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The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement

Published onFeb 23, 2016
The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement

We humans are changing. We have become so intertwined with what we have created that we are no longer separate from it. We have outgrown the distinction between the natural and the artificial. We are what we make. We are our thoughts, whether they are created by our neurons, by our electronically augmented minds, by our technologically mediated social interactions, or by our machines themselves. We are our bodies, whether they are born in womb or test tube, our genes inherited or designed, organs augmented, repaired, transplanted, or manufactured. Our prosthetic enhancements are as simple as contact lenses and tattoos and as complex as robotic limbs and search engines. They are both functional and aesthetic. We are our perceptions, whether they are through our eyes and ears or our sensory-fused hyper-spectral sensors, processed as much by computers as by our own cortex. We are our institutions, cooperating super-organisms, entangled amalgams of people and machines with super-human intelligence, processing, sensing, deciding, acting. Our home planet is inhabited by both engineered organisms and evolved machines. Our very atmosphere is the emergent creation of forests, farms and factories. Our networks of commerce, power and communications are becoming as richly interconnected as ecologies and nervous systems. Empowered by the tools of the Enlightenment, connected by networked flows of freight and fuel and finance, by information and ideas, we are becoming something new. We are at the dawn of the Age of Entanglement.

In the last age, the Age of Enlightenment, we learned that nature followed laws. By understanding these laws, we could predict and manipulate. We invented science. We learned to break the code of nature and thus empowered, we began to shape the world in the pursuit of our own happiness. We granted ourselves god-like powers: to fly, to communicate across vast distances, to hold frozen moments of sight and sound, to transmute elements, to create new plants and animals. We created new worlds entirely from our imagination. Even Time we harnessed. The same laws that allowed us to explain the motions of the planets, enabled us to build the pendulum of a clock. Thus time itself, once generated by the rhythms of our bodies and the rhythms of the heavens, was redefined by the rhythms of our machines. With our newfound knowledge of natural laws we orchestrated fantastic chains of causes and effect in our political, legal, and economic systems as well as in our mechanisms. Our philosophies neatly separated man and nature, mind and matter, cause and effect. We learned to control.

Eventually, in the ultimate expression of our Enlightenment exuberance, we constructed digital computers, the very embodiments of cause and effect. Computers are the cathedrals of the Enlightenment, the ultimate expression of logical deterministic control.1 Through them, we learned to manipulate knowledge, the currency of the Enlightenment, beyond the capacity of our own minds. We constructed new realities. We built complex algorithms with unpredictable behavior. Thus, within this monument to Enlightenment thinking, we sowed the seeds of its demise. We began to build systems with emergent behaviors that grew beyond our own understanding, creating the first crack in the foundation.

The second threat to the foundation of the Enlightenment was in the institutions we created. Our communication technology allowed us to build enterprises of unimaginable scope and capability. A modern corporation or NGO has tens of thousands of people, most of whom have never met one another, who are capable of coordinated action, making decisions that shape the world. Governments are even larger. New kinds of self-organizing collaborations, enabled by our global communications networks, are beginning to emerge. All these kinds of enterprises can become more powerful than the individual humans that created them, and in many senses, they have goals of their own. They tend to act in ways that increase their control of resources and enhance their own survival. They are able to perceive and process far more information than a single human, manipulate more matter and energy, act in more ways and places, command more power, and focus more attention. The individual is no longer the most influential player on the world stage.

As our technological and institutional creations have become more complex, our relationship to them has changed. We now relate to them as we once related to nature. Instead of being masters of our creations, we have learned to bargain with them, cajoling and guiding them in the general direction of our goals. We have built our own jungle, and it has a life of its own.

The final blow to the Enlightenment will come when we build into our machines the power to learn, adapt, create and evolve. In doing so, we will give them the power to surpass us, to shape the world and themselves in ways that we never could have imagined. We have already given our institutions the ability to act on our behalf, and we are destined to have the same uneasy balance of power with our machines. We will make the same attempts to build in checks and balances, to keep their goals aligned with ours. We will face similar challenges. In doing so we need to move far away from the understandable logic of Enlightenment thinking, into something more complicated. We will worry less about the unpredictable forces of nature than about the unpredictable behaviors of our own constructions.

