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The Exponential Development of Process

It has often been observed over the last few centuries that time appears to be accelerating as trains, automobiles, and airplanes have radically increased the speed of travel and concomitantly shrunk subjective distances in space. For the pioneers who crossed North America in covered wagons, this trip was a long and perilous journey, but for us it is a several-hour flight accompanied by relatively mild discomfort. Similarly, the inventions of the telegraph, the telephone, and the internet have facilitated the acceleration of communication, so that in the mid-nineteenth century, the Pony Express, combined with the limited extent of the telegraph which only went as far as St. Joseph, Missouri, was the fastest way to send a written document from the East Coast to the West, a trip that took about ten days, whereas now one can communicate almost instantaneously through satellite video conferencing with someone in Shanghai or Mozambique. However, despite the common recognition of this acceleration, the idea that this increasing speed of experience is exponential in nature does not appear to be intuitive for most people, as our brains and our conceptual tools have evolved primarily in the context of linear phenomena.

Exponential Growth

Plotted on a linear graph, this exponential progression starting with one and doubling at each integer along the horizontal axis reaches one billion in about thirty doublings.

It is unclear precisely when the quality of exponentiality was discovered, and by whom, but several persistent stories place this discovery during the first millennium C.E. in India or Persia in coincidence with the invention of Chess. A classic narrative, related by the Persian poet Ferdowsi in his epic poem “Shahnameh” sometime around 1000 C.E., tells of a mathematician named Sessa, described as the inventor of the “Game of Kings,” who pleased his king so greatly by his invention that the monarch told Sessa to name his reward. The mathematician’s request seemed simple and reasonable: place one grain of rice on the first square of a chess board, and double the number for each of the sixty-four squares, so that the second square would contain two grains, the third four grains, the fourth eight grains, and so on. The king, thinking this a rather modest request, quickly assented. However, when the king’s treasurer calculated the total after some difficulty and delay, it turned out that the king had agreed to give Sessa more than eighteen quintillion grains of rice, which amounts to about four hundred billion tons, far more than was contained in the entire kingdom, far more even than the world currently produces in a year. In some versions of the story, Sessa is put to death for his impertinence, while in others he is made the new king. However, the key point is that this exponential growth starts out seeming fairly linear, though clearly accelerating, but by the time the doublings are well into the double digits, the growth becomes startlingly explosive.

Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of such profoundly transformative and pervasive technologies as the first omni-font optical character recognition system, the first flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first keyboard synthesizer capable of reproducing realistic instrumental sounds, and since 2012 Director of Engineering at Google, has been one of the primary figures in applying exponentiality to the growth of technology. In his Law of Accelerating Returns, Kurzweil demonstrates that not only technology, but the evolution of life and mind for which technology appears to be an extension, has progressed exponentially, though this acceleration is only now becoming rapid enough that individuals are beginning to have an intuitive sense of it in their lifetimes. The capacity very quickly to adapt to extreme novelty is one of the most marked qualities of the human organism, so that about three decades ago as of this writing, the internet did not exist, and a few decades before that, computers were essentially glorified calculators, but we can hardly imagine living without these inventions.

Now, as Kurzweil has often pointed out, our “phones” actually contain computers that are at least a thousand times more powerful and a million times less expensive than the building-sized supercomputers of the mid-nineteen sixties, which means that our pocket devices are a billion times more capable per dollar of computation, adjusted for inflation, than the most advanced computers were fifty years ago.[i] Kurzweil places the many innovations that have led to this situation, cross-referenced to a slew of authoritative encyclopedic sources, on a graph that traces a strikingly smooth exponential curve through periods of inflation and rapid economic growth, as well as through depressions and wars. And similarly, he places on a graph the emergence of biology through the information-conserving novelty of DNA, the emergence of mind through the information conservation of neural patterns, the emergence of computational technology through the information conservation of hardware and software, and the incipient merging of biology and technology through the embeddedness of humanity in global networks and the embedding of increasingly tiny and powerful information processors in the human brain and body. Without reproducing Kurzweil’s research in detail, it must suffice to say that it is difficult to imagine a credible argument against the ineluctable mountain of data he has amassed to support his primary hypothesis. Any lingering skepticism about this phenomenon appears to be driven primarily by the hegemony of linear common sense that has been dominant in modernity. As is true of most of the concepts discussed in these pages, exponential acceleration seems to be a higher-order common-sense characteristic of the emerging mode of thought.[ii]

Exponential Development of Process

Exponential development through emergent stages plotted on a logarithmic graph. The figures given are approximate, representing orders of magnitude rather than precise dates, which continue to be the subject of debate.

