Economics and Technology — Heavenly Match or Dangerous Duo?

Who Owns the FutureIn our post Great Recession world, it is difficult to think deeply about the future of culture without considering economics realities. While there are many ways to look at the economic disruptions of the last years, when it comes to understanding the deeper historical forces driving economic events, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s quirky and brilliant book, Who Owns the Future, is a revelation. He has thought deeply about the cultural impact of the information economy and the rise of powerful companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. His economic insights are original, his social analysis intriguing and even his more existential considerations are provocative (though that is mostly the subject of his previous book, You are Not a Gadget).

Lanier asks a question that also lurks behind today’s headlines and has never been far from the lips of thoughtful economists. Are middle classes natural? They are part of the lifeblood of capitalism, but are they an inevitable result of the rise of wealth that has accompanied modernism and the industrial revolution? Or are they more tenuous creations, dependent on fortuitous policies and politics, made possible by the wealth that capitalism’s creates, but still dependent on the moderating, shaping influence of human institutions? Lanier writes:

Marx argued that finance was inherently hopeless technology and that market systems will always degrade into the rut of plutocracy. A Keynesian economist would accept that ruts exist but would also add that falling into ruts can be staved off indefinitely with interventions in order to survive…Great wealth is a naturally persistent, generation to generation, as is deep poverty, but a middle-class status has not proven to be stable without a little help. All the examples of long-term stable middle classes we know of relied on Keynesian interventions as well as persistent mechanism like social safety nets to moderate market outcomes.

Lanier worries that the increasing speed of technological change could be tipping that tenuous balance, changing the fundamental equation, destroying middle class jobs in sector after sector of our economy at a rate that far exceeds new job creation.  The argument usually employed is that as certain sectors lose jobs as a result of technological change, new industries are simultaneously created. Buggy whips producers are long gone. Electric car battery factories are on the rise. The once mighty GM went bankrupt a few years ago, but Apple and Google are thriving. Creative destruction is all part of a healthy economy. To impede that process is to restrict the wealth creating mechanism that built modernity. That is all certainly true, but as Lanier points out the social consequences of “creative destruction” may be changing as technology moves forward. Google and Apple employ a small percentage of the people that GM did at its height. And there is concern that an information economy, despite its many significant positives, might not be able to easily sustain the job creation capacity that our industrial economy once did.

Who Owns the Future introduces us to new terms like the idea of a “siren server”. Lanier defines them as “elite computers…on a network…characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion and extreme information asymmetry.” Think Amazon, Google, Facebook, Orbitz. The powerful influence of a siren server can create whole industries all built to work around the preferences of that information node. Entire companies are structured around Google’s search algorithms. Millions moderate their behavior to fit the parameters of Amazon’s preferences. Wal-Mart, he suggests, was siren server from a slightly earlier era.  Their success was driven, not just by the China price, or by small town economics, but by achieving unmatched market efficiencies driven by information asymmetry. Now Amazon is playing that exact game in a new decade, and improving it. Lanier points out that those who own or are very close to siren servers are making most of the great fortunes of our age. We can debate the pros and cons of these informational economic engines, but even the distinction, which he draws out over the course of the book, makes you think about the forces shaping our lives in new ways.

Lanier

Lanier is also suspicious of “free” economy, pointing out that as more and more services become free, we all benefit, but we also pay a hidden cost. Music is becoming free but musicians, with the exception of celebrities and stars, struggle to make a living. News is free but journalism has suffered greatly. Education looks to be headed the same way. More and more technology companies provide free services and use advertising as their primary business model. Is that sustainable over the long run? Can an information economy built on “free” provide the islands of middle class wealth that have been so essential to the stability of the developed world? Or will the fast-rising waters of massive technological disruption swamp them?

While Lanier’s concerns are many, he is far from a Luddite. The issue for him is not whether we go forward, but how we go forward. Are there ways to best shape outcomes in the information economy in ways that produce not a race to the bottom or a winner take all economy, but the bell curve—some rich, some poor, most in the middle—that is the sign of societal health.

In the developed world, it’s easy to forget that the great advances of our century—social, political and economic—have been dependent upon the health of our unprecedented middle classes. If they begin to falter, the political implications could be far-reaching. The wrath of America’s so-called “Tea Party” and Occupy Wall Street’s activism point to kind of anger that will proliferate if a winner take all system become the norm of our economy. Lanier points out that when it last looked like capitalism might destroy the middle class and create a plutocracy, we developed policies that curtailed the disparities, bolstered the labor movement and also staved off the over-reaction of a socialist revolution—all while encouraging the forward-looking growth of our economy. The information revolution for all its many wonders and opportunities presents new but related challenges to our global policymakers. How do we embrace the future being created in technological hubs around the world while actively promoting the best possible outcomes of those changes? Lanier ‘s work is indispensable in that critical conversation.

Do the Laws of Physics Evolve?

time_rebornI’m happy to se Lee Smolin’s new book making a very interesting point about time. In his new work, Time Reborn, he apparently (haven’t read it yet) makes some radical and interesting statements about the nature of time, and mentions how even the laws of physics might not be final, fixed and immutable, but actually evolve over time.

