The Origin and Nature of the Networked Human Exoskeleton

Fire-Starting

Bushmen in Deception Valley, Botswana, demonstrate the ancient practice of fire-starting, which turned out to be one of the most essential technologies in human history.  (Photo: Courtesy of Ian Swell.) 

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

plastic-debris-ocean

Plastic debris that washed up on the American West Coast.  Photo: Courtesy of Kevin Krejci

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.

Embedded Genius

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.

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Babylonian Lessons for Modern-Day Humans

Richard-Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, Photo: Courtesy of Mike Cromwell.

British author and preeminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins weighed in recently with another one of his thoughtful tweets, which prompted some ruminating on my part about humanity and our discursive, rather convoluted history as a species.

Did someone invent the ladder or did it grow from climbing trees? Did someone invent the stair or did it grow from helpful step footholds in steep hills? Did someone invent the map or did it grow from reading prey footprints? Why do curious tweets like this provoke hostility?

If invoked no hostility with me. As a matter of fact, I re-tweeted his trenchant observation with my own accompanying observation:

Across eons, humans have improvised a unique networking of language, writing, culture and tech in the course of reacting to contingency. It is our version of a termite mound or a beehive, though infinitely more nuanced and complex. We are ensconced in it.

That, as I see it, is human striving — human history — in a nutshell.

A Culmination of Eons of Responding to Random Events

What we have today in the form of cultural, spiritual and technological achievement is merely the culmination of eons of our species reacting and adjusting to random events. Like all other organisms, we have struggled for hundreds of millennia to secure and to maintain an evolutionary niche to protect us from all manner of threats. And I would argue that we secured this niche by evolving what I call the networked human exoskeleton, which essentially amounts to a nexus of language, writing, culture and technology. Across ages, humans have, in a manner of speaking, woven these elements together in a way that not only protects but also nurtures and sustains us. This exoskeleton has teased out many of the distinctive traits that define us as humans.

In one respect we are not alone. Other species have developed their own unique scaffolding that, to some degree, at least, resembles our own. They have developed these complex structures to protect themselves and to secure their own distinct evolutionary niches. Termite and ant colonies and beaver dams roughly compare to what we’ve achieved. Even so, they pale in comparison to what we humans have achieved.

Much of our networked exoskeleton is largely incorporeal. Much of it isn’t expressed tangibly in the form of shelter and other forms technology but rather intangibly as the spoken and written word and, equally significant, in the operating software carried around in our heads. Moreover, unlike other terrestrial species, we have also used the nontangible facets of our exoskeleton to propel tangible byproducts to the farthest reaches of our solar system and even beyond within the last couple of generations.

cro-magnon-skull

This Cro-Magnon skull testifies to the role the use of fire and fire-starting technology played in enhancing human protein consumption, which contributed significantly to our species’ singularly large brains.

We are so integrally linked with this exoskeleton that we are unable to draw a line to delineate where our humanity ends and our exoskeleton begins. Even our biology is owed in no small measure to this apparatus we’ve constructed across eons. For example, the technology of fire-starting that we developed and refined across eons represented a monumental achievement, not only by obviating the need to evolve a second stomach but also by facilitating the ample animal protein intake that resulted in our developing singularly large brains.

Likewise, our palpably soft feet are a testament to the increasingly sophisticated footwear we have developed across the ages, a manufactured substitute for the thick, keratin covering other mammalian species have evolved across thousands of centuries.

Unplanned Human Progress

Yet, as Dawkins’ tweet so ably intimated, most of what we have achieved through the ages wasn’t planned in advance but rather occurred in the course of reacting to the random demands of existence. Throughout most of history, human progress has been tediously incremental.

So much of what we have achieved could be described as improvisation on the fly. I know of no better way of expressing it. We have not thought our way insomuch as we have improvised our way through hundreds of thousands of years of history.

Rodin’s Thinker is how many, if not most of us, perceive tens of thousands of years of human history: an image of smart people engaged in thoughtful reflection, anticipating all that has been achieved as well as what will come next. But that’s is not the way most of human achievement has occurred. To a significant degree, our networked exoskeleton represents an accretion of our improvisational responses to the demands of nature across eons.

