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The likelihood of ET (or, "Why I think the universe is teeming with life")

In 250 words or less.

One of my favorite Terrence McKenna raps talks through the evolving complexity of the universe.  here's a sample (longer McKenna  transcript here):

 Out of atomic systems come chemical systems.  Out of chemical systems comes the covalent hydrogen bond,  the carbon bond, complex chemistry that is pre-biotic or organic.  Out of that chemistry comes the macro-physical systems that we call membranes, gels, charge transfer complexes...this sort of thing.  These systems are the chemical pre-conditions for life.  Simple life, the life of the prokaryotes, the life naked un-nucleated DNA that characterized primitive life on the planet.

 Out of that life come eukaryotes, nucleated cells and then complex colonies of cells,  and then cell specialization - leading to higher animals, leading to social animals, leading to complex social systems,

I get from this a sense of precipitation.  Energy, matter, form, biology, culture all precipitate from this cooling entity we call the universe.  I think this has deep implications for the evolution of biology and the evolution of culture across the universe.

Think of this.  An ocean, teeming with bits.  We are some of those bits.   One day (one cosmic aeon, choose your term), we wake up in a rock pool.  The ocean level has gradually settled and we are now in a discrete region.  

We float in the water, perhaps climb on the walls a bit but in a few more days, some of us start to wonder how we got here.  What event caused us to be created in this pool.  We measure the parameters of this pool, it is a wonderful pool just fit for our habitation.  Some of our bravest swim all the way to the bottom of the pool and dig around.  They find strange, ancient material and we develop a theory that our biology grew from the bottom of the pool upwards. 

Some of our craziest begin to wonder if there are other pools.  If there are other pools, are there also other beings like us? Are the unique, possibly random events that led to our existence availble in those other pools?  Did beings like us also emerge from the bottom of their pools?  Would they look like us? 

 Others decide that is there are other pools, there's probably lots of cool stuff in them, so we better get there first.  They develop the technology to see outside our pool and gradually build craft that can hop over the wall and send back messages.  We find other pools.

So you can see where this is going.  The emergence of life on Earth wasn't the result of a unique event, building up from a set of specific environmental criteria leading to the current wave of genetic activity. 

No, it's the reverse.  We are living in a discrete pool of material, separated from other similar pools  only by time, space and gravity.  Because biology exists on earth, we can know that it exists elsewhere, because we are no more than a part of the gradually cooling muck of the cosmic orogony. 

Certainly, I invoke some poetic license in this. 

There's an interesting span where maybe occasional bits othe ocean splash over into our rock pool, and sometimes one or two of us are swept out and back in again.  But that's a different post, don't want to get on an unintended tangent.

Another unintended tangent would be the few who never forgot that once there was a space where 'space' did not exist. 

What shall I call my book?

Essays after the end of time? Since several of the pieces I expect to include deal with the 2012 stuff I blogged-with various guests- last year. Also a nice tip of the hat to Messiaen.

But what about Essays for the Neolithic Alien? A couple of candidate essays written about the extra-terrestrial presence in human history.

Psychogeography and Space? Ties in the walking essays, and stuff about leys. The poetics of landscape art as a premonition of the Overview effect. Etc.

I don't know, maybe something about music? I'll include a section discussing whether or not "music" is " universal" and what might an alien composer do, what could ET "music" be?

The most accurate title, of course, is Unfinished Fragments after Bourbon. But I have a goal this year to pull together a good draft. Other writing projects underway include walking Pittsburgh's adumbrated trolley lines, a book on the psychogeography of East Anglian saints (principally Aetheldreda and Edmund), as well as a longish set of piano preludes tentatively titled twitching.

More to come, but thoughts comments and suggestions are welcome. (Still working on a longer post on that Mckenna material I posted yesterday.)


Complexity and novelty: transcription of Mckenna part 2

Part 1 here.  As I mentioned in that earlier post, I'm putting this transcription out here now because I'll be referring back to some of the ideas over the next few weeks.  McKenna knew his McLuhan, and I think some of this notion of increasing novelty/complexification gives a starting point to consider what will the next McLuhan era be.  What has the relationship to the Electronic media that Electronic media has to print? 

Enjoy.  I take some liberties with the total recording....occasional tangents I've opted to skip over.  The full recording is available all over the internet, but my favorite source is the Psychedelic Salon podcast and website.


There's more to this than simply that . I think we all observationally could agree with what has been said so far.  An added wrinkle is that each advancement into complexity into novelty proceeds more quickly than the stage that preceded it.  This is very profound. because if accepted as a serious first principle,  it ends the marginalization of our own species to the level of spectator status in the universe that knows nothing of us and cares nothing for us.

