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YLEM Journal: Artists Using Science and Technology

by Loren Means, Editor
YLEM, San Francisco, USA, May-August 2006
27 pp., illus. b/w. NP
SSN: 1057-2031

Journal website: http://www.ylem.org.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


YLEM (pronounced eye-lem) is Greek for "the exploding mass from which the universe emerged". It is the name of the journal presently being reviewed and also of the "international organization of artists, scientists, authors, curators, educators and art enthusiasts who explore the intersection of the arts and sciences". Their web site is
www.ylem.org — if you’re interested in art and science, it is a must to visit.

This is a double issue concerned specifically with the Singularity. Other than the final article, which is an excerpt of a talk given by Martha Senger, and Hofstadter’s cartoon presentation, all other articles are in the form of interviews. The "Big Thinkers" (as YLEM refers to them) featured in this issue are Suzi Gablik, Douglas Hofstadter, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, and John Searle. The selection of these representative "thinkers" is important as it gives a balanced approach to this most intriguing hypothesis — the Singularity.

Kurzweil describes the Singularity as a metaphor and states, "The real meaning of "singularity" is similar to the concept of the "event horizon" in physics" (p. 12)––that is, it’s a technological event horizon that we can’t see past. It is a hypothetical concept that refers to the point when technology reaches a critical mass and moves forward, away from biological humans, on its own, under its own intentionality and volition.

There is very little art in this issue, and one would be excused for thinking it is a futuristic philosophy journal. I was very disappointed with the graphic quality. It is printed on cheap, plain paper and the black & white photographic reproductions are atrocious. They remind me of the low standard available from photocopiers in the early 80s. I would have thought that at a membership subscription cost of $40USD, and given the ubiquity of low cost desktop scanners and printers, a higher quality production would be in order. Also there appears to be no subscription available for non-American residents?

Gablik and Lanier’s contributions give a cautious and concerned environmental and humanistic counterbalance to Kurzweil’s infectious push towards a nonbiological future for humans, where technology reins supreme and we move off the earth and out to colonise the universe. Searle gives strong philosophical arguments against even the possibility of true artificial intelligence. Kurzweil’s hopes will never be realised if we don’t fix up this planet urgently. The destruction of the natural environment, increasing at an exponential rate (to borrow his favourite phrase) and the major climatic changes associated with this may see no humans left here from which to transcend in technological rapture. Hofstadter’s brilliantly conceived cartoons take a shot at both sides of the singularity camp and in a sense highlight just how ignorant we are.

Senger’s talk is the only one that discusses art, and it has some very interesting and inspiring concepts, the title is — Neo-Vorticism: The Tao of Form. It is unfortunate that the talk contains so much California-speak, New Age jargon that it is almost painful to read. More seriously though, it contains some amazing generalizations and unsubstantiated speculations. For example, he writes, "We’re in the midst of a momentous cultural shift perhaps equal to that of the emergence of consciousness several thousand years ago" [my emphasis] (p. 23). We have no real clue as to when and how "consciousness emerged"; it was certainly not "several thousand years ago". Even more ridiculous is the following statement that I will quote in full: "This situates us within the domain of the ‘strange attractor’ –– living time free within a toroidal topology of uncertainty but with a clear view to the future –– alert to its symbolic nuances, surfing its self-similar curves and tuned to the golden-mean ratio of that aesthetic object of desire at this epoch’s end – the Singularity" (p. 23).

"Aesthetic object of desire!" If there is one thing that all proponents of the Singularity agree upon, it is that it is unknowable from this side. It is a sure sign of foolishness to make something that is unknowable and inconceivable into an aesthetic object of desire. Particularly when there is a very real possibility that if the Singularity does occur, it may be the most inhuman, disastrous event ever brought about by "smart but not wise" humans. The great thing about YLEM is that it brings these contentious, potentially dangerous concepts into the public arena for balanced debate.



Updated 1st January 2007

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