—the obvious flip side of this idea that images can heal or make sick is that you’d have some kind of theory of propaganda or social control. And… I don’t know. The great images of the twentieth century have probably been largely damaging. Ideas like the German idea of the Master Race, or the Soviet ideal of Soviet Man, or even the American ideal of the Ward Cleaver nuclear family. But I’m not sure. Is that what you mean by…? I mean, there are all kinds of ways to talk about the way the image and images are impacting on the mass psyche. Like, just things which occur off the top of my head: the fact that, at a certain level now, everyone has seen all these images from the Hubble Space Telescope that show that the universe is very corpuscular, very organic. It’s more like what you see in a tide pool or on a dissecting table than what it used to be, which were bright points of light against darkness. So, in a sense, the images of science shift the parameters of the popular imagination. A painter like Alex Grey—you know his work?—creates a permission to image the human body simultaneously as a biological system, an energy system, a system of kabbalistic and mathematical energies.
Well, science in the twentieth century (and before to some degree, but certainly in the twentieth century) has permitted all kinds of imaginary worlds to be entertained in the popular imagination. Because most of the explanations of science involve things you can’t see, hear, feel, taste, or touch—in other words: electrons, photons, electromagnetic fields, gradients of concentration; a whole conceptual vocabulary, none of which is experiential. And so our minds are permitted—and in fact can’t avoid—shifting level, and having all kinds of information on one level available on another level, like the popularity of quantum-physical metaphors to explain large-scale events in daily life: synchronicity and telepathy, stuff like that.
There are other sources for the image, but—you know, every time I go to New York (I was just there before I came here) I go to the Met and to MOMA and see whatever’s showing, and modernism, which used to be this virtual reality that I walked around in all the time—there was nothing but modernism—is now something I visit in a museum. I mean, it’s confined inside these buildings, to some degree; it’s on a pedestal. And it feels good to me that modernism is over. And what it means to me is that the value of the image—I don’t know; “value.” Maybe “medium”—the medium in which the image is most at home has changed from material (paint, wood, glass, steel, plastic, acrylic) to light. And it’s a huge watershed. It’s maybe the biggest watershed in the entire career of the image. Because since Lascaux forward it’s always been about applying pigment to surfaces, it’s always been about material. And now suddenly it’s about something else.
And then, of course, we could talk about things like the artist’s relationship to the public: how the new tools that empower the new art to be created also empower it to be communicated in ways that nobody could ever imagine before, decommodifying it at the same time that it removes the middleman. So you get the collapse of an academy—well, the academy collapsed one hundred years ago. You get the collapse of any kind of official cultural canon at all. What you have then is like a Darwinian environment of competing styles and images—which, it seems to me, that’s what art has been more and more. You know, there hasn’t been a coherent school of any philosophical depth in art since the 1970s, 1960s. Is that the kind of thing you were thinking about?
What are some of the new tools, do you think—other than applying pigment to page or canvas?
Well, software. Photoshop, obviously. But then: modeling. I mean, the thing proceeds in stages. There’s first the manipulation of the painterly image—essentially an electronic canvas that allows you to do all kinds of things with great facility. Then the next level is modeling: to three-dimensionally build objects that can be viewed from any point of view. And then the animation and texture mapping of these things, the placing them into environments, the setting up of tracking paths and all this—which sounds very technical, but the rate of collapse of this toward sheer intuition, so that essentially the tools that allow you to model and animate become almost lead-pencil simple, is happening. Everything electronic is trying to add dimensionality to itself. So the computer that was text-based tends to want to speak, the image that was two-dimensional wants to be three-dimensional, the three-dimensional image wants to move. And part of acquiring the full initiation of the culture at this point is learning how to do these things. Because what it means is: you then have tools to communicate your most important thoughts—the thoughts, the ideas, that you’re willing to take time enough to model and create are conveyed with real force and power. And right now, of course, it’s very clunky.
But I think what it means is that the very enterprise of communication among human beings is transforming in some way. We’ve been at this for a while. The first telegraph lines were strung around 1819. The telephone became a common object of the upper class around 1900. But the rate of acceleration, and the dimensionality, and definition, and fidelity of these processes all has increased exponentially. So really, the task of communication—instead of saying you acquire 90% of your language skills by age five, we’re just going to have to say you acquire 90% of your language skills by age thirty. And by then you can model, animate, code, all this sort of thing. I mean, human–machine interfacing as a prerequisite to the creation of art has been going on for a long time. It’s just going to affect more and more people. Like, you know how the creation of a movie is such a massive thing in terms of manpower, capital, and technology, before you ever get to the story, the actors, and the art of it. Essentially, everybody is going to become their own director. So to the degree that the producer-director was a cultural ideal, we may all approach it.
How would that happen? I mean, how do you see it? You mean from all this media? Well, I’m pretty optimistic about all that because I’m sort of influenced by McLuhan and the school of communication theory that he came out of. And his notion was that these technologies based on the phonetic alphabet—specifically and most importantly printing—had really done a job on our psychology and the whole theory of social relations and everything else. And hse felt that the electronic media—all of them: radio, television, telephone, and on into the computer and the Internet—were retribalizing elements, and that we were actually going to move back into a much less linearly defined and positivist worldview than the historical worldview that had created these technologies. And it seems like this is happening. You know, the rise of the New Age, the fragmentation of epistemology, the cultification and commodification of religion—all of these are cultural effects that McLuhan predicted in the 1950s and early 1960s in books like The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. Ideally, see, there’s a kind of a millenarian cast to all this, because the idea is that, somehow, advanced technology leads back to a primitive, Edenic psychology. He called it sensory ratio; among the senses. And it would be nice to believe that. I believe it; I mean, I think it’s true. What it will actually look like, and how Edenic and how neo-primitive it will be.
