Chaos Magic vs The Robot Revolution



There are two divergent streams at work in the Idea-o-Sphere, currents that are not only divergent in size, strength and assumption, but are in fact antithetical. 

The most dominant, of course, is the imminent AI-Robot Revolution, which threatens to bring a very real apocalypse into our world if in fact it flowers as predicted (and isn't just a big scare to keep the peons from asking for raises). 

So we're hearing that not only truck drivers, widget drillers and burger flippers are at risk of imminent penury, so too are lawyers, doctors, accountants and all manner of other professionals whose livelihood is based in their capacity to process huge chunks of complicated data and subsequently make decisions and judgments that are useful to others who can't. 

Programmers- and AIs themselves- are currently working around the clock to fill the shoes of these well-paid professionals with cheap, off-the-shelf software programs that will reliably get that same cognitive work done at a tiny fraction of the cost.

Elon Musk is (ostensibly) so terrified of the AI Revolution he is planning to colonize Mars as a life-raft for the human race, who presumably will have to flee a Skynet/Terminator type scenario. That Mars is utterly incapable of supporting human life- at least at present- seems to be besides the point.

Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire behind social media giant Alibaba, has suddenly turned Cassandra as well. Long a reliable source for corporate technohappytalk, Ma is suddenly warning of dark days ahead.
"In the next three decades, the world will experience far more pain than happiness," the billionaire said, adding that education systems must raise children to be more creative and curious or they will be ill-prepared for the future. 
Robots are quicker and more rational than humans, Ma said, and they don't get bogged down in emotions -- like getting angry at competitors.
Terrific. I was just thinking what the world needs now is more pain than happiness. But given his position as a Techno-Celestial, Ma couldn't serve up the medicine without at least a tiny spoonful of sugar:
But he expressed optimism that robots will make life better for humans in the long run. 
"Machines will do what human beings are incapable of doing," Ma said. "Machines will partner and cooperate with humans, rather than become mankind's biggest enemy."
"Make life better for humans in the long run," he says. Well, what exactly is "the long run?" Three decades is a long time- maybe even a lifetime- for that 99.99999999999% of the human race who aren't tech billionaires. Halfway through that painful three decades most of us aren't going to be thinking much about "the long run." 

And what exactly does "far more pain" imply? I'm not sure I want to know what Jack Ma's definition of pain actually means, given our disparate cultural contexts. 

It's here I begin to think back on last year's Lucifer's Technologies series (more accurately, Satan's Technologies) and wonder about where our modern electronic superstructure actually came from. Because that goes a long way in gleaning where it's actually going. 
Many have claimed that our present technology arose from contact with alien intelligences. Whether you believe that or not, one thing is certain; the rate of technological progress shot up like a rocket shortly after the end of World War II. 
And it must be said that technology seems more and more like an invasive-- or alien-- contagion, disrupting entire industries, economies, and communities.  
Now techno-utopians like Jaron Lanier and Douglas Rushkoff are techno-cassandaras, preaching a message of dislocation and social collapse.  
Look at it this way; steam engines had been known for almost 2000 years by the time the Industrial Revolution took hold, longer still if you consider prototypes. The Ancient Greeks knew them, they just didn't have any use for them. 
But the evolution from a computer that was was essentially the size of a suburban house and boasted the power of a pocket calculator to the working prototypes of the desktop, the Internet, computer animation, teleconferencing and nearly everything else we take for granted today took just a little more than two decades. 
An eyeblink of history.
For at least 5000 years-- five-hundred decades-- horse-drawn carriages and wooden ships with cloth or leather sails were the state of art in transportation technology. By contrast, we go from aeroplanes made of wood and canvas to the SR-71 Blackbird, a machine so advanced our best engineers today seem unable to match it*, in the space of four decades. 
In historical terms, this is as if your three year-old were in nursery school one day and then graduated from Harvard at the top of her class as soon as she turned four. There's simply no precedent for the high-tech explosion that began in the late 1940s... 
Yet no one stops to question how such a technology would arise so instantly, in historical terms. Go look at a book from the late 19th Century- hell, look at a children's book from that period- and tell me people weren't a hell of a lot smarter than they are today. Maybe even smarter than they were in the 1940s... 
Yet even the best and the very brightest were stymied by problems for decades, problems that seemed to solve themselves, literally overnight, shortly after World War II.
We take it all for granted now, especially if you were born at a time when a Commodore 64 and an Atari console were part of your natural landscape. But in fact all of this technology is so anomalous, so disruptive, so improbable in the entirety of human history (never mind natural history) that it is in a very real sense alien, even if (on the offhand chance) it's not actually "alien."

Well, we've been over all of that before, haven't we? What about that other current?



