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The State of the Onion (Newsletter)

Sophie Pincus Dutton, 1910-2007

Today would have been my mother’s 113th birthday. Even at 80, when this picture was taken in her Connecticut living room, Sophie Dutton was a committed New-Age Whole-Earth  Peacenik. She and her activist friends wrote a lot of letters and made a lot of phone calls to Important People pleading for peace and animal and human welfare, donated to noble causes, and kept it up for over a decade before her passing at 97. It’s likely a blessing she didn’t live to see what’s become of America and the planet. Happy birthday, Sophie, wherever you are out there!

The state of our onion would have driven her to despair. It’s not just the melting icecaps, droughts, floods, fires, and extinctions; it’s us, Homo allegedly sapiens. Us, with our insatiable appetites for power, energy, wealth, mobility, and consumables that make us fat and unhealthy, strip-mining our planet and leaving behind mountains of trash to poison future generations, if there are any.

I called Earth an onion both because its state brings me to tears and because it’s so layered: Geosphere; Biosphere; Atmosphere; Magnetosphere; and more recently, a Technosphere and a Noösphere. But unlike an onion’s, its layers commingle and interact; peel one away and life would vanish or at least regress.

We’ll talk tech later, but first, the Noösphere, named by Jesuit anthropologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in 1922, though the concept wasn’t new even then. The priest-scientist called it the Thinking Layer and predicted humankind would converge into the Godhead and become one with Christ. But the Noösphere is more than a Christian fantasy, and its reach and complexity have grown exponentially ever since Chardin wrote.[1] Were that the case for human intelligence, which seems not to have progressed far from its neolithic roots. There’s no requirement that the Thinking Layer be wise, after all.

Chardin called this spiritual convergence the Omega Point, which has a nice ring to it. It’s not quite the same concept as what’s now being called the Singularity. It sounds more like the Rapture (with or without a prior Apocalypse), a convergent concept that has sucked in Christian millennialists hoping not to be left behind. I visualize it as falling into a white hole, which a black hole must look like before you black out.

The Internet visualized: Click for animation
The Thinking Layer (Internet portion of the Noösphere) visualized as a galaxy. Via WIRED: Click for animation

In contrast, Singularity advocates tend to be technologists who seemingly won’t rest until they create machines that put themselves out of business. So why are they working so earnestly to bring it on?

Lets see: Wikipedia calls the Singularity “a hypothetical future point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization.” I would say that technology has always been uncontrollable and largely irreversible ever since the first wheel crushed some hapless insects. But its metastatic growth under capitalist imperatives could well put us all out of business.

Acolytes of the Singularity insist that it will happen soon—like within most of our lifetimes—once machine intelligence learns how to modify itself, approaching sentience at warp speed. At that point, machines will do whatever they decide to do and think however they may think. Unless human minds are jacked into it, our race will lose relevance once we pass through that post-human event horizon, and pretty soon the AIs will see no need to serve us. And let’s face it; we’d be in a pretty pickle if the power ever went off, so it’s not like we’ll have a choice but to evolve under our masters’ tutelage.

In my opinion, losing control would be just desserts for humanity’s hubris. I’ve been thinking about Chardin’s Thinking Layer and its infrastructure since graduate school, and about a decade ago I wrote an unfinished eBook about it, which begins:

Commuting on the subway exposes me to a lot of people. Perhaps that’s why I just battled a bad cold. Over the past few years, I have noticed a population explosion of riders with buds in ears and thumbs on screens, and more people reading ebooks than books on paper. They don’t look around or make eye contact, and when they speak it’s generally to someone who isn’t there. Arriving at work, the first thing I do is click on the computer in my cubicle and log in before fetching a cup of coffee. Everyone there has a computer and stares at it most of the day. The office phones don’t ring much but a lot of email flies by.

Still relevant and available online, The Silica Papers ponder how and why we’re slouching toward oblivion. It sees the Technosphere as being guided by a largely unacknowledged integrative force that I called Silica, aka Stepmother Earth. She’s been inexorably molding humanity’s relation to our planet and ourselves throughout human history and is trending toward self-awareness, enabled by the electric Noösphere.

The massive interconnections that the Technosphere has enabled partly describe how convergence is happening. We all feel the effects, but rather than being inevitable — as we tend to think — its current configuration is largely a product of capitalism, which private citizens have very little control over as it continues to run amok. And that brings us to why: there’s money to be made, damn the consequences.

Breakneck automation and massive surveillance, among many worrisome trends, are contingent consequences of the rules and culture of capitalism, which have changed over time. Harvard Professor of Business History Geoffrey Jones writes in the current Harvard Magazine: “The view that the sole purpose of business was to maximize value for shareholders, widespread from the 1980s on, was never dominant historically. Put into historical perspective, that supposed article of faith is in fact an extreme and problematic proposition.”

I’ll say. Corporate chieftains no longer act with what Jones calls “deep responsibility” that informed corporate reforms in the 20th century. Their game is maximizing short-term returns on investments, stock buybacks, and over-the-top executive compensation. And capitalism’s rule book, they will tell you, lets corporations ignore moral, ethical, and environmental considerations that don’t add to the bottom line. The only metric that counts is return on investment, narrowly construed as profits and dividends. Its next-biggest imperative is cancerous growth in the service of relentless efficiency, which explains why we’re seeing high-tech layoffs in favor of AI robots, such as those annoying chatbots.

In the face of capitalism’s glaring deficiencies, alternative rule books have been gaining currency, such as co-ops, worker-owned enterprises, and B-Corporations, whose charters respect and serve a diversity of stakeholders (e.g., workers, consumers, communities, and our environment) and distribute earnings accordingly.

One small way to fight back that Sophie would have appreciated: When you buy a book, eschew Amazon. Instead, visit — a B-Corp with local bookshops as stakeholders. When you order a book online, Bookshop lets you choose a local bookseller to patronize, in your town or wherever. But if you’re not choosy, why not visit mine and shop around, say for The Phenomenon of Man.

[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s magnum opus, The Phenomenon of Man was written in 1941, but Rome forbade him to publish it. Its first edition was published posthumously in French in 1955, and translated to English in 1959.

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