Telepathy: The evolution of media

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

Dreams of artificial intelligence, telepathy and its other sisters, virtual reality, creating artificial life, finding alien life, colonizing other planets … all have their roots in racial strivings.  Imagine technologies able to upload and share brains and minds, now a commonplace of pop culture and start-up ventures.

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Jellyfish at the Monterey Aquarium, 2006

Communication technologies evolve on an upward sloping line, asymptotically, toward the essential urge that powers it: pure mind-to-mind communication. Telepathy, like artificial intelligence, lies just out of reach, beckoning us. Our desire for telepathy mapped onto the history of our media tells us what we wish to be the thing we are turning ourselves into.

But even these TMTs, Technologically-Mediated Telepathies, are just way stations on a line trending towards some impossible vanishing point that we wish to reach: truly intersubjective beings, transmitting pure thought, sensation, and experience to each other instantaneously and without mediation or translation.

 

Telepathy Beyond Literature, Science and Ideology

This exercise has another virtue. It returns us, ironically, to a classical and I think noble idea of reading and writing as freighted with a responsibility. Telepathy implies a way of reading. It’s a discipline that should be fundamental to any literary theory. Applying the ideal of telepathy to our reading teaches us a way to read beyond ideology and psychology and history and sociology and philosophy and all the other pressures placed upon interpretation in postmodern culture. Reading becomes an act of intimacy between the author and me. I answer an invitation. I submit to entering and being possessed, sometimes totally, by another’s mind. But it comes with a certain responsibility that accompanies all acts of conjugation: reading telepathically means accepting the obligation to really try to decipher what the author is thinking and intending before finding in the text confirmation of my own prior bias or theory or pretext. I submit to the invitation to try to read what is in the author’s mind. First, I am trying to read faithfully, in good faith, like a prayer beyond prejudice. All signalling, all lettering, all letterature is literature, and all literature, even the most profane is liturgy. Every time we try to make ourselves understood or try to understand another, there is a divine hope and uncertainty.

The science of telepathy is entwined in numerous disciplines: neuroscience, brain-computer interface, ethology, and the technolgies implicate even more, such as linguistics, natural language processing, AI, computing, cybernetics, signal processing, electrical engineering, signal processing… Obviously, many of the “soft” sciences are there, too: cognitive psychology, clinical psychology, sociology, anthropolgy, ethology. Besides the fact that they are each their own genre – channels – for enabling and constraining communication, I believe telepathy is prior to and informs them all, as well as being informed in structured ways by them that allow me to make plain how the future will unfold, I think. My shorthand for this priority is a phrase I return to: the technologies that try to get us to be telepathic “exteriorize the nerve net.”

Finally, 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. We all enact and aspire to telepathy. To use Price’s phrase “It is the thing we are trying to turn ourselves to.”

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A PERSONAL NOTE ON THE HISTORY OF THE TELEPATHY  PROJECT:

In the coming months and years, I intend to pick up threads of telepathy I started to follow during my academic career. I published large swaths of what became the Telepathy Talmud project after a sabbatical year as a Fulbright scholar at the Technion in Israel (1993-94).

A very telegraphic hypertext 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 U journal.)

My thoughts then and now delve the origin of the alphabet as a model for understanding revolutions in communication technologies, the special idea of interpretation and  telepathy with the Mind of God that the Hebrew alphabet initiates, flowering in several aspects of Jewish culture, but quintessentially the Talmud. I also travel down byroads about the special meaning of the Hebrew letters aleph and tav, the conquest of the electromagnetic spectrum, some science fictions that I believe help us chart the future, some other works of literature that illustrate that residue of ecstasy and denial of telepathy in reading, some very close and perhaps heretical or at least under-informed readings of the Talmud, and  also some analyses of the very current future and far flung future of media. I will try to avoid politics, although some entries in this blog are inevitably political, although I was led to these rants, I promise, from my investigations of telepathy in ways I am glad to explain.

I originally explored versions of this material with a doctoral class in literature at Rensselaer in 1994. In all I am indebted to them for their skepticism and indulgence of these “porushian studies,” as they mockingly called my rants, and with good reason. I thought it was clever to call the project a “talMUD” after the new notion of a Multi-User Domain and pun on the etymology of my name. That shows you that though wisdom be eternal, cleverness is fleeting, and probably narcissistic. I have been accompanied by and stand on the work of Jacques Derrida, Nicholas Royle, Freud, and always return for inspiration to the gaps and failures of some philosophers like Kant, Spinoza and Heidegger. My many Talmud teachers and classmates past and present immeasurably enrich my life and thinking.

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 am especially grateful to my wife, Sally, for her deep and abiding forbearance and to my granddaughter Siona for gazing into my eyes for long minutes.

I am inviting you to get lost in this labyrinth, dear telepath, in this web, and if you have the time, like a fellow spider, 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 Seven-Day Week: 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? Seven days seems so arbitrary. In fact, it would make more sense if the week were five days long. Then at least there would be a regular number of weeks in the year – 73, not 52.142857. And wouldn’t it be cool, and probably healthy, to have a four-day work week followed by a fifth day off 73 times a year? Yet every country in the world counts a week as seven days and takes one or two days at the end of each cycle to relax from work. Where did this random-seeming idea 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 in pursuing them his army is drowned in the Red Sea. Safely across, Moses leads the Children of Israel, now a horde of several million, into 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 seem quite to fit with the don’ts (commit adultery, murder, covet, bear false witness, steal, worship idols, have other gods, or abuse My Name) and the only other do (honor your parents), which is personal. Yet, the Sabbath is one of Judaism’s holiest concepts, the foundation of how Jews measure time. Further, 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 day 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, the calendar 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, 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 rather than lose a fixed, certain Sabbath. They even add an extra whole month every two or three years rather than violating the rhythm of the week, which of course also commemorates the seven days of Creation. 

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 to distinguish the start of something different from the mundane and ordinary, to welcome something soulful into our hectic lives, was the only perfectly consistent ritual we observed throughout my children’s lives. 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 and delightful and 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.