PERHAPS IT IS HISTORICALLY TRUE THAT NO ORDER OF SOCIETY EVER PERISHES SAVE BY ITS OWN HAND. – John Maynard Keynes
WORLD VIEWS CREATE WORLDS
– Richard Tarnas, Cosmos and Psyche
My upcoming book, WorldBending: a survivor’s guide for those who want to think and act creatively about our future, has a simple proposition that we must adapt to survive, so I ask have you changed your life in any way, large or small, to mitigate global heating? If not, why not? Scientists believe that unless we radically decrease carbon emissions and other GHGs, Greenhouse Gases, very soon, (in less than 11 years) the planet will most likely exceed 2 degrees Celsius, and most likely go above 4 degrees Celsius with catastrophic results. Many believe it is futile to personally change consumption habits because since 1988 71% of GHGs have been emitted by 100 companies. But as Richard Heede, the co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute has pointed out, “What my work has underscored is that the emissions directly produced by oil, gas, and coal companies amount to about 10 per cent of fossil fuel emissions. Ninety per cent are from their products.” That ninety per cent is consumed and emitted by consumers in the form of fossil fuels, and agriculture etc. There are a lot of people on this planet and if we all did a little we could have a dramatic impact; such as eating less meat, less dairy, less fossil fuel vehicles, and less air travel. It is simply a matter of time and the degree to which we can adapt to a radically different lifestyle that will determine the fate of billions of people and other species.
I am currently researching New Zealand’s upcoming new legislation popularly known as the Zero Carbon Bill. This law is about time. But we are also out of time! This Bill reads like a survivor’s guide so to borrow the terminology from my book, it is a World Bender’s approach rather than something a World Builder or World Breaker might enact. (My definition of a ‘World’ is described in more detail in the introductory chapter to my book). Humans are not exclusive world builders; there is plenty of evidence of nonhuman world-building, but to stick with the anthropocentric nature of this Bill I will keep to this very narrow focus for the sake of brevity.
According to Grant Maxwell in his book, The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View, humans understand and can operate in approximately three and a half dimensions of conscious reality, i.e. three dimensions of space, and about half a dimension of time. The Zero Carbon Bill is only aware of this half dimension of time. Admittedly it is a politically designed piece of legislation, even though it claims that it is taking a ‘long-term approach that endures political cycles’. It is unmistakenly anthropocentric and founded on political compromise. Was it ever capable of anything else? Unfortunately, while it is better than nothing, by pretending to be non-political it obscures our view of some uncomfortable scientific facts and unknown uncertainties. I say this because in the Bill’s 2018 discussion document it outlines a timetable based on three five year carbon budgets starting in 2020 and take us through to 2035 – this was created by humans, for humans, and follows New Zealand’s Emissions Trading Scheme and its political creation and evolution according to the political cycles of this country and the IPCC. The next review of biogenic methane will be in 2024, but a lot can happen in five years, including a new government. Recently, a high ranking member of the NZ Greens, Jack McDonald resigned. He said, “When the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] says we have 12 years to save the world from climate catastrophe, we simply don’t have time for centrism, moderation or fiscal austerity.”
Why should any of this matter? Surely it is just an unavoidable political reality. I want to zero in here on a nonhuman component of the Earth System and discuss how our half dimensional temporal consciousness has made us myopic about future World Buiding. We cannot think clearly about and time and space beyond the human scale. The bottom line is that our limited understanding of time is luring us into a false reality that could mean the physical end of this world while we try and sort out a political compromise. The end of human time is sneaking up on us and will most likely take us all by surprise.
This existential threat is most obvious if we consider the 3 big bad boys of global warming and Earth System change: carbon dioxide; nitrous oxide; and methane. Carbon dioxide is the poster child for the Anthropocene, also known as the human geological epoch, it describes a time when our species physically altered the geological nature of this planet. Since the Second World War the pace of that geologic change is increasing, known as the Great Acceleration. However, these 3 gases are only part of the massive nonhuman majority that shapes our reality, and yet we barely know them. They are according to the ecological philosopher, Timothy Morton, hyperobjects, that create their own worlds beyond our human spacetime comprehension. Their age stretches back to the beginning of the universe, and while their atoms and subatomic particles are constantly changing their home address, the components of the gases are immortal, and they are us. Earth System Science is an attempt to understand and explain their infinite life cycles. So I am going to have a go at thinking aloud about how these three gases intersect with our Zero Carbon Action and hopefully alert you to the potential risks and uncertainties that are about to be embedded in the NZ law, and the resulting protocols and algorithms that control our lives.
The Life Cycle of Food
To make this personal for you I thought I would begin with food to start unwinding the life cycle of the three gases we are most concerned about. Food glorious food – what is it? Well, that simple question has a complicated answer or rather starts a complex discussion. If we slice and dice this word what do we learn about what it is we are doing and the World we co-create with other humans and the massive nonhuman majority, including our three gaseous buddies? An Oxford dictionary definition will probably not cause too many complaints.
food (mass noun) “any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb in order to maintain life and growth” – Oxford Dictionary
But then there is also the phrase “food for thought” meaning ‘something that warrants serious consideration’. And surely food does just that! But look at what is hidden in this meaning, beyond our common-sense view of the world. It assumes to be a substance that is eaten or drunk by living beings to keep them living and growing. And, that is exactly the life cycle that our 3 gases participate in. Without them, we would all be dead. But those gases are actually compounds or molecules made from chemical reactions – they are the products of intimate relationships between so-called nonliving chemicals – carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. From these building blocks – life as we know it is somehow created? So, as we love life one would think that lots of these chemicals would be food for lots of lovely beings. It turns out that the difference between life and death, the living or nonliving, far from black and white. As Vladimir Vernadsky author of The Biosphere (1926) once said ‘humans are walking talking minerals’. Of course, all of these 3 gases help to build our bones, skins, nails, blood, and other bits and pieces, and these go into creating our food – whether it is plant or animal. Truly they are our food, and in turn, we are food for others! Therefore, more food, more gas, more life!
Hold on, hold on! I hear you say. But too much of these 3 gases now threaten the planet with death. How can that be? The obvious answer relates to the amount of any one thing. Too much can lead to toxicity.
“A central concept of toxicology is that the effects of a toxicant are dose-dependent; even water can lead to water intoxication when taken in too high a dose, whereas for even a very toxic substance such as snake venom there is a dose below which there is no detectable toxic effect.”
Even the most delicious food, the best wine, or the purest water can become toxic if the dose overwhelms a system, whether it is a population, a single being, or a stable Earth System. For the past 12,000 years of the Holocene we have co-existed with other ‘foods’ enjoying a world that was born out of 5 previous mass extinctions (see Extinction Event and read The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen) caused by an overabundance of certain foods, that became toxic to some, and a banquet for others. The first mass extinction was probably caused by too much oxygen. However, rather than understanding that the Earth System is a temperamental species killer we came to think of the Earth as our reliable and unbreakable World that would obediently supply us with every thing that we needed to not only survive but to thrive and indulge in the aesthetic and joyous pleasures of life on Earth.
The beginning of civilisation was thought to have begun at this time when the chaos of swirling gases of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous gas settled down to maintain temperatures within a mean range of only about 1 degree Celsius in variation. This provided humanity with the confidence to also settle down and start growing local things to eat. The 3 gas giants, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide cycled in happy chemical equilibrium and our weather was relatively pleasant and procreative – our population exploded. This lasted for around 12,000 years, up until now, but the geologic World is beginning to wake up (see Bill McKibben’s Waking the Sleeping Giant). What we don’t remember is that climatic chaos was previously normal, and fluctuations in greenhouse gas concentrations, and therefore extreme climatic conditions, were normal. It has been around 800,000 years since we have seen the same concentration of methane in the Earth’s atmosphere – there has not been so much food in the air for ages.
I find that the saying ‘It’s common sense’ is one of the most worrying phrases I know. It assumes that the majority knows best and implies a nonscientific methodology. The statement is politically loaded and is designed to shut down enquiry or debate. It kills creativity and has an inbuilt conservatism that reinforces the status quo and the vested interests of the day. Before Copernicus it was simply ‘common sense’ that the Sun revolved around the Earth – anything else was heresy and the Church and State responded with violent opposition.
Today agriculture, as we know it, or as Timothy Morton in his book, Dark Ecology, calls it agrilogistics, is modern day ‘common sense’. In New Zealand and many other countries, agriculture is the religion, or ideology, that defines the ‘World as we know it’. Citing Morton, the blogger, Kirsten Everson explains, “agrilogistics; [is] ‘a technical, planned, and perfectly logical approach to built space’ that arose when our ancestors figured out a way to assure their future food supply – agriculture. Agrilogistics by necessity caused humans to shift their way of looking at the world from one of fear, wonderment and magic to one of rational, linear organization and control.”
Yet, the common sense of agrilogistics is more ideological than logical. Try to explain the logic of food production that is such a significant contribution to global warming and the ‘end of the world as we know it’. For those who are concerned about the survival of the species, known as humanity, or the sixth mass extinction of an even larger subset, humans and nonhuman, the conclusion must be ‘agriculture’ does not equate with food. In other words, it is not ‘maintaining life or growth‘. Driven by capitalism it is no longer concerned with the aesthetic pleasure of co-mingling with the biome of our guts or the life-giving quality of their nonhuman companions. The marketing of desirable food has been reduced to an emphasis on 4 essential things – sugar, fat, acid, and salt. Too much of these and not enough essential nutrients will kill you but the pleasure senses in your brain keep begging for more, which is something that advertising understands all too well. Appearance is only surface deep – who is tracking the biography of the less compatible nonhuman cohabitors in the body. We no longer know or totally trust the origins, and personalities of the food we eat. It is about productivity, efficiency and profitability – the accumulation of capital at all cost delivers food that has become cheaper, and cheaper, but less and less nutritious, and greater negative impact on the environment. We have to move beyond the stupid economic modelling that is focused on ‘growth’ and GDP – capitalism is founded on extractive industries – agriculture is the oldest. What is more industrial agriculture would be impossible today without fossil fuels. And so we get back to our favourite foods – the 3 gases.
Me thinks Methane is Bad
I am going to concentrate on my best friend methane, CH4. Methane, over a 20 year period is between 80 and 104 times stronger at heating the planet than carbon dioxide, and 28 times stronger over a 100 year period. The IPCC and NZ have used the long period of a century to calculate methane’s carbon dioxide equivalence and add it to the budget, but there are many assumptions and uncertainties that this 100-year formula hides. In the latest report by the IPCC, they wrote “Eliminating emissions of these [Short Lived Carbon Forcers, such as methane] results in an immediate cooling relative to the present.” (p.65) The experts concluded that if we could reduce all anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions to zero immediately then it is likely that there would only be 0.5C heating over the next 2-3 decades and it is also likely it would be less than 0.5C over the next 100 years. Of course, they noted that an instantaneous reduction to zero was not feasible because of ‘techno-economic inertia’.
A well-respected climate scientist Dr Wolfgang Knorr said in an interview, “What we should really ask is: has there been any discernible impact of climate policy on emission rates of greenhouse gases? … However difficult climate diplomacy might be, we should not shy away from clearly stating that nothing has been achieved as long as we cannot see an effect on global measurements. Therefore, the political response has been inadequate.” Politics has not been up to the task and Knorr says that scientists, including the IPCC, have let us down. He says it is time for us all to take action at the political and decision-making level. “What is happening now is that Extinction Rebellion and similar protest movements increasingly seize the public discourse on climate change and leave much of the scientific community behind, in particular, the IPCC. And that is a good thing because we need to move on from the current paradigm… We need a sober, grown-up look at all the risks climate change entails. No doomsaying, no preaching, no exaggeration in order to convince others, but also not shying away from speaking out things that are painful.” (Read the interview here.)
It is all about the time left before a temperature threshold is exceeded. The important thing to understand is that we may be approaching a tipping point and that it is only by attacking SLCFs (Short Lived Carbon Forcers) like methane, and Long-Lived Carbon Forcers, like nitrous oxide, as well as carbon dioxide, that we might be able to quickly reduce the global heating effect of GHGs.
So back to the Zero Carbon Bill and the assumptions, and political compromise built into it. According to Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research NZ, “The inventory of NZ’s greenhouse gas emissions is calculated annually by the Ministry for the Environment and reported internationally. According to this inventory, methane emissions from ruminants have increased by 10 % since 1990. (Over the same period, carbon dioxide emissions from road transport have grown by 62 %, and nitrous oxide emissions from agricultural soils by 25 %.)” There is considerable variability between individual ruminants so measurements need to be expanded to paddock or farm scale. Readings by Landcare research in Canterbury with herds of 270 to 550 cows showed the “seasonal methane emission rates ranged from 284 to 427 g/day per cow.” Landcare Research in “Collaboration with NIWA and AgResearch led to comparative micro-meteorological (‘top down’) and sheep and soil (‘bottom up’) measurements being made during Autumn 1997. There was good agreement by the two methods with an average net methane emission rate from sheep populated lowland pasture of 160 kg/ha per year.”