Now those of you who have read my book, Evolutionaries, will remember this section where I talk about “breaking the spell of solidity” in relationship to way we think about the world around us. I even mentioned this is regards to the laws of physics, not because I wanted to weigh in on matters of physics I know little about, but because 1) It’s a natural question to ask once you start down a robustly evolutionary thought process, and 2) Some important thinkers have already started that inquiry. By “breaking the spell of solidity” I mean making the effort to question whether so many of the things in the physical universe that we think are fixed, immutable, and unchanging are actually that way given are emerging understanding of how so much of what we once thought was fixed, unchanging, or even God-given is natural and evolving. As we start to integrate a deeper understanding of time and evolution into our view of reality, I believe we will be asking this essential question in regards to many issues. In this particular chapter, I was talking mostly about culture and human psychology, and about Ken Wilber’s philosophy, but also gave a nod to Charles Peirce who was one of the first thinkers to deeply incorporate a profoundly developmental view of reality into his thinking. Of course, it should be said that Rupert Sheldrake has been talking about this as well for years, and that was even part of his TED talk that was banned by TEDx scientific censorship team (and subsequently re-instated). But given how much Sheldrake is reviled by many in the scientific community, he is unlikely to get much credit. But Smolin has impeccable credentials in the scientific community and in physics and so his nod to Peirce and his re-imagining of the nature of time should provoke a lot of discussion.

First, here is a quote from my book:

I found it remarkable to discover, in the course of my research, that all the way back in the nineteenth century Peirce was questioning the spell of solidity even as it applied to the most sacred cows of the physical sciences: the laws of nature. For Peirce, the entire universe and all of its forces and creations were subject to evolution. Indeed, Peirce’s work was one of the first to begin to theorize how something as ostensibly absolute as a law might be created through the processes of evolution. Perhaps the laws of nature are not un- changing, applying to everything for all time, he suggested. Perhaps they didn’t pre-date the universe. Perhaps they, too, evolved along with the forms and structures of our cosmos.

Peirce suspected that many of the seemingly fixed structures of our universe are in fact better described as habits—habits that have become so deeply embedded in nature that they behave like laws, fixed and unchangeable. In 1915, the Mid-West Quarterly, a publication of the University of Nebraska, published the following description of Peirce’s ideas as presented in his lectures at Johns Hopkins University.

May not the laws of the universe be the acquired habits of the universe? May there not still be a possibility of the modification of these habits? May there not be the possibility, forever, of the formation of new habits, new laws? May not law be evolved from a primordial chaos, a universe of chance? In the play of chance still apparent may we not see the continual renewal of the life of the universe, a continual renewal of the capacity for habit forming and growth?

Peirce suggested all of this before science had any sense of cosmological evolution, of the deep-time developmental history of our universe. Questions concerning the laws of physics are even more fascinating today, particularly in the context of our current under- standing of Big Bang Theory. Did those laws exist in some timeless void prior to the initial cosmic emergence? Did they pop into existence at the moment of that great conflagration? Were they gifts, perhaps, of a previous universe, a sort of cosmically inherited informational DNA designed to help structure the evolution of our own realm of time and space? When it comes to such issues that get at the heart of our cosmic origins, we still have far more questions than answers.

Biologist Rupert Sheldrake is another thinker who has suggested that the laws of nature may not be immutable and eternal but are more like habits. And he points out that most physicists have not thought deeply about these questions in light of our new cosmology. “Although cosmology is now evolutionary,” he writes, “old habits of thought die hard. Most scientists take eternal laws of Nature for granted—not because they have thought about them in the context of the Big Bang, but because they haven’t.” Lately, it seems, a few more physicists have stepped into the breach with interesting speculations about the source of the laws of nature, such as Templeton Prize winner Paul Davies and science writer James Gardner. But wherever such speculations ultimately lead us, what is important for our discussion is that once again the spell of solidity is broken and we can at least begin to consider the possibility that certain characteristics of the universe that seem immutable and unchanging might better be considered as evolutionary—things that develop over time through habitual repetition until they become more and more established. Eventually, in a cognitive illusion that fools us again and again, they seem fixed, eternal and unchanging, when actually they are nothing of the sort.

 

Now here is Smolin. In his recent Edge.org interview he states:

 Now some of this is not new. The American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, identified this issue that I’ve just mentioned in the late 19th century.LEE SMOLIN However, his thinking has not influenced most physicists. Indeed, I was thinking about laws evolving before I read Charles Sanders Peirce. But something that he said encapsulates what I think is a very important conclusion that I came to through a painful route. And other people have more recently come to it, which is that the only way to explain how the laws of nature might have been selected is if there’s a dynamical process by which laws can change and evolve in time. And so I’ve been searching to try to identify and make hypotheses about that process where the laws must have changed and evolved in time because the situation we’re in is: Either we become kind of mystics, well, just those are the laws full stop, or we have to explain the laws. And if we want to explain the laws, there needs to be some history, some process of evolution, some dynamics by which laws change.

