Thursday, March 20, 2008

From Slumber to the Fires of Computation - Kevin Kelly

In this article Kevin Kelly considers the history of the universe from the perspective of a hydrogen atom, and how the flow of energy has evolved from the Big Bang to the present time.

An atom’s brief journey through a technological artifact is a flash of existence unlike anything else in its long life span.

Most hydrogen atoms were born at the beginning of time. They were created in the fires of the big bang and dispersed into the universe as a uniform warm mist. Thereafter each has been on a lonely journey separate from anything material. When a hydrogen atom drifts in the unconsciousness of deep space, it is hardly much more active than the vacuum surrounding it. Time is meaningless without change, and in the vast reaches of space which fill 99,99% of the universe, there is little change.


After billions of years, a hydrogen atom might be swept up by the currents of gravity radiating from a congealing galaxy. With the dimmest hint of time and change it slowly drifts in a steady direction toward other stuff. Another billion years it bumps into the first bit of matter it has ever encountered. After millions of years it meets the second. In time it meets another of its kind, a hydrogen atom. They drift together in mild attraction until eons later they meet an oxygen. Suddenly something weird happens. In a flash of heat they clump together as one water molecule. Maybe they get sucked into the atmosphere circulation of a planet. Under this marriage, they are caught in great cycles of change. Rapidly the atom is carried up, and then rained down into a crowded pool of other jostling atoms. In the company of uncountable numbers of other water molecules they travel this circuit around and around for millions of years, from crammed pools to expansive clouds and back. One day in a stroke of luck a water molecule is captured by a chain of unusually active carbon in one pool. Its path is once again accelerated. It spins round in a simple loop assisting the travel of carbon chains. It enjoys speed, movement and change such as could not be possible in the comatose recesses of space. The carbon chain is stolen by another chain, dissembled many times until the hydrogen finds itself in a cell constantly rearranging its relations and bonds with other molecules. Now it hardly ever stops changing, never stops interacting.

The hydrogen atoms in a human body refresh completely every seven years. Our bodies are fancy buckets whose water runs out the bottom as fast as they are being filled up from the top; while we age we are really a river of very old atoms. The carbons in our bodies were produced in the sun. We are, as Carl Sagan so famously said, made of star dust. But the bulk of our body weight is water, and 2/3 of that is hydrogen. So in fact, we are not star dust, but big bang dust. The bulk of matter in our hands, skin, eyes, and hearts was made at the beginning of time, 14 billion years ago. We are much older than we look.

For the average hydrogen atom in our body, the seven years it spends dashing from one cellular station to another will be the fleetingest glory imaginable. Twelve billion years in inert lassitude, and then a brief wild trip through life’s waters, and then on again to the isolation of space when the planet dies. A blink is too long as an analogy. From the perspective of an atom, any living organism is a tornado which might capture it into its mad frenzy of chaos and order, offering it a once in a 12-billion-year-lifetime fling.

As fast and crazy as a cell is, the rate of energy flowing through technology is even faster. In fact technology is more active in this respect and will give an atom a wilder ride than any other sustainable structure we are currently aware of, such as life, planets, stars and galaxies. For the ultimate trip in 2006, the most sustainable energetic thing in the universe is a computer chip.

How can this be? The power density of a system is measured as the amount of energy flowing through a gram of matter per second. The power density of a star is huge compared to the mild power flows drifting through a nebulous gas cloud in space. But remarkably, the power density of a sun pales to the intense flow of energy and activity present in grass. As intense as the surface of the sun is, its mass is enormous and its lifetime is 10 billion years, so as a whole system, the amount of energy flowing through it per gram per second is less than in a sunflower soaking up that sun’s energy.


A nuclear bomb has a much higher power density than the sun because it is an unsustainable out-of-control flow of energy. The same flame-out applies to well, flames, bombs, supernova and other kinds of explosions. They literally consume themselves with energy. The glory of a star is that it can sustain its brilliant fission for billions of years. But it does so at lower energy flow rate than the sustainable flux that takes place in a nuclear bomb, or a green plant! Rather than a burst of fire, the energy flow in grass yields the cool order of green blades, tawny stalks, and plump seeds ripe with information that can replicate the entire plant. Greater yet is the energy flow within animals, where we can actually feel their energetic waves. They wiggle, pulse, move, and in some cases radiate warmth.

