A Singularity in Time

The pace of life is forever speeding up. Technological breakthroughs spread through society in years rather than centuries. Calculations that would have taken decades are now made in minutes. Communication that used to take months happens in seconds. In almost every area of life, change is occurring faster and faster.

Yet, this acceleration is not confined to modern times. Medieval architecture and agriculture, for instance, varied very little over the period of a century. But even then change occurred much faster than it did in prehistoric times. Stone Age tools remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Nor is this quickening confined to humanity; it is a pattern that stretches back to the dawn of life on Earth. The first simple lifeforms evolved nearly four billion years ago. Multicellular life appeared a billion or so years ago. Vertebrates with central nervous systems, several hundred million years ago. Mammals appeared tens of millions of years ago. The first hominids stood on the planet a couple of million years ago; homo sapiens, a few hundred thousand years ago. Language and tool-use emerged tens of thousands of years ago. Civilization, the movement into towns and cities, started a few thousand years ago. The Industrial Revolution began three centuries ago. Finally, the Information Revolution is but a few decades old.

Why Does Evolution Accelerate?

The reason for this acceleration is that each new development is, so to speak, standing on the shoulders of what has come before. A good example is the advent of sexual reproduction some 1.5 billion years ago. Until that time cells, reproduced by splitting into two, each of the new “sisters” being exact clones of the original. With sexual reproduction, two cells came together, shared genetic information and produced offspring containing a combination of their genes. it no longer took many generations for one genetic difference to arise. Differences now occurred in every generation, speeding evolution a thousandfold.

A more recent example is the transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. When it came to manufacturing computers, we did not need to reinvent factories or global distribution systems; that expertise had already been gained. We had simply to apply it to the production of computers. Thus the Information Revolution established itself much faster.

This pattern is set to continue in the future—each new phase requiring a fraction of the time required in the previous phase. In the future, we might expect the same amount of change we've seen in the last twenty years take place in years rather than decades.

It is difficult, therefore, to predict what the world will be like in ten or twenty years. Two hundred years ago no one predicted we would have telephones or movies, let alone cell phones or the Internet. Just twenty years ago, very few of us had any notion of the WorldWide Web, or of how dramatically it would change our lives. Similarly, who knows what new breakthroughs or developments will be transforming our lives ten years from now?

Approaching a Singularity

So where is all this leading? Some people think we are headed toward what is called a “singularity.” This is the term that mathematicians give to a point when an equations breaks down and ceases to have any useful meaning. The rules change. Something completely different happens.

A simple example of a singularity occurs if you try to divide a number by zero. If you divide by smaller and smaller numbers, the results will be larger and larger numbers. But if you divide something by zero you get infinity, which is not a number in the everyday sense. The equation has broken down.

The idea that there might be a singularity in human development was first suggested by the mathematician Vernor Vinge, and subsequently by others, most notably Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity Is Near. They argue that if computing power keeps doubling every eighteen months, as it has done for the last fifty years, then sometime in the 2020s there will be computers that can equal the performance of the human brain. From there, it is only a small step to a computer that can surpass the human brain. There would then be little point in our designing future computers; ultra-intelligent machines would be able to design better ones, and do so faster.

What happens then is a big question. Some propose that humans would become obsolete; machines would become the vanguard of evolution. Others think there would be a merging of human and machine intelligence—downloading our minds into computers, perhaps. The only thing we can confidently predict is that this would be a complete break from the patterns of the past. Evolution would have moved into a radically new realm.

But this transition, as major as it would be, would not yet be true singularity in the mathematical sense. Evolution—whether human, machine, or a synthesis of the two—would continue at an ever-increasing pace. Development timescales would continue to shorten, from decades to years, to months, to days. Before long, they would approach zero. The rate of change would then become infinite. We would have reached a true mathematical singularity.

Timewave Zero and 2012

The idea that humanity is heading towards a point of infinitely rapid change was explored by Terence McKenna in his book The Invisible Landscape. He developed a mathematical fractal function, which he called the "timewave", that appeared to match the overall rate of ingression of novelty in the world. (“Ingression of novelty” is a term coined by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead to denote new forms or developments coming into existence). This timewave is not a smooth curve, but one that has peaks and troughs corresponding to the peaks and troughs of the rate of ingression of novelty across human history.

The most significant characteristic of McKenna's timewave is that its shape repeats itself, but over shorter and shorter intervals of time. The curve shows a surge in novelty around 500 BC, when Lao Tsu, Plato, Zoroaster, Buddha, and others were exerting a major influence on the millennia to come. The repeating nature of McKenna's timewave shows the same pattern occurring in the late 1960s, where it happened sixty-four times faster. In 2010, the pattern repeats again, sixty-four times faster still. And then, in 2012, sixty-four times faster still. The timescale is compressed from months to weeks, to days, tending very rapidly toward zero: a point McKenna called “Timewave Zero.”

