A Novel That Will Set You Free
By Ken Wilber
Copyright © 2002 Ken Wilber.
All rights reserved.
I am wandering the back streets of San Francisco, looking for a bar; the dark night offers no relief. My mother says that for a 20-year-old, I am wise beyond this lifetime. But my mother thinks that all souls are wise beyond their lifetimes, so mine seems then an afterthought, though she would likely deny it. Shadows cut shades into the callous path before me; back-street doors open noisily, jarring a sensitive self. "Cyber Rave City," says the sign, but for some reason I keep walking.
My father is in Manhattan, last I heard, which was about a month ago. He is cutting a deal, hashing a contract, to set up an AIDS relief project in southeastern Africa. "Cutting a deal" because, Dad says, several multinational corporations are, in a rather grotesque way, the driving force behind the bargainthey are hoping, he says, to cash in on the AIDS epidemic (Dad makes a face and says "ca-ching! with death"the sound of a cash register next to a skull and bones). Dad announced that for once he is going to take them up on their "pathetic swinish offer," because otherwise nothing will get done at all. I bet he can't sleep tonight, either.
"Ken," Chloe said, "you've got to try this," as she put a tab of Ecstasy on my tongue, grabbed me tight and held on to my waist. Ethereal music enwrapped my brain, warmth began to define my being, subtle lights flashed on and off, whether coming from within my head or without was impossible to say. "Can you feel it?" was the Chloe refrain, and beyond that was hard to remember. Later that night there was some sort of sex, but it never really got started, or rather finished, because compared to the Ecstasy-induced luminous bliss, bodily sex was a comedown, a heavy intrusion into a radiantly thrilling twirling swirling space, and even Chloe's breasts paled in interest against that billowing bliss. Where does the body end and the music begin? If we really could disappear into cyberspace, is this what it would be like? Floating without bodies, traveling at the speed of thought, digitalized into a billion bits cascading through optical pathways, an adventure compared to which even sex was dull....
"Ken, you've got to try this," and I swooned, passed out, phased into the cybersphere, optically enhanced.
Chloe, like me, a child of Boomers. Like me, never thought much about it, really, until we started to think about ourselves. That is, until we skidded into early adolescence and then noticed that the Boomers were our parents, that "Boomers" were actually something that existed. In adolescence, everybody says, kids differentiate from parents, and if parents are Boomers, well, that seems to complicate matters, because Boomers are not parents, they are a force of nature.
Chloe tried to kill herself, but I don't think because of Boomers. It's just that she has a way of getting noticed. I met her a year or so after that, in a class in Cambridge, a class on "Shifting Cultural Paradigms," a required course that I later learned told me more about Boomers than about paradigms. Although I did learn that every Boomer has a paradigm, like a pair of bell-bottoms.
Chloe I liked because of her eyes, and a certain I've-seen-it-all laugh, and because she had the nerve to try to end it all, or step off the stupidity in a definitive way. "Ken, you've got to try this" was something I heard from her at least once or twice each week, and I began to suspect that she had tried suicide not out of any morose depression but simply as a new and exciting experience. Chloe became the antidote to my depression, a suffocating depression that for me, alas, was real, a Siamese twin joined at my hip, and if suicide was part of the joyride Chloe counseled, I couldn't say I would rule it out.
Because something is badly skewed inside me. In a weird way, just as sex on Ecstasy is a comedown, suicide in this depression would be a big disappointment.
Artificial Intelligence is not only my field, it is how I feel. I am an artificial intelligencemy mind is artificial, my thoughts are artificial, they are made by somebody or something else, I find it hard to own them. Engineered thoughts, nonliving thoughts; even at the speed of digital, the thoughts are not alive. Who has programmed this mess called me?
"Ken, you've got to try this. Ken Wilber, listen to me!" But even Chloe's tender entreaties backed with a naked body do not carry that much weight.
Artificial Intelligence. AI. In my second year at MIT, confined in Cambridge, that most claustrophobic of towns built by teeny-tiny Pilgrims, my imagination was litor perhaps programmedby the possibilities of it all. If you wedded cyberspace with artificial and computer intelligenceintelligence that had already surpassed the amount of data stored in all human brains combinedthen infinity would be your destination, right? The future would indeed be one long Ecstasy trip through the bodiless world of light, as consciousness itself downloaded into perfectly designed computer heaven and kissed the painful, fleshy, messy world goodbye.
Now there would be an antidote to depression.