Our exoskeleton is the accumulation of our species’ response to randomness across many millennia. In a manner of speaking, memories of these experiences are incorporated into our exoskeleton, where they meet, mate and morph with the memories and observations of previous experiences.

This raises the question: How much stewardship do we have over our exoskeleton, really?

I was reminded of this question recently listening to Prof. Jodi Magness’ lectures on Jewish historical influences on Christianity, particularly as these related to the Babylonian invasion and exile of the Jewish tribal homeland known as Judah beginning in 605 B.C.

Lessons from the Babylonian Captivity

Babylonian-captivity

Jewish Inhabitants of Judah being led into Captivity in Babylon in 605 B.C.

This period in Jewish history not only shaped the destiny of Jews but all of humanity in countless ways, though entirely unintentionally, particularly in terms of the how the first discernible contours of a monotheistic God emerged out of this era of acute turmoil. This period forced Jews, at least, the literate ones among the priesthood and educated classes, to think about God and faith at higher levels of abstraction.

To put it another way, a new understanding of God was not handed down from on high but slowly eked out across the next century as Jews reacted to the sense of shock and cultural dispossession that followed defeat and exile.

Before this upheaval, Jews generally had thought like many other people of their era, even though they had gone a long way toward affirming their own national deity, Yahweh, above others. King Josiah had even succeeded in banishing other deities from the sacred spaces of Judah, though many ordinary Jews, like many other people who inhabited the eastern Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, were still intellectually deeply rooted in the prevailing polytheistic theological views of the time. Jewish elites may have prohibited the worship of other deities, but that did not mean that ordinary Jews did not discount their existence. An attenuated form of polytheism was still prevalent throughout Judah.

The Babylonian defeat and dispossession of the people of Judah, followed by the exile of most of its elites to Babylon, proved to be one of the most significant upheavals in human history — and not simply for the Jewish faith. And in the midst of this profound disruption, no Jew, not even the most learned among them, could have anticipated how their views of God and how they organized and regarded themselves as a people would undergo radical change. Likewise, no one of that time, Jew or Gentile, could have anticipated the exceedingly far reach this disruption would have on humanity in general, particularly in terms of how its residual effects would play out throughout the Mediterranean basin

The first discernible contours of a monotheistic universal God began to emerge from this turmoil. And much of the theology that would underpin the teachings of subsequent Jewish prophets also shaped the cultural, social and technological context in which Jesus would live and teach. As journalist Robert Wright argues in his bestselling book, “The Evolution of God,” the perceived defeat of the Jewish God, Yahweh, by the Babylonian god, Marduk, ultimately forced Jewish theologians to conceive of an even bigger Yahweh. Over time, Yahweh was perceived as using the Babylonian exile to test and to quicken his chosen people so as to serve as standard of righteousness for all the other inhabitants of Earth. The first contours of what would become an all-seeing, universal God were fleshed out in the years following the Babylonian defeat and exile of Judah.

This was only the beginning of what followed: The creation of history’s first Jewish diaspora also held major implications for course of human history. Subsequent Jewish diasporas throughout the Hellenistic world went a long way toward spreading monotheistic thought, providing fertile conditions for the formation of Christianity, the world’s first universal religion.

Takeaway Lessons

There are some takeaway lessons here worth considering.

First, to answer to the question raised earlier: We humans have very little stewardship over our history. For the most part, we are not the proprietors of history. To a significant degree, we remain only subjects of it. Only recently have we managed to become more fully apprised of the causes and implications of most historical events, including the ancient ones. In time, our advances in Big Data and Artificial Intelligence possibly will enhance this understanding and may even afford us more stewardship over our exoskeleton and, through it, history.

What we’ve learned within the last two hundred years through disciplines such as biblical archaeology and textual criticism has demonstrated that religion was not handed down from on high but eked out over eons in the course our forebears grappling with all of unforeseen circumstances bound up with existence.

