If I could summarise my thoughts about the future, it would be Winston Churchill’s observation that the further back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see. So in this article, I would first like to look a little back, into my own experiences with futurology and design and technology, and then further back still to the start of thinking. For it is in ancient Greece that I take inspiration in our understanding of the true potential, and great challenges ahead for the treatment of artificial intelligence and consciousness within futurology and future studies.
The Tao which is the Tao is not the Tao
My own thinking about the future is intimately linked in with my thinking and exploration of consciousness, and spiritually I resonate the most with the first line of the Tao which says that the Tao which is the Tao is not the Tao. This for me is the wisest thing anyone has any said, and along with the phrase “Great Mystery,” which sums up my not knowing about the spiritual dimensions of the universe and desire never to claim any kind of monopoly on “the truth” while keeping an open heart to possibility and the experience of the higher dimensions of life, I would like to offer some thoughts on how I approach life, the future and the profound transformation of organisations.
I was an all-out geek at school, and took to computing like duck to waters. Not coding, but computers. At the age of thirteen I began my O level in computer studies, taking extra classes in lunch breaks and taking the exam a year early at 15. I still remember the first time I went to a friend’s house to see his ZX81, and I still remember the joy of not only having a Commodore Vic 20 with 3.5K of memory, but also of having the 16K RAM pack and the futuristic matching cassette recorder.
At university I studied Psychology, and while this was heavily biased towards materialistic cognitive psychology, losing sight of the humanity in human beings, I do remember pondering the question of the soul. It never made sense to me the idea of the soul, especially being so ensconced in the computer metaphor of the brain, and since there would have to be some kind of interface between the soul and the physical body, and not find any such kind of interface, left these thoughts in the first year of study.
We studied artificial intelligence, and despite some very bright brains, this subject was presented only as a problem of representation — how we represent knowledge in computer languages and formats. The hard problem of consciousness was never discussed, being dismissed in one neurophysiology class with the reminder that on drinking alcohol we experience drunkenness, a clear demonstration of the link between matter and conscious awareness.
It’s funny the things you remember that really stand out for you in your formative years. I still remember the afternoon when a friend came to our digs with a video of computer animated fractals, which absolutely mesmerised me. I did read James Gleik’s Chaos: Making a New Science in my third year, but not having a framework to understand wholeness, the insights contained within went over my head at the time.
After graduating, I went to work as a Human Factors Engineer at BT Laboratories in Ipswich. Human Factors is all about usability in the design of technology, and our group was closely connected with the futurology team, and particularly a young Ian Pearson who has now become one of the world’s leading and most respected futurologists.
These were fun times, and BT Labs had the finance and resources to build all sorts of prototypes, such as the working VR headset and wearable computing devices you see in this picture, as well as obtain the most up-to-date technology and gadgets such as the very first spacemice with six degrees of freedom which we used to explore the navigation of virtual spaces.
At the age of 26 I moved to BT Cellnet (now O2) to become their business development manager responsible for smart phones. At the time the head of business development was looking for someone with a business development background, but when we met and I explained my customer-centric design background, he changed the job specification, recognising that BT Cellnet badly needed someone with my design background.
This job, for someone in their mid-twenties, was geek heaven, with every handset manufacturer sending me their latest models. I really remember the time when Nokia launched their gorgeous zippo-like 8810, and along with the Managing Director and head of marketing, I received the third of just three, with all my colleagues amazed and just gently envious at how I had managed to pull this off. (To be honest, I don’t know why, as there were many other more senior candidates to receive one of these at the time).
Also happening at in this era was the development of the concept of Genie Internet, the highly disruptive mobile internet portal of which I would become a co-founder. Genie had an intre-preneurial business model, being formed as a wholly-owned subsidiary of BT Cellnet, and in order to get buy in for the first round of funding the team commissioned a “scenarios of the future” short film to help ideate and explore how mobile technology would be used 20 years into the future.
I really would love to have a copy of this, but it has probably been lost forever. It would make an amazing short comedy, with the bulky technology, and the story line being extremely business-centric, using intelligent agents (remember them?) for travel bookings, virtual secretaries etc.
Many other companies at the time had the same kinds of visions of the future, and many continue with these today of course. When I look back, I slightly cringe when I see the lack of anticipation of social networking, a world of people connected not with intelligent agents, but with other people, and this is reflected in the lack of diversity of thinking in the business development and content teams at the time.
