Michael Paulus

Michael J. Paulus, Jr., is University Librarian and Associate Professor at Seattle Pacific University. He holds graduate degrees in divinity (Princeton) and library science (Rutgers), and regularly presents and publishes on historical and library topics. He lives in Seattle, Wash., with his wife and two daughters.

The Apocalypse of Seveneves

At a Douglas Adams book talk I attended near the end of the last century, someone asked the author what advice he had for writers. Adams’s first bit of advice was this: Don’t start a book by blowing up the Earth, which is of course how Adams’ started The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Neal Stephenson begins his latest novel, Seveneves, by blowing up the moon.[1] The destruction of the Earth follows, but Stephenson gives his large cast of characters a couple of years and hundreds of pages to figure out how they are going to survive this apocalyptic event. Since Stephenson has called for a return to inspiring overarching narratives in science fiction, and his title (“seven Eves”) refers to a symbolically full number of Eves, one should approach this book as one would an ancient apocalypse: with an incredible hope for a beginning in an end.

To escape the coming deluge of fire—the “Hard Rain” caused by the break-up of the moon’s remains—the governments of the world collaborate to build a space ark. Unlike its biblical predecessor, filled with representatives “of every living thing of all flesh,” this “Cloud Ark” will preserve select humans and a comprehensive digital repository of Earth’s genetic and cultural heritage. Instead of forty days, this new ark must transcend any “traditional legacy-passing schemes” and preserve humankind and culture for five millennia until a new Earth can be created. This epic endeavor to extend human life in space and time involves creative and ambitious uses of technologies, which raise questions about the role of technology in human development. How will technology triumph in the struggle against nature? How will human nature evolve outside of its natural or original habitat? What will a substantial dependence on technological expertise and tools, such as robots and computerized control systems, mean for human culture? In such a highly technological culture, what are the inherent or properly imposed limits of technology? Finally, will technology create a new and better Earth?

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Taken at Crater Lake

The hard news about the end of the world as we know it is shared with humanity at Crater Lake, Oregon, where natural and human history reveal a prophetic message “for anyone who wanted to read it”: “Between six and eight thousand years ago, an unimaginable catastrophe had befallen this place…surviving humans had kept the story alive in legends of an apocalyptic struggle between the gods of the sky and of the underworld.” The first sign of hope for humanity in Seveneves is seen in the response of the last generation during what is called the Age of the One Moon, who collectively engage in their own apocalyptic struggle by building out the International Space Station, digitizing everything from genetic sequences to family records, and launching as many people and as much stuff as possible into space. Although only a portion of humanity will survive, everyone is invited to contribute content to “a literary, artistic, and spiritual legacy that would outlive them.” Like members of the childless generation in P. D. James’s apocalyptic novel The Children of Men, many transfer their hope in the future to a record that will survive them. But unlike Michel Faber’s apocalyptic novel The Book of Strange New Things, there is not a total fall into chaos. This reader was comforted to learn that in the latter days “most of the people of Seattle were still obeying [parking] rules.”

Stephenson’s vision of the future, both near and distant mixes continuity and discontinuity. Ancient patterns of human nature, both glorious and inglorious, are present in the struggle for survival. Social media wars continue in space, via Spacebook and Scape; new forms of “techno-mystical ideation” emerge; fights for control of diminishing spheres of influence become increasingly savage; and perplexing records are created for later generations to sort out, reflect on, and interpret. But we also witness the innovation and ambition Stephenson would like to see in our pre-apocalyptic world: “The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale … to escape from [our] current predicaments.”[2]

Five thousand years into the future, when the descendants of the Seven Eves are ready to return to a remade Earth, humans have evolved to thrive in highly technological environments. And yet, with the accumulated knowledge of Old Earth, and all that has been added to it through millennia of progress and regress, people are still debating the appropriate integration of technology in human life. The term “Amistics,” referring to Amish scruples about certain technologies, is used to describe “choices that different cultures made as to which technologies they would, and would not, make part of their lives.” Among the descendants of the Seven Eves, two distinct cultures exist: one, called “Red,” is “enthusiastic about personal technological enhancement.” The other, called “Blue,” views technological aids “with some ambivalence.” For Blues, “Each enhancement is an amputation.”

