Overweening Generalist

Sunday, January 20, 2013

History and Perception of Time: Labeling and Control

I use the word "control" in the title but I think in this semantic sense it's human; oh-so human.

Here's What I'll Ramble On About Here:
Noocene Epoch
-"human progress"
- acceleration of data, information
- Anthropocene Epoch
- Holocene Epoch
- a final riff

So: How do you think we're doing so far in the Noocene Epoch? (There oughtta be an umlaut over that second "o" in Noocene.) I copped this Epoch from The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader. There it was defined as something like: how we manage and adapt to the immense amount of knowledge we've created. My answer is: I don't know, but I suspect a lot of us are having birth-pangs of a rather longue duree, if we can use that term on a personal scale.

Mutt: We can't.
Jute: We can.
Mutt: You won't.
Jute: I will.

With something like a logarithmic increase in world population and technological development, including Teilhard's global media/communications vision of a noosphere (the human mind permeating the electromagnetic spectrum), we seem to be going a bit nuts; it may be coming too fast for our biologically-evolved selves. And are we making logarithmic-like gains in empathy, understanding, and a general updating of ethics and manners, a cosmopolitan outlook? My knee-jerk says nay; Steven Pinker wants to argue something like a "yes" to this in his recent doorstop The Better Angels Of Our Nature. And I so want to believe his basic thesis is right.

Human "Progress"
On the other hand, there's a long tradition of denial of "progress" by heavyweight thinkers. I usually read them as necessary correctives to a general cultural mindlessness about "progress." Chris Hedges has a bit of a jeremiad this week: the very technological boom that we've created - it started only a few minutes ago, on the vast homo sapiens sapiens timescale - is the very thing that may be taking us down. For those of us with an atavistic need for Bad Time when there's one to be had, read Hedges's "The Myth of Human Progress."

Acceleration of Info
Robert Anton Wilson thought the general rise of social lunacy and conspiracy theory was related to the information flow-through in society, which, according to statistics he derived from French economist Georges Anderla, was doubling at ever-increasing rates. Bytes, Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom may all "be" different things, indeed, but RAW's (and Kurzweil's for that matter) notions of pegging an idea and a method for counting, then watching the curve rise absurdly quickly, seems an effective rhetoric to get us to think of acceleration of processes, however flawed the methodology may be.

Futurist Juan Enriquez talking about data-doubling for 2 minutes.
Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns (ancient!: from 2001)
Robert Anton Wilson and Terence McKenna on information doubling; 4 minutes

Anthropocene Epoch
According to RAW's Jumping Jesus, we were at 4 Jesus in 1500, then 8 by 1750 and the start of the Industrial Age. I increasingly see the Industrial Age as now being described as the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch. Can we get out of it unscathed? I increasingly doubt it. I don't mean the human experiment on this rocky watery planet will end soon, but I do think we will radically alter what it means to be "human" in the next 30-50 years.

                                                  Cesare Emiliani

Holocene Epoch
The Age of Faith. The call of Being. The Mind of Europe, the Ming Dynasty, the "postmodern," The Sixties...All of these ways of conceptualizing our time here (and any other one you can think of) happened during the Holocene Epoch, which was coined by Cesare Emiliani: he thinks our calendar, which shifts when a Jewish rabbi-carpenter-anarchist was born, is too subjective. The "entirely recent" (AKA "Holocene") is, for Emiliani, anything from 10,000 years ago to today, roughly the Neolithic to now. The last great Ice Age had receded: the human story is told in the last 10,000 years, and so why don't we just add a "1" to whatever year we're in now and think of time that way? So, we're living in 12013 now.

I confess I'm a sucker for romantic intellectuals who are so overweening in their grandiosity of ideation that they think they can change the basic calendar. Do I think Emiliani's idea will ever catch on? Not a chance. But it has caught on with me. I like the psychological sense of a new way to control my perception of time with the Holocene.

Final Riff
To whatever extent human's many problems represent an Existential Risk: climate change, lurking plagues, asteroid collisions, Mutually Assured Destruction, and continued overpopulation (the world had roughly 200 million total when the anarchist rabbi was born; 791 million in 1750; 1.6 billion in 1900; 2.9 billion in 1960; 3.6 in 1970; 4.4 in 1980; 5.2 in 1990; 6.0 in 2000; and we passed 7,000,000,000 around Halloween, 2011); whether there's another Great Dying, or a Robot Apocalypse, or a happy Singularity or Omega Point: we will need to pass through something Ahead that we might later think of as a Bottleneck Epoch.

