Newsletter 52: Another one bites the dust

Someone said - I know who, but I am not going to quote him since citations are not part of the adhyatmik traditions as some of my esteemed colleagues would say- that half of winning is about showing up. Well, it's somewhat mind-boggling but this is the 52nd show of the year. With any luck, I have provided a mixture of entertainment and food for thought every once in a while and not been dreadfully annoying the rest of the time.

Every anniversary offers an opportunity for reflection and for renewed commitment. Here is mine.

As I look back at the newsletters sent over a year, two central themes appear with some regularity: a concern for the future, both utopian and dystopian, and philosophical reflection on the past and the present. Somewhat like Star Trek meets Socrates with an Indian twist, if I may be allowed to mangle a few metaphors. Or, to mangle another metaphor, how inner space meets outer space.

Scholars live in the past. Seers live in the future. We need both, but after much seeking, I am yet to find a single venue in which we can satisfy both needs. As a personal choice, I prefer living in the future to the past. I don't quite belong to the "resistance is futile" singularity cult, but there's something immensely attractive about futurism, about dreaming up new realities. The optimist in me wishes for spaceships and robots while the pessimist in me recognizes that the robotic mind is nothing but an extension of a worldview that has brought the world to the brink of destruction. We cannot continue our present course if we are to survive another century. We need new imagination, new visions of life on earth and beyond and these visions cannot be Star Trek anymore, for that's nothing more than a galactic projection of the extractive past and present. As I said in one of the first few newsletters, we need an earthworm cosmology. In one of his better stories, "The City and the Stars," Arthur C. Clarke said that humans left the earth and discovered something so vastly superior that they had to come back and work on themselves for a couple of hundred million years before they could head back to the stars. I believe we have reached that moment well before leaving the earth, that in fact, if we want to leave the earth in peace, we need to work on ourselves right now.

Meanwhile, the reflective half of my being says that all these futuristic fantasies are thin and unidimensional, that they don't portray a living world at all. There's a reason why science fiction and fantasy are considered inferior to realistic fiction; why Tolstoy is considered a greater writer than Clarke. To the extent that literature and poetry are the greatest expressions of human creativity - and I am mostly willing to believe that statement, as long as we can add aspects of philosophy and religion in that category - there's reason to believe that the past and the present are richer sources of creative inspiration than the future. Philosophers, poets and painters mine the lives of people long dead for for insights, but they don't look much in the other direction. The knowledge professions are particularly resistant to the future; scholars cite their peers and their predecessors and they don't peer into the future unless prodded with a stick.

So there we are, facing an uncertain century and left only with techno-utopian imaginations coming out of California, both Southern Cal (Hollywood) and Northern Cal (Silicon Valley). Surely, there's a better alternative, a Singularity University of the East that projects a richer, kinder and fuller vision of the possibilities of human imagination. One less beholden to the nexus of technology and capital that drives our current understanding of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. With tongue only half in cheek, I might suggest Dharmanauts replacing Astronauts.

I believe an alternate imagination is both necessary and within reach; that alternative will by its very nature upend our current conceptions of knowledge. That's what I am beginning to explore over the next year with some urgency. This newsletter will see changes over the year, starting with a minor one: I am going to return to mailchimp for the newsletter, since it allows richer media forms. There will be other, perhaps bigger, changes as well and I look forward to engaging with you through this new phase.