Several influences molded me as a writer over the years: A fascination with classical history and mythology, a love of science fiction and fantasy, years of world travel laden with ample adventures of my own, and a deep sense of wonder about the systems of Nature, most particularly (though by no means exclusively) about the human sphere of Nature, fed by a highly analytical and imaginative mind and abundant sources on which to draw.
At around the age of 18 (in 1977 or 1978), I wrote a short psychedelic vignette called “River Palace” which was the first seed of what would later become A Conspiracy of Wizards. A couple of years later, while living in Berkeley, I started an unrelated novel in which crystalized talismans of the five elements of classical natural philosophy had magical properties that were amplified when brought together, an idea that found its way into A Conspiracy of Wizards.
Most of my 20s was dedicated to world travels and adventures and the keeping of journals laden with descriptions and contemplations. Many of the real-world, visceral descriptive passages from those journals found their way into A Conspiracy of Wizards. During this time I also read prolifically and broadly, trying to catch up on as many classics of literature and of more recent intellectual discovery as I possibly could.
One year into my career as a sociology grad student in Connecticut, having become an aficionado of Chaos Theory in the late 1980s and believing it to be a critical piece of the puzzle of the story of our existence, I wrote a vignette about Chaos and Order being the parents of the universe, and immediately knew that this would be the nucleus of the novel I had always dreamed of writing.
During my grad student career in Connecticut, I was working on my novel at the same time that I was soaking up the spectrum of social theory, designing my world and weaving bits and pieces of my gradually emerging synthesis of the social theoretical landscape into it and the story-line. I incorporated into the novel a variety of epistemological theories (including, for instance, Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” most visibly in the scene of Algonion in the ice sphere), Marxist theory, microeconomic and game theory, and network analysis and epidemiology. I also incorporated my previously acquired knowledge of international relations and world history to create a more complex and in many ways “realistic” world than is found in most novels of any kind, let alone fantasy fiction. The geopolitics and geopolitical and military strategies found in the novel are, I think, particularly elaborate and faithful to the forms found in the real world.
Two years into my status as “All-But Dissertation,” not actually writing my dissertation, I left the program and my position as a college lecturer to work full time on my novel. In many ways, I realized, I had been in the Ph.D. program primarily to inform my novel. Before moving out west, I took a couple of months to do a car trip around New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, during which, while camping and hiking in beautiful Acadia National Park in Maine, I fully fleshed out the story of Cholumga (derived from “Chomo Lungma,” Tibetan for “Earth Mother” and the Tibetan name for Mount Everest), the giantess trapped in the hollow mountain. I did this in part by telling the story to a young girl and her mother who I ran into while hiking, as we sat on a bluff overlooking the gorgeous autumn colors. (Also from Acadia comes the imagery of Algonion arriving at the sea as he is escaping Lokewood.)
In late 1996, I moved to a cabin in the mountains of Northern New Mexico for a year (in Cabresto Canyon, between Questa and Red River, north of Taos) to write the first draft of the novel, simultaneously focusing my informal studies more on World Mythology and World History (both long-time interests of mine, along with International Relations), including studying Joseph Campbell’s analyses of mythological motifs. The multi-hued beauty of Northern New Mexico and the Four Corners region, around which I took frequent car-and-camping trips, filtered into the imagery of the novel. I then finished the millennium in Albuquerque, teaching and taking classes, working through some of the issues and challenges with my novel, developing it further, and developing other ideas as well (such as a series of vignettes about the institutionalization of time travel, including reunions of multiple selves across time, branching historical trajectories, and the colonization of the past). I began to submit excerpts of the novel to agents and publishers, trying to line up a publication deal, but without success.
While living in the cabin in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I used to wander into the forest and visualize various characters in particular locations dedicated to each, having conversations with them to flesh out who they were. It was a form of intentional, self-induced semi-hallucination, powerful enough that occasionally a character would “say” something that would surprise me! This was a technique for discovering each character’s own authenticity rather than populating my world with contrived characters with less of a life of their own.
I believe it was also while I was in New Mexico that I saw (on video tape borrowed from the Taos library, since I had no television reception in my cabin) a National Geographic special on the rain forest canopy ecosystem, the imagery of which inspired the imagery of Algonion’s largely airborne trek through Lokewood in search of the Loci imps, one of my descriptively favorite passages.
