Cosmic Trigger Volume II:
Down to Earth
By 1900, when my father was 8 years old, information had doubled again. The process had only taken 150 years this time.
That year Max Planck published his first paper on quantum mechanics, beginning the process by which science in this century would gradually abandon Aristotelian logic and evolve in a non-Aristotelian, almost Buddhist direction. We were learning that the “one” “objective” Aristotelian “real world” previously posited by all Western thought existed only as a concept in our linguistic structures: that the only worlds we knew were plural and created by our senses and scientific instruments, all of them uncertain to some degree and all of them given structure by the inbuilt hardware and software of our senses and instruments.
The Boer war was raging in South Africa, as the English and Dutch fought over which of them should govern and exploit the native Black population. In China, the Boxer Rebellion represented another of the countless efforts by Third World peoples to throw off dominations of any and all white conquerors, British, Dutch, whoever.
In 1900 also the king of Italy was assassinated by idealists who thought the liberation of the workers could be achieved by murdering the Masters one by one. In Russia, Lenin returned from 3 years exile in Siberia, and went on plotting to liberate the workers by organized world revolution. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was formed in New York by those who thought the workers could be liberated by forming coalitions and bargaining collectively with the Masters.
All of this followed, inevitably, from the general increase in living standards throughout the Industrial world. In the new Second Wave civilizations, the ruling class was living maybe 100 times better than the ruling class of ancient Rome; the middle classes were living better than ever before; and the idea that even the lower order had the right to a decent life, formulated by the most radical thinkers of the 18th century, continued to reassert itself, in dozens of forms now forgotten in addition to the two forms we all know.
1. the Democratic Socialism which by learning to co-exist with free enterprise, has permanently improved life in Europe, Canada and most of the industrial world, outside the U.S.; and
2. the Totalitarian Socialism of Marx, which has recently collapsed after making a mess of all its Utopian dreams.
Also in 1900… Major Walter Reed discovered that yellow fever was not contagious by persuading volunteers to sleep with blankets taken from fever victims who had died, and then he correctly deduced and later proved that the fever was spread by a mosquito. Mendel’s great essay on genetics, ignored for 35 years, was suddenly rediscovered by the scientific community. Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams.
Human life span in the U.S. had quantum-jumped to 47 years. For the first time in history, a newborn human had a good chance of living longer than 30 years.
Also in 1900…. the U.S. Navy bought its first submarine, and the Kodak company sold its first camera.
Only one U.S. home in seven had a bathtub. As Sinclair Lewis records, the Reagan-Bush mentalities of the period often said, “Why give bathtubs to the poor? They’ll only put coal in them.”
Brooks Adams had already published The Law of Civilization and Decay, in which the Westward movement of Capital throughout history was documented for the first time. Adams did not realize that this trajectory was, more fundamentally, a movement of information — capital being the fruit of technology, i.e., of information that is totally accurate — but he did see that, if the trend continued, the English Empire would collapse by about 1950 and be replaced by an American Empire.
THE MANDELBROT SET?
War is a crime. Ask the infantry. Ask the dead.
– Ernest Hemingway
According to computer scientist Dr. Jacques Vallee, information is now doubling every 18 months.
Nearly four billion years of evolution to get to the first tool. Almost four million years to arrive at the information density of Rome in 1 A.D. Only one-and-a-half thousand years for information to double and for the West to arrive at Leonardo, the high point of Renaissance and the dawning of Protestantism. Two-and-a-half centuries for the next doubling, the rise of Industrialism, the birth of Democracy — and the radical supra-democratic heresies of socialism, anarchism, feminism…
Only six years for the doubling of information between 1967 and 1973.
Even then, nobody I knew personally had a home computer. Today everybody I know has a home computer.
We are in what Alvin Toffler calls the Third Wave — Information Civilization. If Vallee is right about information doubling every 18 months, and Gordon is right about fractals increasing where information flow increases, then everything must become steadily more unpredictable from here on — more “chaotic” in the mathematical sense.
That “chaos” may be expressed as breakdown and violence, such as we are seeing in the current rumble [Persian Gulf War, 1991] between Goddam Insane and Huge Berserk Rebel Warthog. In the doubling of information between 1900 and 1950, we went through a World Depression and two World Wars.
The “chaos” may, however, be expressed instead as a rapid acceleration toward a more stable and coherent world. After the democratic Revolutions of the late 18th Century, Europe settled into peace and steady progress for nearly a hundred years.
The “chaos” is most likely leading us to social transformations that none of us can foresee with more than foggy approximation. I think it will include economic collapse and economic recovery, space colonization, longevity, Bucky’s World Energy Grid, and breakthroughs in nanotechnology that will literally make the most advanced scientific gadgets “as cheap as dirt.”
Is this information-acceleration a Mandelbrot fractal, as Terrence McKenna claims? Will we reach a point in 2012 where information doubles a million times a second?
I don’t know. But, just as the Persian Gulf War was an awful shock for those of us who dare to dream of a better world, I think there are other shocks ahead that will be even more disconcerting — to those who think they can still “govern” the world by violence. In the first month of this war there has been more anti-war protest, world-wide, than any year of the Vietnam war… I don’t know. I have no infallible crystal ball — but the day I decided not to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1955, I committed myself to going along for the ride, however rough it gets. I also try, within my limits, to make a contribution that will add to the probability of Utopia and decrease the probability of Oblivion, for us all.