Ludwig-Feuerbach

German Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach

Some prominent atheists and nonetheists, notably the late German philosopher and anthropologist Ludwig Feuerbach, have contended that God is a projection of humanity. But does this really amount to a valid characterization?

God — that is to say, the monotheistic God we know today — was sculpted out of our exoskeleton over the course of time. He is not so much a projection of humanity as he is a product of our forebears’ cumulative responses to randomness and the synergistic effects produced by our exoskeleton as our distant ancestors reflected on and related these experiences across time.

Chardin’s Noosphere

Some people invariably would compare the human exoskeletal concept to Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. And to be sure, among some, the concept of a networked human exoskeleton, like Chardin’s noosphere, may evoke images of a living organism, though I wouldn’t describe it as such. To be sure, some facets of what we know as the human exoskeleton may ultimately attain consciousness sometime in the future through technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI). It’s even conceivable that AI could overrun humanity at some point, or, at the very least, impose its own ethical and moral system on us, much as the Spaniards imposed theirs on the hapless Incans some five centuries ago.

In time, humans even may be forced to merge with it or, at the very least, to live with this immensely enhanced exoskeleton in a manner that bears a remarkable resemblance to the way Incans learned to live with the conquering Spaniards, forgoing much of the networking of language, culture and technology that defined their previous existence.

Another Critical Take-Home Message

Another take-home message worth mentioning: Our exoskeleton constrains our perception and, consequently, our freedom, every bit as much as it expands and enlightens them. That is because we react to randomness not as simply as individuals but as facets of a highly complex and nuanced filtering system. To put it another way, we do not perceive randomness simply as individuals but as products of an unusually dense networking of language, writing, culture and technology.

To express it yet another way, we, as individuals, bring an array of highly complex, networked experiences and expectations to every encounter. And while we are both individually and collectively changed by truly singular encounters, we must bear in mind that all of these encounters are filtered through a highly dense and nuanced exoskeleton that is comprised of the accumulated experiences of human across time.

This only serves to underscore one of the vital truths of our networked exoskeleton: that it exercises far more stewardship over us than we do over it.

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Zero-Sum Federalism

state-flags

A Display of State Flags

Our federal bonds are fraying.

We Americans increasingly are conditioned to view federalism and, along with it, national unity, in zero-sum terms. And why should we be surprised? The century-old cookie-cutter-style federalism imposed on this country via Wilsonian progressivism has been stretched far beyond the limits of its design function. It’s grown increasingly threadbare. It’s no longer equipped to accommodate the world’s largest and most diverse economy, much less a culture that is growing increasingly diverse and divided.

The latest evidence attesting to that fact: The uproar among several blue states – California, New York, Connecticut and Oregon, to name a few – over the House Republican tax cut plan.

The House bill would eliminate the most widely-used deduction – income tax – and would cap property tax deductions, the second most-used, at $10,000. Here’s the rub: Many high tax blue states rely heavily on these state and local deductions. Consequently, many middle-class families in these states will end up paying more under the plan.

This is a lesson in history repeating itself – and possibly with dire consequences. This growing dissension among states over tax policy bears remarkable parallels to the vexatious debates over tariff policy in the years leading up to the Civil War. This dissension contributed mightily to the already toxic relations between the manufacturing Northeastern states, which favored high, protective tariffs, and the agrarian, slave-holding, export-oriented Southern states, which that not only insisted on low tariffs levied only to raise essential federal revenue.

And, honestly, why should blue states be expected to foot tax relief for the rest of the country?

Some here in the red hinterland would argue that states that operate expansive and expensive safety nets have no grounds for complaint. But isn’t this their prerogative as sovereign states within a federal union?

This brings me to a social media exchange I had with some friends this morning regarding the future of the country and strategies for restoring some semblance of a social policy, one that accommodates all regions and classes throughout country.

Frankly, I think that’s proving increasingly impossible, partly for the reasons I outline above.

