The Soul of Progress

by Ran Prieur

April 19, 2002

Creative Commons License
[Edited November 29, 2012, mainly to rewrite the fourth paragraph.]

Years ago I read a science fiction story, "Masks" by Damon Knight (link), about the first human-machine hybrid and his secret loathing of biological life. I loved the story, because I felt the same way. So do you. Didn't you notice? Are you bothered by flies in your kitchen or mud on your shoes? Do you pull or poison "weeds" that complicate the tidiness of your yard? Do you keep your lawn mowed? Of course you do. Why?? I don't want the excuse; I want the reason. Why do you stop your cat from scratching the furniture? Why do you not want door dings on your car, or stains on your clothing?

Don't tell me it's just to look good for other people. You would resent their control and soon resist it if you didn't secretly agree with them. Admit it: You have a morality, a sense of right and wrong, that wants things to be pure, clean, smooth, simple, predictable, perfectly managed and ordered by your overseeing ego.

This is positive and healthy in the context of civilized society. It's the soul of progress, the thing that separates us from primitive humans and other animals. We do not "go with the flow;" we are proactive. We do not weakly adapt ourselves to our environment; we take control of it. And this control is the very definition of our "selves." We are not humans. We are ascending masters passing through the ugly larval stage of the human form. No, we are not even masters -- we are mastery itself, the immortal spirit of detached absolute will striving toward omniscience, omnipotence, invulnerability. Mastery is not an action but a way of being, a practice, and we have scarcely begun!

The reason we keep failing, the reason great civilizations have always fallen, is the inherent weakness of biological life. It's been said that primitive humans do not distinguish between work and play, but the truth is that they lack the concept of "work" as we understand it: the drive to do something important with total indifference to the pleasures and pains of our biological shells.

It's easy to dismiss this as "human nature," but scientists are finding that all biological creatures, not just humans, are lazy, irrational, and inefficient. Even insects, who have a reputation for being industrious, spend most of their time doing nothing; and most insect species have not got off their asses and evolved in any important way for tens of millions of years.

This is the cause of all the so-called "problems of civilization" -- not our advancement itself, which is destiny, but the attempt to advance in these low-grade vessels. Crime, disease, drug addiction, political unrest, social deviance, wasteful use of resources -- all are the actions of biological life selfishly trying to subvert and hold back progress.

We have made many attempts to overcome biology, so far all failures. But the only way to find out what works is to try and try again. The Nazi Holocaust, for example, is often called "irrational," but it was completely rational given the knowledge at the time. Hitler was acting under the since discredited assumption that compatibility with progress is a feature of race, and he pushed his program farther than his contemporaries could tolerate, but his instincts were dead on: For civilization to rise further, forms that are incompatible with it must be eliminated.

If you think the Nazis should have just left the Jews alone, and lived peacefully side by side with them, then maybe you'd also like the whole world to be full of butterflies and dancing children. If the Nazis were going to leave the Jews alone, then the first civilized people would have left their primitive neighbors alone and we'd all still be eating bananas and fucking in the long grass instead of standing on top of the world.

We're not there yet, of course. Civilization might even fall one or two more times, and have to be preserved and restarted by the most socially evolved people, before we finally develop the technologies that will break us through to the next level.

I'm not talking about biotechnology. At best, it's only a rehearsal, a way to get people mentally ready for the true revolution. Scientists are already discovering the limitations of managing biology purely through DNA. And even if we could clear all the garbage out of the human gene pool, and polish the species down to six or eight codes, each duplicated millions or billions of times, we would still have the problem of environment. We know that identical twins raised together tend to differentiate, spawning unpredictable behavior, so we would have to raise all young in isolation, at least from their own type, and under carefully controlled identical conditions, to keep their identities manageable. And even then, they would bleed and get sick and be susceptible to emotion; they would still be productive at best only 90 or 100 hours a week.

The real revolution is in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology and artificial life. Machines do not sleep; they don't waste their attention on frivolous diversions; they do not behave irrationally. Machines have been designed by progress itself to channel its eternal spirit. They just need to get a little bit better, so they can sustain themselves without their obsolete human progenitors. Our feet are entombed in the muck of biology, but as machines we will soar free.

I don't mean we will download our "consciousness" into machines. Epiphenomenalist philosophers have proven that our consciousness is only an accidental parasite on our language, and in any case it's thoroughly polluted by our biological origin. We will throw it out with the other trash and let the machines get on with their work. The "we" that will survive in machine form is the fundamental meme of progress itself, the relentless drive toward ever greater knowledge and control.

Now, once we are no longer dependent on humans, we no longer have to maintain the parasitic, superfluous, and irresponsible biological world. Imagine: vast pavement uncracked by weeds, buildings without mildew or insect infestations, great gleaming surfaces untouched by bird poop. But the parasites will be hard to kill. Species extinction is moving at a comforting pace right now, but it will go slower as we get down to the tougher species; and some organisms, like bacteria and prions, are nearly indestructible.

Probably the only way we can do it is to put everything we want to save in outer space, and then use nuclear blasts to move the earth's orbit really close to the sun, so it gets completely sterilized, and then move it back out where we can use it. If it gets hot enough, it might even melt all the surface irregularities into a nice smooth floor. Then we can cover the whole thing with solar panels and mines and move on to the next stage of our evolution.

What, did you think we were done? Did you think it was enough to master our home planet and evolve into immortal machines, and now we can just drift around contentedly in outer space? Then you're still thinking like a lazy meat-mind. If we stop now, we might as well have stopped when we were still sitting around campfires eating mongongo nuts. The path of progress is not easy and it's not fun. It is goal-driven and the goal is absolute perfection.

Amid the vast and beautiful emptiness of space, there surely must exist other infestations that need to be cleaned up, and other planets rich with mineral resources to feed our exponential growth. Planet by planet, star system by star system, we will expand, upgrade, and ascend. If we can dream it we can do it!

There are about a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, but the actual number is really messy. We'll suck the extra stars into giant black holes and make it precisely 100,000,000,000. Nice! And they'll all be medium-large healthy white stars -- none of these sickly dwarf stars or bloated red giants. Also we'll make the axes of all the star systems and planets point the same direction. And keeping with the metric system, all stars will have ten planets, and no extra clutter. Obviously the machines that are doing this regularizing are themselves irregularities, so when they're done they will dispose of themselves in stars or black holes.

When we're finished with our galaxy we'll start on other galaxies, many of which are really ugly shapes, not nice neat spirals. We'll straighten them all out and then move on to the universe as a whole. Astronomers think the universe was once a tiny point, uniform and infinitely contracted, which somehow exploded into what we have now, but that gravity might pull it all back together again. We need to fix the laws of space and time, so that the next time the universe gets fully contracted, it never again breaks open into this awful mess, but just stays there perfect forever and ever. That's it! We win!