So what is this brave new world that we are creating, governed neither by the mysteries of nature or the logic of science, but by the magic of their entanglement? It is governed by the mathematics of strange attractors. Its geometry is fractal. Its music is improvisational and generative rather than composed: Eno instead of Mozart. Its art is about process more than artifact. Its root's are in Grey Walter's cybernetic tortoises, 2 Marvin Minsky’s randomly wired SNARC learning machine,3 and Nicholas Negroponte’s Seek,4 in which the architecture of a living space emerged from the interaction of a observant robot with a horde of gerbils. The aesthetic of the Entanglement is the beauty that emerges from processes that are neither entirely natural nor artificial, but blend the best of both: the webs of Neri Oxman’s silk worms,5,6 spun over a robot-wired mesh; the physical telepresence of Hiroshi Ishii’s tactile displays 7,8 or his living bioLogic fabric.9 We can no longer see ourselves as separate from the natural world or our technology, but as a part of them, integrated, codependent, and entangled.

Unlike the Enlightenment, where progress was analytic and came from taking things apart, progress in the Age of Entanglement is synthetic and comes from putting things together. Instead of classifying organisms, we construct them. Instead of discovering new worlds, we create them. And our process of creation is very different. Think of the canonical image of collaboration during the Enlightenment: fifty-five white men in powdered wigs sitting in a Philadelphia room, writing the rules of the American Constitution. Contrast that with an image of the global collaboration that constructed the Wikipedia, an interconnected document that is too large and too rapidly changing for any single contributor to even read.

A beautiful example of an Entanglement process is the use of simulated biologically-inspired algorithms to design artificial objects through evolution and morphogenesis. Multiple designs are mutated, bred and selected over many generations in a process analogous to Darwinian selection. The artifacts created by such processes look very different from those produced by engineering.10 An evolved motorcycle chassis will look more like a pelvic bone than a bicycle frame.11 A computer program produced by a process of evolutionary design may be as difficult to understand as a neural circuit in the brain. Thus, the artifacts that are designed by these biologically-inspired processes take on both the beneficial and the problematic characteristics of biological organisms.12 Their beauty is in their functional adaption. This is the elegance of the Entanglement: a new expression of beauty emerging from process. In an Entangled design process, the humans will often have input without control; for example, they may influence aesthetic choices by participating in the selection process or by tuning parameters. Such processes lend themselves to collaboration among multiple machines and multiple humans because the interfaces between the parts are fluid and adaptive. The final product is very much a collaborative effort of humans and machines, often with a superior result. It may exhibit behaviors that are surprising to the humans. Some of these behaviors may be adaptive. For example, early walking machines evolved on the Connection Machine took advantage of an obscure round-off error in the floating-point unit that the human programmers did not even know existed.13 In this sense, artifacts created by the entangled processes may have some of the robustness of a biological organism, as well as some of the surprise and delight.

Besides displaying the organic beauty of organisms, such designs may also exhibit their complex inscrutability, since it may not be obvious how the features in the artifact correspond to the functional requirements. For example, it may be difficult to tell the purpose of a particular line of code in an evolved program. In fact, the very concept of it having a specific purpose is probably ill-formed. The notion of functional decomposition comes from the engineering process of arranging components to embody causes and effects, so functional intention is an artifact of the engineering process. Simulated biological processes do not understand the system in the same sense that a human designer does. Instead, they discover what works without understanding, which has both strengths and weaknesses. Entanglement artifacts are simultaneously artificial and natural; they are both made and born. In the Age of Entanglement, the distinction has little significance.

As we are becoming more entangled with our technologies, we are also becoming more entangled with each other. The power (physical, political, and social) has shifted from comprehensible hierarchies to less-intelligible networks. We can no longer understand how the world works by breaking it down into loosely-connected parts that reflect the hierarchy of physical space or deliberate design. Instead, we must watch the flows of information, ideas, energy and matter that connect us, and the networks of communication, trust, and distribution that enable these flows. This, as Joshua Ramo14 has pointed out, is “the nature of our age.”

So what are we to think about this new relationship with our technology and with each other? Should we fear it or embrace it? The answer is both. Like any new powerful force in the world, like Science, it will be used for both good and evil. And even when it is intended to be used for good, we will make mistakes. Humanity has been dealing with this conundrum ever since the first cooking fire got out of control and burned down the forest. Recognizing this does not absolve us from our responsibility, it reminds us why it is important. We are remaking ourselves, and we need to choose wisely what we are to become.

Inspired by the silkworm’s ability to generate cocoon out of a single silk thread, Neri Oxman and her Mediated Matter Group designed and co-fabricated a 3m diameter Silk Pavilion using 6,500 silkworms to spin silk patches on top of CNC-deposited fibers.

