nature and technology

even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature

Stanislaw Lem Summa Technologiae 2013
We have to differentiate between possibilities and realistic goals. In science, possibilities have always had their “negative prophets.” The number of such prophets has at times surprised me, as has the passion with which they have been trying to prove the futility of constructing flying, atomic, or thinking machines. The most sensible thing we can do is refrain from arguing with those forecasters of the impossible not because we have to believe in everything coming true one day but rather because, when drawn into heated debates, people can easily lose sight of what the real problems are. “Anti-homunculists” are convinced that in negating the possibility of a synthetic mind, they are defending the superiority of man over his creations creations that, they believe, should never overtake the human genius. This kind of defense would only make sense if someone were really trying to replace man with a machine, not within a particular workplace but rather within civilization as a whole. But nobody intends to do this. The point is not to construct synthetic humanity but rather to open up a new chapter in the Book of Technology: one containing systems of any degree of complexity. As man himself, his body and brain, all belong to such a class of systems, such a new technology will mean a completely new type of control man will gain over himself, that is, over his organism. This will in turn enable the fulfillment of some age-long dreams, such as the desire for immortality, or even perhaps the reversal of processes that are considered irreversible today (biological processes in particular, especially aging). Yet those goals may turn out to be a fantasy, just as the alchemists’ gold was. Even if man is indeed capable of anything, he surely cannot achieve it in just any way. He will eventually achieve every goal if he so desires, but he will understand before that that the price he would have to pay for achieving such a goal would reduce this goal to absurdity.

It is because even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature. We can fly, but not by flapping our arms. We can walk on water, but not in the way it is depicted in the Bible. Perhaps we will eventually gain a kind of longevity that will practically amount to immortality, but to do this, we will have to give up on the bodily form that nature gave us. Perhaps, thanks to hibernation, we will be able to travel freely across millions of years, but those who wake up after their glacial dream will find themselves in an unfamiliar world, since the world and the culture that have shaped them will have disappeared during their reversible death. Thus, when fulfilling our dreams, the material world requires us to undertake actions the realization of which can equally resemble a victory and a defeat.

Stanisław Lem “Summa Technologiae”, translated by Joanna Zylinska, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2013, p. 90-71

9th Futurological Congress

9th futurological congress

stanislaw lem futurological congressThe Eighth World Futurological Congress was held in Costa Rica… Each speaker was given four minutes to present his paper, as there were so many scheduled-198 from 64 different countries. To help expedite the proceedings, all reports had to be distributed and studied beforehand, while the lecturer would speak only in numerals, calling attention in this fashion to the salient paragraphs of his work. To better receive and process such wealth of information, we all turned on our portable recorders and pocket computers (which later would be plugged in for the general discussion). Stan Hazelton of the U.S. delegation immediately threw the hall into a flurry by emphatically repeating: 4, 6, 11, and therefore 22; 5, 9, hence 22; 3, 7, 2, 11, from which it followed that 22 and only 22!! Someone jumped up, saying yes but 5, and what about 6, 18, or 4 for that matter; Hazelton countered this objection with the crushing retort that, either way, 22. I turned to the number key in his paper and discovered that 22 meant the end of the world.
Stanislaw Lem “The Futurological Congress”

“The Futurological Congress” is Ijon Tichy’s grotesque report written by Stanislaw Lem in the early seventies. It presents an overpopulated and overexploited Earth of the first half of the 21st century, whose herded residents seek refuge in pharmacologically synthesized collective hallucinations. Lem’s satirical vision contesting popular futurological visions of that time remains a clear warning against the greed of consumer societies willing to yield to their desires at the irreversible expense of our planet’s ecosystem.

Half a century later, Lem’s message becomes even more relevant. This is shown by the Ninth Futurological Congress project, a form of an artistic manifesto, whose authors took the book’s appeal seriously: we don’t stand idly by when we hear the cry of “Man the pumps!”.

The initiators and main organizers of the conference are Mareike Dittmer (co-publisher of the “Frieze Magazine”) and the artist Julieta Aranda (the founder and editor of — both influential in the art world.

9th futurological congress

9th Futurological Congress, Ufficio Primo, Warsaw 2016 (fot. by Mikolaj Sekutowicz)

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Votum separatum

Whatever positive things we can say about our civilization, we can be sure of one thing: its development has certainly not been harmonious.

Stanislaw Lem Summa Technologiae 2013 … we are talking about Intelligence! Yet it would have been impossible to reach the Atomic Age without the Age of Coal and the Age of Electricity that preceded it. Or a different environment would have at least required a different sequence of discoveries, which would have involved more than just rearranging the calendars of Einsteins and Newtons from other planets. In an environment with a high degree, of disturbance that exceeds the regulatory capacity of a society, Intelligence can manifest itself not in an expansive form, as a desire to take control over the environment, but rather as a desire to subjugate itself to that environment. I am referring here to the emergence of biological technology prior to physical technology: creatures inhabiting such a world transform themselves to function in a given environment, instead of transforming that environment so that it serves them—the way humans do. “But this is not intelligent behavior any more; this is not Intelligence!” we hear in response. “Every biological species behaves in this way in the course of evolution …”

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E-books and audiobooks in “Return from the Stars” (1961)

ebooks-optons-lem-return-from-the-stars-1961The books were crystals with recorded contents. They could be read with the aid of an opton, which was similar to a book but had only one page between the covers. At a touch, successive pages of the text appeared on it. But optons were little used, the sales-robot told me. The public preferred lectons – like lectons read out loud, they could be set to any voice, tempo, and modulation.

“Return from the Stars”, translated by Barbara Marszal and Frank Simpson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1980, p. 79

Solaris opera, directed by Detlev Glanert

solaris opera glanert
Photo from the opera “Solaris”, directed by Detlev Glanert, premiered at the Bregenz Festival (2012).

I was close to the circular chamber from which corridors branched off like the spokes of a wheel. As I was passing a narrow side hallway leading, I think, to the bathrooms, I caught sight of a large, indistinct figure that almost merged into the background.

I stood rooted to the ground. From the far end of the side passage a huge black woman was coming towards me with an unhurried waddling gait. I saw the whites of her eyes glinting and at almost exactly the same moment I heard the soft slap of her bare feet. She had nothing on but a skirt that glistened yellow, as if it were made of straw. She had massive pendulous breasts, and her black arms were as thick as a normal person’s thighs. She passed three feet from me without so much as a glance and walked off, her elephantine rump swaying like one of those steatopygic Stone Age sculptures found in anthropological museums. At the place where the corridor curved, she turned to the side and disappeared into Gibarian’s cabin. When she opened the door, for a split second she stood in the brighter light coming from inside. Then the door closed softly and I was on my own. I took my left wrist in my right hand and squeezed with all my might, till the bones cracked. I looked around distractedly. What had just happened? What had that been? All at once, as if I’d been struck, I recalled Snaut’s warning. What was it supposed to mean? Who had that monstrous Aphrodite been? Where had she come from? I took one, only one, step towards Gibarian’s cabin, and froze. I knew only too well I wasn’t going to go in there. I sniffed the air with flared nostrils. Something was wrong, something was out of place. That was it! I’d instinctively expected the distinct, repulsive odor of her sweat, but even when she passed a couple of feet from me I hadn’t smelled a thing.

“Solaris”, translated by Bill Johnston


Stanislaw Lem arrived in Krakow in July 1945 and continued to study medicine at the Jagiellonian University. Since all graduates were becoming military doctors (for live) he declined to take the last exam.

stanislaw lem krakow 1945