Looking backward, Blue culture critiques Old Earthers for focusing “their intelligence on the small and the soft, not the big and the hard” and for building “a civilization that was puny and crumbling where physical infrastructure was concerned, but astonishingly sophisticated when it came to networked communications and software.” At a fundamental and individual level, they observed a common tendency to let personal technologies get in the way of higher faculties and distract from greater achievements. In the canonical video record of the events leading up to and following the end of Old Earth, called “the Epic,” the historical figure who embodied this behavior was Tavistock Prowse. Prowse, who had been sent up to hold the Cloud Ark community together with his social media skills, ended up fueling a rebellion through his blog. When his recorded activities were scrutinized by later generations—“how he had divided his time between playing games, texting friends, browsing Spacebook, watching pornography, eating, drinking, and actually writing his blog”—statistical analysis “tended not to paint a very flattering picture” and Prowse became a cautionary figure:

“Prowse had been squarely in the middle of the normal range, as far as his social media habits and attention span had been concerned. But nevertheless, Blues called it Tav’s Mistake. They didn’t want to make it again. Any efforts made by modern consumer-goods manufacturers to produce the kinds of devices and apps that had disordered the brain of Tav were met with the same instinctive pushback as Victorian clergy might have directed against the inventor of a masturbation machine. To the extent that Blue’s engineers could build electronics of comparable sophistication to those that Tav had used, they tended to put them into devices such as robots.

Stephenson thus presents a future in which new genetically engineered human races live within a sophisticated technological infrastructure above the Earth’s surface, but have not yet matched the storage and network capabilities of five-thousand-year-old smartphones, tablets, and laptops. This vision of technological progress includes technological restraint: old technologies, such as paper books, persist; automation is complemented by human intervention and enhancement; and physical skills are still cultivated and valued. When the action shifts to the surface of New Earth, we discover other Amistic alternatives: those from the sky are not the only ones who have adapted, naturally and technologically. The selections made above, represented in and through the massive digital library and archives in the sky, have terrestrial counterparts below.

Near the end of the book, as histories and narratives collide and the origin story of New Earth takes form, another type of ark appears off a beach. The name of this “complex mechanical” vehicle, Ark Darwin, represents human as well as natural selection and adaption. In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin used Francis Bacon as epigraphical cover for his exploration of natural causes to explain natural phenomena. Bacon claimed that one cannot “search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works.”[3] Bacon valued both divine and natural revelation, and was among the first modern natural philosophers to bring scientific discovery and technological work together, making the latter the natural application of the former. Both, Bacon argued, had critical roles in restoring what had been lost in a primordial fall from the original creation. Although Stephenson’s New Earth is rather different from Bacon’s utopian New Atlantis, the two works share a largely optimistic appraisal of scientific and technological dominion over nature.

Like Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, which says more about “the small and the soft” ends of our personal technologies, Seveneves is hard to classify as utopian or dystopian. The near technological future that Eggers creates is ostensibly utopian (“the dawn of the Second Enlightenment”), but it is far from an ideal place. And although Stephenson’s near and far technological futures could be described as dystopian (with the destruction of the Earth and all), they are not without idealistic characteristics. Both, however, are apocalyptic: not only because they deal with cataclysmic disruptions, but because they open up our perceptions of knowledge, time, space, and community to uncover and reveal something deeper about the ends of these fundamental dimensions of experience. While The Circle remains a work of apocalyptic realism staying close to a material reality familiar to us, Seveneves more radically addresses apocalyptic questions of human understanding, nature, and destiny—and the dependencies of these on technology.

For Bacon, the future redemption of the world depends on much more than human agency aided by science and technology. Without referring to divine revelation, Stephenson also suggests something more. The final scene of Seveneves occurs in an improvised refectory on Ark Darwin, with a discussion of an agency beyond Darwinian natural selection and human technological intervention called “the Purpose.” According to the guesses of a leading character closest to the answer, the Purpose concerns the purpose to the universe. In the millennia-long struggle for life after the moon blew up, he says to new friends with whom he is sharing a meal, there “was surprisingly little thinking about the Agent”—the name given to the unknown cause—“Where it came from. Whether it was natural or artificial, or even divine.” “The Purpose,” he continues, is a way “of saying there’s something bigger than this crap we’ve spent the last week of our lives dealing with.” “I like the feeling of that,” he concludes; “People who claim they are motivated by the Purpose end up behaving differently—and generally better—than people who serve other masters.” Political tensions persist outside Ark Darwin, with armed forces facing off, but at this table an ancient and familiar form of fellowship suggests hope for something greater than an old or new Earth.

