Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

30 AUGUST, 2012

How Consciousness Evolved and Why a Planetary “Übermind” Is Inevitable


“There is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy.”

“These new media have made our world into a single unit,” Marshall McLuhan observed in 1960, when he made the case for the emergence of a “global village”. Meanwhile, in the half-century since McLuhan’s meditations, scientists and philosophers alike have become increasingly occupied with the study of consciousness — what it is, how it works, and how it shapes our sense of self.

In Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library), neuroscientist Christof Koch“reductionist, because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic, because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky about us and deep within us” — explores how subjective feelings, or consciousness, come into being. Among Koch’s most fascinating arguments is one that bridges philosophy, evolutionary biology and technofuturism to predict a global Übermind not unlike McLuhan’s “global village,” but one in which our technology melds with what Carl Jung has termed the “collective unconscious” to produce a kind of sentient global brain:

The ever-increasing complexity of organisms, evident in the fossil record, is a consequence of the unrelenting competition for survival that propels evolution.

It was accompanied by the emergence of nervous systems and the first inkling of sentience. The continuing complexification of brains, to use Teilhard de Chardin’s term, enhanced consciousness until self-consciousness emerged: awareness reflecting upon itself. This recursive process started millions of years ago in some of the more highly developed mammals. In Homo sapiens, it has achieved its temporary pinnacle.

But complexification does not stop with individual self-awareness. It is ongoing and, indeed, speeding up. In today’s technologically sophisticated and intertwined societies, complexification is taking on a supraindividual, continent-spanning character. With the instant, worldwide communication afforded by cell phones, e-mail, and social networking, I foresee a time when humanity’s teeming billions and their computers will be interconnected in a vast matrix — a planetary Übermind. Provided mankind avoids Nightfall — a thermonuclear Armageddon or a complete environmental meltdown — there is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy at large.

The rest of Consciousness traces Koch’s groundbreaking work with physical chemist Francis Crick (who, along with james Watson, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA) and explores how science has attempted to reconcile the hard physicality of the brain, the most complex object in the known universe, with the intangible world of awareness, populated by our senses, our emotions, and our very experience of life.

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22 AUGUST, 2012

Story of a Writer: Ray Bradbury on Storytelling and Human Nature in 1963 Documentary


“Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.”

Beloved science fiction author Ray Bradbury, a passionate advocate of doing what you love and writing with joy, was the subject David L. Wolper’s 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer, in which he shares a wealth of insight on writing, some advice on perseverance, and his singular lens on the storyteller’s task. Enjoy.

Speaking to a group of students, Bradbury offers some priceless, timeless advice on the life of purpose:

The first year I made nothing, the second year I made nothing, the third year I made 10 dollars, the fourth year I made 40 dollars. I remember these. I got these indelibly stamped in there. The fifth year I made 80. The sixth year I made 200. The seventh year I made 800. Eighth year, 1,200. Ninth year, 2,000. Tenth year, 4,000. Eleventh year, 8,000 …

Just get a part-time job! Anything that’s half way decent! An usher in a theater … unless you’re a mad man, you can’t make do in the art fields! You’ve gotta be inspired and mad and excited and love it more than anything else in the world!

It has to be this kind of, ‘By God, I’ve gotta do it! I’ve simply gotta do it!’ If you’re not this excited, you can’t win!

On the vital role of subconscious processing in creativity:

The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle — [these] are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.

I never consciously set out to write a certain story. The idea must originate somewhere deep within me and push itself out in its own time. Usually, it begins with associations. Electricity. The sea. Life started in the sea. Could the miracle occur again? Could life take hold in another environment? An electro-mechanical environment?

On significant objects as a storytelling device:

A writer’s past is the most important thing he has. Sometimes an object, a mask, a ticket stub — anything at all — helps me remember a whole experience, and out of that may come an idea for a story. So I’m a packrat — I’ve kept everything I’ve ever cared about since childhood.

On the practicalities of making a living with writing:

A story sells itself — but not when it’s sitting in the files. A writer needs an agent to go out into the marketplace and sell his wares.

On driving — which I, as a sworn lifelong non-driver, particularly enjoyed, and which Bradbury revisited four decades later in a rare 2003 audio interview:

I never learned to drive. As a kid, I saw too many fatal accidents and I grew up hating the idea. Automobiles slaughter 40,000 people a year, maim a hundred thousand more, and bring out the worst in men. Any society where a natural man — the pedestrian — becomes the intruder, and an unnatural men encased in a steel shell becomes his molester, is a science fiction nightmare.