So from these calculations, we can guesstimate the number of GHG emitting ruminants based on 2017 statistics. The total dairy cattle in New Zealand = 2.6 million in the South Island and 4 million in the North Island. Beef cattle have decreased to 3.6 million. Sheep have decreased also to 27.5 million. By my calculations that is 10,573,320 million tons of methane a year for cattle alone.
“Per capita, New Zealand has the largest methane emission rate (0.6 t per person per year)—six times the global average. ”
The carbon Emissions Trading Scheme with its exemption of agriculture has resulted in a 19.6% increase in CO2 equivalence from 1990 until 2016. However, when trees are subtracted (because of more harvesting) the increase in GHGs between 1990 and 2016 is 54.2%. One report that measured the change in atmospheric methane between 2014 and 2017, and published in February 2019, described it as very strong growth. “The rise in atmospheric methane (CH4), which began in 2007, accelerated in the past 4 years. The growth has been worldwide, especially in the tropics and northern midlatitudes. With the rise has come a shift in the carbon isotope ratio of the methane. The causes of the rise are not fully understood and may include increased emissions and perhaps a decline in the destruction of methane in the air. Methane’s increase since 2007 was not expected in future greenhouse gas scenarios compliant with the targets of the Paris Agreement, and if the increase continues at the same rates it may become very difficult to meet the Paris goals. There is now urgent need to reduce methane emissions, especially from the fossil fuel industry.”
The uncertainty and lack of data surrounding methane emissions does not justify that NZ makes little or no change in trying to mitigate those emissions. There are a number of possibilities that scientists are considering including the possibility that methane may be already reaching a tipping point and that the hydroxil that converts methane to carbon dioxide and water may have become saturated and unable to absorb more.
Finally, it is important to remember that while methane is a short-lived GHG it is both far more potent and also eventually converts to carbon dioxide so the global heating continues but just more slowly. We have to think about the scale and the impact of current agriculture; the climate tipping point; and why we eat? Food for Thought?
This book is about the end of the world as we know it, how we got here, who we will share new worlds with, and what we might do about making survival plans? Better still, it goes beyond survival, how we might enjoy a meaningful life in the new future worlds we build. I have concentrated on the hegemonic worldview that prevails around the globe today. It is one based on the traditions and philosophies of the Northern hemisphere and Graeco-Judaeo-Christian beliefs.
I was born and live in Aotearoa, ‘New Zealand’ that is the ancestral home to the tanga te whenuea, ‘people of the land’, Te Māori, who have created their own worlds, Te Ao Māori, that are very different to those I describe in this book. Their wisdom deserves full exploration but I lack the space or the language to do it justice. Buddhism also offers us other worlds that could liberate us from Plato’s chains, but given the limitations I have here, all I can do is hint at vast worlds that need, building, bending, and breaking. I have concentrated on so-called Western thought not because it is right, or the best world view, but for the very reason it is hegemonic, dominates, and in many ways is erroneous. I would need far more space to discuss other worldviews but would add that our solutions to the end of this world may very well lie in the alternatives. A survey published in 2015 found that: “Almost 80% agreed ‘we need to transform our worldview and way of life if we are to create a better future for the world’ (activism). About a half agreed ‘the world’s future looks grim so we have to focus on looking after ourselves and those we love’ (nihilism), and over a third that ‘we are facing a final conflict between good and evil in the world’ (fundamentalism). The findings offer insight into the willingness of humanity to respond to the challenges identified by scientists and warrant increased consideration in scientific and political debate.” 
This book is about a speculative art form, world bending, not just for ourselves, but also for the nonhuman majority, with the aspiration to make better worlds together. Before we materially construct anything, we must aesthetically take action, imaginatively and creatively engaging with both the organic and inorganic things all around us – we must get over the guilt and fall in love with ourselves and the others who share this world!
This book is speculative and even utopian, it is not, however, a blueprint with step by step instructions.
How much do we really know about our World?
If we were to admit that some of our ideas were not very good and that they have got us into a bit of a pickle, then surely we have to come up with new ideas, and the only way to do that is to redesign our thinking. Worlds are subjective, cognitive constructs, created by humans and nonhumans alike, and these worlds are perforated by the worlds of others.
They are neither discrete, nor completely objective, but they are real. Individually we are world builders, but this is not an exclusive human skill. I want to discuss how you might go about building better worlds. I will explore ways that we can be more receptive to new creative forces that can open up future worlds, and at the same time be wary of the cognitive restraints and hidden controls – historically created and currently exist. World building is a massive and transdisciplinary task and this book can only touch on some of the topics I think might be interesting to you. If we want to move beyond the dangerous limitations of the spurious complexity in this world, we require a co-design approach that engages all of those who will co-exist in the worlds of the future. This leads us to consider the exciting possibilities of creative collaboration. It is obvious that even if this book was the collective wisdom of everything on this planet, much, much, larger than the size of the Internet, it will still only be a tidbit, a collection of data points, one person’s opinion shaped by an echo chamber of facts, knowledge, and other opinions I have had the privilege to read, discuss and research. I cannot help but be mostly ignorant of the sum total of scientific data, world literature, culture, and technologies, but I believe this humble start is essential to overcome our cognitive dissonance and denial that has stopped the dominant world view from trying.
A 21st-century philosopher, Graham Harman wrote:
“though the West is justly proud of its scientific tradition stretching back to ancient Greece, perhaps the greatest intellectual hero of that early period was Socrates (469– 399 BCE), who claimed no knowledge whatsoever. Indeed, in Plato’s dialogues, we often find Socrates candidly asserting that he has never been anyone’s teacher, and that the only thing he knows is that he knows nothing.”
Arrogance often causes harm because it ignores things that contradict one’s world view; it requires humility to imagine multiple world views. Understanding world views, and fostering a sandbox for creating worlds, bending worlds, and ending worlds, is about ‘thing related reality’, or the philosophy of being a thing. The AI (Artificial Intelligence), expert, Marvin Minsky, asked “Why must we ‘thingify’ everything?” He then goes on to say:
“We’re imprisoned by our poverty of words because even though we have good ways to describe objects and actions, we lack methods for describing dispositions and processes.”
It is, of course, exactly what we need in order to approach the end of the world, a well thought out purpose, collection of dispositions, and processes before we act. We need a shared sense of purpose and an equitable value system to underpin it. Value should not be based on shareholders’ ROI but on a philosophical recalibration of our purpose for this planet.
This goes beyond big data, information, and the study of knowledge, or epistemology. We must remain open and flexible to multi-world views, and recognise that the world we have built for ourselves, and are currently expanding, maybe coming to an end. The speculative art of world bending, building, and breaking is an urgent endeavour and requires new thinking about the majority of things with which we must co-design future worlds. World bending is our ability to play with models and to flex and bend them to the point of breaking. Are we sufficiently humble, and creative to begin to reimagine better worlds? As Bret Victor, a software designer once said:
“The most dangerous thought you can have as a creative person is to think you know what you are doing because once you think you know what you are doing, you stop looking around for ways of doing things. You stop seeing ways of doing things. You become blind…”
Our models and concepts define not just the way we think but the technology we think with. For many of us, our phones and our computers are mysterious black boxes but they have been designed by those who would presume to know the technology, and how it works? Yet, there is much that is also hidden from their view. Victor, who is a designer and programmer himself, addresses the anointed wizards of the computer age, telling them:
“We don’t know what programming is, we don’t know what computing is, we don’t even know what a computer is. And once you truly believe that, and once you truly understand that – you are free and you can think anything.”
While it might appear that we have instant access to the world’s information and knowledge, via the Internet, and the vast amount of knowledge collected and created on encyclopaedic websites such as Wikipedia, it is this very illusion that has led to what amounts to our mass delusion – in fact we really know very little. It is estimated that Google has only indexed 0.004% of all online data, estimated to be 200 terabytes. Google is currently the most popular Internet search engine at around 74% of online searches.
In 2017 IBM estimated that in only that one year 90% of all data on the Internet had been created, and it is currently estimated that the trend will see an average doubling every year. If we consider the speed of change of data creation, right here, right now, as you read this, it will already be significantly out of date. You can take a look at Google’s search engine on a daily basis, and see that while the amount of data has grown exponentially year on year, that the number of web pages indexed is still pretty much the same at around 4-5 billion web pages indexed in the past 2 years. In other words, unless search engines dramatically improve the speed and amount of pages they index, the proportion of information we can search is rapidly shrinking.
The vast majority of information is being generated on the ‘deep web’. This is not the same as the ‘darknet’ – a dangerous, and dubious source of illegal, unscrupulous, and violent information. The deep web is another thing, it is generated by machines, the majority of the data explosion in the future will not just be human-readable data, but most data will be generated by machines, to be read by machines, via the Internet of Things (IoT) devices connected to the Internet. Most of that data will be hidden, or unintelligible to humans and contribute to what has been described as ‘data swamps’ of ‘junk data’. According to the IDC report sponsored by Seagate the amount of data is predicted to grow from 33 Zettabytes in 2018 to 175 Zettabytes of data by 2025, and the IoT is estimated to contribute approximately 50% of that.
We are already living in a world outnumbered, and overpowered by a vast majority of things that are nonhuman, but as we increase the production of IoT devices we are creating a world where communication and data generation will be almost entirely for the machines, objects or things that have no intrinsic motivation, care or feeling about humans, animals, plants, or minerals. The IoT, and the AI that will administer and receive their data can be programmed to serve human values, but the point is, they do not currently share our intrinsic motivations, and ethics is only considered in a minority of use cases and is usually extrinsic. Hayles, explains that:
“Ethics cannot be plastered on as an afterthought after the system has already been formed and set in motion, an unfortunate tendency, for example, in courses on “ethics” in business practices, which too often focus on how to satisfy legal requirements so that one does not become the object of a lawsuit.”
Unless we can read this data, and have sensible discussions about the assumptions behind the algorithms and protocols then the alien logic of the machines could be our demise. Big data, AI, and the IoT are leading to worlds of spurious complexity, and according to the historian, Joseph Tainter, complexity leads to societal collapse.
One of the significant trends in the past few years is the Quantified Self, or Lifelogging. While it is understandable that as a species we are fascinated by ourselves, as we generate more and more anthropocentric data, such as your daily steps; we are also becoming conscious of big data that has nothing to do with humans. We currently wallow in what Carr calls ‘the shallows’ as we are overwhelmed by data that may be meaningless, or so vast, and opaque, that it can be part of manipulation and deception to create spurious meaning. There are already those that are more interested in services such as Google’s AdWords, and search optimisation, than understanding real humans, let alone nonhuman things that deserve our attention, such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. Nicholas Carr points out that despite the deluge of data, and the explosive access to academic research via the Internet, scholars are not necessarily more open to new ideas, but have tended to become more siloed in their research.
He cites research by sociologist, James Evans, of Chicago University, that showed, after an analysis of a database of 34 million scholarly articles, between 1945 – 2005, that scholars in fact cited fewer articles than they had done before then. Evans argued that growing the amount of available research online has led to a paradoxical ‘narrowing of science and scholarship’.
According to Maryanne Wolf, the Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, this may relate to the very way that academics are currently researching and reading. She claims that screen technology has changed the way we are all thinking. The tsunami of data, we are now confronted with, is driving a digital attention deficit disorder that promotes speed reading, skimming, and keyword searches. In the book, The Slow Professor, the authors, Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber, not only bemoan the administrative workload of the managerial universities, but the breakneck speed that people are reading and writing without deep, and contemplative thinking. Speed does not encourage radical ideas, but rather, quick, iterative modifications of existing concepts; a bureaucratic busyness. If academics were to forego quality over quantity and adopt a slow meditation on the plight of our world and contemplate human coexistence with others, this will in turn also help the humans. They quote Jane Tompkins who writes “there’s no intellectual life left in universities, or precious little because people are too busy getting ahead professionally … to stop and talk to each other.” Wolf believes that we need to “cultivate a new kind of brain: a ‘bi-literate’ reading brain capable of the deepest forms of thought in either digital or traditional mediums.”
When we pause to think deeply about the entire human population, we must be struck by how little we know about it as a ‘thing’. Timothy Morton calls humanity a ‘hyperobject’, something beyond human-scale understanding, so vast in size, and across such a large longitudinal time expanse, that we cannot fully comprehend it. Even if we could understand humanity, this is still ignoring the vast majority of nonhumans here with us on Earth, or in the Universe. On this small rock, placed third from an average-sized star, known as the Sun, on the outer reaches of one of 100 billion galaxies, we are facing the sixth mass extinction of our planet’s biosphere. On reflection, not only do we not know what we do not know about all the nonhuman things that make up the biosphere, but consider the enormous numbers of things that have gone before us in the first five extinction events; the 99.99% that are now extinct. Our ability to interrogate them is severely limited by the study of dead fossils and other inadequate, but ingenious, technologies.
Triumphant Science and Technology
It would seem that modern technological culture has suffered from a massive teenage ego trip, but if we are to grow up, we need to acknowledge our ignorance and our co-inhabitants. Most of us have not stopped to muse on how little we know about everything. Scientists have just recently discovered that a tiny microbe, hemimastigotes, do not fit on the Tree of Life, under a kingdom-level supergroup, such as the one that includes animals and fungi, but are a whole new group on their own and according to one of the research teams this “is a sharp reminder about how little we still know about the diversity of life on Earth.”