This is for some people a very surprising idea and it still is a surprising idea in spite of the fact that I’ve been thinking about it since the late 80′s, but if you look back, there are precedents: Dirac, you can find in his writings, a place where Dirac says the laws must have been different earlier in the universe than now; they must have changed. Even Feynman has … I found a video online where Feynman has a great way…and I wish I could do a Feynman Brooklyn accent, it sort of goes: “Here are the laws we say; here are the laws, but how do they get to be that way in time? Maybe physics really has a historical component. ” Because you see, he’s saying physics is different from the other subjects. There is no historical component to physics as there is to biology, genealogy, astrophysics, and so forth. But Feynman ends up saying, “Maybe there is a historical component.” And then in the conversation his interviewer says, “But how do you do it?” And Feynman goes, “Oh, no, it’s much too hard, I can’t think about that.”

 

I look forward to reading Time Reborn.

Follow the Money!

boomerang
A Review of Michael Lewis’s Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

The world of Global Finance can be maddeningly frustrating to understand. Unfortunately, its complexity is not matched by its insignificance. Indeed, the effects of decisions and actions in banks, markets and government policy circles around the world are highly consequential. They can easily enrich and impoverish, uplift or condemn, unleash or constrain the peoples of our small planet. As we saw in the recent Great Recession, obscure and only recently invented financial instruments like “Credit Default Swaps” can suddenly become central to vast global economic shifts and changes. And decisions made in Central Banks around our globe can easily trump those made in the Parliaments and Congresses of even our most robust democracies.

Given these realities, we need good guides to this territory of global finances, journalists like Michael Lewis, author of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. Lewis’s smart, popular style help us cut through the complexity, and even better, tells us the frightening story of what actually happens when entire countries are empowered by easy money, such as happened in first decade or our new millennium.  The author of The Big Short and Moneyball, Lewis is first and foremost a masterful storyteller and his narrative is funny and entertaining amidst his deeply disturbing recounting of the debt fueled hysteria that gripped so many countries in the last decade. His breezy and darkly humorous book is not a full accounting of our economic issues, but rather a travelogue of sorts, a recent tour through the financial disaster zones of the developed West. Like a Weather Channel journalist after big storm, he gives us an on-the-ground perspective of what happened, what was lost, what was learned, and what the future may hold. Through his eyes, we see the impact of the Great Recession on economies of Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and finally back to the US.

Lewis is hardly the first to point out that one of the unintended consequences of the new Euro Zone was new access to easy (borrowed) money for much of Europe. Countries like Greece, whose currencies were once tied to the budget situation of their own country, were suddenly judged by the Eurozone overall. In practice, that meant they were judged by the pristine budgets of Germany. As crazy as it sounds in retrospect, the Greeks were able to borrow money as if they were the Germans, but spend it as if they were Greeks.  And spend it they did. The result was massive accumulation of debt. And they weren’t alone. The overall theme was repeated across Europe and America with different cultural variations. As Lewis writes:

 The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007…wasn’t just money. It was temptation. It offered entire societies the chcance to reveal aspects of their chracters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire coutnries were told, “the lights are out, you can do whatever you want and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with the money was dark and varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish.

Very few things reveal character like easy money—lots and lots of it. This is true of individuals, but it also true of cultures. And that is perhaps the most fascinating part of Lewis’s book. Through stories, interviews, and he brings us deep into the cultural affects of what happened, and we see the fascinating, bizarre and strange rationalizations that led the Icelanders to think they were savvy investment bankers, the Greeks to think they could just lie to themselves and just about everyone else about the true state of their finances, and the Germans to wake up one day and realize, much to their dismay, that the rest of the world did not relate to money like the Germans. It is an amazing and dismaying journey and Lewis never allows the story to lag or to get bogged down in charts or numbers. The financial facts are thankfully easy to follow, but stories and the people and the cultural insight are what the reader is ultimately left with.

Boomerang is not a story with a simple beginning and ending. Today, the financial unraveling of that debt tsunami is still working its way through the global economy. And economists argue about the cultural costs of things like austerity on the European social fabric, and that easy money presents a moral hazard for the US banking and financial system. What one sees through Lewis’s journalism, however, is not just how economic policy influences cultural behavior but also the opposite: how the qualities of any given national character enormously influence their economic long term success and failure. Ultimately, he tracks the all too human tendency to profit handsomely from the bubble and then to point the fingers at others when the music stops. “Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans,” he writes, “and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.”

Lewis’s last concern is American municipalities, the cities and towns who have spent money with great profligacy in the good times, and are gasping for air not that times have turned tough. They have tied themselves into future pension obligations that are compromising existing budgets. As I read the news in my new hometown of Oakland, CA I see the reality of this every day, in budgetary challenges, for example, which have understaffed and decimated the police dept. in one of the more violent cities in the country.  The nearby San Jose is the city featured in the book. It shows us that the mismanagement of government and of our budgetary policies is not a uniquely federal issue. But Boomerang is not a call for austerity, or for less government, but a call for greater rationality in economic lives, for living within our means, for being less avaricious in the good times, and for the human character and ingenuity needed to struggle through the bad.