But I say if in fact novelty is the name of the game,  if in fact the conservation and complexification of novelty is what the universe is striving for,  then suddenly our own human enterprise previously marginalized takes on an immense new importance.  We are apparently players in the cosmic drama and in this particular act of the cosmic drama, we hold a very central role. We are at the pinacle of the expression of complexification in the animal world, and somehow this complexity which is concentrated in us has flowed over out of the domain of animal organization and into this mysterious domain which we call culture, langauge, consciousness, higher values. 

Each stage of advancement into complexity occurs more quickly than the stage which preceded it. After the intial big bang there was a period of billions of years when the universe cooled, stars condensed, planetary systems formed.  And then the quickening process crossed an invisible rubicon into the domain of animal and biological organization. 

A single species - ourselves - has broken from the ordinary constraints of animal nature and created a new world... an epigenetic world, meaning a world not based on gene transfer and chemical propagation and preservation of information:   but a world based on ideas, on symbols, on technologies, on tools. On ideas downloaded out of the human imagination and concretized in three dimensional space as choppers, aeroplanes, particle accelerators, gene sequencers, spacecraft, what have you.

All  of this complexification  occurring at a faster and faster rate. and this brings me then to the second quality or phenomena that science has overlooked which is the acceleration of complexification.

The  early history of the universe proceeded with excruciating slowness, then life took hold in the oceans of this planet. A quickening of progress with evolution, but still things proceed on the scale of tens of millions of years to clock major change.  Then the conquest of the land, higher animals, higher exposure to radiation, faster changes with   species following species one upon the other.

Then 50 thousand,  a hundred thousand,  a million years ago -  anyway recently:   the crossover into the domain of culture, tool making, myth making, dance, poetry, song, story. And that set the stage for the fall into history.

The incredibly unusual and self-consuming process that has been going on for the past 15 or 20 thousand years, a biological snap of the finger, and yet in that time, everythingthat we call human, everything that we associate with higher values, has been adumbrated, elaborated, created, set in place by one species. Ourselves. This accleration of time or complexity shows no sign of slowing down. In fact within the fabric of our own lives we can almost daily, hourly, by the minute feel it speeding up, taking hold. Its a cliche that time is moving faster and faster. A cliche of the mass media.

But I want to suggest that this is not a perceptual illusion or a cultural mirage, that this is actually happening to the space time matrix. Time is in fact speeding up.  History is a state of incredible destabilization.  It's a chaostrophy in the process of happening.  It begins with animals kept in balance by natural selection and it ends with a global internet of electronic information transfer and a language-using species headed towards the stars. There is no reason for us to suppose that this process of acceleration is every going to slow down or be deflected. It has been a law of nature from the very beginning of nature. That this acceleration was built in.

What poses a problem to us as thinking individuals is that the speed of involution towards concresence is now so great that we can feel the tug of it within  the confines of our own lives . There has been more change since 1960 than in the previous several thousand years. There has been more change since 1992 than in the previous thousand years. Change is accelerating, invention, connection, adumbration of ideas, mathematical algorithms, connectivity of peoples social systems this is all accelerating furiously and under the control of no one.  Not the catholic church , the communist party, the IMF.  No one is in charge of this process. This is what makes history so interesting:  its a runaway freight train on a dark and stormy night.

Complexity and Novelty: transcription of McKenna (part 1)

Part 2 here

Terrence McKenna wrote several books, but he's best known for raps recorded over several decades of workshops and teaching lectures.  Some of these recordings are well-established, others have an unknown provenance.   On top of everything else, McKenna was a Bard.  One of the roles we look to for our Bards is to tell the story of creation.  (My druid friends start all their rituals with an evocation of the cosmic processes of creation. ) In a session  called "Eros and Eschaton", McKenna breaks down two fundamental processes:   Complexity and Novelty.  I'm going to put down this transcription in two (possible three) parts - and then refer back to it later in some future posts.  I've got a good one in mind to tie in the anthropic principle with McKenna's Timewave, via the excellent writings by  Paul Davies.   

I make a couple of edits in this transcript - these were open form talks, and I do take out one or two tangents just to keep this on track.  All the original recordings are available online, my favorite source is Lorenzo at Psychedelic Salon.  Enjoy.  

Nature builds on previously established levels of complexity.  This is a great general natural law that your own senses will confirm for you.  

What I mean by that,  nature builds on complexity,  is the following:

When the universe was born in the dubious and controversial moment called the Big Bang, it was at first simply a pure plasma of electrons, it was the simplest that it could possibly be.  There were no atoms.  There were no molecules.  There were no highly organized systems of any kind.  There was simply a pure plasma of expanding energy   and as the universe cooled new kinds of phenomena we say emerged out of the situation.  

