No Singularity but Technological Terminus?

Because the UFO phenomenon is anomalous, it is a site of mere speculation until it is definitively identified. Speculation is a curious activity, melding conjecture, contemplation, and mirroring (‘speculum‘ being Latin for ‘mirror’). Thus, our more or less informed guesses about the nature of the UFO reflect our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

As I’ve often held forth at length here, thoughts about the UFO reveal how we think about ourselves. Talk about the UFO as being an artifact produced by the advanced technology of an extraterrestrial intelligence gives away how we conceive of technology and intelligence in general.

In the first instance, intelligence is reduced to instrumental reason, solving problems to achieve certain ends; technology is understood to progress, to develop along a linear vector toward ever greater efficiency and power. In thinking as close or disparate as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or variations on the ufological Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH), this restricted sense of intelligence is assumed to be a universal product (if not goal) of evolution, technology, in turn, the inevitable fruit of this intelligence, invariably progressing along the same trajectory.

More gravely however is the (ironic) theological underpinning of these notions of science and technology. The ultimate end of science is the philosopher’s God, an omniscient, omnipotent being. The omnipotence of technology’s god is underwritten by its omniscience (how fateful that knowledge is here expressed by the Latinate ‘science’!). Philosophy might begin in wonder (as Aristotle had it), but science does not spring from the desire to understand nature but to dominate it (as Francis Bacon proposed).

The head-spinning progress made in this project has inspired as much techno-pessimism as -optimism. The figure of Elon Musk combines these tendencies:  on the one hand, he seems persuaded that technological ingenuity might extricate humanity from the dire problems development has engendered, as indicated by his investments in batteries and electric cars; on the other hand, he has equally pushed space exploration and colonization and expressed grave concerns about the potential threats posed by Artificial Intelligence. But in either case, Musk et al. are technofetishists:  like those who cast the Golden Calf then prostrate themselves before what they themselves have made, the technofetishist places human technological activity and achievement on a pedestal, as if it were a self-causing, self-sustaining phenomenon, independent of society, its actors and their interests, i.e., as if it were natural. Masking contingent human activity as if it were necessary and natural is the very definition of reification. Such reification is all-too-evident in ufological discourse that orbits ideas of advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations.

At this point I want to introduce a no less bold, complementary speculation: what if technology, despite its historically very recent acceleration, is already nearing its terminus?

This thought is inspired by recent on-line backs-and-forths I’ve had with various embodiments of the technofetishist zeitgeist. Among those heavily invested, monetarily and otherwise, in information technology (I.T.) is the belief that artificial intelligence underwritten by quantum computing is a done deal, just waiting around the next historical corner. Aside from the thorny issues around just what concept of intelligence is assumed here (though I touch on that matter, above), is the status of quantum computing. There is good reason, both physical and mathematical, that quantum computing is in principle impossible. (Interested parties are urged to consult these brief articles by Moshe Y. Vardi, Mikhail Dyakonov, and on Gil Kalai).

What if, then, the I.T. revolution will soon run into the limits stated by Moore’s Law, the paradoxes of the quantum world prove ultimately unsolvable to human intelligence (instrumental reason in its speculative guise), and relativistic spacetime restrict space exploration to subluminal speeds? It hardly follows that science and technology will come to an end, but it is not outside the realm of possibility that human intelligence (instrumental reason) and ingenuity will reach ultimate limits, as some argue they have in the realm of physics.

The flabbergasted and violent reactions this suggestion might inspire among the technorati and ufophilic alike speaks not to so much to its potential truth-value as to the (unconscious) ideological and no-less theological character of technofetishism and its ufological variations, SETI and the ETH.

 

The Dialectic is a Trickster, or the Trickster is a Dialectician

If William Murphy over at The Anomalist found my post on Robbie Graham’s take on the hyperreality of the UFO “brainy”, I can only shake my head over what he or the like-minded will make of this one…

A central line of argument I’ve been developing here at Skunkworks concerns how the imagination of the Alien Other relates to society at large. The UFO as a piece of “advanced technology” is merely (“mirrorly”) a reification of the recent history of one society on earth, namely that of the so-called developed world. That is, when the science-fiction script writer, the UFO believer, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) researcher all imagine extraterrestrial, technologically advanced societies, they are only projecting the “First” world onto other worlds, as if instrumental reason were identical with human intelligence in general, as if anthropomorphic cognition were the universal goal of evolution, and as if the destiny of such intelligence was tool-use and an inevitable development of what we recognize as technology, which progresses along a linear scale, such that some is more or less advanced than others.