Progress or Pessimism: How Should We Think about the Future?

optimistic_pessimisticOver the last eight months, I’ve been traveling a great deal. In the context of a recent book tour, I’ve had the chance to speak to many different groups of people in cities around the United States about the future of consciousness and culture. In those talks, dinner conversations, salon discussions, bookstores Q&As and media interviews, I’ve had a unique opportunity to engage with people from all ages and many walks of life. We’ve pursued questions that get at the heart of the human endeavor, and I’ve appreciated hearing how they think about the big questions—where we’ve come from, where we are going, and what it all means. And among all the different attitudes and ideas about the future I encountered, one thing stood out. I was surprised to find out how many people are quite pessimistic. They express a quiet but real despair about humanity’s potential.

Between the challenges posed by climate change, the economic difficulties of developed and developing nations, the dangerous mix of technology and terrorism, the ongoing poverty and suffering of billions of our fellow humans, and the seeming inability of governments to respond to these significant issues and others, people find themselves losing faith in our collective future. They are pessimistic, not that we could respond to the issues that beset us, but that we will. We may have the ability, but they observe that we lack the political or social will and global solidarity to make the choices necessary to put us on a positive track forward.

If once is an example, twice is a coincidence, and three times or more is a trend, then pessimism is a serious trend out there among many progressives. But what makes this anecdotal observation particularly interesting is that there is another active trend establishing itself on the front pages of our media these days and influencing the edges of our culture as well. Optimism. I see it every day, in books and articles by some of the smartest, best informed, most forward-thinking of our culture’s intelligentsia. There is a resurgence of a kind of unbridled optimism about the possibilities of the future—from “rational optimist” Matt Ridley’s debunking of apocalyptic thinking to Steven Pinker’s assertions that violence has been decreasing throughout history in his bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature, to Steven Johnson’s trumpeting of technology and peer networks in Future Perfect, to Peter Diamandis’ techno-inspired optimism expressed in his book Abundance. These thinkers argue that we simply don’t appreciate how good things are in comparison to how they have been historically, and how much better they are likely to become in the near and far future. They point out how far the modern world has come, how much technology and industry have already transformed human culture for the better, and they allude to new economic, social, and technological revolutions on the horizon. While they vary in tone and content, the overall message stands in stark contrast to the perspectives of so many whom I met on the road this last year. Pessimism is misguided, they tell us. Optimism is the only rational conclusion to be drawn from the trajectory of history.

So how do we negotiate the conundrum of these contradictory conclusions? Should we feel exuberant or terrified about the future? Should we feel encouraged or alarmed by the trends of history? Is optimism or pessimism the rational conclusion of our moment? My own problem is that I identify to some degree with both positions. I find myself embracing the optimist’s convictions while simultaneously being moved by the pessimist’s concerns. Is that a tenable place to stand? Am I being sensible or schizophrenic? Am I trying to have it both ways, or is there a way to integrate these two opposing values?

The Power of Innovation

“Ever since Thomas Robert Malthus,” Matt Ridley writes in his recent Wired article, “doomsayers have tended to underestimate the power of innovation.” He is optimismright. There is a longstanding tendency in human behavior to see the world around us as being in decline, no matter when we are living. In so doing, we often fail to see the actual movement of progress, technological and otherwise. We imagine Golden Ages past, when life was simpler, easier, and more peaceful, despite the fact that there is little evidence that such a time ever existed. We forget how much technology and innovation have changed our world and we look to the past through rose-colored glasses. And we also inappropriately project the problems of the present onto the future, forgetting that life is never static and the world is ever in motion, missing the small but significant changes that are improving our world every day. In Future Perfect, Johnson notes that the media tends to focus on the dramatic, bad or good, missing deeper, but less sexy historical narratives of incremental change. “You can always get bandwidth by declaring yourself a utopian. You can always get bandwidth by mourning the downward trend lines for some pressing social issue,” writes Johnson, “But declaring that things are slightly better than they were a year ago…never makes the front page.”

The most famous contemporary example of failing to take into account technological innovation is Paul Erlich and his concerns about the “Population Bomb” in the 1970s. His alarmist writings about human population failed to take into account the kind of technological breakthroughs that have steered us away from the mass calamity and famines he predicted decades ago. In his Wired article, Ridley points to Erlich’s failure again and again, trumpeting the power of innovation over the all-too-human tendency toward apocalypticism. He makes a convincing case that such an approach to the future is rife with irrational conclusions, and out of touch with modernity’s ability to innovate its way out of danger. And he concludes by mentioning climate change in the current list of over-the-top prognostications of future apocalypses.

Defending Modernism

My concern with Ridley’s thinking, and many of the authors I have mentioned here, is not their scholarship or careful research, or even their general conclusions. It is that there is a subtle but powerful agenda behind their work, one that we should surface in order to better understand the context of their thinking. They are defenders of a modernist worldview’s promise of scientific and technological innovation providing material abundance and leading us forward in history. They are attempting to rescue modernity and the values of the Western Enlightenment from the assaults of those who don’t appreciate just how far and how fast human culture has come in the last couple hundred years. These optimists are reminding us that the modernist values of democracy, industrialization, economic prosperity, and techno-futurism have created conditions for human culture that are so positive relative to the past that we actually begin to forget just how messed up the world was before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And I applaud their efforts, albeit with caution.

