Visionary industrialist and omni-genius Elon Musk recently let forth his belief that all of us are all living within a constructed and programmed universe, powered by computers and guided by some form of intelligence. It’s a startling claim, even from one who seems to have a propensity to startle, but it’s also a remarkably familiar theory about the place of humanity in the universe. Allowing for obvious distinctions, 16th Century Calvinists had a similar view of the human condition, and it’s a beguiling argument now for anyone who wonders about the sources of knowledge, or who is challenged by all the vital and trivial information that connects us to each other, or stressed by the changes we sense happening to us and to the world around us
How could anyone not wonder about all this? Understanding and managing the universe we inhabit is the mission of humanity, and as a species we have made extraordinary progress in that effort. If we never seem to satisfy the initial curiosity it’s perhaps because each of us has a different starting point. I know where my understanding of the universe started, but lately I’ve begun to think we have altered it in some fundamental way.
We moved to new offices a few months ago and among of the improvements offered in our new ‘space’ are several large flat-screen monitors. Being somewhat recusant about new technology and the gadgets that go with it, these are not especially impressive to me but I am reminded by colleagues that we are professional communicators, and the screens allow us to conduct videoconferences, or to watch different informational or instructional programs. All true. Usually, though, the screens are showing a Web-only channel now offered by a traditional network news division. What’s on view doesn’t seem to be news as much as a looping review of political and financial commentary, dishing over and over again something some candidate or office holder has said or done in the past 12 hours. In form and content, it’s gossip, though I cannot state this categorically because the displays here usually are muted (we’re working, after all.)