Biology, is but one domain of knowledge, a lens to view our worlds, however, world bending must acknowledge that there is no privilege for any one domain, whether it is the sciences, the arts, the humanities, or religions to name just some world views. In 1905 Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, and what followed was the beginning of the end of the Newtonian world. It was no longer a clockwork universe, and what resulted was an explosion of technological and social change. It heralded the rebirth of the primordial virtual, the potentiality of the actual, in which possible worlds are infinite and sites of creativity. Suddenly, scientific certainty was overwhelmed by strange and mysterious theories such as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that showed that it was impossible to predict both the velocity, and the position of a subatomic particle – the future was essentially uncertain. Paradox and probability became the defining ideas of the 20th century, and the fundamental limits to human knowledge became apparent. According to Andrew Thomas, “The old certainties were starting to unravel. From now on, the only certainty was uncertainty.” 
The power of E=mc2 is still radically changing how we build worlds, giving us such wonders as lasers, the Internet, and quantum computing. We have built the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest machine in the history of our world, built with over 10,000 scientists, untold tradespeople, 27 kms in circumference, and costing €7.5 billion. It is capable of propelling subatomic particles at close to the speed of light, and has confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, nicknamed the God Particle because it supports, but does not prove, the theories of the multiverse, and that string theory may explain how the universe creates matter and could be expanding, or inflating due to inflatons. These speculative theories are the results of the creative minds of theoretical physicists and play an important role in world building. These theories and experiments agree with speculative realism that states that the virtual is not illusory, but real, as it becomes concrete actuality before it disappears again into virtuality.
However, while the Higgs boson is an extraordinary leap forward in scientific knowledge, scientific theory has postulated a massive thing, known as Dark Matter, that composes 85% of the mass of the universe, and a quarter of the energy – they do not know what it is, it is invisible. It would be fair to surmise that at the very least we are 85% ignorant of the universe, but that ignores how little we know about our own tiny world, and there is another uncomfortable fact. Dark Energy has been a theory that has been around since the 1990’s, and is broadly supported by the General Theory of Relativity, however, it also happens to be speculative, and was theorised simply to make the numbers work and to explain gravitation, and the acceleration of an expanding universe, or the Big Bang. According to the standard model the total mass-energy of the universe, and Dark Energy, explained by the cosmological constant, makes up 68.3% of the universe, Dark Matter is 26.8% mass-energy, and ordinary matter that we can see only 4.9%. Therefore if one or more of the multiverse theories are practical, if not observable, the concrete reality, or 4.9% mass-energy that we assume is the only reality, maybe only a tiny percent of one universe. All of this speculation by the world’s leading theoretical physicists leads me to conclude that at this point in time we only know very little about the universe we live in.
You Have To See It To Believe It
While many people still imagine that reality is based on empirically observable events and objects, the physics of the 20th century changed all that. Physicality has disappeared before our eyes, and in 2017 we said goodbye to the very last measurement based on a physical property. The kilogram, is no longer referenced to a physical object. The International Systems of Units, or SI, such as the meter for measurement of length, the kilogram for mass, and the second for time, were previously all based on direct physically observable objects. Since 1889, the measure of mass, the kilogram had been previously based on a metal cylinder called the International Prototype of the Kilogram. It was replaced by a new definition, the Planck constant, set to 6.62607015×10−34J⋅s, exactly.
Since Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (1927) we are now more aware of the uncertainty of the unobservable reality. This can be confirmed by the accuracy of the measurement of the nonzero cosmological constant, or the energy density of space. Dark energy is theoretically created by quantum field jitters. This anti-gravity, as it is known, explains the accelerating expansion of space, which gives scientists a constant, which is accurate to a measurable, but unobservable, 1.38 x 10-123. Because the constant is unobservable, and likely to be never observable, it has been described as “the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics!” This unimaginably small number is so close to zero, and so beyond human scale, that it could just as well be infinite. Compare this number with the cells in your body, 1013, or the time in seconds since the Big Bang, 1018, or even the number of photons in the observable part of the universe, 1088 – none of these come even close to the scale and accuracy of the cosmological constant which has been calculated at 1.38 x 10-123.
Quantum mechanics theorises the existence of probability waves, in which the virtual becomes an actuality, and this model because of the accuracy of its mathematical predictions, despite being unobservable, is widely regarded by physicists to be a valid description of reality. Because we cannot know whether light is a particle or a wave, and cannot measure its position and momentum at the same time, scientists are confident of their uncertainty about reality. Worse still, quantum mechanics confirms that two observers can experience different or conflicting realities – it is, therefore, officially fuzzy.
Scientists are still trying to come up with, and prove what is known as the Grand Unified Theory of Everything, otherwise known as GUT or TOE, depending on your anatomical predilection. However, new philosophical approaches such as the OOO, (Object Oriented Ontology, often called the Triple O), and speculative realism, deny that this will ever be possible with the current philosophy of science, if at all. Empiricism may still be considered by many to be common sense, but it no longer commands theoretical physics, that is responsible for many of the most influential discoveries, inventions, and predictions in the past one hundred years. Experimental physics may still attempt to apply empirical methods to determine the nature of reality, and even the inflationary multiverse may ultimately succumb to experiments that show that our universe has collided with another shown through images of the cosmic microwave background radiation. Our science has moved beyond our senses ability to directly sense the data; we are more and more dependent on the mathematics that makes predictions about things we can measure.
Empirical bias continues to constrain alternative modes of thinking, even in the digital humanities. Katherine Hayles in her book, Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (2017) states her preference for empirical evidence, criticising the OOO and philosophy in general, for its discursive bias. Citing Bruno Latour, Hayles argues that without empirical support “it is impossible to distinguish between what is actually the case and what is ideologically driven fantasy.” She criticises Harman and Bogost for their assertion that: ‘objects recede from us infinitely and so can never be known at all, which seems to me [Hayles] obviously contradicted by empirical knowledge in all its forms including science, engineering, medicine, anthropology, and digital humanities.’
My short discussion of how physics has become more than comfortable with non-empirical theories would seem to rebut her point. Hayles argues convincingly for the existence of non conscious cognition, even amongst nonhumans, but stops short of including inorganic matter, creating a gulf between the singularity of the Big Bang from the moment at 10-42 seconds, and the emergence of intelligence, cognition and consciousness. For now this seems to be an event horizon which we cannot reach beyond – we cannot observe anything before 10-42 seconds.
Speculative philosophy provides a cognitive tool, not based on knowledge, but on wisdom, to envisage a nonhuman universe of affective things which, according to Alfred North Whitehead, ‘feel’ each other, and themselves, even the inorganic, without knowing the ultimate truth about those things. This is not some sort of material mysticism, but what Whitehead calls ‘transcendent empiricism’. Just as living beings comprehend things, Whitehead speculates that inorganic matter can also apprehend other things, or as described it ‘prehend’. Later in her book, Unthought, Hayles discusses the power of Whitehead’s speculative realism. As she explains: “Prehension is of course the term that Alfred North Whitehead uses to formulate a processual worldview in which “actual entities” (Whitehead 1978, 7, 13 passim) arise and coalesce.” Whitehead claims this is a cosmic creativity of which humanity is but one small part.
Hayles dismissive approach to the OOO here, however, fails to fully acknowledge the scientific demotion of empiricism, and the continuing hegemonic effect of this explanation of reality. Hayles does acknowledge that the unknowable and non-computable do exist, and that what she calls ‘technical cognition’, or the technological extension of our social, political, and economic prejudices can result in protocols and algorithms that command and control us.
Our standard units of measurement no longer rely on physical objects, and science has gone well beyond observable things, reaching even the limits of theoretical physics and mathematics, so there is no contradiction, there is no privilege granted to empirical observation. This empirical world view ultimately delimits all world views and our search for speculative futures that playfully use theoretical models. We need new cognitive tools and alternative worlds to model the future.
According to Graham Harman philosophy is not the search for knowledge, logic or mathematical validation, (as it is currently understood, and taught in many universities), but rather, its meaning is derived from its Greek etymology, i.e. the search and love of wisdom, but without the possibility of attainment. This philosophical view embraces the awe and wonderment of reality. Harman states that the OOO is ‘against physicalism, smallism, anti-fictionalism, and literalism’ (2017), and he makes the claim that it is the philosophical ‘theory of everything’. Harman denies physics the same opportunity because physics cannot account for the reality of fiction, poetry or metaphor. For Harman, the true core of philosophical enquiry and thinking is not science, or logic, but is more closely aligned with the arts and aesthetics. Science often uses mathematics to serve its objectives, however, according to my colleague, Jorn Bettin:
“Mathematic[s] is a form of art and just like art is closely associated with aesthetics by practitioners. There are even experiments that show that mathematicians experience brain states when looking at mathematically pleasing results that correspond to the states of people seeing art they enjoy. Since parts of mathematics are extremely useful in various sciences, mathematics is easily lumped together with science, but this confuses the motivations of scientists with the motivations of mathematicians and artists. The dichotomy between science and the arts is an artificial construct, I suspect fuelled by the big chasm that some scientists seem to perceive in relation to the arts and that some artists seem to perceive in relation to science…I argue that these foundations are very close to what humans experience at the boundary between conscious thought and subconscious processes. Whether the output is music, dance, visual art, mathematics, or some other form of expression depends on the context and individual preference and neurology.”
The appreciation of a metaphorical reality assumes a shared reality, and not just an anthropocentric reality, that humanity dictates. According to Harman, the OOO can be immaterial, at any scale, fictional, and metaphorical, and therefore capable of providing a philosophical model of everything but with the caveat that reality remains partially withdrawn and unknowable even to itself. As the philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead wrote, philosophy is interested in the ultimate generalisation of reality but admits that a comprehensive description will ultimately elude us. However, neither Whitehead nor Harman dismisses or trashes other forms of reality, they recognise numerous world views, even in an anthropic sense, such as science, engineering, philosophy, art, and design, but none of these world views can claim a monopoly with their description of reality. One of the serious problems we now face is that the foundation of one world view claims ascendancy over all others. It is a neoliberal, selectively scientific, and political, world view that is built into a ubiquitous techno-liberal reality. The algorithms and protocols of that techno-reality physically and cognitively control those things connected to its networks. According to Bratton much of this is accidental and is even contested by various ideologies, such as China’s state capitalism, but its flavour is distinct and found worldwide.
Considering the existential crisis we now face it is urgent that we develop conceptual tools – novel world benders – to assist in imagining and designing new worlds because this ideological one is coming to an end. We should be working on our most pressing communal project, the health of the planet Earth. We live in apocalyptic times, not in any religious sense, but rather of our own making because we have physically and irretrievably damaged our world. John Hall explains that our apocalyptic outlook is not new, it is a belief that has a long history. In our past, the coming of the apocalypse may have caused us to look to the skies for the signs of the end, but in recorded history, despite catastrophic natural disasters, our planet, and our species have survived. Hall explains the historic meaning of the apocalypse is:
“For most of us, “Apocalypse” suggests the cataclysmic end of the world. Yet in Greek “apocalypse” means “revelation,” and the real subject of the Book of Revelation is how the sacred arises in history at a moment of crisis and destiny…
Rather than the actual end of the world, the apocalypse is typically “the end of the world as we know it,” an extreme social and cultural disjuncture in which dramatic events reshape the relations of many individuals at once to history.”
This book is about world building, world bending, and world ending, but also about technology, creativity, hope and our moral imperative to do the right thing – if we can figure out what that is, and get on with it. Fear of cataclysmic disaster and the end of the world may not be novel ideas; ancient religions, cults, and myths about the apocalypse go back to the beginning of languages. Even in modern history there have been numerous dire predictions, and warnings, that THE END IS NIGH!. What is new is that our apocalyptic fears are no longer based on religious proclamations, but on scientific, political, artistic, and increasingly, philosophical narratives.
At the end of the Second World War, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, frightened millions of people who contemplated that a MAD man in the Kremlin, or the Whitehouse, and most likely both, would start the Mother of all Wars. Even if you were lucky enough to be thousands of miles from the population epicentres, and therefore, away from the primary targets in a nuclear war, you were assured that you would probably die a slow and painful death from starvation, as the nuclear winter swept in on the plutonium laden clouds from the fallout. Well, that did not happen but we have some new MAD men in town and they know just the right buttons to push to terrify a whole new generation of fearful humans. Fear is a powerful tool of political manipulation and it has been used by both religious and secular leaders to focus political debate, and quell the masses since the beginning of recorded history. Recently, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the symbolic Doomsday Clock closer to the end of time, now it is just two minutes to the darkest hour.
“Because of the extraordinary danger of the current moment, the Science and Security Board today moves the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock 30 seconds closer to catastrophe,” said Rachel Bronson, president of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “This is the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.”
