Fumbling in the dark.
That is what we have done for eons as a species to cope with the uncertainty and randomness of existence. That is what all species do.
To be sure, we humans are special in terms of how we have developed and knitted together all manner of things — language, writing, culture and technology — to find our way through this darkness or, at the very least, to render this fumbling less stressful.
Compared with other species, what we have achieved in the course of this struggle truly is remarkable. We have fused language, writing, culture, and technology in ways that dwarf the efforts of other species. In the course of our struggling with all of this randomness associated with existence, we have constructed a kind of protective layer that, while resembling those of other species in some respects, vastly differs from them in others.
Some elements of the protective layering that we have constructed across eons are quite tangible, in the same way that other species’ protective apparatuses — ant mounds, termite colonies and beaver dams— are. Yet, unlike other species, much of the layering that we have built across time to protect ourselves is entirely conceptual in nature.
Much of this conceptual scaffolding is discernible to the degree that it has been refined and fostered by language and writing and, in more recent centuries, propagated and debated across vast distances by means of broadcast and digital media, undergoing further refinement. Even so, much of what we know as morality and ethics, a significant component of our protective layering, is carried around in our craniums and, consequently, is largely incorporeal.
All that we humans have invested in building this protective layering across the eons far exceeds that all other species. And unlike other species, we have extended the elements of our evolutionary struggle with existence across every latitude and longitude on this planet, into the habitats of many different species, and even beyond our biosphere into the frigid vacuum of space.
The Destructive Elements of Our Protective Layering
In many instances, though, the pervasive nature of our exoskeleton, while largely incorporeal in many notable respects, is quite palpable. It is also expressed quite destructively in many cases, certainly in terms of the damage it causes to other species and to our biosphere. Elements of our protective layering have left a destructive imprint in many places: for example, in the copious amounts of plastic that have been detected in the guts of whales and other marine species, in the vast amounts of CO2 that have been pumped into our atmosphere via industrial emissions, and in the thousands of potentially destructive and even deadly bits of man-made junk swirling around in space. We have even extended the reach of our protective layer tenuously but far beyond our biosphere in the form of a handful of space probes that have traveled out of our solar system into interstellar space.
The “Networked Human Exoskeleton”
I have struggled with applying my own term to this increasingly dense and nuanced layering that has been laid down over eons. The late Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin applied the term noosphere to express a similar concept, though, as presumptuous as this may sound to some, his ideas diverge significantly from mine in many notable respects.
I’ve come to call this protective layering the “networked human exoskeleton,” because even though it is largely incorporeal, it provides our species a considerable measure of protection against all manner of threats, one that resembles a crustacean or insectoid exoskeleton, despite so much of its being entirely conceptual in nature. I owe futurist and technologist Kevin Kelly a significant debt for this term. In describing his own concept of the technium in his book “What Technology Wants,” Kelly employs exoskeleton to underscore how technology has provided our species with a protective layering across eons.
Even so, I’ve been tempted a time or two to replace this term with “networked amnion” to underscore the intimate ways that we human beings are ensconced within this protective layering. In many respects this protective layering resembles far more an amnion — a protective but very nimble membrane — than a hard exoskeleton. And I should stress again that this protective layering not only is derived from technology but also from a nexus of language, writing and culture that has been woven together across centuries and that has grown more refined and complex over the course of time.
Our Runaway Exoskeleton
Whatever we choose to call this improvisation, we humans exercise surprisingly little stewardship over it. We are in the perennial business of improving this exoskeleton, in a manner of speaking, constantly building and revising connections within it in response to new challenges. Yet, over the course of all this furious building and revising, we inadvertently render much of the previous scaffolding superfluous or even structurally unsound.
Only within the last few centuries have we humans begun to understand just how complex this human contrivance truly is and how we’ve constructed virtually all of it on the fly, without anything that remotely resembles a master plan. We have simply gone about building scaffolding. And as this scaffolding has grown more complex and intricately connected over time, it has yielded sturdier footing — platforms — which essentially amount to watershed events in human history and which have provided the bases for dramatic leaps in cultural, scientific and technological understanding, not to mention, a foundation on which to build all manner of new scaffolding. Writing, monotheism, the Roman Empire, the printing press, and constitutional monarchies are but a few examples of significant platforms that have emerged in history.
Indeed, the late, great classical economist and political philosopher Friedrich von Hayek conceived the most apt term for all of this: spontaneous order. What we have achieved with this exoskeleton hasn’t been something that has unfolded according to some master plan but rather that has been constructed haphazardly in response to the desultory nature of existence.
Yet, in spite of all the uncertainty and chaos associated with it, scaffolding and platform building really constitutes the crux of human genius. In the course of building and revising all of this scaffolding our network becomes even denser and more generative across time — that is to say, better equipped to generate more conceptual and technological scaffolding and platforms.
Paradoxically, though, many people still tend to regard human thought and genius in a considerably more disembodied form, perhaps best reflected as Rodin’s Thinker. But human thought is not disembodied and never has been. It has always been embedded in an intricate, increasingly complex network — our networked human exoskeleton.
Is there a role for geniuses in such a network? Yes. Geniuses have played critical roles in constructing this exoskeleton. They have been essential to the course of human progress. Equipped with their singular abilities, geniuses have been able to stand on the highest scaffolding to perceive much of what will likely be added to this scaffolding in the future.
Geniuses are the small, truly singular group of people who have discerned that some or a significant part of the human scaffolding that has been improvised over the course of time in response to randomness is not up to the task.
One could make the strong case that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche figures nears the top of the list geniuses, at least, in terms of his understanding the nature of the human condition vis-à-vis the randomness of existence. Nietzsche, for example, perceived what amounted to several network disruptions of his era. He perceived that advances in textual criticism and in Darwinian evolutionary science had rent apart much of the moral and ethical scaffolding that underlay Western society. He perceived, rightfully in the view of many subsequent philosophers, that it was incumbent upon the West to construct new scaffolding to compensate for these disruptions.
Yet, the same could be said about many of Nietzsche’s philosophical predecessors and successors, notably Immanuel Kant, who strove to develop a philosophy that enabled people to live morally decent and upright lives beyond the boundaries of conventional religion.
Rebels Against Incrementalism
Many humans throughout history have still not adjusted to the randomness of human existence nor, for that matter, to the means we’ve improvised over the centuries to contend with it.
For example, many us rightfully regard the communist experiment of the 20th century as tragic detour in human history, characterized by a colossal failure — and it was — yet, it was an attempt by intellectuals, well-meaning albeit terribly misguided ones, in many cases, to impose more thoughtful and deliberative approach to human progress. Many people perceived that they could assume stewardship over the process of building scaffolding and platforms. Yet, this proved catastrophic in the end, resulting in the immense suffering and deaths of millions.
Although pursuing different ends, Nazism succumbed to a similar fatal conceit, leaving millions of bodies of innocents in its wake.
We’ve learned, however grudgingly, that human progress can’t be rushed. As banal as this may seem to some, one of the vital lessons of history arguably could be expressed in a single sentence: Knowledge and progress work in tandem, but by their very nature, they are embedded — networked — and for this reason, change only can occur incrementally. And even then, humans must constantly be employed in the improvisation of new conceptual and technological scaffolding in response to the inevitable challenges that routinely arise in the course of our perennial struggle against existence.