 As the universe cooled, atomic nuclei could form and electrons could settle in to stable orbits.   As the universe further cooled, the chemical bond became a possibility.

Still later the hydrogen bond, which is a weaker bond, the basis of biology.  

 So as the universe aged, it complexified.  This is so obvious that it's never really been challenged, but on the other hand its never been embraced as a general and dependable principle either.  Follow it through with me.

 Out of atomic systems come chemical systems.  Out of chemical systems comes the covalent hydrogen bond,  the carbon bond, complex chemistry that is pre-biotic or organic.  Out of that chemistry comes the macro-physical systems that we call membranes, gels, charge transfer complexes...this sort of thing.  These systems are the chemical pre-conditions for life.  Simple life, the life of the prokaryotes, the life naked un-nucleated DNA that characterized primitive life on the planet.

 Out of that life come eukaryotes, nucleated cells and then complex colonies of cells,  and then cell specialization - leading to higher animals, leading to social animals, leading to complex social systems, leading to technologies, leading to globe-girdling,  electronically-based, information-transfer-oriented cultures like ourselves.  

So this is very interesting that apparently the way the universe works is upon a platform of previously achieved complexity - chemical, electrical, social, biological whatever - new forms of complexity can be built that cross these ontological boundaries.  

 In other words what I mean by that is that biology is based on complex chemistry, but it is more than complex chemistry. Social systems are based on the organization that is animal life.  and yet it is more than animal life.  This is a general law of the universe overlooked by science, that out of complexity emerges greater complexity.  

We could almost say that the universe  is a novelty conserving or complexity conserving engine.  it makes complexity and it preserves it.  And it uses it as the basis for further complexity.  


Evoking McLuhan into outer space

The idea that the pressure of outer space provokes a confrontation with scale that can be mediated through aesthetic language - with objects projected onto the vectors of scale - perhaps gives an answer to the question "What Next?".

Back to McLuhan. With the invention of move-able type, the Gutenberg press, we entered into the era of print. Print is sequential, and our cultural absorption in (or by) the printed page has changed the human sensory ratio. We think in certain ways, assume certain postures of intellectual processing simply because all our information is written down and read one word after another.

McLuhan talks about the Auditory quality of electronic media, the all-at-one-ness that comes from multiple streams of information. Electronics applied the pressure of Connection to the printed word. We're living now in the continuing wave of McLuhan's insight

So the question is, what has the relationship to electronics that electronics has to print?  What has the relationship to Auditory that Auditory has to Lineality? The aesthetic vectors of scale are age, duration and size.  Along the way to the end of each spectrum,  we pass a point where we leave the realm of the human.  We turn around and see remaining our mortal life, heartbeat about once a second, arms about a couple yards, life expectancy about 60-85. 

Pressured (pressurized?) by these vectors, our electronic culture moves into what?    Exposed to mortality?  Extracted from time?  What word for this?That's an open question, I'm up for suggestions.When I started to type the title for this post, I began with "Evolving McLuhan'.  That, I thought, is mighty presumptuous.  Thanks to my poor keyboard skills - and the auto-spell feature on my iPad - I ended up with "Evoking".

Off-Earth Henge and the scale of decay

Mark Lunt commented on something I wrote in a post yesterday (the original dialogue is on facebnook, but I want to pull it in here and expand a bit on what we talked about): 

"If the physical object is now designed for an environment off-earth where it will remain unchanged for a billion years, the the physical object becomes an attractor for meaning more than it remains an object of form."

Mark asked "Could this not also apply to a structure such as Stonehenge and its kind?" 

I think he's right, and that there's definitely a resonance with Neolithic monument building.  I referenced a recent article on, talking about the relationship between Ballard and Robert Smithson, specifically Smithson's piece "Spiral Jetty".    Smothson called his art 'Earthworks".  When we look at henges or cairns marking straight lines in the landscape, they represent distance outside of time. Space outside of time. Space experienced in the imagination, which is the noosphere or at least a gateway to the noosphere  (here's an earlier post on Leys and the Overview Effect

So when I say that the pressure of outer space provokes a confrontation with scale that is resolved in the medium of imagination, I see that 'imagination' as the same poetic landscape marked up by neolithic straight lines.

The conversation continued (with a few unspeakable tangents).  The thing with Stonehenge on Earth is that it is time-laden.  Or rather, that the burden of time is implicit in the object, because it resides in the atmosphere, environment, gravity well of the Earth.  A henge built off-earth would be in stasis.

