Technological Meliorism and the Posthuman Vision: Arthur C. Clarke and the Ultimate Future of Intelligence
(first published, in slightly different form, 2001, in The New York Review of Science Fiction)
All eras of human civilization have experienced upheavals, whether from plague, war, religious zealotry or the high-handed actions of despots. But modern societies have known change of a deeper kind. They are notable for constant revision of their shared knowledge base and moral norms and of their means of production, social coordination and cultural expression. This is a product of the past four centuries' scientific and technological revolutions, and its recognition has made possible the cultural phenomenon of science fiction. We may welcome change or resist it, but it's in our bones, an everyday fact of life, making it seem natural to speculate about societies generations or centuries ahead. In future eras, we realize, what is known, believed or done may be altogether alien to us.
Not only that. Science has taught us that we are the naturalistic products of events in vast space and deep time, rather than the unique subjects of God's concern. No vitalist essence attaches to the biological material of which we are constituted, and our consciousness is a function of the immense complexity and intricate connectivity of the billions of neurons that comprise our brains and nervous systems. Since it is possible in principle to devise non-biological substrates that could match or surpass our brains in these respects, our descendants may find themselves interacting with artificial, non-biological intelligences. Our descendants may even be non-biological in their physical character.
Recognizing all this, we live within a posthuman moment. It has become reasonable to imagine technologies that could alter human nature and the human condition. Our particular societies and our species itself seem ready for even more dramatic change than was experienced in the 20th century—perhaps to be superseded by something more than, or at least other than, human. Hollywood represents this thought in cautionary movies such as The Terminator (1984) and The Matrix (1999), where inhuman machine intelligences have turned upon their creators and seized control. This is a lurid and negative version of the posthuman, but the underlying philosophy that I've sketched is intellectually tenable, even attractive. It is squarely on the agenda for serious debate. Whether it seems frightening or liberating, there it is.
Such ideas have many sources, merging and strengthening over decades and centuries, but their specific content and current popularity are attributable, at least in part, to Arthur C. Clarke, one of the sf genre's undeniable greats, and the field's major exponent of a future that is stranger than we can yet imagine. Throughout his long career as an sf writer, dating back to the publication of his first stories in 1946, Clarke has had few rivals for pre-eminence in the field. Writing in the 1950s and 1960s, he prophesied our cyber age and set its philosophical directions.
Many of Clarke's ideas about the future were worked out in some detail in a series of essays originally published in Playboy magazine, then collected in 1962 as Profiles of the Future. Revised editions appeared in 1973 and 1982, making the 1999 "Millennial Edition" the fourth version of the book.
As the Millennial Edition's dust-jacket blurb states, the theme of the essays "was one of ultimate possibilities, rather than achievements to be expected in the near future". Indeed, the book is subtitled An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible. It has remained relevant and suggestive four decades after its initial publication, despite some specific bad guesses, such as the author's prediction of a booming future for personal hovercraft. Clarke describes how he bought his own four-seater model, but driving the clumsy beast proved something of a nightmare. He abandoned it on a beach and has not driven a vehicle, with or without wheels, ever since. Looking back, he writes that, "Re-reading this chapter, after almost forty years, has been a chastening—even embarrassing experience."
In Profiles of the Future, as in his other writings, Clarke displays two elements of his thought that are not incompatible, but which make him a complex thinker who slips through the conceptual nets of his critics. First, he is a technological meliorist, an engineer of utopian dreams. He advocates technological innovation, and has a sound grasp of well-established science and real-world engineering techniques. But, secondly, he is a posthuman visionary, straining at the limits of the possible and speculating about the transformation or supersession of humanity.
Commentators on Clarke's work frequently refer to its contrasting technological and metaphysical (or "mystical") directions. Tom Moylan, a Marxist sf scholar with a particular interest in utopianism, puts it like this:
[Clarke] explores the possibilities of and propagandizes for development of space flight and planetary colonization either by the US government or an Americanized world government. A second direction in his work is his mystical preoccupation with the distant future and the evolution of humankind into a superior race, often helped by an even more superior race from another star system.
