Telepathy: A personal note

These demure humming boxes contained the densest working out, the highest tide of everything that collective ingenuity had yet learned to pull off. It housed the race’s deepest taboo dream, the thing humanity was trying to turn itself into.

Richard Price, Plowing the Dark

Here are the four questions the concept of telepathy helps me answer:

1. Where we are: Our desire for telepathy tells us what we are turning ourselves into: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously, without mediation or translation. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, creating artificial humans, finding alien life, colonizing other planets. Telepathy. These are the science fiction dreams that actually seem to propel billion or trillion dollar worldwide industries. But all of them seem to lie just out of reach, beckoning us. We’re always so close. We’re always not quite there, like Zeno’s Paradox, closing the gap but never reaching our target. Seeing all communication as telepathy tells us something about what it means to be human, maybe a little about what it means to be a living thing at all. My dog is barking, the bees are dancing, the trees are reading each other’s chemical minds. To be alive seems to be to aspire to telepathy.

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Jellyfish at the Monterey Aquarium, 2006

2. What happened? If we use the dream of telepathy as a lens to look back, it helps us understand our history. Older communications technologies – the alphabet, printing press, radio, TV, and the Internet, were revolutions in telepathy, coming with increasing speed through the centuries and now decades, driving us to this ideal: getting experience and thought to pass from mind to mind. Each came with new hopes, new ways of interacting and defining ourselves, and new gods.

3. What comes next? This trajectory helps us map what will come next: brain-to-brain experiences through the computer, aided by AI.

4. How to really read: This is minor but it is dear to my heart as an old literature professor: Telepathy implies a way of reading. Reading telepathically means really trying to find out what the author is thinking and intending before finding confirmation of my own bias or theory in the text. They should teach it in every literature class: how to read beyond ideology. Reading is an act of intimacy between the author and me. It comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation. I submit to entering and being possessed by another’s mind. When a writer sits down to write in good faith, even the most profane, they are writing a form of liturgy. And I should try to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer, beyond prejudice. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope.

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About Me:

I’m the author of The Soft Machine: Cybernetic Fiction (Methuen/Routledge), Rope Dances (short stories, The Fiction Collective); A Short Guide to Writing About Science, (HarperCollins & Pearson) and other books, as well as reviews, essays, blogs, fiction, plays, and articles. For 21 years, I was a professor of literature and media at William & Mary and then at Rensselaer. I am also the former CEO, co-founder and executive of several e-learning companies and programs at universities, non-profits and the private sector.

Inspired by the launch of the World Wide Web with the Mosaic browser, I originally explored versions of this material during a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94). I indulgently took it up with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. Though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic.

I published a short version of the larger project appeared here in Mots Pluriels, an Australian journal. Some of it showed up in bits and pieces in numerous dense publications (e.g. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash” in Configurations, a Johns Hopkins University journal.) I am most recently grateful to Jason Silva who both resurrected my work and my interest in it by meeting me in San Francisco and then mentioning it in one of his ecstatic video posts “The Urge to Merge.”

I thank my many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present, who often served as the first, suffering audiences, saved me from much foolishness, and have immeasurably enriched my life and thinking. I am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance, to my children, and to my granddaughters for gazing into my eyes for long minutes, even as babies, with questions I can’t answer.

I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider in this web, drop me a sticky line at dporush@yahoo.com.

We Are All Telepaths: The ontogeny of speech recapitulates the phylogeny of civilization

My Granddaughter Siona

As I write this, my granddaughter Siona is just shy of her second birthday, God bless her. She is very communicative and expressive and highly intelligent (aren’t all granddaughters?)

But she doesn’t speak much yet, at least in English. She has a few monosyllables: da, ma, pa, dee, co, ekk, choo, [sniff with nose = flowers], [cluck with tongue = horsey].. and a couple dozen signs: rub tummy for hunger, squeeze hand for milk, put fists together for “more,” thump chest for “teddy,” slap sides for “dog”…

All of us in her life know what these signs mean. And if you look in her eyes, she will hold your gaze and, well… I could write and she is telling volumes. But she makes plain her frustration. She is feeling and wanting to tell sentences, and through series of signs and sounds she is, but we, the adults, are only getting parts.  Telepathy would be so much better.

In Siona’s frustration, you can see she discovered in the last few months that telepathy doesn’t exist. But until recently, she thought it did. Without belaboring the point, we know what lies before her, and though she doesn’t know the particulars, she knows the meaning of it. She will have to labor to learn how to make all the intimates around her understand what is in her head. And the monumental labor, the painful, glorious, fun of the journey in front of her makes me want to cry. It is like watching her getting kicked out of Eden. In fact, it is exactly like getting kicked out of Eden and losing your Adamic prelapsarian language. Siona is now learning she will have to communicate by the sweat of her brow and claw her way back into making people around her understand a vague and veiled version of what was just recently all-at-once known, obvious, and true.

Soon enough, she will experience the catastrophe of the Tower of Babel.

As she slowly adds words and connects them syntactically and begins her voyage through those infinite but constrained channels of spoken language and then written language, she will re-enact the evolution of TMT, and slowly lose her infantile, divine conviction that everyone is telepathic and learn how to play the keyboards of these telepathic technologies we invent.

