From Satori to Silicon Valley

by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.

Nerds, Zombies, and the Flight from Mortality

As I originally understood Technophilia, it seemed like still another variation on the sort of Tom Swift-H. G. Wells vision that dominated nineteenth century futuristic brain-storming. The western world's love affair with machines can be traced back to the Strasbourg clock of the late middle ages. From that point forward, one can find a steady line of artisans and tinkerers who saw an ever-more promising destiny for the ingenious clockwork mechanisms that were the distant forerunners of the computer. By the time of the European Enlightenment, these inspired engineers had converted ranking intellectuals and revolutionaries like Voltaire and Ben Franklin to their vision. God Himself had come to be seen as a grand cosmic watchmaker. Linked to the power of stream or electricity, machinery would bring salvation. The heavenly city would be a gleaming technological metropolis jammed with factories, rapid transport, and speed-of-light communications.

What this projection left out of account is the peculiar relationship that has grown up between biology and technology in our time. It may be that the most consequential contribution of the computer is the model it provided in the 1950s for DNA. Once the genetic basis of life came to be seen as a sort of biocomputer, a cultural alliance was built between the new biology and computer science that allowed speculation to pass in both directions. After all, if DNA is a form of data-processing, then the computer, which is essentially a data-processing instrument, might be seen as an emerging life-form, if not an evolving organism -- a possibility some will see as already near at hand in the new designs for DNA-RNA computer chips. Hence, our habit of tracking computers by way of "generations," as if they were linked by a living, genealogical progression. Admit that much and one is not far from seeing the computer as a companion, or possibly rival species in the history of life on Earth.

Robert Jastrow of NASA was among the first to predict the advent of disembodied intelligence. He looks forward to the day when we shall become "a race of immortals" based upon computerized mentality. One day, he tells us,

a bold scientist will be able to tap the contents of his mind and transfer them into the metallic lattices of a computer. Because mind is the essence of being, it can be said that this scientist has entered the computer and that he now dwells in it. At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh. ... It is in control of its own destiny. The machine is its body; it is the machine's mind. ... It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever. (Robert Jastrow, The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984, pp. 166-67)

Jastrow's prediction reveals a kind of high tech Manicheanism that has long been an underlying theme of modern science: the hope of liberating pure reason from the physical facts of life -- and incidentally from the messy bodily intimacies of sex. Note the assumption: "mind is the essence of being." Delete the body and identity remains intact.

At the birth of modern western philosophy, Pythagoras and Plato seized upon mathematics as the purest expression of deathless being. Two thousand years later, at the beginning of the modern era, Descartes echoed that same desire to rise above the flesh when he separated calculating mind from corruptible matter and made mathematics the official language of science. As an essentially computational machine, the computer has inherited the flight from mortality as a subliminal goal that continues to cast its spell over many of the brightest minds in the world of high tech. In Jastrow's formulation, we have the Cartesian dictum "Cogito, ergo sum," pressed to its literal and logical extreme. "I" become nothing other or more than my cogitating brain. If, therefore, that brain can be simulated in silicon, "I" survive. Paul Slouka has this same strange alliance of the ascetic and the mathematical in view when he characterizes high tech as "an attack on reality as human beings have always known it." Cyberspace, he believes, is getting crowded with scenarios uploading consciousness into electronic networks. Behind these high tech fantasies he sees "a fear and loathing of the natural world, of physical experience in its entirety." (Mark Slouka, War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality, New York, Basic Books, 1995)

The astrophysicist Frank Tipler has pressed these possibilities even further. In his book The Physics of Immortality, he sets out to reinvent the scientific equivalent of the Christian resurrection. "The dead," he tells us, "will be resurrected when the computer capacity of the universe is so large that the amount of capacity required to store all possible human speculations is an insignificant fraction of the entire capacity." Following the Catholic evolutionary philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Tipler refers to this as "the Omega Point," the grand climax of cosmic history. Humanity would then dominate the entire universe; we would have progressed "from Earth-womb into the cosmos at large." (Frank Tipler, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology and the Resurrection of the Dead, New York, Doubleday, 1994)

