The Walls Came Tumbling Down
The first time I saw a “flying saucer” happened in Brooklyn during the first wave of “saucer” excitement during the summer of 1947. My parents and I, sitting on our verandah, saw the “saucer” cross the sky, rather slowly, and watched for about three minutes before the taller buildings downtown blocked it from our view. At the age of 15 I found this tremendously thrilling and wanted to make it even more thrilling by reporting it to the police or the Brooklyn Eagle. My parents absolute refused to allow this, and said I should never even talk about it to my friends. I think I can best summarize their attitude as “People who see such things get laughed at, we don’t want to get laughed at, so we will pretend we didn’t see it.” Since we didn’t report this, no investigation followed and I have no idea what the hell we saw that evening. A weather balloon? An airplane given a strange oval-like glint by the twilight? A real honest-to-gosh Space Ship? Swamp gas? A “heat inversion”? None of those labels seems absolutely convincing to me, at this stage, because I just don’t have any data to judge by. All I know about the damned thing consists in the observations that it looked oval and it seemed to glint like a metal craft of some sort. Note that I do not say it “was” oval or “was” a metal craft; I report what I saw in a purely phenomenological manner. (Frankly, the weather balloon theory seems most probable to me right now…. but I don’t claim to know….)
I recall this story here only because it illustrates the mental habits of most of humanity throughout most of our history. When confronted with the mysterious, the inexplicable or the unsettling, popular wisdom tells us we should ignore it and hope it will go away. (An Irish proverb says, “If you see a two-headed pig, keep your mouth shut.”) Just about the only humans not governed by this infophobic reflex have dwelt in the bohemian artistic and “deviant” sub-cultures, where the dominant attitude partakes more of infophilia. (As one of Shakespeare’s characters says, “If it be new, it matters not how vile.”) Modern experience, as it graduates into the postmodern, seems to have overwhelming tendencies to move more and more people from infophobia to infophilia, sometimes with shocking and traumatic abruptness.. Let me define the two key terms I have just used. As readers of Prometheus Rising will remember, the Leary model of “first circuit” (infantile, oral) consciousness has a forward-back polarity: we tend to go forward to Mother/safe-space or anything motherly (associated with mother/safety by genetic programs, imprints or conditioning) and we tend to retreat backward away from the unmotherly, the unsafe, the predatory. This level of consciousness exists throughout faunal evolution, and in humans it forms the bedrock of either a innovative/creative or a conservative/conformist lifestyle.
In my first attempts to popularize Dr. Leary’s work, I called these tendencies “neophilia” (creative) and “neophobia.”(conformist) I have more recently decided that infophilia and infophobia have more generality and describe the associated habits more broadly. The pure infophobe (represented not too badly by most “respectable” law-abiding citizens anywhere) obsessively avoids exotic foods, exotic ideas, exotic clothing, exotic people, “dern foreigners,” new technology, innovative art or music, tabu subjects, originality, creativity etc. Sen. Exon, Sen. Gramm, most of Congress, Theodore Roszack and Unibomber represent various styles of compulsive infophobic imprints. The pure infophile remains a relatively rare person at this primitive stage of evolution. The infophile seeks out the new and exotic in food, ideas, clothing, technology, art — everywhere. Picasso, Joyce, Niels Bohr, Bucky Fuller and all the murdered heretics and innovators of history represent extreme infophiliac imprints.
In Cosmic Trigger III, I represented these extremes by CSICOP (Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), representing infophobia, and CSICON (Committee for Surrealist Investigation of Claims of the Normal) representing infophilia. Amusingly, many readers assumed I invented one of these organizations as a hoax or Swiftian satire, but they disagreed about which one…. Most of us, of course, exist somewhere on the continuum between pure infophobia and pure infophilia. (Personally, I lean toward infophilia about almost everything except eating octopus, in which case I remain nervously infophobic. I tried it once, and only once. I’d rather try digesting the back left tire of my car.)
Unfortunately for the infophobic majority, civilization derives from increasingly rapid information processing, which means that those “open societies” which accumulate information fastest provide a higher quality of life in all respects than the “closed societies” where infophobia dominates. Tribal societies where tabu imprisons the minds of its members in strict infophobia never advance beyond Stone Age conditions until or unless incorporated into more “open” societies.
After the coming of the Holy Inquisition, nobody discovered any new chemical elements in the Catholic nations of Europe; all the new chemical discoveries, i.e., the majority of the elements now known, came from Protestant nations. (See my Reality Is What You Can Get Away With for more data on this.) Even today, the effects of the Inquisition linger on, visibly, in the quality of life in most of northern Europe as compared to southern (Catholic) Europe. Similarly, seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the effects of the Stalinist closed society still hang on as a dead weight against the efforts of the reformers.