Also while in New Mexico, I further developed my sociological paradigm, focusing it more on Richard Dawkins’ “Meme Theory,” which provided a lynchpin to the synthesis I had been developing. This has since found its way into the novel, particularly in the Kindle e-book version, in my newly rewritten description of the Vaznallam mindscape and the fractal geometry of their mental representation of the Sadache cognitive landscape, which is the imagery presented in a series of expository essays I’ve written on the fractal geometry and evolutionary ecology of our shared human cognitive landscape (and, along with it, our social institutional and technological landscape).
In December of 1999, I set out for Mexico to find a spot in which to continue to work on the novel, living modestly off investments, which were doing well at the time. I ended up in Mazatlan, where I developed the routine of waking up before dawn to write from my balcony, watching the morning light spread over the city and the bay while I was writing. I stayed in Mazatlan for over two years, taking several car trips to various regions of Mexico while there, all of which also contributed something to the imagery of the novel. During that time I got married and toward the end of my time in Mazatlan finished the current hard copy version of the novel and began seeking unsuccessfully to publish it.
We moved up to the Denver area in the summer of 2002 (and had our wonderful daughter, Scheherazade, in 2003), and I embarked on a combination of teaching, law school, a run for the state legislature, public policy research and analysis, and a variety of civic engagement, not touching the novel other than to self-publish it in 2005. The combination of my failure to do anything to market the novel and my realization that I had not, in fact, finished refining it prior to publishing it, that I had not ironed out all of the rough spots, that I had not perfected my own vision of what the novel should be, culminated in my decision in the summer of 2013 to do one more set of revisions and refinements, and to republish it as an e-book.
The ebook version of the novel is now available, via the links provided at the top and bottom of this narrative.
As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.
As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.
But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)
So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?
Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”
To explore that ”lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.
What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).
But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.
What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.
Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.
What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.
In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”
But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.
Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?
This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?
Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.
Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.
If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct ”echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?
Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.
We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.
So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.
Due to the appreciation of the fractal images I use here and on the Colorado Confluence Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence), and the interest in fractals and the Mandelbrot Set that that appreciation has generated, as well as the relevance of fractals to my overarching evolutionary ecology of natural, human, and technological systems paradigm (see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts, and particularly The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for an explanation and description of the connection), I’ve decided to post here a few different video “zooms” of the set.
These are not just visually interesting and beautiful displays: They are the exploration of the underlying patterns of complexity found in nature. The Mandelbrot Set is an extremely intricate fractal generated by iterations of a simple (though mathematically sophisticated) mathematical algorithm. Zooming in on any part of the swirling pattern reveals a degree of complexity equal to that on the larger scale, across limitless levels. I selected such images to represent Colorado Confluence because I believe (as many of my essays on Colorado Confluence explicitly expound upon) that life in general is of an essentially similar nature, swirling patterns of complexity within complexity, and that our challenge, in this human endeavor of ours, is to continue to ever-better align our consciousness and our efforts with these subtle and intricate systems of which we are a part. Enjoy!
Notice the coral-like formations in this one!
There are many, many more Mandelbrot Set zooms out there! Look for the most beautiful ones, and comment here or on the Colorado Confluence FB page with the URL.
As Fritjov Capra, author of The Tao of Physics and The Web of Life, noted in the latter book, the dominant scientific lens through which to understand the nature of the universe may be shifting from physics to biology. Complex dynamical systems, even non-living ones, bear a stronger resemblance to organic models than to mechanical ones. It is, perhaps, a fundamentally animate universe in which we live. And the progressive patterns of that universe are repeated across levels and forms in a fractal geometry of dynamical systems. (The main contender for dominant emerging physical paradigm, meanwhile, is a mathematical model of ”the cosmic symphony.” String Theory postulates that the ultimate and irreducible building blocks of the universe, from which all subatomic particles emanate, are one-dimensional vibrating strings in an 11-dimensional space! Read Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe if that idea resonates with you.)
As I wrote about in The Politics of Consciousness and Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, the evolutionary process of genes reproducing, occasionally mutating, and competing for reproductive success is echoed in the dynamics of human history, in which “memes” (cognitions) also reproduce (more rapidly than genes), mutate (more frequently and affirmatively than genes), and compete for reproductive success. And that pattern may be reproduced (and accelerated) yet again, in a new form, as the spawn of the spawn of Nature, human information technologies, acquire the ability to reproduce algorithmically adaptive packets of digital information that compete among themselves for reproductive success. Just as human cultural evolution is an accelerated version of the biological evolution, human autonomous technological evolution based on the digital transmission and processing of information is a yet more accelerated process. Thus humans are an intermediate ripple of consciousness in a series of accelerating inferior incarnations.
