From the Vaults: Magic, Technology, and the Emergence of the Human Singularity

Vargr, June, 2006

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

– Arthur C. Clark’s Third Law of Prediction

It seems to be an innate human desire to seek to extend our awareness and perception of the environment around us, as well as expand our control over it.  Over previous millennia it has often been the purview of magic to achieve these goals, but as technology has developed, it has been moving into the niche in our personal spheres that used to belong to magic alone.  The encroachment of technology into this realm is not limited to individual space. It has also changed the way in which individuals interact and collaborate.

In place of the fetishes and charms carried by pre-industrial cultures, we now sport an array of electronic devices which allow us to communicate over long distances, capture the images and sounds of our environment, and store information in ways unimaginable to our ancestors.  We rely on them to feel safe.  They have become our talismans and amulets.  In a broader scope, we have also used technology to create new ways of storing and using information itself.  We have rendered the mnemonic methods of the orators and alchemists of the past obsolete with our new capabilities. 

Nowhere is magical technofetishism more pronounced in contemporary

culture, then in the ‘magick’ rituals practiced by technopagans.

– Amanda Fernbach, Fantasies of Fetishism

It is not an unusual thing that many magicians have begun to assimilate a wide range of technology into their practices.  Despite some appearances to the contrary, magic is an innately practical activity.  It seeks to instantiate the will of the magician in the phenomenal world, and in many traditions, the results are far more important than the methodology.  In both the physical and virtual worlds, we create and use tools in order to extend our capabilities.  The nature of these tools can range from physical artifacts to mathematical algorithms.  Whichever tools are the most effective, and produce the greatest return for the energy expended are the ones which will naturally be used.  It is not necessary to expend energy and time toward achieving results through esoteric means when the use of technology will accomplish the same ends.

The incorporation of technology into magic is by no means a 21st-century phenomenon.  One of the most prolific, if often over-looked, chaos magicians of the 20th century, William S. Burroughs, documented the incident in which he used audio tape recordings to project a desired reality upon his environment.  After receiving terrible service and treatment at a restaurant, he dubbed discordant sounds over an ambient base track he recorded on the street nearby.  He then played the composite tape outside of the restaurant, which resulted in it going out of business.[1] The techniques Burroughs used are still applicable today, but there is obviously a far wider array of technology available to execute them.

A prominent side-effect of the ubiquity of personal communications technology is the emergence of a vast human intelligence network.  The phenomenon of emergence itself has become an increasingly popular topic of study even as this has occurred.  Emergence, simply explained, is the effect which occurs when a number of discrete units of intelligence or capability interact with one another in a network in order to produce behavior or capabilities which exceed the predicted sum of the contributing units.  One of the best real-world examples of this is the bee hive.  The hive mind which results from the coordinated fashion in which bees work together is greater than the sum of its parts.   This super-organism is capable of feats of exploration, engineering, and memory that far exceed the capabilities of singular insects.  For example, the collective memory of a hive possesses a memory of three months.  This is twice as long as the life of an average bee[2]

The behavior of insects and their hives have also been studied in order to create swarming machines.  These relatively simple and autonomous machines are programmed to seek out and interact with others of their own kind.  This can produce a number of complex, unanticipated behaviors.

The human being is a machine.  An automated machine.

– Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

The human intelligence network comprises a powerful parallel-processing supercomputer in which the brains of the human beings who contribute to it serve as the processors.  It is not synonymous with the Internet, though the Internet is often seen as the most prominent infrastructure upon which this network of human bio-computers interacts.  The problem-solving capacity of large numbers of human collaborators can be seen in a number of arenas, but one of the most interesting is the way in which players of alternate reality games (ARGs) cooperate via online message boards to quickly solve complex puzzles. 

The effectiveness with which this network can function across the arbitrary political boundaries which divide the earth into ultimately ephemeral sovereign nations is an illustration of its capability.  The joke goes that on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.  In reality, the capability of the network to obfuscate the nationality, gender, religion, and other demographic factors which frequently contribute to discrimination serve as an egalitarian force which levels the playing field between participants in the collective.  In this collaborative information space, the mental capability and unique life experience of each human node becomes more important than the physical form and location of that person in meat-space.

The capability to network effectively also leads to a greater production of information.  The rate at which humanity is creating information is growing exponentially.  Researchers at the University of California have predicted that humanity, assisted by the machines that we have created, will have created more new information between 2003 and 2006 than during the prior 300,000 years of human history.[3]  The availability of resources such as distributed computing over high-speed fiber-optic networks, particularly between computers which are composed themselves of numerous CPUs working in parallel, have given mankind the ability to model the workings of the physical universe at both ends of the scale of existence. 