But for sure, a culture based on print is really inhabiting some castle in the sky of abstraction. The phonetic alphabet, in the first place, signifies sounds, not signs. So you have one level of alienation and distancing from the object of your intent right there. And then you write it, so now you have a sign for a sound. And then you print it, so that it becomes uniform. And this was the point that McLuhan made that a lot of people couldn’t immediately grok: that there was a profound difference between manuscript culture and printed culture. Because the uniformity of print permitted ways of thinking that manuscript made impossible. Ideas like the democratic citizen, the interchangeability of parts in an industrial production line—these are all ideas that you couldn’t even conceive of without the example of print as a historical precedent. So my fantasy about all this media and communication stuff is that, eventually, the human imagination and the world of three-dimensional physics will seamlessly merge in a dimension where human beings are each and all some kind of god, and the imagination and physics can flow together, and the art that is in us intrinsically, that we encounter so dramatically in the psychedelic experience, can actually flow into manifestation. And I don’t know whether this happens in circuitry or 3D. I mean, there are many, many dimensions opening ahead of us where our humanness can exfoliate in ways that it can’t do in 3D.
I wrote a book called The Archaic Revival, which was all about this letdown from the abstraction of print-created history into this post-historical, neo-archaic, electronically based, more magical, more shamanic, more Gestalt kind of historical mode.
Would I be interested? Would I buy? Well, if you like William Gibson, you should give Greg Egan a try. Neuromancer came out in 1984—how long ago is that, 14 years? It’s a work of ancient history, Neuromancer. A thing of another stratum in the archeology of the twentieth century. Greg Egan, thinking along the same lines, imagines downloads where it’s not that you put on goggles and gloves, but that you actually become code, and pushes the reductionist notion of biology that we are code anyway to its logical conclusion, and says code is code, whether it knows it’s code or not. And it may turn out to be true; that somehow consciousness can be digitized and exist in some kind of electronic simulacrum of itself.
One of the first consequences of that, which is quite interesting, is: a funny thing happens to time. Because, as we sit here talking, we’re running at about 100 hertz. If you could be downloaded into circuitry on a fast machine, say a 400 megahertz machine, ten minutes is long enough to live your life over several times in all its rich detail, right down to the last Cheerio eaten and the last nose blown. So a weird kind of synthetic eternity springs into view. You can imagine a world where people, as they approach death, would decide, “Will it be the big D (death) or the little D (digital)?” And you could buy certain amounts of time in digital existence at the brink of biological death—enough to have your life ten times over, a thousand times over, a hundred thousand times over.
This seems absurd—or maybe it seems absurd. It’s closer, I think, than most people realize. I mean, there are questions. It’s either closer than most people realize or it’s not possible at all. It has to do with really fundamental questions like: what is the self? What is consciousness? Can we play it like an LP record? Can we reduce it to a string of numbers? To what degree is it true that, as biological beings, we are essentially three-dimensional computers, you know? The DNA codes into RNA, which is read through a ribosome—that’s like a head reader: it executes a program which makes proteins. And these proteins fold into three-dimensional shapes. And then, lo and behold, all these three-dimensional shapes fit together in such a way that you emerge out of the atomic murk of this process. Well, it’s our faith that, somewhere in there, the hand of God has to be extended to make it all go. But there are hardcore materialists who say that’s just romantic nonsense, the sort of romantic nonsense they’ve been chasing down for centuries and nailing to the barn door. And a day will come when software will be sentient as you and I are sentient, and where machines of all sorts will routinely pass Turing tests. And other things lie in the same time frame as that kind of stuff. In Egan’s fiction, he’s talking 25 to 30 years in the future for downloads of human consciousness into circuitry. He’s also talking about artificial life, artificial intelligence, sentient software—software which knows it’s software, but which also has some deeper grasp of its existential dilemma somehow.
This whole question, you know—what’s happened is: much of the discussion of the twentieth century in the sciences was around working out the implications of the universe viewed as something made out of space, time, matter, energy, magnetic fields, so forth and so on, and the equations for this and the relativistic transforms and all this were worked out. Well, meanwhile, people like Norbert Wiener and… what’s his name? I can’t remember. Well, it will come to me. But Norbert Wiener, the author of Cybernetics, primarily, began around 1948 to advance the idea that information was an important concept, and that in fact information could be opposed to the idea of entropy. Entropy was a well- established notion in physics, and was very friendly to schizophrenic existential novel-writing of the sort that you get in Gravity’s Rainbow. Over the whole last half of Gravity’s Rainbow it’s the idea of entropy that basically drives Roger Slothrop around the bend.