[This post is an excerpt from The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View.]

[i] This figure will almost certainly be outdated by the time the present book is published.

[ii] The majority of arguments leveled against Kurzweil generally seem to take two forms. First, his critics often mention Kurzweil’s intention to resurrect his deceased father once technology becomes sufficiently advanced. While certainly a quirky ambition, this critique is the clearest kind of argumentum ad hominem, and thus fallacious. Just because Kurzweil holds some unconventional ambitions does not invalidate his discoveries. If we judged new theories based on the theorist’s personal eccentricities, many transformative revolutions would not have occurred, including Newtonian physics, as Isaac Newton was a truly bizarre and pugnacious individual. Second, and perhaps more plausibly, some critics have claimed that Kurzweil’s predictions are overly optimistic, that such an exponential trajectory cannot possibly continue. And it is definitely possible that some unknown factor, whether ecological catastrophe or collective human choice, will inhibit the current trajectory. However, it seems to me that such critics must bear the burden of proof, as it appears more likely that processing power will continue to follow the smooth exponential curve that it has traced for billions of years than that it will deviate from this trend, if such an exceptionally consistent movement on such a vast scale can be described as such.

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The Emergence of a New World View

The suggestion that our culture is undergoing the collective transition to a fundamentally new mode of thought is one that has been unpalatable to the principal modern sensibility, but which irrepressibly continues to crop up, eliciting from those with minds sufficiently unencumbered by conventional assumptions the suspicion that such an emergence is possible, and perhaps even inevitable. Since at least Hegel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and in the work of some of the most revered thinkers since then, the presentiment that a large segment of human culture is on the cusp of a transformation as fundamental as the revolution that birthed modernity has proven to be extremely persistent. The “new age” movement that began in the nineteen sixties, achieved widespread attention in the seventies, and has since undergone a trivializing reaction, in many cases for good reason, is perhaps the most prominent expression of some of the kinds of insights presented here, particularly the idea that culture is currently experiencing the emergence of a new world view. 

However, the new age movement was ultimately a failure in its implied goal—to bring about a new era of human history—though I would argue that it was a necessary step for the widespread publication of the kinds of ideas that had, until then, been the province of deeply rigorous and careful theorists like Hegel and James, Bergson and Gebser, Jung and Whitehead. The great commercial success of the new age movement was also its downfall as a philosophy to be taken seriously, as complex and profound ideas were often appropriated by the lowest common denominator and flattened to fit into a modern mentality, neutered by poor aesthetic taste, simplistic, self-centered spirituality, and overly credulous commerce in tacky paraphernalia. All of these elements that many of us find so worthy of ridicule have served to diminish some of the most significant ideas of the last few centuries to caricatures in collective understanding, often buried behind atrocious pastel book covers, embedded in absurdly grandiose and imprecise language, and inextricably mixed with preposterous and unprovable assertions.

While the present book is most emphatically not party to the new age movement as it is generally conceived, as Whitehead so presciently declared in 1925’s Science and the Modern World: “Almost all really new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when they are first produced.” There are numerous thinkers and writers who may have been sympathetic to the initial impulse to birth a “new age” during that movement’s earliest and most hopeful days, but who never acquiesced to that overly compromised designation. These thinkers have been quietly and consistently working to find some middle ground, to build a bridge between modernity and the emerging mode that many have intuited, and of which the new age movement is merely the most facile and publicly digestible approximation. 

In particular, scholars such as David Bohm, James Hillman, Charles Taylor, Stanislav Grof, Rupert Sheldrake, Terence McKenna, and Richard Tarnas, among many others, who have all done their work primarily in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, have taken up the task of carrying forward the epochal philosophical endeavor initiated by Hegel, James, Jung, Bergson, Whitehead, Gebser, and all the rest. They have endeavored to produce novel concepts, forms of language, and institutions through which the emerging mode of thought can be viably articulated and propagated into collective awareness. Therefore, despite the apparently radical nature of some of the ideas expressed in the present work in relation to the main streams of academia, the project of this book is actually a rather conservative one: to synthesize and consolidate the concepts and rhetorical strategies developed by these numerous precursors, and hopefully in the process to assist in differentiating these ideas from the problematic subcultures with which they have sometimes been associated. In short, the kind of thought expressed here seems ripe for an entrance from the liminal margins into the central spheres of cultural discourse, which it has, in fact, already begun to enjoy in the work of those thinkers mentioned above, and that of many others.

[This post is an excerpt from The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View.]

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