Moylan is correct to identify the elements of technological advocacy, a near-future concern, and a preoccupation with the far future, including the further evolution of intelligence. However, he is wrong to describe the latter interest as a "mystical" one and in the implication that these elements show incompatible or unrelated ways of thinking.
As a technological meliorist, Clarke does, indeed, advocate the exploration and colonization of space, though Moylan's word "propagandizes", unfairly insinuates that his cause is unjust and his arguments dishonest. Clarke hopes and believes that a coming age of material abundance will greatly improve the human condition, creating a world without the age-old struggles for resources and power that have dominated human societies, and allowing our descendants to concentrate on truly worthwhile activities such as "the search for knowledge and the creation of beauty."
He is not, however, a naïve, gung-ho technophile, ignorant of the downside of technological change. Take his impressive display of imagination and nerve in Chapter Sixteen of Profiles of the Future, where he predicts a wired, computerized world similar to our own, four decades later. He imagines a version of the Internet, with computer addresses analogous to telephone numbers, and files and records in the rented memories of computers that could be anywhere on Earth—all of this connected by satellite links. He describes possibilities such as telemedicine and the instantaneous transmission of electronic correspondence. Yet he displays remarkable shrewdness and clarity about the benefits and costs, discussing positive effects, while also fearing that content will be leveled down and diversity stifled. He observes: "There is grave danger of global levelling down; the troughs in man's cultural heritage must not be filled at the price of demolishing the peaks."
As a posthuman visionary, Clarke offers scenarios in which we have the choice between postbiological enhancement of the brain and body and the supersession of humanity by intelligent machines. He states the compelling need for a "mechanical educator", a device or technique capable of manipulating the brain directly, imprinting information to enable embodied humans to cope with the ever-increasing explosion of knowledge. If this is not invented, he suggests, "then the line of evolution discussed in the next chapter [i.e. machine evolution] will soon predominate". Such a device figures prominently in 3001: The Final Odyssey.
Chapter Eighteen of Profiles of the Future is entitled "The Obsolescence of Man". Here, Clarke writes that "Biological evolution has given way to a far more rapid process—technological evolution. To put it bluntly and brutally, the machine is going to take over." He imagines "a brief Golden Age" of symbiosis between humans and advanced machine, "when men will glory in the power and range of their new partners," then asks, "But how long will this partnership last?" Though he does not envisage an active war between humans and machines, as described in several generations of sf movies and recently given a slick, post-cyberpunk depiction in The Matrix, he does propose, seriously and plausibly, that humanity may be approaching its supersession by mechanical intelligence.
The elements of technological meliorism and posthuman vision are blended in a passage in Profiles of the Future where Clarke acknowledges a criticism by Lewis Mumford of the prospect of space colonization. Clarke responds with a memorable image of his own:
But when [Mumford] wrote: "No one can pretend… that existence on a space satellite or on the barren face of the Moon would bear any resemblance to human life", he may well be expressing a truth he had not intended. "Existence on dry land", the more conservative fish may have said to their amphibious relatives, a billion years ago, "will bear no resemblance to piscatorial life. We will stay where we are."
They did. They are still fish.
Here, the implication is that the colonization of space encourage us to become something more than human beings, as fish evolved into forms that were more than fish. One way or other, Clarke expects the eventual transformation or supersession of humanity as we know it. In Profiles of the Future, he bases this expectation, not on some kind of mysticism, but on imaginative speculation thoroughly grounded in a scientific world view and continuous with his thinking about the nearer future.
Some of Clarke's work contains radical speculations about the ultimate future of life and intelligence, including the seemingly mystical suggestion that mind might exist in forms that do not depend upon matter as we know it. When he presents this suggestion in Profiles of the Future, it is with an amusingly disingenuous touch:
Though intelligence can only arise from life, it may then discard it. Perhaps at a later stage, as the mystics have suggested, it may also discard matter, but this leads us in realms of speculations which an unimaginative person like myself would prefer to avoid.
