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Life on the Grid (Part 2)
Previously: Life on the Grid (Part 1)
Note: there is of course some continuation of themes from part 1, but this essay was written to stand on its own so don’t feel like you have to read the previous installment before digging into this one.
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
— Oscar Wilde
In part 1, I argued that our ability to navigate through both physical and mental landscapes (“fields of knowledge”) has degenerated, leaving us less willing to blaze trails or produce path-breaking innovations and generally lacking in agency and adventurousness. This degeneration of our navigational faculties has been caused by our reliance on automated wayfinding technologies and, more importantly, by an excessive “gridification” of the world, both materially (in our street networks and architecture) and socioeconomically (with our factory model schools and corporate ladders).
Here, we return to a theme that was only briefly touched on previously—the problem isn’t just that the world has become too grid-like, it is that, “nothing and nowhere escapes the techno-social net which we have cast over the planet. Uncharted territory has become a thing of the past.”
The seriousness of this problem cannot be overstated. Man feeds on terra incognita. The wildness of our imagination, the vitality of our spirit, the boldness of our dreams—these can only swell to their greatest extent when we feel as if there are hidden treasures or secrets waiting to be discovered.
For eons, our minds and cultures have evolved in delicate symbiosis with the Unknown, that place on the map labeled “Here Be Dragons”. Without this Unknown, that place where there may be cities of gold or fountains of youth, the heroes (but not just the heroes, all of us) have nowhere to journey and all of the things which can make us into heroes—bravery, fortitude, ingenuity, daring, and the like—begin to atrophy. Without this Unknown, we begin to feel confined, trapped, like a beautiful and dangerous animal in a small cage; we develop a claustrophobia; imagination and inspiration wither. For some reason, we aren’t as hopeful as we used to be, but we don’t know why. (part 1)
If the inaccessibility of physical terra incognita were the only problem, then that would be a good thing as the solution would be straightforward: colonize space, the so-called final frontier. Unfortunately, the issue is just as much epistemic as it is geographic—the frontiers of knowledge are too distant and too unreachable for most of us, and our zeal for mental exploration is suffering as a result, thus trapping us in a sort of self-fulfilling apathetic prophecy.
It must be emphasized at the outset that this is a claim about the accessibility of frontiers, or rather our perception of this accessibility—whether or not there are in fact fewer “treasures or secrets” waiting to be discovered is not the issue, only that it feels as if it were so.
Our current relationship to outer space is illustrative. We are all aware of the fact that space is filled with endless uncharted territory and that wonders beyond our wildest dreams may be waiting for us. But this “us” is not you and I, not me living in 2023, 51 years after the moon landing (if you believe in that sorta thing). Our glorious star-trek future feels too remote, too abstract; that people actually question the moon landing, even in jest, is telling—it just doesn’t feel real anymore.
Imagine how the zeitgeist would be energized if some looming technological breakthrough makes it clear that the stars will soon be ours! It will feel, I imagine, something like how it did after the moon landing, or how it felt after Chris Columbus invented America. Whatever that vibe is, we lost it. The first English joint-stock company was named “The Mystery and Company of Merchant Adventurers for the Discovery of Regions, Dominions, Islands, and Places Unknown”; now we just have companies named after the formerly unknown places where adventurers used to explore.
The inaccessibility of physical frontier is bad enough, but the frontiers of knowledge have receded as well. It feels as if we’ve reached a cul-de-sac in our understanding of the universe.