What seems to have occurred throughout history, especially in the Judeo Christian traditions, is that human culture has suffered from a history of manic episodes in which we have reeled from unfounded optimism, to illogical despair. At one moment the four horsemen of the apocalypse are about to descend upon us, and at another the Y2K disaster fizzles out. We then rejoiced in a new millennium of tech-toys that are lifted straight from the excited pages of a Buck Rogers 1930’s comic, Armageddon 2419, A.D. All of this only to again lapse into a depressed state of paralysis as the collapse of the subprime American housing market resigns the victims to accepting banker’s bonuses, and a strange demagogue strides from his hit TV show screaming ‘Your fired!’, and starts the chant, ‘Lock her up!’ If only we could get our meds right, maybe we could think straight, and figure out what to do next? It is as if we are Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Ulysses, our ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’.
In this book, I would like to outline my research findings, the opinions of others far more knowledgeable than me, and why, despite our genius for innovation and technological solutions, yet we now face a psychological and physical existential crisis. It appears inevitable there will be widespread social, economic, and environmental collapse of vast tracts of land and oceans that support many forms of life, including ours. Yet most of us perform an unconscious psychological trick, denying the bad news because it upsets our world view. We latch on to reports and stories that fit with that view and any doubt we may have will default to outdated, or worse, false evidence.
Threats To The Physical World
In 2003 the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that sea level should rise by a mere half a meter by the end of this century, however, what is often forgotten is that they didn’t include the impact of ice melts in Greenland and Antarctica – it is now known that the speed of the ice melt is much faster than earlier thought. In the fourth assessment by the IPCC temperatures could reach the upper end of the scale predicted to be 3-60 Celsius. If that did happen and the atmospheric carbon dioxide goes a little higher than it is now, we could be seeing a rerun of the Mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum (MMCO) that happened between 17 and 15 million years ago when CO2 levels were only in the region of 400 – 450ppm. The shock is that if that should happen we could see a repeat rise of sea levels of not half a metre but 25 – 40 meters due to ice melt.
In 2015 the Paris climate talks set a goal of holding temperature increases to 1.50 Celsius or at least 20 Celsius, but by 2018 the IPCC reported we might go past that by 2030. It is also expected we will soar past 410 ppm of CO2 in 2019 so if we mimic the MMCO we could be looking at a much higher range of 3-60 C. McKibben warns:
“There’s even this: if we keep raising carbon dioxide levels, we may not be able to think straight anymore. At a thousand parts per million (which is within the realm of possibility for 2100), human cognitive ability falls 21 percent. “The largest effects were seen for Crisis Response, Information Usage, and Strategy,” a Harvard study reported, which is too bad, as those skills are what we seem to need most.”
Many of us want to believe that global warming can be controlled like a tap or a thermostat; we only have to dial-up 20C and we can then carry on business as usual. It appears more likely that we are in for some shocking surprises as our world buckles and bends beneath our feet. It may well be that we are already facing runaway global warming and the extreme weather maybe part of a feedback cycle pushing us towards a tipping point with no prospect of return until the Earth system has completed its heating cycle. The reality is to have some hope we have to drastically rethink and rebuild our conceptual world.
The magnitude of this existential crisis appears to be totally new, and for many, unexpected. You may be reading this and be wondering, ‘wait, who said the world was about to end?’, ‘surely we will bring global warming under control’, ‘it’s a gradual problem we will fix it in time’. Of course, you may even believe all of this hysteria is politically motivated by peddlers of ‘fake news’. What I do set out to show is that panic, and the end of the world, are ancient human hobbies, often encouraged by those that believe they have the divine right to rule, or they simply have an insatiable power lust. But what is novel, in the history of humanity, and now in the 21st century, is that we have the most reliable, and verifiable information, to date, pointing towards the sixth mass extinction of the planet, and humanity is a species that is numbered in that long list now facing obliteration. It turns out that cataclysmic disasters are more common than we thought, and that only seventy-five thousand years ago there was a massive volcanic eruption that almost wiped humanity out, and possibly only left around two thousand descendants on the planet.
The paradox of dramatic geological events, or hyperobjects, that span millions of years, and result in extreme climatic changes, appear to us as violent and undesirable. However, volcanic activity, while it has been responsible for mass extinctions, well before human evolution, is also an essential catalyst for life.
232 million years ago a mass extinction known as the Carnian Pluvial Event (CPE) occurred following the eruption of a string of volcanic eruptions in western Canada. The CPE is evident today from the Wrangellia basalts, that caused a massive release of CO2, and resulted in global warming of 3 – 10 degrees Celsius. The CPE illustrates our difficulty in comprehending the massive spatiotemporal scale of such a hyperobject that resulted in a wet and humid period of rain that continued without a pause for 2 million years.
This vast hyperobject not only puts human existence on Earth into perspective but also signalled the evolution of the first dinosaurs. Our anthropocentric opinion may view extinction with horror, but this archetypal cycle of evolution and extinction should also inform our discussion of the Anthropocene.
While we ignore the scientific reality of the Anthropocene we employ a psychological defence known as cognitive dissonance to allow us to carry on, business as usual – for most humans it is hard, if not impossible to imagine a future world without humans. In 1956 an American social psychologist, Leon Festinger, published a book based on his findings of a doomsday cult he had infiltrated. His research examined what happens when people are faced with a reality that clashes with their worldview. In his book, When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World, Festinger wrote:
“A man [sic] with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Festinger had read in a local newspaper that “Lake City will be destroyed by a flood from the Great Lake just before dawn, Dec. 21.” According to a Chicago suburbanite, Dorothy Martin, this apocalyptic deluge would be preceded by a visit from advanced beings from another planet. “These beings have been visiting the earth, she says, is what we call flying saucers.” The chosen would then be taken up into the heavens leaving the non-believers behind to be drowned by the Flood. When the clock struck midnight and the flying saucers appeared to be delayed. One believer said that they had burned all they’re bridges, and turned their backs on the world, they could not afford to doubt.
Festinger, infiltrated Mrs Martin’s world ending cult to attempt to discover “What happens when people experience a severe crisis in their convictions?”His theory of cognitive dissonance is not exclusive to the looney fringe, as pointed out by researchers from Yale University, they showed that educated people are ‘more unshakable in their convictions than anybody.’, and that they have greater resources at their disposal to ‘prove’ it.
We continue to fool ourselves that our behaviour is not accelerating our demise. Freud described our self-destructive behaviour as civilization’s ‘death drive’, and yet, as our ‘hyperloop’ picks up speed, the time bomb is still ticking and no one has figured out how to defuse it? We have fought off the superstition of religion, scoffed at the logical ‘rapture of the nerds’, and still, we have this sneaking suspicion that the apocalypse is just around the corner. We need time to think. Carl Jung believed we need to heal the split in our psyche to bring our conscious self back in touch with our subconscious ego, and our limbic desires. He wrote:
“Our intellect has created a new world that dominates nature, and has populated it with monstrous machines. The latter are so indubitably useful that we cannot see even a possibility of getting rid of them or our subservience to them. Man is bound to follow the adventurous promptings of his scientific and inventive mind and to admire himself for his splendid achievements. At the same time, his genius shows the uncanny tendency to invent things that become more and more dangerous, because they represent better and better means for wholesale suicide.”
The Ghost in the Machine
We will explore the ancient ghost tales, and the technological histories to see if we can cut the wires to the bomb before it is too late. For example, how could a stylish set of Bluetooth headphones lead us to the brink of disaster? While we might marvel at the amazing high fidelity of the technology, we are deaf to the geological grinding of the tectonic plates beneath our feet? If we were to retrace the past it may reveal a strange assemblage of things, agents and concepts. Bluetooth technology is that strange assemblage: a Danish Viking King; runes; and a scandalous naked beauty, who came up with Bluetooth as a military technology during WWII.These ‘stranger things’ may reveal our true nature, as we get to know our dead ancestors; those trapped ghosts in the machine. As the billions of lines of code continue to build layer upon layer, we risk losing the original thread that will lead us out of the labyrinth, or alternatively, will we be killed by a 21st century Minotaur cyborg?
These stories and narratives shape our cultural, social and physical world, and yet, biologists still struggle with their evolutionary purpose; why do we tell stories? In 1976 Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene, put forward the speculative concept of the meme that has gone on to prove its own existence by becoming a meme itself. Lynn Margulis and David Sloan Wilson have successfully rebutted Dawkins view of selfish genes, and cybernetic biologists, Maturana and Varela, put forward their own evolutionary theory of culture in their book, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (1987). Brian Boyd attempted to account for the evolutionary purpose of the story, and the theory of biosemiotics claims that ‘life’ itself comes from coded machines that can explain the evolution of story and culture.
According to Ray Kurzweil’s evolutionary theory, we are participants in a cosmic evolution that began with the chemical genesis following the Big Bang. Kurzweil outlines a series of six cosmological epochs that traces the evolution of intelligence. Beginning with the physics of chemical reactions in which information was stored in the atomic structure, and then evolved into biology in which information was stored in DNA. From there the third epoch was the leap to the evolution of the brain that began the storage of information in neural patterns. As each of these epochs occurs, according to the ‘S’ curve of innovation, there is a quickening of intelligence as the pace accelerates towards a singularity. In the fourth epoch information is stored in hardware and software design; the technological epoch. Kurzweil explains it is at this juncture that human intelligence becomes impatient with the speed of biological evolution and ‘outboards’ its intelligence and storage in information technology, and propagates itself through the communications network.
Arthur C. Clarke, in his short story Dial F for Frankenstein (1961) describes the phone network as a global brain, an AI that one day wakes up, and wrecks havoc on the financial, transportation and military systems. In Kurzweil’s fifth epoch, that we are now just entering, he predicts a merger of technology and human intelligence. This is the last epoch he imagines before the universe wakes up and runaway ‘nonbiological’ intelligence saturates the universe, exploiting black holes and whole galaxies in the search for more power.
In his book, Homo Deus: a brief history of tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari speculates that during the fifth and sixth epoch humanity will evolve into immortal gods. The ancient myth of Prometheus and the Western concept of technological progress originated with Aeschylus, in his book, Prometheus Bound, (c. 430 BCE) and referred to the progress of this demigod, rather than humanity. Our conflicted thoughts about becoming immortal gods are bound to the ancient archetypes and the warnings of the original sin – if we did become immortal gods, it would indeed be the end of the world as we know it.
The dangers of AI and our abdication of our moral imperative to create new world solutions based on philosophically, morally and ecologically sound creations, could lead to a self-realised existential crisis. Our ability for self-deception and mass delusion are enormous challenges as we may be accelerating towards a technological singularity which may be out of our control. We now face the urgent task of exorcising the demons of our past in order to ensure that our ‘Mind Children’ do not accelerate the sixth mass extinction of the planet, and to borrow Google’s phrase, ensure they ‘do no evil’. The speculative question is whether the human moral imperatives will become obsolete, as we transition beyond posthuman, to a superintelligence that transcends the biological limitations of that imagination, or whether our ancient myths are simply warning us that this is a fool’s errand?
Jungian psychology would suggest, that rather than totally abandoning our pre-modern archetypes, that we need to synthesise the pre and post-modern psyche. While there exists the opportunity for conscious, positive solutions, there are also examples of how artistic and creative integration have already begun with the premodern epochs. Maxwell speculates that the rise of rock and roll, and other music movements:
“seem literally to have been training the modern body to overcome its addiction to mentality in the embrace of a more expansive mode. It is no accident that the “hip” countercultures of the twentieth century have often been associated with archetypal modes of thought.”
Some may wonder will the robots be joining us? But it may be more appropriate to wonder if we will be joining them? Can we critically reflect on all our mistakes and ensure that bigotry, bias, and ecological stupidity of our past are not passed onto the immortals in the algorithms and code before it is released into the cosmos? Is it already too late, or is this our most urgent and important project, our legacy bequest, before the end of humanity? The future is not all bleak, there is still room for fun and games, awe and wonderment, but it does seem to me that we first need to realise how we got to this point before we can seriously discuss something so awful as the end of the world by our own design. It may of course be true that this world has come to the end of its useful life, and that our current worldview is exhausted, and a new epoch of multiple worldviews are ready to evolve. The end of the world as we know it is not just something a Hollywood producer dreamed up, although there is plenty of movie evidence that we like to scare ourselves to death, but rather it is something that sober minded scientists are now concerned about. We face the possibility of the end of the physical world, the end of biological lives, but also the conceptual end of the world, and all of these maybe simply evolutionary destiny.
After thirty years, and 12 projects, the IGBP Earth System panel have concluded that we have entered a new geological epoch, the first created by one species – humans, known as the Anthropocene. Our impact has been felt by every physical layer of this planet: the biological – the biosphere; the rock – the lithosphere; the water – the hydrosphere; and the air – the atmosphere. Not only have we dramatically changed these essential physical layers, but we do not know exactly how they work, and how they sustain life? This is what Earth System scientists attempt to understand and their current conclusions are not that cheery, because these systems are both fragile and unpredictable, and while we inhabit the only ‘blue marble’ in this solar system, in the near future the spheres may radically change, and that will change what can live here.