As many of his readers—in the 1960s and now—would realize, by the time Clarke wrote the essays that comprised Profiles of the Future, he had already portrayed disembodied mentalities in some of his greatest novels: Against the Fall of Night (1948) and its lengthier, re-written version, The City and the Stars (1956); and Childhood's End (1954).
Unlike Clarke's later fiction and his speculations in Profiles of the Future, Childhood's End contains what might be considered an unrationalized "mystical" element. This novel portrays the ultimate form of intelligence as both immaterial and "paraphysical". It depicts the alien Overlords, immeasurably superior beings with something of the appearance of medieval demons, seizing control of the Earth and subjecting humanity to several decades of benevolent guidance. In the closing chapters, however, the human species is revealed as having latent godlike "paraphysical" powers not possessed, or even understood, by the Overlords, who are merely our guardians until the time has come for us to join other species that have discovered their powers and transcended space and time. The Overlords' mission was simply to nurture us so that we would not destroy ourselves as we began to master our full powers.
At one point, the main Overlord character, Karellen, explains that human scientists began to investigate paranormal phenomena systematically in the first half of the 20th century, not realizing the enormous forces that awaited discovery:
"They did not know it, but they were tampering with the lock of Pandora's box. The forces they might have unleashed transcended any perils that the atom could have brought. For the physicists could only have ruined the Earth: the paraphysicists could have spread havoc to the stars."
It transpires that, above the Overlords, there is a collective "Overmind" which directs them to care for species such as ours. When humanity is fully prepared, the children leave their bodies, join with the Overmind, and evidently roam free through the universe.
Childhood's End demonstrates that I was too hasty in another essay on Clarke's work, in which I asserted that he never suggests "that mind could exist in a spooky way independently of physical reality—merely that the latter might turn out stranger than we can yet imagine." While this sentence strikes me as accurately reflecting the overall direction of Clarke's thinking, it cannot, on reflection, be justified in such a bald form. Yet, even in Childhood's End, where mind is shown as surviving in a "paraphysical" form, Clarke distances himself from the tradition of mysticism: at one point, one of the Overlords refers to mysticism as "perhaps the prime aberration of the human mind"; elsewhere, Karellen describes human mystics as "lost in their own delusions, [though they] had seen part of the truth."
Clarke would be entitled to resist an equation of the book's vision with mysticism, and it is clear that he is not presenting his literal views about the possible future of intelligence. The book is famously preceded by an unusually robust disclaimer: "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author", though it appears that this was not primarily directed at its discussion of paranormal phenomena, but at the superficial moral that "The stars are not for Man." In his Foreword to the 1990 edition, Clarke makes this clear, and confirms that he has taken the paranormal seriously at some stages of his career. However, he adds that he would now like to direct the disclaimer at "99 per cent of the 'paranormal' (it can't all be nonsense) and 100 per cent of UFO 'encounters'."
What might fairly be said about Childhood's End is that it speculates, without any commitment, but with considerable beauty and emotion, that paranormal experiences might be amenable to some scientific rationale, as yet unknown. This was probably a common view among sf writers in the 1950s. Like many of his peers, Clarke commonly introduced mental powers, such as telepathy, in much of his work—a tendency that still appears in sf, even of a kind otherwise distant from fantasy or any kind of occultism or irrationalism. On that basis, Clarke depicts the ultimate future of intelligence in a form that lies outside physical, but not necessarily systematic or scientific, explanation.
Reference might also be made to one of Clarke's most famous stories of this time, "The Sentinel" (1951), which provided the seed of the Space Odyssey series (though Clarke is impatient with the common description of it as "the story on which 2001 is based"). Clarke's first-person narrator speculates in one throwaway line that the mysterious aliens who left a pyramidal structure on the Moon may have used mechanisms belonging "to a technology that lies beyond our horizons, perhaps to the technology of para-physical forces." However, as in Childhood's End, this willingness to imagine a science of the "para-physical" does not detract from the author's scientific rationalist world view.