Now, I'm wrong when I wrote that.  There is no stasis, all phenomena are impermanent.   But the Off-Earth Henge provokes a confrontation with  a piece where the scale of decay requires a profound conceptual shift, a shift away from the human scale.  I think this starts to get towards that place Jung suggested, where the psychic and the physical co-exist.  Jung didn't label it (at least not in the quote I've got).  I've been refering to the Imagination.  But I think there's better language, perhaps something like the triangulated texture?  It's the media of the next McLuhan era.

McLuhan tetrad, space and aesthetics

I realize in my previous blog entry, I ended up not really talking about McLuhan as much as I did Jung and a sort of slightly psychedelic notion of the impact of an art object.

Let's get back to the idea of a confrontation with scale.  Duration, Age, Size.  These are the vectors of the aesthetic pressure applied by outer space. McLuhan writes about a Tetrad of media effects.  It's a later idea, I think published post-humously, and meant to describe the impact of a new technology on a society.  I'm going to apply it more specifically to the effects of outer space on aesthetics:  replacing society with aesthetics seems OK,  applying the broad rule to the narrow subset.

The 4 points of the tetrad represent the different ways that the technology can modify an existing system. 

  • enhance
  • make obsolete
  • retrieve from
  • reverse (push towards extremes)

I think there's an interesting overlap between these 4 points, and the memetic behavior I touched on in the last post (variation, mutation, inheritance and competition).   The characteristics of space art revolve around our planetary perspective, here's a useful breakdown of the general categories of space art:

  • Art executed on the earth but at a scale to be seen from space.  
  • Art that captures the experience of a rocket launch, or that documents the surface of other planets.  
  • Art designed so that it is complete only when it has moved into outer space, that trajectory changing the piece.   
  • Art that is executed away from gravity.  Sculpture that can be exquisitely thin and hugely long at the same time.
  • Art where the content and the architecture is formed by an analysis of data.

All of these I see as an enhancement  of existing form.  What would the reversal of art look like?  That's where I was headed before, talking about the Jungian imagination.  Driven by the vectors of scale, the art object becomes primarily a virus to direct the propagation of specific memes.

McLuhan, and aesthetics of outer space

(Continuing) preliminary thoughts on space art, looking for thoughts, models, ideas to frame a useful aesthetic.

 The aesthetic pressure of outer space provokes a confrontation with scale, one that demands an artistic response within a new media.  I'm starting with thinking of scale  in terms of duration (a billion years or a fleeting moment), size (nano sculpture or work that moves planets) and age (for the distant future from the immeasurable past).

The new media is the imagination, by which I mean the psychic space descibed by Jung. Terrence McKenna quotes it this way:

"Though we know from experience that psychic processes are related to material ones, we are not in a position to say in what this relationship consists, or how it is possible at all. Precisely because the psyche and the physical are mutually dependent it has often been conjectured that they may be identical somewhere beyond our present experience."

 The art work exists as a physical object, but it also carries with it an accumulation of culture, idiosyncracy, intentions and unexpected consequences.     We can talk about this accumulation as a swarm of memes.  Memes  will propagate through characteristic behavior that can be described using the language of genetics:  variation, mutation, inheritance, competition. 

If the physical object is now designed for an environment off-earth where it will remain unchanged for a billion years, then the physical object becomes an attractor for meaning more than it remains an object of form.  If the art is constructed as a gesture that lasts a nano-second, or one that takes place in the electromagnetic spectrum invisible to our senses - what is happening there? 

What's happening is that we are constructing an artistic gesture in the medium of imagination - the epiphenomena of art thrown into relief -  in response to a confrontation with scale.


McLuhan Auditory space

In Agenbite of the Outwit , Marshall McLuhan writes

But electronic media proceed differently. Television, radio and the newspaper (at the point where it was linked with the telegraph ) deal in auditory space, by which I mean that sphere of simultaneous relations created by the act of hearing.

This use of the word "auditory" is interesting. McLuhan isn't talking about sound as such. He's getting at an idea of information (perhaps experience in general) received from all directions at once.

We hear for all directions at once; this creates a unique, unvisualizable space. The all-at-one-ness of auditory space is the exact opposite of lineality, of taking one thing at a time.

Lineality is a characteristic of print. Electronic media is simultaneous-keep in mind that this was written in 1963, but consider the prescience of the thought as I write this on a piece of glass that can access just about everything Gutenberg ever printed.

...any pattern in which the components co-exist without direct, lineal hookup or connection, creating a field of simultaneous relations is auditory, even though some of its aspects can be seen.

I've been thinking about this as I start work on a paper to present at a workshop on Space Art. I'd take McLuhan's word "unvisualizable" as a challenge to those artists whose work extends in to outer space. What is the aesthetic framework for art that may last a billion years, or for work that exists only for a nanosecond? What McLuhan calls the auditory space is the first step towards a new aesthetic, one that has the same relationship to electronic media as electronic media has to print.