I believe that the human intelligence network is merely a waypoint on the larger collective human journey toward some level of singularity.  This event has been proposed by a number of authors and philosophers under various names.  One interpretation of this concept is the Omega Point described by Jesuit philosopher Teilhard De Chardin which emphasizes a growing connection among humanity as our population increases:

Pushed one against the other by the growth of their number and by the proliferation of their connections, approached one to the other by the reawakening of a common force and by the feeling of a common anxiety, the future human kind will form nothing but an unified consciousness.[4]

A less spiritual, more mechanistic interpretation of this union is the Technological Singularity described by mathematician and science fiction author Vernor Vinge.  This scenario assumes the creation of artificial intelligence, which Vinge suggested would likely occur sometime between 2005 and 2030 in his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.[5]  This interpretation is based on the earlier work of physicist John Von Neumann, among others. 

Whichever is the preferred vision of the future of mankind, there seems to be a recurring undercurrent, that there will come some point in the future at which man, like so many other animals before us, will either embrace our potential or become extinct.  The argument as to whether or not our technology will ever be capable of creating artificial intelligence is still not settled.  Some researchers in the field have come to consider it an inevitable occurrence, while others have become disillusioned after so much work in the field has still not produced it, that they believe at this point that it will never happen.  If the principle of emergence does in fact apply to humanity as it does to other organisms and machines, then AI is not required for this to happen, and a purely biological state of unity may be our ultimate future as a race.

Ultimately, I believe that the attainment of human singularity, if it is to occur at all, will be through the use of technology rather than spiritualism.  In the real world, a human relationship with the divine is most often manifest through monolithic religions which are based upon rigidly codified dogma.  Regardless of their intents, the effect of these faiths is not to unify humanity as a species, but rather to fragment us into competing factions, each bent on spreading the tenets of that particular faith to as many others as possible.  The directive to engage in this dissemination is itself often a requirement of membership.  When several large religions which incorporate this belief come into conflict with each other, the results can be catastrophic. 

Technology can be customized and packaged differently in various regions in order to have broad appeal across demographic groups.  In addition to this fact, despite jokes to the contrary, brand loyalty is seldom a strong enough motivator to lead to holy war.  Communications protocols and broadly supported data standards are capable of uniting users into groups of global scope, crossing language and religious barriers in a way that allows an unacknowledged commonality to piggyback along with commercial motives like a remora on a shark.

“We may think we’re connected to the universe, we may well be in control of our personal space as a result of these technologies, we may think we’re networking, but it’s in a one-on-one system. It’s a fetishization of connectedness, an illusion.”

– Graeme Turner, University of Queensland

Ironically, the same technology which empowers us, extends us, and has the potential to unite us can also isolate and distract us.  The above quote is from an article which reviewed the 25th anniversary of the Sony Walkman.[6]  I also think that it makes an appropriate introduction to an examination of the view which opposes the concept of singularity through technology.

The virtual personal space which is created by the use of headphones on portable music players has been lamented as being detrimental to social interaction since the introduction of the aforementioned Walkman.  This space does not invite interaction. A similar phenomenon is evident in the use of cell phones in public spaces.  Although communication is taking place, it does not leave the speaker open and approachable for interaction with others in their immediate environment.  The device which offers constant connectivity paradoxically also acts as a barrier to face to face conversation.

There are cultural factors other than religion and technology itself that will impact the possibility of attaining a human singularity of any type.  Whereas some cultures actively promote a sense of social solidarity among their citizens, others emphasize the sanctity of the rugged individual.  Besides a purely social force, this is also a side-effect of certain marketing practices which seek to instill in consumers a sense of isolation which can then be satisfied by the advertised product.  Besides these general factors, any number of special interests might have their own reasons for keeping the status quo and preventing humanity from achieving its apex.  A perusal of the wide range of conspiracy theories available online will provide a deep pool of potential spectres to fill this role.  Again in this matter there are no absolutes, as the commercial and governmental entities which may be perceived as opponents to unity have also invested a great deal of money in the creation of the most likely infrastructure through which it may occur.

References:

De Chardin, Teilhard. (cited in) “The Noosphere Concept.”

http://noosphere.cc/noosphere.html, accessed 6/22/06.

Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 1994.

P-Orridge, Genesis Breyer. “Magic Squares and Future Beats.” in Richard Metzger ed.

Book of Lies. New York: The Disinformation Company Ltd. 2003.

Quill, Greg. “Walls of Walkman.” Toronto Star, Jul. 25, 2004.

Vinge, Vernor. “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-

Human Era”. http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html,

accessed 6/21/06.

Von Baeyer, Hans Christian. Information: The New Language of Science. Cambridge:

Harvard University Press. 2003.


[1] P-Orridge p. 106

[2] Kelly p. 12

[3] von Baeyer p. 4

[4] De Chardin,

[5] Vinge, 1993

[6] Quill, 2004.