For the last generation or so, I’ve striven to become an amateur scholar of post-war politics and economics of post-war West Germany. As a Tory conservative, I believe that there is much that Americans in the highly secularized, post-Christian 21st century can learn from this morally ravaged society.

I admire the old Christian Democratic party, which strove to restore a measure sanity to a morally and ethically gutted out post-Nazi society. Moreover, I admire deeply the social market economy that emerged after the war. As this term, social market, implies, it was an attempt by the Christian Democratic Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his fledgling party not only to stave off socialism but also to build a vibrant post-war free-market economy, albeit one that would provide a reasonably generous safety net and collective bargaining for the working class.

Frankly I would like to replicate some version of the social market to conditions in the United States, but the more I reflect on this, the more it occurs to me that this country is simply too big and diverse – not to mention, too badly divided – to implement any such system over a vast scale. What worked – and, to a degree, still works – in a relatively organic society like Germany, simply isn’t tenable in this United States. I could marshal a number of historical arguments for his, but in the interests of brevity, I wont.
Suffice it to say that blue-state Americans seem to regard any concession to red-state America as tantamount to moral betrayal and vice versa. We seem to have fallen into a sort of toxic, zero-sum paranoia.

Under the circumstances, maybe we really are past the point where any kind of humane social order can be established in a nation as large and diverse as the present-day United States. Indeed, the more I think about all of this, the more inclined I am to adhere to the vision a new constitutional order outlined by the late American diplomat and statesman George F. Kennan. Maybe the only viable option for American federalism is to heed his call to devolve power to 10 to 12 smaller entities, which Kennan described as constituent republics where citizens share strong historical and cultural affinities.

We could still share a common market and a common defense, but responsibilities for implementing social policies such as healthcare, social security, etc., would be left more or less exclusively to these constituent republics.
Yes, this amounts to a systemic, radical change, but is there really any other choice? Aren’t many states evolving what amounts to different social and economic systems? California, which possesses the fifth largest economy in the world, has evolved social policies and even a legal system that diverges significantly from much of the rest of the country.
Under the circumstances, why should we be surprised that states increasingly regard federalism as a zero-sum game?
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Reassembling Humpty-Dumpty

There’s been a long-stated conviction among conservative Christians, particularly evangelicals, that the path out of the West’s current predicament requires their active re-engagement with culture with the ultimate aim of restoring Christianity to some preeminent place in American and Western culture. But given the elite culture’s implacable hostility to all forms of Christianity, particularly evangelicalism, I’m not sure that that is possible.

Indeed, reading these sorts of accounts, I’m reminded of the scorn that the late conservative writer Peter Viereck heaped on those who resembled the Ottantotists, those French reactionaries who passionately believed that post-Revolutionary France somehow could be restored to some kind of pre-1788 status quo.

Speaking as a former Cooperative Extension professional who wrote extensively about the implications of invasive species to Southern forests and croplands, I’m well aware of how such infestations, after wreaking considerable havoc, eventually establish of equilibrium over time, acquiring a niche in the ecosystem.

Restoring the status quo is just not possible in a complicated ecosystem, whether it happens to be human, mammalian or insectoid.

To say that secularism has gained a firm and expanding beachhead in Western culture amounts to a rank understatement.  Secularism, more accurately described as secular liberalism, is now the regnant culture of the West, America included.  The Christian culture of the West now comprises an embattled remnant. For from resembling some kind of resilient cultural beachhead struggling to stage a resounding comeback, Christian culture could be more accurately compared to Chiang kai-chek’s besieged Nationalist fortress on the peripheral island of Taiwan, though lacking anything resembling the support Chiang enjoyed from the United States.

I am reminded of something the late Christian scholar Marcus Borg once related. He said that in his religion classes, which were taught at Oregon State, his students’ body language would undergo a discernable change from engagement to one of disengagement and even hostility whenever the topic switched from, say, Hindusism or Buddhism to Christianity. I think that this speaks volumes about what we are dealing with today

As I see it, the advances in textual criticism and evolutionary science, by removing much of the adhesive that has bound our civilization, have been catastrophic for the West.

