Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Mercy College Environmental Science Lecture: Talking like TED in the Noosphere

Today we are continuing our exploration of the art of presenting scientific information to the public using the "Talk Like Ted" format.  You may be already familiar with the TED talks and how they are transforming how we share information. 

 TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment and Design" and with the emergence of TEDx talks, has also come to represent "Technology, Education and Development".  Being a TED speaker is as prestigious as it is impactful and many presidents and CEOs as well as civil society leaders have led TED.  But it is open to anybody with a good idea and the ability to express it.

A TED talk is targeted at 18 minutes or less in length because it has been determined that this is the amount of time most people can stay focused and engaged with a topic before needing to shift their attention. This works out to about 2500 words of text, depending on your pace, so this gives you a bench mark to strive for when you are writing out your speech.

As you can see, today I am using my tablet as a teleprompter with a font size of 60 and speed of 8800 so that I can make sure I don't go over time and so that I can give the same speech in many different venues.  You have the option of doing this too, and by using a prompter you can put in all the fancy terminology you want to use without having to memorize it, and you can come across much more erudite, savvy and sophisticated, cogent and eloquent and possibly inveigling, if that is your intent, than if you were merely improvising. And you don't have to look down at your notes.  TED speakers generally use teleprompters.  They work great as long as you are able to get the scroll rate right!

But as I have mentioned in class, this is one of many tools I would like to put in your arsenal as you confront the world as a Mercy graduate.
The subtitle of TED is "ideas worth spreading" and my goal is to help empower you to first believe that you have ideas worth spreading and sharing, that you are WORTHY ... worth a lot more than you know... and second to help transform you into something the world needs a lot more of... that is, SCIENTIFIC COMMUNICATORS.

I have stressed throughout the semester that I believe we already have all of the technologies we need to make the world a better place, a more  beautiful, healthy, fulfilling, sustainable, thriving and flourishing place for all people and all living beings.  I've stressed my belief that the problems facing us are mostly born of ignorance and politics and fear and immaturity and, as you've heard me say time and time again, addiction ... addiction to drugs like wheat, corn, rice and sugar and other grass family grains and high glycemic starches, along with potatoes, as well as the usual psychoactive substances and stimulants and depressants found in weeds like tobacco and poppy plants and coca leaves.  

I've suggested that if we wean ourselves off of these substances, if we get our blood sugar levels under control, and if we empower ourselves and each other to spend our time learning what we consider important for our well being in our own unique ways and if we learn how to share that information most effectively with others, so they can apprehend it in the ways that suit them best, we can make real and lasting changes for the better.  I am thus an advocate of  sharing the gospel or good news of our own joy with others, believing that in the this way the wave of good feeling will spread out to eventually embrace and empower the whole world.

This philosophy is the reverse of the usual "think globally, act locally" because I think it is disengenuous and even arrogant to think that we can think globally... I believe we should try to put things into a global perspective, but honestly I think we are better off thinking locally ... working hard to solve our own problems at the local level, starting with our own minds and bodies and working outward to ever larger environments - home, family, neighbors and neighborhood, town and city... and by solving our own problems and walking the walk of our talk, showing the outer world how happy we are, finally able to love ourselves and our immediate surrounding, create conditions that will inspire others to be able to find solutions to their local challenges. Eventually, through sharing, these ideas will overlap in ever widening circles of cooperation. So in this way we end up "thinking Locally, but acting globally" -- and we end up acting globally not in some hegemonic or colonial sense, but through social networking and the creation of nodes of enlightenment that lead to the phenomenon of emergence.  Collective intelligence begins to emerge.

