Fedorov's dust

April 30, 2017

Having written a novel which draws quite heavily on ideas about the "Technological Singularity", I thought I knew a fair amount about it already.  But a recent article in the The Guardian by Meghan O’Gieblyn entitled “God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism” exposed some gaps in my knowledge and encouraged me to revisit the subject – which I haven’t really been back to since I self-published the novel in 2012.

The Technological Singularity is an idea most closely associated with the futurist Ray Kurzweil, who argues that technology is advancing at such a pace that we will soon be in a position to take control of our future evolution as a species (Moore’s law is usually cited as Exhibit One in support of this idea of accelerating technological development).  But as Meghan O’Gieblyn argues in her article, this is an idea with a long history and striking parallels with religious beliefs in resurrection.  For example, transhumanists envisage us either enhancing our primitive biological bodies or leaving them behind altogether and transferring our minds to specially engineered, more durable artificial bodies, with capabilities well beyond those that evolution has given us to date.

I first came across many of these ideas in a book called “TechGnosis:  myth, magic and mysticism in the age of information” by Erik Davis, which I’d highly recommend (despite the fact that it was written in 1998, well before transhumanism began to enter the mainstream).  So I wasn’t expecting to find too much which was new to me in The Guardian piece.

But then the article mentioned 19th century Russian thinker Nikolai Fedorov (or Fydorov, depending how you like your non-Cyrillic renderings of Russian surnames – I’m sticking with Fedorov).  This was a name I hadn’t come across before (and a quick check of the index to “TechGnosis” proved I was not just having a premature “senior moment”).  Fedorov, who's pictured at the start of this post, is credited with being one of the first to develop the idea that humans could take control of their own evolution through technology – not only to achieve life after death but also the resurrection of all our ancestors.  As Meghan O’Gieblyn explains in the non-abridged version of her Guardian article (which appeared in the magazine n+1 entitled "Ghost in the Cloud"):

“The universe, he mused, was full of ‘dust’ that had been left behind by our ancestors, and one day scientists would be able to gather up this dust to reconstruct the departed. Another option he floated was hereditary resurrection: sons and daughters could use their bodies to resurrect their parents, and the parents, once reborn, could bring back their own parents. Despite the archaic wording, it’s difficult to ignore the prescience underlying these ideas. Ancestral ‘dust’ anticipates the discovery of DNA. Hereditary resurrection prefigures genetic cloning.”

This notion of ‘dust’ reminded me of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series, where ‘dust’ is an elementary particle which connects humans with their daemons – although I haven’t been able to find any commentary suggesting that Pullman was actually influenced by Fedorov.

But I digress, because the real point here is that, as both O’Gieblyn and Erik Davis (in TechGnosis) point out, ideas like this can be highly seductive.  As a lapsed Christian, for example, O’Gieblyn found herself powerfully attracted to Kurzweil’s ideas, even though she recognised that, in essence, they were quite similar to many of the biblical ideas she had recently abandoned.

In my novel, there is a movement called E-Gnosis which explicitly attempts to marry ideas developed by people like Kurzweil with age-old religious notions (seeing the latter as a kind of ready-made “vocabulary” that can readily be applied to discuss concepts like the Singularity and prepare ourselves for its supposedly imminent occurrence).  The ultimate aim of this movement – much as in Fedorov’s thinking – is to promote the achievement of a Technological Singularity which will restore humankind to a state of perfection.

Since reading the article, I have been wondering if I missed a trick by completely overlooking Fedorov, in particular his emphasis on ancestors and bringing the dead back to life.  After all, one of my main characters dies (this is not a plot spoiler, as the reader knows he’s dead from the beginning of the book).  This particular character is also closely associated with E-Gnosis.  Had I known about Fedorov’s ideas, I could perhaps have done something with the notion that my character could somehow be “brought back to life” after the advent of the Technological Singularity.  This in turn would have added to E-Gnosis’ appeal, making it attractive to people who were grieving over the loss of loved ones or simply hankering after some aspects of the past.  It would also have allowed E-Gnosis to argue that even if you died before the Singularity, there would be nothing to worry about – because when the Singularity eventually did occur, it would result in technology which could reconstitute you in the future.

Indeed, some further Googling around the subject turned up a website called the Turing Church (whose logo appears above), which has promoted a similar view in blog posts like this one.  It could almost be seen as a hedge against the Singularity not happening quite as fast as figures like Kurzweil would have us believe (and as an argument against losing faith in that central idea merely because it’s not happening as fast as some have predicted).

That said, there are some tricky moral problems with Fedorov’s ideas about ancestors.  For example, would absolutely everyone be resurrected?  Would we really want people like Stalin, Hitler and Mao back amongst us?  And if the idea is to resurrect all life which is somehow connected with human evolution, surely that would involve casting the net wider than humans to include other species too?  These are explored further in this interesting blog post by Charles Stross.  

So ultimately, perhaps Fedorov’s thinking is material for another story altogether (although, annoyingly for me, it looks like Mr Stross may have got there first…).

My own take on all this is that something like the Singularity could conceivably occur at some point – but like most technological developments, it is likely to have some “revenge effects.”  What I mean by this is that whilst the Singularity may solve some problems, it is likely to create others, including difficulties which we won’t be able to predict in advance.  I should add that this idea of revenge effects isn’t mine – it is a thesis developed in a book called “Why Things Bite Back” by Edward Tenner, which is also well worth a read.

But I can’t leave this topic without recommending a couple of self-published works of fiction on the same subject.  The first is Roger Williams’ “The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect”, which I reviewed here – it’s the best fictional depiction I’ve come across of a revenge effect arising out of a Technological Singularity (but for reasons explained in my review, it’s not for the faint-hearted).  I’d also recommend “Corpus Callosum” by Erika D Price, which looks at the impact of a near-future technology allowing a kind of “life after death” (where the deceased is uploaded to a small box, about the size of a games console).   This novel, which I reviewed here, is particularly thought-provoking on the subject of how far the separation of our minds from our bodies would change the way we think and feel about the world.  Both these books are currently available free of charge.  

Meghan O'Gieblyn's site is here.  And if you've ever wondered what cosmic dust looks like, here's a picture taken by an electron microscope:

I've decided to name it Federov.

PS if you're feeling in need of some light relief after all this high concept Singularity stuff, then in my view there's no better remedy than Charlie Kam's song "I am the very model of a Singularitarian" (with apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan).  At least, I think it's meant to be funny - sometimes with these things, it can be hard to tell (the comments from users suggest that some people have taken it quite seriously.....).


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About Me

Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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