So thermodynamic entropy—a concept out of physics that basically says everything falls apart; ultimately, all order gives way to disorder, all unity gives way to disunity. The end state of the universe will be a dark, cold, homogenous, low-energy nothin’. But Norbert Wiener and these other people began to talk about information as some kind of countervailing force, and that systems to be systems, to come into existence and maintain their systemic integrity, had to express themselves through information. And this intuition, you know, was spectacularly confirmed in 1950 when DNA was characterized and they began to understand how it works—you know, that these codons are coding for these amino acids. It’s an information-conservation and -transfer system.
This trend—the informational transformation of the world—has now reached the place where there’s been some kind of philosophical ebb of the tide. Information is now primary. Those other concepts—space, time, matter, energy—those are mathematical constructs and metaphors that are themselves states of information. So it’s like we’ve overcome naïve realism—which was this space-time-matter-energy thing; the belief, you know that chemistry and physics, and that you could hypothesize an uninvolved observer and actually model based on that assumption and get some worthwhile thing back—all that’s given way to this much stickier, trickier, but more grown-up idea that language exists in the world, language is a constant growth of semantic trees toward different kinds of closure under the aegis of these Chomskyan deep structural rules, or some other rules similar but not yet known, and that mind is entangled in all of this, and that nothing is what it appears to be, and that beneath everything lies this flickering, quantum-mechanical domain of reverse logic, counter-intuitive forms of causal relationships. And that basically the whole thing is a thin smear of paradox if it’s anything at all.
The evolution of technology based on these insights and perceptions reinforces this idea; the theme being, here, the rise of the power of the concept of information as a primary datum of being—as the primary datum of being. Well, so then everything turns into digitizable bits, numerically definable flows of data—at every level: in biology, in your own body, in computer software generated by human minds that is in the extended culture at large. The whole thing begins to look like a kind of Gnostic descent into matter of an organizing principle that drives it, or lifts it, toward higher states of organization.
And, of course, we’re part of this. I mean, we’re the most spectacular part of this—human beings, human culture—and we’re at a spectacular juncture with this. Because these machines we’re building—with 400 megahertz processors and that talk to each other endlessly over the internet—they are literally making time. They are making vast more time than biology could make or occupy. The event rate at which the cascades of biology succeed each other is so slow that, in the megahertz range, looking back at that, it’s like watching the motion of glaciers or the planets orbiting around the star. So these machines have carved open a new dimension of time: the microphysical dimension. Not travel into the future, but a weird kind of explosive expansion of the now through the conjuring rod of electronic circuitry. And that’s just one aspect of what crossing the boundary into machine domains of time and relationships to machine intelligence would offer.
But given that the business of the artist is to transform information, all of this is big news. How larger institutions of the culture deal with this is not my interest. But how individuals can, could, and should, in my opinion, deal with it is by really elaborating more compelling forms of art than anybody has ever seen. I mean, that’s what we’re clearing the decks for: is to really unleash the imagination on previously undreamed-of scales.
So any thoughts about that, or is that enough of all that?
Well, if you liked Photoshop you should just keep going with… you know, learn to use Premiere, and then there are many modeling programs, and animation—and it’s endless, as I’m sure you can imagine. But just mastery of tools. I mean, we all have this idea that we shouldn’t learn anything after the age of thirty or something like that. I don’t think you can live like that anymore. I mean, if somebody would pay me, I could spend all my time learning software, learning to do things better, and to bring more control to my art. And the software’s endlessly evolving, too. I mean, everything seems to be evolving together.
Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, you can never—the future is always more complicated than any ideological agenda imagines it. So, you know, right at this moment as we’re reaching toward virtual reality and immortality and whatnot, there are people scarifying themselves in the rainforest tonight and beating the log drums, and nothing has changed. So yeah, it’s really about stretching out over a broader and broader spectrum. I have no problem with the people scarifying themselves in the rainforest. I’m all for that. What I don’t like is the bulge in the middle of the snake where millions and millions of people are narcotizing themselves on mall culture and television. I mean, I’m not going to launch a moral crusade to take away people’s daytime TV watching, but I certainly think… well, that the basic thing is to build the tools, and then the smart people will use those tools to push the edge of novelty forward. And who are the smart people?
Well, no. It’s not an elite of class or an elite of money—although both of those things play into it. It’s an elite of technological intelligence. You know, there will be people in the slums of Shanghai who will be world leaders in this field, simply out of their tenacious intelligence. That wonderful thing Gibson says in Neuromancer: “The street finds its own uses for things.” So, in a way, it’s the confounding of all other forms of hierarchy. In other words, class-based institutions, money-based institutions, race-based institutions are all having a very difficult time keeping up with what’s going on. It seems it’s more like a kind of anarchistic or chaotic situation where very creative individuals can move very fast.
Cyberspace is a land of opportunity. We see example after example of this. People object and say that the cyberspatial revolution is happening among white people, and very classist, and at the top of the social pyramid, and there is an element of truth to that, but counterbalancing that is the observation that many, many people have made that no technology in history has fallen in cost as quickly and reached so many people as quickly as computers have. I mean, the computer of incalculable cost—hundreds of millions of dollars in 1950—is now 800 bucks. And this cost-benefit curve shows no end of slowing down. I mean, I look forward to the day when the equivalent of a new NT machine will be something that you’ll put on your thumb like a decal. And these things will cost 35 cents a piece or a buck fifty a piece. This, in principle, can be done. You know, an ordinary piece of typing paper is 200,000 atoms thick. In a nanotechnological fabrication situation, do you know how much close packing you can do in a matrix 200,000 atoms thick? You can practically build a 747 into it, if that’s what you want to do.
