Will The Opposable Thumb Become The Appendix Of The Future?Kevin Kelly,
Out of Control, Addison-Wesley, New York, 1994.
The dethronement of learning is one of the most exciting
intellectual frontiers we are now crossing.
What happens when prediction, determinism and understanding
are all decoupled? Science is defrocked and reconstructed. Simultaneously, that
magnificent edifice, the university, like the wizard in the Emerald City,
exposed by the notorious Toto, lies open through the innocent act of discovery.
The great secret which life has kept from us is that once born, life is
Kelly, p. 84, 103.
What happens when the great gift of Newton, The Calculus, has, in its very
success, built a platform for predictability which may be an illusion? And what
happens when, in spite of the crush of data being brought to fix the breach in
the Darwinian dike, Lamarck may have been right? The human species, like the
spinning skater who has lost the fixed point used for balance and stability, is
out of control. Rather than seeking another fixed point, a model of reality must
be quickly erected which allows for a dynamic and moving mark which provides
stability through change.
Complex dynamics, arising from the mathematics of Poincare, has evolved
coextensively with the larger postmodern paradigm. Massaged by the systems
theorists of the early 20th century, the idea did not really come into practice
until the advent of cheap, massive computing power as manifested by the personal
computer and the realization of low cost parallel and distributed processing.
Its birth and development has spanned approximately 100 years and still might be
considered to be in the early stages of the familiar "S" shaped growth curve.
Yet it is this metaphor which gives strength and credibility to Kelly's message
in Out of Control.
In a dynamic world of change, stability and reorganization coexist. Nodes of
knowledge, like lights randomly blinking on a giant board, can be identified;
yet when one center disappears or a link in the web is broken, the Phoenix
reappears, often transformed and the system has restructured as if nothing
happened. Complex, diverse ecosystems, when severely disturbed, recover and even
simple systems, such as those left in the aftermath of a volcanic episode,
reestablish a complex dynamic system almost as if driven by some unseen hand.
We talk about diversity within the biosphere, yet we do not know how critical
such a complex mix is to survival of life, even as we know it. Nor do we know
how simple a system will sustain life or allow for complex systems to evolve.
Diversity has developed many times from the beginning through many catastrophes.
We cannot even be certain that the determining factors lie encrypted in the
genetic codes or whether morphological fields guide change and development, like
a puppet master.
Implicit in Kelly's thesis is that the system pushes for its survival at the
expense of the individual. Out of Control issues a direct challenge
to the dominant western paradigm of the sacredness of the individual. Asimov's
Foundation series, as well as complex dynamic models of fisheries
and social systems cogently point to the role of the individual in pushing a
system to new stages of change. The shape and form of the changes are often
surprising, unknown and unpredictable, but the system will survive in its new
form whether or not individuals are able to make the transition. Descartes
infamous "cogito ergo sum" may have validity only within its historical context.
Ant colonies, termites, and bee hives are often cited as systems which are
dependent on individual decisions and capabilities; yet the whole seems to
survive even though individuals are not necessarily conscious of all the
inter-relationships which are dependent upon, or are changed by the actions of
the individual. Bruce Sterling's novelette, The Swarm, posits the
need for cognition of the individual, or higher consciousness, only at select
times in the development and evolution of a system. And Erwin Laszlo has
suggested that human intelligence may not be a survival characteristic.
Dougal Dixon's fanciful Man after Man anticipates what might
succeed the evolutionary trend, homo -habilus, -erectus, -sapiens. One of his
creations, homo-aquaticus, parallels Vonnegut's whimsical conclusion in his
novel Galapagos. All, including Kelly, might question whether or
not humans have transcended the tool-making epoch with the rise of the
information era. And, in the post-information era of interconnectedness, one
might ask if evolution is proceeding in a more substantive and challenging
During the 60's and early 70's there was a period of great techno-optimism.
The liberal establishment saw waves of social change and there was a belief that
science and technology could complete the circle by providing answers to the
problems of human existence from a materialistic perspective. By the time the
Viet Nam war became public knowledge and the world had its first energy crisis,
the liberal left was essentially intellectually bankrupt. The era of equality
for all and the ability to provide the good society had started to give way to
the hedonistic world stylized by Burgess' Clockwork Orange. Western
liberals were left in a policy or programmatic vacuum. In fact, there was a
technological backlash which generated a rise in "rust belt"
production/consumption mentalities worldwide.
Kelly's book is part of the returning tide of this techno-optimism which is,
in many ways, reactionary to the 80's consumption frenzy and simultaneously
opposed to the atavistic, "tree-hugging" ecology movement. As Kelly states, we
have transcended the energy crisis. We know now how to do more with less.
Whether we will or not is a separate question. We have transcended the material
crisis. As a metaphor, nanotechnology implies that we can essentially make
anything out of air, earth, fire and water. Now, the interconnectedness of the
planet through the web of communications, at many levels, offers the opportunity
to transcend the limitations of the individual as life potentially spreads
across the universe.
Like David Rothenberg, in Hand's End Kelly sees technology as an
integrating factor which connects humans with nature rather than setting them
apart either in a dominant or dominating position. Paul Thompson has said, "Our
society may collapse because of shortsighted stupidity on the part of pro-growth
- but the collapse will be tragic if it is the shortsightedness or ignorance on
the part of environmentally and ethically concerned people that helps bring it
One senses from Out of Control that homo habilis' imperfect
knowledge and opposable thumb provided the resources to build the
transformational cocoon and unleash the materials and energy needed for the
caterpillar to transform into the information driven butterfly. That bifurcation
will be made. What this means for homo sapiens is not known, particularly with
regards to the position of the individual within the purpose of the universe.
Will society take that step into the void and, like Indiana Jones, find the
presences of that invisible bridge under foot, or is it an illusion with homo
sapiens going over the cliff, like the virtual lemming?
A chemist by training, Tom Abeles is president of Sagacity
Learning Universe, a virtual University on the Internet. His primary interests
focus on the development of socially and environmentally responsible public
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