System ------ Power Density (erg/s/g)
Galaxy - - - - 10^-1
Star - - - 10^0
Earth - - - 10^2
Plants - - - 10^3
Otto engine - - - 10^4
Animal body - - - 10^4
Human brain- --- 10^5
Chevy ----- 10^6
747 ----- 10^7
Jetfighter ----- 10^8
8080 chip-------10^10
Pentium chip ------ 10^11

Still greater is the flow of energy through technology. Measure in joules (or ergs) per gram per second, nothing concentrates energy as much as hi-tech gadgetry. At the far apex of the power density graph is the computer chip – the most energetically active thing in the known universe. It conducts more energy (per second per gram) through its tiny corridors than animals, volcanoes, and the sun. It may be better thought of as a very slow nuclear explosion.


A 1-megaton nuclear bomb will release 10^17 ergs, which is a lot power. But the total lifetime of that explosion is only a hyper blink of 10^-6 seconds. If you “amortize” a nuclear blast so that it spent its energy over a full second of time instead of microseconds, its power density would be reduced to only 10^11 erg/s/g, which is about as intense as a laptop computer chip. Energy wise, a Pentium chip is just a slow nuclear explosion.

Indeed the incredibly intense flow of energy required by computation is the major constraint in continual acceleration of small size and increased speed we’ve so far gained in silicon computer chips. It is not so much small-scale engineering that is the challenge for future peta-hertz chips as much as it is dispersing the atomic-bomb levels of energy generating in such small places. So much energy is focused so intensely that laptops will simply melt without sophisticated help. MIT quantum computer maven Seth Lloyd performed a calculation to determine the energy needs of the “ultimate laptop” – one that used all the atoms in one tiny nano-cube of material to compute -- and figured it would be like having the big bang in your lap. Yeah, it was efficient, but boy did it wreck the living room.

Because of the ever-increasing power of smaller chips, only the tiniest femo-fraction of the earth’s atoms will be subjected to this fiery experience. A bit of heavy-duty computation here and there will guide the rest of materials. But more and more of the mass of atoms will be incorporated into either living systems or technological ones. Four billion years ago, none of the atoms on earth were cycling through cells. Today the biomass of earth totals 10^15 kilograms. I know of no figures for the total technomass of this planet, but it is certainly expanding. We need only watch the rate of mining and logging to see that more and more atoms are being swept out of their billion-year slumber and channeled into the explosive, dizzy, action-packed, short-lived ride we call the technium.

City Arch

This transfer is the grand story of the cosmos, in which matter everywhere in the universe is steadily hijacked by extropic systems. Over the course of cosmic history atomic particles are gathered by galaxies, combined by stars, cycled by planets, twirled by living cells, and most recently, jiggled and enlivened by technology. These all are self-sustaining systems, with no ends in sight. If one extrapolates, one can imagine that eventually all matter in the universe will someday be touched by these energetic processes at the highest levels of life and technology. According to physicist Freeman Dyson there is sufficient energy and time before the end of the universe for all matter to be encompassed into the intelligent design of technology. Or, as he puts the same thought flipped 180 degrees: there is sufficient energy and time for Mind to expand to fill the entire universe. At that moment, all atoms born at the big bang will have, at least once in their long boring existence, been part of a thought.

- Written by Kevin Kelly; contributed by Arthur Gillard. Originally posted on The Technium on February 24, 2006.

The Integral News and Views blog aims to explore accessible and practical integral perspectives for people who are interested in getting beyond fragmented worldviews, who desire intimacy with all that they are, and who wish to help the world, themselves, and others evolve and thrive in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Have We Moved Beyond the Age of Gurus? (Ken Wilber transcript)

The following is a transcript of a selection from Kosmic Consciousness, an interview with Ken Wilber conducted by Tami Simon.

Tami Simon: What about the idea that the ages of the gurus are over, and that as meditations come into the Western culture – a democratic culture – that, yes we need meditation mentors, but we don't need these hierarchical gurus that we don't question.