Such futuristic thinking was not as loopy as it sounded; in fact, something like it is the prevailing belief in the AI community. All that summer the headlines were already blaring the news. Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, itself a major contributor to the coming cyber-revolution, had caused an international sensation when he summarized the opinion of experts in the field: within a mere three decades, computers will reachand then surpasshuman-level intelligence, thus rendering human beings more or less useless to existence. "Now," he wrote, "with the prospect of human-level computing power in about 30 years, a new idea suggests itself: that I may be working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species." The article was called, appropriately enough, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us."
This seemed to upset Mr. Joy, but only because, I was convinced, he was standing on the wrong side of the equation. Human consciousness would not be superfluous, it would be finally liberatedfully, radically, ecstatically liberated. It wouldwe wouldour consciousness wouldsimply be downloaded into superintelligent machines, not only ending most of humanity's major problemsfrom hunger to illness to death itselfbut allowing us to program our digital luminous optical destiny in any way we pleased. Carbon-based consciousness would make the leap to silicon-based consciousness ... and off we would go, literally. Bill Joy wasn't living up to his name, because he was identifying with the losing team.
San Francisco for the summer; the Mission District is a mixture of brainiac geeks and homeless castaways, all of whom would fare much better translated wholly into cyber-ether. The brave new networked world was rushing at me from the near horizon, a mixture of ancient spiritual desires and hypermodern digital doing: human consciousness was poised to get hyperlinked into sizzling robotic codes traveling at the speed of light, never to be seen or heard from again with merely human senses. Although a small part of me rebelled, the larger part enthusiastically agreed: the quantum leap from carbon to silicon would finally bring a real heaven on earth. The Pearly Gates of CyberSpace, as one book title told it. Tech-Gnosis, proclaimed another. CyberGrace, offered yet one more. That was a train I intended to catch, and it was leaving the station only with my generation. The Boomers started to conceive it; the Xers started to build it; but the Ys Would board it, bound for infinity on a ray of light that would never look back.
My father says that my cyber-dreams are antihumanistic. By that he means, word it how you will, that I am being worthless.
"Cyberspace is just an extension of human beings, not a replacement for them," he kept saying.
"What does that mean? I don't even understand what that means, Dad."
"You think we are going to disappear into supercomputers, you think that weushuman mindsare going to be downloaded into silicon chips or some such shit. Do you know how sick that is? Just think about it, really."
"What's the point? You've made up your mind, right? It's not that you don't listen, Dad, because you do. It's just that you don't hear what you listen to. You hear what you think."
"Oh, fine, and what exactly does that mean?"
"What exactly does that mean is that, well, okay, weren't you ever young?"
"Seriously, really. You ever been excited by a new idea? You didn't always just recycle your crap, you know."
"Recycle my crap? Well, that's choice. Cyberspace, as you sing it, doesn't help people, it escapes from them. And I'm supposed to get all excited about that?" This is where he would begin to chant things about starving people in Asia.
"Let the boy alone, Phil," Mom would always say. "The boy," as in, the rock, the plant, the house. I wondered what exactly went through their minds, their own artificial intelligences, when she looked at him that way. Did every "boy" have the feeling that he was Europe after World War II, and the two great superpowers were dividing up the territory? Or maybe being drawn and quarteredthat wonderful medieval torture technique where horses pull in opposite directions until the person is severed into several slabs.
"Surely you don't think that there is anything resembling a coming world transformation, not the way either you or the kid imagines." He glanced in my direction when he said "the kid."
Mom was gentle, but she wasn't lame. "And you actually think that human beings are nothing but material objects, pushed around by survival drives. His transformation or mineeither one is better than the silliness you spout. Oh, Phil, but don't get mad ...," and he would storm off again, never really overtly angry, just never really being there. He could save the world, but maybe not his family.
Chloe is naked, wildly moving her body in ways that are calculated to remind me that I exist in one.
"What do you want from cyberland?" she keeps asking me.
"At first I wasn't sure. At first, I think I wanted both some sort of escape and some sort of excitement."
"Ooooh, those are usually the same thing."
"Yes, maybe. I think I just want something that ... makes sense to me."
Chloe laughs that wicked laugh that mostly I find attractive, and equally wickedly slams her naked body madly into mine.
"But sweet boy, the whole point of cyberspace is that it has no senses and therefore no sense! That's why you can't make sense in cyberland."
For a moment what she says sounds true, but then I catch myself and come to ... my senses?
"Sure you can," I protest. "Sure you can."
Cambridge, on Porter Avenue. "Integral Center" was the name of the building. "Ken, you've got to try this," Chloe had said, as she, Scott, Carolyn, and Jonathan shuffled through the doors. I listened half-heartedly, or maybe full-heartedly but absent-mindedly; not much of it made sense. "They might really change the world," Chloe had said, with Jonathan nodding knowingly.
