Driving down the freeway in the rain, my iPhone was playing a discussion about Clarence Thomas and the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas has been notable for being the dog who didn't bark in the night. During his tenure on the court he has never asked a question or made a comment during oral arguments. Recently his silence has become so deafening that a few pundits have been compelled to speak out about it. Thomas's position is that when lawyers appearing before the Supreme Court are laying out their arguments, one ought to listen.
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life. To some it seems odd that Thomas might serve for the rest of his life without saying a word. To be clear, he writes opinions and speaks publicly quite a bit outside the court. I'm not bothered by his selective silence, but this focus on the court did cause me to think about the ideological bent of the current court. The purer the ideology of a Supreme Court Justice the easier it would be to replace the judge with an algorithm that takes decisions based on an ideological formula. And if the appointed Justice was truly dedicated to an ideology, wouldn't it make sense for use a computational algorithm in place of his or her own judgement. If the law is simply a matter of “calling balls and strikes” as Chief Justice Roberts has said, then by employing slow-motion replay and a rulebook one ought to be able to make perfect rulings each time.
And to extend a little more, let's say that we achieve some subset of the goals of the singularity movement and Justice Clarence Thomas decides to upload his consciousness into a cloud computing environment. We expect our Justices to take care of their health, and many serve well into their 80s. In this thought experiment, Justice Thomas has just extended his life by many years–possibly infinitely. As he has been appointed for life, he will have established a permanent ideological position on the Supreme Court for as long as the court exists.
If presented with the option to serve forever, what would it mean to decline to be uploaded? What would it mean to decline to use a computer algorithm to make sure you correctly expressed the tenets of your ideology?
The annihilation of distance is one of the hallmarks of modernity. To contradict Kipling, the twain of East and West have not only met, they Skype regularly. When distance was filled with far-ness and strangeness, we feared and shunned it when it came too close. The river, the port and the railroad moved both the rare and the strange from beyond the horizon into our locality.
Radio and television brought sound and pictures of the strangeness of distance into our living room. The Network first brought distance to our desktop and then to the devices in our pockets. Distance stripped of its far-ness. The upside is that strange seems less strange; our horizons are expanded. The downside is that nothing surprises. We've seen it all, or it's only a screen and a click away.
Joseph Banks's voyage on the Endeavor lasted three years. Charles Darwin spent five years on the Beagle traversing the oceans. From their perspective, all kinds of strangeness was discovered. Those kinds of time scales aren't in play in exploring the earth any more. It's only space exploration where we accept big time scales and the far-ness of distance.
But it isn't the clicks on the map or the tick-tock of the clock that make up distance. Time and space emanate from objects, they are part of what happens when things interact. We tend to measure time and space as some calculable number of units from where we are. We are, after all, the ones who measure. But it's the things themselves that tell us about their timing and spacing. As an aside, they tell each other too.
We take for granted that distance has been annihilated. But it's there, in the things whether they're near or far. Somehow we need to re-learn to see what we believe has been destroyed.
Suddenly the world was filled with zombies and apocalypse was the theme du jour. The movies are one of the ways we tell ourselves the story of our dreams and nightmares. Our anxiety about the future viability of the biosphere spills out on to the silver screen. All this could be coming to an end.
As philosopher Tim Morton likes to say, the film we're both watching and creating is a noir. We're the detectives searching for the villain threatening our planet. Of course, it turns out we are the ones we're looking for. Those super villains and monstrous aliens on the big screen are disguised aspects of ourselves. We're Dr. Jekyll looking for Mr. Hyde.
Recently there's been a small change in the dream narrative. The story has always been about the hero who prevented the end of the world by defeating the villain. A new film by Darren Aronofsky starring Russell Crowe makes the story of Noah into an action adventure movie filled with big special effects. The change is that Noah doesn't save the world; he builds an ark. The world is destroyed, but Noah preserves the seed of a new world.
Hidden within the apocalypse of the flood is the idea that once the waters recede, the earth will be cleansed and the biosphere will be able to provide a new home to the virtuous ones who survived the end. It's the kind of ending that's a new beginning. We think of it as the kind of change that only happens after hitting rock bottom.
Uncontemplated is the ending in which the biosphere is no longer able to support a majority of current life forms. It's not so much a matter of poisoning the biosphere as causing it to change at a rate that exceeds a majority of species ability to adapt. In the end it will be the unpredictable strangeness that leaves so many species out in the cold.
It took listening to Jesse Thorn's Bullseye to remind me of the greatness of The Pointer Sisters. The song “Yes We Can Can,” written by Allen Toussaint, was the hit single from their first self-titled album in 1973. When I listen to it today I can hear echoes of the time, the song coming out of transistor radios, car radios and television sets. Richard Nixon had been re-elected, the Viet Nam War continued on, Pink Floyd released “Dark Side of the Moon,” E.F. Schumacher published “Small is Beautiful,” Watergate began to heat up, the Skylab space station was launched, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its DSM-II and the Endangered Species Act was enacted. Even in the face of the rising backlash against the counter-culture 60s, that song captured something of the strong optimistic spirit of those times.
The “Yes We Can” theme was famously used in Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Given the political battles that have unfolded in the interim, we look back on that sentiment as naive. From this vantage point we're singing more about going it alone than moving forward together.
Faced with global warming and the sixth mass extinction event, it's difficult to see how we can alter the course of the biosphere through uncoordinated individual action. Actually, that's how we got ourselves into this mess. We act at the level of species whether we intend to or not.
Beyond “Yes We Can” might be “Yes We Can Can.” Beyond the scientific observations and the rhetorical hammers is a groove that shows us something about the kindness that we can give.