On storytelling:

A story should be like a river, flowing and never stopping, your readers passengers on a boat, whirling downstream through constantly refreshing and changing scenery.

On the necessity of shifting mental tasks, taking creative breaks, and making “no effort of a direct nature” on the creative problem at hand:

Painting fulfills a need to be non-intellectual. There are times when we have to get our brains out in our fingers.

On motive, an alternative perspective on George Orwell’s four universal motives for creation:

I’m a storyteller — that’s all I’ve never tried to be. I guess in ancient times, I would’ve been somewhere in the marketplace, alongside the magician, delighting the people. I’d rather delight and entertain than anything else.

On the perils and promise of space exploration and our the relationship between technological progress and human nature in general:

We live in a time of paradox — man is confronted with a terrifying, magnificent choice: destroying himself utterly to the atom, or survive utterly with the same means. Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer. The very real fear is that now he’ll destroy himself just as he’s about to attain his dreams. Today we stand on the rim of space — man is about to flow outwards, to spread his seed to far new worlds — if he can conquer the seed of his own self-destruction. But man, at his best, is a mortal, and from his beginnings, he has dreamed of reaching the stars. I’m convinced he will.

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20 AUGUST, 2012

Mars and the Mind of Man: Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in Cosmic Conversation, 1971


“It’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality.”

On November 12, 1971, the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars and became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, Caltech Planetary Science professor Bruce Murray summoned a formidable panel of thinkers to discuss the implications of the historic event. Murray himself was to join the great Carl Sagan and science fiction icons Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke in a conversation moderated by New York Times science editor Walter Sullivan, who had been assigned to cover Mariner 9′s arrival for the newspaper. What unfolded — easily history’s only redeeming manifestation of the panel format — was a fascinating quilt of perspectives not only on the Mariner 9 mission itself, or even just Mars, but on the relationship between mankind and the cosmos, the importance of space exploration, and the future of our civilization. Two years later, the record of this epic conversation was released in Mars and the Mind of Man (public library), alongside early images of Mars taken by Mariner 9 and a selection of “afterthoughts” by the panelists, looking back on the historic achievement.

Arthur C. Clarke — who, in a 1945 article entitled “Extraterrestrial Relays” had proposed communications satellites long before they became an active government project and who had previously predicted the techno-future in general and even the iPad in particular with astounding accuracy — offers a prediction regarding Mars that is, ultimately, inaccurate but wrapped around it is an insightful and timely meditation on the larger subject at stake:

We are now in a very interesting historic moment with regard to Mars. I’m not going to make any definite predictions because it would be very foolish to go out on a limb, but whatever happens, whatever discoveries are made in the next few days or weeks or months, the frontier of our knowledge is moving inevitably outward.

It has already embraced the Moon. We still have a great deal to learn about the Moon and there will be many surprises even there, I’m sure. But the frontier is moving on and our viewpoint is changing with it. We’re discovering, and this is a big surprise, that the Moon, and I believe Mars, and parts of Mercury, and especially space itself, are essentially benign environments — to our technology, not necessarily to organic life. Certainly benign as compared to the Antarctic or the oceanic abyss, where we have already been. This is an idea which the public still hasn’t got yet, but it’s a fact.

I think the biological frontier may very well move past Mars out to Jupiter, which I think is where the action is. Carl, you’ve gone on the record as saying that Jupiter may be a more hospitable home for life than any other place, including Earth itself. It would be very exciting if this turns out to be true.

I will end by making one prediction. Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there will be by the end of this century.

Following Clarke is Carl Sagan, who does what he does best in discussing the issue of how rigorous we need to be in sterilizing spacecraft that makes contact with other planets — taking a scientific particularity, linking it to the universally human, then circling back to the science having engendered a whole new understanding of its context:

We can be emotionally predisposed as pessimists as well as optimists. Actuarial procedures provide a guide to situations of this sort. How careful you have to be in a given situation and how much premium you have to pay is not only a question of how likely the event in question is but also how important the event is. Suppose, for example, we’re concerned about carrying terrestrial microorganisms to Mars, depositing them there, and having them survive and multiply so that the next generation of space vehicles finds the next generation of microbes. How do we then distinguish Earth’s life from Mars life?