Such speculations about UFOs are a kind of manifest content of an unconscious dream logic, whose latent content concerns how we understand our own intelligence and that of other forms of life, whether those real ones with whom we in fact share the planet, or the Alien Other. Understood as belonging to an alien race, the humanoid or anthropomorphic Alien Other is a projection of our singular selves; understood as a member of an alien species, the Alien Other is a surreal reminder of our belonging as an equal member to the family of all living things, simultaneously raising other organisms to our pretended level.

The Abrahamic apotheosis of humankind that sets it above all other creatures (Man being made in the image of God and being granted sovereignty over creation) I among many other ecological or ecosophical thinkers take to underwrite the capitalist exploitation of the natural world, animal, vegetable, and mineral, as sheer raw material. For this reason, I have argued that the intrinsic value of animals and plants need be recognized (rather than their value as means to our ends let alone their exchange value under the commodity form), marshaling the findings of research into animal and plant intelligence to undermine the Abrahamic singling out of homo sapiens and to culture greater humility on our part and deeper empathy toward all the other children of Gaia with whom we share the planet.

The foundation of my argument—that recognizing the personhood of nonhuman nature might halt their commodification—is overturned, however, by the sharp insight of philosopher Michael Marder. Marder is most famous for thinking about plants, though his philosophical work is both more wide-ranging and radical. By chance, I was led to his Los Angeles Review of Books Channel, The Philosopher’s Plant, and thereby to his post “A Word of Caution: Against the Commodification of Vegetal Subjectivity”. There, he makes the argument that

…To count as a nonhuman subject, or a nonhuman person, is not a panacea from politico-economic exploitation; on the contrary, it is subjects and persons who are the temporary placeholders of economic value in “knowledge economies.”

The unconscious danger lurking in the shadows of granting subjectivity to plants, animals, and entire ecosystems is not just that global capitalism may cunningly coopt challenges to anthropocentrism but that the newfangled status of other-than-human lives may actually be the next logical step in the extension of immaterial, subjective, cognitively mediated commodities. The enlargement of the subjective sphere is conducive to the growth not of plants but of capital….

I still maintain that the majority of ufological discourse is ideological, unconsciously reasserting certain views of human being and society that maintain a status quo; however, the hope that unmasking this function and balancing these views (that humankind is king of creation with which it can do as it will) with their dialectical Other (human beings are one creature among others in a symbiotic, ecological system) might somehow serve at the very least to call them into question, itself gets caught up in a larger process whereby anything that can possibly come into view, e.g., animal or even plant intelligence, is immediately potentially subject to being exploited for profit.

Surely, to the ufophilic or ufomaniacal, these thoughts are farther out than speculations about how ET gets here from Zeta Reticuli or how to decode crop circles, but for those who dare read the phenomenon in the context of the real conditions of the world that form the matrix for its appearance in the first place, they reveal how much more grave and consequential the UFO mythology is in its implications and the knotted ways it is woven into and out of what we might make out of being human in the early Twenty-first century.

 

What do UFOs have to do with it?

I’ve noticed recently how those sincerely interested in the UFO mystery can at the same time dismiss the idea that the phenomenon might possess a more general import. Here and elsewhere I’ve read comments such as, “the UFO culture is now purely entertainment,” “the number of people who actively engage with the UFO topic on a frequent and regular basis (go beyond merely occasionally watching a video clip, listening to a sound bite, or scanning an article) represents a small percentage of the US population,” and that the “real UFO conspiracy [is] why the UFOs have become a joke and such an embarrassing subject in ‘serious’ conversation,” all in stark contrast to the unabashed and breathless enthusiasm of those fascinated by the idea of  Disclosure (that at least one of the world’s governments has been in contact with extraterrestrials (ETs) for decades and has been gifted or back-engineered their technology).

“The UFO topic” that that “small percentage” of the population engages with is approximated by, for example, recent stories concerning U.S. Navy encounters with apparently anomalous aeroforms and History’s latest series Project Blue Book and Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation. As has been the case since Donald Keyhoe wrote his books, in this arena the UFO is invariably imagined to be either an extraterrestrial spaceship or maybe a domestic or foreign aeronautical breakthrough, even for those not unacquainted with Jacques Vallée’s Magonians, John Keel’s ultraterrestrials, or even Mac Tonnies’ crypoterrestrials, or more recent speculations concerning other dimensions and times. The demographic represented by this “small percentage” is imaginably very slight (though one does wonder just what empirical research would in fact show).

