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Better than Drugs: Nine Spiny Ideas by Keith Hendershot February 9th, 2008 Delicious

Relevant Links:

The Technological Singularity
Terrence McKenna
Manuel de Landa's Thermodynamic View of Urban
The Internet of Things

Better than Drugs: Nine Spiny Ideas

It's a fairly common review blurb on most book jackets to say that reading a certain author is "better than sex," as a way of giving credit to both the author and the one activity generally thought to be "the ultimate experience" by everything on Earth that has ever lived.

The world of science fiction publishing distinguishes itself from this grain in that the more common honorific will proclaim a book as "better than drugs." This blurb appears on at least two books on my bookshelf: John Shirley talking about Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix says, "Sterling has expanded my mind. . . he's better than drugs--there's none of the nasty side effects." Cory Doctorow lends Charles Stross the same accolade on the cover of Stross's short story collection Toast.

This is sort of why I like science fiction--it angles toward the drug kick rather than the sex kick. After all, sex can be a lot like reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novel--essential, immediate, and a little bit too below the neck for me enjoy it as much as I should. I'm a cerebral guy by default; the purpose of reading is often to leave my head; not mull in it. Sex and American pastorals aren't escapist activities. I can only be enthralled by the antique verities of Faulkner's Yoknapatawphans or moved by the Oedipal omnipotence of Great American Literature for so long before I feel pinned like J. Alfred Prufrock to the reflection of my own inadequate life measured in coffee spoons.

Now, tell me a book is like taking drugs and you'll have an impulse buy. Years after dropping my last hit of acid, I still want something that twists my head out of it's three-dimensional box. I want eyeball kicks, cerebral fireworks, paradigm shifts wrapping around other paradigm shifts, and a galaxy of self-transforming jeweled basketballs pounding along sheets of ice.

I can only assume when people compare hard SF to taking drugs, they're talking about particular ones. If the drug experience in question was heavy depressants like booze and heroin, then the most obvious analogue would be television with its passive receptor entertainment factor. There seems, after all, to be an undeniable connection between alcohol abuse and hours of bad television.

If one compares a book to "uppers," we might be talking about the pantheon of self-help books meant to get you off your keister and "pro-activate" your life through direct and dynamic principles. The 7 Habits. The Power of Now. How to Win Friends. The Four Agreements. After all, take away his great teeth and Tony Robbins begins to seem like a meth head.

No, I think the drugs they're talking about in drawing analogies to science fiction are the big psychedelic/disassociative daddies that technicolored your parents' reality in the 1960's and made them at least somewhat interested in Eastern mysticism for the rest of their lives. These are drugs that make you taste sound, see neon hieroglyphics dance through your blue jeans, and render even the simplest bowel movement, a meaningful, and even transcendental experience. Good science fiction, like good disassociatives and psychedelics, take you out of the mundane, ego-driven complacency of the day-to-day and into a dimension of mind-bending concerns that are equal parts fascinating, disorienting, disturbing, and ultimately, more fun to think about than what the talking heads on the news are riffing about.

I personally can't handle drugs anymore. I can no longer afford the days-long depressive and sometimes psychotic comedown exchanged for 6 hours of ecstasy and thrill. In my late 20's, I've come back science fiction and the panoply of spiny, mutant ideas attached to it as a way to bend my head, quicken my pulse, and remove the the shag carpeting of thinly spread boredom that erodes reality of its beautiful coral reef strangeness.

Thinking about the spontaneous creation of civilization via metavirus in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash got me through the locker-slamming din of pubescence. The rampantly complexifying post-human crawl towards the stars in Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix ushered me through the romantic disappointments and insecurities of my college years. Most recently, the virtually-mediated reality of Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End, and the immense computational Matrioshka brain in Charles Stross's Accelerando color the quotidian drag of adult responsibilities.

In this spirit of ideas better than drugs, I've come up with a list of ideas which are so exhilarating and hairy, they somehow compensate for the dearth of LSD availability in the Continental U.S.:

1. The Technological Singularity

This is an end-of-history idea coined by science fiction author Vernor Vinge to describe the fulcrum of accelerated change and artificial intelligence growth where a greater-than-currnent human intelligence is created. The Singularity poses a problem for science fiction writers and futurists alike as the idea of super-intelligence is more incomprehensible than the even farther-flung ideas of interstellar travel and extra-terrestrial contact. The old frameworks split apart and speculation beyond this point becomes impossible. The idea of how someone or something with an I.Q. of 250 would behave is in the words of Sterling, "so profoundly divorced from contemporary human experience, that we can't comprehend it, write about it, or describe it."