Siona’s linguistic and media ontogeny will recapitulate the phylogeny of our civilizations. jellyfishflower2And so do all of our personal journeys. So the urge to be telepathic is something we carry with us ontologically, in our own life history. We can excavate and use this desire both to interrogate the history of learning to use language and each individual act of communication.

Every time we speak, write, sing there is at least some residue of desire and urgency to get inside the heads of others and let them into ours. We are all telepaths.

The Origin of the Weekend: The Slave’s Lesson

shabbat candles in the windIt‘s only Monday, and I‘m already looking forward to the weekend. But since I’ve got a ways to go, it got me to thinking, Where did the idea of the weekend come from? 

The fact is, it took a nation of former slaves, the Jews, to invent the idea around the 14th century BCE. Moses liberates them from bondage in Egypt. They flee as quickly as they can, knowing Pharaoh is likely to change his mind again. He does, and while pursuing them his army is drowned in the Red Sea. Moses leads the Children of Israel, now a horde of several million, safely across into the Sinai desert, the wasteland east of Egypt. They come to Mount Sinai and camp at the bottom while Moses ascends to get further instructions from God. After 40 days, he brings down the Ten Commandments. One of the ten is this incredible innovation: set aside one day a week to rest and worship God and keep the day holy. Since then, the Shabbat, as Jews call it, has become one of the Jews’ extraordinary gifts to world civilization.

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy. It’s an abstract, positive commandment that doesn’t quite seem to fit with the don’ts (don’t commit adultery, murder, covet, bear false witness, steal, worship idols, have other gods, or abuse My Name) nor the only other do (honor your parents), which is personal. Yet, the Sabbath is one of Judaism’s holiest concepts since it commemorates the seven days of Creation. It is the foundation of how Jews measure time, and it originates with them.

This is not an example of cultural borrowing. The Sumerians, Akkadians, nor the Babylonians had nothing quite like it. Although there is fragmentary evidence they may have counted seven day periods from the new moon, their “week,” if it existed at all, was unstable. The Egyptians used a ten-day cycle. The Sabbath was created ab novo by Jews. If you cannot accept that it’s divinely inspired, then it’s admittedly – like those two other Jewish inventions at Sinai, the phonetic alphabet and monotheism – at very least an invention so extraordinary and transformative that it inspires the world.

Jews place such importance on the Sabbath that their calendar is fixed around the stability and sanctity of the seven-day week, and they go to great lengths to preserve it. A lunar cycle is actually 29.53 days. If you don’t add an extra day now and then to the lunar calendar (called intercalation) to catch up with the sun’s rhythms, it will soon be a mess as it gets out of sync with the annual seasons and the solar year. Instead of adding a day to the week, rather than lose a fixed, certain Sabbath, Jews loosen the concept of a month and subjugate it to the week, intercalating an extra day at the beginning or end of certain months. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the rhythm of the week, 

Considering that the new (or full) moon is the most evident regular marker of time, and there is nothing in nature to suggest anything special about a seven-day week, the abstraction of the Sabbath arising in an agrarian world seems yet more remarkable. It also defeats any argument that some previous culture had anything like it. In fact, it is so distinctively Jewish, and so intimately bound to the original revelation of God and the Bible that give the Jews their identity, that it even is part of the traditional proof of the validity of Judaism.

Around 740 CE, Bulan, King of the Khazars – a vast nomadic Turkic nation controlling all of Eastern Europe – had a mystical revelation that he had to embrace the one true religion. He interviewed a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew. In the end, he chose Judaism and converted his entire people. Four centuries later, Rabbi Judah HaLevi recounted the Jew’s audience with the King in his book, The Kuzari. The Rabbi makes several arguments defending Judaism, but one of the most persuasive, because it is indisputable, is the worldwide acceptance of the seven-day week culminating in a Sabbath.

Rabbi: Did you ever hear of a nation that does not accept the standard seven-day week, beginning on Sunday and ending on the Sabbath? How is it possible that the people of China agree with the inhabitants of the westernmost islands on this matter, without some initial contact, collaboration, and agreement?

King: It is improbable….unless we are all the descendants of Adam, Noah, or some other ancestor from whom we received the seven-day week.

  • R. Judah HaLevi, The Kuzari (1140)

The Kuzari is still studied by Jews as an essential testament of faith.

Even if we regard the Sabbath as a merely cultural practice, devoid of any religious significance, it indisputably marks one of the most monumental social revolutions in history. By forbidding work on one day every seven, the Sabbath distinguishes humans from beasts, who have a very different notion of time, if they have “notions” at all. It distinguishes free people from slaves, who don’t control their time or their work. This must have been especially and immediately poignant to the Jews, slaves just a short time before they receive the Sabbath. And now thirty-five hundred years later its transformations of work, play, time, freedom and self-determination still resonate globally.

Jews light candles to mark the beginning of the Sabbath at sundown Friday. In my home, lighting the candles distinguished the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary in a way even the kids, when they were babies, instinctively understood. We also called it a birthday party for the world. The Sabbath gave them a sense, even before they could talk, that there may just be something beyond all the material stuff in life, something inexpressible, filled with light. I see it in my grandchildren, all under five years old. I hope and pray they also grow up to appreciate the other lesson of Shabbat, the slave’s lesson, that time is precious and transcendent. Our freedom to do with it as we choose is one of the sweetest things in life.