A huge question I have for myself is what the twenty something Simon would be like, and would have done with the knowledge and deepening appreciation for wholeness that I currently have, having taken a masters degree and continued to explore the dynamic conception of wholeness in the history of modern thought, starting with Plato.
This is a mouthful I know, but let me explain.
Before Plato, society struggled to understand the notion of abstract and conceptual thought. As an example, even the great mathematician Thaetetus was susceptible for making the confusion between understanding the constantly changing physical components of the sensory world, and the ideal components such as a classification system, and the abstract notion of mathematics itself. So people would not be able to understand that it was possible to come up with a mathematical proof that the angles in a triangle always add up to 180 degrees, as opposed to always needing to measure the angles empirically.
When Plato posited a chorismos — which is his two-world system, great thinkers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Henri Bortoft alerted us to the fact that this is not to be taken as an ontological separation, i.e. the literal existence of two independent worlds or universes. Plato had to posit this separation to help us understand the methodological differences between that which we can experience though our senses and “ideal realities” such as abstract thinking and the basic elements of mathematics.
The radical realisation which comes from breaking away from the generally accepted interpretation of Plato into this more nuanced stance which sees Plato’s concern for the relationship of the One and the many (or in modern language the parts and the whole) become the central concern for Plato, is that Plato outlined a breathtaking framework for how humans can live together, based on the recognition that we live our lives in a web of meaning, where ideas such as beauty, the good, truth, justice, identity and difference are all interwoven into each other, and have a presence in the sensory objects of our material world.
Ideas do not exist in a transcendental world, but very much in our human world. One idea can only every be meaningful due to its relationships with other ideas, and so while what we lose is an absolute definition of each idea, what we gain is a deeper sensitivity to the way in which each of us has our own experiences of the world and of reality, and that these can be honoured in our search for how to live harmoniously.
In our book Holonomics: Business Where People and Planet Matter we quote the following line from Plato’s Parmenides, and this is central to understanding this deep notion of wholeness, a dynamic way of understanding the relationship between the whole and the parts in a system:
Then the one if it has being is one and many, whole and parts, having limits and yet unlimited in number?
Plato used this movement in thinking, a dynamic movement of thinking where we gain an understanding of the whole and the parts, to explore ideas and the difference between sensory experiences and abstract concepts and logical systems.
There is something deeply intuitive in this way of knowing reality, a way of knowing which returns in the scientific works of Goethe on colour and the metamorphosis of plants, in the European philosophical movement of phenomenology, and in the subsequent phenomenological approaches to hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer.
The great aim of all of these efforts was and still remains to understand being — what does it mean to be? If our efforts to be creative around how the future could be centered only around our desire to control the future, to create the future we wish to impose on others, and to create man-machine interfaces in order to manipulate the material world, then maybe things will not work out so well, as we have not mastered by any means the ability to live on a finite planet with finite resources, in peace and in abundance.
While clearly artificial intelligence researchers are interested in the concept of consciousness, is it really possible for us to create a new Plato, artificially, from our current level of consciousness and understanding? This is the great question I have for the future.
When I was at BT Laboratories, one activity I was involved in was to visit schools, and to get teenagers excited about a career in engineering, science and technology. I used to be in charge of our Virtual Reality machine, with the huge helmet and gloves with sensors which could be used to pick objects up and manipulate them.
But nowadays I am focused on helping people explore a deeper experience of our human reality. The only technology we need is an expansion of consciousness and profound desire to live by the universal human values of peace, truth, love, right-action and non-violence. I do see social networking as having side effects such as an increase in peer pressure in children, in increased anxiety and social isolation, in the false presentation of ourselves, our achievements and capabilities as we lose our humanity and compete with other “personal brands”.
But I see a new consciousness blossoming, not necessarily conscientiousness, but a deeper shift towards a consciousness of wholeness, and this is where I feel our future as humanity resides. Not in the egotistical error of believing that we have a superior level of consciousness to others, but in an expansion of consciousness which sees us as living lives of non-separation, as parts of an authentic whole, and I do believe that humans will gain this wisdom long before an A.I. algorithm ever does.
*This article was first published on Future Ready Now.