That hasn't stopped several futurists from trying to talk about it. The Long Now Foundation has hosted two seminars by sci-fi authors Vinge and Sterling about this topic available here.

2. Photosynth and Strandbeests

Two recent presentations at the TED Conference jumped out at me as works of creative genius.

The first, a presentation of PhotoSynth, developed by Microsoft Live Labs reveals an unprecedented potential to create a scalable and semantic global memory bank that is navigable through image recognition. Once you get past the "Gee-Whizness" of the first few minutes in which we marvel at the endless potential to zoom in and out like the Polaroid reader in Blade Runner, Blaise Aguera y Arcas presents the pattern recognition capabilities of the software, in which a point cloud representation of the Notre Dame Cathedral is culled from the endless bans of Flickr. The most interesting moment, in my opinion, is when he enters the cathedral via a poster on someone's wall. It's hard to get one's mind around the emergent and surreal potential that gets unlocked when we can navigate the photographed world via a Cartesian tunnel of visual hyperlinks. It's like something out of a fun dream.

The other presentation to check out at TED is Theo Jansen's wind-powered mechanical “strandbeests” which display a memory and intelligence derived from kinetics--a hydraulic brain of tubes and bottles. These creatures are reminiscent of the fractalizing “bush robots” envisioned by robotic visionary, Hans Moravec

4. Parkour

If you've seen Casino Royale or the most recent Die Hard movie, you've probably noticed Gallic-looking stuntmen who displaying the ability to run around space like gravity-defying hamsters. Parkour, the l'art du' deplacement, is a sort of reductive anti-martial art; seeking always to avoid conflict instead of confront. It eschews the showboating style of acrobatics and tricking to focus on efficiency, reclaiming a sense of mastery over the built environment, and moving liquidly like a soliton from Point A to Point B with as little resistance as possible.

Whereas Eastern Martial Arts can claim sort of an intellectual kinship with Zen and Bushido, parkour draws it tangents to the Situationist practice of psychogeography and the derive as way of revolutionizing one's relationship with the city by drifting through its spaces. This is pretty cool

5. Terrence McKenna

McKenna's ideas about drugs he took are in many ways, more eye-opening than the drugs themselves. The late psychedelic bard who introduced the world to the DMT realm of "machine elves" offers a funky and ultimately darker shamanic counterpoint to Tim Leary's New Age cyberdelic yippieism.

From the "stoned ape" theory of evolution to the idea of psychic communication with extraterrestrials via intoxication, McKenna's particular brand of theosophy has a special of coloring reality with the fantastic and magical. One of the great joys of the Internet has been the uploading of hours of his talks, delivered in his signature droll meandering from sequitur to sequitur in livid detail without skipping a beat. I highly recommend the following talk delivered at Palenque Norte in 1999 as an introduction to his strange world.

6. Manuel de Landa's Thermodynamic View of Urban Development

De Landa's book A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History changed the way I look at the built environment I inhabit and the society of which I'm part. De Landa applies the basic laws of dynamic systems to the development of language, economics, cities, likening the development of civilization to the geological catalysts of mineralization and lava flows. One is blown away by the idea of hunter-gatherer tribes floating like gaseous particles, accreting to liquid with the advent of agriculture, and ultimately crystalizing into the marvelous displays of cities we see today. I really enjoyed reading this book recently from the 63rd Floor of the Empire State Building with the city swelling below me like water coursing over stone and the spires of skyscrapers rising like jeweled stalagmites.

7. The Internet of Things

You can see my most recent article for an explanation of this concept. I can only add as an addendum, Bruce Sterling's talk at the O'Reilly Emerging Media Conference and recommend Vernor Vinge's tackling of ubiquitous computation in his recent novel, Rainbow's End.

8. Moodgrapher

Do you drink more on the weekends? Do you feel energetic in the morning and relaxed in the afternoon? Has the recent scandal involving Gov. Rod Blagojevich had an impact, however slight, on your general well-being?

For those interested in the anthropological study of the collective consciousness and ways to visually map the blogosphere, some geeks at the esteemed Informatics Institute at the University of Amsterdam have created Moodgrapher--a program that plots a graph culled from the postings of over 100,000 LiveJournal bloggers.

9. The Super-Kamiokande

Somewhere, 1 kilometer deep in the subterranean bowels of the Gifu Province in Japan is a massive cylindrical superstructure of stainless steel filled halfway with purified water and lined with over 11,000 photomultiplier tubes (whatever those are). It's stated purpose is to study proton decay or neutrino's or something. However, it's true purpose is to make otaku like myself marvel at the massive rows of bionic jellyfish coalescing underneath a country that seems perfectly comfortable building things that make Blade Runner look quaint. Sugoi!