But when precisely is this date? McKenna experimented with sliding his curve up and down history to look for a best fit. Eventually, he chose December 22, 2012. At the time, he did not know that the Mayan Calendar also ended its 5,124 year cycle one day earlier. McKenna himself was not overly attached to the date; he confided that he would be intrigued, come 2012, to see whether his conjectures about infinite novelty would indeed prove correct. Sadly, he passed away in 2000.

Personally, I am not so concerned with what actually will or will not happen on that precise date of December 21, 2012. Indeed, almost every prediction ever made that related to a specific date failed to materialize. I am more interested in where this accelerating pattern may be taking us, and its mind-boggling implications—whether they occur in 2012, or some other time.

Limits to Change?

As explored in my 1992 book The White Hole in Time (revised as Waking Up in Time), if the ever-accelerating pace of change continues, we are not going to be evolving for eons into the future. We could see the whole of our future evolution—as much development as we can conceive of, and more—compressed into a very short time. Within a few generations, perhaps within our own lifetimes, we could reach the end of our evolutionary journey.

It is often argued that this will never happen because there are limits to the rate of change. Any growth will eventually reach a plateau, resulting not in an ever-steeper curve, but one that bends over into an S-shape.

Population growth is a good example. For thousands of years the human population has been growing, and growing faster and faster. A thousand years ago, the world's population numbered around 310 million. This number had doubled by 1600. In 1800, it was approaching one billion, and the doubling time was down to 150 years. By 1960, it had reached four billion, with a doubling time of only thirty years. Since then, however, population growth has slowed; the curve has begun to bend over. If current trends continue the human population will probably stabilize between 10 and 12 billion.

Similar S-curves can be found in just about every area of development. For example, the production of steam locomotives increased rapidly during the first century of the Industrial Revolution, then tapered off in the mid-twentieth century as diesel and electric power became more dominant. Or, consider the growth of high-speed Internet connections in the USA. The rate of new connections grew rapidly in the first years of this century, and by 2005 over half of all homes had a high-speed connection. Now, as the saturation point approaches, the rate of growth of new connections has slowed.

However, when we talk about a speeding up of the overall rate of change, we are not talking of any particular S-curve, but the rate at which successive S-curves stack up. It took population growth thousands of years to reach its turning point. The Industrial Revolution took two hundred years. High-speed Internet connections—less than a decade. So the question is not whether any particular growth keeps increasing forever, but whether there is a limit to the rate of ingression of novelty—whatever its medium at any particular time.

Evolving Intelligence

One recurring pattern that underlies evolution is an increasing complexity in the processing of information. DNA code is an information database, built up over eons. Sexual reproduction was an evolutionary breakthrough in information processing. So was the development of senses, and later, the central nervous system. The advent of human beings brought another major development in information processing—symbolic language—allowing us to share our thoughts and experiences with one another. Over the years, human breakthroughs in information technology—writing, printing, telephony, radio, television, computing, and the Internet—have consistently increased our ability to gather, process, organize and utilize information.

Organization and utilization of information is the essence of intelligence. We usually think of intelligence primarily in human terms, and occasionally in other animals. But intelligence in its broadest sense has been evolving for billions of years. What is happening today with our own Information Revolution is but the latest phase of a process that has been going on since the birth of the universe.

So the question of whether there is a limit to the speed of evolution does not concern the limits of any particular phase of evolution; it is whether there is a limit to the rate of evolution of intelligence—whatever form it may take. As far as I can see, there is none.

Beyond the Information Age

The growth of human information technologies is taking us rapidly toward a time when all human knowledge will be instantly available to anyone on the planet, in any medium. This will be a fully functional global brain in which the information technologies of television, telephone, and WorldWide Web will be seamlessly integrated. The world's audio and video archives will be as easily accessible as text and images are today. Search engines will learn from their interactions with people, becoming increasingly sophisticated in their responses. We will be linked into an emerging global mind.

At this point, the growth rate of human knowledge will be reaching its own maximum. It too will begin to turn into an S-curve. But knowledge is not the end-point of the evolution of intelligence. Many have pointed to a hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. Information can be defined as the patterns extracted from raw data. Knowledge is the generalization of information, applying findings to other situations. Wisdom determines how that knowledge is used. It involves discernment and evaluation: Is this decision for the better or worse? Will it help or hinder our future well-being?

