Alan N. Shapiro
Alan N. Shapiro is a trans-disciplinary thinker who studied Science and Technology at MIT and Philosophy, History and Literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He is the author of Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance (2004), widely recognized as a seminal work in science fiction studies and the conception of futuristic technoscience. He is the editor and translator of The Technological Herbarium by Gianna Maria Gatti (2010), a major study of art and technology. He is a practicing software developer and is the co-inventor, with Alexis Clancy, of the New Computer Science, which promises to be something like a new Manhattan Project. He is currently founding a utopian company called Shapiro Technologies, which will be based on the principles of friendship and ‘not working’. Alan Shapiro is recognized as one of the leading experts on the philosophy and cultural theory of Jean Baudrillard.
Influenced by Martin Heidegger’s philosophical essay The Question Concerning Technology, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s core Critical Theory text Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s epic science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, I believe that we have come to the end of the long era of technology being conceived and developed as a tool for the ‘domination of nature’, regarded as inanimate, and built to act upon what are assumed to be ‘inanimate things’ in the social and natural worlds.1 I want to change our way of thinking about and devising technologies, to participate in a quantum leap in evolution at the beginning of the 21st century, to reconnect with the original meaning of the Greek word techne (which means the creativity of craft, art, or skill exercised as the implementation of theoretical/practical knowledge), to treat technologies as alive, and as equal partners with humans in the making of new artificial-natural- social-individual environments for enabling greater human happiness, individual freedom, embodied existence, and the autonomous vitality of techno-entities and techno-objects. I want to go beyond the dualism or binary opposition between the natural and the artificial, and between nature and culture. I think of the great scientist Charles Darwin’s book The Voyage of the Beagle, a work of both science and literature.2 During his world travels, Darwin examined with the same keen observational eye and cool-headedness the objects of his investigations, regardless of whether they were phenomena of animal wildlife behavior, geology, or human societies.
Knowledge in the current Western academic-university system, in the natural sciences, in engineering, in the social sciences, in the arts and the humanities, has been divided into separate disciplines. Our knowledge is fragmented, and thus we are not properly positioned to formulate the right questions about what we need to do as a civilization. I like the German word Wissenschaft which is used both for the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences, humanities). We need a new unified perspective. Science, as the privileged perspective and methodology for gaining access to and knowledge of objective reality, is over. John Horgan made this clear more than a decade ago in The End of Science.3 Science goes from the 17th to the 20th century. It’s been a specific paradigm, and this paradigm is now exhausted. There’s going to be a paradigm shift, in the sense that Thomas S. Kuhn wrote about in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.4 A paradigm shift is going to take place. The coming shift primarily has to do with no longer excluding art, philosophy, theology, spirituality, sociology, languages, poetry, literature, etc., from the foundations of science. Many will find this to be a controversial statement, but in my view, applied science during these past centuries has taken an engineering approach. This is especially true of computer science, which is not yet a science. Computer science must paradoxically go beyond the smug satisfaction of being an engineering science to first become a real science, at the forefront of the new advanced poetico-techno-scientific era that lies ahead, beyond science.
I believe that the invention of a New Computer Science, one more powerful than the one that presently exists, is possible; a more powerful computer science that often goes by the names of Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Life, and Quantum Computing. The goal of quantum computing has been clearly and explicitly defined by computer scientists, but the mathematics of how to implement qubits and superposition states does not yet exist. To- gether with Alexis Clancy, I am working on the architecture, design, and coding of Quantum Computing in Software. A crucial characteristic of quantum mechanics known as entanglement occurs under certain experimental conditions. Subatomic particles become ‘inextricably linked’ in such a way that a change to one of them is instantly ‘reflected in its counterpart’, no matter how physically separated they are. Quantum theory postulates a ‘superposition of states’ that destabilizes the intuitive sensorial notion of spatial separation. Entangled particles transcend space and remoteness. They belong to a ‘shared’ system that acts as a single entity. The distance that divides the particles no longer plays any influencing role that would lead them to be judged as having distinct identities. Once the entanglement state is established, the subatomic duo stays forever bonded. The two particles will always have either precisely opposing or ‘elegantly complementing’ relative values of key quantum properties such as polarization direction, independent of how far apart they travel from one another.