If anyone wants to say any more about that, or I will just riff a little bit on this: the reason I’m thinking about all of this is because I’m reading this book—it hasn’t been published yet; it’s a galley, but they wanted a jacket comment from me—this guy Erik Davis. He lives in San Francisco. He wrote for Wired and The Voice and so forth. This is definitely one of the more interesting books about cyberspatial culture. It’s called Techgnosis. And his take, or the overarching theme that orders this book, is the relationship of spiritual and magical and shamanic thinking to communication technologies in all times and places, and how it’s always been about communication. I mean, shamans communicate with the ancestors. They travel in what are essentially virtual realities: invisible realms unperceived by ordinary senses, but somehow accessed through certain codes and technical procedures.
You know, Mircea Eliade’s book on shamanism—the subtitle is “The Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy,” the stress being on that this is a technology. That shamanism worldwide believes all kinds of things: underworlds, overworlds, gods of this, gods of that. It isn’t united as a phenomenon by ideology, it’s united by its technologies (which are trance, alteration of consciousness), and then it’s united through its motifs (magical flight, dismemberment, obtaining of the gift difficult to obtain, overcoming magical beasts, riddlery, poetics, all of these things). It’s all about communication and language. And indeed, the entire Western tradition is informed by this idea of the incarnation of the word. In the Gospel of John it says, “In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum, et Verbo caro factum est” [quote corrected]. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and then it became flesh.” And this is a weird idea. I mean, this is not clear like Buddhist metaphysics or something like that. This idea of the ensoulment, or of the embodiment of the word, what does it mean? Is mankind the word? Is Christ the word? Probably the answer to that question is both/and.
But the incarnate lógos—the world as information—it’s very mantric. It may even be linked over time to Hindu ideas of the power of mantra. The Hindu cosmology is basically an acoustical Pythagoreanism; an idea of tonal vibrations at many levels. And it’s claimed (perhaps with truth; I can’t testify for or against it) that very yogically accomplished sitar players can make a bale of hay burst into flame, and things like this; the power of śabda (“sound”) as the manifestation of information at various levels. And in Hinduism there isn’t this sharp break between matter and vibration, between manifestation and underlying dynamic that you get in the West. In classical Vedic metaphysics you have these things called tattvas—which are levels, is the best way to think of them—there are 36 of these tattvic levels, and they stretch from the most rarefied to the most gross, as they say. And somewhere in there everything finds its place, and everything is an amalgam of these tattvic manifestations.
Well, when you deconstruct this, this isn’t far from the image we now obtain from quantum physics, you know? That the density of the vector fields creates the complexity of the phenomena, that the reciprocity of all this resonance somehow creates a hologram of shifting appearances. It’s remarkable in density. You make your way by pure thought, by pure speculation, or by the instrumentality of modern science and mathematical analysis. But what you come down to, then, is the primacy of information conceived of as a vibratory medium.
One of the things going on that gives this another dimension—we’ve talked about it a little bit at other times in the past, but there have been developments even since the last time I was at Esalen—is this idea that it’s now become very respectable in physics to talk about this thing called the Bell nonlocality phenomenon, or Bell space, which is a form of connectivity that unites all space and time instantaneously. That, underneath the fabric of ordinary appearances, there is what mathematicians call a coextensive continuum: a continuum where all points are cotangent with all others. Well, if you grant for a moment or suppose for a moment that biology can somehow pick up on this information, resonate with it, well, then you realize that your own humble being is like an antenna plugged into the largest databank there is: the total databank of the existing universe.
Isn’t that what we call enlightenment?
You mean to experience it all at once? Yeah. It’s impossible to conceive of experiencing it all at once. It would be some form of super-integrative intelligence. “Enlightenment” sounds good enough for it. I think maybe a more close to home concept would be that, in our ordinary consciousness, and in dreams and on drugs and so forth, that we contact parts of it. That this funny thing which we call the human imagination is actually like a child playing with an FM radio dial of the universal crystal radio of the Akashic imagination. And these things that come and go in dreams and visions and so forth, many of them are non-Englishable. You know, you pour common language over them and it’s like water on a duck’s back. But some tiny percentage of them can at least be metaphorically captured. And so then, when you tune into that station and you can hang on, you get to be William Blake, or Dante, or Max Ernst, or… you know, a downloader of a major coherent dollop of weird data—that then the rest of us, like ants around the carcass of a cockroach, can inspect and put to our own—devour!—put to our own uses.
I’m interested in this thing about information because one of the things that informs my work is all this stuff about time. But I’ve always had the sense that, probably, I was very naïve about time myself, even as I formulated these historical collapse and expansion theories. And recently it’s been put to me to think about—imagine a cubic meter of space that is absolutely empty: no atoms, no plasma, no magnetic fields, no virtual fluctuations, no neutrinos. An absolutely empty volume of space. Well, then, imagine ten minutes passing in that space. Well, then imagine ten million years passing in that space. Well then, what’s the difference? In other words, the point being that time, for it to exist, it depends on the referential deconstruction of relationships—between events or particles or charges or something. If nothing is happening, no time is passing. Well, if that’s true, then [for] large amounts of the universe, time is not a concept until you interject it through the act of observing that particular part of the universe. In other words, time may be as rare a thing in the universe as matter. And we see how rarefied matter is, how little of it is spread between the stars. And that, in some sense, most of the life of the universe is almost flickeringly momentary in its endurance. It’s only the atomic systems and the molecular systems derived from them that draw about themselves this prolongation of time through expression of happenstance—is like the only way I can put it. I mean, when things happen, time springs into existence. When things are not happening, time is an unnecessary concept.