In Against the Fall of Night and The City and the Stars, Clarke can be seen as moving to a more clearly rationalized version of his posthuman vision. In these works, he portrays a world separated from ours by a billion-year gulf of time, and speculates about "the problem of ultimate intelligence". Each version imagines mentalities that are no longer based on any substrate of matter, but The City and the Stars introduces the idea of posthuman intelligence in computerized form. It also rationalizes the daring thought that ultimate intelligence may transcend matter.
In Against the Fall of Night, Alvin, the main character, is the first child to have been born in the city of Diaspar for thousands of years. The city's inhabitants are immortal, and the corollary of this is that they do not reproduce. In The City and the Stars, Alvin's uniqueness is presented in a more complex and imaginative scenario. What makes him a rare "Unique" within the city is that his personal characteristics have been created for the first time, rather than recreated from a previous human template by the city's matter organizers, which use information on the billions of humans stored in Diaspar's memory units.
In imagining a scenario of stored human personalities in a computer substrate, Clarke found inspiration in what were then new ideas in the field of information theory. In Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, Ed Regis describes Clarke's fundamental insight in this way:
If you got enough information out of the brain and reproduced it with enough accuracy elsewhere, then you'd have a way of re-creating that person's memories, their innermost thoughts, feelings and everything else. You'd be able to remake the person in a form other than his original flesh-and-blood physique. You might even be able to transfer an entire human mind into a computer. It was hard to know what this would mean, exactly, but at the very least it was clear that our concept of what it was to be a human being would be changed forever.
In Against the Fall of Night, published six years before Childhood's End, and eight years before The City and the Stars, Clarke shows the immaterial mind, Vanamonde, as the product of advanced scientific experiments far in Earth's future. However, he does not otherwise attempt to rationalize the creation of immaterial minds. Nothing is said at all about what substrate, if any, provides the underlying basis for Vanamonde's existence, though Vanamonde does appear to be located in physical space. In his authorized sequel, Beyond the Fall of Night, Gregory Benford rationalizes the immaterial minds in the book as beings composed of complex magnetic fields.
Clarke takes a different tack in The City and the Stars; here, Vanamonde is shown to be the product of manipulations to the structure of space itself to imprint the existence of mind in a substrate that is not matter, but a more basic physical reality. This is of a piece with the author's subsequent fiction and non-fiction writings in which he speculates that information and mind might be able to exist in forms that do not depend upon matter as we know it, but on some other physical substrate, such as a kind of energy.
In the Space Odyssey series, on which Clarke began work in the 1960s, he describes the alien intelligences that shaped the evolution of humanity as having passed through radically distinct forms of evolution, from biological life, to a cyborg form with biological brains in machine bodies, then machine intelligence—ultimately recreating themselves as energy. This synthesizes the speculations of The City and the Stars and Profiles of the Future. Chapter 37, "Experiment", of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is largely repeated in the Prologue to 3001, provides a succinct account of the series' cosmic background. The alien Firstborn, as they are referred to in 3001, have cultivated mind wherever they have found it in the universe. Encountering Earth some time after the age of the dinosaurs, they have "tinkered with the destiny of many species, on land and in the ocean", before setting out for the stars, leaving intelligent artifacts—the famous black monoliths—behind to complete the job. Thereafter, the Firstborn have themselves evolved further:
First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and of plastic.
In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.
Ultimately, however, these Machine-entities have learned to "store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light." They have transformed themselves "Into pure energy". Referring to their material machine-bodies, the author informs us: "the empty shells they had discarded twitched for a while in a mindless dance of death, then crumbled into rust." This sounds like the conclusion to Childhood's End, where the children of Earth rise from their bodies, but Clarke now gives it a rationalization in terms of physical laws.