But it is the reintegration of these distinct ecologies and sub-ecologies which is perhaps most fascinating of all. It is clear that we humans will have to adapt our technologies and social institutions to the ecological context of the planet if we want to continue to have a planet on which to live (ignoring for the moment the possibility of extraterrestrial colonization). Not only did the Earth’s evolutionary ecology create us, but it also challenged us to imitate and integrate with it ever more perfectly and completely (like Bellerophon mounted on Pegasis, aspiring to reach Olympian heights, increasingly risking being thrown to our destruction for our hubris).
Both our technologies and our social institutions are bound to develop in directions that more closely mimic nature, not just in underlying dynamics and functions, but also in form, becoming softer and more “biodegradable,” creating more microtechnologies that scavenge the obsolete hulks of larger orga…, uh, “machines,” recycling them into the production processes. Such organic technologies are likely to utilize more flexible and viscous couplings, aspiring to and copying the natural machinery that remains far more sophisticated than human technologies. A computer that is more like a brain with synapses that are as agile as the brain’s can capture the advantages of both. An economy that is more like an ecosystem can produce less waste, utilize more resources, and recycle everything.
It is, at all levels –nature, mind, and machine– forms of consciousness and derivative consciousness we are talking about. “God” did indeed make “man” in “His” image, because the consciousness that is biological evolution created an echo of itself in the form of the human (or mammalian) mind, and that mind created an echo in turn, in the form of computers. So similar is nature’s “mind” to our own, that we use the language and mathematical tools of intentionality, designed for the study of human behavior, to study evolutionary ecology. Species develop “strategies” for reproductive success, that appear to us to be remarkably intentional: Disguises, defenses, weapons, colonies, divisions of labor; technologies and social institutions remarkably like our own.
Biologists are quick to admonish, “though we use the metaphor of intentionality, anatomical and genetically hard-wired adaptive strategies are not intentionally produced. It’s just a function of trial and error. Nature only resembles us in that way.” Remarkably enough, in one way in which religious faith hit the nail more squarely on the head than scientific scepticism, those biologists got it backwards: It is we that resemble Nature, not vice versa. The consciousness of Evolutionary Ecology precedes and produced us, the fact that it is a function of trial and error notwithstanding. While we have pitted God and Darwin at odds with one another, in reality, what Darwin described is simply one of God’s “mysterious ways” (or “avatars,” to be more precise). Just as we refer to what we have created in our own image as “artificial (human) intelligence,” we ourselves are really just “artificial (natural) intelligence.”
Nature had its own “collective consciousness” before humans were here to give it a name. It musn’t be confused with human consciousness, just as human consciousness shouldn’t be confused with whatever computer consciousness might emerge (or already exists). Nature’s consciousness is diffuse, not self-reflective, not imbued with an ego or corporeal integrity. It is not the function of a human brain, and therefore is hard to conceptualize, always reduced to that which is most familiar. But it is the Intelligent Being that designed us, as (or perhaps more) similar to the godless mechanisms of an atheistic scientist as it is to the Judeo-Christian God. And it did indeed “make us in its own image.”
Just as we have now made something in ours. It was inevitable that we would “play god,” because “God” made us in “His” image, not in the superficial sense, but in the substantive sense of being designed to “play God.” We cannot help but to create our own monster, just as “God” created “His.” The story of Frankenstein is the Story of Creation, told from “God’s” perspective, with “God’s” horror at what “He” had done. (You might recall that Dr. Frankenstein didn’t fare well in the end, a fate with which we ourselves threaten Gaia, if not Jehovah).
The concept of “collective consciousness,” and the study of the epidemiology of cognitions, predate the invention of the internet, but they gain new significance in a new age of accelerated, geographically liberated network communications. Before this creation of ours becomes an autonomous evolutionary ecology of its own, it has augmented ours, accelerating the communication and analysis of information, and thus accelerating the cultural evolutionary process.
Collective consciousness, and the human cognition which comprises it, is less about the discovery of an objective reality than about the forging over time of an evolving way of interfacing with it. Our conceptualizations of reality are not reality, but rather representations of reality, nested and overlapping metaphors that we use to map an almost infinitely more complex terrain. We argue over individual or sub-group variations in that map, over whether this representation or that more accurately and usefully describes the elusive reality we are mapping; sometimes, in essence, arguing whether it should be topographic or political, whether it should be more detailed (and thus more difficult to use) or simplified.