There is not the time here to fully explain the history of these motives, but suffice to say that much of European and American intellectual scholarship over the last several decades has not been kind to the previous several centuries of human civilization. It has placed many of humanity’s ills at the doorstep of industrialization and held modernity responsible for much of what is wrong with the contemporary human condition. And the idea of progress, so central to the modernist worldview, was all but left for dead after the two World Wars.

Pinker, Ridley, Johnson and others are bucking this trend with a vengeance. They are attempting to provide a rational basis for a sense of progress in history and laying the foundation for a positive futurism. They have debunked significant errors in contemporary thinking about both the past and the future. But it’s this more defensive part of their work that concerns me. Modernity is not without significant problems, and we need to confront them. Pessimistic and apocalyptic thinking may indeed run counter to reality, but that doesn’t mean reality is inherently sunny. Progress, technological or otherwise, can be brutally disruptive if unmanaged by capable hands. We are entering a period in which the global scale of human impact needs a global scale of intelligent response. Optimism can carry with it a concurrent blindness, especially when it’s driven by the need to prove wrong all of those countercultural thinkers who are telling us that capitalism has failed and modernity’s promise is a mirage.

The Middle Way

Today, we face challenges unlike any that humanity has ever dealt with, problems caused by our own incapacity to appreciate the far-reaching consequences, both good and bad, of our technological revolutions. Climate change is just one such problem, and Ridley can’t help but play it down in his article, given how environmentalists have trafficked in exactly the kind of sky-is-falling thinking he is decrying. But we can’t let ideology trump sober science or cause us to turn away from the potential magnitude of the issue. We may not have cause for panic, but that doesn’t mean there is not reason for real concern, not just on climate change but on a whole host of issues. Just because a case can often be overstated doesn’t mean it’s invalid. Just because the environmental movement has tended toward a kind of eco-apocalypticism doesn’t mean that climate change is a paper tiger. Yes, pessimists can often look at history ass-backwards and draw negative conclusions about modernity that are unwarranted, but that doesn’t mean that everything else they say is wrong and can be dismissed as false prophecy. And here is the delicate part: If we’re more concerned about defending modernity than actually embracing the world as it is and the evidence as we find it, we may downplay and dismiss critical issues that need our attention.

I love the energy and data-driven enthusiasm of the optimists and I recommend their work (especially to the pessimists). The message of progress in history is encouraging and so often under-appreciated in today’s cultural climate. But the pessimists should not be summarily dismissed. The specific content of many of their concerns can be embraced, even if we decide not to embrace the context of their fears. I want my optimism to be infused with realism, to be able to stand unflinching in the face of the pessimists concerns, to embrace their legitimate issues even while rejecting all the sky-is-falling rhetoric that has often been the currency of those who are drawing our attention to the problems that confront our society. Ultimately, we can’t be pessimists and optimists at the same time, and given the choice, I far prefer the latter. But there are real dangers to optimism, no less so in the form it travels in today. By recognizing them, we can give others and ourselves justifiable faith in the future while fully confronting the dangers ahead.

In Defense of the Generalist

As I was researching my book, Evolutionaries, I made an interesting observation: This is not a world built for generalists. It is a world built for specialists. What’s valued intellectually is specialty knowledge—expertise on the mechanics of eukaryotic cells or the chemistry of black holes or the life cycles of ant colonies. Even within individual disciplines, the drumbeat of specialization takes precedence over broader systems of knowledge. It’s not enough to be a physicist; one is a particle physicist or a quantum loop theorist or a string theorist. It’s not enough to be an historian; one is an expert on Renaissance social customs or South Asian political dynamics in the eighteenth century. Indeed, the degree of specialization in our collective knowledge base is both stunning in its depth and detail and frightening in its increasing fragmentation.

“Most educated people at the beginning of the twenty-first century consider themselves to be specialists.” writes Craig Eisendrath. “Yet what is needed for the task of understanding our culture’s evolution, and of framing a new cultural paradigm, is the generalist’s capacity to look at culture’s many dimensions and to put together ideas from disparate sources.”

The people I have come to call “Evolutionaries” are generalists for this very reason. Their critical insights are a result of thinking as a generalist must think—with a passionate but broad curiosity that fans out across culture and sees connections, patterns, transitions, and trends where others only see discrete facts and details. An Evolutionary must be able to look at the movements of nature, culture, and cosmos as a whole, yet without denying the infinite detail that surrounds us.

If one reads the books written by many of today’s thinkers who are tracking the evolution of culture and even of the cosmos itself, this one characteristic that immediately stands out. Whatever their fields of expertise, most are incredibly well-informed generalists. They move from one field to another with ease and sometimes brilliance. They are unafraid to risk the wrath of the specialists and take research from one field and apply it another. They shift gracefully from science to sociology to philosophy and then apply all they have gained in the journey to human life and culture. They are interpreters par excellence—synthesizers, holistically inclined pattern-recognizers. They mine today’s incredible knowledge base for insights, and help make sense out of the enormous confusion that the information revolution hath wrought. In doing so, they serve a great function. They help explain our place in the scheme of things.

