“Conscious self-creation.” This is the nostrum Roy Scranton offers at the end of his now notorious piece, “We’re Doomed. Now What?” Conscious self-creation is the ‘now what,’ the imperative that we must carry across the threshold of apocalypse. After spending several weeks in the company of children I very nearly wept reading this in his latest collection of essays. I laughed instead.
I understand the logic well enough. Social coordination turns on trust, which turns on shared values, which turns on shared narratives. As Scranton writes, “Humans have survived and thrived in some of the most inhospitable environments on Earth, from the deserts of Arabia to the ice fields of the Arctic, because of this ability to organize collective life around symbolic constellations of meaning.” If our imminent self-destruction is the consequence of our traditional narratives, then we, quite obviously, need to come up with better narratives. “We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience, and restraint.”
If I laughed, it was because Scranton’s thesis is nowhere near so radical as his title might imply. It consists, on the one hand, in the truism that human survival depends on engineering an environmentally responsible culture, and on the other, the pessimistic claim that this engineering can only happen after our present (obviously irresponsible) culture has self-destructed. The ‘now what,’ in other words, amounts to the same-old same-old, only après le deluge. Just another goddamn narrative.
Scranton would, of course, take issue with my ‘just another goddamn’ modifier. As far as he’s concerned, the narrative he outlines is not just any narrative, it’s THE narrative. And, as the owner of a sophisticated philosophical position, he could endlessly argue its moral and ecological superiority… the same as any other theoretician. And therein lies the fundamental problem. Traditional philosophy is littered with bids to theorize and repair meaning. The very plasticity allowing for its rehabilitation also attests to its instability, which is to say, our prodigious ability to cook narratives up and our congenital inability to make them stick.
Thus, my sorrow, and my fear for children. Scranton, like fairly every soul writing on these topics, presumes our problem lies in the content of our narratives rather than their nature.
Why, for instance, presume meaning will survive the apocalypse? Even though he rhetorically stresses the continuity of nature and meaning, Scranton nevertheless assumes the independence of the latter. But why? If meaning is fundamentally natural, then what in its nature renders it immune to ecological degradation and collapse?
Think about the instability referenced above, the difficulty we have making our narratives collectively compelling. This wasn’t always the case. For the vast bulk of human history, our narratives were simply given. Our preliterate ancestors evolved the plasticity required to adapt their coordinating stories (over the course of generations) to the demands of countless different environments—nothing more or less. The possibility of alternative narratives, let alone ‘conscious self-creation,’ simply did not exist given the metacognitive resources at their disposal. They could change their narrative, to be sure, but incrementally, unconsciously, not so much convinced it was the only game in town as unable to report otherwise.
Despite their plasticity, our narratives provided the occluded (and therefore immovable) frame of reference for all our sociocognitive determinations. We quite simply did not evolve to systematically question the meaning of our lives. The capacity to do so seems to have required literacy, which is to say, a radical transformation of our sociocognitive environment. Writing allowed our ancestors to transcend the limits of memory, to aggregate insights, to record alternatives, to regiment and to interrogate claims. Combined with narrative plasticity, literacy begat a semantic explosion, a proliferation of communicative alternatives that continues to accelerate to this present day.
This is biologically unprecedented. Literacy, it seems safe to say, irrevocably domesticated our ancestral cognitive habitat, allowing us to farm what we once gathered. The plasticity of meaning, our basic ability to adapt our narratives, is the evolutionary product of a particular cognitive ecology, one absent writing. Literacy, you could say, constitutes a form of pollution, something that disrupts preexisting adaptive equilibria. Aside from the cognitive bounty it provides, it has the long-term effect of destabilizing narratives—all narratives.
The reason we find such a characterization jarring is that we subscribe to a narrative (Scranton’s eminently Western narrative) that values literacy as a means of generating new meaning. What fool would argue for illiteracy (and in writing no less!)? No one I know. But the fact remains that with literacy, certain ancestral functions of narrative were doomed to crash. Where once there was blind trust in our meanings, we find ourselves afflicted with questions, forced to troubleshoot what our ancestors took for granted. (This is the contradiction dwelling in the heart of all post-modernisms: the valuation of the very process devaluing meaning, crying ‘More is better!’ as those unable or unwilling to tread water drown).
The biological origins of narrative lie in shallow information cognitive ecologies, circumstances characterized by profound ignorance. What we cannot grasp we poke with sticks. Hitherto we’ve been able to exapt these capacities to great effect, raising a civilization that would make our story-telling ancestors weep, and for wonder far more than horror. But as with all heuristic systems, something must be taken for granted. Only so much can be changed before an ecology collapses altogether. And now we stand on the cusp of a communicative revolution even more profound than literacy, a proliferation, not simply of alternate narratives, but of alternate narrators.