On another level and despite the many charming cyclical models of Time and History proffered by some of our more ingenious thinkers, the ideas from Hegel, Marx, Heidegger and Derrida lead me to agree with Derrida: there is no lost original language or vocabulary that will restore our sense of being grounded in some sort of Absolute Ultimate. All that is or seems, seems as metaphor, and we must find our way bravely in this present (which we want, at times, to be "timeless"). We post-postmoderns: can we believe in a teleology for our species, within an historical trajectory? Do we take seriously an eschatology? Clearly some do, but they seem in a negligible minority. In the previous paragraph I hazarded a Bottleneck Epoch, my optimism winning out. I, like Buckminster Fuller, am biased: I like the humans and I, as Bucky said, want them "to be a success in universe."

Nonetheless, how do we think about our present eschatoteleological dilemma? (A: mostly, we don't.)

I wrote this entire post in hopes that someone will think me a Heavy Cat.


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I think you are a heavy cat, and I pose a couple of questions hoping you might answer them:

(1) I love the sly description of Jesus as a "rabbi-carpenter-anarchist," but to tell you the truth, I'm having a little trouble with the "anarchist" part. Didn't he say to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's?" Seems a little soft on the mandatory taxation thing.

(2) Doesn't your essay strengthen the case that humans need to migrate into space, so that if they destroy themselves on Earth, they can survive elsewhere?

michael said...

Thank you for your interest and I am fascinated with your organization and would like to request a free brochure.

All seriousness aside:

1.) I'm influenced by radical Jesuit leftist Jacques Ellul - who fought the Nazis in the French Resistance and later wrote massive books on technology and media and propaganda that influenced McLuhan and Kaczynski (Theodore Kaczynski, AKA "The Unabomber," not Richard Kaczynski, a Crowley scholar). Ellul - who's mentioned in Illuminatus! - wrote a little book called _Anarchism and Christianity_, in which he seeks to persuade us anarchists that we have a lot in common with Jesus and his small band of merry men (and Mary women?). Ellul sites the rendering of Caesar what is Caesar's as an example of "Let them have their State; we've got bigger things in mind..." (I paraphrase)


Ellul really does seem to see Jesus as some sort of anarchist. It's worth a read.

2.) Yes, it does seem to strengthen the case for colonizing space; I do not know what will happen, but maybe Kurzweil and Moravec will prove close in their prognostications: we'll figure out a way to download our minds in silicon and embody ourselves in material virtually indestructible and immortal...and blast off to the stars, fulfill some gnostics' wish to "make death die."

Good point, yours.

Andrew Crawshaw said...

Another thinker who not only denies progress in the scientific technological sense, but in the ethical sense, and one that might be quite a contrast to Robert Anton Wilson is John Gray (not the venus/mars author) who wrote enlightenemts wake and most recently the immortilization commission, I find his overall argument intriguing but not yet persuasive, though he is a lot more lucid than other progress denying philosophers. For a defense of progress and objectivism (san Rand) in aestehtics, ethics and science try David Deutsche. though I find his criticisms of other stances sometimes very tenuous (or pedantic, or sometimes outright inversive).

Bobby Campbell said...

I love this stuff!

In "The Evolutionary Mind" Trialogue Rupert Sheldrake points to Barbara Ehrenreich's "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War" as providing a novel view on human prehistory.

The idea of the prehistoric "Man The Hunter" is pretty implausible.

For the great majority of hominid history it was "Man The Hunted"

Estimating 3.5 million years of hominid history, and only the last 50,000* have not been primarily spent as the prey of large predators.

*50,000 years ago a structural change in early human neurophysiology allowed the development of a higher intelligence and the subsequent flourishing of human progress. (Ref: Alexander Marschak - "Roots of Civilization")

That's only 1.4% of our species history where we didn't have to live in constant fear of monstrous animals! Let alone extreme vulnerability to the elements, resource scarcity, and each other.

I would imagine that our physiology still contains much of the obsolete programming from our brutal past. Hence psychopathology, intolerance, war, etc, et al.