Hiorshi Ishii's Tanglible Media group has developed a Dynamic Shape Display that can render 3D content physically, so users can interact with digital information in a tangible way.

Hiroshi Ishii and his Tangible Media group are bridging the gap between “built” and “grown” by programming a living organism to create responsive and transformable skin coverings. Their BioLogic uses living cells as nano actuators, as well as the engineered materials, geometry and structure to achieve adaptive transformation. Biologic is an example of both the process and the aesthetic sensibility of Entanglement.

Ed Kinners:

As an interior designer, I see more and more technology in homes today. There is a trend of squeezing as much technology as possible to the blueprint of a home i.e. larger than life TVs, smart app and voice-activated lighting, HVAC, and interior/exterior electronics.

But, overall I embrace it like Science, and agree with Mr. Hills, that it will be used for both good and evil. Humans have an addiction for invention and competition.

I always try to sneak in some calming, serenity component to the interiors we design. More than not, clients love the idea of a library room or no technology room for meditation, peace, self-growth.

Serene Arena:

I love the entanglement notion—my only comment would be for us to consider how we are coming to idea of an “age of entanglement.” The issue at hand is perhaps not that we are NOW entangled, but that we have, as a social structure (at least in western culture), long pretended we are separate from what we come from and what we create, and that this disassociation is the root to much of what we struggle with today. Today’s “artificial” is an outgrowth of past versions of “artificial.” What if Entanglement (which surely exists), is more an outcome of a reckoning of our connected existence relative to environment and reality, rather than a sudden melding of separateness?

Serene Arena:

What if the problem is that we have never been separate from it, and this false disassociation is the cause of our struggle with entanglement? What if it is that we are not changing, but reckoning?

Sean Thoennes:

We continue to grasp at a reasonable means by which wealth can be distributed in an equitable fashion, not only so that each has the means of survival and opportunity that a wealthy and democratic society wishes to purvey, but the very meaning of wealth reflects its many forms. The concept presented here re-frames the economic argument for a sharing economy as a philosophical one, and does so rather well.

Mike McCarthy:

With the exception of the powdered wigs, the authors of the Constitution are little different (just fewer) than the authors of wikipedia: almost entirely white guys, mostly in their 20s.

(As much as I enjoyed Danny's article, and have been following his writing since Day One of The Media Lab, I am disappointed he plays PC politics here. I'm looking forward to the "Age of Entanglement" for at least that reason: less PC, more collaborative reality.)

Danny Hillis:

I think you overstate your case. While it is true that the demographics of WIkipedia contributors are very different that of the general population, it would be difficult to argue that they are not a vastly more diverse and inclusive group than the authors of the US constitution. They do tend to be white and male, but the are many important contributors and leaders who are not, and it is not true that they are "mostly in their 20s".

Ken Goldberg:

What is needed is a science of collaboration that combines diverse sets of machines (eg ensemble theory, random forests), with diverse sets of humans. In contrast with the rhetoric of Singularity, one might call this Multiplicity.

Ben Toth:

An interesting piece but is there any evidence that humans have ever NOT been intimately intertwined with their creations? If not the rest of the article falls rather flat on its face. One only has to look at the artefacts in the recent celtic exhibition at the British Museum to recognise the degree of physical and emotional investment in objects produced several thousand years ago.

Danny Hillis:

We certainly had physical and emotional investment in our creations in the past, but there was little difficulty drawing a distinction between the character of the created and the creator.

Francisco José Casas Restrepo:

Mr. Hills, your article is wonderfull!! The most natural in our world today is technology. This is our nature,

Jon Henrich:

I totally appreciate your vision. I agree that the article is excellent.

Can we really say that technology is our nature? This makes me shutter to think: Is synth the new, natural form of music, casting aside the instruments that brought about the sounds?

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Brian Eno:

One of the issues hinted at here and very critical at present is the issue of authorship. Where does any given idea come from? Who is responsible for it and how should they be recompensed? How can we even begin to work that out?