If you sweep the workbench clean, cease looking at meaning as something somehow ‘anomalous’ or ‘transcendent,’ narrative becomes a matter of super-complicated systems, things that can be cut short by a heart attack or stroke. If you refuse to relinquish the meat (which is to say nature), then narratives, like any other biological system, require that particular background conditions obtain. Scranton’s error, in effect, is a more egregious version of the error Harari makes in Homo Deus, the default presumption that meaning somehow lies outside the circuit of ecology. Harari, recall, realizes that humanism, the ‘man-the-meaning-maker’ narrative of Western civilization, is doomed, but his low-dimensional characterization of the ‘intersubjective web of meaning’ as an ‘intermediate level of reality’ convinces him that some other collective narrative must evolve to take its place. He fails to see how the technologies he describes are actively replacing the ancestral social coordinating functions of narrative.
Scranton, perhaps hobbled by the faux-naturalism of Speculative Realism, cannot even concede the wholesale collapse of humanism, only those elements antithetical to environmental sustainability. His philosophical commitments effectively blind him to the intimate connection between the environmental crises he considers throughout the collection, and the semantic collapses he so eloquently describes in the final essay, “What is Thinking Good For?” Log onto the web, he writes, “and you’ll soon find yourself either nauseated by the vertigo that comes from drifting awash in endless waves of repetitive, clickbaity, amnesiac drek, or so benumbed and bedazzled by the sheer volume of ersatz cognition on display that you wind up giving in to the flow and welcoming your own stupefaction as a kind of relief.” Throughout this essay he hovers about, without quite touching, the idea of noise, how the technologically mediated ease of meaning production and consumption has somehow compromised our ability to reliably signal. Our capacity to arbitrate and select signals is an ecological artifact, historically dependent on the ancestral bottleneck of physical presence. Once a precious resource, like-minded commiseration has become cheap as dirt.
But since he frames the problem in the traditional register of ‘thought,’ an entity he acknowledges he cannot definitively define, he has no way of explaining what precisely is going wrong, and so finds himself succumbing to analogue nostalgia, Kantian shades. What is thinking good for? The interruption of cognitive reflex, which is to say, freedom from ‘tutelary natures.’ Thinking, genuine thinking, is a koan.
The problem, of course, is that we now know that it’s tutelary natures all the way down: deliberative interruption is itself a reflex, sometimes instinctive, sometimes learned, but dependent on heuristic cues all the same. ‘Freedom’ is a shallow information ecological artifact, a tool requiring certain kinds of environmental ignorance (an ancestral neglect structure) to reliably discharge its communicative functions. The ‘free will debate’ simply illustrates the myriad ways in which the introduction of mechanical information, the very information human sociocognition has evolved to do without, inevitably crashes the problem-solving power of sociocognition.
The point being that nothing fundamental—and certainly nothing ontological—separates the crash of thought and freedom from the crash of any other environmental ecosystem. Quite without realizing, Scranton is describing the same process in both essays, the global dissolution of ancestral ecologies, cognitive and otherwise. What he and, frankly, the rest of the planet need to realize is that between the two, the prospect of semantic apocalypse is actually both more imminent and more dire. The heuristic scripts we use to cognize biological intelligences are about to face an onslaught of evolutionarily unprecedented intelligences, ever-improving systems designed to cue human sociocognitive reflexes out of school. How long before we’re overrun by billions of ‘junk intelligences’? One decade? Two?
What happens when genuine social interaction becomes optional?
The age of AI is upon us. And even though it is undoubtedly the case that social cognition is heuristic—ecological—our blindness to our nature convinces us that we possess no such nature and so remain, in some respect (because strokes still happen), immune. Our ‘symbolic spaces’ will be deluged with invasive species, each optimized to condition us, to cue social reflexes—to “nudge” or to “improve user experience.” We’ll scoff at them, declare them stupid, even as we dutifully run through scripts they have cued.
So long as the residue of traditional humanistic philosophy persists, so long as we presume meaning exceptional, this prospect cannot even be conceived, let alone explored. The “evacuation of interiority,” as Scranton calls it, is always the other guy’s—metacognitive neglect assures experience cannot but appear fathomless, immovable. Therein lies the heartbreaking genius of our cognitive predicament: given the intractability of our biomechanical nature, our sociocognitive and metacognitive systems behave as though no such nature exists. We just… are—the deliverance of something inexplicable.
An apparent interruption in thought, in nature, something necessarily observing the ruin, rather than (as Nietzsche understood) embodying it. And so enthusiastically tearing down the last ecological staple sustaining meaning: that humans cue one another ignorant of those cues as such.
All deep environmental knowledge constitutes an unprecedented attenuation of our ancestral cognitive ecologies. Up to this point, the utilities extracted have far exceeded the utilities lost. Pinker is right in this one regard: modernity has been a fantastic deal. We could plunder the ecologies about us, while largely ignoring the ecologies between us. But now that science and technology are becoming cognitive, we ourselves are becoming the resources ripe for plunder, the ecology doomed to fragment and implode.
We’re fucked. So now what? We fight, clutch for flotsam, like any other doomed beetle caught upon the flood, not for any ‘reason,’ but because this is what beetles do, drowning.