I count myself a nontheist – I won’t go to the trouble here of explaining all the differences between atheism and nontheism. Whatever the case, I believe that everything that we have achieved has been the result of a network that has developed over eons and that has grown primarily out of language and written script.

Religion has historically been bound up this network and has afforded humanity all manner of advantages in terms of providing a sense of purpose and keeping all of the psychological furies and common human fears at bay. I have come to call this networking the Networked Human Exoskeleton, because this dense networking of language, culture and technology enshroud us, much as shells do crustaceans, providing us with all manner of sustenance and protection.

This networking amounts to scaffolding – in fact, that term could be used interchangeably with networking or with the exoskeleton. Like networking, it underscores how everything in existence is contingent on everything else.

The Christian faith afforded European civilization unique scaffolding. and with the destruction of this scaffolding – at least, most of it – I’m not that confident that we will manage to put anything of equal and enduring value in its place.

So much of this scaffolding was bound up in traditional Christianity – the promise of an afterlife and the fear of eternal damnation for egregious offenders provided an integral, if not essential facet of this scaffolding. And I think that these unique facets of Christianity breathed life into the faith and provided it with its strongest and most enduring scaffolding, at least, until the mid-19th century.

But textual criticism and evolutionary science have challenged this – in the minds of of the most culturally influential members of our society, these advance put a lie to it.

Nietzsche, as memory served, believed that this destruction of old scaffolding would clear space for well-integrated humans who would put aside the old slave morality of Christianity and construct a new ethos more aligned with the true character of our humanity and better equipped to maximize human potential.

Technophiles and techno-utopians have expressed the fervent hope, if not certainty, that advances in Artificial Intelligence will enable us to construct a viable alternative, but I entertain serious doubts, frankly.

As I have stressed time after time in my writings, the faith tradition that emerged as the sole faith of Europe in the Fourth Century conferred all manner of advantage on the West. And the more perceptive public intellectuals among us always have painted an unsettling dark age that may follow as the scaffolding built on this faith tradition faces structural collapse.

Posted in Jim Langcuster, Religion, Religion and Culture, Religious Faith | Leave a comment

The Freedom Afforded by Our Exoskeleton

sea-shell2

Photo: Courtesy of Charles Haynes.

I’ve pointed out in earlier essays how the dense network that we humans have constructed over ages — a contrivance I’ve come to call the Networked Human Exoskeleton (NHE) — has conferred on our species immense, almost unfathomable intellectual, technological and even moral progress.

A Brief Re-Introduction to NHE

First, a brief refresher course on the NHE. I believe that all of human progress can be attributed to a dense network, the first elements of which were put in place eons ago, as our distant ancestors began employing language. This network is comprised of all manner of things: language, writing, technology, moral and ethical teachings, art and memes, to name only a few. All of these elements are fused within this network, one that has become denser and more nuanced with the passage of time.

We ascribe human progress to the accomplishments of great men and women throughout history, but this is only partly the case. Whether they happen to be political leaders, moral sages, scientists or philosophers, all of these individuals have been integrally influenced by the elements of this network, the NHE. They function as nodes within a vast network — singular and important ones, to be sure, but nodes nonetheless.

In fact, I’ve chosen the term exoskeleton to underscore the immense scope and influence of this contrivance and the individual’s sheer smallness in the face of it. The NHE is more than simply a network: It not only drives human progress but also protects and sustains us. We, in a manner of speaking, are ensconced within our exoskeleton. We are integrally linked to it and it is impossible to step out of it. In fact, our species would face rapid extinction if we somehow managed to separate ourselves from it.

Shifts in Binding

Yet, it’s important to underscore that our exoskeleton is not only affected by external environmental threats but also shifts within its own network binding. These shifts can be far-reaching and can pose significant challenges to humans as they adjust to them.

Indeed, one could argue that we are still adjusting to the disruption to network binding caused by the advent of the printing press some 500 years ago. The higher levels of literacy that followed this technological advance contributed to all manner of social forces, notably, the Reformation and the Enlightenment, which ultimately led to the ideology that underpins the culture of the West: liberal democracy.

