The view of many notwithstanding, the conceptual convergence of all the languages of Earth’s cultures, however varied they may be, is striking. The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like—from Latin and Hindustani to the dialects of the Apaches, Eskimos, or the tribe of Dobu. We could even do this, no doubt, with the language of the Mousterian period, if we knew it. The reason is that everyone has a mother, who has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of the disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principle of reckoning time. But beings that are unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those that divide like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent. The meanings of “grandmother” thus could not be conveyed. Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals. They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history, and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us.
The example is primitive, because it assumes that the one who receives the message will know which signs in it carry information and which constitute their unessential background. With the letter from the stars our position was different. The recorded rhythm could have represented, for example, only marks of punctuation, while the actual “letters” or ideograms could have failed completely to affect the surface of the tape’s magnetic coating, being impulses to which the machine was not sensitive.
A separate problem is the disparity between the levels of civilization. From the gold death mask of Amenhotep the art historian will read the epoch and its style. From the mask’s ornamentation the student of religions will deduce the beliefs of that time. The chemist will be able to show what method was used then to work the gold. The anthropologist will tell whether the specimen of the species from six thousand years ago differs from modern man; and the physician will offer the diagnosis that Amenhotep suffered from a hormonal imbalance, acromegaly, that gave him his deformed jaw. In this way an object sixty centuries old provides us, in modern times, with far more information than its creators possessed—for what did they know of the chemistry of gold, of acromegaly, of cultural styles? If we turn the procedure around in time and send to an Egyptian of the era of Amenhotep a letter written today, he will not understand it, not only because he does not know our language, but also because he has neither the words nor the concepts to set alongside ours.
Stanisław Lem “His Master’s Voice”, translated by Michael Kandel
Let us imagine that Mr. Smith, a bank clerk, is living with his puritanical aunt—who has a female lodger—in a multistorey house whose front wall is made of glass. As a result, the learned observer on the other side of the street is able to see everything that goes on inside. Let the interior of the house represent the “universe” we are supposed to examine. The number of “systems” that can be distinguished within this universe is practically infinite. We can approach it, for example, on an atomic level. We will then have groups of molecules from which chairs, tables, and the bodies of the three persons are made. The persons move; we want to be able to predict their future states. Since each body consists of around 25 molecules, we would have to outline 3 x 1025 trajectories of those molecules, that is, their spatiotemporal paths. This is not the best approach, as before we manage to establish just the initial molecular states of Mr. Smith, the female lodger, and the aunt, around fifteen billion years will have passed, those people will have fallen into their graves, while we shall not have even managed to provide an analytic representation of their breakfast. The number of variables under consideration depends on what it is that we actually want to examine. When the aunt goes down to the cellar to fetch some vegetables, Mr. Smith kisses the lodger. In theory, we could arrive at who kissed whom just on the basis of the analysis of molecular behavior, but in practice, as we have demonstrated earlier, the Sun is likely to go out first. We would be unnecessarily diligent because it is enough to treat our Universe as a system that consists of three bodies. Conjugations of two bodies periodically occur within it when the third body goes down to the cellar. Ptolemy is the first one to appear in our Universe. He can see that the two bodies conjoin while the third one moves away. He thus develops a purely descriptive theory: he draws some cycles and epicycles, thanks to which one can know in advance which position will be taken by the two upper bodies when the lower one finds itself in the lowest position. Since in the very middle of his circles, there happens to be a kitchen sink, he declares it the center of the Universe, with all the significance this carries. Everything then revolves around the sink.
even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature
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
Tribute from Polat Yarisci (based on drawings by Daniel Mróz).
The 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 www.e-flux.com) — both influential in the art world.
Whatever positive things we can say about our civilization, we can be sure of one thing: its development has certainly not been harmonious.
… 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 …”
The 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.