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“The world will change more in the next 30 years than it did in the last 3000″ says Jim Clark, founder of the World Technology Network and curator of the World Technology Awards. Changes he claims will affect “every sphere of human existence” and “challenge what it means to be human”. In his educated opinion, a world-changing metamorphosis is near-inevitable, but what emerges from the chrysalis is still within our influence. How this could be achieved is the basis of his talk, the “Manifesto for a New Civilisation”; a challenge to rethink global society from the ground up.

(Painting by By Keith Perelli)

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In the late 19th or early 20th century, billions of photons ricocheted off the face of this small boy and through the aperture of an early camera. There, the energy contained in the photons initiated a chemical reaction that burnt his image on a piece of photographic film.

Months or even decades later, this negative was laid down on a rough block of wood next to a series of others, images that presumably had some shared significance. Perhaps this was done by his parents, perhaps by himself in his old age, or even his children or grandchildren, but whoever did so photographed the negatives again, seemingly as some crude method of replication. But while the image itself was saved, its meaning was not.  An unknown span of time later the negative was detached from its original context, and the identity of the boy was lost.

I found this negative-of-negatives amongst hundreds of others in an antiques fair in Old Spitalfields market. A few days later, I placed it on my scanner, where a band of LEDs radiated photons across the image, after which they bounced back through a series of mirrors and lenses onto the scanner’s CMOS sensory array. From there, his face streamed through the microcircuitry of a computer to be rebuilt as a pattern of electricity rippling across a film of liquid crystals. The haunting visage stares now from your device for the first time in perhaps a century. An echo of a life long passed.

The image itself, stored both on the vast server farms of Google, Facebook and Tumblr, will endure now for an unknown time into the future even if the “original” should perish.  Now part of the exponential abyss of the deep web it will in time be comprehended and scrutinised by future intelligences both human and otherwise. Through advanced facial recognition algorithms and other exotic means of inquiry yet to be devised it will be woven back into an intricate lattice of information that will ultimately span all of human knowledge.

Will it ever be possible for the identity of this boy to be retrieved? Or is his name to be forever lost; worn away by the corrosive forces of information entropy?

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The Reptilian’s cloaking field breaks down and begins to phase shift, its inhuman visage briefly visible through a haze of holographic error. Slowed down and set to music, it is an eerie, emotive, and strangely beautiful sight. Our alien slavemasters the Annunaki are getting sloppy, not even caring if their true forms are visible to us any more. Wake up, sheeple, wake up and see what is before your eyes!

Or, at least this is what some followers of David Icke and other reptilian “researchers” seem to think. According to this video, which at time of writing has over 155,000 views, it appears that some of his disciples are so seduced by the strange worldview that they see trans-dimentional shapeshifters where others see video glitches or interference errors. A new face for an ancient malevolence, hitherto visualised mentally in dragon statues or crumby drawings of lizard-men. YouTuber MKirkbll comments “Finally! A legitimate shapeshifting video! I so badly wanted to believe. Now I can. Thank you.” Like an X-Files era cliche, MKirkbll here “wants to believe”. And he is so desperate to believe in something, he is willing to believe in anything, as long as it all fits together to tell an understandable story and gives him a sense of belonging.

It is easy to look at such nonsense and laugh, but the existence of such beliefs tell us something much deeper about human psychology and our need to make sense of the world. Since the earliest times humans have together woven complex and colourful mythologies to explain the the world around them, and today is no different. During our evolution, our brains’ storytelling ability acted as a form of data compression to keep track of what information it deemed useful, tying sensory prompts to emotional and behavioural responses. The consequence of using language and stories to keep track of environmental information was the gradual development of a narrative Self. Through studying psychology, we also know how identity construction within a social environment leads to emergent group behaviours that in turn tell us how group narratives are formed.

Some of those lessons are particularly relevant to the online realm, where a breezy brand of digital utopianism has led to a belief that the free flow of information will lead to an end of ignorance and the triumph of reason. Instead, we see the rise of bizarre new ideologies and ideas spreading virally across the web, ushering in not a New Enlightenment, but an Age of Unreason.

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When I was about five or six years old I plagued my parents with strange questions. One I remember in-particular was “who would I be if I wasn’t me”? Such riddles are not uncommon at this age because it is around this time that children begin to develop – or construct – a rudimentary form of identity. An embryonic Self that will grow into something resembling a final form during puberty and early adulthood. As we age, the foundations of identity sink into the subconscious, their origins lost, becoming so conflated with the notion of consciousness to the point where we can no longer tell them apart.