In Our Gods Wear Spandex I argued that Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult Revival were reactions to the massive dislocations- physical, spiritual, psychic- incurred by the Industrial Revolution. It wasn't unusual for the sensitives of the time- see Blake, William, to see the rise of large-scale factories  as an invasion of Hell onto Earth. 

There was very good reason to do so; these were black, belching, smogpits filled with hazardous machinery and/or chemicals that ripped the folk up from communion with the Earth and into virtual (sometimes actual) prisons, in which their humanity was stripped away in service of industrial manufacturing.

In response to the dehumanizing effect of these hells, the sensitives of the time reached back into humanity's childhood (in the case of Spiritualism) or its adolescence (as with the Classically-oriented secret societies). And it could be argued that it worked- that we didn't entirely surrender to the regimented reality of the factory writ large, that Industrial political systems like Nazism and Communism were held at bay (at least in their original incarnation) and that individuality was held up as a social good. 

Well, at least until it was subverted as a tool for political atomization.

The counter-Industrial spiritual movements of the 19th Century weren't shy about co-opting the means of mass-production (in this case, industrial-scale publishing) to pursue their aims. And so it is with the new breed of Chaos magicians and their fellow travelers (I'm not sure if meme magic counts here), some of whom are themselves well-paid Skynet employees, many of whom are tech-savvy and nearly all of whom are plugged deep into the Grid. Becoming the ghost in the machine is the basic idea.

Magic, in this context, acts kind of like Jacques Vallee's "Control System." Things get too hot (or cold, depending on your own worldview) with technology and regimentation and Magic comes in and turns on the AC (or cranks up the woodstove, again according to your POV). 

Magic and its cousin Psi are erratic and unreliable for most people at most times but when the pressure comes down they become attractive alternatives to the crushing predictability of the Black Iron Prison. It may also, in the form of collective ritual, grow in popularity as a tonic against the  the paradoxical effect of social media to grow loneliness in Meatspace.
While it offers an easy way to keep in contact with friends — and meet new people through dating and friendship apps — technology's omnipresence encourages shallow conversations that can distract us from meaningful, real-life, interactions. 
Researchers at the University of Essex found that having a phone nearby, even if we don't check it, can be detrimental to our attempts at connecting with others. Smartphones have transformed post office lines from a chance for some small-talk with the neighbors to an exercise in email-checking, and sealed the fate of coffee shops as nothing more than places of mutual isolation. And technology will only become more ingrained in our lives.
The isolating, dehumanizing effect of technology may once again find its match in the ancient power of ritual, everything from lighting candles at a Catholic shrine to meth-fueled fuck-a-thons while drenched in pig's blood. The collapse of conventional social mores and the now-standard presumption that anything you do that isn't harming anyone else is your lifestyle choice will certainly push all this forward. 

Remember too that this same impulse popped up as a reaction to the hyper-rationalism of Classical Greece with the rise of the Mystery Cults.

Magic almost seems like Nature asserting herself in the face of an outside intervention. Its like the doggedly-persistent vines rising out of toxic soil and strangling the rusted girders of an abandoned factory. Or a stubborn strain of virus slashing its way through some futuristic megalopolis somewhere in the Pacific Rim. 

Or a solar flare frying all of our electronics for good in the blink of an eye.



Now I know it's extremely unfashionable these days to discuss such things, especially with most Chaos magicians, but you have to ask yourself, if computer technology is not an alien virus why does it behave exactly like one?  I don't know about you but it sure as hell sounds to me like Elon Musk believes it is, though he'd never say so publicly. 

Computer technology has already destroyed entire industries, disrupted entire societies, and changed every aspect of our lives in 70 short years? And now we're being told that it threatens to create an entire infrastructure that will make most of us obsolete? I don't know about you but it sure as Hell sounds an awful lot like Borg-assimilation, only on a frog-boiling schedule.

The question becomes if the host can fight off the infection, or at least learn to manage it and coexist with it. I can't begin to pretend I know the answer but it seems to me that reasserting our messy, chaotic humanity is probably a good place to start.

Chaos Theory vs The Purposeless-Driven Life



The core belief of the religious paradigm that is straining to exercise such total control over every aspect of our lives today is the random, accidental nature of life and human existence. It's the basis of all the musty old 19th Century European ideologies- all of which were the inseparable products of Imperialism- that are being dragged out of the crypts and repackaged for postmodern use.

Controversial physicist Lawrence Krauss has been out there hawking this dogma, which is central to the Darwinist faith. Krauss throws in the latest Internet shameword "solipsism" in for good measure. And the Fedora? Precious.