Quantum physics imposes on us the limitation that the quantum information in a system is available to us only with the greatest of difficulties. Since the mid-20th century, physicists have discovered that there is a reality of quantum physics, but have had trouble observing that reality. A measurement of superpositions yields only one value, and at the same time destroys all the others. Computer scientists working on quantum computers therefore rely heavily on the Fourier transform, a mathematical operation that transforms one function of a real variable into another, called the frequency domain representation of the first function, as the hypothesized way to solve the problem. The quantum Fourier transform is primarily thought of as being implemented in hardware. A hypothetical quantum computing device would have so-called ‘reversible logic gates’ which continuously allow sequences of reversible decompositions into mathematical unitary matrices. There is little progress in the computer industry in achieving this implementation.
In January 2007, I attended the conference “Consciousness and Quantum Computers” in Lucerne, Switzerland, organized by the Swiss Biennial on Science, Technics & Aesthetics (SBSTA).5 In his opening remarks, René Stettler, Founder and Director of the SBSTA, talked about the trans-disciplinary work that would be involved in the project of bringing to fruition quantum computing. It is especially an expanded understanding of consciousness that would be required to gain a real grasp of quantum physics. Yet, as Stettler pointed out, universities do not even seem to be striving for this trans-disciplinary knowledge. Hans-Peter Dürr, former executive Director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics, and former collaborator of Werner Heisenberg, emphasized in his keynote address that physicists do not have the philosophical training necessary to understand what quantum physics really means. The celebrated mid-20th century physicists who discovered quantum mechanics did not understand it, they only spoke about it in metaphors. They settled on the practice of using applied quantum physics statistically without understanding what quantum physics means.
But quantum physics, according to Dürr, is the most profound rational knowledge that we have gained about the world. The necessary expanded understanding of consciousness and action would have to come from engagement with philosophical traditions like phenomenology, Buddhism, and Hindu cosmic perspectives like Vedanta. Excellent talks on the relationship between Buddhism and the philosophy of science were given at the conference by Geshe Obsang Tenzin, a Tibetan Buddhist psychologist living in America and working on mind/body medicine, and German philosopher Christian Thomas Kohl.
Only with an expansion of consciousness does a protected space open up where the impossibilities of quantum mechanical observation are suspended (as an act of friendship by the divine towards us, so to speak). In this protected space, we can do transformations in a different way. It will not be the Newtonian taking of a measurement that destroys the state measured. The presumed way of measuring or observing the object (the question of the media of scientific mensuration) has remained within classical Newtonian spacetime mechanics. Corresponding to a new 21st century postclassical spacetime, the fruitful way to take measurements on both sides of a created universe, of the model and its phantom, to access all of the quantum information that is going on in a system, is to have a safe, protected space in between where one is allowed to be, prior to ‘becoming (measurable)’, other than being disciplined. Here is the answer to the riddle of quantum physics: not measure, but perceive. An expansion of consciousness supports an expanded perception. Quantum behavior is a reality. Physicists thought that they could not observe or measure this reality without destroying the information therein. But they conceptualized the methodology of observation conventionally. The space from which one can observe the reality of quantum behavior without destroying the information therein is also a reality, a fact of nature. We do not have to invent this space, we only have to perceive it. This space of non-destructive observation really exists, just as quantum behavior really exists, and we will get it working in software. To perceive this space, we have to change our consciousness. That’s all that we have to do! We have to recognize as being scientific some ways of perceiving that belong to other traditions that Western science has so far small-mindedly regarded as non-scientific. This expanded perceiving includes creative mathematics, Buddhist and Hinduist meditation/ontologies, Aboriginal-sacred-mystical-expanded consciousness thinking, and Continental semiotics/grammatology.
The process of preparing for publication the English edition of Gianna Maria Gatti’s book The Technological Herbarium led me to reflect on the need for a New Holistic Biology. I translated the book from Italian into English, edited it and added annotations, and interacted intensively with Gianna Maria Gatti to clear up any misunderstandings of her Italian text that I may have had. During the time of doing this work, I discovered two seminal books which seem to me to be crucial for the future development of the New Biology. One is Aufbruch der Lebensforschung: Der Mensch in einem neuen Weltbild by the Swiss biologist Adolf Portmann, which Gatti comments on poignantly.6 The other is Reflections on a Theory of Organisms: Holism in Biology by Walter M. Elsasser.7 I was told about Elsasser’s book by the sociologist Victoria Grace and her husband the scientist-entrepreneur Louis Arnoux.
Elsasser argues that the task of elaborating a truly scientific biology still lies ahead of us. Physics and chemistry, in their current states of knowledge, are truly scientific, according to Elsasser. Physics, for example, reached scientific status with the unfolding of the 20th-century theoretical systems of quantum mechanics and special/general relativity. Biology, on the other hand – molecular, evolutionary and genetic biology – is not scientific. It is reductionist. Current biological paradigms reduce our understanding of the living organism to a combinatorial model or formula such as the genetic code. But the genetic message is only a symbol of the complete reproductive process. “The message of the genetic code,” writes Elsasser, “does not amount to a complete and exhaustive information sequence that would be sufficient to reconstruct the new organism on the basis of coded data alone.”8
This reductionism on the part of biologists corresponds to the computational paradigm of binary or digital computing that has been available to us in the 20th century. It is almost as if the biologists decided, since this is the limit of the computing power that we have, we will devise a biology that functions within the restrictions of what we can compute. It is the question of how do we deal with complexity. Within the existing or dominant computing paradigm, in order to deal with a complex problem, we break down the problem into smaller, more manageable parts. This is essentially the Cartesian Method. But it is impossible to apply the Cartesian Method to quantum-mechanical generalized complementarities like the wave-particle duality or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Whereas the Cartesian method may work for mechanical systems, it cannot be of much use when we aspire to the understanding or creation of something that is living. The more correct approach that would correspond to a breakthrough into 21st century science would be to identify relationships of similarity, to find samples or patterns that capture something of the vitality and complexity of the whole without breaking it down in a reductionist way.
We need a Holistic Biology where we consider the living organism in its true complexity. The structural complexity of even a single living cell is ‘transcomputational’. Elsasser writes that the computational problem of really scientifically grasping a living organism (or organic structure) is a problem of unfathomable complexity. The single living cell is involved in a network of relationships with all life on the planet, with the planet itself, and with the history of life. The individual member of a species decodes in real-time, as it faces each new circumstance, its species-memory. It creatively retrieves this species-memory through a process of information transfer that is effectively ‘invisible’, and does not take place via any intermediate storage or transmission media. Holistic information transfer happens over space and time, “without there being any intervening medium or process that carries the information.”9 Whereas the genetic code is memory considered as ‘homogeneous replication’, holistic memory is one of ‘heterogeneous reproduction’.
We also need a New Sociology – a kind of quantum physics sociology. The ordinary macro world also has a lot of quantum properties. As Jean Baudrillard wrote in his book America, America is a system of circulation that “precedes the real” – the real meaning that classical sociological reality in which classical sociologists believe.10 Classical sociologists, who base their ‘scientific sociology’ on a 19th-century paradigm (that of Auguste Comte) which assumes a world of docile objects waiting to be ‘objectively’ investigated, a classical worldview that assumes the existence of a social world and social problems rationally ordered by the sovereign thinking subject of social science who is in control. The New Sociology (in honour of Jean Baudrillard) is also scientific – it is based on the 20th-century sciences of quantum physics, special/general relativity, and chaos/complexity theory. It considers much stranger and wily objects in an unmasterable social field governed by relations of radical uncertainty and paradox. The World thinks me; the Inhuman thinks me. Everything is relativistic, enigmatic, and aleatory.11 Social reality is nearly a total chaos. Countries, nationalities, immigration, religions, hybrid languages, identities, gender, sexuality: it is almost beyond our comprehension, laden with strange effects.
Some universities – like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example – are trying to become more interdisciplinary. Well, interdisciplinarity isn’t enough. We have to face the fact that the existing classification of knowledge is obsolete. Interdisciplinarity in itself is more or less worthless. It is only an indication, a sign, that something is very seriously wrong. If, in order to obtain valuable knowledge, we need to span several disciplines, that only shows that what we really need is a major project to rethink what the categories of know-ledge should be.
It is not only necessary to broaden science; it is also necessary to make science more accessible, and to increase citizen participation in public conversations about science. Rather than entering into the economic debate about whether science is a private or a public good, I focus in my work on another dimension of the sociology of science, identifying a hybrid public/private dynamic where the imagination or ‘collective unconscious’ of popular culture actively affects technoscience. I emphasize that the true originality of Star Trek stories and fan communities engenders a reality-shaping ‘science fiction’ that formatively influences ideas, technologies, and even sciences like physics, informatics, and biology. As participants in techno-culture and in the media, ordinary people are already making science. I wish to augment our perception of this heretofore overlooked existing sociological reality as well as to encourage efforts to enhance and strengthen the public creation of science. With the military, for example, there already exists a hybrid public/private dynamic in the dissemination of technoscience that is institutionally operative. The public funds of the military are invested in the research and development labs of private universities and private corporations. The military orchestrates technological inventions, uses them for essentially destructive purposes, and then releases them to the public, where they tend to be applied more beneficially. What I draw attention to in my work is a kind of reversal of directionality of this public/private hybridity: the origination of new scientific goods flowing from public cultural resources into the core foundational assets of the commonwealth where they can, in turn, endow private entrepreneurial ventures. The currency of investment in the creation of new science is not strictly monetary; it is also symbolic. Capital and wealth are not only monetary; they are also symbolic. There is a media culture public sphere which is literary, imaginative, playful, psychoanalytical, creative, innovative. This literary imagination drives scientific invention.
1 Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (translated from the German by William Lovitt) (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr) (translated from the German by Edmund Jephcott) (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002); 2001: A Space Odyssey (directed by Stanley Kubrick) (written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke) (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968).
2 Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (introduction by David Amigoni) (London: Wordsworth Editions, 1997).
3 John Horgan, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age (New York: Broadway Books, 1996).
4 Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).
5 Related to this conference is the publication Zu einer neuen Quantenphysik des Bewusstseins – Gespräche an den Grenzen der
6 Erkenntnis (edited by René Stettler) (Lucerne: Edition Neue Galerie Luzern und Schweizer Biennale zu Wissenschaft, Technik und
7 Ästhetik, 2009).
6 Adolf Portmann, Aufbruch der Lebensforschung: Der Mensch in einem neuen Weltbild (Zurich: Rhein-Verlag, 1965). Italian translation: Le forme viventi: Nuove prospettive della biologia (translated by Boris Porena) (Milano: Adelphi, 1969). There exists no English translation of Portmann’s book.
7 Walter M. Elsasser, Reflections on a Theory of Organisms: Holism in Biology (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, 1998).
8 Ibid., p. 46.
9 Ibid., p. 148.
10 Jean Baudrillard, America (translated from the French by Chris Turner) (London: Verso, 1988).
11 Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange (translated from the French by Chris Turner) (London: Verso, 2001); Aurel Schmidt, “Only Impossible Exchange is Possible,” International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, January 2009 (translated from the German by Alan N. Shapiro).