Archive for category 01. I dream of things that never were

I dream of things that never were

Robert F. Kennedy in 1964 LBJ Presidential Library/Yoichi R. Okamoto

Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were, and ask ‘why not?’

I have had something of a romantic attraction to the order of the Templar Knights. The Red Cross on a white tunic was the symbol of this noble Middle Ages’ organisation. These were the guardians of the roads from Britain to the Holy Land to ensure the safe travel of the pilgrims. Rescuing people from life threatening situations was the life calling of these knights in shining armour. But along the journey they also got the idea to extend their ‘security’ services into the financial marketplace. They developed their system whereby, to protect pilgrims from robbery, the travelers could hand over their gold and silver to a Knight in England or France in return for a Templar Note that they could redeem once they reached their Holy Land destination, less a small handling fee of course. Those Templar Notes were Europe’s first travelers’ cheques and so the noble Templar Knights became the Bank of the Red Cross, Europe’s first bank.

This was only 900 years ago, modern times in the greater history of mankind and I wonder about how someone in that organisation first came up with the idea. I have no reason to think they exploited it, but from a cynic’s viewpoint, and experience has taught me it is always prudent to look at a cynic’s viewpoint, there was an inherent conflict of interest when it became obvious that the Bank of the Red Cross could profit handsomely if they were not always quite so diligent in ensuring that the pilgrims, whose gold and silver was in their safekeeping, actually did arrive safe and sound at their destination to collect their gold. Again, I have no reason to believe they were anything less than diligent in their moral duty, still they did become a very wealthy institution and human nature is fickle thing. Could they ever have imagined the banking industry that would mushroom over the centuries following the launch of their enterprise? The gold standard has long since disappeared in the banking world to be replaced by the US dollar and it is estimated that there are about 40 trillion US dollar equivalents in ‘cash’ flowing around through the cyberspace that is the banking world of today.

So where did an idea for a sophisticated, currency-based solution to a possible robbery during a potentially dangerous journey while on a religious quest come from? We are an evolved ape, but our other ape cousins do not yearn to travel the globe by horseback, sailing ship or motor. Other apes have never developed currencies or insurance schemes; other apes do not have religions over which they are prepared to fight foreign wars. To kill and be killed over a belief in what may or may not happen after our death and about whose God of their imagination is really in charge of everything .

Seventy thousand years ago, give or take, we acquired the problem-solving gene that defines modern Homo sapiens sapiens and which pre-empted our setting off, or being sent off, from our garden of Eden in Africa to migrate into the wilderness that was the rest of the world. Now upgraded from intelligent man to really intelligent man, archeologists refer to this as the ‘Cognitive Revolution”. The Hebrew Bible poetically refers to it as eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. And, in order to achieve dominion over all the beasts of the land and birds of the air, homo sapiens sapiens required strategic planning, co-operation, idea sharing and, most importantly, imagination. We required language, very sophisticated language.

My interest in the power of language was piqued by a Ted X lecture from a Vietnamese migrant in the USA, Phuc Tran, talking about the subjunctive tense. Probably like you, I could not recall back through my youthful education when the intrigue of the subjunctive mood was explained by my English teacher. But to recap, the subjunctive mood is used in English to explore imaginary or conditional situations.

“Imagine if it had not rained then we would have gone to the beach”. “Imagine if I were emperor then I would ……..”. “Imagine if I could just make this thing do that then the outcome would be…”

Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred. And as such the subjunctive mood is critical to the fundamental point of language for homo sapiens sapiens, that is to problem-solve. For the most creative problem solving occurs in the language of imagination.

Which is why Phuc Tran’s talk was so interesting. He was raised from a child in the USA and so was very familiar with the subjunctive mood in English. Phuc Tran has taught Latin, Greek, German, and Sanskrit at independent schools in New York and Maine and was an instructor at Brooklyn College’s Summer Latin Institute. In 2010, he served on a committee to revise the National Latin Praxis exam for ETS. Phuc currently teaches at Waynflete School in Portland. But his parents were raised in Vietnam and although his father was a lawyer and politician with the expected skills in the Vietnamese language, he had no comprehension of the subjunctive mood in that language.