He follows that with one of the most eloquent portions of the entire conversation — an insistence on the value of embracing ignorance, learning to live with ambiguity, and choosing the unknown over answers that might be wrong, alongside a call for balancing skepticism with openness — something he’d articulate formally more than a decade later:

Is it possible that there is life on Mars, Martians? Now, just as there have clearly been excesses in the direction of prematurely concluding that there is life on Mars … there have also been excesses in the other direction, in prematurely concluding there isn’t life on Mars. We have a certain intolerance for ambiguity, saying, ‘Don’t confuse me with the facts, just give me an answer.’ Well, I think that’s where we are on the question of life on Mars. There is, as far as I can tell, no more reason to conclude that Mars is lifeless than there is to conclude that it is inhabited. There is water, there is carbon dioxide, there is sunlight — these are the prerequisites even for parochial forms of green plant photosynthesis.

He echoes the same sentiment a few minutes later, in an insight that applies to the Mariner 9 mission as much as it applies to all of life:

I think the proper attitude is to keep an open mind and see what the observations uncover.

But by far the most beautiful meditation comes from Ray Bradbury, who transposes his passionate advocacy of writing with joy and excitement onto space exploration as well:

I think it’s part of the nature of man to start with romance and build to a reality. There’s hardly a scientist or an astronaut I’ve met who wasn’t beholden to some romantic before him who led him to doing something in life.

I think it’s so important to be excited about life. In order to get the facts we have to be excited to go out and get them, and there’s only one way to do that — through romance. We need this thing which makes us sit bolt upright when we are nine or ten and say, ‘I want to go out and devour the world, I want to do these things.’ The only way you start like that is with this kind of thing we are talking about today. We may reject it later, we may give it up, but we move on to other romances then. We find, we push the edge of science forward, and I think we romance on beyond that into the universe ever beyond. We’re talking not about Alpha Centauri. We’re talking of light-years. We have sitting here on the stage a person who has made the film* with the greatest metaphor for the coming billion years. That film is going to romance generations to come and will excite the people to do the work so that we can live forever. That’s what it’s all about. So we start with the small romances that turn out to be of no use. We put these tools aside to get another romantic tool. We want to love life, to be excited by the challenge, to life at the top of our enthusiasm. The process enables us to gather more information. Darwin was the kind of romantic who could stand in the middle of a meadow like a statue for eight hours on end and let the bees buzz in and out of his ear. A fantastic statue standing there in the middle of nature, and all the foxes wandering by and wondering what the hell he was doing there, and they sort of looked at each other and examined the wisdom in each other’s eyes. But this is a romantic man — when you think of any scientist in history, he was a romancer of reality.

Arthur C. Clarke follows up with a crucial point about science and whimsy — something Richard Feynman would articulate in uncannily similar phrasing exactly a decade later in his famous words from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:

There are some not-very-bright and/or badly educated people who complain, with apparent sincerity, that scientific research destroys the wonders and magic of nature. One can imagine the indignant reaction of such poets as Tennyson or Shelley to this nonsense, and surely it is better to know the truth than to dabble in delusions, however charming they may be. Almost invariably, the truth turns out to be far more strange and wonderful than the wildest fantasy. The great J. B. S. Haldane put it very well when he said: ‘The universe is not only queerer than we imagine — it is queerer than we can imagine.’

Reflecting upon the unprecedented amount of imaging data that Mariner 9 promised to provide, Sagan captures the strange tension of exploration and ignorance, all the timelier as NASA’s Curiosity has pushed us to make sense of a new precipice of knowledge today:

Now we have moved from a data-poor, theory-rich situation to one that is data-rich, theory-poor.

In the “Afterthoughts” section, Sagan makes a case Neil deGrasse Tyson has passionately echoed four decades later:

[Space exploration] is in financial trouble. Yet by many standards, such missions are inexpensive. Mariner Jupiter/Saturn costs about the same as the American aircraft shot down in Vietnam in the week in which I am writing these words (Christmas 1972). The Viking mission itself costs about a fortnight of the Vietnam war.

I find these comparisons particularly poignant: life versus death, hope versus fear. Space exploration and the highly mechanized destruction of people use similar technology and manufacturers, and similar human qualities of organization and daring. Can we not make the transition from automated aerospace killing to automated aerospace exploration of the solar system in which we live?

Alas, we’re making the transition to “automated” space exploration, but we haven’t made — nor do we seem to intend to make anytime soon — the transition away from automated aerospace killing. (Sagan would no doubt have been appalled by this infographic portrait of human priorities as well.)

Mars and the Mind of Man is a cultural treasure — though long out of print, you might be able to score a used copy with some digging around, or look for it at your local library.

* Arthur C. Clarke had co-written the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was inspired by Clarke’s 1948 short story “The Sentinel.”

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