Of course, there are times when such thinking can go very wrong. For example, when well-intentioned but ill-informed people take difficult concepts from a complex field like quantum physics, and draw overly facile conclusions about how they apply to spirituality and life. Bookstores are filled with such ill-conceived problem children of the science and spirit relationship. And it’s not just spirituality. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has used the term “biobabble” to describe a similar misapplication of biological principles to economic systems. Moreover, even if our thinking is clear and our intentions genuine, it is always hard to satisfy the specialists’ criteria, to avoid stepping on toes in fields that are not one’s primary expertise. But that should not deter us from appreciating the importance of this missing function.

Over the last decades there has been a growing sense that the critical role that a generalist plays in society is being forgotten, with dangerous consequences for culture. In discipline after discipline, experts have raised concerns that our knowledge base has privileged depth and detail over breadth and context. As Eisendrath points out, one result of this increasing fragmentation of knowledge is that there is no one left “to speak for the culture as a whole.”

Of course, in an advanced society, specialization has a honored place. But after we have gained all the power of specialization, recognized the necessity of reductionism, practiced the art of slicing and dicing reality into smaller and smaller revelations, we must set a new course. We have so much information, but have so little context. We have so much knowledge, but somehow lack a larger frame in which to understand it. We are data rich and meaning poor. It takes me all of ten seconds on Google to find the infant mortality rate of Chad in 2003, and yet, we have seemingly no clue as to how and why some cultures evolve in healthy ways, and others descend into anarchy. We have mapped the marvelous complexity of the human genome and yet stand by helpless as kids wander our streets as dropouts and junkies, undeveloped throwaways of the wealthiest culture in history. We may be on the verge of unlocking the very secrets of life and longevity, and yet millions of people have so despaired at our capacity to positively impact the evolution of culture that they have decided the only way forward is for the earth to suffer a near apocalypse, or as some believe, undergo a miraculous global awakening. Evolutionaries sense that the world is broken, and that we must embrace our role in jumpstarting the process of re-integration.

Evolution, by its very nature, helps us to integrate our thinking. It transcends the neat structures of disciplines mapped out on the university campus and encourages us to lift our eyes to patterns and trends that break the boundaries of compartmentalization. It compels us to think in bigger ways about life, time, and history, until finally we find ourselves staring at contexts so fundamental that they can temporarily break the hold of the mind’s incessant fascination with particulates of experience and reveal completely new perspectives on existence. Perhaps that is why Hegel, one of the original evolutionary philosophers, when asked “what is truth?” replied with the slightly flippant but no less profound answer, “Nothing in particular.”

Integration is still a road less traveled. The generalist remains a rare breed, and the evolutionary generalist even more so. There are few who have the capacity or inclination to speak for “culture as a whole”. Yet there is little question that our future lies is this direction. As author James Gardner, writes in what I think is one of the most salient and inspiring descriptions of precisely this kind of integrative attitude toward knowledge:

The overlapping domains of science, religion, and philosophy should be regarded as virtual rain forests of cross-pollinating ideas—precious reserves of endlessly fecund memes that are the raw ingredients of consciousness itself in all its diverse manifestations. The messy science/religion/philosophy interface should be treasured as an incredibly fruitful cornucopia of creative ideas—a constantly coevolving cultural triple helix of interacting ideas and beliefs that is, by far, the most precious of all the manifold treasures yielded by our history of cultural evolution on Earth.

Being an evolutionary generalist is more than simply being a pluralist—one who makes space for multiple perspectives and points of view. In fact, there is evidence, coming from a variety of sources, that integrative, cross-disciplinary thinking may not just be the latest and greatest idea of the cognoscenti, but an actual higher mental function that represents a further step in the evolution of consciousness itself. In other words, it may be an evolutionary adaptation to the challenges presented by our globalizing, ever-complexifying society.

Whatever the case, we should never forget that the very faculties we use to perceive the world are themselves caught up in the evolutionary process itself. More and more theorists are suggesting that the relatively limited capacities of homo sapiens sapiens in the twenty-first century represent not some final end state of development or a completed picture of human possibility, but merely one more stage in a cosmic drama that has taken us from energy to matter to life to mind and now seeks higher and higher potentials. They suggest that the immense challenges of our globalizing world are themselves catalyzing and calling forth evolutionary potentials in human development, that will allow us to begin to make deeper sense of the immense complexities of our wonderfully diverse but painfully fragmented age. No, they aren’t teaching this in Kansas schoolrooms or creationist colleges, but neither is it common at Harvard. But if we are to form a more perfect, and integrated, union of our fragmented world in the days to come, it is a perspective worth considering.

Serious Thoughts about Something and Nothing

There is an interview over on Sam Harris’s blog that is worth checking out. It’s with physicist Lawrence Krauss about his new book on why there is something rather than nothing. The exchange is quite fascinating.

The question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, has long been a important philosophical question, not to mention a theological one (“Why are there beings at all, instead of Nothing?” the philosopher Martin Heidegger famously asked.). Those looking to find something more than the workings of matter in the activities of the universe have used this question as a pointer to a mystery not yet explainable in the physics department. Turning nothing into something, goes the argument, requires more than we’ve yet discovered in particle accelerators or mathematical speculations. Wherever one stands on questions of science, spirit, or God, it is certainly a question that gets to the heart what has been the source of creativity in our marvelous universe. I love the question itself, because it points to the beautiful mystery and extraordinary creative power that lies at the foundation of existence, no matter to whom or to what we might attribute that creativity.  As for myself, I don’t believe that an omnipotent deity reached down from on high and said “let there be light” or that supernatural interventions were the extra special ingredient in the pre-Big Bang cosmic soup, but I do think there is a mystery at the foundation of the universe that challenges many assumptions we make about life, no matter who we are.