That came to light in a very poignant way. When they were escaping during the fall of Saigon, the Tran family was about to board a bus to the airport when young Phuc became hysterical. In calming him down they missed the first bus and caught the second. That first bus was hit by artillery and all on board were killed. The second bus made it safely. So today Phuc ponders the ‘what ifs’. His father cannot comprehend this line of thought. His father does not do “what ifs”. His father says “Why on earth do you waste time talking about what did not happen?”

His father has a point. And in that point, we can also see that the subjunctive tense has two very distinctive moods. On the positive side it is the pathway to discovery, to problem solving, to inventiveness, to progress. On the dark side it can spiral down into fear, anxiety, depression. Sometimes through history some of our greatest geniuses were also among our most troubled minds. Soaring with the positive possibilities, then spiralling down into the negative fears of failure. The subjunctive mood is a wild horse that should not be ridden bareback; it needs reins, saddle and stirrups.

The right hemisphere of the human brain allows our creativity to explore the unknown and it is the left side that exercises the controls of calculation and logic. It is notable that the new wave of human distress, widespread social anxiety, has arisen at the same time that society has become increasingly reliant on technology to replace the left-brain functions of calculation and logic, which are the reins on the subjunctive mood of the right hemisphere. Only two generations ago emphasis in classrooms was on developing ‘mental arithmetic’, the ability of students to carry out calculations using just the left hemisphere of their brain. This practice stimulated the electrical activity of that left hemisphere. When pocket calculators first came onto the market in the 1970’s it was forbidden to use them in the classroom but as their use gradually infiltrated classrooms, followed by laptop computers, the activity of the left hemisphere of young brains has weakened as the right hemisphere’s imaginations has progressively dominated reality. Anxiety is the inevitable outcome of a dominant right hemisphere of the brain when outcomes that we only imagine begin to present themselves as reality that will inevitably happen. Perhaps mental calculations should be included in our daily gym programme to compensate for the role of calculation technology in the same way that stationary bikes and treadmills compensate physically for the motorised technology.

Phuc speculates that absence of the subjunctive mood may be the reason for the stoic resilience of the Vietnamese people. The question arises whether it is the culture that creates the language or, as my daughter who is a linguistics graduate believes, the other way round. That stoic people probably have no interest in the subjunctive mood whereas excitable, ambitious people actively seek to express themselves in the language of the imagination. I tend to agree with the latter and speculate that when the balance of a group of tribes swings more towards stoicism or imaginative ambition then that swing will have a huge impact on the evolution of our species. Stoicism limits co-operation to just the immediate knowns and facts and is a very tribal mentality. Trust no one outside the tribe. The ability to mutually adopt an imagined goal has the potential to unify hundreds, thousands or even millions of people who otherwise would never dream of co-operating with each other. From such imaginative ambition the concepts of nations and religions is born along with great armies to enforce their imaginative aspirations.

But if there is any true evidence of the power of the imagination. It has occurred over the last 50 years more than the previous five thousand. I saw on some Facebook page a bit of a self-indulgent reminiscence by one of my generation recalling the good old days when we had face-to-face friends not face-book friends; when we built go carts to race downhill against our mates rather than played X Box games against avatars. When someone else took photos of us if the occasion was significant and we kept those photo prints in a private album. There is nothing new in the older generation despairing for the younger generation, that has been going on since at least the time of Socrates, but the difference today is not so much attitudinal as it is technological. Today’s technology has had an influence on the behaviour of youth that Socrates could never imagine in his wildest philosophies.

The Facebook post put the timing of this quantum shift in normality at the mid 1980’s. Those of us born before that time had real lives, but the post 80’s generation are now living a fake online life and they seem to be really struggling, emotionally, to adapt their natural human psyche to this self-created virtual world.

