What is human civilization? It is difficult to assert that other animals do not create their own civilizations — termites for instance meet some criteria for being categorized as cyborgs (building temperature-controlled mega structures). Animals communicate, express feelings, and have personalities. Octopi arrange furniture for would-be mates. Others engage in mating rituals. Some mourn the dead. Birds can solve simple math. Critters scheme, enterprise, forge bonds, and even produce art. What do we do that animals do not?
To our credit, we are the only animals that record, share, and develop history upon structures and materials outside of our bodies. We harness energy for massive projects. We farm, but again, so do leaf-cutter ants. But we create genetically novel vegetables and animals. We alter the global climate. Our enterprises are global, and given time and opportunity, our projects will eventually become exostellar. We do all this rather ferociously. Human history is a rather short explosion of civilization-building activities, and yet it might already have irrevocably altered the future of all life on this planet. No other creature has created a circumstance quite like that of human beings and our anthropocene project. For instance, unless we clean up the environment, the next few generations of plant and animal life are going to have be extremely resilient to radiation, Styrofoam, plastics, and other run-offs squeezed out from the human project. That is just a fact of life now on earth. We leave deep biological impacts that altogether seem to make the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ a powerful and authentic tool in assessing the global circumstance. If anything can be said to be unique unto human beings, it is certainly our anthropocene and the crisis inherent within it. Be that as it may, how can we get a grapple on our creation, our human enterprise? And where is it all going? Why is it even happening? What is the point?
Civilization: an Anthropocentric Triad Constituting a Totally Humanized Enclosure
Human civilization can be thought of as an evolving relationship between a triad of forces: Technology, Media, and Human Beings. These three forces in conjunction seems to be what separates us from the rest of life on this planet. What of this trinity?
Let’s briefly explore each corner of this triangle.
Technology — the body extended
Technology can be thought of as an extension or augmentation of the human body accomplished via tool creation and use.
I frequently cite Amber Case’s cyborg anthropology research in effort to help individuals understand the significant impact of tool-making and tool-use upon biological evolution. Case stated in her 2010 Ted talk We are all cyborgs now:
“So what’s a good definition for cyborg? Well, traditional definition is “an organism to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.” That came from a 1960 paper on space travel, because, if you think about it, space is pretty awkward. People aren’t supposed to be there. But humans are curious, and they like to add things to their bodies so they can go to the Alps one day and then become a fish in the sea the next.”
An easy example is wearing animal skins — if you are a hairless tropical ape (like the kind we find in reflective surfaces) you are trapped to living in warm climates. That is your fate. You cannot survive anything too cold or you will freeze to death. However, if you are capable of killing and wearing the skin of another animal, you now have the option to comfortably settle regions of the earth that you were otherwise biologically incapable of occupying. By killing an animal and wearing its skin you are actually bypassing eons of evolutionary time. Without using animal skins to cover your vulnerable flesh, you would otherwise be doomed to spend generations and generations of time developing more and more blubbery fat and body hair so that you could migrate beyond the tropical zone. That would by definition take a long while and a lot of effort. In fact you might even be an altogether different animal by the time you get there. This is the real value of tools and technologies — they are a practical shortcut through evolution and biological time. That is what tools do. And all tool-users are by definition cyborgs.
There are a lot of different kinds of tools. They range from everything from the counting rock and the abacus to the iPhone and the quantum computer. Human civilization and history is really marked by the tools that we use during one age or another. We drop them, shed them, our tools become scattered; and eventually our tools end up buried throughout the land in the form of artifacts. We carry our tools on us and some we leave in certain special places. We leave our augmented wings — our airplanes — at the airport. We fill our garages with tools, ladders, saws, and hammers. If we have a major cardiac episode, our tools take the form of artificial hearts stitched into our bodies. Our tools can be biological — from the genetically guided breeding of dogs and cattle — both are kinds of ensouled, living “tools” (to put it grossly) — to the creation of 3D-printed organs and vatted meat. All our tools make up our sum total cybernetic extension into the world, from the earliest clothing and throwing spears to the spacesuit and the lunar rover. Our tools are everywhere: they are all over us, and they eventually become fossils with us.