Krauss, however, doesn’t seem quite as impressed with the profundity of this question. He suggests that the nature of this debate has fundamentally changed in the last decades with new discoveries in physics, and the resulting knowledge we have gained is a challenge to theology, not science. I excerpt part of his answer here:

Modern science has made the something-from-nothing debate irrelevant.  It has changed completely our conception of the very words “something” and “nothing”.  Empirical discoveries continue to tell us that the Universe is the way it is, whether we like it or not, and ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are physical concepts and therefore are properly the domain of science, not theology or philosophy. (Indeed, religion and philosophy have added nothing to our understanding of these ideas in millennia.) I spend a great deal of time in the book detailing precisely how physics has changed our notions of “nothing,” for example.  The old idea that nothing might involve empty space, devoid of mass or energy, or anything material, for example, has now been replaced by a boiling bubbling brew of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence in a time so short that we cannot detect them directly.  I then go on to explain how other versions of “nothing”—beyond merely empty space—including the absence of space itself, and even the absence of physical laws, can morph into “something.”  Indeed, in modern parlance, “nothing” is most often unstable.  Not only can something arise from nothing, but most often the laws of physics require that to occur. 

I love the fact that science is exploring questions like this, so I should give Krauss some real credit for that. And I haven’t read his book, so please take that into account. But this is still problematic on several levels.  And calling the whole issue “irrelevant” is the height of overstatement. First, Krauss is right that our conception of nothing, in science at least, is changing. We once thought the vacuum was essentially a sort of nothingness. But now we know that as he says, in a wonderfully poetic phrase, it is a “bubbling brew of virtual particles popping in and out of existence.”  I’m not sure how something popping in and out of existence is entirely distinct from something coming from nothing, but leaving that aside, I don’t see how this constitutes any sort of statement about the larger question of creation itself, of something coming from nothing at that level. So the vacuum is not empty. Great, that’s fascinating science. For the most part, it has little bearing on the mystery of the “first cause.”

Second, notice how Krauss claims, just as an obvious aside, that religion or philosophy have added nothing to our ideas on the subject in millennia. Far be it from me to defend the extreme backwardness of much religious thought, but the statement is simply not true. And I hate that scientists get away with statements like this, casually brushing aside the idea that philosophy (or perhaps even mysticism or theology) could ever have anything to do with the advance of knowledge, as if they don’t even have to defend such a statement. (I suspect it has to do with a whole belief system about how knowledge advances, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Third, are something and nothing really physical concepts?  Krauss asserts that they are and therefore claims them for science, but I wonder. It seems to be there can be a something that is not physical, like a thought or a natural law. Are such things physical? It’s not immediately obvious to me that the answer is yes. I guess Krauss defines science as having to do with physical things, and but not sure science is limited to that, or should be limited to that. Even physics isn’t’ really limited to physical things—not these days.

Then, Krauss goes on to point out two other ways that we are changing our conceptions of nothing—the nothingness of the absence of space, and the nothingness of the absence of physical laws.  I’m less versed in the science here, but again, these raise fascinating questions—like, when do the laws of physics enter into the picture of our universe? Were they there at the beginning, or were they there before the beginning, and if so, would that really be the beginning?

But none of these reconceptions of nothingness explain away the fundamental conundrum of how something emerges from nothing. In fact, if you don’t have space, time, objects, or even physical laws, then we are really talking about nothing, not just a metaphor or an approximation. And Harris, to his credit, immediately notices this. He queries:

You have described three gradations of nothing—empty space, the absence of space, and the absence of physical laws. It seems to me that this last condition—the absence of any laws that might have caused or constrained the emergence of matter and space-time—really is a case of “nothing” in the strictest sense. It strikes me as genuinely incomprehensible that anything—laws, energy, etc.—could spring out of it. I don’t mean to suggest that conceivability is a guide to possibility—there may be many things that happen, or might happen, which we are not cognitively equipped to understand. But the emergence of something from nothing (in this final sense) does strike me as a frank violation of the categories of human thought (akin to asserting that the universe is a round square), or the mere declaration of a miracle. Is there any physical reason to believe that such nothing was ever the case? Might it not be easier to think about the laws of physics as having always existed?

I appreciate this question because it is intellectually honest, and gets to the heart of the something-from-nothing mystery, which I’m not sure Krauss fully appreciates.

Harris seems to dislike the idea of a true nothingness giving rise to something, and I understand that aversion. It smacks so much of a non-rational, throw-up-your-hands metaphysical leap. Krauss’s answer is simply to point out that the universe is often averse to our preferences and we have to accept it the way it is whether we like it that way or not. Fair enough, but he sort of sidesteps the more basic issue of something-from-complete-nothing, which is what Harris is getting at here. Indeed, there is that true issue of creation out of zilch, and then there are a number of other issues connected to that basic philosophical issue. It seems that Krauss is mostly talking about all of these connected issues, which is fine, but it hardly makes the more basic issue irrelevant.  Truthfully, I’m not sure if it’s possible to say that much about the first cause. We just don’t know. (Turtles all the way down, I guess J).