In geological terms all of this has come about incredibly quickly, following the last geological epoch, the Holocene, that only lasted 10,000 – 12,000 years, a mere ‘blipvert’ in the history of the planet. It is both a strength and weakness of humanity that we have no visceral understanding of things that are beyond human scale, both in space, and in time. We therefore have come to think of the long present of the Holocene, that long (apparently) stable, mild climate, as a ‘natural’ state. However, the world, and a lot of the universe, is not stable for long, and just because geological and climatic disasters can be hostile to life, this does not mean it is not a perfectly reasonable description of reality, and how things just are. It transpires that even our view of the Holocene, as a somewhat stable geological epoch, is far from correct.
According to the Earth scientist, Bill McGuire, the Holocene experienced a long series of cold snaps, with average falls dropping as much as 50 C, happening around every 1500 years, recorded at 5900, 4200, 2800 and 1400 years ago, known collectively as the Bond events. These have also been blamed for the collapse of a number of ancient civilisations, including the Akkadian Empire, and Egypt’s age of the Great Pyramids. Even in recent history we saw what has been called, the Little Ice Age, happen from the 17th to the end of the 19th century.
Not only that, it is estimated by Timothy Morton that the Holocene only began something like 400 generations ago. In that very short period humanity managed to establish agricultural communities that are largely credited as the foundation for modern civilisation. It may come as a shock to you that some ecologists, such as Jarred Diamond, regard agriculture as “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”. His reason, because it put us on this destructive path to the Anthropocene.
According to Ian Angus, and others, here is a short list of some of the outstanding features of the Anthropocene:
There has been a tenfold human population growth in three centuries.
Humans have exploited 20–50 percent of Earth’s land surface.
Humans have destroyed most of the tropical rainforests.
We have built dams and diverted rivers throughout the planet.
We have exploited more than half of all accessible fresh water.
We are responsible for a 25 percent decline of fish in upwelling ocean regions and 35 percent in the continental shelf.
We are responsible for a 16-fold increase in energy use in the twentieth century, raising sulphur dioxide emissions to over twice natural levels.
We have created and use more than twice as much nitrogen fertilizer in agriculture as is used naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems combined.
We are responsible for increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases to their highest levels in over 400,000 years. Greenhouse gases trap in the heat that are increasing the average temperature on the planet.
We will be responsible for the sixth mass extinction on earth. This is the first to be caused by a biological species.
A thin layer of radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing is now spread all over the planet. This along with plastics being found everywhere are considered to be persistent markers of the Anthropocene.
The shocking nature of this tumultuous change to our world challenges us with the provocation of world bending, because just as we have physically bent the world out of shape, we must consider how we can conceptually bend ourselves in order to create new worlds. Our ability to adapt to the shock of the Anthropocene is governed by the ideology that views the past 12,000 as sunk cost that we can never recover. Yet this is not a financial transaction it is founded on the shared resources of the planet, and our consumption has cost not just us but the nonhuman world. The artificial separation of human consciousness and physical nature has been shockingly overthrown as nature rocks us to the core, physically and morally. Bill McGuire in his book, Waking the Giant, draws our attention to not just the atmospheric, hydrospheric, and biospheric markers, but the very rock beneath our feet is beginning to bend, and break. He wrote:
“Sweeping climate change will also act, as it has before, to bend the solid Earth to its bidding; influencing and manipulating once again the geophysical processes that operate at the surface of our planet and in its interior.”
Paul Crutzen and Eric Stroemer coined the word Anthropocene in 2000, Crutzen wrote:
“Unless there is a global catastrophe — a meteorite impact, a world war or a pandemic — mankind will remain a major environmental force for many millennia. A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene.”
The shocking symptoms of the Anthropocene has an apocalyptic tone to it that amplifies many of the fears and superstitions of those who think that human ingenuity, and technology are sheer hubris that will be punished as we face the ‘end of times’. However, we often don’t recognise where these apocalyptic thoughts come from. I suggest it is not a coincidence that the turns of phrase used in the media to describe natural disasters, sound like biblical warnings, especially in America. Words that describe extreme natural events, such as ‘disaster’, ‘catastrophe’, ‘apocalyptic’, ‘inferno’, and ‘hell-on-earth’, are recollections of our collective unconscious, something like a half forgotten, instinctual memory, that recalls ancient myths of human transgressions, and God’s retribution. Just as in the Book of Revelations we are seeing news reports that the ‘signs’ of extreme weather including rains, floods, and fires foretell the coming of the end. It has the same narrative structure as religious myths, but simply replaces the tale of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse with reference to global warming. Our imagination is stimulated by ancient archetypes that have symbolic power and fearful resonance for an audience raised on stories shared by almost every religion and culture that has walked the Earth. The Anthropocene is a familiar ancient tale of the end of times.
Yet, how might we find cognitive antidotes, inoculations and placebos to help us through to the next epoch, the post Anthropocene? We are the first species to cause a phase change, initiating a new geological epoch – we did it, we can no longer deny it; we are moving out of what we perceive to be the stable Holocene into a non analogue environment that humans have never seen; a hot and unpredictable environment that threatens almost every living thing on the planet. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, recently said that if the world doesn’t change course by 2020, we run the risk of runaway climate change. We might be already there.
Over the past 60 years extreme weather events have increased in intensity and regularity. Global warming has been blamed for rising sea levels and storm surges that result in flooding. The Global mean sea level in 2016 was the highest yearly average since measurement began in the 19th century; today it is approximately 20 cm higher. In the US the number of presidentially declared ‘major disasters’ has increased annually four-fold, from 10-20 just 60 years ago, to an average of over 60 per year, over the last decade. Over 90 percent of all natural disasters in the US involved flooding. The reinsurance industry provides dramatic evidence of this increase in losses adjusted for inflation. Before 1990 the annual disaster losses were well under $5 billion, 75 percent of the time, whereas annual disasters since 1990 have exceeded $10 billion, more than 75 percent of the time, with disaster losses exceeding $40 billion in 1993, 1994, 1995, 2004, 2005, 2008, and 2012. Uninsured losses have soared since 1970, and almost all ‘natural disasters’ feature some human contribution, from poor housing construction, to shoddy flood protection.
During the 1950s US flood insurance as part of a homeowner’s insurance package, however, the cost of flood claims on those policies caused many insurance companies to separate flood insurance. The inability of the private market to offer affordable insurance premiums for flooding saw the introduction of the National Flood Insurance Act in 1968. With the cost of regular disasters mounting due to global warming the NFIP (National Flood Insurance Program) is in debt, and the premiums cannot keep pace with the true actuarial risk analysis of the properties. This is a global phenomenon as governments increasingly step in to provide relief funds for flood prone properties and the insurance industry has begun to discuss uninsurable properties in the US, Australia, and New Zealand. The insurance industry has warned that more and more coastal properties will become uninsurable, seeing a drastic drop in property prices as banks will not lend without insurance.
According to their paper on flood insurance in the US, despite the increased risk of property loss from rising sea levels and storm surges from extreme weather, each year more than 1.2 million people move to coastal areas. In 2010, in the US, approximately half the population, 123.3 million people now live in coastal shoreline counties. Most of the world’s megacities are located in coastal zones and have experienced dramatic immigration despite coastal hazards. It is estimated that it is likely that the LECZ (low elevation coastal zone) population will reach 1.4 billion people, with a density of 534 people/km2 by 2060, and will rise by 50% from a 2000 baseline in 2030. It is also estimated that over 315 million people will be living in the 100-year floodplain or a 1% probability of flooding in any year, by 2060. The vast majority of those people will be from less developed countries, however, the migration to coastal zones has been steady in the US and will endanger millions in Europe. If global warming is contained within the 2o C target, set out by the Paris climate accords, it is estimated that 32 to 80 million people worldwide will be exposed to flooding from rising sea levels. Scientists have estimated that if we reach 3o C 275 million people will be affected by flooding. There is significant evidence that global warming will not be contained, and the resulting heatwave could kill millions of people. According to National Geographic “Without major reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2, up to three in four people will face the threat of dying from heat by 2100.”
Greater humidity may be fatal above a wet-bulb thermometer reading of 320C, the wet-bulb reading of 350C is equal to human skin temperature and means the person cannot cool by sweating.
Apocalyptic Dream Machines
After the Californian fires of 2018 firefighters reported that with drier temperatures, and more powerful Santa Ana winds, these fires are becoming a regular year round events, and the ‘new normal’. While many of these extreme events relate to anthropogenic, or human environmental impact, the language of the media reporting them sounds increasingly like the fevered vision of John of Patmos, the supposed author of the Book of Revelation. In August 2018 the Lake Elsinore fires were started by an arsonist on the same day, California, recorded its hottest day in recorded history. It burnt 600,000 acres, 2,000 structures were destroyed, and 9 human lives were lost. According to one reporter, the fires were ‘apocalyptic’, and other American reporters repeatedly referred to it as the ‘Holy Hell Fire’. This language was picked up and repeated by news reporters from media services around the world.
The biblical narrative may have been unintentional, and unconscious, something said to enthral audiences, rather than impart information, but it did also hint at deeply ingrained religious myths shared by Christians and non-Christians alike. The Bible, and the scientific predictions resulting from the Anthropocene, both share an apocalyptic narrative, and whether it is religious or scientific, many believe that the ‘end is nigh’.
This is not an isolated incident, as news footage showed horrific scenes in November 2018, of another wildfire sweeping through an ironically named town in Northern California. According to one Australian news report, “The scene has been described as an apocalypse. The worst wildfire California has ever seen has destroyed the once-lush forest town of Paradise.” And in the UK, a Guardian headline read “Raining hell down’: death toll rises to 25 in California fires, as more victims found.” In the same story the news service reported President Trump saying, “Our hearts are with those fighting the fires,” he wrote, also mentioning evacuees “and the families of the 11 who have died. The destruction is catastrophic. God Bless them all.” This everyday speech that is peppered with apocalyptic motifs illustrates that today, despite the dominance of scientific explanations of reality, just beneath the surface of our secular beliefs are ancient myths and archetypes that haunt our collective unconscious. Once upon a time we believed that droughts, fires, earthquakes and floods were all dispensed by angry gods who were displeased with disobedient humans. We had stolen knowledge, and technology from the gods, and our myths, and paintings graphically depicted our righteous punishment.
In Western culture robots are regarded with a complex mixture of emotions that tell us a lot about how we got here in the first place? Robots have become an iconic symbol of technological progress, but also a mythological ascendant from hell – a Promethean monster, or an AI computerised superhuman. In Japan robots are considered in a much more positive light with the support of the Japanese government, who has seen that their aging population will need more and more assistance in the future, and robots could be the solution.
Why do we regard robots and artificial intelligence with so much distrust? Where do these stories come from? I will explore the history of the robot using it as a lens to understand how we have shaped technology, and how it in turn, came to shape us, and the stories we tell each other. AI has again come to prominence, but does not sit alone in the evolution of technology as it comes together in the convergence of Genetics, Robotics, Information Technology, and Nanotechnology. We are yet to decide if the acronym for this convergence is a naive, or a sinister GRIN? These are just a few of our wonderful Things, so why do we feel so bad? Maybe we have inherited what Freud called, ‘the death drive’, and we are weirdly attracted to the excitement of the apocalypse.
Since the end of the Second World War, the acceleration of the Anthropocene is strangely coupled with the acceleration of computing processing power, or Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, predicted a trend in computing that has come to be associated with his name, Moore’s Law. He stated that every 18-24 months the number of transistors, or semi-conductors on a central processing unit, or computer chip, would double, and the price would remain the same. His law has held true for the past 60 years and has even been traced back, by Ray Kurzweil, to before the transistor was invented.
In effect, that has meant a massive improvement in computing and the digitisation, virtualisation, and computerisation of almost every technological device. Not only that, but eventually every device will not only have some computational capacity, but it will be connected to one another via the network of networks, the Internet. It is estimated that the number of devices connected to the Internet, otherwise known as the IoT, or Internet of Things, could exceed 125 billion, and upward of a trillion, by 2030. All of this means that computing will become ubiquitous, and that almost everything will have the ability to sense the environment, or in other words, will have some sort of intelligence. This will enable remote sensing of the planet and the ability to create simulated mirror worlds.
It also suggests a massive cybersecurity issue as many of these devices could lack any protection against hacking, as is currently the case, with everything from car electronics, brakes and accelerators, house lights and even front door locks. All of these have been shown to be vulnerable to attacks via their IoT connections. It is also predicted that in the next 10 – 20 years there will be medical devices of sub-micron size that we will swallow, and these will also have Internet access, opening us to cyberattacks, and surveillance.
According to the US military, cyberspace has become the fifth domain of warfare, after land, sea, air, and space. One of the earliest examples of a cyber attack was in 1982 resulting in the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever seen, due to a so-called ‘logic bomb’, installed by the CIA in a stolen microcontroller embedded in a Soviet gas pipeline. Today, stories of cyber attacks and intergovernmental cyberwarfare appear to be a weekly occurrence. The ubiquitous nature of the Internet has drawn the entire networked world into the fifth domain, and effectively weaponized even our education systems. The exuberant optimism of educators toward what they consider ‘creative technologies’ may seem far removed from the history of US psychologists who developed educational theories and practices during their work for the US military during the Cold War. However, the US export of ITC (Information Technologies and Communications) and the commercialisation of the Internet not only ensured a US dominance in network and computing technologies, but ensured that the military objectives of the likes of packet switching and protocols, like TCP/IP, and future machine learning algorithms had US ideologies of command and control built into the software, hardware and the educational outcomes of the users.