At present, humanity has vast amounts of knowledge, but still very little wisdom. Without developing wisdom, it is most unlikely we will avoid catastrophe. As the inventor-philosopher, Buckminster Fuller repeatedly emphasized, we are facing our final evolutionary exam. Is the human species fit to survive? Can we wake up sufficiently so that we can use our prodigious powers for the good of all, and for that of many generations to come?

A Half-Awake Species

Symbolic language led to another significant step in human intelligence. We used language not only to communicate with each other, but also within our own minds, i.e. verbal thinking. With this power we could reflect upon our experiences and plan our future. In addition, we could reflect upon the fact that we were aware. We became conscious of consciousness itself. We began to wake up to our own inner worlds.

At present however, we are only half-awake to who and what we really are. Becoming aware of our own selves brought with it a sense of an individual "I" observing the world and initiating our actions. But just what is this self? It seems so obvious that it is there, but, as many have discovered, it is hard to define it or pin it down.

When asked “Who are you?” most of us will respond with the various things we identify with—our name, beliefs, occupation, education, roles, gender, social status, personality, interests. We derive a sense of identity from what we have or do in the world, with our history, and our circumstances. But any such derived identity is conditional, and thus forever vulnerable. It is continually at the mercy of circumstances, and before long we need to defend or reassert our fragile sense of self. Our basic survival programming, designed to ensure our physical survival, is usurped for our psychological survival, leading to many unnecessary and often dysfunctional behaviors.

In addition, we are only half-awake to our deeper needs and how to attain them. Most of us would like to avoid pain and suffering, and find greater peace and happiness, but we believe that how we feel inside depends on external circumstances. This is true in some cases, for example. if we are suffering because we are cold or hungry. In the modern world, most of us can fulfill these demands very easily. The flick of a switch or a trip to the store usually suffices. But we apply the same thinking to everything else in life. We believe that if we could just get enough of the right things or experiences we would finally be happy. This is the root of human greed, our love of money, our need to control events (and other people); it is the cause of much of our fear and anxiety, we worry whether events are going to be the way we think they should be if we are to be happy. This thinking is also at the heart of the many ways we mistreat, and often abuse, our planetary home.

The global crisis we are now facing is, at its root, a crisis of consciousness—a crisis born of the fact that we have prodigious technological powers, but still remain half-awake. We need to awaken to who we are and what we really want.

Prophets of Wisdom

Throughout human history there have been individuals who appear to have become fully awake. These are the enlightened ones—the mystics, seers, saints, rishis, roshis, and lamas who in one way or another have discovered for themselves the true nature of consciousness. Although their discoveries have been expressed in different ways, depending on the dominant worldview of their time, the essential message remains remarkably consistent. Aldous Huxley called this the “perennial philosophy,” the timeless wisdom that has been rediscovered again and again through the ages.

The enlightened ones have realized the illusory nature of the concept of a unique individual self. When we examine our experience closely, delving deep into the nature of what we call “I,” we find that there is nothing there—no thing that is. This sense of “I-ness” that we all know so well, and which has been with us all our lives, is just our sense of being. It is awareness itself—so familiar, yet completely intangible. Thus, it cannot be "known" in the ordinary sense. Not realizing this, we seek to give our sense of self some form, some substance. We dress it up in various psychological clothes—all the things we think we are, or would like to think we are. This is the reverse of the emperor having no clothes. With true self-awareness, one discovers there are lots of clothes, but no emperor inside them.

Another consistent realization of the awakened ones is that the essential nature of mind, uncluttered by worry and chatter, is one of deep ease, joy, and love. Not recognizing this, most of us look to the world around us to provide us with peace and happiness. But, despite all the messages from marketing and advertising industries, things or events do not bring happiness. On the contrary, our minds are so full of scheming, planning, and worrying whether or not we will get what we think will make us happy, we seldom experience the peace and ease that lie at our core.

When we awaken to our true nature, we are freed from a dependence on the external world both for our sense of self and our inner well-being. We become free to act with more intelligence and compassion, attending to the needs of the situation at hand rather than the needs of the ego. We can access the wisdom that lies deep within us all. This is the next step in evolution of intelligence: the transition from amassing knowledge to developing wisdom.

The Dawning of a Wisdom Age

Because each new phase of evolving intelligence takes place in a fraction of the time of the previous phase, we can expect the dawning of a Wisdom Age to take place in years rather than decades. It will be standing on the shoulders of the Information Age.