 

Citations

[1] Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (New York: William Morrow, 2015). All quotes are from the EPub Edition.

[2] Neal Stephenson, “Innovation Starvation,” available from http://www.worldpolicy.org/journal/fall2011/innovation-starvation.

[3]Francis Bacon, quoted opposite the title page of Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or the Preservation of Advanced Races in the Struggle for Life (London: John Murray, 1859).

The Wisdom of The Circle

In his early modern utopian vision the New Atlantis, Francis Bacon imagined a proto-scientific and technological society fully dedicated to the liberating power of knowledge. Natural and divine revelation would be united “to restore and exalt the power and dominion … of the human race over the universe.” Technological advances such as the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass, Bacon argued, had made possible a new age of learning, peace, and exploration. Humans were “perhaps more ready to contemplate the power, wisdom, and goodness of God in His works.”[1] On the other side of modernity, viewed through Michel Foucault’s dystopian panopticism, scientific and technological knowledge is oppressive power: institutions such as the prison, factory, and school design comprehensive organizational and surveillance systems to control freedom and difference. For Foucault, utopia closes in on itself to become not a technologically empowered house of wisdom but a technologically determined “house of certainty.”[2]

The archive of utopian and dystopian expectations runs deep and grows daily, with visions of our current technological society ranging from digitally enhanced posthumanism to digitally enabled panopticism. The most intense expressions of these hopes and fears are apocalyptic, which is an ancient poetic form for exploring the deepest revelations about knowledge, space, time, and the common good.[3] Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle is an exemplar of the apocalyptic imagination that productively challenges us to think about the nature of wisdom in the digital age. Through apocalyptic realism, Eggers reveals how present technological advances might be used in efforts to transcend current limits of what we know, what we hope for, what we must do, and what it means to be a human being.

Within the book’s first couple dozen pages, the classic apocalyptic dimensions of time, space, knowledge, and community are opened up in this technological morality tale. An epigraph from East of Eden invokes an unlimited future. The first sentences proclaim the Circle Corporation’s heavenly campus and its paradisiacal vastness. Avatars of the company’s leaders, the “Three Wise Men”—a trinity of personalities including “boy-wonder visionary,” “Capitalist Prime,” and a beloved and benevolent “uncle”—appear early. And the novel’s protagonist Mae Holland, the newest member of this elect community, is transported out of the “chaotic mess” of the ordinary world: “The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work.”[4]

The Circle has superseded Facebook, Twitter, Google, and all near-future equivalents by ending anonymity and unifying the online experience: “one account, one identity, one password, one payment system … everything tied together and trackable and simple.” But those leading the Circle seek more—more knowledge and more engagement—for and from its members and users. “We’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment,” announces the benevolent Wise Man; “all that happens must be known.” Participation, up to its ultimate form of total transparency, is pressed on Mae, her colleagues, politicians, and the world. Initially Mae is troubled when her preferences are publically exposed, believing she is more than a “matrix of preferences.” Mae also knows that she is, secretly, a troubled person full of anxiety and despair about what she does not know, especially “when and by whom [she] would be touched a certain way.” Fleeing this inner turmoil, Mae becomes absorbed by the demands of Circle, including multiple work-related screens and relationships, and ultimately her “Conversion Rate”—evidence that she is “a crucial and measurable driver of world commerce.”[5]

Before she decides to live an open and digitally streamed life, Mae enjoys a moment of rest—unplugged and drifting alone on a kayak at night—and is content to be open to an unknown future and to know little about the world around her. This liberating moment, however, is one of trespass. The kayak was stolen, a theft caught on camera; but the greater sin is that most of her private adventure was not recorded and shared through social media. The benevolent Wise Man confronts her about her violation of the new Enlightenment creed that “everyone should have a right to know everything, and should have the tools to know anything … any information that eludes us, anything that’s not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.” With an end to the “hoarding of information and knowledge,” he concludes, “we would finally be compelled to be our best selves … we don’t have to be tempted by darkness anymore.” Convinced and converted, Mae publically repents and confesses that “secrets are lies,” “sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” Then she commits herself to transparency and to sharing the Circle’s tools through her streamed life.[6]

