The woman lies on a special mattress, slab of foam and spectral vibration pulsing in electrical hum to help the un-ending sore on her back heal, resting, rasping, a clear tube of liquid morphine eased into a vein. She is thin now and her eyelids drift as her limbs shudder quietly like the leg twitch of your loved one in bed as REM dreams begin once more then her eyes flash open, a startling blue. “That wasn’t a death rattle, you know,” she says, and we chortle. A moment of humor on the edge of the abyss. Then pain. Spotted hands find the knitted cord attached to the switch in the wall, and pull gently, beseeching nurse, click switch, click, more morphine, please.
This woman is my mother and after eight decades she may have weeks or months or perhaps hours left, the cancer inside an insidious rise and fall, a war sometimes pulling her down under waves or pushing unbidden into hope. I look at her and see past husband, my father, the generations before them, and on a whim we call an aunt far removed in Montana to share their mutual voices one more time, and I wonder, is this all there is?
A few years ago, as the Earth’s population approached 7 billion, demographer Carl Haub wondered how many humans had ever lived on the planet. At the time, a popular conceit was 75% of all people who ever existed were then alive, but Haub made other calculations … and found that if homo sapiens began in 50,000 B.C., adding in growth rates and occasional disease outbreaks, more than 108 billion humans have lived at one point or another. (Let’s put aside that our species had billions of Darwinistic forebears, and go with the apelike uprights who walked most closely like us.) This means your personal, individual life accounts for only 0.0000000009% of all human contributions to … society or art or commercial trade or knowledge or religion or AI machines or whatever it is our species is collectively attempting to build. This sounds depressing, as if you could never make a difference, but then consider 6.5% of all humans who ever lived are alive now, and with modern media (TV or Twitter) your odds of reaching the masses with thoughts of influence have never been higher. Anyone who has wanted to change human history now has more potential, if only she could find the right communications lever, to move things in a new direction.
But most of us don’t end this way, starting new empires or religions. Instead, we (most likely) fall in love, have a family, send our offspring into the world like arrows, work to earn food and shelter, and hope for the best. The vast majority of humans have been born into poverty and risk, subject to attacks by animals or disease, and a small fortunate few — about 4% of the entire humans in history, including you if you are reading this — live today in comfort, with access to clean water and antibiotics and dentistry, able to baste in high blood-sugar surrounded by technological screens and roll at 10 times our human-running speed in shiny steel exoskeletons and even fly through the air like Greek gods, winners of the lotto tickets of history but oblivious, stressed insanely about late planes and car payments and college savings and numbing the pain with an endless mix of faux-theater performances streamed digitally by cable TV or Netflix. Alone amid the plenty of our fellow human billions, we snap pictures of ourselves and share false dreams on Facebook.
A few think more deeply, consuming tales of religion and God and afterlives passed down as either noble truths or naive fictions, consoling about the inevitable end, and a fewer still ponder the even deeper question that perhaps our ant-like lives are building a new collective organism of thought, a future that Kevin Kelly calls the technium and that Bill Joy suggests doesn’t need us, a robotic artificial binary awareness that may move into the clouds of space at some point in the future, a floating intelligence that will look back on us fondly as the ape-like ancestors who while fighting madly between ourselves like the animals we are gave birth to a knowledge that, once encoded, could grow organically into a far horizon of compassion.
If the universe itself is data, and we are giving birth to that information, spinning it together for the first time like sugar whipped into cotton candy, perhaps we are the proto-organisms in a mobius strip of knowledge birth, the creators of the future God who will come back in time to watch over us. His voice will be quiet, yes, because He can only watch what that creation is, for interfering with our pain would undo His own genesis.
If this is so, then every life has a purpose, to love and bond and procreate but most important to share learning, to pass the knowledge forward, to spin the cycle one more step ahead until someday, even if we destroy our own species, the next generation of learning beings will move on. We are building robots. Search engines remember for us. Mobile exoskeletons are beginning to drive themselves. As we look up from our glowing screens powered by the clouds of information now gathering unseen, that future generation may be here. Those beings won’t have bodies flooded by hostile hormones and emotions. Logical, they may accelerate knowledge sharing, and given the growth curve of computing intelligence, it is likely we will never understand them.
Or so I thought hopefully, as I bent down and gave that woman a kiss.
Posted by Ben Kunz