In human beings, I call this the Technological Impulse. We are marked by a kind of “will to tool.” What separates us from other tool-users is our absolute totalizing drive to create and employ tools. Human beings are far from being the only animal on this planet to discover the marvelous utility of tool-use and development. Yet, no other animal rivals our obsession for tool development and use. Other animals build structures akin to skyscrapers. Beavers build dams. Some primates even use hooked instruments. But no other animal is working on their own CERN for example. No other animal is arguing about the history of its species in long academic diatribes. No other animal is trying to get off-world. The frogs don’t have their own internet.
This idea of the technological impulse is arguably exclusive to human beings on earth. It is also an important point — many technologists argue that we are helpless when it comes to resisting say building an AI. We actually cannot help ourselves. In a sense this is true. We really are infected with the virus of innovation. No other animal on the planet feels like it must crack its genome, or discover the next prime number, or build a better mousetrap. We are in some kind of ontological crisis where we feel like we need to create, develop, and evolve tools — and we do so impulsively.
Media — the mind extended
Media can be thought of as an extension or augmentation of the human mind accomplished by the arrangement of information carrying platforms.
The above definition is a little wordy — essentially media is the mind made external with the use of some kind of format or platform. When we paint a cave painting, we take our inner subjective mind and smear it meaningfully upon the cave wall. We do this with intent. Some forms of media include the cave painting, the talking drum, smoke signals, hieroglyphics, totem poles, morse code, fetish art, text, language, song, tweets, and films. All of these take the mind and attempt to externalize it via some medium or another. Marshall McLuhan famously pointed out that it is difficult if not impossible to see beyond the lens that media formats perpetuate. Media is a way for us to make sense of the world, but we often become trapped in both the messages and the means by which these communications are perpetuated. Not only are we compelled by the content of a given tweet, we are also now thinking in 140 character terms. Similarly, Wittgenstein famously remarked, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.“
Whereas technology is augmentation and extension of the human body, media can be thought of as an augmentation and extension of the human mind.
As much as our human epochs are marked by the evolution of tools (consider the differences of human thought and behavior between the Stone Age and the Computer Age), so too are human epochs marked by media and information revolutions. The world before moveable type was vastly different than the world of hieroglyphic etching. Both are completely different from morse code and wireless communications. We are different beings after these media and information revolutions.
Human civilization, its development, what seems to separate one era from another, is intimately tied to the evolution of media and technology as described. Before reaching our last leg of the triad, it should be noted that media and technology are of course intrinsically linked, and that the separation between the two offered in this essay is only a contrivance to point out a larger circumstance.
Humans Beings — the living breathing aftermath of media and technology
Human beings are self-augmenting media and tool wielding organisms; cyborgs — be they cave-dweller or cosmopolitan. Our media and technology alters and reenforces our own self-perpetuated narratives and metanarratives, giving rise to cultures and ages.
Now we depart from object discussions to a subject discussion; technology and media are the objects and human beings are the subject. Human beings bring two important factors into this trinity. One is how the development and use of media and technology reshape both human civilization itself, as well as the earthly environment in total; the other being the narratives and meta-narratives that media and technology exposure and use has on human culture, thought, and behavior. As Sherry Turkle repeats: “We make our objects and they make us.”
This is the important takeaway: your media and your technology make and shape your mind, your imagination, your culture, your sense of self, purpose, identity, history, and what actions you can and cannot perform. All media and technology then come together and both end up reinforcing a very particular vision of the world, reality, and humanity. Every tool acts as a lens (“before this tool, I could not do this project — but, now I can”). Every media format acts as a lens (“before this media, I could not express this idea — but, now I can”). We segment these epochs as: Stone Age, Neolithic Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Steam Age, Industrial Age, Atomic Age, Information Age, Computer Age, Virtual Age, and so on. Each one is an entirely warped by the media and technology elements of their time, as well as the stories, thoughts, behaviors, narratives, meta-narratives, religions, and cultures we birth out of them. We see the world and ourselves through tools and media, and all three of “us” are in dialogue. Make no mistake, without the books of the New Testament, the Old Testament; the Torah, The Zohar, the Quran, and the like — there would be no Abrahamic religions as they are today. These religions are one with the media technology of their texts. The whole Abrahamic enterprise are texts, citations, commentaries on texts and citations, as well as the memorizations and interpretations thereof. Since they are textual religions, they are text-dependent religions. Oral traditions, that being a kind of story-telling generationally passed down, exist without ink or paper. You cannot burn it away.