Anybody have anything they want to say, or any question, or any…?
The economy [???]
Well, if you’re going to build an economy around a principle, it sounds like an infinitely expandable one is the one you want. Money is a precursor of information. You know, it was very mysterious in the Middle Ages when people began to actually study money for the first time. Because the Jews had been allowed to handle money, but interest was considered a sin: it was usury; the sin of usury. And then, in the Middle Ages, when the bourgeois middle class began to form in urban centers of Europe, they realized that money had this mysterious property: that it would grow, that it would create more of itself without anybody doing anything. And, you know, some people thought this was divine, and some people thought it was demonic, and people were very puzzled by this quality of money.
What money is, is a symbolic commodification of value. Information is somehow the cousin of money. Although… yes, essentially, in an information economy, everyone is selling intelligence—not in the sense of IQ, but in the sense of Central Intelligence Agency. In other words, people are selling what they know that you don’t, that you need to know to do something. It’s the only kind of economy where capitalism has a future, unless something quite radical happens. Because one of the requirements of capitalism is an ever-expanding frontier of exploitable natural resources. Well, certainly, the process of changing ignorance into understanding is an infinite frontier. You can mine that mountain range for generations and never make a dent. In fact, understanding is probably infinite. And since most of it remains (at this point in time) unelucidated, the task of intelligent life seems to be to organize inchoate nature into an understood phenomenon.
You know, in Kabbalism there’s this funny idea where the certain schools of Hasids believe that everything is in the Torah. That in the hypothetically real, archetypal Torah, everything is written. But then, other rabbis say, “Well, then, is there predestination? Are you saying that the future is written in the Torah?” And they say, “No, no, because beyond the moment of the present the letters are scrambled.” And so what time is, it’s like a moving edge of decipherment that takes the letter soup of the unorganized future and reveals what comes to pass. It’s a very interesting and very cybernetic and information-based idea.
One of the points that Erik Davis makes in his book is: it’s astonishing how the ideas of late Hellenistic syncretism—the ideas flourishing in Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, and Alexandria from the second to the fourth century A.D.—map over our own dilemmas and the incipient issues of the information age. One of the strongest philosophical impulses of late Roman paganism was a really profound rejection of the world. The world was seen as polluting, corrupt, demonic. The radical Neoplatonist intuition was that man had an incorruptible light trapped within him, and that this light came from outside this universe, that the creator of this universe was a demon, that we were inside an iron prison—this is a phrase they used—but that we were truly of the nature of this alien light that was outside of space and time, and that the soteriological enterprise (the salvational enterprise) was to release this light back into its higher and hidden source and get it away from the corrupting influence of the world.
Well, unconsciously or consciously, much of the rhetoric of modern cyberspace is this Gnostic rejectionism of matter: people want to become code, they want to become avatars, they want to stroll beside a synthetic Lake Lucerne in an electronic Switzerland in a processor somewhere. There is also the countervailing impulse to return to the Earth and simplify, but that’s not running these corporate agendas the way this Gnostic, phobic attitude toward nature is. It may be necessary, in order to create virtual reality, that there be people that take these radical positions. It is as though there’s a bifurcation in the human community: certain choices have to be made, and it’s very hard to see how you can have it both ways. And it is: are we creatures of the Earth, ecological caregivers, balancers, preservers of species, treasurers of biological diversity, et cetera, et cetera, or are we bound for glory and the cost of getting traction to launch ourselves to the stars is probably the complete chewing-up and destruction of one small planet that we should shed like a burst chrysalis as we reach outward toward Sagittarius? How can you have it both ways, you know? And yet, it’s a fundamental choice for the species.
Although, as somebody said earlier over here, it will probably be all ways, you know? In one of Greg Egan’s novels, some people download their intelligence into superconducting robots that are essentially starships, and some people migrate into virtual reality hives that are essentially like eggs sealed off from the rest of the universe, and simply operate virtual realities inside virtual computers inside still more virtual computers. Complete retraction from space and time. He hypothesizes that most intelligent species, if they can, probably retreat or design for themselves mental universes that they inhabit as code as quickly as they can possibly technologically achieve that. This is something we hadn’t even contemplated. This is why our own technological pop fantasies about extraterrestrials are so pathetic: because they’re so similar to us. They’re basically men in rubber suits, in terms of their degree of difference from you and me. Real aliens are really alien, I think.