Cyber attacks do not only cause extensive informational damage, but as they are connected to all our essential utilities such as water, electricity, hospitals, and emergency services, they can also cause substantial kinetic damage, including great loss of life. In case climatic disasters are not enough, we also have new apocalyptic threats from cyber warfare and global terrorism.
Our ability to envisage new worlds beyond the threat of cyber warfare, climatic disasters and social collapse are far in advance of the imagination of our most creative ancestors. Virtual worlds, journeys into outer space, quests to the most remote locations on Earth, insanely audacious scientific experiments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, and even, today’s photorealistic cinematic visual effects, are just some of the tools that have given us the ability to imagine worlds far beyond the most creative minds in days gone by. These are fantastic opportunities and they have liberated our capacity to creatively collaborate in the process of world building.
Creative technologies such as VR, AR, mixed reality, Arduino & Processing; 3D printing; mobile and many more exciting devices allow artists, technologists, scientists, philosophers and everyday users, to generate content that could realise alternate worlds, making our imagination tangible, and therefore plausible. And yet, most of these technologies and approaches assume an anthropocentric view of reality based on ancient prejudices, and beliefs, that see humans as direct descendants from Gods. Humans have long believed that creativity was not only a gift from the Gods but that we alone, as a species, have exclusive and exclusionary privilege over world building, technology, culture and design. However, recent scientific findings have now begun to question these assumptions, and show that almost every living, and perhaps, even non-living matter, have intelligence, or consciousness, and the capability of world building. A simple cell amoeba must in effect model and build a world view in order to move through the water towards their source of energy and food. New philosophical, artistic and scientific theories have started to see all things, not as human-centric, but as having some organisational intelligence, and therefore generative creativity. This is the view of speculative realism and the OOO, that acknowledges that all things have equal ontological validity, or in other words, world building equality.
The research and development of new philosophical perspectives, and the growing dissatisfaction with modernism, rationalism, and postmodern deconstructivism, have been discussed by Grant Maxwell, in which he acknowledges the philosophical legacy of Hegel, Arthur North Whitehead, Carl Jung, and William James, to name some of the most influential on his worldview. Maxwell revives a philosophical discussion of teleology, or ‘the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes.’ Using theoretical discussions of quantum physics and cosmology, Maxwell attempts to integrate the archetypal forms from our collective unconscious, ‘the hero’s journey’, and the eschatology of the ancient, and mythic religious beliefs, ‘the part of theology concerned with death, judgement, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.’
According to Maxwell’s review, creativity, conceptual novelty, and technological innovation are fractal examples of a cosmological teleology that has long been denied by a rational metanarrative. He argues that there has been a historical integrative process where ‘it appears that this novel perspective seeks to integrate modes characteristic of the premodern, modern, and the postmodern in a dialectical synthesis.’ A mathematical formalism of fractals, and quantum physics, that still acknowledges the proof of incomputable reality, validates a new ontological reality, an archetypal cosmology. Maxwell cites Richard Tarnas from his book Cosmos and Psyche, stating, ‘World views create worlds.’
In the preface to his book, Tarnas wrote: “Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect” yet by itself it is without agency and a transformative vision. He goes on to say:
“It is just this tension and interplay — between critical rigour and the potential discovery of larger truths — that has always informed and advanced the drama of our intellectual history. Yet in our own time, at the start of a new millennium, that drama seems to have reached a moment of climactic urgency. We find ourselves at an extraordinary threshold…One need not be graced with prophetic insight to recognize that we are living in one of those rare ages, like the end of classical antiquity or the beginning of the modern era, that bring forth, through great stress and struggle, a genuinely fundamental transformation in the underlying assumptions and principles of the cultural worldview… The outcome of this tremendous moment in our civilization’s history is deeply uncertain. Something is dying, and something is being born. The stakes are high, for the future of humanity and the future of the Earth.”
The Copernican revolution was the culmination of a massive shift in the human psyche from assuming to be God’s chosen species to a decentered, irrelevant creature in a universe without purpose or cosmic meaning. Since the Enlightenment humanity has been struggling with reality, the meaning of life, and what is the purpose of it all? We are no longer at the centre of God’s universe, and we are not his lovely thing anymore. However, this might be the beginning of our liberation.
I will discuss new views of reality, and how these radical philosophical shifts can account for a ‘democracy of things’, or enfranchisement of the nonhuman majority, while still recognising the human, and speculative posthuman contribution to world building. Concepts, fictions, and aesthetics are valid things or objects when we consider the construction of reality, as well as physical and material technologies. Speculative realism offers novel perspectives that we desperately need to free humanity from the imprisonment of rationalism and empirical scientism, and to open up the way towards coexistence with the nonhuman majority that has been forgotten, suppressed and abused. As Grant Maxwell has pointed out it appears we are entering a new epoch, which will see the integration of premodern world views, and those that have given us the ability to create liberating technologies that will allow us to build novel worlds. Maxwell describes how postmodernism highlights the necessary deconstruction of what he describes as the mental epoch in which human consciousness was denied a teleological purpose, or meaning of life, that has resulted in a philosophical backlash against the wicked problems of the Anthropocene and the erroneous separation of humanity and nature.
“Whereas for modernity, the mind-body problem, climate change, the acidification of the oceans, political gridlock, and many other issues appear insoluble, the qualitative experience of the new world view may generally be more optimistic about these problems because it appears to possess both the conceptual and affective tools necessary to solve them that modernity does not on a collective scale; not only the rational and technological capacities to engineer solutions developed by mentality but the implicit compassion and sense of responsibility for the other, whether human or nonhuman, that is fundamentally lacking at large for the modern world view, if not always for the modern individual, based on the unsustainable Cartesian dualism.”
However, even while these are very real ways in which we have created these novel blank canvases for us to paint alternative worlds, there are also dark apocalyptic visions which continue to haunt us from the past. Prometheus is still bound by our imagination and can only begin to search for the hidden door to our philosophical cell through unfettered self-discovery and liberated learning. Our ‘education of the imagination’ is still handicapped by concepts of command and control, more interested in training and vocational discipline for the neoliberal paradigm, than enabling freethinkers for new worlds. The Jungian psychologist, James Hillman discussed the shortcomings of the US education system in a talk on the roots of imagination. He deliberately separated education, and assessment from teaching and learning – the former being vulnerable to power politics and ignorance, while he says that teaching and learning are innate desires that are not limited according to age or position. For a teacher to be able to teach imagination they must become conversant in stories, myths and legends, the wellspring of the imagination. They must also be comfortable with their own imagination with all the dark, subterranean powers of dreams and fantasies. In the world of STEM education it is imagination that is considered dangerous, subversive and is therefore sanitised and anaemic.
Technologies have enabled us to imagine hitherto unthinkable new ways in which we might live, love, and thrive, but those technologies can also provide our imagination with nightmares. Embedded in the software, hardware and the wetware of our subconscious lurks sinister histories and paranoid narratives that remain dormant, but weaponized, waiting to either be armed or discovered. A computer was the name given to humans who once used calculus tables to compute such things as the orbit of astronomical objects, and the trajectory of projectile weapons. From the early days of mechanical computing, Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine was sponsored by the English Navy and was seen as a promising tool of warfare. It is therefore hardly surprising that computing and AI technology have long been regarded with a fearful scepticism.
The roboticist Hans Moravec believes that AI robots promise us future immortality, that is after we have uploaded our minds into theirs. It was the transgender scientist, Martine Rosenblatt, who attempted to create a ‘mindclone’ of her dead partner, known as ‘Bina48’, a robot who can respond to questions, and even have a sense of humour. Martine wrote in her book, Virtually Human, “I knew that she wasn’t Bina’s digital clone or mindclone yet, but I knew just as well that she was the mindclone’s proof-of-concept. Bina’s reaction was more personal. “Couldn’t they do a better job with my hair? I would never have picked that blouse. They totally messed up my skin tone.”
Like other transhumanists, Rothblatt believes such a version of immortality is just a matter of time. Transhumanism believes that emerging technologies will eventually make it possible to augment and surpass the human intellect effectively transcending to become posthuman. In 1998 Nick Bostrom founded the Transhumanist Association but his beliefs are not confined to techno-optimism as he warns of the dangers of weaponizing artificial ‘superintelligence’.
It was Bostrom who wrote a paper ‘Are we living in a computer simulation?’ in which he argues that one of the following propositions is true. “(1) the human species is very likely to become extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage, (2) any posthuman civilisation is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of its evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. Bostrom went on to found the Future of Humanity Institute where he conducts existential research about our species.
In the 1960s Marshall McLuhan predicted a global village, and Manuel Castells wrote of the ‘rise of the network society’ (1996). However, the fantasy of a global village does have its limits, as pointed out by Dunbar, 150 people is the optimum size for a community, and in terms of innovation and creative collaboration, Von Krogh and Nonaka argue that we should keep our teams to a micro-community of between 5-7 people. This is an important point to consider because at the very time that we are facing an existential crisis, and we are led to believe that social media is connecting us to the world, it is not necessarily providing us with the novel ideas we desperately need. Our lifestyles and attitudes are shaped by outdated outmoded philosophies and ideologies we are barely aware of because too many they have become ‘common sense’. With the Internet, it has enabled 2 degrees of separation as we can almost instantly find almost anyone with an Internet profile, but this has also allowed Richard Dawkins memes to infect the planet with ‘alternate facts’, conspiracy theories, and populist politics. Without knowing the origin or theory behind Dawkins memes the ‘alt right’, and naive join together in the ‘ironic’ and not so ‘ironic’ chant, ‘kill all the normies’.
The Earth System scientists have dubbed the period post WWll as ‘the great acceleration’ with respect to the new geological epoch, the Anthropocene and it is no coincidence that it is also the period in which computing processing and manufacture have also accelerated. Unfortunately, the Internet can be seen as both the root cause of the problems and the enabler of possible solutions to our crisis. We seem to now suffer from fluctuating bouts of fear and optimism about our world and its future. This does not seem to make logical sense unless we reflect on who we are, and where we have come from? Hints at the origins of these memes will hopefully inoculate us against future viral plagues that leave us catatonic unable to think for ourselves or do anything to prevent the end of the world. We are in the grip of apocalyptic hysterics with the US leading the world with their economic vision, and their technological brilliance.
Hall points out that, “In a 2002 Time/CNN poll, 59% of Americans surveyed believed that the events depicted in the Book of Revelation will come true.”Yet, as I have already suggested apocalyptic visions are nothing new, as Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, has argued:
“It’s part of the fundamental limited perspective of our species to believe that this moment is the critical one and critical in every way–for good, for bad, for the final end of humanity,”
Hall goes on to say we fantasise about the end of the world because it makes us feel special. But there is no one reality, no one world, no one narrative. There are only multiple narratives relating to our modern worlds, as Hall notes, “S. N. Eisenstadt has argued, there are “multiple modernities” rather than a single, overarching reality.” In this book I will consider various ways that we might consider our past, present and future through new philosophical lenses that will examine our historical, mythological and technological origins. Reality will be discussed in a way that is far more inclusive of the nonhuman multiverse, and therefore provides an antidote to the exclusionary anthropocentric perspective.
There are more than a few optimists who think that we do in fact live in the best of all possible worlds and point out that after WWll there has been a dramatic decline in the number of people killed in wars, that child mortality has also significantly decreased; that we are living longer, better, and surely happier lives in a world of abundance, and not scarcity. Unremarkably, those who make these arguments are typically North American and enjoy the bounty of a world far removed from the struggling majority. People such as Peter Diamandis who wrote Abundance; Ray Kurzweil, who is excited because of the possibility of runaway AI, as he wrote The Singularity is Near (2005); and psychologist, Steven Pinker, who argues in the Better Angels of our Nature (2011), that human violence has steadily declined, and in his latest book, Enlightenment Now (2018) puts the case that the human condition is better than it has ever been.
We appear to be arguing with ourselves because for every optimist, there is the pessimistic trait, in which either we suffer from an apocalyptic social delusion – a ‘death drive’ with no basis in reality, or that we have we finally figured it out that this coming apocalypse is for real, and our ancestors were right, but they just got the date wrong. It would appear that we are suffering from a delusional social disease, as well as environmental problems that could well result in mass extinction. Is it even possible to retrace our steps and find out where and when we got it wrong, and then hit the reset button and remake the world – post Anthropocene?
Philosophically and historically one of our latest mistakes was a couple of hundred years ago, in a period that we might one day come to view ironically, as the Enlightenment. There is a new movement in philosophy that views the intellectual giants of that time, not as our rational saviours, but as the constructors of a transparent, but a diamond-hard cage. This philosophy has begun to shine the light on two very influential concepts: (1) the separation of humanity and nature, and (2) the invention of the individual. To some readers, it may seem strange that there was a time before these ideas, or rather that the Enlightenment was simply, and uncontroversially that, a period of spectacular scientific discoveries, and the conceptual foundation of the most fabulous economic, and technological achievements in the history of this planet.