Following a presentation about the Circle’s increasingly comprehensive digital archive, Mae is confronted by a divinity school dropout who praises the apotheotic work of the Circle:

You found a way to save all the souls … You’re gonna get everyone in one place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. … Now all humans will have the eyes of God. … Now we’re all God. Every one of us will soon be able to see, and cast judgment upon, every other. We’ll see what He sees. We’ll articulate His judgment. We’ll channel His wrath and deliver His forgiveness. On a constant and global level. All religion has been waiting for this, when every human is a direct and immediate messenger of God’s will.[7]

Not everyone is thrilled with the godlike ambitions of the Circle. Mae’s new commitments alienate her from family and friends, and one internal skeptic warns her about her role in creating “a very hungry, very evil empire.”[8] When she discovers that three percent of her colleagues do not find her awesome, Mae experiences a brief and “blasphemous” moment of doubt:

the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable—it was too much.[9]

This moment of doubt is replaced with work. When a friend who brought her into the Circle, and whose parents’ sins are being revealed through the Circle’s growing historical archive, sends out a “very strange message” that reads, “Actually, I don’t know if we should know everything, ” Mae is shocked. (Someone else later redacts the message to read, “We shouldn’t know everything—without the proper storage ready. You don’t want to lose it!”)[10]

Mae concludes that not knowing “who would love her and for how long” is the ultimate cause of anxiety and despair: “It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear.” Living transparently, she believes, made her “knowable to the world,” better, and “brought her close, she hoped, to perfection.” The world would follow; “Full transparency would bring full access, and there would be no more not-knowing.”[11] When Mae is presented with a final opportunity to stop what is happening to her and with the Circle, she rejects it:

I want to be seen. I want proof I existed…Most people do. Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know—they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know we die. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”[12]

Mae trades the lives of people she knows to save the Circle and avert the “apocalypse” she fears. We are left, with her, contemplating “a world where everyone could know each other truly and wholly, without secrets, without shame.” No corner or moment of life will be hidden in the “new and glorious openness” of the coming world, “a world of perpetual light.”[13]

Mae tries to trade her fear of finitude for the promise of technologically extended knowledge, presence, and power. But the ambition to complete the Circle—a sign of perfection, eternity, God, and infinite meaning—stretches credibility. One is reminded of Dostoevsky’s underground man, who warned the enlightened thinkers of his industrial age that even if they reasoned out and published everything they would not explain the whole of life. Technological advances undoubtedly improve our lives, but the ways they can tempt us toward omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence is comedic as well as tragic. The Circle uncovers both dimensions of a technologically inspired hubris that extends back to the primeval city established east of Eden.

In the wisdom book of Job, as the eponymous protagonist waits in the ashes for God to reveal the reason for his suffering, he reviews the many ways humans have discovered knowledge, including mining the depths of the earth to bring hidden things into the light. Human knowledge is limited, he confesses, and true wisdom remains hidden. Only “God understands the way to it, / and … understands its place,” Job concludes, therefore wisdom is fearing God and turning away from evil—or, to put it another way, loving God and others.[14] What Mae misses, and what an apocalyptic work such as The Circle helps uncover, is the extent to which human knowledge is limited and corruptible. Bacon hoped technology and science could reverse the effects of the primordial sin—the desire to be wise like God that led to fear and death—but Foucault saw its effects darkly in our most advanced structures and systems. Moreover, as we pursue our ambitions to extend our attentions and intentions we may, like Mae, miss the communication, community, and communion—the koinonia[15]—that is present and near to us in space and time.

 

 

[1] Francis Bacon, “On the Idols, the Scientific Study of Nature, and the Reformation of Education,” in Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, ed. Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2014), 34, 36.

[2] Michel Foucault, “Panopticism,” Philosophy of Technology, 657.

[3] In ancient apocalyptic literature, epistemological, spatial, temporal, and moral realities are uncovered by collapsing divine-human dualisms: divine and human knowledge, heavenly and earthly realms, eternity and time, and good and evil powers and communities. See John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapid, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 1ff.

[4] Dave Eggers, The Circle (San Francisco, Calif.: McSweeney’s Books, 2013), 19ff., 30.