This is human civilization in a nutshell: the evolutionary interplay and feedback among technology, media, and human beings. That’s what human civilization is. And it is impossible for us human beings to abandon. Though you might be able to grant yourself temporarily reprieve from the hive mind of human civilization and history through some kind of mind-altering experience or another, you basically cannot indefinitely escape. This triad of human civilization is at once life-sustaining, but it is also an enclosure. You can not really see over the wall of human civilization; that is like trying to see over the wall of the human mind. Within this inclosure of civilization we are growing the posthuman, but before diving into that claim, let’s backtrack and see why we can’t escape.
The Story of the Naked Human vs. House Cat vs. The World
What do I mean when I assert: You can’t escape human civilization? Let’s try a thought experiment. Imagine you take a decently pampered house cat and drop it off in the woods — far from any human being. Let’s say it finds water nearby and a little hollow to tuck itself in at night. The cat might be uncomfortable, but the fact is the cat has everything within its own body to continue its survival. A cat has tons of body hair to protect itself from the cold. It has deadly claws and teeth to kill and eat its prey. The cat has millions of years of genetic effort pushed into the refinement of vision and hearing to help detect food, predators, and mates. Drop ten cats in the woods and each one will rely entirely on its own body to survive, except for seeking shelter in a burrow or a tree. None will develop tools.
Same situation, only now imagine it is a human being. You take a decently pampered human being and drop her naked in the woods — far from any other human being. What is the first thing she has to do? Well if she’s not in a climate close to the equator, her first pursuit is to make some clothing pronto so she doesn’t die of exposure. Along with that comes shelter, either finding one naturally occurring like a cave, or building one — out of mud, wood, and stone. Shoes are probably going to be a big help. Then sticks and traps for hunting, because catching food with our bare human hands is far harder for us than it is for any house cat. Using clay to build pots or weaving bags to carry supplies would be extremely useful. A makeshift axe would save her life. Fire would be central for everything from warmth, to cooking — especially given she is the result of eons of altered biology requiring the eating of cooked food — the fire would offer protection, and it could even possibly be used as a media to signal a passing helicopter or superhero. Ultimately, our naked and estranged human would have to start collecting and building immediately, if she wanted to survive. She would have to modify the environment and her person to endure nature as it is. She would have to augment her body immediately. Rocks, mud, leaves, bones, vines, sticks — everything would be used. She would go forth use the forest itself to basically turn herself into something like Batman — covered in self-made gadgets and tools. The point: we require all the forces of human history and civilization to survive. Being dropped naked in the woods, we might as well be dropped in a climate as hostile to us as Antarctica is. Without tools we are doomed. That is the depth of our dependency on our cybernetic nature. Without tools for human beings, death looms the likely and survival unassured.
This is what I mean when I assert you can’t really escape human civilization at all. We have reached a point where we need all kinds of tools just to survive. A cat needs no tools — just a place to hide and warm up. That’s it. A cat is not a cyborg. But if you drop a naked human being in woods, they have no choice but to drag civilization with them and start deploying its tools. So we can’t escape. Isolate us from our civilization, and we will but only do our best to recreate facets of it for our own survival. That’s being trapped. A cat will only leave behind bones. We leave behind our bones, but our tools as well — they are as much a part of us as our own body is.
Even those who live on the furthest reaches of the planet rely on tools and supplies. They always have to consider how far they are from camp. Getting lost from all your tools means you’ll just have to make more of them — or probably die.
What does this really mean? It human beings actually cannot sustain ourselves anywhere without civilization. At this point in our development, we absolutely require tools to survive. We have a symbiotic relationship with civilization. We are, in many ways, one and the same. We are all cyborgs now.
How is Human Civilization like a Womb?
