Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

Sneaking up on Ourselves

It's pretty tricky, sneaking around a corner which is really the surface of a sphere until we are looking at the backs of our eyeballs with our own eyes. That's what happens, though, when we see ourselves seeing ourselves.

That's a metaphor, of course, and metaphors are horses we can ride only to the limits of our thinking. Then they dissolve into thin air, and we ride on horseless like cartoon characters soaring off cliffs.

That may sound philosophical or even religious, but we really have to think like this at the dawn of genetic engineering. The practical applications are immense. We are beginning to engineer our very selves, to see our subjective ways of framing reality and being in the world as modular objects to be manufactured and enhanced. In the next century, it's going to be bootstrapping big time for the human species as we see ourselves as an image in our own collective mind, an image to be designed and executed. Not exactly a computer program, but something very like.

Subjectivity is hardwired into our brains. That's a way of saying that reality is an illusion, that even thinking we can slip outside the limitations of our minds - an experience that Zen adepts call enlightenment - and see what we are and what we are not, that is, see ourselves from a point of view outside ourselves - maybe that's an illusion, too.

But think about this. A patient with a brain disorder was being probed with electric needles. Doctors were hoping to locate areas of the brain that were the source of her seizures. When the tip of the needle touched a particular area, the patient began laughing, laughing not at the needle or in response to it, but laughing enthusiastically and spontaneously because ... well, because they were all so funny.

Funny? asked the doctor. What's funny?

Well, she laughed, looking at them with sparkling eyes: the way you're all just ... standing around ... is ... so funny!

I remembered a friend experimenting with hallucinogens. The drug induced a chemical change that enabled him to see clearly that everything in the world was ... show business! He couldn't stop laughing at the spectacle of role-playing human beings acting as if their social masks were real. Whatever anybody said, he cried out, "That's show business!" and dissolved into laughter once again.

Another time he saw the earth as a marble, like the photograph of our planet from the moon or the world seen as a walnut in the hand of her Lord by Julian of Norwich in her anchorite's cell. He saw the earth as a sphere from the center of which a million lines radiated to the surface, at the end of which walked tiny ant-like humans crying, "Mine! It's mine!" Again, he laughed hysterically. And who can blame him? Humans, part of creation, acting as if they owned abstractions like "land" ... acting as if their consensual hallucinations were reality instead of a game they agreed to play.

Stephen Hawking gave a lecture last week at the White House. Through the "wonders of modern technology," a RealAudio/Video feed played on my desktop as I worked late into the night. His electronic voice said that, unlike Star Trek or Star Wars, in which contemporary humans are projected pretty much as we are into the distant future, he believed we would recreate ourselves through genetic engineering in ways we can not even imagine. People think of obvious things - greater strength, longer lives, faster reactions - extensions of how we are today that make us more and better, but not significantly different. The real differences will be created and discovered as we learn how laughter and sadness happen, how we construct reality, how we use mood-altering experiences like religion, therapy, entertainment, other kinds of cultural play, how we mean and be.

Some religious sentiments - like wonder and awe - have been linked to particular genes, just as parts of the brain, altered by the use of spiritual tools, ingestion of chemicals, or electric probes, spontaneously generate visions that are ... so funny! Visions of human beings acting as if we are gods on a planet from the oceans and mud of which we have only recently crawled. This civilization is a phase, not a conclusion, and this earth is just one of the millions of planets teeming with life that will teach us how we have evolved and maybe even why.

Zen masters disdain the use of chemicals or electricity to induce enlightenment. They prefer traditions handed down for generations. That perspective may soon seem quaint and archaic. Genetic engineering will enable us to say at a particular level of description - a level appropriate to biochemistry and biomechanics - what happens when we experience that which emerges in our subjectivity as awesome, wonderful, or funny. We will create emotional states of being that do not yet have names. The beings that feel, think, experience those states - our intentional progeny - will embody that unimaginable next step for the species of which Hawking was speaking.

Ethical reflection never anticipates the breakthroughs that make us sit up straight, nor do legal niceties. What will we do when our mistakes exhibit behaviors we don't want? Put them in reservations or safari parks, use insect-like cameras to scuttle among them, amusing ourselves with their wacky antics?

Will they vote? Will anyone? And will it matter?

Self-transcendence is an emergent behavior, perhaps the beginning of a rising spiral of possibilities: The ability to see ourselves from a meta-perspective, sneaking up behind ourselves and watching ourselves think thoughts like these. The ability to experience the disappearance of what we call our "minds" as we realize that "no-mind" simply describes what's so. The ability to decide what's funny or whether to include humor at all in our genetic program ... some of our progeny roaring with laughter at the mere thought while others stare uncomprehendingly, wondering what's so blanking funny.

Islands in the Clickstream is a weekly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

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Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1998. All rights reserved.

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