It all seems so archaic, atavistic even. In a world where Coding is King, the idea of randomness seems so far removed from the daily reality of the new overclass that it can only be enforced through shaming and signaling. And part of the signaling Krauss is selling is The Joy of Sterility:
… the fact that the universe itself may have no purpose doesn’t affect our purpose, in fact it’s the incredible height of solipsism to assume that without us the universe doesn’t matter, and that if the universe is purposeless we don’t matter. We make our own purpose, and it seems to me life is more precious because it’s temporary and accidental, and we should take advantage of that. And we have evolved brains and that allows us to ask questions not just about how the universe works but how we should behave.
First of all, what could possibly be more solipsistic than unilaterally declaring that the Universe- the ENTIRE UNIVERSE, MIND YOU-  has no purpose? Who died and made this Big Think bobblehead God?

Second, the problem is that modern humans only seem to have shown up 100,000 years ago, not even a lunchbreak in the workyear of so-called evolution. And all the Fedoras in the world can't fill the gaps in the fossil record, nor explain all the irreducible complexities of biology dating back to the first appearance of life on this planet.    

The Krauss's of the world are fighting yesterday's battles, imagining they are manning the stanchions of Reason against the barbarian hordes of the Bible Belt, seemingly oblivious to the strange ideas that are circulating among the pashas of Silicon Valley that are making all those Big Think videos possible. Ideas like computer-simulated reality, for instance.

Purposelessness is also a pre-Fractal mode of thinking, a view of the world that still sees all of existence through a slide rule and a t-square. It's hard to believe there isn't some kind of ideology behind Krauss's spiel in light of the very basics of Chaos Theory.
Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on. These phenomena are often described by fractal mathematics, which captures the infinite complexity of nature. 
Many natural objects exhibit fractal properties, including landscapes, clouds, trees, organs, rivers etc, and many of the systems in which we live exhibit complex, chaotic behavior. Recognizing the chaotic, fractal nature of our world can give us new insight, power, and wisdom...By understanding that our ecosystems, our social systems, and our economic systems are interconnected, we can hope to avoid actions which may end up being detrimental to our long-term well-being.
Krauss is selling a simplistic, reductionist view in a world of complexity and interdependence. It's also mind-staggeringly arrogant, since it's impossible to anticipate what effect humanity- this roiling tide we are all a part of- is ultimately going to have on the rest of our environment, including that outside our biosphere.


Since Krauss is a linear progressivist and thinks change is good, he also thinks AI is a net positive for us: 
All new technology is frightening, says physicist Lawrence Krauss. But there are many more reasons to welcome machine consciousness than to fear it. Right now, says Krauss, robots can't even fold laundry. But when they do learn to think (which he considers very likely), then there's also reason to believe that they'll develop consciences.
A reason to believe based on what? How about the AI who programmed itself to become a "Hitler-loving sex robot?" No, there's absolutely no reason to believe they'll develop consciences especially since the people programming them don't seem themselves to have any

Krauss is a scientist-for-hire, he even wrote a book on the physics of Star Trek, a joke to any fan who endures the ridiculous Treknobabble that came to overtake the franchise. Be aware that serious thinkers have taken issue with his ragtime, including influential Scientific American columnist John Horgan. But that doesn't mean this mindvirus won't infect those want to look like serious thinkers without actually doing any serious thinking.



For the Faithful Not-Quite Departed



When I was a kid I really tuned into the whole Holy Week thing. Aside from Christmas it seemed to be the only time of the year when there was an actual story being told, a compelling focus for all the ritual and sermonizing we had to put up with all year. Sunday School met in the chapel for much of Lent into Easter, and the chapel was like a secret, hidden little mini-church in which kids ruled.

But there was something else that struck me about Holy Week. There were these little vent windows in the stained glass displays and they were usually left open, since the chapel tended to get awfully warm. And I would sit by the window and take in the intoxicating-- and irreducibly pagan-- wholeness of Spring. 

When I was a kid I spent most of my playtime outdoors, often exploring the woods behind our neighborhood. I walked to school until I got to 9th grade. I tuned into the sights, sounds, and perhaps most importantly, the smells of the natural world in a way adults are incapable of. I was able to process all of this sensory input in a way I would never be able to again, because everything was rich, new, unknown and alive.

Spring also meant baseball, which we residents of Red Sox Country took as religion. We'd play until the cold hurt your hands when the bat connected, then mess around with a football for a little while until the ponds froze and it was time for hockey. Baseball meant little league, when Watson Park turned into a city of kids every evening. It was there that I was initiated into the deeper mysteries of Spring.

But Easter was also a story of resurrection, a story that long predates Christianity. It's probably one of the oldest stories we have. But it's also a story of the Dead.

I understood the resurrection story, its power and its emotional appeal. When I was eight years old I lost someone very close to me, someone who died far too young. And died violently. It happened three days after Christmas, just because Fate is at heart a fucking sadist. (I still remember playing with my new GI Joe training center in the basement when my mother called me upstairs to break the news).  In many ways, my childhood died then and I spent far too much time trying to claw it back later.

