Overweening Generalist

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Robert Anton Wilson's "Jumping Jesus Phenomenon": Fugitive Notes

I've been reading with plentious enjoyment John Higgs's recent alternative history of the Roaring 20th Century, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, and it's obvious that Robert Anton Wilson influenced Higgs, almost throughout, although RAW is mentioned only in the bibliography, with Robert Shea and their Illuminatus! Trilogy.

I'll review Higgs's book in good time, but it's gotten me thinking about the semantic unconscious and what drove us into the vast unintelligible weirdness of the 20th c, and I kept thinking about attempts to quantify acceleration of information in history. I've run across a number of fascinating models, but my favorite one remains RAW's model, which he dubbed "The Jumping Jesus Phenomenon" in one of his choicer ludic moods.

For the uninitiated, check out these links; all others feel free to skip down:
"The Jumping Jesus Phenomenon by Robert Anton Wilson Updated by Bob Pauley" (the gist, pithy)

A short excerpt from RAW on this topic, first paragraph HERE, from his book Right Where You Are Sitting Now.

Here's a YouTube clip on Jumping J and The Singularity (you get to see RAW here). It will take 2 1/2 minutes of your sweet accelerating time. I'm pretty sure it's an excerpt from a 2006 Belgian documentary called Technocalyps.

             A Ray Kurzweil graph showing how Everything will lead to the Singularity by 2045
                      and then everything will be just ducky.

RAW states in the YouTube video that he first got turned onto the idea when reading Alfred Korzybski. (There seems to be far more about this idea in Korzybski's 1921 book Manhood of Humanity than in his 1933 magnum opus, Science and Sanity.) Other influences were Buckminster Fuller, Henry and Brooks Adams, Adrian Berry, Claude Shannon, Theodore Gordon, Carl Oglesby, Timothy Leary, Unistatian writer/biographer John Keats (died: 2000 CE), and many others. Wilson had one of the great capacious, compendious and generalist minds of the 20th c, so his model of acceleration of information in history must be considered something of a "meta" model. When he noticed later thinkers and ideas that seemed isomorphic to his model, at times he incorporated these new ideas, and in the last 15 years of his life sounded sanguine about Ray Kurzweil's models of acceleration, just to give one example. He also - in both his books and articles - frequently cited his immediate influences for a given idea.

It seems likely that, while RAW had been fascinated by the idea of info-acceleration and its effect on societies and human nervous systems, it was the reading of a 1979 book - RAW was 47 in the year 1979, if you're keeping score at home - on another of his enduring preoccupations, the prospects for human immortality, titled Conquest of Death, by Alvin Silverstein, that first got the Jumping J jumpin'. (See pp.134-141) Silverstein had found a 1973 study by economist Georges Anderla, for the OECD, that attempted to quantify knowledge acceleration in history.

Here's a slice of Silverstein:

Let us assume that by the year A.D. 1 we had accumulated an arbitrary single unit of knowledge. Fifteen hundred years later (A.D. 1500) the sum total of human scientific and technological knowledge had about doubled. At about this point the scientific revolution had begun, welding the natural curiosity of humanity to disciplined scientific techniques and quickening the pace of progress. It required only 250 years (through the age of Newton and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century) for the store of data to double once more, to four units. With the rise of new secular academic institutions, science had a "workbench." The next doubling took only 150 years: by the year 1900 humanity had eight units in its "knowledge bank." (pp. 135-136)

The article Silverstein had drawn from was from an OECD publication called Information In 1985, though Anderla's paper was written in 1973. Silverstein uses "units;" RAW uses "Jesuses" after the scientist-derived nomenclature practice of naming a unit of measurement after one of their own. Since Anderla's arbitrary single unit begins very near the time of the person named Jesus the Christ was born, RAW thought it would be ironic, hip and catchy to re-name the unit a "Jesus."

It's a MODEL
Note in the Silverstein quote: it's technological and scientific knowledge, presumably because that's easier to quantify than a conception from my favorite model in the sociology of knowledge, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's thesis that "the sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for 'knowledge' in society." (The Social Construction of Reality, p.14-15)

Also: presumably there's a much more unwieldy problem lurking here: the difference between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. In "The Neurogeography of Conspiracy" in Right Where You Are Sitting Now RAW includes a footnote on one of these elements:

No statement is made or intended about wisdom, which is private, not public, and somewhat more mysterious. (p.90)

In reading Wilson's numerous takes on his Jumping J Phenom we see the idea linked to vast historical migrations of world centers of wealth. When there's lots of wealth there's lots of ideas/data/new techniques/mathematical progress/information/knowledge. Because this meta-conceptualization is a map made by a human (RAW) from reading ideas about this topic from others, it's an intensely social project. Further, because Wilson is not a Platonist, human nervous systems make these models of models of models. Hence, the migration of wealth over the globe over the longue duree was called a "neurogeography" of wealth migration. Indeed: to remind us that (presumably) ALL of our studies are human and not given by the gods, even mathematics might be thought of as "neuromathematics."All of our maps and models of "reality" must first filter through the nervous systems of Beings like ourselves who live on this planet, in a gravity well, orbiting a Type G main-sequence star. There might be other intelligent Beings elsewhere with different systems for mapping "reality." Hilariously, RAW pointed out that, in reminding ourselves of this, we must think of the discipline of neuroscience as neuro-neuroscience. Was he fucking with us? Probably...