One of the hallmarks of democratic liberalism is the dizzying array of choices it imposes on each inhabitant of advanced societies, even regarding subjects that were once considered sacrosanct and not subject to discussion or debate.

Indeed, our exoskeleton has expanded to the degree that we are free to reject conventional explanations of the transcendent – to work out our own personal view of transcendence or, for that matter, to reject all notions of transcendence.

As this emerging sense of choice expands, older, more conventional forms of faith recede. Conventional faith once comprised a critical component of our exoskeleton. But within the last half millennium, dramatic shifts within the binding of our exoskeleton have essentially worked to outstrip the ability of older traditions to maintain compelling narratives among growing numbers of people.

The Vast Expansion of the Exoskeleton

There is another factor that cannot be ignored. The freedoms we enjoy, particularly, the freedom to create our own personal ethos, is an outgrowth of the vastly extended, highly specialized society that we have managed to create through our increasingly complex and nuanced exoskeleton. Such freedom would have been unimaginable only a few centuries ago.

It is also worth considering within the wider historical context. How much freedom do we have within this exoskeleton — really? It has greatly optimized our range of personal choices, yes, but to what degree has it expanded our personal autonomy? These are complicated questions that will have to be taken up at a later date.

Freedom and choice are outgrowths of shifts within our network. Moreover, both are highly relative terms within the perspective of the human exoskeleton. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger spoke of freedom within a temporal sense, but questions of human choice and autonomy have been explored within considerably wider contexts. Moreover these two concepts have been subject to dramatic revisions across eons.

There is another critical issue to consider: Until the last several decades, Western concepts of freedom and choice had been closely integrated with and tempered by other binding within our network, namely a system of ethics and morality heavily influenced in the West by orthodox Christian teaching.

These connections will adhere, at least, to some degree, for the foreseeable future, but this binding is coming under increasing threat. And if our history has taught us one thing, it’s that we have every reason to heed the lessons of the past and to search for ways to weave the older binding of our network into emerging elements. In fact, we ignore this older binding at our own peril.

Dizzying Arrays of Choices

We must also understand that our dizzying arrays of choices are a direct byproduct of the extended society that has emerged from our exoskeleton. To express it another way, we are able to exercise some degree of individual autonomy only because our exoskeleton has grown so large, so complex and so extended. Western monarchs were forced to undertake sweeping institutional changes that led to a parliamentary government as well as the civil liberties that we take wantonly for granted in the 21st century.

To put it another way, we owe the immense size and complexity of our network, our exoskeleton, an immense debt, though the scope and density of this exoskeleton present a new set of unique and, in the view of many, insurmountable challenges.

Much of this could be destroyed following some environmental apocalypse or technological calamity in which much of our scaffolding, particularly our technological scaffolding, was eliminated.

Following such a calamity, we no longer could take much of our autonomy for granted. We would have to deal with new systems of morality and ethics imposed by the new scaffolding that emerges.

Posted in Jim Langcuster, Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton, Religion, Religion and Culture, Religious Faith | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Remarkable Generational Dialogue

Grow-OldThe title that renowned filmmaker Peter Jackson’s chose for his new World War I documentary is quite appropriate — spot on, in fact.

Indeed, I’m convinced that “They Shall Not Grow Old” is the most apt title he possibly could have chosen for this magnificent work.

The documentary is like few others I’ve encountered over a lifetime of viewing documentaries. Its effect is raw, immediate and surreal — almost mystical, in fact. Yes, I know, this sounds glowing, almost hagiographic, but I can conceive of no other way to describe what he has achieved through all of these scripting and technological feats — one simply can’t depart the theater without being struck that something resembling a dialogue has occurred with long-deceased people across a century-old chasm.

In a very palpable sense, these soldiers haven’t grown old. Through Jackson’s artistic foresight, they have, in a manner of speaking, returned through the remarkable medium of colorized, digitally restored  film to teach us a lesson about our species in all of its damnable complexity — its dogged persistence and courage in the face of almost incomprehensible adversity, its wanton cruelty when pushed too far, and, yet, in spite of all this, its remarkable capacity for compassion and forgiveness, even in the midst of the most appallingly unpropitious circumstances.