Never before have we been able to access so much spiritual wisdom. A century ago, the only spiritual tradition available to most people was the one that was indigenous to their own culture. Moreover, with rare exceptions, they did not have the benefit of learning from a truly enlightened being. Today, we can access teachings from many different traditions and cultures, discover their common underlying truths, and translate that perennial philosophy into the language and terms of our own time. Something completely new is emerging: a single spiritual teaching that is a distillation of the world's wisdom traditions. This is coalescing and being disseminated globally through a variety of information technologies: books, tapes, Web pages, online forums, and Internet broadcasts.

At the same time, a growing number of people are becoming fully awake, and proving themselves to be excellent teachers. Many are using the Internet to share their wisdom and help awaken others. Instruction in practices that facilitate awakening are appearing online, and could become much more sophisticated. It may even turn out that darshan, the Indian word for a direct transfer of higher consciousness, can be transmitted via the net.

Awakening is often a sudden event. Once a person is ready—the necessary groundwork done, the circumstances propitious—the shift can happen more or less instantaneously. It's possible that research into the neurological correlates of spiritual awakening will lead us to methods of promoting the process directly. There will likely be other unforeseen discoveries or developments that help us free our minds. Whatever they may be, the more we learn how to facilitate a shift in consciousness, the faster it will happen.

As this becomes a mainstream phenomenon, humanity will relate to the world in wiser, more compassionate ways. Problems would still exist. Global warming would not suddenly cease; pollution would not evaporate; extinct species would not suddenly return. On the other hand, we might then have at our disposal new technologies that could help us solve the problems we have created. We can only guess at the ways in which this marriage of high technology and higher consciousness would play out. We have not been there before.

Beyond Wisdom

Would this be the endpoint of our evolution? Or would there follow yet another turn of the spiral?

Many of the world's mystical traditions maintain that the liberation of the mind from its attachments is only the first of step of inner awakening. More universal experiences of mind, and fundamentally different perspectives of reality, lie beyond.

Advanced adepts claim that the world of matter is not real, and that space and time are not the ultimate reality. Interestingly, this view is in accord with modern physics' explorations into the nature of physical reality. Whenever we try to pin down the essence of matter, it eludes us. It seems nothing is there—that is, nothing of any material substance. Nor are space and time absolutes, as we once thought. They are part of a more fundamental reality, the spacetime continuum.

Perhaps those adepts have already discovered the ultimate nature of reality—not through digging deeper into its external forms, but through a penetrating exploration of inner space. If so, our collective destiny may be precisely this freedom from the illusion of materiality, from the illusion that we exist in space and time.

Let's not be too quick to rule out that possibility, merely on the basis that it is so divorced from our current reality. If you had told Mozart that in the future people would own tiny boxes, made from some strange material that was neither wood nor metal, with two strings coming out of the box, that when placed in their ears, would enable them to hear any of his compositions as clearly as if they were in a room with an orchestra, would he have believed you? On the contrary, he would probably have thought you mad.

The Omega Point

One person who believed our destiny was indeed a collective spiritual awakening, was the French priest and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Exploring the evolutionary trends towards greater complexity, connectivity, and consciousness, he argued that humanity was moving towards an Omega Point—the final end and goal of evolution.

He believed that the universe had been through several major stages of evolution, starting with what he called "cosmogenesis,” the birth of the "cosmosphere"; the Universe. Next was geogenesis, the birth of the Earth (the geosphere). Following that, "biogenesis", the birth of life (the biosphere). With human beings, there came "noogenesis" and the "noosphere", the sphere of thought. He predicted that the final stage, the one that led to the Omega Point, would be "Christogenesis". This would be the birth of Christ consciousness, not in an individual, but in the collective—the spiritual birth of humanity as a whole.

Teilhard de Chardin believed this Omega Point would happen thousands of years in the future. Like many others, he did not take into account the implications of ever-accelerating change. In his later years, he commented on the impact of radio and television in bringing humanity together. Technologies like these, he said, were bringing the Omega Point much closer. Just before he died, the first computers were being developed. Perceiving the potential of this new technology, he predicted that they too would bring the Omega Point even closer. If he had lived to see the emergence of the Internet, he would probably have realized that the Omega Point could come very soon indeed.

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

When we look at what is happening in the world today, it is understandable that we might scoff at the idea of a collective spiritual breakthrough. The daily news is full of evidence that we are heading ever more rapidly towards breakdown rather than breakthrough.

That is indeed one likely possibility. I do not want to play down the dire urgency of the world situation. If we don't make some radical changes, we are surely headed for disaster of one kind or another.

I also believe that change is possible. If we can develop the wisdom needed to navigate our way though these turbulent times safely, the potentials are staggering and unimaginable in scope. Let's put our hearts and minds to proving that we can pass Buckminster Fuller's final evolutionary exam, and become a truly magnificent species. We are, after all, our only hope.

See also:
What If There Were No Future?

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