The basics of reality have been known for some time now (the atom, the photon, spacetime, gravity, the cell, the gene, natural selection, etc. etc.). Progress in physics has stagnated; we’ve been stuck on the same problems (what the hell is dark matter?) for half a century (the standard model of particle physics was developed in 1972). Chemistry might be fairing even worse. Discovery rates for new elements and new types of reactions are slowing to a crawl; at least one person is wondering out loud if chemistry is just over with no major discoveries left to make, only applications of existing theory. Biology seems to have the more open frontier ahead of it, but there are troubling signs there too. As much as I want to believe that Bigfoot or the Lochness Monster is real, it seems exceedingly unlikely that we will discover any new organism which dramatically alters our understanding of evolutionary history. By some accounts, progress in medicine has become more incremental in recent decades. We seem to be running out of new kinds of antibiotics. While the first half of the 20th century featured revolutionary theoretical advances like the Modern Synthesis (the union of mendelian genetics and evolutionary theory) and discoveries like the double helix, the biggest breakthroughs of the last 50 years have been technological (PCR, the sequencing of the human genome, CRISPR). One leading biologist has felt the need to remind his colleagues that they need to “generate ideas as well as data”. Do we even need to talk about the current state of psychology?
You could certainly argue that science is not slowing down or becoming less disruptive or that ideas are not getting harder to find (and people do), but the fact that people are even worrying about this is indicative of this sense that something has shifted, that for whatever reason we feel stuck, unable to push the boundaries of knowledge as easily as we once did. We’ve focused on science here but much of the same could be said for the humanities, history in particular—we might be missing a few pages in the book of Man but by now we’ve skimmed all the chapters and gotten the gist of it (or so it seems).
The reaction to this frustrated desire for exploration has been predictable. Where do you turn when it feels like the natural world has given up all of its low-hanging fruit, when it feels like there are only “known unknowns” left (“everything can be understood to first approximation before even approaching it”)? You turn inward to the terra incognita of the mind—to meditation, to psychedelics, to the study of consciousness. You turn towards social secrets (i.e. conspiracy theories) and the mists of deep time, to forgotten civilizations and ancient apocalypses (and ancient aliens).
In Sapiens (which apparently everyone hates now, I must have missed the memo), historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that the discovery of the new world by medieval Europeans did much more than simply open a new frontier for exploration, “it was the foundational event of the scientific revolution”. Before Columbus, maps had no empty spaces, “unfamiliar areas were simply left out”.
The empty space-filled maps seen after 1492 were, “a psychological and ideological breakthrough, a clear admission that Europeans were ignorant of large parts of the world” and an “indication of the development of the scientific mindset”. Such a mass discovery of ignorance had far-reaching consequences, “Henceforth not only European geographers, but European scholars in almost all other fields of knowledge began to draw maps with space left to fill in. They began to admit that they're theories were not perfect and that there were important things that they did not know.” On top of that, the discovery of America was an epoch-defining event in its own right because it opened up the vast socio-political frontier that eventually settled into the United States, the country most responsible for discoveries of ignorance in the the last century (and yes there is more than one way to interpret that statement).
The empty map hypothesis provides a useful frame for thinking about how we might revive the frontier spirit: what we need is a new discovery of ignorance, some kind of event or breakthrough that provides new terra incognita for our imaginations to run wild in.
We can imagine a few possibilities that might satisfy this lofty criteria: clear communication or visitation from aliens, unequivocal demonstration that our biological or cultural evolution was not fully natural (e.g. we are genetically engineered laborers created by aliens to help them mine gold and build pyramids), a reality-bending breakthrough in physics, a mature theory of consciousness, a theory or finding which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that we are living in a simulation, or some other “unknown unknown”.
What can we do to increase the likelihood that such a momentous discovery of ignorance is made? This is not the same as asking how we can enhance scientific or technological progress; that aim, noble and worth striving for as it is, is entirely ordinary. In order to achieve the extraordinary, a new form of intellectual exploration will be needed—a philosophy of anomaly, a science of the “unknown unknown”.
Beyond the Frontier
John Maynard Keynes quipped that Isaac Newton “was not the first of the age of reason,” but, “the last of the magicians”. Now, nearly 300 years after Newton’s death, the sun is setting on the age of reason and a new age dawns, one in which the magician’s art will take center stage once again.
