Perhaps the most elegant thought that was ever transmitted to me in my formal education came via a class I took from Jay Wentworth and Bud Gerber. It originated with cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, who was himself riffing on an 18th century Italian writer named Giambattista Vico. And it went something like this:
Vico had this idea that there were stages to history, and there were either three or four of them (it's been a few years, so I'm a bit fuzzy on the details): The Age of the Gods, the Age of Heroes and the Age of Men, followed by a fourth thing called The Age of Chaos -- which, we are to understand, is not supposed to be particularly pleasant.
From Vico's classical, 18th century perspective, it's pretty simple to imagine these ages as a rising line: We begin in Bible times with the Age of the Gods, work our way up through Homer and the Age of Heroes and then the next thing you know we've got ourselves a republic and a middle class and BINGO! You're in the Age of Men, whether you like it or not.
Which makes the Age of Chaos particularly eye-catching, as it follows the Age of Men and seems to fit nicely into the church's message: As human beings move farther away from the original innocence and obedience of The Garden, our folly sets the stage for The End of Days. To the orthodox, of course, chaos is a Very Bad Thing Indeed.
Consequently, if you exist solely in that Judeo-Christian cosmos, where all myth takes place in linear time, in a universe in which time flows only in one direction, then there's your whole story: Perfection, fall, degradation, End of the World. Thank you for playing, and we have some lovely parting gifts for those of you who aren't being cast into the Lake of Fire for all Eternity.
Thompson believed that we were already in the Age of Chaos back in the 1980s (a belief he shared with all the televangelists of the day). But Thompson was a modern man, and for him myth could exist in all sorts of ways. Rather than seeing history as a rising or falling line, Thompson imagined it as a double helix: Not merely the Christian line, not merely the pagan circle, but the combination of line and circle, turning on itself, cycling around, reversing, creation and destruction giving way one to the other.
And when Thompson tried this out, he saw history in a new way: The same four stages, only on his helix, it's the Age of Chaos that always gives rise to the Age of the Gods.
As a 20-year-old, I understood that to mean that I had been born into very interesting times. Looking back now, one thought always strikes me: I had no idea. Because in the early 1980s, I had never even heard of Chaos Theory, nanotechnology, gene therapy, Moore's Law, global warming, wikis, or Ray Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns.
And The Singularity (currently scheduled to occur around 2045)? Not a clue.
Lately I've been giving The Singularity quite a bit of thought, at least in this light: When every doubling in the Law of Accelerating Returns approaches infinity, how will human beings experience that reality? And I don't mean "cope with," because we will have created a transhuman civilization at that point. We may invent tools that allow some form of human intelligence to keep pace with that scale of change, but those who take up those tools will become, in any sense of the word except for the reproductive, a new species, more remote from homo sapiens sapiens than our species is from homo antecessor. You don't just "cope" with that.
One possibility, of course, is that we'll have one of those joint-custody species splits, where the new transhumanoids and members of our species live side-by-side for a time, like our ancestors and homo neanderthalensis did. But how long will that last? Neanderthal and early homo sapiens shared Europe for roughly 15,000 years, but then again, Neanderthal's competition wasn't becoming infinitely more informed and aware every few days.
Another possibility, and one that strikes me as more likely, is that we'll simply experience the Singularity as magic. That's Clarke's Third Law, after all: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
But I think the future that makes the most sense is simply this: As the human race approaches The Singularity, we'll experience the last days of The Age of Chaos with a savage vengeance. Change at the accelerating rates predicted by Kurzweil simply cannot take place in those pristine geometric progressions: Civilization and human psychology demands some level of predictability. We cannot hum pleasantly along as a civilization when we can't predict the future confidently enough to train for jobs, take out mortgages, invest in sewer lines. And the net environmental effect of all this global civilization is looking rather dubious as well. To be blunt, the planet is going to survive our changing climate just fine: civilization, on the other hand, is in for a bumpy ride.
What, then,will be The Singularity's place in human history? It occurred to me recently that future generations will mark it as the moment at which our species made the turn from the Age of Chaos to the Age of the Gods. That doesn't just mean that The Singularity will be the free-fall moment at which everything changes. It means -- using terms from the mythology of 20th century science -- that The Singularity will be the event horizon of our civilization and our species. One cannot peer across it to the other side.
It could be a beautiful thing: a magical age in which new understandings, new spiritualities and new human abilities unfold in splendid, free-form blooms.
But it is also likely that, from the perspective of most humans alive in 2007, the crossing of that threshold will seem horrific. We're certainly not comfortable with the practical questions that come with the rise of transhumanism today, and we live in a planetary culture in which a good portion of people do not yet believe in biological evolution: How are we going to prepare our brothers and sisters to deal with the concept that non-biological evolution is not only "natural" but practically inevitable?
Once the first humans cross The Singularity horizon, the majority of our species will become little more than surplus labor. And what of our transhuman descendants, men and women for whom our quaint efforts at building a Web 2.0 culture will appear as cave paintings of a great archaic hunt? What will their moral reasonings create for us? How will they treat us, with their magic?
I always imagined that it would be a glorious thing to be alive at the moment when we move from the Age of Chaos into the Age of the Gods. But it never before occurred to me that the gods of the coming age might not be my gods. Did Neanderthal celebrate the rise of the Cro-Magnon? Or did he shudder?
Magic. It seems such an entertaining, happy thought in our safe, explained, bounded world. But look back at our older myths, myths from the days before supermarkets and MRIs and interstate highways and blogs and central heat and air. To our ancestors, magic was something powerful and strange to be feared, to be held at bay.
Sweet dreams, fellow human beings.