Agriculture and animal farming are staples of human civilization. Rather than hunting and gathering, we began to domesticate a choice number of plants and animals, as we began to domesticate ourselves — moving from being nomads to city-builders. Food source, a key to the survival of all lifeforms, became something we kept close to camp. It became something we tilled and cultivated. We began to build homes and complexes of homes close to our fields, and granaries, and stables. We invented neighborhoods, and our neighbors were indeed other human beings, but they were also our crops and cattle.
But in terms of agriculture and animal farming, it must be pointed out — are not these enterprises deeply analogous to technologically developing a post-natal external placenta? Think about it. We have this life-sustaining activity of farming that we grow a symbiotic relationship with, which is geographically situated literally next door to our habitats. We protect both our farms and ourselves within enclosures. Indeed, this was a powerful change in human activity, as now we were actually limited in many ways. We moved from physically and psychologically mastering the demands of finding food on the plains, to learning how to control the growth, fertility, and maintenance of a given site. This is as dramatic as it gets in terms behavioral practices that go on to influence the future of a lifeform.
It is from this practice of domesticating ourselves along with a choice few plants and animals, that we move from dwelling in caves to building huts, then buildings, structures, fences, roads, and eventually cities, cosmopolitans, and states. All these walls acts as enclosures to our new manmade habitats. The walls of a cave, or the walls of a room, or the walls that enclose a city, or a country — are these not like the walls of a womb?
To me, it feels like we popped out of one womb and built ourselves another. Now we have great cities that act like wombs. They are life-sustaining, but they are also enclosures — and within them we gestate.
I Am Scaffolding Made of Mirror Falling Forward Through The Meta-Mirrored Scaffolding of Media-Technology Grid that is Shaped like Gabriel’s Horn
Here’s a truly far out vision. As mentioned earlier: Every tool acts as a lens (“before this tool, I could not do this project — but, now I can”). Every media format acts as a lens (“before this media, I could not express this idea — but, now I can”).
Another way to see civilization-making is through is to imagine it as something like scaffolding. There is a kind of bootstrapping that occurs as technology, media, and the human narrative jumps into “higher” breakthroughs. We “climb up” our media and technology developments to reach “higher” ground. From there we see different vistas and possibilities. In so doing, our overall human narrative is redefined step-by-step, breakthrough-by-breakthrough.
Media and technology is a kind of scaffolding, but it is one we cannot really see through or beyond. We are always looking into the scaffolding of media technology, and media technology is always a mirror of ourselves. Thus we are in a kind of trapped dance with our own visage. In this way, we always already are the Borg because we have become encapsulated in our own idea of “humanness” — an idea that always puts us essentially “outside” or “more than” the rest of animals, life, and the universe. Our hyperreality-powered detachment from our real world environmental situation has all but proven our belief that we are indeed outside the effects of something like famine or nuclear fallout. Civilization, the Second Womb, will always be there to help us abduct ourselves from the rest of the universe — or so we seem to believe.
The Second Womb of Civilization and Our Transhuman Future-Other and the All-too Simple Point of it All
Terence McKenna frequently brought up metaphor of the earth being humanity’s womb, and we the fetus. Along with this metaphor, McKenna always mentioned the medical condition toxemia. McKenna states:
The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge
At this point, our relationship to this planet, as an infant-child relationship of impending toxemia, we have to be parted from the mother — to save the mother and to save us.
The Camden Talk
If it’s time for birth to occur and it doesn’t occur, then you do have medical emergency, what’s called toxemia sets in, dangerous to the mother, fatal to the foetus, the two must be medically parted jolly quick or there will be permanent repercussions. This is why we must aid this birth process, because it is painful, life is sculpted out of death and the feeling that we as a species have in this moment is the feeling that the foetus has, I think, as it moves into the narrowest neck of the birth canal. Gone forever are the endless amniotic oceans of peace and tranquillity when we could rape and pillage and burn and explore to our heart’s content because the earth seemed infinite in extent. Now, we have the same feeling that the foetus has as it starts down the birth canal — we can’t breath, there’s no oxygen, we can’t get food, we appear to be … the walls are moving in to crush us.