[5] Ibid., 21, 67, 125, 195, 250ff.

[6] Ibid., 286ff.

[7] Ibid., 395.

[8] Ibid., 401.

[9] Ibid., 410.

[10] Ibid., 435.

[11] Ibid., 465.

[12] Ibid., 485.

[13] Ibid., 489ff.

[14] See Job 28.23 (ESV).

[15] Brent Waters, Christian Moral Theology in the Emerging Technoculture: From Posthuman Back to Human (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 234.

Defending My Library

I recently moved and repeated a routine that has accompanied every move I have made since I got married—defending my personal library. Every time we move, and are confronted with the effort and expense of moving so much paper, my wife asks the quite fair question, “Do you really want to keep all these books?” Since I am a keeper of books both professionally as well as personally, I consider this to be a serious and profound question. It goes beyond my personal preferences and peculiarities and gets to a fundamental question being asked of libraries in the digital age: Do we need to keep all these physical books?

Photography by Glynnis Ritchie on Flickr.com

The author and critic Umberto Eco says that when people are confronted by his own substantial library they often say something like, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” His answer is, “No, these are the ones I have to read by the end of the month. I keep the others in my office.” This reply, he says, “on the one hand suggests a sublime ergonomic strategy, and on the other leads the visitor to hasten the moment of his departure.” Within this witticism Eco is making a point that a library is not just “a mere storage place for already-read books” but is, rather, “a working tool.”[1] So the first part of my apologia for my library is that it is a repository of resources for my education, edification, and entertainment—let’s call it my advancement in knowledge.

But these resources are not reducible to their intellectual contents. The books in my library are objects with temporal and spatial dimensions—they are connected to times and places of creation, acquisition, and consumption. One who appreciates the associative value of books can share the sorrow of the struggling novelist in New Grub Street who is forced to sell some of the books from his library:

Many of those vanished volumes were dear old friends to him; he could have told you where he had picked them up and when; to open them recalled a past moment of intellectual growth, a mood of hope or despondency, a stage of struggle. In most of them his name was written, and there were often pencilled notes in the margin.[2]

We read books, not merely texts. And much more than the pure content of a text is mediated to us through a text’s material incarnation. Peri- and paratextual meanings, from both inside and outside a bound book, adhere. Some of these become essential to our encounter with the text, such as the ways in which a publisher frames it. Others are accidental and/or incidental, such as what happened to a particular book while I was seated in a pub in Oxford. So the second part of my apologia concerns all the things that have grounded my advancement in knowledge to the material world.

Finally, when I consider the books on my shelves I am reminded of a character in novel by Charles Williams. After pondering a bookcase, he says:

If they came alive … if they are alive—all shut up in their cases, all nicely shelved—shelved—shelved. We put them in their places in our minds, don’t we? If they got out of their bookcases—not the pretty little frontispieces but the things beyond the frontispieces, not the charming lines of type but the things the type means. Dare you look for them …?[3]

This could be referred to as the spiritual dimension of books and their aggregates, libraries. When looking at books on the shelves and in the stacks, some of us sense something more—the meaning that remains beyond the material, the actuality that exists before the accommodation, the presence that permeates certain books that we peruse. By way of affirmation or negation, of what is said, unsaid, or unsayable, the library refers to realities that are not manifested in it.

Augustine described time as being present to us in three ways: the presence of past is experienced through memory; the presence of the present is experienced through perception; the presence of the future is experienced through expectation.[4] My library—which sustains and shapes my memory, enhances my perceptions of the present, and informs my expectations—enables me to have a richer experience of temporality. And what is true for an individual library is true for the library of a community. Like books, libraries are both means and metaphors for knowledge: they reveal and represent to us what was, what is, and what is to come.

While I have not avoided the transition to books in digital form, these are at the same time easier to move and loose. Perhaps in the future we will realize better ways to remember, perceive, and experience the materiality of digital books so that these, too, will manifest for us our libraries as well as their histories. But for my last move, my digital library remained in the cloud without much thought given to its past, present, and future.


[1] Umberto Eco, “How to Justify a Private Library,” in How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays (New York: Harcourt Bruce & Company, 1994), 116-17.

[2] George Gissing, New Grub Street (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1891), 257.

[3] Charles Williams, Shadows of Ecstasy (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 47.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin Group, 1961), 269.