The construction of our maps is what has been called “the social construction of reality.” It is a shared reality, but with distributed and punctuated variation, with variation both within and between groups, but group coalescences at various levels around shared aspects of individual cognitive maps (and group coalescences reproducing shared aspects of individual cognitive maps). We have religions and denominations, political ideologies and factions within them, scientific disciplines comprised of competing schools of thought. The field of human consciousness is characterized by a combination of commonality and variation, constantly evolving, with patterns shifting according to extraordinarily complex algoriths that determine the patterns of change.
One model with which to understand this involves a tool called “cellular automata.” Cellular automata are a matrix of cells in which each can trigger changes in the state of neighboring (or otherwise interconnected) cells according to some algorithm. So, for instance, a simple cellular automata model might involve colors as states, with each cell being converted to the color that the majority of cells on which it borders has. Soon, a stable pattern of colors would emerge, perhaps all cells being a single color, or areas of particular colors emerging with sharp borders between them, But cellular automata can be far more complex than that, involving incessantly changing states rippling throughout the matrix, forming constantly shifting patterns.
Consider now cellular automata in which the shifting patterns themselves alter the algorithm by which they shift. Such is the human world. As our technologies and social institutions evolve, the speed of our communications and processing of information accelerates, and the patterns that are formed change at an accelerating rate, and according to shifting algorithms. As our tool (computers and the internet) becomes an autonomous ecology of its own, it both mimics and feeds back into the human ecology.
How these three levels of ecology continue to co-evolve, diverging from, threatening, reinforcing, and reintegrating with one another remains to be seen. Humans will undoubtedly continue the progression of how “plugged in” we are to the technologically enhanced network that binds us together, moving from desk top to lap top computers, to hand held and then handless devices, eventually, perhaps, to implants that can be accessed with a thought, and, beyond that, possibly even some technology that involves genetic engineering which moves our internet technology in a more biological direction. A human far future of organically and remotely interconnected and augmented human consciousness (a technologically accomplished mass telepathic network) is a distinct possibility.
As our technologies become more organic, not only does the process of their integration into the human ecology accelerate, but they also become the medium through which the human ecology reintegrates with the natural ecology. The acceleration of information processing and communication will inevitably be increasingly applied to the challenge of economic sustainability, which means, in effect, reintegration of human and natural technologies, reducing their incompatability and increasing their mutual reinforcement. And the increasing use of more organic technologies and social institutions may well be a major aspect of what that reintegration looks like.
It can even take on an extraterrestrial aspect, if we use genetic engineering to adapt ourselves to extraterrestrial colonization, completing the reintegration loop, our creature altering that which created us. Here on Earth, meanwhile, the reintegration of these three evolutionary ecologies holds a promise for humanity that tantalizes the imagination, as we continue to transcend limitations that we once thought untranscendable, and continue to become an ever-more conscious aspect of a larger consciousness.
This is a very specific, almost arbitrary, example of the systemic nature of the reality in which we live, and an illustration of the coherence of systems across levels and disciplines. The relevance, for me (other than exercising the sense of wonder that I believe should be driving us), is to draw attention once again to the ways in which we can better understand the context within which we live, both “human” and “natural” (it’s all natural, really), and, by doing so, can be better equipped to interact with that context wisely and productively. It stands in opposition to the movement advocating self-governance by shallow platitude, and in support of the movement that insists we are conscious entities, forever summoned to cope with the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.
The October 11 issue of Time Magazine has an article in it about Blockbuster’s “failure at failing” (i.e., its failure to manage its demise in shareholders’ best interests), which made me think of what an excellent example audio-visual entertainment is of the parallels between economics and evolutionary ecology, with the distinction (among others) of far more cross-over synthesis involved in the flow of innovations (like “breeding” of genetically dissimilar species to produce dramatically different ones). It is a story of dominant successors displacing eclipsed predecessors, combining with other dominant successors from other distinct lines of evolutionary descendance
Like a whole new species emerging from the combination of photographs (flipped in rapid succession) and, eventually, phonographs, first silent movies and then talkies spread like Eucalyptus trees in California. Movies shown at movie theaters became a dominant form of entertainment. Breaking this down a little, silent movies were the Neanderthals to the Homo Sapiens Sapiens of talkies, a dominant sub-species either displacing or interbreeding with the “inferior” one, driving it into extinction.