"History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake."

Mcluhan on Joyce

"As his title indicates, he saw that the wake of human progress can disappear again into the night of sacral or auditory man. The Finn cycle of tribal institutions can return in the electric age, but if again, then let's make it a wake or awake or both. Joyce could see no advantage in our remaining locked up in each cultural cycle as in a trance or dream. He discovered the means of living simultaneously in all cultural modes while quite conscious. The means he cites for such self-awareness and correction of cultural bias is his "collideorscope". This term indicates the interplay in colloidal mixture of all components of human technology as they extend our senses and shift their ratios in the social kaleidoscope of cultural clash: "deor", savage, the oral or sacral; "scope" the visual or profane and civilized."

BrentQ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BrentQ said...

Interesting point about Jacques Ellul. Terence McKenna seemed to reference him quite often. But I consider McKenna to be fairly prescient when it comes to this subject. Although, more poet/philosopher than scientist I think Mckenna's brand of teleology has something to offer us in this uber-complexifying epoch.

Not so much his Timewave Zero theory, but his eschatological musings about the transcendantal object at the end of time seem to be ideas worth thinking about at least. As he often said there really isn't any scientific reason why current events can't be caused by future events, and all the increasing complexity of our age is just civilization becoming more aware and attracted to some kind of singularity/omega point/transcendant object etc. Sort of like a marble following a concentric path to wards the bottom of a bowl.

michael said...

@Andrew Crawshaw: I think I read that Gray's article about why it's not a good idea to try to live to 150, but he's actually somebody I know nothing about and will look into him.

What really fascinates me are the hi-tech Silicon Valley and Internet will make everything better- guru types who have subsequently retrenched and are now re-question-ing their prior assumptions, given the way things have gone since...1990 or so. Bill Joy would be the paradigm case. Then there's Jaron Lanier, Sherry Turkle, Evgeny Morozov, and I'd even throw Douglas Rushkoff in there. There are a few others.

I should re-read David Deutsch and everything I haven't yet read by him, if only because he's such a creative, brilliant, fecund thinker who gives a great intellectual buzz. Thanks for reminding me of him.

michael said...

@Bobby Campbell: I re-read your comment four times, because it was so cool. Thanks for this!

I was meditating after sketching notes on what one Tale of the Tribe post-RAW would look like, and I kept coming back to Joyce being at the center of it all.

I loved your stuff on humans in pre-history. There was a time when I didn't care about pre-history; for the last five years or so I've become obsessed with it, and the idea that we were hunted for so long totally blows my mind. I think it's true, and it's a major reason we have these massive brains that we still don't yet know how to handle, species-wide-speaking, of course.

It's also maybe the main reason the quality of anxiety, panic, fear, paranoia seems the way it is: we are here because all of our ancestors survived long enough to procreate, despite the welter of dangers. And suddenly, in 250 years, we have the Industrial Rev, and speed, tech, communications, data, knowledge, population...has just freakishly gone off the charts. That's like a few seconds ago on our species' evolutionary time scale! No wonder we're flipping out! I hope we can calm down enough to make it to the Next Level...whatever that is!

Sometimes the comments seem far more interesting than the OG's blogpost the commenters are responding to. That's my take.

michael said...

@BrentQ: Terence's visions of some sort of Eschaton have always been a source of intense wonder for me. I remember a talk he gave in which to related it to chaos theory math - no doubt infl by his math-whiz pal Ralph Abraham - in which a Strange Attractor was pulling human history toward a "basin." Just listening to McKenna talk like that gave me a contact high.

One of us should do a taxonomy of Future History: Models.

I have my favorites, and it's usually due to aesthetic interests, which seems morally incorrect: if we're talking about The End of Things, and possible new beginnings, ought I not take a more sober-minded view? And yet I can't, because

1.) it's all so EPIC that it's overwhelming and my knee-jerk response is to laugh, and

2.) I realize the folly of picking one eschatology and sticking with it, although when I watch the documentary on Kurzweil, he's so human and wants to revive his father, literally. He's far more brilliant than I am, he means well, he's one of the great Geeks of all-time, he's lovable...but I can't get myself to buy his Singularity model. Sure, he's been "right" about mindblowing things when previously people had laughed at him.