Angels Aliens & Archetypes
We are going to live in the imagination. This planet is involved in a birth process. There is nothing unnatural about what is going on on this planet, and there is nothing unnatural or inappropriate about us. It’s simply that the planet has carried us to term. We are now ready to leave the womb, and the womb is in danger of toxemia if we do not leave it. We have passed into a kind of time where the separation of our species from the planet that gave us birth is a necessity for the survival of both parties, and like any birth it is a moment of crisis. It can end in catastrophe, and perhaps the saucers stand off to perform a necessary cesarean if things really turn into chaos. Many [UFO] contactees report an apocalyptic scenario involving the saucers taking everybody away in the wake or in the eminence of a thermal nuclear exchange, however, the mature way, the self-reflected way, the dignified way out of this cultural impasse, out of this global standoff is for us to take seriously on a personal level the possibility of evolving our communications with each other so that we actually become the loving family of the goddess, the planetary organism, that we all feel ahead of us in the future casting an enormous shadow back over the historical landscape.
It is difficult if not impossible to predict what kind of effect Artificial Intelligence will have on our species, although its effect will likely be massive. So although computers will likely continue to become evermore integrated into humanity, who can say what its face will look like once AIs are developed? Even though cyberspace was predicted, nonstop wireless telephony was not. Similarly, though we can see AI coming soon, we do not know how it will manifest, nor what other developments will come alongside it. So rather than conjuring with AI, let us look at something a little easier to anticipate.
It may have been an inevitable destiny of many evolutionary paths in nature to evolve a creature that can consciously guide its own evolution. That is what human beings have done almost every step of the way, whether we were aware of it or not. We are uniformly involved in a trial-and-error approach to creating our civilizations. However, the most central issue to all this, which is in fact already here, is the human genome. Regardless of whatever new social order AI unfolds upon us, it is our own engagement with altering human DNA that is the real pot of gold at the end of civilization’s rainbow.
A being that can consciously alter its own DNA via technological intervention (i.e. cybernetic means) is what our Second Womb has been nurturing. We have used civilization to protect ourselves while we crack the code of our biological being. We started in the womb of the cave. Then moved on to the womb of the hut. Then the village, the city, and the state. All thew hile, we have been tinkering with our own DNA and the DNA of other species. To me, this is the real posthuman or transhuman — it is the creature that is actively editing its own biological blueprint through tech. This is what we’ve been doing since we started augmenting our bodies with clothing and animal skins. We’ve been modifying our ability to endure the slings and arrows of the cosmos. Furthermore, it is what we have been doing with plants and animals for thousands of years — modifying their DNA and crossbreeding. This is what we are certainly moving towards. The purpose of civilization has been to build an external life-giving enclosure, a womb for ourselves, so that we may give birth to a new human being. That new human being is one entirely in control of its DNA expressions.
This is the shortest possible version of the idea of the Second Womb — though I have more to say — this has been a general overview of how I envision the anthropocene, the cyborg, human civilization-making, and its potential outcomes. In terms of this enviorning aspect to our civilization, I see little or no indication that the thousands and thousands of years of momentum is leading to anything other than a further evolution of our Second Womb.
For one never escapes the womb of their civilization. We only ever evolve and develop it. Our Second Womb is an evolving human-centric virtual reality, the destiny of which is to give birth both to the posthuman being and, by necessity, the posthuman womb for those beings’ survival. As long as we cannot see beyond these interpretive veils — whether they are impressed upon us by the lens of media, technology, language, culture, civilization, or the very concept of “humanness” — we cannot expect to see beyond the filter of human consciousness. Thus, we cannot get past the Second Womb we always already occupy.
However, the only way to really reflect on this is via the psychedelic experience. Extreme psychedelic experiences are capable of taking you temporarily out of the Second Womb. There, it is possible to make breakthroughs and have insights that are beyond human civilization and history. Nevertheless, once your trip is over you are back in the city, the country, the state, and the farm.
Once we see that human civilization is a Second Womb, our seemingly automatic striving towards the creation of a posthuman, or “higher” person, or a singularitarian, whatever you want to call it, takes on a clearer face.