Computers in primitive form had been around well before the 1980’s but they were just big, cumbersome calculating machines. I tried, unsuccessfully, to learn to speak to one of these great machines when I studied (although that is probably overstating the effort I put in) accounting at university in the early 1970’s. The computer then needed its own room, actually it was the size of a small room itself. It spake strange tongues of Portran and Fortran. It told me, numerically speaking, that it was in control of me, not the other way around. If what I put in did not compute, it spat it back out. Start again human. IBM was the driving force of the computer world and seemed focused on keeping it within the corporate and political world, well above the lives of ordinary folk.

It was in the late 1970’s that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs started a business to bring these giant computing machines down to size. They wanted computers to be fun for all. They named the company Apple. In his biography Steve Jobs said that it was just a serendipitous choice; that he was on a fruitarian diet at the time and had just returned from an apple farm and thought the fresh, fun name suited his company’s vibe. If so, the coincidence is uncanny. The apple has an established historical connection with a quantum leap in mankind’s knowledge of universal law; Isaac Newton said he had his ‘eureka’ moment about gravity when he watched an apple fall from a tree.

The apple also has a prehistorical connection with man’s quest for knowledge and even immortality. In Norse mythology the goddess Idun was the keeper of the apples of the tree of knowledge and life and is known as the goddess of eternal youth. In Greek mythology, the goddess Hera, wife of Zeus, ruled the Garden of the Hesperides (nymphs) where there was an orchard in which trees bearing golden apples had the power to heal and renew. And the bible relates that Lucifer gave Eve the fruit, usually depicted as an apple, from the tree of knowledge

And by the mid-later 20th century the two Steve’s have brought the Apple computer into our homes. Well they did not immediately arrive into our homes; in the 1970’s and 80’s they were still a geeky, impractical and expensive machine that most homes could happily live without. But while Wozniak was the brains behind the machine itself, he would never have taken it beyond the techno geek market and as such would not have survived commercially. His Apple would have withered on the branch. Jobs was most certainly the man (the Lucifer, the enlightened one) responsible for giving the Apple of knowledge to mankind. And in a very strategic move, he first took it into the classroom, actually donating the original Apple 1 to some schools just to whet the appetite. He was less interested in wasting the fruits of the Apple on the elders of humankind, he wanted to give it to the children. In 1978 he won a contract to supply 500 Apple II computers to schools in Minnesota. In 1983 he sold a computer package (including floppy disc) to over 9,000 schools in California at a cost per package then for what you would now get a decent I-Mac. The Macintosh (an actual variety of apple) was launched in 1984 and the flood gates started to open.

One generation after the Apple from the tree of knowledge was fed to our children, we could no longer imagine education without computers. We could not imagine homes without computers, or people without smartphones. My little granddaughter was just two years old when her innate demand for language, knowledge and technology led us to the conclusion that we had no option but to provide her own personal connection into the universal consciousness. Her very own Apple i-pad. She took to it like a duck to water. Her knowledge, understanding and communication skills have taken quantum leaps; she swipes through the icons as though she invented them. 

So once again an apple from the tree of knowledge is the means by which knowledge and imagination is being spread throughout humanity.  It is the means by which we have built our rocket propelled towers with which to explore the heavens. In history Babel was the place where many voices come to speak together. Could the modern-day Babel be the headquarters of Google, Apple, NASA and Spacex? Or is 21st century Babel located in the cloud and refers to the inanity of Twitter? The fake lives of Instagram? The pretend friends of Facebook? Interestingly while the Bible’s Genesis tells us that is was man’s corruption and evil that caused the great flood, the pre-dated original Sumerian clay texts said it was the noise and unending chatter of humans that caused the Gods to bring the great flood.

The changes in our lifestyle are, in reality, just as dramatic as noted in the Facebook post that began this blog. The irony being that he used Facebook to express his concerns; he did not call around to voice his concerns to me in person over a cup of coffee.