I do think some amazing things are coming in genomics, robotics, intelligence and nanotechnology (GRIN), but I don't think we will be able to download ourselves from our meatware into some sort of software without losing enough of who we seem to be. Maybe I'll be wrong. It won't be the first time!

Or the 17,235th.

BrentQ said...

Oddly enough, I rewatched Kurzweil documentary again this week and I came away with a similar view. He seems so convinced of his projections and predictions it just strikes me as imprudent in some way. Also, a factor in my different viewing experience this time around is that I have been following AI a little more closely. Coincidentally, it was an article by David Deutch that knocked me off the AI/uploading your conciousness bandwagon. He convinced me that that we need is a breakthrough in philosophy of mind and that exponential increase in raw computing power will never create the kind of AI that the singularity people talk about. Great read if anyone's interested.


michael said...

What a fantastic essay by Deutsch. A tour-de-force. Fantastic use of similes to punctuate his argument: the field of true Artificial General Intelligence has made zero progress. I hope readers of the OG will take the time to drink in Deutsch's fantastic ideas.

For RAW fans: I think there's some wonderful stuff here, especially if you're fixating on what was called the "6th circuit" in Prometheus Rising...

What strikes me most is Deutsch's hardcore belief in his own mathematical-physical "proof": the universality of computation "law" that is derived from physics. While I'm a mere generalist and cannot articulate in a fine-grained detail his "law," the totality of his argument hinges on it: that it's true and not a metaphor from physics.

In his entire article and in (from what I could see) all the comments, no one addressed Damasio, et.al and the human mind absolutely NEEDING an emotional, limbic brain to work in the way it does, "rationally." For David, neuronal architecture and the brain's massive parallel-processing capabilities do not explain the brain's creative abilities. (Neither does sufficient complexification.) All of these processes are physical, and therefore fall under David's law of computational universality. I wish he would look more closely into the relatively new understandings of the importance of the limbic brain...

This is why I think his dismissal of Searle seems hasty to me. The idea that human minds are really complex computers seems dubious to me. (I was glad to see that David acknowledged that a true AGI would incorporate qualia; this has always seemed true to me, and I once wrote an article that IBM's Watson - that beat Ken Jennings and Brad Something - the two best Jeopardy players - was not approaching human abilities, because it's just doing brute-force calculations. There's no qualia there.

michael said...

CONTINUING: (sorry!):
However, I do think that academia's rejection of behaviorism and the "irony" that Bayesian logic is what behaviorist and is what the most complex, fuzzified computers do now...that this proves that AIs running Bayesian scripts will not turn into "people": it's right: they won't. But they will get REALLY "smart," just different than us. The behaviorist stuff works; I know the bad stuff about behaviorism and social-world humans that Chomsky supposedly banished. I agree with Noam, Nevertheless, there is another extensional -at least one more - version of "behaviorism" that still operates powerfully in this world. I reiterate: this Bayesian behaviorism in computers, taken to extremes, will make them pretty smart...but probably not Einsteins. But then: who is? What it will do is make computers really good at doing things we don't do well:same as it ever was...

Where David totally fascinates me is in his AGI as personhood riffs. Brilliant! A program that contains all the underlying logically-understood aspects of Popper's still-uncracked nut of conjectures and criticisms/refutations: which would allow the AGI to act AS as creative human mind and to come up with novel explanations for difficult Qs: treat it as human: it is a Creative Being. I love that bit.

Oh yea: and no specifying a certain amount of carbon, water, potassium, or sex appeal: that would be "racism." Hilarious, brilliant and true.

There's just so much in Deutsch's essay, but I don't want to to type too much here. Thanks for the link. Aeon is a cool new online mag, eh? (

Erik Davis has been publishing there recently, for RAW fans.)

Andrew Crawshaw said...

That article ties together a few themes of his book the 'The Beginning infintity' which are spread over a few chapters; the book has many themes which intertwine, and sometimes it can be quite hard to see how it all links in to the underlying themes of 'the beginning of infinity' and the quite powerful notion he has of explanation (deutsche sometimes expounds on a theme quite a time after he has forshadowed it in the aid of eliciting other themes that he commences with immediatly).
Talking about AGI, proving your not a robot is gonna become harder and harder, here goes...