Many have written about recent advances in large language models as a kind of sorcery (what is the creation of a GPT-4 besides an act of summoning, what is prompt engineering besides spellcasting?). Such talk may not be much more than a fanciful metaphor right now, but let us imagine a time (perhaps in the very near future) when it has become all too literal, when vast amounts of intelligence and knowledge can be called forth with a word. Given that “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke’s third law), the users of sufficiently advanced LLMs will be indistinguishable from wizards. The quality of mind that will allow one to excel as a wizard will have little to do with intelligence or knowledge. The greatest wizards, the Dumbledores and the Gandalfs, the ones most capable of producing “sufficiently advanced knowledge” in collaboration with the alien gods we have summoned, will be nothing like today’s scientists and engineers, but will be something very much like the alchemists and occultists of yore.
First and foremost amongst these alchemists was the aforementioned Isaac Newton. It is easy for us moderns to look back at Newton’s enduring interests in prophetic bible codes and alchemy (about 10% of his known written works deal with the subject) and explain them away as the madness that so frequently follows genius, however this would be a mistake—this “madness” was not an unfortunate side-effect of his genius, but the source of it. The metaphysical imagination and mystical sense that motivated his occult studies were the same attributes that enabled his stupendous intellectual achievements: all was a search for things hidden, for secrets that could transform our understanding of reality. Newton’s magical ability to make quantum leaps through the landscape of knowledge arose from his fundamental inability to see the landscape as anything other than one unified and limitless frontier.
Sir Isaac may have been the last of a particular breed of pre-modern scientist-sorcerer (John Dee might be regarded as the second-to-last), but he was by no means the last magician as Keynes supposed. In more recent times, there has been Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) with his divinely-inspired mathematical dreams (in both Newton and Ramanujan, we see that divine inspiration only comes to those who actually seek the divine); Seymour Cray (1925-1996), the father of supercomputing, who dug tunnels under his house when he was stuck on a difficult problem and claimed that “elves” would sometimes visit him with solutions (whether god, demon, or LLM, magic often involves communication with an entity of some kind); and Jack Parsons (1914-1952), “the magical father of American rocketry”, who was also a disciple of Aleister Crowley and a leader of a Ordo Templi Orientis lodge.
[Parsons] treated magic and rocketry as different sides of the same coin: both had been disparaged, both derided as impossible, but because of this both presented themselves as challenges to be conquered. Rocketry postulated that we should no longer see ourselves as creatures chained to the earth but as beings capable of exploring the universe. Similarly, magic suggested there were unseen metaphysical worlds that existed and could be explored with the right knowledge. Both rocketry and magic were rebellions against the very limits of human existence; in striving for one challenge he could not help but strive for the other.
I know this is starting to sound a little woo, but we should remember that the knowledge we are seeking will also seem very woo to us, just as the law of universal gravitation seemed in Newton’s day. But for those not willing to go full woo just yet, there is another more down-to-earth framing we can put on all of this. Terra incognita is in the eye of the beholder. Even if the frontiers of knowledge were closed forever and it actually were true that “our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals,” as the American physicist Albert A. Michelson said in 1894 (boy was he wrong), you could still believe that we were at “the beginning of infinity”. Magic in this sense is an art of mind aimed at cultivating a particular orientation towards reality, a way of being that fully embraces the unknown, the uncertain, and the (seemingly) impossible.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” (Clarke’s second law)
We should also recall that our aim is not to make any ordinary discovery or breakthrough, but to make a “discovery of ignorance”. It would be foolish to suppose that such a discovery would come from anything other than ignorance; not stupidity, mind you, but the audacious ignorance of the novice, the innocent ignorance of the child (an openness and lack of preconceptions similar to what Zen Buddhists call shoshin, beginner’s mind). This is another non-woo way in which we can conceive of magic: a kind of radical ignorance that we might call “childliness” (not to be confused with child-ishness).
And how do you develop such magic? Can you learn to be childly? Of course not—this has nothing to do with knowledge or intelligence or anything that can be gained. This is a magic that only arises from a forgetting of adultfulness and a remembering of the sense of wonder and enchantedness of mind that you had as a youth.
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong. (Clarke’s first law)
This isn’t to say that the situation is hopeless. There may be more indirect means of cultivating our magical faculties, certain acts of perception and imagination which may serve to jog our memory, so to speak.
“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
— Isaac Newton
This essay series began by characterizing “the Grid”: the all-encompassing standardization and homogenization of our material and social conditions in the modern world. I argued that the embodied nature of human minds means that we are more deeply affected by this loss of complexity/idiosyncrasy than we may realize; in short: simple, regular environments produce people who can only think in simple, regular ways. In this same manner, we begin here by noting another aspect of the Grid which is having a subtle but important effect on our cognition, an effect that I believe is stunting the intrinsic magic of the human mind.
“Man has always known wide horizons. Even the city dweller had direct contact with limitless plains, mountains, and seas. Beyond the enclosing walls of the medieval city, was open country. At most the citizen had to walk five hundred yards to reach the city walls, where space, fair and free, suddenly extended before him. Today man knows only bounded horizons and reduced dimensions. The space not only of his movements but of his gaze is shrinking.”
French sociologist Jacob Ellul (who in many ways anticipated the Grid with his concept of “Technique”) wrote this in 1954 (The Technological Society). Needless to say, our horizons have become substantially more bounded in the intervening years and, with the advent of personal computing, our gaze has shrunk to a degree that would have been difficult for Ellul to imagine. In part 1, I discussed how metaphors often reveal the underlying structure of our cognition and used this as one piece of evidence for the deep connection between our physical and mental navigational abilities: “a field of knowledge”, “broadening your horizons”, “a train of thought”, “a flight of fancy”, and so on. Here again our metaphors point to a profound connection: with most of us inhabiting such a small visual world, is it surprising that we’ve become so small-minded, so close-minded, so short-sighted?Is it surprising that we can’t see the bigger picture, that we have no visionaries, no seers?
The prescription is simple. Open your eyes. Look to the horizon, to the sky, to the stars. Pick up your head from the phone and put it in the clouds. Do as Newton did and see further.
This simple act of perception is the foundation of all magical activity and the first thing that one must do in order to break free from the Grid (magic is the antithesis of the Grid: it is that domain of reality which is forever beyond quantification or systematization). This is more than mere speculation (although it is definitely that too); Stanford neuroscientist/podcaster Andrew Huberman explains the physiological relationship between your visual mode and stress (emphasis mine).
How does [focal vision] affect the body?
Focal vision activates the sympathetic nervous system. All the neurons from your neck to the top of your pelvis get activated at once and deploy a bunch of transmitters and chemicals that make you feel agitated and want to move.
Why is the visual field so connected to this brain state?
Something that most people don’t appreciate is that the eyes are actually two pieces of brain. They are not connected to the brain; they are brain. Your eyes get extruded from the skull during the first trimester, and then they reconnect to the rest of the brain.
Is there a visual mode associated with calmness that can change our stress levels?
Yes: panoramic vision, or optic flow. When [you] look at a horizon or at a broad vista, you dilate your gaze so you can see far into the periphery—above, below and to the sides of you. That mode of vision releases a mechanism in the brain stem involved in vigilance and arousal. We can actually turn off the stress response by changing the way that we are viewing our environment, regardless of what’s in that environment.
When you are constantly in a narrow and focused visual mode, you are primed for detail, for problem-solving, and tipped ever so slightly towards anxious and aggressive states of mind; you become less likely to think holistically, to wonder (to wander), to ponder the mysteries of the universe, to stretch your imagination to its fullest extent. Magnify this effect over the billions of people who spend the majority of their lives indoors and glued to screens (especially those who should be best at thinking about the big picture and the far-flung future: our philosophers, scientists, and technologists) and you have a massive shift in the psychological state of our species (see Robin Hanson on near vs. far thinking for more discussion of this theme).
We all know the feeling of peace and possibility that comes with an expansive panoramic view, but it is difficult to appreciate the true power of this feeling when our doses of it are so small and few and far between. The transformative power of such a perspective becomes readily apparent however when we consider the vastest visual perception that has ever graced a human eye: the astronaut’s view of our pale blue dot.
“It’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is. First of all, there’s the astounding beauty and diversity of the planet itself, scrolling across your view at what appears to be a smooth, stately pace...I’m happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.” (NASA Astronaut Kathryn D., as cited in Robinson et al., 2013, p. 81)
“I had another feeling, that the earth is like a vibrant living thing. The vessels we’ve clearly seen on it looked like the blood and veins of human beings. I said to myself: this is the place we live, it’s really magical.” (Chinese Space Program Astronaut Yang Liu, as cited in Chen, 2012, p. 288)
“Having seen the sun, the stars and our planet, you become more full of life, softer. You begin to look at all living things with greater trepidation and you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you.” (Russian astronaut Boris Volynov, as cited in Fox, 1999)
It’s telling that some astronauts, groping for words to describe the experience, reach towards “magical”; we should take them at their word. Colin Wilson, author of The Occult: a History (1971), certainly would have. To Wilson, radical expansions of consciousness were the foundation of “Faculty X”, his term for that aspect of our minds which supports all occult activity.
The main trouble with human beings is their tendency to become trapped in the “triviality of everydayness”, in the suffocating world of their personal preoccupations. And every time they do this, they forget the immense world of broader significance that stretches around them. And since man needs a sense of meaning to release his hidden energies, this forgetfulness pushes him deeper into depression and boredom, the sense that nothing is worth the effort.
...The will feeds on enormous vistas; deprived of them, it collapses. Man's consciousness is as powerful as a microscope; it can grasp and analyse experience in a way no animal can achieve. But microscopic vision is narrow vision. We need to develop another kind of consciousness that is the equivalent of the telescope. This is Faculty X.
See the Thing Whole
Wilson is right to characterize Faculty X as a kind of consciousness. As I emphasized above, this magic is not a body of knowledge or skill that can be acquired through rigorous practice or book learning, but a form of awareness that can only be cultivated through an unlearning, a forgetting of everything that clouds our all-too-adult minds.
In this age of rampant reductionism and rabid analysis, we must turn to perception and imagination for deliverance. The first step is to open our eyes and see further. The next is to open our minds and see the thing whole.
If you can see a thing whole,” he said, “it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives...But close up, a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance—interval. The way to see how beautiful earth is, is to see it from the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
If a historian, contemplate the multitudes who have come before us; immerse yourself in the river of time and float downstream. If a psychologist, ponder the infinite landscape of possible minds and wonder at the gods and demons you may find there. Imagine the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of all minds woven into a single tapestry; imagine how the pulling of one thread pulls, however slightly, on all others. If a biologist, imagine all of evolution, every single organism that has ever lived and ever will live and the unbroken chain of reproduction that links them. Imagine the whole cell—every molecule, every interaction, every reaction—and gawk at its miraculous complexity. See the organism as nobel-prize winning scientist-mystic Barbara Mcclintock saw plants:
What enabled McClintock to see further and deeper into the mysteries of genetics than her colleagues? As McClintock’s biographer Evelyn Fox Keller notes, the profound intimacy McClintock developed with her maize over years of close association both literally and figuratively extended her vision, allowing her to see beyond human limitations, deep into the minute genetic changes occurring in maize across generations. This was not an abandonment of scientific objectivity—it was the consequence of a dedicated scientist’s sustained observation. Another, perhaps unintended, consequence was an overwhelming sense of the interconnectedness of all things. Once she’d developed an affinity with maize, it became difficult to disentangle herself. “Basically, everything is one,” McClintock told Keller. “Every time I walk on grass, I feel sorry, because I know the grass is screaming at me.”
And as the grass who is stepped upon, so I scream at you: cease your endless investigations and dissections. Whatever your thing is, behold the ineffable fullness of its being with the fullness of yours. Gaze upon it, simply gaze, and you will go forth.
Onward, explorers, onward—to the frontier!
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