Being a generalist dunderhead, I can't begin to offer the distinct features that delineate data from information. Or info from knowledge. The more intrepid New York intellectual Daniel Bell, in his The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), gives us:

1. data or information describing the empirical world
2. information: organizing the data into meaningful systems such as statistical analysis
3. knowledge: use of information to make judgements.

Which...alright. Not bad.

Some of the best writing I've seen on this clusterfuck of ill-defined terms comes from David Weinberger. See his Everything Is Miscellaneous on the radical pace and change in the way knowledge is structured these days/daze, due to the digital supernova we're all experiencing right where we are sitting now. (See esp. pp. 100-106, op cit). For some golden passages about today's world and knowledge to the social construction of meaning, see the same book, pp. 199-230. But I digress...

In James Kaklios's The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics he compares the quantification of energy doubling versus information doubling: it did not occur at the same pace, because energy storage must obey the properties of atoms. "If energy storage also obeyed Moore's Law, experiencing a doubling of capacity every two years, then a battery that could hold its charge for only a single hour in 1970 would, in 2010, last for more than a century." (Anyone heard of a battery in the works that promises to last 100 years? I wouldn't be surprised if we get one of those in the next few years.)

I lump in energy doubling to screw with our already muddled minds, and 'cuz I get a heady buzz off this stuff. The great anthropologist Leslie White had attempted to quantify social evolution via a measurement of the energy through-put of a particular society.

We could model all this as Jumping Jesus vs. White's Law vs. Moore's Law, but that would be simplifying things far too much, in my estimation. Even Jumpin'J AND White's Law AND Moore's Law seems too simple.

By which I also mean too complex. At this level, logic breaks down for me. Pardonnez-moi, mais il me semble être plein de merde.

Moore's Law
In 1965 Gordon Moore of Intel, said the number of transistors would double every 18 months to two years, and therefore nothing will stay the same, that no technology will be safe from a successor, that computing costs would fall while computing power would increase exponentially. The idea of a personal computer was hatched in the 1960s, but was as yet unfeasible. Yet Moore's Law was like the governing religion in Silicon Valley/San Francisco/Berkeley; it was widely assumed that this rate of exponential growth applied not only to technology, but business, education, and even culture. Of course, Wilson loved this idea (not as a religion though). The visionaries of the sixties knew they only needed to wait a few years and the personal computer would arrive.

I had been trying to keep up with Moore's Law for years. Just when it looked like it would slow down, somebody figured out something, and it kept going. Then, for the last few years, it looked like it had slowed from its exponential pace. Then, last month I read this article. Ok: a marriage of electrons and photons to fit 20 million transistors and 850 photonic components (whatever that means) onto a single 3x6 millimeter chip? Greater bandwidth for less power. "Ultrafast low-power data crunching." And it's quickly scalable for commercial production. It's clear from the article that it's going to be good for the environment (barring the Law of Unforeseen Consequences). But I wondered how this related to Moore's Law. Was Moore's Law even a "thing" anymore? So I emailed the lead researcher at Berkeley about this. Here's Dr. Vladimir Marko Stojanovic's response:

Moore's law has definitely slowed down. Even Intel postponed their 7nm process this year to next year - something that hasn't happened the last fifty years.
Also, the process nodes below 45nm are not really any faster and hardly denser, just more energy-efficient due to mobile demand.

Then Stojanovic wrote a sentence that was way over my head, but asserted this new breakthrough goes "beyond Moore's Law." I guess I'll take him at this word. Hey, why not? Stranger than we can imagine?

Stranger Than We Can Imagine
According to RAW's Jumping Jesus model, we had accumulated 8 Jesuses by 1900, right around the time Higgs's book is concerned with. Higgs covers the 20th century, in which information doubled again by 1950 to 16 Jesuses, by 1960 to 32 Js, by 1967 to 64, by 1973 128 Js...and then things get out of hand. I'm not sure anyone understands it.

It could be that once we got to 8 Js, human society begins to produce knowledges it had no idea what to do with. Or at least: it had a very difficult time trying to come to grips with this hot mess of items like the Id, genocide, chaos mathematics (which plays a big part in forecasting futures), quantum mechanics and relativity, climate change, postmodernism, psychedelic drugs, and existentialism. Well, clearly we have not come to grips with any of these Ideas yet, eh?