Long before that far horizon is reached, Tipler is certain that we will be able to simulate the body in all its most refined details -- and improve upon it. It would then be unnecessary to preserve the carnal original; it might be cast aside in favor of its robotic equivalent. Such an "emulated person," Tipler argues, "would observe herself to be as real, and as having a body as solid as the body we currently observe ourselves to have." The simulated body would, however, have one very special quality: it would be deathless. Tipler sees the same great dividend in this that Jastrow finds in putting his brain in a box. In that form, disembodied minds of the future might be loaded aboard a spacecraft and fired off into the universe to explore the galaxies far, far away -- needing no air, food, water, or exercise for the journey. Even boredom need not be a problem; a disincarnate intelligence need only be placed in a comatose state for the thousands of years it may take to arrive at a destination light-years away.

In the pages of Wired magazine, silicon immortality is among the constant themes of the rising cyberpunk intelligentsia. This may in fact be the emotional subtext for the advanced claims of artificial intelligence. Interviewed in Wired, Chris Langton, one of the founders of artificial life research, puts it this way: "There are these other forms of life, artificial ones, that want to come into existence. And they are using me as a vehicle for reproduction and for implementation." Vernor Vinge, looking further into the future, tells us "if we ever succeed in making machines as smart as humans, then it's only a small leap to imagine that we would soon thereafter make -- or cause to be made-- machines that are even smarter than any human. And that's it. That's the end of the human race within the animal kingdom." (Wired June 1995, p. 161)

Jaron Lanier, creator of virtual reality and a maverick member of the computer community, believes these fantasies are among the major attractions of cyberspace. Many hackers, he tells us, "nurture hopes of being able to live forever by backing themselves on to a computer tape." Lanier has also characterized these ambitions as the beginning of a new "zombie culture" dominated by ex-humans who "are ready to leave all that behind and imagine living on a disk in which they only interact with other minds and environmental elements that also exist solely as software." This, Lanier believes, is what accounts for that curious new psychological category we call "nerdiness." Intellectually, the nerd is one who searches for ways to digitalize away all distinctions of quality, feeling, and affect. Emotionally, the nerd is given over to an alien blandness that wants to shelter from human intimacy and physicality.

Nanotechnology [Lanier speculates] might be used to create a supercomputer that will quickly figure out how to make nanomachines that can repair the human body and make old age an anachronism. ... Or, perhaps most tellingly, the contents of our brains will be read into durable computers, so that our minds will continue after our bodies cease to function. (Jaron Lanier, "Agents of Alienation," Journal of Consciousness Studies, volume 2, no. 1, 1995, pp. 76-81)

Is this ancient Gnostic hunger to transcend the flesh, perhaps, the emotional subtext that underlies the otherwise bafflingly euphoric response we now see offered to every computerized gadget and frivolous Web site that comes along? These days, when I hear smart people growing ecstatic over "access to information" that comes down to another way to order a pizza, look up baseball scores, or bid on collectibles, rather as if they cannot imagine life was worth living before the dot.coms came along, I find it hard to take such trivial fascinations at face value. Surely they know that 99.9 percent of human culture was created without the aid of a mouse. They must be aware that all the famous figures featured in Apple's "Think Different" campaign are distinguished by nothing so much as the fact that none of them ever used a computer. Is there, then, a darker motive behind these seemingly silly on-line obsessions -- an age-old pursuit of life beyond the body?

Lanier believes that is what accounts for the curious new psychological category we call "nerdiness." Intellectually, the nerd is one who searches for ways to digitalize away all distinctions of quality, feeling, and affect. Emotionally, the nerd is given over to an alien blandness that wants to shelter from human intimacy and physicality. Why should anyone have such an insistent desire to erase the barrier between the human and the mechanical, even in one's own personality? Because once we believe we are beyond that barrier, we are beyond death. Machines do not die.


Some Afterthoughts in the Year 2000

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.