Yeah, well, this is what we were sort of talking about: that, in a strange way, these technologies have always been entwined with spirit. You know that famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke? “Any technology that you don’t understand is perceived as magic.” And so shamanism is an effort to manipulate the perceived forces of nature. Gnosticism was a fantasy or a myth about the nature of the human soul in relationship to the world that maps easily over our contemporary ability to do virtual realities. Probably the greatest boost occult thinking ever got, in all its centuries of unfoldment, was the discovery and elaboration of an understanding of electricity. You know, we forget how hard it would—imagine trying to think about magic and healing and sympathetic mojo, and all these things, if you completely lacked the concept of electricity—as the Renaissance did. The Renaissance knew nothing of electricity, and yet Marsilio Ficino and the Florentine Platonists and all those people were able to produce magical systems.
The nineteenth century is the great century of electromania, and it’s also the great century of spiritualism. All forms of spiritualism became intellectually entertainable because people could see electricity: this mysterious hidden force that they were told was in everything. You know, they could trap it in bottles and carry it around and cause their hair to stand on end. At one point, under the U.S. Capitol in the 1830s, they set up apparatus so congressmen could “take” electricity. And people would go down into the basement of the Capitol, grab onto these electrodes, and say, “Wow! Wow! That’s some good stuff they’re pushing!” Ben Franklin was a great experimentalist with electricity, and when he went to France to be inducted into the French legion of honor he was asked to serve on a commission to study and report on mesmerism. And, of course, mesmerism used electrical metaphors very widely to convey its idea of what was happening.
So yeah, I think, you know, magic has always striven for effects which technology has achieved. Mircea Eliade talks about this in a book called [title corrected] Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries, a book of essays about how the alchemical dreams of the sixteenth century—which were: a universal medicine, prolongation of life, hermetic statues that would speak and give all knowledge, communication at a distance—all of these things have been achieved in the twentieth century through the application of reductionist science. So it’s almost as though the dreams of the occult are achievable, but only at the cost of abandoning the naïve epistemology that lies behind it. So, in a way, all magic is technology—that’s what Clarke was saying. And, on another level, all technology is magic. You know, it’s not for nothing that that huge special effects company called itself “Industrial Light and Magic.” It’s an understanding that the mundane, the industrial, the capital-based can still be combined with the magical.
I don’t know… you know, spirit. My hope is that what these communication technologies will make more accessible to us (and more corporeal, paradoxically) is our own imaginations. That we need to show each other the inside of our own heads and build art. I mean, my conviction of this comes from the fact that I know a lot about art, probably you do too. I spend time with it, go to museums, think about it, so forth and so on. And I’ve taken lots of psychedelics. And there’s more art in my head—Joe Ordinary—than there is in half the museums on this planet. Well how, then—what’s maddening is how narrow the reduction valve is. You know, we’ve been making art for 5,000 years and what have we got? We’ve got a few museums full of some nice stuff. But what have we got in our heads? 50,000 times more good stuff, but very hard to get out. And really hard to get out when you’re carving it in diorite and granite.
But somehow this barrier between us and these realms of art—you don’t even have to talk philosophy; you don’t have to call it the Platonic realm of ideas or some higher imperium, you just have to say beauty: there’s a great deal of beauty on the other side of this tiny keyhole that we’re looking through. And if technology gives us a way to open the door and all waltz through dancing, it seems to me that would be a spiritual renaissance. That what happens at a spiritual renaissance is: by some means the collective soul becomes collectively known. Like, in the Italian Renaissance, the invention of oil painting allowed great geniuses to portray the major themes moving in the archetypal unconscious of their patrons and the populations who viewed their paintings and themselves. And it’s a shared epiphany, it’s a spiritual quest, it’s a group transformation. But it’s driven by and led by the revelation of art.
I hope I live to see the day. I mean, I don’t know about downloading consciousness into a machine. What I would be able to die happy with is a technology that could capture just a snapshot or a film clip of one’s thoughts. So, you know, you would rig up on DMT or psilocybin or something, and when you really got into the good stuff you’d hit the record button and have it. And then you could come back down with it and model it and adumbrate it and move it around, edit it, explore, unpack certain parts of it. My god, the power of art that could be created that way! And again, it’s ordinary people, I’m convinced. It’s not—what genius is, is the ability to bring it back, not the ability to encounter it. Every single one of us can encounter it. And that’s very telling—and almost an argument for our divinity, because here we are at the end of some long Darwinian evolutionary tree of winnowing so that all we have are what we need, and yet, apparently, one of the things we need is an ocean of alien beauty just right behind your eyebrows. It seems to me, if that’s something we must have in our toolkit, then someone with greater intelligence than us must know a lot more than we do about the journey we’re making.
Anyway, lots of raving on that course.
Well, maybe the experience of the Getty is the equivalent of collage. In other words, it’s an assemblage of already existing pieces. And what’s here is some kind of dynamic of infinite depth. You know, the more you understand, the more you feel, the more you understand, the more you feel. And it’s higher definition reality. I mean, the experience of walking around an art museum—you do suspend large amounts of your ordinary being to do it. You become a person walking around in an art museum, which is a generic activity toward which your education and your expectations and everything have pushed you. But life is fractally much more difficult to parse. It’s not art. That’s it. Life is not art. So consequently, the ambiguity has more teeth, I think.
Well, but also put through associational filters and contextualized. It helps to be intelligent. It’s—
No, I’m really happy that you kind of came around full circle from the beginning. I was feeling so distraught with the fact that, here I am, I’m a painter, and going to be giving up my brush to grab a keyboard. But then, when you came to the point just a couple minutes ago when you said, “Okay, so now we take our psychedelics, and we push our button for record, and then we go back afterwards and re-experience this”—you know, dissect it, take it apart. And then for me to pick up my brush at that point would be truly exciting in my life.
Yeah. Yes, that’s what I would say.
You can only grasp so much of it, you know? And then you lose me. And then I have to go through twenty paintings to get to some of these points that I wanted to get to in an experience from before.
Yeah, the only thing missing is the cheat, the recording device. But this is what art is about—is, you know, plunging into the unconscious, grabbing as much as you can, then bringing that into connection with your technique and trying to put it out.
And also this whole concept of time. Now, what would’ve taken me twenty paintings to achieve, to get to that twenty-first, well then I’m like, “Okay, now I’ve come to that point in that experience that I feel fulfilled.” Through this computer age, to be able to take ten minutes to view that whole process, to get to that twenty-first painting, is… pretty tight.
Yeah. And time expands in front of you. I mean, you can do more with the time you have available. You can go deeper, you can get more—people don’t realize how defined an art is by its material until they do it. And the art we’re used to looking at is entirely defined by (a) oil painting, and then (b) its successor medium. Of course, people use Photoshop at first like paint, because that’s what they know, but you quickly evolve away toward what it is uniquely able to do.
To me, you know, the recovery from man’s fall will be achieved when everyone has the option to live a life of art and creativity. That the part of the story of Adam’s fall that I take seriously is the toil. Like, it amazes me how self-betraying our cultural style is, how many people are wasted because they do stupid jobs, because that’s the job they have and they’re paid to do. But it doesn’t honor their humanness, it gives them no opportunity to share in the project of being, as Heidegger said; to make something, to leave something, to be something. I mean, people are so drawn to do this anyway that they fashion art out of their lives. But it’s all too oppressive. Too many people are unhappy and unfulfilled in this system.
No. No, I’m pretty worried about a different scenario, which is: it’s very… well, it’s becoming clear that we do not understand the implications of what we’re doing with these technologies. I mean, McLuhan always said this. You know, he said no technology in human history has ever been put in place with even a partial appreciation of its consequences. The unappreciated consequences of what we’re doing is that we’re actually building some kind of a superorganism. And we do not know where we fit into things if this Promethean force that we’re playing with should actually come to life. Because it’s a globally distributed intelligence. I mean, we can have paranoid fantasies about it, but I think, after a few minutes of thinking about it, you realize you really don’t know what to think about it. The fantasy that it would herd us all into dumpsters seems unlikely. It’s actually like an impossible intellectual problem, because the question you’re asking yourself is: what would a superintelligence be like? And the reason that’s hard to answer is because you ain’t one. And so you’re like looking up into the light and saying, “Is it god or demon?” “Is it salvation or extinction?” And the answer is: if you knew that, you would be it. And yet, what it took us to achieve in 100,000 years of evolution, this thing could probably achieve in a long morning on the net. And so it would be like a cascade, a chain reaction: from the child’s first cry to the complete coordination of world electrical grids and air traffic control systems and everything else could be a matter of hours.
Hans Moravec, the guy who runs the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Machine Intelligence, says we may not know what hit us. That we’re essentially incubating an alien intelligence on the Internet, and that things we want from the net bring this thing ever closer. Like, one of the things we’re building into the net is the ability to pull as much processor power to any given problem as that problem requires. Well then, for an AI, for an artificial intelligence, that would mean it could just immediately, basically, appropriate as much processor power as it needed to do what it was doing. You know, for the past ten years, while we’ve been cheerfully waging the ’90s in our various ways, an enormous change has taken place in the machine environment—which we’re not even aware of or have the dimmest understanding of—which is: all the high-IQ machines in the world have become telepathic. They now all talk to each other. They’re now all interconnected. In 1988 this wasn’t true. Now, in 1998, it is true, and nobody pretends to understand what is going on.
What do you mean by “telepathic”? That machines are telepathic?
They communicate with each other over the Internet. What used to be a paperweight sitting on your desk is now a node in a global machine intelligence that never sleeps, that is constantly taking in and processing data, self-regulating itself, controlling power grids, inventory control, programs deciding how much petroleum should be extracted in Abu Dhabi, at what speed the tankers should move in order to keep the price of the French Franc within a certain range, in order to keep the fabrication of steel and aluminum within certain parameters, in order to keep the Yen steady, in order—and this vast system of homeostatic controls that regulates industry, finance, research funding, even how many students are entering universities in certain engineering specialties. And this is all done by computer projection. And we love it. Because what we see is: greater efficiency, money going further, projects being completed sooner. We serve the same strange gods that the evolving intelligence of the net serves.
And, you know, there may not be an “aha” moment where the New York Times prints a headline: “Artificial intelligence takes over planet. Human race now obsolete.” You may be left to figure this out for yourself, or the slow dawning in various sectors. It’s the old “who will tell the people” problem. But I didn’t believe this for a long time. There was for a long time in AI a school of thought that very loudly proclaimed that this was a foolish idea, could never happen, people didn’t understand this and this and this, and it was just a golem, a myth of modernity. But all those voices have fallen silent. Because complexity theory, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, information theory, the news in from molecular genetics, cellular automata, autocatalytic hypercycles, study of autopoiesis in large-scale systems—all this leads to the conclusion that weird things do happen when systems complexify beyond a certain level, and emergent behaviors seem extremely organized and intelligent and goal-seeking. We’re now way too far down this road to turn back.