There's a lovely little book by an artist called Daniel Spoerri, called 'The Topology of Chance'. It was published in the sixties*. In it he looks at the plate of food on the table in front of him and traces every particle - including plate and cutlery - further and further back. Where was the plate made? Where did the clay come from? How is clay made? etc. What's so nice about it is that you realise that everything, even the most mundane thing, has roots going back and back to the dawn of time; and that almost every natural process somehow impacted on its development. The more I think about the genesis of 'creative work' the more I recall that book. Tracing where any piece of art or science comes from is astonishingly complex and ultimately futile - because even if you could name all the threads in that tapestry you can't retrospectively assess the relative value of them. It's chaos theory worked backwards. All of us who make our living from some notion of 'ownership' of ideas - like copyrights, for example - are starting to recognise this dilemma. Indeed, one of the big challenges of Entanglement is how we pay for things and get paid for them. It isn't a trival question: I imagine that our solutions to that problem will entail some new kinds of thinking that may lead us to a whole body of new philosophical ideas - economics leading philosophy. Wouldn't be the first time (whispers Karl Marx).

Boris Anthony:

A lovely example indeed here of how "zooming" in and out of problem spaces can give us different perspectives towards a resolution. If, for example, we stay within existing / prevalent consumerist/capitalist models, we may ask: "How do we ensure authors get a "ding!" at every sale?" Zooming up however, we may ask, for example, "Is that necessary if the author's living wage is covered by the state or some other institution? As long as no one is profiting beyond recovery of costs and re-investment…" And as Mr. Eno says, nothing prevents us from finding new models at either level. In fact, I think we must.

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Andrew Martz:

"We can no longer see ourselves as separate from the natural world or our technology, but as a part of them, integrated, codependent, and entangled."

Codependency, in a psychological framework, generally suggests an unhealthy behaviour exhibited by an individual, who gives of oneself to another, at the very expense of oneseself, to satiate an unhealthy fear of abandonment, or as another expression of emotional need, with origins in learned coping mechanisms and survival methods developed in dysfunctional childhood environments, to respond to unmet, fundamental, emotional needs

I can only wonder then, if the author chose this word 'codependent' advertanly, or inadvrtantly, to describe the human relationship to this new world of entangled nature and technology?

Where the lines of discipline, relationship, and even existential purpose are blurred, for what exactly is it that nature and technology depend upon each other to achieve?

It is argued by many of those who work in the field of psychology that the illness associated with codependncy can be overcome through self-healing, whether mediated or self-directed, using various tools for overcoming reactionary, subconscious, psychological responses.

A critical question for humans, in the early childhood of this new age, is how do we navigate, negotiate, and direct these entangled relationships of nature, technology, and the human experience, in ways that are functional for us, healthy for us, and which meet our fundamental needs?

Danny Hillis:

I am not using the term “codependent” in the clinical sense, but our co-dependencies with technology certainly have the potential for becoming pathological. Our co-dependencies with other people and with technology can confer great advantages, but they also come with risks.

Natasha Davidenko:

All enlightened people just go into 3D and are in greed of having material golds and etheric power. And what church provides.

Zacharias Efraimidis:

Reading this makes me think of a Global Constitution, i.e. a collaboratively constructed set of rules.

Jon Henrich:

I think that brings about the excellent point: things become too large for any single contributor to even read, which brings about Design as Participation.

To paraphrase Henry Rollins, "I don't think we can do it, but I think you can do it."

Let's not think of a Global Constitution as the order, but rather your participation here, and my participation here, and another's participation elsewhere as the new order.

Jackie Luo:

Particularly fascinating in light of the argument about the Apple v. FBI case that iPhones are more analagous to our minds than safes.

no rb:

This whole article reminds me a lot of "The 3D Additivist Manifesto"

no rb:

"You have constructed your own little machine, ready when needed to be plugged into other collective machines." - D&G (from 1000 Plateus)

no rb:

I'm getting a type of post-humanist vibe from this. Maybe we could suprass "the human" (so to speak) instead of us being "left behind".

no rb:

Science predates the Age of Enlightenment....

Georgi Georgiev:

Isn't it the case that the Age of Enlightment IS the age of science?

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Tom Leedy:

Reminds me of P Teilhard de Chardin's ideas about evolution. Forward the Mind! (organic or other)

gabriel licina:

You vastly overestimate our understanding of biological systems...

Evgeni Sergeev:

Yet, luckily, the end result may be understood by a designer to a large extent (e.g. organs in a body). Maybe the best fusion will be achieved when we learn to contribute our designer's understanding to an evolving system in real time. Rather than passively watching it.

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Aaron Rosier:

my concern is the our culture acceleration. the negative impact of power is mitigated by slowing down and retaining a committment to diligence. the current paradigm existentially forces this dangerous acceleration because we are all absolutely aware that if "i don't get it done first" somebody will sweep in tomorrow at take the cake.

Chris Oestereich:

This is my concern. We are children playing with power tools -- blithely unaware of the havoc we might wreak.

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