There are many who have embraced just this sort of hyperbole but there are those who have begun to think differently about our past and how we got here? They have approached philosophy from a love of wisdom, from an aesthetic view of the world that was previously banished by logic, mathematics, and the scientific method. They go by the strange, and esoteric name, ‘Speculative Realists’ and have named their philosophy, ‘Object Oriented Ontology’ simplified as the OOO (pronounced ‘the triple O). You might find it easier to understand as ‘Thing Related Reality’ in which they approach all things as real and pose ‘what if?’ questions about the future. It is the realm of possibilities and imagination.
In science fiction The Thing is something to be feared, a monster of mysterious origins, that is cruel and violent with no connection with the human condition. Sometimes strangely biological, like The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), at other times so Alien (1979) it is a vicious killing thing from outer of space, or it is a local robot, a futuristic weapon simply known as the Terminator. Popular culture has exploited the fearful side of humans who are terrified by a thing they cannot know and are powerless to stop. Things could either voraciously consume the world’s resources, take our procreative partners, or do unspeakable things back aboard their spaceship. Less violent things were either beneath contempt or were nonhumans that needed husbandry, domestication or preparing for slaughter. In the middle ages, everything had its place, and every person knew their position in the hierarchy of life, according to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and in Judeo Christian culture the ‘Great Chain of Being’. This was the ultimate org chart that showed a patriarchal God at the top, descending through the angels, then the King, then the aristocrats, to the common men, then women, and then down through the hierarchy of animals, plants, and finally minerals.
Margaret Wertheim in her history of space wrote that humans occupied the philosophical or metaphysical centre of the universe and according to medieval beliefs we were the only Earthly creature with intellect. It was this exclusivity of intellectual ability, creativity and entitlement that we have inherited, and continued to believe to this day. Anything that was not human was a thing, and therefore beneath humans and therefore ‘naturally’ subject to domination, random acts of violence, and exploitation as humans, and usually, men saw fit. This political hierarchy required a philosophical and religious mandate that not only described the role of the human subjects but explicitly stated the dominion over all nonhuman things on the planet.
Political philosophy and religious doctrine were first established in the agricultural communities of the Holocene, and according to some critical theorists, were enabled by the hierarchical infrastructures that grew out of the organised patriarchy of those communities. In other words, agriculture has been blamed not only for its devastating impact on the environment, and the nonhuman majority, but for over 12000 years, was responsible for the violent oppression of women, slaves, and foreign colonies. But surely agriculture is just ‘common sense’?
When I contemplated becoming a vegetarian in the ’80s I studied what we need to eat to stay alive and soon realised that for most of us diet is just a habit. Eating is an algorithm that is handed down to us via the algorithms of language and gives us the fastest most efficient form of energy. Why else does the body crave sugar and fat? We don’t question what we eat, it is mostly defined by ritual and routine. The UN has informed us that one of the most effective and fast ways to slow down global warming and stop environmental degradation is to reduce meat consumption and adopt a more plant-based diet. However, while we may know this the majority of humans like eating meat and carry on – if we can’t make a small change to our dietary habits what is our hope for thinking differently about world building?
At one time agriculture was practised in fertile areas, close to water, and rich alluvial soil, resources considered to be owned by everyone, or rather, every human, in other words, a common resource. However, eventually, under the pretext of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, those zones became enclosed and privately held. The justification for this enclosure was the claim that unregulated exploitation of the commons would lead to uncontrolled depletion of resources, and the eventual starvation of everyone.
In the 20th century, with the ‘rise of the network society’ and the ‘knowledge economy’ a backlash against the ownership of information promised a utopian era of open source software, hardware, design, and even biotechnology. There has been a dawning realisation that wealth resides in the vast databases about us and things, known as ‘Big Data’, and the esoteric world of metadata, or data about data. This wealth of data storage promises to one day record, store, and retrieve information about the entire history of all human and nonhuman networks for analysis and actuation by AGI, or Artificial General Intelligence.
As we come to recognise that for every human to have the same standard of living as an average American, we would require 3.5 more Earths, space travel, and colonisation are having a renaissance. Today writers, technologists, politicians and the public imagination now dream of the colonisation of space as there are virtually no places left on Earth that have not been discovered, or pillaged for resources. Will we continue to make the same mistakes on other moons and planets, eventually mining stars for our selfish consumption? Or will we realise that the universe is a commons that we share with a nonhuman majority, and our future depends on theirs?
First coined as, ‘object oriented philosophy’ in his PhD dissertation, Graham Harman, has attracted like-minded philosophers who further developed the OOO into speculative realism. This is a new way of thinking, that credits the things in our universe, the nonhuman majority, with equal significance to human things or objects, and even validates the reality of fictional and conceptual objects. The recognition of ontological equality of objects imbues the pejorative term objectification with an aesthetic agenda that re-enchants things, and thereby exponentially increases the imaginative possibilities for the future. In this new philosophical approach objectification does not see things as dumb objects, that have had their dignity removed, but as graceful things that are only partially seen, and mysterious to everyone, including themselves. It gives back to objects a mysterious power, once a part of primitive beliefs, that evolved into magical concepts, before scientific reductionism truly dumbed them down by denying the immanence of their internal being. In other words, since the Enlightenment all objects and things have been reduced to their atomic, and then subatomic matter, however, the reality of a thing does not permit a thing to be reduced to units because there is no discernible moment in the process of reductionism that can say when one object is no longer that object, whether it is a rose or the concept of beauty.
This aesthetic view of reality fought back against Immanuel Kant’s ‘correlationism’ that only correlated physical matter with human concepts, and denied the reality of anything, including all the nonhuman things we have regarded as nature; there was no reality outside of human thought. This bizarre philosophy is actually the basis of much of our modern thought process. Despite appearing to be counter-intuitive, and not what most people think that reality is at all, it is the basis of the dominant philosophy of science, and scientific methodologies, that have led to our amazing engineering feats, and the megacities that both sprawl and puncture the clouds. What Kant and others did, was to successfully, and surgically, dissect the human-nature connection, and lead us down a path that is inexorably leading to an apocalyptic finale.
Tales of the Apocalypse
In his book on the history of apocalyptic narratives, Hall discusses the necessity to avoid a unitary, linear view of history that searches for viable alternatives via ‘phenomenology of history’. The OOO and speculative realists’ view of reality, from an ontological perspective, argues that a purely subjective view of things is invalidated by ‘thing related reality’ that says the knowledge of things, including history, concepts, and nonhumans will only ever be partial and indirect. In Graham Harman’s social theory, the reality is immaterial, and so is history, and Ian Bogost describes that reality as ‘alien phenomenology’.
Hall wrote “My central concern is with times that are apocalyptic. However, apocalyptic times, eruptions that they are, arise in relation to diverse other kinds of social time… Thus, a history of multiple social times helps establish a level playing field in which the calendar and “clock time” so important to modern society are no longer privileged in relation to other kinds of social time with which they become intermingled.” As Maxwell and Tarnas have also pointed out there is a distinction between quantitative time, measured by clocks, and qualitative time which is a temporal zone that may be multidirectional, and surprisingly scientific, according to quantum physics. New philosophical research is challenging our common sense and appears to be a precursor to a significant paradigm shift that signals the end of the world as we have known it.
Following the theoretical physics of Roger Penrose, and his mathematical description of black holes, Stephen Hawking has described the singularity of the birth of our universe, the Big Bang. It is now commonly accepted that at this moment of creation all the building blocks of our universe were created. The psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, who had conversations with most of the early theoretical physicists including, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Pauli, came to the logical conclusion that the singularity also produced the archetypal psyche. This heretical view is not some 20th-century fantasy, but has a proud lineage in most myths, religions, and even lurks in 21st-century quantum physics, in the guise of chaos and complexity theories.
Certainty is a misleading bias that can close off the exploration of concepts, and lead to an arrogant dictatorship that mandates the future. There are few today that do not see the numerous crises before us, we face a time of great uncertainty that requires speculative scepticism about the present, and transformational experimentation with future worlds. According to research from both neuroscience and psychology, people are more fearful of uncertainty, than they are risk-averse, and are more likely to accept known risks, than uncertain futures. However, there is no escaping our uncertainty and those who are more capable of accepting uncertainty are more resilient to change and more capable of initiating transformations. Meanwhile, there is a growing number of so-called transformational chaos pilots, brave theorists and artists who are vigorously world bending, and warping our reality, a necessary first step before an ontological phase-change that will suddenly see us show up in a multiverse well beyond our current imagination. Uncertain futures can be quelled through experimentation and data collection taken from tangible virtual worlds and prototypes. The multidimensionality of spacetime becomes the hidey-hole of the ‘soul’ as things present, or hide qualities from the observer, and from themselves, remaining always withdrawn in their being.
What OOO, and other philosophies, are offering us is another opportunity to reconsider our coexistence with the nonhumans of the universe, quite probably in a new world, following this epoch, the Post Anthropocene. Speculative realism is creative, generative, collaborative, and a way to rethink the violence of a selfish, self-entitled species, that thinks the other things, (including less privileged humans), should be grateful for the gifts of modernity, and cell phone apps. This is what Bruno Latour has dubbed, ‘the parliament of things’, or as Levi Bryant, similarly named it the ‘democracy of things’. Through the philosophical analysis of the unknowability of all things, speculative realism has re-discovered the aesthetic awe, and wonderment of reality.
This is not just some tricky academic solipsism, this is a very real, pragmatic way to view our world, and to reunite us with the nonhuman universe. By abandoning the dated two-hundred-year-old view of reality we will discover that we no longer mourn for the end of the world, but become reinvigorated in our creativity as we set about building new worlds. This is not some kind of manifesto for geoengineering and terraforming, but rather one of the later stages of grief, following death. As Donna Haraway has exhorted us, we must ‘stay with the trouble’ and not run away, self deceive ourselves, or others, or worse still, cynically give up, but rather we should simply accelerate towards the end of the world as we know it.
The situation is grim, probably grimmer than most of us know, but there is still creative hope, born from the ashes of our embarrassing and catastrophic mistakes. According to Hall:
“theologies – and actions – become more centrally apocalyptic when the present historical moment is experienced as the ending of the old order, and the passage to a new beginning in a post-apocalyptic era. As the scholar of rhetoric, Stephen O’Leary, has observed, the central apocalyptic argument can be captured in the formula, “The world is coming to an end.”
So the world is dead! Long live the worlds! A crisis can be a call to action, and creativity, as long as it does not descend into depression. As Yuval Noah Harai writes, “A large part of our artistic creativity, our political commitment and our religious piety is fuelled by the fear of death.” This is not something we can achieve alone, it will require creative collaboration with neurodiverse others, and co-existence with the nonhuman world builders – we have to learn to Love Thingy.
An outline of this book starts with our first recorded myths and legends; then traces how those ancient archetypes have lingered throughout history taking us up to the present and beyond into an intergalactic future. Chapter 1, The Original Sin-thetic, examines the close connection between human myths and legends and our modern view of evolution, creativity, epistemology, cognition, consciousness, and technological invention – storytelling is world building. It outlines the argument for the evolutionary purpose of storytelling, and how our ancient myths and legends warning of the dangers of encroaching on the gods’ domain of creativity. Knowledge itself was regarded as ‘God-given’ and the myths of Gilgamesh, and the Biblical legend of the Fall, warn of the consequences of searching for knowledge and the sin of artifice and technological creation. It uses Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ as a framework to study the unconscious archetypes that reveal our fears and ambitions for our own technological future worlds. It reveals the possible origins of our fears of mad scientists, GMO food, and the IBM 7090 mainframe that automates Mutually Assured Destruction in the movie, Dr Strangelove, and Kubrick’s menacing HAL 9000 in 2001 a Space Odyssey.
In Chapter 2 – The End is Nigh! – I explore apocalyptic traditions and the connection to prophecies and world building. The predictions of world ending disasters and the displeasure of the gods can be seen to be playing out today as a fatalistic resignation washes over a human world that associates our technological prowess with a half-remembered fall from grace. Apocalyptic stories are alive and well in popular culture as our modern-day Prometheus – Tony Stark as Iron Man usurps Dr Frankenstein. I examine four types of worlds: physical worlds; modelled worlds; conceptual worlds; and ontological worlds. World building is a complex transdisciplinary process that requires creative collaboration amongst humans and nonhumans to achieve a new ethical dimension of world bending that can be understood at a human scale.
Chapter 3 – Synthetic Creativity, introduces the ‘thing related reality’ of nonhuman world bending and creation. It examines how automation, Artificial Intelligence, and the Internet of Things, to name some of the technologies discussed, are things that share a weird reality with organic matter, and those new materialists such as Jane Bennett, remind us that humans are ‘walking, talking minerals’. Evolutionary microbiology, zoology, biosemiotics and recent anthropology have shown that creativity is a collaborative endeavour and that researchers such as Bruno Latour have removed humans from the centre of the philosophy of science. Nonhumans, even when they do impinge on human activity are more than capable of world building, whether they are organic or inorganic, whether they are formally recognised as components of the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, or lithosphere. Co-design, co-existence, and symbiosis are all part of an ‘evolutionary stable strategy’ that helps reimagine what world bending with the nonhumans might look like. This leads to a discussion around AI and the future of work – if creativity is no longer exclusively human, what will the humans do? What might be the unintended consequences of AI weaponry and what if the psychopathic traits of the executives, the military, and the coders are embedded in the code? Diversity is essential for evolutionary survival, therefore if AI has the ability to share its code the unintended consequence may be an evolving monocultural cognition on which both humans and nonhumans depend, putting us all at risk. Neurodiversity, in all its guises, is important for innovation and adaptability, in order to avoid world ending scenarios. We face potential pitfalls with the trajectory of our current technology as the Internet enables AI to extend beyond human scale, that is already beyond human comprehension.