Moslem nations, although suddenly rich due to Oil, still show general backwardness compared to the more open European nations. As Norbert Weiner, one of the first two mathematicians to define information and show its importance, wrote once, “To live effectively is to live with adequate information.” Infophobic societies do not live very well compared to more open societies where infophilia remains permissible even if not yet widespread. For instance, a United Nations study of “quality of life,” including education, life expectancy, civil liberties, medical care and economic wellbeing ranked the five top nations as:
None of these nations have one dominant religion or one dominant dogmatic ideology; all rank as “open” in Sir Karl Popper’s sense, and all either encourage or allow infophilia. No Catholic or Islamic nation made it into the top five. Infophobia means stagnation and, usually, filth, poverty, plague and general misery. (And don’t forget that what I here call infophobia means exactly what the Right Wing in this country calls “traditional family values,” including the right to hate the same people that Grandpa hated.) But an infophiliac age, such as we now willy-nilly live in, has its own risks, and the chief of these lies in the growing uncertainty that comes over all those who try to “keep up” with the latest discoveries. The most telling example of this social Uncertainty Principle: the dizzying attempt to find out what foods really nourish you and what foods might shorten your life. I sometimes think this adds a bit of stress to every mouthful of food we eat these days.
Every time a major new scientific study of nutrition and health appears, millions learn that some of what they have believed safe actually may contain hidden dangers — or, even weirder, foods considered dangerous by the known data of 1986 may look much safer according to the data of 1996. I use this example because more average persons try to keep up with this field than with any other; but the same general indefinite wobble infests all science lately. If you have miraculously read enough to have the latest knowledge in all fields as of December 1996, a large part of what you know, or think you know, has already fallen under the axe of more recent research. But even more unsettlingly, you simply could not have read that much, even if you found a way to live without eating or sleeping. Dr. Stanley Ullam estimated, nearly 30 years ago, that the best-read full-time mathematicians knew about 5% of the theorems published since 1900; nobody in any other science knows much more than that about their own field. I once met a very knowledgeable physicist, who had specialized in rocketry and astronautics, and he not only knew less about Bell’s Theorem than I, a layperson, did: he had actually never even heard of Bell’s Theorem. (I feel quite sure that among the 99% of biochemistry I know nothing about, there exist several discoveries as important as John Bell’s nonlocality.) According to a legend I have always doubted, the Chinese have a curse which says, “May you live in interesting times.” I doubt this because you can’t say that to anybody unless you live in the same times as they do; but nonetheless I find wisdom in the subtle Oriental irony here. Nobody any longer doubts that we live in interesting times, or that they get more interesting every year.
If the I.R.A. has given up negotiations and returned to bombs today, they may give up bombs and return to negotiations next Tuesday after lunch. Maybe. Reports of UFOs, lake monsters, Bigfoot etc. continue despite all Establishment denials. The Palestinians now have their own state, and Arafat and the Israelis negotiate with each other instead of bombing each other. The biggest event of the last decade — the collapse of the Soviet Union — occurred entirely without violence: the first nonviolent revolution of that size in all human history, extending from Berlin to Siberia. Citizens of the U.S. now suffer the surrealist humiliation of urine testing on the job by our new Piss Police, a kind of totalitarian lunacy never dreamed of in the wildest satires of Kafka or Orwell. Several universities now fund research on “near death” and “out of body” experiences.
The Internet more and more evolves toward the “planetary brain” once only imagined by visionary scientists like Tielhard de Chardin and Arthur Clarke; and the U.S. Congress has panic attacks over the fact that some of this brain contains “pornographic” fantasy. (Do you know any brain that doesn’t?) A Japanese consortium plans to build a luxury hotel in outer space. The most popular show on U.S. television, and now a big hit in England also, The X Files, deals with governmental conspiracies that only the “kooks” took seriously a decade ago. You’ve heard this already but think about it: Nelson Mandela has gone from a prison cell to the President’s office in a country that has evolved from White Supremacy to power-sharing in only a seven years. We recently heard a concert in which a dead man sang with three friends on worldwide TV. Ireland, to return to that most distressful country, has gone from a place “more Catholic than the pope” to legalized contraception in 1988 and now legalized divorce in 1995.
Fewer and fewer American families can survive with one breadwinner. The marriage in which both partners work has become more and more common. As the War Against Some Drugs escalates, usage of those drugs also increases. Somebody, somewhere, seriously misunderstands the situation. Most of the gains achieved by labor unions in the last century have gotten lost in only 8 years, during the Reagan Era, and nobody seems very confident that the unions can stage a comeback.
Internet World for March 1996 says bluntly that “….regulatory and legislative policy cannot hope to keep pace with technological innovation. This legislative time-lag between what politicians understand and what is technologically operative today is an abyss….The union of computers and telecommunications is primed to cause economic and political earthquakes.” In other words, we more and more live with a technology that our alleged rulers do not understand well enough to regulate in any way.
Black helicopters hover above and some think they “only” mean to discover our forbidden farm-crops while others think they represent the first wave of UN or extraterrestrial conquest.
As I have tried to prove in my nonfiction and dramatize in my fiction, what we perceive depends on what we believe possible, and as the latter changes, the former will change. Some new perceptions, like most new lifeforms will not survive evolutionary testing; others will come to dominate the human world of the next century. What some have called my “blasphemous cheerfulness” (or my “cockeyed optimism”) just depends on my basic agnosticism. We don’t know the outcome of this worldwide transformation, so it seems sick and decadent (in the Nietzschean sense) when fashionable opinion harps on all the gloomy alternatives and resolutely ignores the utopian possibilities that seem, today, equally likely (and, on the basis of past evolution, perhaps a little more likely.)
I regard it as late in the day to still cling to Christian and/or post-Christian masochism. Let us have the courage to think in less neurotic categories. The stars, now, look like they await us.