Between Transitions

by rthieme on November 30, 1999

alice15a How conscious do we dare to become?

That question confronts us at every level of the rising spiral of our lives. How we respond can determine our ability to move ahead with alacrity and gusto. Our willingness to know ourselves is the engine of our spiritual quest and the real source of power in our lives.

The same question confronts our species as we uplift from our planet. How conscious does our planetary civilization dare to become? How willing are we to understand our real place in the scheme of things?

The answer to both questions perches on a three-legged stool, but the stool is a little wobbly.

One leg of the stool is the ways we are being changed by interacting with digital technologies.

Most animals have a relatively fixed repertoire of responses. We humans, within limits, are an immense array of possibilities. Our capacity to respond to changing conditions with new behaviors (and to develop new identities as points of reference for those behaviors) emerges from our genetic code and the symbol-using brain and behaviors to which it gives rise.

Both as individuals and as civilizations, each time we successfully negotiate a transition, we bootstrap ourselves to another level of insight and complexity.

There haven’t been many human civilizations – a few dozen, maybe. When we glance back at the short trajectory of historical time, our civilizations look like islands, and it looks as if, during transitions, we swim from island to island, just as we do in our personal lives. But it might also be said that civilizations are pause-points between transitions, imaginary hilltops on which like Sisyphus we pause before heading down to push that boulder again.

Perhaps being in transition is what we do best. Perhaps humankind is a process rather than a finished product.

The rate of change can frighten us, and we often anchor ourselves to something external. When that fails, we attach ourselves to something inside – an image of our selves, an image of achievement or success, a pattern of religious symbols. But we always discover that those anchors, both inside and outside, are also in transition.

That’s when therapists and spiritual guides advise us to find our real point of reference inside ourselves – by being “centered” in our “real selves.” But even those “real selves” are social constructions, even our identities are varieties of consensus reality.

Most civilizations knew nothing of “identities” or “selves.” When the printing press came to England in the 1470s, decisions had to be made about which dialects to use. Something new began to emerge from that decision-making process, an “English” identity mirrored or mediated by a textual construction of reality. The horizon of the text disclosed genuinely new possibilities for being human. The same is happening today as digital dialects shape a new identity for our planetary species.

So what do you think? Are we swimming to the next island or are we already on an island?

Everything is water, said the Greek philosopher Thales. And Heraclitus added, we never step in the same river twice. Everything is flowing.

We are always swimming. Sometimes the water is as solid as ice, sometimes the dry land is as slippery as quicksilver. In the digital world, only the pixilated pattern at which you are gazing seems to be fixed. But that’s an illusion: our eyes – extensions of our brains – pattern those pixels, making the flickering images on our monitors seem stable.

The way we seem like fixed points of reference to one another. When in fact we are animated images, phantasms made of mist on multiple mirrors.

Dream machines, dreaming one another. Dreaming ourselves.

But who is dreaming? and who is the dream?

The second leg of the stool is genetic engineering.

We will soon design more of the architecture of our inner landscape – temperaments, affective states, spiritual inclinations.

As we begin to design ourselves with more subtlety, we will find the process similar to the symbiosis that has developed between technology and identity/self. The point of reference – the “inner self” of the designer – twists back on itself like a Mobius strip because it is transformed by what it designs. The designer is changed as much by the process as the subjective field that is designed.

Has anybody noticed that history recently disappeared? That what we still call “our history” is a kludge hacked from old code, spliced together from discontinuous narratives? History has disappeared because we can define ourselves as following now this path of descent, now that. Our current identity – our current point of view – builds a history to support and understand itself, just as we individuals remember our lives by telling stories congruent with our current identities. When those narratives no longer fit – when the feedback from others or from our lives demands that we rethink who we are – we recreate our narratives and in the process we reinvent our selves.

Genetic engineering, enabling us to design our future selves, is a forward-looking branching fractal that projects possibilities of human identity into the future. History-making is the same kind of branching fractal except it looks back. The two branches meet like root and stem at the surface of the mirror, our current identity-in-transition. Our fugitive condition.

Humanity is a nexus between imaginary pasts and possible futures. Identity is destiny, and identity is what’s up for grabs, so all we can do is swim, swim, swim … and from time to time haul ourselves from the sea to enjoy a few years, a few millennia, imagining ourselves on dry land.

The third leg of the stool is “space,” an audacious word by which we mean “everything else,” as the Greeks used “barbarian” to mean “everyone else.” Space means everything that is not on our home planet.

We are beginning to glimpse a universe crowded with sentient life, with beings self-aware, distributed and co-extensive with the entire sphere of possibility we call “space.”

We define ourselves in reference to “others” or “the Other.” We know we are not who we were, but we don’t know yet who we are becoming. Our identity will clarify only after we have become more fully conscious of the encounter with the Others.

Our evolving cyborgian self, this self-conscious human/computer symbiosis that is learning to redesign itself, is aimed off-planet toward a trans-planetary civilization. We are in transition, engineering an integrated process for growing up and going out there, a process adequate to the task of re-imagining earth-history, earth-awareness in the context of a Bigger Picture.

We share responsibility for creating the shape of the field of subjectivity in which our descendants will live, a field with many points of reference, many points of departure from which to define their identities and design their destinies.

The matrix or array that constitutes our digital Self is a flexing multi-dimensional grid. We are struggling to locate the coordinates of our trajectory as we travel in spacetime, twisting around to see both before and after.

And …

… what we humans are doing, the universe is doing too. Consciousness is a closed circle or, rather, a sphere. What we call “individual selves” are infinitely many points of reference within the sphere of consciousness. In the civilization that is now passing, we anchored our selves to those points so “we” changed perspective as it flexed. Now we see that humanity is a dream machine, a fantasy-prone cyborg on its way off-planet, and the entire sphere of consciousness is dreaming itself awake. The boundaries between individual identities, nations, species, planetary civilizations progressively dissolve as life extends itself into infinitely many varieties of self-consciousness, as “we” bootstrap ourselves to the next level of insight and complexity.

But who, as the caterpillar asked Alice, are “we?”

We are nothing but an intention that must have existed in the sphere of consciousness before it began. A possibility of a possibility, at least that if nothing more. Intentional acts – even accidents – presuppose an intention prior to their origin. Which is why consciousness is a closed circle.

Maybe Thales was right. Maybe everything is water. Except the islands on which we are washed up from the surging sea to catch our breath and ask …

(but islands too are water)

how conscious do we dare to become?

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