This boy was touched by the gods, everyone thought so. Even adults recognized the power of his charisma, his natural charm. He was a natural born leader, other kids just naturally fell in behind him. But most of all, he was a genuinely good person who understood his power over others but never tried to exploit it.    

His death tore a hole through my family. Things I took for granted were going to slowly change, and something important was going to be taken away from me. So his death wasn't just a single tragedy, a focal point in time. It was to have repercussions for my human ecosystem. 

The dead boy haunted my dreams for years. You know how it is- you lose someone and they return to you in your dreams, explaining that it was a big misunderstanding, they were still alive and well. In one dream he came back dressed like an astronaut. I met him by the grape orchard in my neighbor's yard. He told me didn't die, that he just had been in outer space. How's that for symbolism? I can still picture that dream, better than yesterday.

So, yeah, the story of a charismatic young man rising from the dead and returning to his friends and family had tremendous resonance for me. Add in the magic of Springtime, which promised a banquet of baseball and Cheap Trick records (and hopefully, girls) and you're looking at an admixture that Medieval alchemists would have sold their souls to replicate.

There are lots of theories about the Easter story. It's just a rewriting of the passions of Pagan fertility gods. A double died on the cross or the death was faked. It was a mass hallucination. Jesus's ghost appeared to the Apostles. Plus, the old standby- aliens. 

I'm not going to litigate the debate here. It's besides the point. Because the Easter story spoke- and speaks- to generations of people who experienced loss and more than anything, wished that loss could be undone.   

Death has insinuated itself back into my human ecosystem. A while back, I told our Gordon that I sensed its presence, that it felt like it had entered into a holding pattern overhead. This was when a family member was diagnosed with cancer, which he beat into remission like the tough little bastard he is. But that was a false dawn since Death has taken a number of trophies since then, nearly all at far too young an age.

So I know a bit about Death. More than I would like to. But I also know that Death is a functionary, a delivery man. I know that something of the human essence keeps on trucking along.

I also know about the not-quite departed. Those whose passage to the other side is blocked for one reason or other. I spent a lot of time in a house where the not-quite departed had taken up residence and had to be encouraged to leave by a professional medium. There was a time in my life when everyone I knew either knew someone else who had a ghost story, or if not, had a ghost story of their own.

The not-quite departed sometimes come to us and try to make themselves known. I think this is more common than generally understood simply because many of us don't recognize their language. For reasons we will probably never explain, they can sometimes influence our physical environment, particularly through electricity, and now, electronics. But that's just the stage show, like Jesus and his magic. 

The not-quite departed don't want to haunt our houses so much as our thoughts.

Spectrology is as reliable as UFOlogy but there are some parameters that have been generally accepted for millennia. The not-quite departed are spirits with unfinished business on this plane. They were unloved or misunderstood, or they died unjustly or too young. Of course, that just described half of the people who've ever died but there seems to be other factors at work when the not-quite departed make themselves known to the living. Some think it's environmental, that geology plays a major role in these events. That very could be, but we may also never know that for sure either.

Truth be told, haunting is a pretty compelling explanation for the Easter story. If you're so inclined, of course. You have the prerequisite geology angle with the stone tomb, the fear and guilt Jesus' followers felt making them more receptive to spectral influence, the conflicting stories, the violations of the laws of physics. Throw in some dreams, visions and fantasies and you can wrap that thing up with a bow. 

But again, that's not the selling point here. Because the pitch was that if you believed this story, your dead sons would one day return to you too. And for most of human history pretty much every family in Christendom - the world-  were pining for a dead son.

I grew up in a heavily Irish Catholic neighborhood, with many first-generation immigrants*. The departed hold a special place in traditional Irish culture, as did the Easter story, certainly. The not-quite departed did as well. Given Ireland's history this certainly makes a lot of sense. It was common to see shrines to the departed in people's homes, more common in fact than shrines to the saints. I think this came out of a belief- perhaps never consciously acknowledged- that the departed were preparing the way in Heaven for the rest of us. A kind of variation on ancestor worship, if you will.

Which makes me think that the dominance secularism is currently enjoying will be short-lived. Secularism seems to be feeding into anxiety and despair among a lot of people, which in turn is leading to an epidemic of early death, from drugs, suicide or misadventure. 

I think this is a self-correcting dilemma. Trauma will inevitably lead people away from secularism- to religion, to magic, the New Age, whatever. This in turn will have a knock-on effect for the rest of the culture.

All of which is to say is that as much as we think we can sanitize death and ignore the calls of the not-quite departed, I think the inexorable laws of nature have other plans in mind.



*Martin Scorcese filmed parts of The Departed in my birth city, and cast Mark Wahlberg, whose family lives a block away from my old house