On the other hand, since 1947, consistently roughly half the population in North America and Europe believe “flying saucers are real” (however seriously), and, over the same time, the UFO and the ufonauts have invaded and colonized popular culture, so that the UFO as a cultural phenomenon now has a higher brand recognition than, say, Odysseus and Ulysses. It is precisely this liminal ubiquity—being both everywhere but hardly at the centre of attention—that empowers the UFO and ET to express something of, and thereby illuminate, if not overtly influence, the culture at large.

The UFO-as-sign (as a vehicle of meaning) functions both factually and fictionally, regardless of whatever reality the UFO might ultimately turn out to possess. As something taken as real, it has clearly reflected the anxieties of the times. Jung, as is well-known, argued the flying saucer functioned as a compensatory mechanism for the anxieties provoked by the Cold War. On one hand, its circular, mandala shape symbolized the unity absent from a sundered world, while, on another, its seeming a spaceship from a technically-advanced society made it a deus ex machina, an otherworldy, salvific intervention into what seemed a perilous, humanly insoluble crisis. His insight was confirmed by the pacifist messages delivered by the Space Brothers of Adamski and the other Contactees of the 1950s. Decades later, with advances in reproductive technologies, such as the Human Genome Project, the potential for human cloning, and in vitro fertilization, little wonder the hypnotically-induced fantasies of women who believed they’d been abducted by aliens should express the anxieties proper to their time and gender, or that abductees in general sometimes claimed they were shown images of global, often ecological, catastrophe by their abductors just at the time ecological consciousness was dawning toward the glaring near-noon zenith it has reached today.

Given the spontaneous significance attributed to “the visionary rumour” of the UFO and ET contact, it should come as little surprise, likewise, that the creative imagination should find in it an endlessly fecund figurative resonance. Cinema (as Robbie Graham would likely agree) and to a lesser extent television perhaps more than any other media have made the most of this material, as, for example, a metaphor for race (in the films The Brother from Another Planet, Alien Nation, or District 9), global warming (The Arrival), mass extinction (The X-Files episode “Fearful Symmetry”), and the insatiable rapaciousness of capitalism (Independence Day).

For example, the remake of the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still twists together the anxious and the hopeful. On the one hand, the alien Klaatu is sent to earth to oversee the destruction of every trace of humankind and its civilization that are rendering the planet uninhabitable for complex life; however, nonhuman, animal organisms are taken up by spherical craft that serve as arks to preserve them from the cleansing process so they may be reintroduced after its completion. Fortunately, Klaatu is persuaded to avert the eradication of human life and, instead, brings to a standstill the technology whose destructive effects brought about the crisis. (The credits roll too soon, though: the results of a global cessation of mechanical technology would doubtless prove catastrophic, resulting in, among other things, mass starvation, with the paralysis of transportation, food processing, and agriculture, a far more cruel, drawn-out process of eradication than the one initially proposed by Klaatu’s civilization!).

The ecological focus and critique of “development” are clear; the imagined solutions, however, are, ironically, hopeless:  humankind itself is incapable of collective action to avert ecological destruction; it, therefore, stands in need of an external, overpowering intervention, whose only proposed solutions are the elimination of homo sapiens (in line with the biocentric ideology of EarthFirst! or the more recent philosophy of anti-natalism) or of the technologies of the so-called developed world. The film’s solutions to our very real problem are less acceptable than the premise of the film as a whole, framing the urgent crisis at its heart as insoluble, inspiring either a resigned fatalism, or, more charitably, a reflective search for alternatives to the unacceptable dilemma posed by the film itself.

The cinematic versions of 2001:  A Space Odyssey and 2010:  The Year We Make Contact develop the theme of the deus ex machina, but along a slightly different trajectory. Both are stories about the guided development (mental or spiritual if not morphological) of anthropomorphic life, from the proto-, to the human, to the meta- or hyperhuman. The genius for tool-use, from a bone-as-club to interplanetary spacecraft and AI, is sparked in the genus Homo by an extraterrestrial agent, represented by an enigmatic, black monolith. One such monolith discovered on the moon, prompts an exploratory expedition to Jupiter, where astronaut Dave Bowman is “evolved” to a superhuman being. In the sequel, a subsequent expedition to discover what happened to the first sets in motion the transformation of Jupiter and its moons into a miniature solar system, a supplementary space for human habitation and resource extraction intended to ease tensions on an overcrowded earth that narrowly escapes nuclear war.

