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A Time for Self-Surpassing

by James Carroll

It was not enough for our ancestors, as their brains evolved, that they should know. What made them our actual human forebears was that they came to know that they knew. Conscious of their consciousness, they made a leap on behalf of the entire cosmos, for in them the cosmos became aware of itself. And from then on, humans have been defined by the urge to surpass themselves.

But such self-awareness brought anxiety, the inability to be at peace with the self because it is constantly becoming something new. That elusiveness of peace within the self is what makes peace with others elusive, too. Thus, we alone, of all animals, habitually engage in deadly assault within our own species. Restless self-consciousness, that is, has its tragic aspect. Humans invent the future before being fully able to cope with it.

When our forebears made the brilliant shift from seed-gathering to seed-planting — the invention of farming — humans really surpassed themselves, with explosive improvement in nutrition, population growth, the coming of cities, civilization, and science. But agriculture brought divisions by class, a wealthy few dominating the hard-laboring many. The growers’ accumulation of more than subsistence required led to raids on surplus, and the organized theft of war. The great evolutionary leap of agriculture, too, had its tragic aspect.

Humans, therefore, have an innate urge toward self-transcendence, which always leaves humans at the mercy of the new. The oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is today’s instance of that reality — an unprecedented technology for the exploitation of resources in the heretofore off-limits realm of the ocean depths, which involves demands that cannot yet be met. Yes, BP is guilty of what may be criminal negligence in sinking extreme oils wells without adequate backup plans, and, yes, government bureaucracies are again exposed as unprepared. Result? Mass destruction of oceans, wildlife, coastal habitats, and the economic lives of hard-working people. The urgency of a fix could not be plainer, and the world awaits it anxiously.

But the Deepwater Horizon blowout is a harbinger. Oil drilling is only one activity taking place at the frontier where unprecedented human inventiveness intersects with forces making for wholly predictable catastrophe. Technology itself is such a frontier — with the malign technology of weapons development being only the most obvious example. The problem of nuclear weapons is so familiar as to be almost beyond comment, but take the apparently less momentous military revolution that has been launched by American drone warfare. No one can predict the consequences for the meaning of war of this total removal of one combatant from the field of battle on which the other is met. War’s mainly personal character has, until now, been its only check. The video-screen pilot in Nevada, whose weapon obliterates lives half a world away, is a psychological mutant. The technically ingenious Pentagon has set devils loose here, without regard for ultimate consequence — either to drone victims, drone victimizers, or a drone-infested world.

Innovations of information technology, on the other hand, can seem only benign. Yet they involve such a revolution in the way humans think and express thought that we can feel thrown back to that early phase of species development when consciousness itself was the realm of change. Once more, our self-transcendence has cast us up on an alien shore. What happens when the complexity of computers can be penetrated only by other computers? The oil well a mile below the ocean’s surface has its proximate equivalent in something as mundane as the global banking system now. What happens when that pipeline breaks? The Internet grid, like tidal wetlands, is a fragile ecology. At systemwide computer failure, will we discover that the oceanic depths of the human mind have already been polluted by our willing surrender to the machine of contemplative reading, the privacy essential to interiority, the capacity to communicate in any but the broken language of screen text?

“The problems that exist in the world today,’’ Albert Einstein once remarked, “cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.’’ That sums up both our dilemma and our opportunity. The time of necessary self-surpassing is here again.

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