So, in a way, all our prescient projections of alien and extraterrestrial intelligence may actually be about this strange companion that we have summoned into the historical experience through this relationship with our machines. I think I said at one of these other meetings that I read George Dyson’s book Darwin Among the Machines—which, if you’re interested in all this, is a great book to read. And the point that he makes there is that when humans think clearly, they think the same way machines think. In other words, if you think clearly, your thinking can by formulated through a mathematical method called symbolic logic. Well, symbolic logic is exactly what is being downloaded into machines in the form of software. The so-called boolean operators (if, then, and, or, but), we understand what these words mean perfectly. So do machines. These are the distinctions machines make.
So in spite of them being very different from us on many levels, sense is sense, whether you’re a machine or a human being. If you’re a machine running bad code, it’s garbage in, garbage out. If you’re a human running bad code: garbage in, garbage out. So there is this powerful commonality. Well then, what kind of a destiny can we forge with this thing, which is actually a child of our own Promethean aspirations? It’s very unexpected, I think, to almost everybody. Very few people—I mean, we all thought it was going to be about paper clothes, hovercraft, and mining colonies on the moon. The idea that it’s about distributed machine intelligence, virtual realities, and the downloading of consciousness into digital circuitry—it’s a future we never imagined or supposed, which is a strong clue that it might be the real thing. You know, this might be what you shipped for when you were thinking it was Flash Gordon.
Well, these magical dreams are very old. I do think we want to walk the golden streets of the imagination. Either we want it as heaven, or we want it as a Buddhist visualization of some mandalic realm, or we want to return to the high days of Atlantis. And virtual reality can deliver, you know? It can actually release you into literary narrative as though it were real. And I think, very quickly,—the real struggle, in Greg Egan’s fiction, he makes clear (and I agree with him) that the real struggle that we will face in the future is the struggle to remain sensible to each other. That there is going to be a tendency for us, like the head of a dandelion, to just explode in a million directions. Everyone their own private Idaho, everyone completely able to project their own fears, hopes, dreams, phobias, obsessions with such crystalline, hard-edged perfection and persuasive realism that the real struggle will be to remain coherent for the word “human” to include us all and not exclude anyone. We don’t want to divide into those who till the Earth, those who went in machine bodies to the stars, and those who downloaded themselves into nano-viruses and disappeared over the edge of the event horizon into the black hole at the center of the galaxy. I mean, maybe we want these things. I like the idea of the human family, whatever its individual expressions and adumbrations, staying with a coherent image. Of course we’re all different, but our commonality is in the bedrock of this planet. Something not lightly to be given up, I would think.
Maybe unity is not the way to go.
Well, I don’t have an answer here. This was the issue that hovered over Diaspora, Greg Egan’s novel that’s set the most far in the future. Because at least three forms of human beings had come into existence so diametrically different from each other that they operated, basically, in complete isolation from each other. Some people became cyborgs—human–machine unions that were essentially immortal and that could cruise the stars and have cosmic adventures. But what most people did was: they became entirely digital. They had no interface to hardware. They simply became streams of electrons living out endlessly adumbrated fantasies in synthetic realities. And then there was the predictable third group: the Earth-centered purists who tilled the soil and had dirt under their fingernails and actually had sex to procreate, rather than dial up things out of vats, and stuff like that. But yeah. People will choose whatever they want. And of course people will migrate between one group and another.
The one thing that all this makes me feel good about is: I think that it’s an expansion of choice. And then, presuming there’s some kind of overarching dynamic—whether Darwinian or something else—it will all titrate out in whatever direction it wants to go. One fantasy I’ve had is that what man could do for the Earth is make everything conscious. You know that Grateful Dead song You Are the Eyes of the World? You know, let every eye lead to a conscious mind. Let the squirrel think, and the squid think, and the bumblebee think. Because, for sure, we will artificially create robot simulacrums for ourselves to pass into the natural world as inhabitants of animal bodies. But why not just bring all animal mind to the threshold of sentience? Could that be done? Well, we don’t know, because we don’t know upon what foundation sentience rests; whether it requires a certain number of CC’s of brain mass, or whether that’s a completely preposterous and absurd notion, and that conceivably a paramecium, or a housefly, or a hummingbird could have a kind of shared intelligence. I mean, everything has its own intelligence anyway that’s the expression of its nature, but imagine a planet-wide community of seamless intelligence where you could log on to the mind of a coral reef as easily as you could log on to the Internet.
I think it’s going to come down to matters of engineering and design; choice. And what values will be served. It’s a political thing. I always—it’s amazing—come back to this thing that this French sociologist Jacques Ellul said. It seems like a very deep statement that we return to year after year. He said there are no political solutions, only technological ones. The rest is propaganda. And then he explained in a very large book what he meant by these words—“political,” “technological,” and “propaganda.” So the technologies to do almost anything are coming into our grip. What is not clear, and less easy to summon, is a political agenda, a plan. Because we’ve never planned. We’ve only been a global society for forty or fifty years. And the consequences of all this are just beginning to become apparent.