The godlike Firstborn play almost no direct role in the action of the Space Odyssey series. In a way this is disappointing, and the various sequels to the original book and movie do not really advance the cosmic story of 2001. In a sense, however, that was almost impossible, since any attempt to explore in detail the posthuman state that Dave Bowman enters at the end of the original book and movie, let alone the motivations of ultimate intelligences such as the Firstborn, might have lost touch entirely with the experience and imagination of the all-too-human audience.
Be that as it may, it is not necessarily mystical to ponder the far future, as Clarke does, or to wonder what forms of life or consciousness will one day supersede humanity. That kind of contemplation may be of no direct social use and there may even be limits to how far it can be portrayed with sympathy and interest in a work of fiction, but it is consistent with the development of science ever since Copernicus and Galileo. Since we are embedded in and produced by events in the vastness of space and time, everything about us is contingent and impermanent; it is scarcely thinkable that humanity will continue in its current form for the billions of years ahead. Contemplating such distant events is legitimate play for a scientific imagination such as Clarke's.
Clarke favors technological advances, including the immediate development of space technology. He also speculates that very advanced technologies might alter the human species dramatically, perhaps to whatever degree is allowed by fundamental physical laws. In the end, there is no inconsistency between his technological meliorism and his longer-term posthuman vision, since the latter is quite consistent with the scientific world view on which modern technology is based. Admittedly, the transformation of the human species and the ultimate future of intelligence in immaterial form appear relatively under-rationalized in such works as Against the Fall of Night and Childhood's End. But by 1956, with The City and the Stars, Clarke had clearly absorbed any "mystical" tendency into his practice of pushing the scientific imagination to its logical limits, taking ideas grounded in a scientific rationalist world view "to the end of the line".
Clarke's technological meliorism, his vision of a posthuman future, and his speculations about "the problem of ultimate intelligence" can all be understood as a unified whole. At the same time, the articulation of his ideas is not beyond criticism and argument.
Some may accuse him of a failure of imagination, or of nerve, in his assertion, in Profiles of the Future, that we will never acculturate and administer the vastness of space. Yet this may be correct: even immortal intellects such as Clarke postulates, "as vast as worlds, or suns… or solar systems"—creatures on a scale to be truly at home in the universe—might never be able to administer its practically infinite combinatorial complexity. Again, when Clarke imagines the ultimate future of intelligence in some kind of physical, but non-material, form, the vision tends to break off, and we return to a focus on human characters. This, perhaps, is inevitable, for a writer who, after all, is primarily committed to entertaining a human audience.
The most telling criticism of Profiles of the Future may be that made by Clarke himself, that it fails to discuss medical and biological developments in detail. Such an omission in the author's most important non-fiction book seems surprising, particularly given the opportunities provided by later editions. For example, the contraceptive pill was invented in the early 1960s, dramatically altering the Western world's sexual mores, as the first edition was finding readers. Yet, if this is a weakness in Profiles of the Future, specifically, it does not necessarily show a gap in Clarke's overall thinking, since he imagined something like the 1960s sexual revolution, in Childhood's End, several years before the pill was developed, refined and marketed.
Clarke was not without precursors in envisaging a posthuman future or speculating about the ultimate future of intelligence. Moreover, the sf field has grown with him, and it is difficult to establish which writers first put forward which particular ideas, such as the existence of mind in a computer substrate or the possibility of immaterial, yet physically substantial, intelligence. Clarke, however, was a breakthrough thinker and writer, both because of his remarkable and detailed speculations going back to the mid-1950s and because of the quality and influence of his work.
Other posthuman visionaries came after him and elaborated their visions in detailed and attractive ways: among them are Eric Drexler, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, Frank Tipler, and a host of sf writers, of whom Vernor Vinge may be the most original and prominent, and Greg Egan the most rigorous. Yet, Clarke was, and is, a giant in this field. When we return to his fiction and essays of the 1950s and 1960s, they remain lyrical, compelling—and surprisingly modern and fresh. Despite its undoubted merits, more recent work on posthuman themes and the future of intelligence often reads like footnotes to Clarke's remarkable speculations.