What we are helping to create with our learning communities, once they are all connected, which is certainly possible now that we have the internet and air travel and roads everywhere to move people and goods and ideas, is something the French philosopher Tielhard de Chardin called "the noosphere". The noosphere is the sphere of conciousness that emerges from the interaction of the lithosphere ... the rock layer of geology, with the atmosphere... the nitrogen and oxygen rich gas layer that  surrounds our planet
with the biosphere, the thin living layer that makes our planet unique in our solar system.  It is hypothesized that once a planet evolves a biosphere, and once conscious, self-aware and purposefully intelligent beings evolve and develop language and communication technologies, emergent properties can lead to the development of a even more inclusive and expansive consciousness and intelligence.  We call that the noosphere, the sphere of knowing.

I've mentioned in class before the so called "Gaia Hypothesis" posited by biologists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis.  Margulis was the woman who came up with the now substantiated Endosymbiosis theory that said that all Eukaryotic or complex cells, now found in animals and plants and fungi and protozoa, evolved from simple prokaryotic cells like those found in the Archaea and the Bacteria. The theory is that larger prokaryotic bacteria like cells engulfed other cells but found it advantageous to work with them symbiotically rather than digest them. Eventually those cells, now acting more like cooperative cities than loose assemblages of individual parts, started cooperating to form actual organisms with bodies.
In a similar vein the Gaia theory suggests that collections of organisms of different species can function together like a super-organism, like a body made up of many kinds of plants and animals, but with a teleological purpose.  In this view ecosystems are like living beings with their parts spread out across the landscape.  We had explored briefly how slime molds, which can act as individuals or as a colony,  provide an analogy for this view.  Nonetheless, Gaia theory, as this recent book by Toby Tyrell that I picked up at Harvard last week, is hotly debated.  Critics say that there is actually no need to suggest the earth or its systems are working together the way organisms bodies are to explain what we see happening in nature. But others insist that the earth is acting like a self-regulating global superorganism, and this would have profound implications for things like the current climate change crisis.  Will the earth actively protect itself from our destructive activities the way a body will when it suffers an infection?

The noosphere idea suggests not only that the earth could be considered alive as a being, but that it may be conscious. In this case "mother earth" wouldn't be just a metaphor but a reality.  Still, for all the appeal of this line of reasoning, it is hard to prove.
I will suggest a different approach:  if we consider the noosphere to be an emergent property, we shift the debate about IF the earth is conscious to WHEN.  We already know that unintelligent agents -- individual cells -- can work together in the trillions to form intelligent thinking brains, and we have seen how rather stupid ants and bees and termites and slime molds can come together to create "hive minds" that can solve problems.  We are seeing that individual computer chips can be wired together to create intelligent machines and through cloud computing we are seeing the emergence of a smart web that enables smart phones and smart networks to make decisions and recognize language and faces.  So it appears that human beings, now approaching 10 billion and with one in four networked around the world, have the capacity to create a hybrid machine/human intelligence that is far more powerful and global than anything that has previously existed on the planet.  Once we fully embrace the other non-human creatures we share the planet with and network entire ecosystems, further evolving our own intelligence, it becomes inevitable that the noosphere will appear as a tangible phenomenon that we can directly communicate with and through.

So once again, it isn't really a matter of IF a larger and more plantery intelligence than ours exists, it is a matter of WHEN.  This is what people like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil are talking about when they speak of THE SINGULARITY.  The singularity is the logical end point of all trends in evolution, geological, biological, social and technological. 
The singularity is almost here, and the more we share ideas from all walks of life and perspectives, and honor all stories and pedigrees, the more likely it is to arrive in a desirable life affirming way rather than turn into a tragic trope in which humans are "shaken off the earth like a bad cold" or "cut out like a cancer". 
Your conscious participation in the evolving emerging noosphere is the key to this century ending on a happy note.  My mission is to help you develop the skills and confidence to have full involvement in how the story of humanity plays out. My mission, and our mission at Mercy, is to help give you the tools for full participation.  It is my hope that you can use these last few weeks of our semester a springboard for you leap with confidence into the uncertain future awaiting us and, through sharing your worthy ideas, make certain its a good one.