Then, by improving and adapting the technology of broadcasting signals encoded with sound (radio) to this form of entertainment, incorporating moving images as well, a new ecological niche was formed, one that would prove to be immensely robust: Television, in one’s own home (again, television being the dominant successor to radio, with the synthesis of audio-visual entertainment with broadcast technology being its genesis). The various species (audio recordings, radio, movies, and television) have found different ecological niches ever since, sometimes competing at one another’s expense, sometimes contributing to one another’s reproductive success. Silent movies were the only species from these various braided lines of development to go (virtually) completely extinct.
Within the television industry, various micro-ecologies evolved, with three major networks in the United States swallowing up and revitalizing local stations, forming a very robust symbiosis. Different content formats were tried and evolved: Talk shows, variety shows, news broadcasts (all off-spring of radio predecessors in form). Sit-coms, courtroom dramas, cop shows, and other archetypical forms, emerged and evolved, and occasionally blended into new forms (Ally McBeal and Boston Legal each blending comedy and courtroom drama, for instance).
Meanwhile, movies evolved as well, with special effects, and various genres, and various motifs developing and cross-breeding and displacing predecessors in a variety of ways. And some cross-breeding occurred between movies and television (and novels), with mini-series briefly enjoying a heyday (though short-lived due to the expense of production, a species-killer, at least in television, at least thus-far).
Enter video cassettes, a technology cross-pollinator of movies and TV. Now movies produced for cinemas could be watched at home on television sets. This seemed to threaten the survival of the movie industry for awhile, reducing box office revenues dramatically, until the movie industry adapted, and found that home rentals and sales could be every bit as lucrative.
Then the separate evolutionary thread that produced the computer revolution cross-fertilized with these, as with virtually all other evolutionary threads, producing compact disks, and, eventually, streaming video (as well as downloadable songs and i-pods, and downloadable movies).
Blockbuster was an innovative business piggybacking on the invention of video cassettes, which made more sense to rent than to buy. It was a niche waiting to be filled. But like ostentatious displays such as huge antlers on elk or bright plumage on peacocks, signalling to potential mates a surplus of male prowess, few qualities contribute more to reproductive success of products sold in the modern market than increased convenience. So, with the invention of the compact disk (and more manageable postage rates associated with smaller size), Netflix swept in to occupy that niche, ultimately spelling doom for the far larger and richer Blockbuster.
Netflix itself had to adapt to streaming or downloaded video via computer, or it would have been displaced by dominant successors just as it had displaced Blockbuster (which failed to adapt in time, though it might now). In fact, Netflix faces stiff competition from others eager to fill the streaming and downloadable video niche, including Amazon and Apple. And a separate niche exists for supermarket and store based CD rental vending machines, in which Redbox enjoys an early dominance.
I’ve traced above just one set of strands of a far vaster and more complicated net, with, for instance, the evolution of audio recording devices (phonographs to reel-to-reel tape to cassettes to digital, with the various forms of vinyl recordings evolving alongside of magnetic tapes); different filming and projecting technologies and types (as well as production styles); television sets (from small black-and-white to slightly larger, then color, then much larger, then projection, then plasma screen); different television signal delivery technologies (local over-air broadcast, cable, satellite, digital, which catalyzed a proliferation of channels and networks); and, of course, evolving computer hardware and software intertwined with all the others.
Any aspect of the ”anthrosphere” (human social institutions, technologies, products and constructions, and cultural motifs) can similarly be zeroed in on as one aspect of the evolutionary process discussed in “The Politics of Consciousness ,” and “Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future.” We can trace building construction, or aviation, or land transportation, or clothing, or medicine, or money, or markets, or warfare, or farming, or mining, or law, or political forms, or religion, or any other aspect of the human-produced sphere of our existence, in exactly the same way as audio-visual entertainment, and then trace the linkages and cross-fertilization’s among them. By understanding the anthrosphere in these terms, and contextualizing those human systems within the similar biological evolutionary ecological systems (the “biosphere”) that they mimic and echo, all within the framework of other natural systems (e.g., the hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere), we have a single, coherent paradigm within which to understand the entire global system, applying complex dynamical systems analysis adapted to the particular forms of analysis evolved to address various subsystems, focusing on different aspects in different ways, zooming in more tightly or panning out more broadly, but not arbitrarily divorcing any one branch from the others with which it is ultimately interconnected.
(see also Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix for more on this general theme).