Four years ago, the British Imperial War Museum offered Jackson, best known for his directorship of the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit trilogies, a daunting but remarkable challenge: to work thousands of hours of war footage and interviews with long-deceased veterans into a coherent narrative to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War.

Jackson ended up parting significantly from the conventional script.  He used the latest advances in digital technology to enliven — I now of no other way to put this — all of this material into an epic and thoroughly unconventional narrative.  In crisp, three-dimensional, colorized form, we gain a glimpse of war in all of its banality and horror: images of men draping their bare buttocks over logs to defecate into pits and going about the daily business of burning lice out of their tunics, battlefields strewn with rotting corpses and the flesh-eating rats that fed off them, and wet, fetid trenches, miles upon miles of them, and the gangrenous cases of trench foot they produced.

Equally impressive was the way Jackson organized the film, which starts with carefully restored 3-D monochrome footage of everyday British rural and urban life, followed by the training and overseas deployment of Brtiish recruits. Initially, the images do not span the full screen.

Then, suddenly, there is an unanticipated transition to a full-screened image of troops standing on the perimeter of a sprawling trench. There they stand in 3-dimensional, colorized form, appearing to gaze directly at the audience. It is a quite jarring effect – a kind of communion with human beings long departed. Later in the film there is another scene of a British soldier, quite likely doomed, marching through a trench directly to an engagement. Yet, as he marches forward, he is unable to break his backward gaze toward the camera. Once again, one gets a sense of being in a kind of communion with a fellow human being, nameless and deceased, from a century ago.

Edmund Burke characterized society as “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection.  As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

Leaving the theater yesterday, I could not stop thinking of Burke, of his characterization of society as a dialogue among the generations, both living and dead.  “They shall Not Die Young” is one such dialogue— a truly remarkable one. And there is more than a trace of irony in this fact, because the very technological achievements that arguably are working most to erode this generational dialogue — Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and sundry forms of digital technology — are also laying the groundwork for a remarkable glimpse into our past, perhaps even our very distant past.

We need more of these kinds of films in an age when technology seems to detract from our immediate and distant past as well as  many of the most basic human realities.  To be sure, the unrelenting march of technology ultimately may lead us down a path, a very dangerous path, that ultimately may culminate in horrors to which the battlefields of WWI pale in comparison.

Yet, Jackson’s film may have provided us with a glimpse into a silver lining of technology.  Perhaps one day our children and grandchildren my come away sobered, if not deeply chastened, by the insights these expanding technologies garner into the human condition by venturing deep into our species deep past.

This film will show one more time on the big screen on Dec. 27 in theaters throughout the United States.  Don’t pass up the opportunity to experience one of the most remarkable dialogues of a lifetime.

The Trailer for “They Shall Not Grow Old”

Posted in History, Jim Langcuster, The Passing Scene | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Fate Worse than the Talosians?

Talosian

The Keeper, from Star Trek’s first pilot “The Cage. Photo: Courtesy of Paramount. 

If you are a regular visitor to my blog, you’ve likely concluded from my writing, that I am a huge Star Trek fan.

I’ve posted below one of the most iconic scenes from the entire Star Trek genre, when Picard meets Kirk in the Nexus in Star Trek Generations. I’m especially intrigued by this scene because it embodies the  theme that was expressed loudly, boldly and confidently throughout the entire original series: an unrepentant faith in scientific progress and the eternal perfection of man.  In that respect, Star Trek embodied the values of 18th century Whig liberalism.   It served as a paean to modernism and the unrelenting, undaunted, march of scientific achievement, at least, what remained of it in the late 1960’s, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and the midst of the Cold War and as the United States became more embroiled in the what ultimately proved to be the travesty of the Vietnam Conflict.