We talk of Self as if it is who we “really are”, like some kind of secular Soul, but there is growing evidence that the very notion of our personal identity is a fluid and ever-changing fiction that emerges through the brain’s interaction with society and the environment. A cognitive technology built from the lego blocks of language to tie together past experiences into a cohesive whole and use them as a blueprint for anticipating future events. The ultimate tool of a species of toolmakers.

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This weekend saw the third annual Q.E.D – the massive end-of-level-boss version of Skeptics in the Pub. A place where scientists, critical thinkers, atheists and other assorted eccentrics assemble in Manchester and sacrifice orphans to the reanimated husk of Darwin. Given this, protester turnout for was lacklustre, composed of a small choir and a couple of chaps with a giant metal cross that had to be trundled about on a tiny bicycle wheel. I’m not entirely sure what they intended to do with it.

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Despite the sophistication of Aboriginal society, for a multitude of reasons, not least the barren nature of much of the Australian continent, their culture remained locked in time and tied to the fragile ecology of the outback. Elsewhere, the human superorganism followed the same pattern of data accumulation and networking, but on a larger scale. Beginning around 12,000 years ago, two dramatic and intimately related shifts occurred in human behaviour. One was that humans began settling in cities, mostly around the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean; the second is the emergence of agriculture. There is much debate on which came first, but each could not exist without the other and can be thought of as parts of the same self-organising process, perhaps stretching back to the cave cultures of the Upper Palaeolithic. Most certainly they were not part of an eureka moment and were, instead, the culmination of the long process of human interface with the environment, taken to its logical conclusion.

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Sociobiologist E.O Wilson has long drawn comparisons between human civilisations and the insect superorganisms that dominate the macroscopic realm. These ‘eusocial’ organisms, such as ants and termites, “belong to multiple generations. They divide labor in what outwardly at least appears to be an altruistic manner. Some take labor roles that shorten their life spans or reduce the number of their personal offspring, or both. Their sacrifice allows others who fill reproductive roles to live longer and produce proportionately more offspring.” Ants build cities, farm aphids, fungus and even plants. They operate in massive societies, one of which has been discovered stretching 4000 miles across Eurasia. In terms of sheer biomass, ants are by far the most numerous organism on earth, with some estimates in the region of 9000 million tonnes, vastly dwarfing other insect species [18]. It is the ability to act towards collective group goals, facilitated by complex communication, that gives them this immense power. Read more →

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While tool use behaviours have been observed in primate societies, they vary between populations, and their growth is limited to direct visual observation and are, by and large, geographically isolated. As van Schaik noted; large groups thus have a distinct advantage over time; leading to both a statistically higher change of innovation and more minds in which to house behaviours, should disaster strike. If the Japanese macaque population were halved by some disaster, the behaviour patterns would survive because they have become so ubiquitous throughout the entire population. Should van Schaik’s comparatively smaller group of tool-making orangutans perish, the group on the northern shore would carry on oblivious to such innovations, as if they had never existed.

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By the early 20th century, philosophers had expended vast quantities of ink in the quest to explaining the nature of consciousness, forming a rich and detailed vocabulary and elaborate hierarchies of concepts to describe the minutia of mental states.  But this search for truth saw them drift further and further into the realms of abstraction and saw certainty slip further from their grasp. The Austrian artist Gustav Klimt reflected the anxious zeitgeist of early 20th century philosophy when he was commissioned to paint the ceilings of the University of Vienna. The panel entitled ‘philosophy’ was a haunting, nightmarish portrait of a species lost in the labyrinth of thought. It is ironic that Martin Heidegger, a philosopher famous for his maddeningly complex prose, should be the one to get closest to escaping this maze, precisely by rejecting core tenets of the philosophy of the age.

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For most of us, it is almost impossible to imagine a world devoid of language. The words we use and the worlds we build with them are so fundamental to our understanding, that to strip them back and envision a bare universe, devoid of symbolic thought, would be to abandon the very thing that makes us human.  We are a species of ‘worldbuilders’, both figuratively in the sense of how we collectively imagine the world, and literally, in that as we mould it to resemble these shared fictions.  In the course of the last fifty thousand years, we have become an epochal, disruptive force in the history of evolution. Since our ancestors scraped their way through the last ice age, we have collectively dismantled the environment and rebuilt it to suit our interests, either assimilating organisms into our evolving technicity or driving them to oblivion. In that geologically brief span of time, we have gone from launching spears to nuclear warheads.

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