In this fictional universe, the Promethean spirit of technological ingenuity (and power) is posited as a kind of divine spark. Striking it in the protohuman creates a being in the image of the mysterious makers of the black monolith, who guide and shape humankind to ever higher technological achievement and biological/spiritual development ultimately, one might suppose, with the goal of having us attaining their level. It is difficult not to detect a value system underwriting this narrative. Ironically, technological sophistication (e.g., the capacity to invent and build weapons of mass destruction) is not accompanied by a moral or social sense equal to governing the species-suicidal potential of our technical know-how, so, otherworldly intervention is needed. Two problems present themselves. First, if technological savvy is not accompanied by the collective intelligence necessary to control it, then how did the makers of the black monoliths survive this impasse? Secondly, the solution they provide is stop-gap: the essential problem of infinite growth in a finite environment that characterizes the economic system of capitalism, whose advent underwrote the Industrial Revolution, is only temporarily solved by adding more Lebensraum and exploitable resources. The solution to earth’s problems in 2010 seem in hindsight a metaphor for the planned exploration and resource extraction within the solar system and the asteroid belt, the setting for the television series The Expanse and an important assumption in Aaron Bastani’s manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In this case, the imagined solutions to our real problems amount to either faith (indistinguishable from the Christian’s that all works out in God’s plan for humankind) and/or more of the (doomed) same.

In both fact and fiction, then, the UFO and ET appear within the horizon of, and expressing, the existential crises of our time, solving by means of their superiour technology the dire problems the development and deployment of our own have brought to pass. The human being, moreover, plays a singular, special role:  the ufonauts spontaneously recognize homo sapiens as their earthly counterpart among all the other species of life on earth, because of a shared Promethean character, due either to their having implanted it in us or to its being natural to intelligent life:  intelligence implies tool-use, which is merely nascent technology. In the real world, even in arguments offered for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), the mere fact of an existing, vastly more advanced technological civilization is evidence that ours can navigate the impasse that threatens to destroy our own, either by following their example or, as in the cinematic examples above, through their direct intervention.

It is precisely, however, the way ET mirrors ourselves, is a projection of ourselves, that gives the game away and reveals an important, if not the primary way, the UFO mythology works in society at large. As I have argued repeatedly and at length here and elsewhere, positing anthropomorphic intelligence, tool-use and technology as natural (universal) propensities to life-as-such is to treat as universal one very geographically and historically local and contingent social formation, namely that of the so-called “First” or “developed world”. This megalomaniacal projection of the aleatoric trajectory of one portion of the population of one form of life on earth finds a mythical legitimation in, for example, the book of Genesis wherein God creates Man in His own image and a science-fictional one in the universe of 2001 and 2010 wherein an extraterrestrial agent plays both a Promethean and parental role. In either case the destiny of humankind is imagined to be fated, necessary, and, divinely or otherwise, ordained.

The solutions to humanity’s problems proposed in both The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2010 drive this point home all the harder. Either humanity and all traces of it need disappear, or its technology must cease operating, or it must stay the course. None of these are workable. This apparent impasse however results from the assumed inalterability of the status quo:  the unspoken (because unspeakable) solution is social change. As Fredric Jameson put it so well:  “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In its affirmation of existing society, in both its factual and fictive forms the UFO-as-a-sign functions ideologically, maintaining the status quo by occluding the possibility of imagining that things might be otherwise.

Ironically, cinematic pop culture performed this ideology critique already in 1988, in John Carpenter’s They Live!. In this film, the earth has already been colonized by a malevolent alien race that maintains its power by means of a technology that creates an illusory world, that of North America in the late twentieth century. The protagonist has his eyes opened to this reality when he dons a pair of sun glasses with the power to reveal the subliminal messages of advertising and entertainment, etc. that keep humanity in its virtual chains. The deliciousness of this plot is double: the capitalist ruling class is shown “in reality” to be a repulsive, cowardly alien race, thereby inverting the motif of the ET-as-benevolent-saviour in Jung, the Contactees, and 2001 and 2010.

[Interested parties are invited to hear philosopher Slavoj Žižek present his reading of They Live! as ideology critique in his own, inimitable manner!]

Because the UFO mythology is both ubiquitous and liminal, the actual percentage of the population that might admit to consuming either documentary or fictional UFO material is beside the point. The myth is “in the air”, vaguely familiar to everyone, but hardly considered by anyone, a status that enables it to function just below and at the edges of conscious thought. When it does intrude on consciousness, as either fact or fiction, the UFO-as-sign mirrors back to us after its fashion not an Otherness but an insidious Identity. It signifies in this way through no fault of its own; a mirror can only reflect what is in front of it, and, in this case, that is the world capitalism and technology, industrial or otherwise, have made. That the UFO should appear in this way, enlisted in the maintenance of an ecocidal order, is a crime against humanity in particular and life in general, that something that should be out of this world and therefore throwing that world into relief, estranging it through difference, revealing it in all its contingency and alterability, becomes something pitifully, pathetically human, all-too-human.