A Few Quotes

The "investigative"poet/chronicler/counterculture historian and Egyptologist Ed Sanders said in 2000CE that our era is "data retentive." (post-Snowden: who can possibly say Sanders was wrong?)

The UC Berkeley information theorist Peter Lyman, who wrote How Much Information? and who died in 2007, said, "It's clear we're all drowning in a sea of information."

"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
-T.S. Eliot, "The Rock"

Eric Schmidt said that from the dawn of civilization until 2003, humans had produced five exabytes of data. He said that we now produce that every two days, and it's accelerating. I don't know his source(s). I have no grasp of an "exobyte." I'm not really even sure how this was measured or what it could mean, but Schmidt seemed excited by this. I gleaned it from This Will Make You Smarter, ed. by John Brockman, p.305 Of course, cultural evolution, being Lamarckian, occured pre-Jesus. Who knows when time-binding began? (My guess was on a Tuesday, probably rainy, may as well stay in the cave all day and...write something?) Vico says, "The Greek philosophers accelerated the natural course of their nation's development." (paragraph #158, New Science)

"The ignorance of how to use new knowledge stockpiles exponentially." - Marshall McLuhan

"I suspect or intuit that this ever-accelerating info-techno-sociological rev-and-ev-olution follows the laws of organic systems and continually reorganizes on higher and higher levels of coherence, until something kills it." - Robert Anton Wilson brainmachines.com Manifesto

"Along the way to knowledge,
Many things are accumulated.
Along the way to widsom,
Many things are discarded."

In a 2004 interview, RAW makes it clear how crazy it is to try to be a generalist these days of accelerated info. This interview is included in the book True Mutations: Interviews On The Edge of Science, Technology and Consciousness, by R. U. Sirius:

NF: Is there anything specific that you can think of that you feel has been superceded?
RAW: I can’t think about it right now. You can’t be a generalist in this world. So many things I’ve written about have changed by now I don’t know how out-of-date I am. I just know I must be out-of-date.

                                            art/graphic design by Bobby Campbell


Ben Turpin said...

"items like the Id, genocide, chaos mathematics (which plays a big part in forecasting futures), quantum mechanics and relativity, climate change, postmodernism, psychedelic drugs, and existentialism. Well, clearly we have not come to grips with any of these Ideas yet, eh?"

Easy listening: Jesus, The Missing Years by John Prine.
I am sure he was oblivious to the Jesus unit of knowledge within the model you have presented.
Nice work. Thanks,

michael said...


Gotsa check me out that Prine tune.

Not having any skin in the xtian game, I prefer the tales about Jesus travelling to India, China, just being one of the first great Tourists. In this he's vastly underrated: touring - I bet his manners in odd lands were impeccable - and no doubt he wowed 'em in Calcutta when he did magic tricks and learned a few from his fellow Holy Men.

Eric Wagner said...

Great post, as usual. I also think about the Rebounding Jesus Phenomena: our evolving high tech culture sometimes crushes great artists, such as Bud Powell. Even newer technologies which emerge after their passing enable us to better appreciate their artistry. I think about listening to Bud on CD.

Bob Campbell said...

So nice to have new OG to feed my imagination!

Great summation of the ever expanding info explosion!

I once did an animation that combined RAW's Jumping Jesus w/ McKenna's Timewave Zero.

Timewave Zero being a less reputable and more fantastical model of exponential growth. McKenna was slick though, and built in enough alt interpretations to sustain multiple outcomes. For example: One interpretation of Timewave Zero he offered was that it anticipated a concrescence of novelty, by which he claimed to have simply meant that things would become increasingly more interconnected, which seems pretty well on target.

I remember being shocked when I sent RAW my ideas about connecting string theory to the 8 dimensions of “mind,” as he was calling 8CM at the time, and he responded by telling me that he liked the idea of resonate dimensions, but didn’t know anything about string theory. Science was advancing too fast for him to keep up, he explained, and now I know the feeling! I can’t tell the shit from the shinola when it comes to the latest scientific theories. I think that’s why I’ve gravitated to writing fiction, where anything goes so long as it fascinates, and works within the story universe.

michael said...

@ Eric: when I read "Rebounding Jesus" I thought of Joakim Noah, but then I see your point.

@ Bob Campbell: Yea, I never heard RAW address String Theory, which now looks like it's being demoted to mere philosophy, according to guys like Ethan Siegel. RAW's enthusiasm for wild models that address gigantic ideas - like Timewave Zero, seemingly a competing "routine" with the Jumping Jesus - had him getting excited over Terence's model, as seen in Cosmic Trigger vol 1, pp.215-218.

I do think RAW would be really excited about CRISPR and how suddenly solar energy is gaining on oil. Among other Things.

Eric and Bob: as always, thanks for the encouragement!