earth—across the world, a world minus any communication between peoples—religions, similar myths, legends, customs, rites of passage, modes of greeting, death rites, and standards of social intercourse, indeed, an elemental form of consciousness itself, began to emerge. This was not a case of these disperse people hearing of these developments from other parts of the world and then copying them; it was, over centuries, the simultaneous emergence of the development of a higher level of consciousness in the sub-strata of the collective human psyche.

While Kurzweil’s experiments appear to work at one level of the mind, they likely will fail at this deeper level. We clearly need a global consciousness, but I suggest it must evolve naturally just as consciousness has evolved naturally throughout history. Our link with the Eternal dimension of existence is not subject to human manipulation. That link, as the Catholic Church said in 1215, is “ineffable and unknowable.” It is this deepest level of the collective psyche Kurzweil appears not to take into account.  Keep in mind that while Kurzweil is a brilliant scientist, he is not a psychologist. He has not yet studied the mind at its deepest level – the level of the soul. 

Nevertheless, given what Ray Kurzweil has already contributed, he will surely take his place in the halls of great discovery.

Science and technology have got to go forward in the spirit of what Albert Einstein told the students in a talk at Cal Tech: “Concern for man himself and his fate must form the chief interest of all technical endeavors.”

I close with the words of C.G Jung, the psychiatrist who understood the 20th century at a deeper level than any person I’ve come across. Wrote Jung in The Atlantic Monthly in 1957, “We must now climb to a higher moral level; to a higher plane of consciousness in order to be equal to the superhuman powers science and technology have placed in our hands. In reality, nothing else matters at this point.”

I believe Jung’s warning is the foremost challenge for civilized life in the 21st century. It is only then we shall take the tradition of our historic culture to new heights, and create a new civilization with all the technological wonders that can enhance human life.

I realize what I’ve been discussing is dense material, but I believe it to be fundamental to being aware of the most basic factor at work in the rapidly changing global context in which we live.


© 2012 – Van Wishard – All Rights Reserved

Reproduced with permission of the author.

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