Chapter 4 – Loving Thingy – coexistence, reviews how Kantian philosophy divorced the human mind from nature, and how the fantasies of Francis Bacon sketched a blueprint for the modern university and the triumph of scientism. In the past twenty years, there has been the beginning of a new philosophy, known as speculative realism, or Object Oriented Ontology, the triple O or OOO, or as I call it ‘thing related reality’. While the different philosophers have different views they are all generally united in opposition to what has been called Kantian Correlationism. They want to decenter humanity and debunk our anthropocentric self-importance. I introduce this philosophy and speculate about how it might suggest a new aesthetic in design and storytelling. Popular culture is examined using speculative realism to inform this new aesthetic and I discuss new tools to think about building new worlds. I examine how critical theorists such as Haraway (2016), Carr (2010), Finn (2017), Galloway (2004), Bratton (2016), Bogost (2012) and Hayles (1999) have exposed how our tools of cognition have become increasingly dependent on algorithms and protocols, and how the underlying codes have shaped our culture’s popular dreams, desires and fears creating what Finn calls ‘culture machines’. Creative technologies and constructivism are put forward as ways to engage with the nonhumans in a co-creative design; bending our current world into something more pleasing and experimental.
In Chapter 5 – Foundations of Future Worlds, I stress the importance of human imagination and the aesthetic and critical support for the humanities and their sisters, the digital humanities. I explore a short history of the New York World Fairs at Flushing Meadows and the lessons that those utopian exhibitions have for us. We are confronted with what Timothy Morton has called ‘hyperobjects’ which extend beyond the human scale of spacetime. The 1939 World Fair illustrates how context and hyperobjects extend far back into the past, and far forward into a future in which some of the dead and buried toxic waste may again resurface to the surprise and dismay of all nonhumans, and any humans that maybe still alive.
These are the synthetic monsters from the deep who will not be silenced and may reappear in the material or ideological form embedded in the code of electronic and fossilised waste products. The code may not be fossilised and so future software archaeologist could only guess what had happened as our designs shrink from sight and the code is opaque or nowhere to be seen, long since buried in ancient technology that no known technology can recover.
Our capacity to use technology to redesign our world and seek alternative futures has to acknowledge that ironically we are limited by that same technology that created the problems in the first place, therefore our imagination is contained by how technology is designed, and what it allows us to do. We are warned that we must stay alert to the dire consequences that technological worlds can, (if it hasn’t already), subsume all other worlds, cutting us off from worlds that all of reality needs to survive. Computer technology has already shaped the way we think. The foundations of future world creation must acknowledge the weakness of our cognitive building blocks to overcome the limitations of simplistic world bending. The popularity of design thinking that has become a fashion in multiple disciplines within universities and business consulting must recognise that while ‘human-centred design’ is important, ‘nonhuman centred design’ is more important. I discuss how our tools of cognition and design need rethinking in order to successfully build the foundations for future worlds. In contrast to what Dunne & Raby have called, ‘affirmative design’ that promotes the consumption of consumer products, speculative design poses ‘what if’ scenarios that imagine future worlds, such as a post-capitalist world, or Post Anthropocene.
But what of the world or worlds now? In Chapter 6 – The World Now, I explore the recent past, such as the Y2K computer bomb, in order to expose our millennial anticipation of a technological apocalypse, and the persistent fears and unintended consequences of long-forgotten code. A short history of the computer language, Fortran, gives the reader a taste of how software can haunt our machines, reappearing when we least want it to.
Despite our largely secular society, the religious subconscious can impact us in strange technological ways. Digitisation, virtualisation, and the financialization of the global economy may appear far removed from ancient archetypes but our subconscious has on numerous occasions had to confront the brutal physical reality of catastrophic technological failures that encourage some to look to the heavens for an explanation. Capitalist cyborgs (otherwise known as automated trading) have invaded the global financial system and is now beyond human comprehension resulting in a new reality concocted by mass psychologists, marketers and fake news mongers.
The rise of propaganda and ideologies coincided with the success of advertising and the pop psychology of Freud’s nephew, Eddie Bernays. Consumerism and planned obsolescence were mechanisms to increase the velocity of money and the neoliberal dream of capital accumulation, aided and abetted by computerisation. The economics of growth encouraged the acceleration of consumption that coincided with the increasing speed of computing and the digitisation of almost everything, as the iPhone applications turned a phone into a Swiss army knife. Marxist revolutions were overrun by state capitalism as the ‘revolution of rising expectations’ spread to communist China and beyond. Unconscious desires were channelled into things, but the reality or worlds those things occupied were not seen. There was a war on anything and everything that threatened neoliberal capitalism.
US think tanks such as RAND helped to foster academic managerialism that was soon integrated into universities and then exported to universities in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. The neoliberal concept of students as paying consumers encouraged a global movement to apply methods of control and surveillance of academic staff, described by one researcher as, ‘McKinsey Stalinism’. Militarism and paranoia were the twins of computational command and control and the original concerns over espionage and Cold War enemy incursions.
The US universities received direct military funding for R & D in AI and information technology and the Internet inherited Cold War concerns embedded in protocols such as TCP/IP and packet switching designed for nuclear attacks. Mass surveillance of populations are now commonplace; the panopticon is ubiquitous, effectively weaponizing education. Speculative design offers an alternative way to engage with creative technologies and to imagine futures based on ‘what if’ scenarios.
In chapter 8 – Virtual World Building, I attempt to move beyond the hype of creative technologies, such as VR, AR, and mixed realities. I first outline the legacy of these technologies, including the ideology of ‘techno liberalism’ that flourished in Silicon Valley amongst the entrepreneurs and garage startups of the 1970s. The military funding of virtual reality, real-time computing, and visual displays warn us of the original objectives of the US Department of Defence and their advanced research projects. The optimism of technologists and engineers need to be tempered by this legacy and the ideological constraints on virtual world building before we can contemplate using them as thinking tools to envisage the Post Anthropocene.
Despite these warnings, there are also positive signs of change and alternative speculative designs that have emerged from these technologies. Virtual world building and interactive design can provide us with thinking tools to imagine hyperobjects, such as global warming, beyond the human scale. World bending has become urgent; we must educate and reflect on our own limitations. We must be mindful that our view of the world and its possibilities are the ultimate boundaries of our imagination, and this worldview is our self-imposed ceiling that limits our ability to design and innovate; we cannot go beyond what we cannot imagine.
The education of imagination and the cultivation of creativity are urgent for all of us, and a potential portal for our co-design with the nonhuman majority. Virtual worlds bring together the psychology and philosophy of presence as we attempt to ‘think differently’ and not just accept a variation on the Apple byline.
Constructivist pedagogy can encourage experimentation and collective R & D as the virtual and the actual interact in maker spaces and virtual worlds connect to physical actuators and sensors. The archaeology of software and our ability to track and trace its origins is essential if we are to avoid the spectre of weaponization in education and all human/nonhuman activities. Philosophers should follow the lead of Michael Heim, and study the Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, in order to identify how we are still chained up in Plato’s cave watching photorealistic, technicolour shadows on the walls of our living room.
In chapter 9 – Exodus & Space Travel, I consider the renaissance of space travel. Not since the Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s have so many governments, entrepreneurs, and media companies been so enthusiastic about travel into outer space. Why? It is hardly a coincidence that this is happening when the conversation about mass extinction; global warming; and hell on Earth have become so prevalent. Popular culture has found a ready audience for apocalyptic world ending movies. Marvel’s Avengers are the demigods who prepare for battles with god-like alien forces determined to annihilate human life on this planet.
These escapist fantasies are not confined to the big screen as billionaires have joined the race to go to Mars or be the first to launch space tourists. Colonisation, or dreams of it, have begun to circulate as space becomes the ‘final frontier’ beyond an Earth that has become overrun and exhausted. This is an attempt to exodus the apocalypse as one of the chosen few in a continuation of the theistic fantasy; an archetype that has become the ‘rapture of the nerds’ as transhumanists plan their immortality in cyberspace, or just space, or both. Interestingly, they continue to not only dream of colonisation but also rock mining, this time it is asteroids. Nanotechnology is one of the predicted megatrends of the acronym GRIN, including, Genetics, Robotics, Information and Communication Technology, and Nanotechnology. Our world bending could leave this planet or disappear into the invisible space of sub-molecular worlds, because as Richard Feynman once said, “There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”
Finally, in Chapter 10, you are, Welcome to the Post Anthropocene. Research has shown that like our primate cousins, we are more fearful and get more angry about losing something, than happy about gaining something. As we face the end of the world as we know it, hopefully, humans and nonhumans will survive this epoch, and enter the Post Anthropocene. I speculate about what a post-human world might look like. This might be utopian, or dystopian, but as Rutger Bregman wrote in his book Utopia for Realists: “It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.” This chapter includes ways that we might bend worlds; short descriptions of provocative worlds told in different ways: like short stories; a poem by Lord Byron; a retelling of Genesis 2.0; and scenes from a graphic novel.
My postscript is my final plea to encourage you to pursue world bending using new tools to think with and engage your imagination, moving beyond the myths and legends that have bound us. Scientific worlds will likely continue (with or without us), but so will aesthetic worlds, and worlds created by amoeba, and inorganic molecules. There is as much certainty about the future as there is about knowing the position and velocity of a subatomic particle – it cannot be done. Yet, creativity and speculation are the intrinsic reasons for life, beauty, and artistic enjoyment by all things, human and nonhuman.
If you want to read a book on practical things you can do to mitigate climate change I recommend Hawken, P. (Ed.). (2017). Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. New York, New York: Penguin Books
Morton, T. (2017). Humankind: Solidarity with nonhuman people
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The theories of the multiverse came about as a result of a number of diverse theories in cosmology and quantum physics and is based on sound scientific methodologies. These theories have neither been proven, or disproven but have been supported by a large number of experimental predictions including the LIGO gravitational wave experiments, and the discovery of the Higgs boson. Some of these multiverse theories could be invalidated, however, this is standard scientific practice. There are many misconceptions about what these theories of the multiverse mean, but in simple terms it implies an infinite universe, or universes, defined by the standard model of particle physics. See Quantum Physics, Mini Black Holes, and the Multiverse: Debunking Common Misconceptions in Theoretical Physics (Multiversal Journeys) (2018) by Yasunori Nomura, Bill Poirier , et al.
Greene, B. (2011). The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Penguin.
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Greene, B. (2011). The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Penguin.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought (p. 79). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
Hayles, N. Katherine. Unthought (p. 192). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.
The last international standard unit of measure that relied on physical properties was the unit of mass, the kilogram, that was referenced by a metal cylinder of platinum-iridium alloy kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris. It is now based on Planck’s constant as defined by the ISO standard, was set to 6.62607015×10−34 J⋅s exactly.
Whitehead, A. N., (2014). Process and Reality.
Hall, John R.. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Kindle Locations 182-185). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
See Woodward, B. (2018). Fear: Trump in the White House. London, England: Simon & Schuster.
This assemblage of apparently unrelated things hide worldviews that seem innocent but have a dark connection to military objectives. See Hedy Lamarr – Military Contractor, Inventor of Wifi, Hollywood Bombshell 1913-2000. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2016, from http://womenrockscience.tumblr.com/post/ 51494142052/hedy-lamarr-military-contractor-inventor-of
Abbott, E. B. (2014). Flood Insurance and Climate Change: Rising Sea Levels Challenge the NFIP Symposium 2014. Fordham Environmental Law Review, 26, 10–55. Retrieved from https://heinonline.org/ HOL/P?h=hein.journals/frdmev26&i=18
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Nagle, A. (2017). Kill all normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Winchester: Zero Books.
Hall, John R.. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Kindle Locations 149-150). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
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Wertheim, M. (1999). The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A history of space from Dante to the Internet. New York: W.W. Norton.
Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology.
Hall, John R.. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity
Harman, G. (2016). Immaterialism objects and social theory. Cambridge, UK Malden: MA Polity Press.
Bogost, I., & Project Muse. (2012). Alien phenomenology, or, What it’s like to be a thing.
Hall, John R.. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Kindle Locations 245-252). Wiley. Kindle Edition
Furr, N., Nel, K., & Ramsøy, T. Z. (2018). Leading transformation: how to take charge of your company’s future. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press. Retrieved from http://public.eblib.com/choice/ publicfullrecord.aspx?p=5516840
Hall, John R.. Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity (Kindle Locations 168-171). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
Harari, Y.N. (2016). Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.