As much as computers have changed our way of life, in the greater picture they have been the most important tool we have developed to enable us to pursue the greatest challenge to our sense of imagination. That is imagining the heavens. Looking into the night sky and imagining what is out there. Whether there are other life forms, more evolved technology, black holes and a never ending universe full of possibilities. And it is that this is such a challenge to our imagination that we dedicate resources billions of dollars and thousands of highly skilled humans to enable us to develop the technology to physically explore the space beyond our planet.

While the modern exploration of the heavens was initiated as part of the USA/USSR cold war, it is today very much a global mission. USA launched the space station Freedom in 1987 with support from the European Space Agency (Columbus Laboratory) and Japan (Japan Experimental Laboratory). In 1990 NASA launched the Hubble space telescope into low earth orbit. Russia then abandoned its plans for a successor to the Mir space station and in 1993 became a partner of the International Space Station (ISS). Without Russian support, the Western partners probably would have had to give up the Freedom Space Station. Today astronauts from around the world, including Japan, Canada, Europe in addition to Russia and the United States, travel to the ISS. Several languages are spoken on board. This communication challenge is assisted by the spoken dialogue computer on the ISS, named Clarissa, which is programmed to understand both English and Russian. But future NASA astronauts will be required to learn Russian before they go into space. Because the Russian Federal Space Agency is facilitating the space flight to and from the ISS, it makes sense that the NASA wants astronauts to be able to correspond with their fellow space travelers. For over ten years all European astronaut activities are conducted at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany. In fact, all the other astronauts on the ISS: Americans, Russians, Japanese and Canadians are also trained with European laboratory equipment. And European astronauts receive training in either Houston, USA, Star City in Russia, Tsukuba in Japan or Montreal, Canada to learn to operate the systems and components of the partners. The arrangement between the international partners is that any partner who owns a laboratory or another infrastructure element on the station trains the astronauts of all partners for it. China is also developing its heavenly ambitions but is doing so quite independently of the ISS partners.

To seriously explore the heavens, we need international financial and intellectual co-operation and we really do need a common language. The English language has been on a colonising mission for hundreds of years and while, at 370 million, it is only the third most common first language of the world, a long way behind Mandarin at 1.3 billion and well below Spanish at 470 million, English is by far the most common second-spoken language on earth at just under a billion people against Mandarin at 200 million. Mandarin matches English in its population size if not in its geopolitical breadth and this difference makes English the likely contender as the one language that will rule them all in our goal of reaching the heavens. But even if one language is not agreed, technology, driven by our imagination, will be able to instantly translate different languages to create a virtual common language to all men.

If Steve Jobs was the 21st century Lucifer then let us hope that humanity is ready for such knowledge this time around. Embracing the computer technology pioneered by Jobs in order to elevate humanity to new levels is Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX who has now announced that the final goal of “Neuralink”, his brain-machine interface development, is to allow humans to achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence. Neuralink aims to implant wireless brain-computer interfaces in the most complex human organ to help cure neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, dementia and spinal cord injuries and ultimately fuse humankind with artificial intelligence.

This is all developing at a time when the US government is finally admitting that alien craft, with vastly advanced technology, are entering our skies at will. The Bible’s Book of Genesis, the beginning of mankind, tells us that the reaction of God, having discovered that Adam had eaten the apple from the tree of knowledge, was to expel man from Eden to forage like the beasts in the wild lest they then seek to eat from the tree of life and live forever. Further on in the same Book we read that the astronomers of Mesopotamia were planning to reach the heavens from the tower of Babel, and so the Gods confused their language so as to defeat their plan. Interfacing human consciousness with artificial robotics as a means of living forever and exploring distant galaxies in the heavens is actually now a very real prospect within the next century. So, will the Gods and angels intervene once more to deny our attempts to reach the heavens? Will they decide that our species is not yet mature enough to be allowed into the heavens? That we are just too volatile and dangerous. Are we just not mature enough as a species to handle the subjunctive mood?

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