"So which transformation are they pushing?" I asked. "These integral folks? Because I know they're pushing something." But I could sense it, even then; he was there.
"No, really, it's great. It's like these totally ancient Boomers are having this huge psychoanalysis of their generation. Boomers are eating Boomers alive. You gotta see this," Carolyn percolated.
"Why do I gotta see this?" I grumbled. "I'd rather eat airline food."
"Because it's generational suicide. But it's also fascinating, really interesting."
"Like a fifty-car pileup."
"Look," Chloe offered, "I figure the reason this is interesting is that we've got a chance to get this monkey off our back. Boomers said that every generation before them sucked, and every generation after them were slackers. Don't you love it? Come on, let's watch them eat their young."
"Their young, you idiot, is us," I pointed out.
"Right!" said Chloe, and this struck me as a new twist on her suicidal inclinations.
Third year of college, Cambridge; we were all aglow with two competing breakthroughs: string theory in physicsalso called M theory, although nobody seemed to know exactly what "M" stood for (some said it was the "mother" of all theories)and recent breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence, which was rapidly closing in on what looked to be actual creative intelligenceand which had spawned Bill Joy's unjoy. But nobody was quite sure exactly how to tell if we had finally created a truly intelligent machine. I had my own test, better than Turing's: when a computer could genuinely convince me that it wanted to commit suicide. The only rational response to existence was Hamlet's dilemmato be or not to beand thus the first thing a truly intelligent machine would do is be thrown into screaming paralysis contemplating whetherand howto end it all. Now that would be a smart machine, as it sat there trembling, shaking, shuddering, seized with fear and sickness unto death, a digital Scream internally blistering silicon connections in all directions. So far they, the computers, hadn't nearly that intelligence.
What also began to dawn on me was a way to frame my own discontent. I wanted to feel that I wasn't being internally drawn and quartered. I wondered if this did have a lot to do with Mom and Dad, or simply with existence itself, or maybe just with my existence, or my lack of existence, that sounded closer. But I did not want to feel torn, drawn and quartered, as if I were a bloody tourist in my own insides.
After a class on "Postmodern Deconstruction of Gendered Asymmetries"why science majors had to take this stuff was still not clear to me, since every postmodern class I took assured us that science wasn't real and certainly did not deal with the "truth," because "objective truth" was just a social construction meant to oppress peopleI am walking down Porter Ave. Since I am alone, I decide to slip inside, just to get a short listen. The series at Integral Center is called "Boomeritis," and I think, this has got to be a kick. Boomers eat their young, said Chloe. I had begged off returning to IC earlier; now, furtively glancing around, I slip in.
A gray-haired gentleman, soft and smiling, is introducing the series He looks a little like my father, but he talks a lot like Mom.
"It seems almost unimaginable to us that, for humanity's entire stay on this planetfor some million years up to the presenta person was born into a culture that knew virtually nothing about any other. You were, for example, born a Chinese, raised a Chinese; you married a Chinese, followed a Chinese religionoften living in the same hut for your entire life, on a spot of land that your ancestors settled for centuries. Every now and then this cultural isolation was interrupted by a strange and grotesque form of Eros known as war, where cultures were thrown together violently, through brutally ravishing means, yet the secret outcome was always a type of erotic cultural intercourse. The cultures got to know each other, even in a biblical sensea hiddenly blissful sadomasochism that drove history to its present global village. From isolated tribes and bands, to small farming villages, to early city-states, to conquering feudal empires, to sprawling international states, to today's global village: many eggs were broken to make this extraordinary world omelet. What a rancorous growth toward an integral world that nonetheless seems humanity's fate."
Yes, and what's the point? Besides, I've heard this all before from Mom. The great, grand, glorious, coming worldwide social transformation.... As if the world of carbon had anything left to offer.
"The Boomers were the first generation to be raised in this global village. That, more than anything else, is the background etching of our soul, upon which so much else rests. And whether you are a Boomer or not, this global consciousness is something we all increasingly share; none of us today escapes it. This is truly an extraordinary time, unprecedented in many ways: all of the world's cultures are available to each other. In the history of the planet earth, this has never happened before. For better or worse, this is a richly multicultural world, as hundreds of world cultures increasingly get to know each other, rubbing up against each other, jostling each other, crawling all over each other, agitating here and there, trying to figure it out. This tiny global village is becoming tinier by the minute. And in this global villageit is the only one we havewe shall hang together, or we shall hang separately."
Excerpted from BOOMERITIS by Ken Wilber. Copyright © 2002 by Ken Wilber. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.