Ken Wilber: Yeah. Well I think…there's a basic ripeness about that, that the time of the gurus is gone in certain ways; but…that doesn't mean that everything about a guru is therefore unnecessary. Most of these great traditions that we're talking about – whether they're Sufis or Christian Contemplative or Zen or Buddhist Tibetan – really came about during the agrarian era, which is really two major technological epochs ago; and the very typical sort of political structure at that time was almost feudalistic. And so, in Tibet for example, a guru wasn't just what we would call the pastor at the local church, or your local rabbi or priest – the guru was often the political leader, the educator, the priest, the rabbi, everything rolled into one, and if the guru said “jump,” you would sort of say, “how high?” I mean, it was just sort of a very, very complex office that a guru was serving. It was entirely appropriate that under those circumstances you would basically offer every aspect of yourself to the guru, and that was part of a very, very complex training that also had a cultural background that supported it – and…under those cultural conditions it wasn't harmful in a way that we today would think of as harmful.

Nowadays, though, in democratic industrial and postindustrial egalitarian societies, that is a fish out of water to put it mildly; and a lot of the turmoil in the first couple of decades that the eastern traditions came into this country is that the gurus and teachers were coming out of these cultures and traditions where the guru was sort of everything – and then you come over here and that doesn't play in America. It's like, “are you kidding me?” We've got this incredibly individualistic, egalitarian culture. At the same time there are parts of it that, there's just no going back. There's a kind of democratic, egalitarian attitude that is going to mark this and most future forms of governance. So what you have to do is sort of scale the guru down, so to speak, in an appropriate way.

What you don't want to do is throw the baby out with the bathwater. And the problem, in this otherwise very necessary scaling down of the guru, is that we've shrunk the guru to really a miniature version of what it's supposed to be. And we want to do that because a real guru or a real teacher threatens our ego; that's basically the whole essence here. And we're not talking about, [at] this point, the guru as some sort of domineering figure that tells you everything you're supposed to do. At some point any form of profound spiritual practice is a real transcendence of self, if you want to find some form of higher kosmic consciousness other than your mere egoic identity; and under those circumstances, the ego does not go gracefully or willingly. And so if you're just sort of hanging out and you're your own spiritual teacher, you're probably not going to go as far as you can on the path – because you just won't endure the torment, the difficulty, the embarrassment, the profound pain of dying to your own separate self and your own separate identity. And under those circumstances, then you want a – by whatever name – spiritual teacher that's going to walk you though that. At some point there is a profound surrendering that goes on – again, it's not a dominating or domineering situation, but it's a profound letting go of your own absolute desire to be in charge, or be in control. That can happen in a spiritual teacher-student relationship in a very profound way.

Obviously there has to be checks and balances about it – there are certain things that you really can't do in those circumstances and they are very similar to the things that you cannot do if you are a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist. It's the same kind of relationship in a sense, and that has to be in place – you're not allowed to have sex with students, you're not allowed to take money in certain ways, you're not allowed to in any way make career choices for them, etc. etc. etc. But there comes a point where there has to be a profound surrendering of the separate self to that greater awareness and greater consciousness; and if a spiritual teacher is living that to you and transmitting that to you in an authentic way, then that's a very important component. That's not just a bunch of spiritual friends walking the path together holding hands! That's somebody who is enlightened and is fundamentally transmitting that enlightenment to you, as a demand, that you yourself awaken to that estate.

So my concern is that in necessarily and appropriately scaling down a guru, that we've scaled him out of existence; and we've replaced him with a kind of feel-good spirituality that lets us all rest in our own egoic self and nobody challenges us. So we have no rankings, no degrees of better or worse, higher or lower, no more enlightened or less enlightened – and then we're all equally unenlightened in a certain sense. Nobody's challenged, nobody's threatened – and nobody's awakened. And so that's the sort of downside of what I call Boomeritis, which is kind of a “mush egalitarianism” that really prevents any form of growth or transcendence or depth of development.
- Kosmic Consciousness, Disk Eight, track 4

This transcript was prepared by Arthur Gillard, and is posted here under fair use guidelines. I highly recommend the Kosmic Consciousness CD set as an entertaining and comprehensive introduction to the work of Ken Wilber.

The Integral News and Views blog aims to explore accessible and practical integral perspectives for people who are interested in getting beyond fragmented worldviews, who desire intimacy with all that they are, and who wish to help the world, themselves, and others evolve and thrive in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner.

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