Civilizational Aspirations

Indeed, looking back more than a half century to its first season, I’m struck by how frequently Star Trek, particularly the original series, dealt with the danger of humanity’s becoming untethered from these lofty aspirations and with reality in general and, as a result, falling prey to some malignant force that would prevent our species from attaining its full potential.

Recall that the first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, dealt with this threat in the form of the illusion-making power of the wily, cerebral Talosians, whose atrophying civilization teetered on the verge of extinction — ironically, as the result of acquiring this remarkable skill.

As I’ve pointed out a number of times in this forum, this is one of the  things I’ve always found especially interesting and even inspiring about science fiction: Its having taken on many of the characteristics of religion by pointing humanity to threats, particularly technological threats, that traditional faith, perhaps because of its ancient lineage, is arguably not as well-equipped to do.

Warnings Seemingly Unheeded

In fact, as we move deeper into the 21st century, we seem to be on the verge of harnessing Artificial Intelligence in ways that bear a rather unsettling resemblance to the technology that ultimately threatened the fictitious Talosians. Indeed, quite a few public intellectuals, from the recently deceased cosmologist Stephen Hawking to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and historian Yuval Noah Harari, have essentially picked up where The Cage and other works of science fiction have left off, warning us about the myriad of dangers associated with this rapidly expanding technology.

In the years leading up to his death, Hawking warned us about the danger of our ultimately facing a threat from highly sophisticated, deadly robots, eerily portended in Terminator movie series.  More recently, Kissinger has raised the specter of AI’s imposing on us a set of ethics or morality not of our choosing, much as the technologically advanced Spaniards imposed their religion on the hapless Incans some 500 years ago.

In his most recent book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century,” Harari warns that humans ultimately may be drawn incrementally into a future in which AI increasingly anticipates and assuages every human need and whim without our even having to ask for help, to the point where we are ultimately reduced to a coddled but enslaved species little different from the Soma users in Huxley’s Brave New World.

Equally remarkable is the fact that these warnings seem to be falling largely on deaf ears.  It seems there was a time, certainly when I was a boy growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, that human beings seemed more fully attuned to these threats. Indeed, Star Trek was only one of several science fiction works that alerted us to these threats.  The films “Colossus: The Forbin Project,” and “Westworld” come to mind. Yet, in hindsight, this strikes me as a time long ago when people, especially Americans, still possessed a strong confidence in civilization and its capacity to adjust to rapid change.

Civilizational Ennui

Today, though, we seem to be beset by a kind of civilizational ennui, if not fatalism, one perhaps reflected in the opioid addiction and suicide epidemic that has much of the American hinterland it its grip. One gets the impression that tens of millions of people, not only ordinary people but also many elites in the United States and throughout the developed world, have essentially succumbed to a sort of post-modern malaise, concluding that the  challenges facing us are simply too complex, too intractable to resolve.

I’ve even wondered a time or two if some of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, harbor some measure of comfort from contemplating our species’ demise.  As I’ve observed before, some science fiction movies even seem to have touched on this theme, however gingerly, notably “The Invasion,” an updating of both the 1956 and 1978 versions of “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

As with the two previous versions, the aims of the alien invaders are ultimately thwarted, yet in the final few minutes of “The Invasion,” a broadcast commentator almost seems to evince regret that humanity has been granted a reprieve from extinction. Moreover, one of the film’s principal characters, Yorish, rather dolefully observes, “All I’m saying is that civilization crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation, we are capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this is no so, when every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence — well, this is a world where human beings cease to be human.”

We seem to have traveled a long way from the heady optimism of Star Trek. Sometimes I even find myself succumbing to the view that we humans no longer possess the will nor the courage to save ourselves from what awaits us.  Perhaps more of us are coming to resemble the disillusioned and nihilistic Dr. Stephen Falken in the 1983 thriller WarGames, clinging to the hope that what ultimately supplants humanity eons from now will be better — more attuned to what threatens them, better equipped to avoid the malaise that seems to be consuming us.

Picard Meets Kirk in Star Trek: Generations.

Posted in Futurology, Jim Langcuster, science fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment