The timing was interesting. As the accusations of Russian cyber crime started to reach a fever pitch, I was randomly engrossed in reading “The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks,” by Joshua Cooper Ramo.
Ramo is an interesting character steeped in expertise concerning China, along with the global economy and politics. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and lives in Beijing and New York City. He is on the board of directors of Starbucks and FedEx. He has a background in journalism, having served as the youngest ever senior and foreign editor for Time magazine. Prior to this work, he was a competitive aerobatic pilot. He was born in 1968, making him an influential GenXer.
Early on Ramo refers to Friedrich Nietzche, who, in the late 19th century, professed that man was in desperate need of developing a sixth sense to keep pace with the “rhythms of history” and the “pace and tone to human life.” Without this sixth sense, Nietzche felt that tragedy was surely on the horizon. As noted by Ramo:
“Nietzsche thought the world was about to have to face a very steep, unforgiving incline on the way to a new kind of social order, and that most people in the 1890s were skipping along as if it was all downhill from there on out. A feeling for history, he hoped, might help. But he also felt pretty sure no one would develop this new sense. He expected tragedy. ‘The more abstract the truth you wish to teach,’ he said, ‘the more you must allure the senses to it.’ But no one was attracted to the idea of danger in those gilded days. Very few people tuned their instincts to the age. And, as two world wars later showed, Nietzsche had been sadly correct about the impending tragedy.”
Ramo then extends this thinking to modern times, explaining that we are living during a new age defined mostly by numerous interconnected electronically driven networks that are growing rapidly in numbers, with one network more powerful or on the cusp of becoming more powerful than the other. Many of these networks are invisible to the common man, but they are ubiquitous and represent a shift in human history that Ramo thinks is more profound than the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason and the Industrial Revolution combined.
By accessing our seventh sense, which is basically an extension of Nietzche’s notion of a sixth sense, we can learn where powers rank in the networks and identify those that can catalyze change with dire and/or wonderful impacts. We are already seeing the early fruition of this new age in the world of complex, difficult-to-understand global cyber warfare and criminal hacking. Our recent presidential primary and election is an early prime example.
Owning up to our seventh sense, in effect, means that we must act on how the networks influence life as we currently know it. “If we just let the new age happen (similar to what Nietzche prognosticated during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century), it’s likely to pretty quickly slip out of our control.”
An interesting story that Ramo offers as an historical perspective to prove his points – among many historical references he used in the book – is the story about the invention of the machine gun. Richard Gatling and Hiram Stevens Maxim, competitors in the early development of the machine gun, witnessed the horrible results of their inventions in one surprising battle alone on July 1, 1916, when, completely and utterly unexpected, about 60,000 British soldiers (of which about 20,000 were killed), tragically became mowed-down casualties in the WWI battle at Somme, due primarily to the new, unpredictable trench warfare fiercely driven by machine gunnery.
“The machine gun reached the fiery acme of its purpose not as a spur to end wars altogether, as Gatling once hoped,” Ramo wrote. He then asks,
“Is there some disaster lingering in our own future, as unimagined from our current perspective as machine guns and trenches were a century ago? We should worry about the day we might face a Melian choice of our own, when some general or infomanagerial despot—or some clicking computer—shows up, unwelcome, and says to us: It should be obvious that you are merely a node and that I control the network.”
Melian refers to the inhabitants of the ancient island of Melos off the coast of Greece. The Melian’s were asked by an Athenian general who invaded their island to either surrender or join in war against Sparta. They voted against surrender and were subsequently massacred. “It is the nature of power that he who has it takes; he who does not must submit,” is a famous quote that came out of that tragedy that happened in 416 BCE.
So, the message is clear: the new machine guns of the 21st century are the electronic networks seeking to grab power through cyber space. Be aware of them before they take a shot at you from their computerized trenches.
I now turn to some of the other things I’ve been reading that fit well within the “rhythms of history” and the “pace and tone to human life.”
The End of Us: Are We Really on a Path Toward Self Destruction?
Of the same ilk as the awful year that finally came to an end, came a new existential crisis of wide ranging proportions that I happened across in a recent spate of articles and books about the likelihood of mankind’s next mass extinction. For example, see CNN’s eye-opening slide show titled “Vanishing: The extinction crises is far worse than you think.” The slides show presents five reasons why we are on a straight path toward our complete destruction, caused primarily by us: disease, pollution, wildlife crime, agriculture, and climate change.
I picked up a lot more on this overtly ominous topic of interest after reading two books by Yuval Noah Harari, “Sapiens” and “Homo Deus.” On the heels of these two, I also started reading “The Sixth Extinction,” by the amazing Elizabeth Kolbert, who in my mind is a kind of super female Indian Jones figure.
By the way, Wikipedia has a decent explanation of the five extinctions of our planetary life that came before the here and now (there are many more scientific sites you can look at as well as numerous articles and books about these easily accessible online): the Cretaceous-Paleogene (66 million years ago), the Triassic-Jurassic (201 million years ago), the Permian-Triassic (252 million years ago), the Late Devonian (375 million years ago), and the Ordovician-Sillurain (450 million years ago).
These particular readings, along with a few others that I won’t mention at this time, brought on a foreboding depression in my head concerning mankind’s future. In light of this, I kept searching around for answers to why we are here and whether or not we are, in fact, going to “extinct” ourselves in the not-too-distant future.
Starting with Harari, I have to say that this man astoundingly tackled the history of mankind like no other book I have ever read. Sapiens changed my thinking about humanity’s raison d’etre. I don’t feel the same way about Homo Deus, although Harari did cover some fundamentally important aspects of our future based on our history as human beings who have repeatedly destroyed each other and our biodiversity.
Harari says we are currently occupying a “New Human Agenda” whereby we continue to seek out powers that can almost be considered divine-like while simultaneously destroying our essential humanness. We do this by supplementing real life with superior artificial intelligence and other scientific discoveries and applications that can quite possibly overtake us.
The logic of Harari’s point is supported by a number of relatively recent scientific findings and research that are outlined in Homo Deus, a good number of which Harari set the table with in Sapiens. Actually, a lot of what he wrote in Homo Deus is an expansion of what he wrote in the Afterword of Sapiens where he summed up his overall point of view about mankind’s very fragile future. In short, he paints an extremely negative view of our deathly instincts on a grand scale, and he does it in a way that is totally believable by invoking our past deeds of repeated destruction and mayhem.
Yes, we have overcome famines, plagues and war, but we are still discontent and lost. “We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever.”
Homo Deus shows us some of that irresponsibility when Harari describes the reign of utter terror and destruction the 70,000 year-old youngster of our planet’s history, Homo Sapiens (us), inflicted on itself. He explains how we have changed everything in “radical and unprecedented ways.”
“Already tens of thousands of years ago, when our Stone Age ancestors spread from East Africa to the four corners of the earth, they changed the flora and fauna of every continent and island in which they settled. They drove to extinction all the other human species of the world, 90 percent of the large animals of Australia, 75 percent of the large mammals of America and about 50 percent of the large land mammals of the planet – and all before they planted the first wheat field, shaped the first metal tool, wrote the first text or struck the first coin.”
Now, in the same extinct-orientation that we have pursued throughout our existence, we are on a path that will eventually erode our humanness because of our unhealthy laser-like focus on three things: biological engineering, cyborg engineering, and the engineering of non-organic beings. All this engineering will eventually re-engineer us into hybrid-humans, with artificial intelligence that is so far superior to our original Homo Sapien-ness. The hybrid-humans will inevitably take the power that has been engineered onto their existence to eliminate the old “us” that has a tendency to eat all of our planet’s resources. Harari compares this takeover to how, over time Homo Sapiens domesticated chickens, pigs, cows, and other animals for our digestive desires, our entertainment, and even our social pleasures. To the same degree that man took over the lives of these poor sentient animals, we could also be put into pens, for instance, fed and kept alive only for spare parts and disposed of similarly in slaughter houses.
Kolbert’s book supports a good number of end-of-us prognostications as well. Her notions about a sixth extinction taking a firm hold on the near horizon shows the reader how it is totally manmade. In short, the so-called Anthropocene Age is here.
If, like me, you juxtapose Kolbert’s “Sixth Extinction” point of view alongside Harari’s, you cannot help but become thoroughly pessimistic about the future of us as inevitably becoming the end of us. Kolbert puts this into her scientific perspective when she wrote thoroughly about a good number of important Anthropocene proofs of concept, such as, in brief:
“The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today—a little over four hundred parts per million—is higher than at any other point in the last eight hundred thousand years. Quite probably it is higher than at any point in the last several million years. . .
“If warming were held to a minimum . . . between 22 and 31 percent of the species would be committed to extinction by 2050. If warming were to reach what was at that point considered a likely maximum—a figure that now looks too low—by the middle of this century, between 38 and 52 percent of the species would be fated to disappear.”
She shows us through first-hand travel to, and deep observations of places, guided by numerous scientists who are studying this around the globe, that are the primary indicators of another mass extinction on the near horizon.
Disconcerting to say the least….