The interview goes on to address where things stand in Physics’ quest to understand the universe, and Krauss’ s thoughts are compelling and interesting.

Reflecting further on the interview, I think that perhaps the more important question that gets sparked by all of this is not just “how does something come from nothing?” but “exactly what kind of something needs to be part of the nothing that was there at the beginning of the universe in order to get to the world of today?” In other words, what needed to be implicit in that original potential 13.7 billions years ago in order to evolve a universe of life, consciousness, human culture, and the enormous complexity of information, mind and matter that we now see before us. What, if anything, needed to be involved in order for it to evolve?

 

To paraphrase Brian Swimme, you take hydrogen gas, leave it alone for 13.7 billions years and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and human beings. How does that happen? I mean, that must have been some kind of special hydrogen gas. To paraphrase the movie My Cousin Vinny, this hydrogen gas must come from the same guy who gave Jack his beans. So to me, the fascinating question is: what needed to have been there at the origin of the evolutionary process to get the results we see after billions of years. Indeed, how does one achieve entire new categories of existence like biological life or human cognition along the cosmic evolutionary journey if some of those qualities were not already implicit in the origin—even if only in some kind of highly implicit, proto-form? That is why some people want to say that the whole universe is a “living universe” right from the beginning, because it helps avoid the issue of having life emerge out of an otherwise dead universe.  It is why some would like to place consciousness at the foundations of reality, implicit in some early, proto-form even at the quantum level, perhaps, because it helps explain why intelligence and highly individuated consciousness emerges in such a striking way later on the temporal process. Or maybe we are underestimating the sheer creative power of evolution. Maybe you don’t need those qualities there at all in the beginning, just a few natural laws and hydrogen. But then you really are talking about incredible creative leaps.

Of course, it’s cleaner, metaphysically speaking, if less is there at the beginning, but then the creative demand on the evolutionary process is greater. Emergence must then play a stronger role. I lean in that direction, but am not sure you can go all the way and fully scrub all of these higher potentials of evolution from earlier levels.  I do believe in the creative power of our universe, and the critical importance of real novelty in the unfolding of our cosmic timeline. Incredible leaps can and do happen. But magnificent somethings from next to nothing—over and over again? Well…that remains to be seen.

What Is an Evolutionary?

“If you wish to converse with me,” the French philosopher Voltaire is said to have remarked, “define your terms.” Since I am about to publish a book titled with what is essentially a new term—“Evolutionaries”—Voltaire’s wisdom applies doubly. So this post is intended to briefly explain what I intend to mean by this term, which is beginning to be used by greater numbers in culture today. (A note of gratitude—I did not coin the term “Evolutionary,” but received it from branding visionary Kevin Clark. Others have also independently coined the term, as far as I know.) In the coming months, I’ll be expanding on my definition of the term, building up to the book’s release in May of this year.

Perhaps the closest word to “Evolutionary” in today’s parlance is the term “evolutionist”, a word commonly associated with evolutionary theory in academic circles. Evolutionist is defined in dictionaries as a person who is an “adherent to the theory of evolution.” As suggested by that distinction, it is a term that has traditionally been associated with a person who strongly believes in and is influenced by the scientific theory of evolution. It is a term often contrasted with creationists, or biblical literalists, or other various Darwinian dissenters who proliferate on the reactionary edges of modernity.

Clearly, there is much overlap between Evolutionaries and evolutionists. But I intend for Evolutionary to convey something more as well. Evolutionary is a play on the word revolutionary, and I mean it to convey something of the revolutionary nature of evolution as an idea. Evolutionaries are revolutionaries, with all the personal and philosophical commitment that word implies. They are not merely curious bystanders to the evolutionary process, passive believers in the established sciences of evolution. They are committed activists and advocates—often passionate ones—for the importance of evolution at a cultural level. They are positive agents of change, who subscribe to an underappreciated truth: that evolution, comprehensively understood, implicates the individual. Indeed, an Evolutionary is someone who has internalized evolution, who appreciates it not only intellectually but also viscerally. Evolutionaries recognize the vast process we are embedded within but also the urgent need for our own culture to evolve and for each of us to play a positive role in that outcome.

Are you an evolutionary? Do you suspect that there may be hints of meaning to be found in the process that turned a seething lithosphere into a thriving biosphere and eventually into a surging noosphere? Do you think there may be a relationship, however subtle, between the vast processes that have governed cosmic evolution, the biological forces of terrestrial evolution and the cultural processes that have taken us from totems and taboos to terabytes and human rights in less then 10,000 years? And if so, what does all of that mean about the problems and issues—political, social, philosophical and metaphysical—facing us today? What does the world look like through the eyes of an evolutionary? Let’s not raise our fists; let’s elevate our minds and invest ourselves in the great challenge of our time—embracing the deep-time past and the creative possibilities of the future, and bringing them both into the conversations of the present.