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Transhumanism

Spiritual technologies

Three manifestations of sacred geometry – a page from the 9th century Book of Kells, a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, and a Shipibo ayahuasca-inspired weaving

Our psyches are deeply connected to the material and symbolic worlds we weave around us. The habitat of our daily lives re-inforces our habits, for good and ill. All our stuff – our apartments, our clothes, our books, our TV, our online activity, our food, our relationships – helps make us who we are, in a powerful feedback loop.

We saw the dark side of that last week, when Robert Bowers killed eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Bowers was an avid user of a right-wing social media site called Gab, which fed him toxic conspiracy theories like the idea Jewish oligarchs finance mass migration to try and destroy white America. He sought belonging, identity and meaning through the online church of Gab, just as many young British men and women are radicalized into extremism and terrorism through a daily diet of xenophobic videos, blogs and tweets.

We can say ‘how could this monster commit such evil?’ But let’s look at ourselves. We know social media worsens people’s moods, and brings out anti-social behaviour. And yet we’re all still addicts.

Six months ago, I deleted my Twitter account, because I realized it was feeding my inner jerk. Twitter is a hellish party in which everyone is a bad version of themselves. It fosters narcissism, polarization, virtue-signalling, competitive outrage and mindless reactivity. I wanted to leave, but was addicted to its dopamine-fuelled distraction and ego-amplification. After I deleted my own account, I started tweeting from my university centre’s account instead. When I found myself, one morning, swearing at a complete stranger for giving away the ending of Murder on the Orient Express, on my centre’s Twitter account, I realized I had to take desperate measures. I told my centre administrator to change the password for the Twitter account and not tell me.

But there’s a silver lining to the dark narrative of how the internet poisons our psyches.  It shows the extent to which our behaviour is modifiable. It shows how malleable our psyches are. If we can be conditioned to hate, we can also be conditioned to love.

Over the last two years, the practice that has changed me the most is loving-kindness meditation. Every morning, I practice mindfulness of breathing for 30 minutes, because I have a very scattered and over-busy mind. Then I end with five minutes of loving-kindness.

I wish myself happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy, and great equanimity. I bring to mind someone I love, and wish them the same. Then I bring to mind someone I feel neutral about, and wish them the same, then someone I have difficulties with. Then I imagine us all sitting together – this can be a very strange group of people, like, my mother, my neighbour, and Donald Trump, all holding hands. I imagine us wishing each other happiness, freedom from suffering, great joy and great equanimity. Then I imagine us spreading this loving-kindness to all beings in all dimensions.

That regular imaginative practice has changed my habitual mood, I’m sure of it. I notice myself smiling at strangers more often in the street or on the Tube. I am also kinder to myself, less likely to take a dump on myself for being single, or not earning much money.

The loving-kindness script is a very old and successful technology for behaviour modification. I also use external technologies – props for the construction of my better self. I’ve made a little shrine where I meditate, and put up pictures of my favourite teachers – Pema Chodron, Epictetus, Thomas Traherne, Ram Dass, Tenzin Palmo and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I like sitting down in the morning and bowing to them, and then opening my eyes to see them smiling down on me. I also light candles and a joss stick while meditating – another technology for the alteration of consciousness.

Around my apartment, I have various other props to remind me of the wisdom I am trying to embody. I have a Buddhist thangka that I bought in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. It’s the last thing I see when I leave the apartment, and the first thing I see when I come home. I have a string of Tibetan prayer flags hanging on my balcony – I love to see them flapping in the wind, releasing blessings.

I also use some apps on my phone for my spiritual practice. I use Insight Timer, a free meditation app which I recommend. I use the Shambhala app to watch videos of Pema Chodron’s lectures. And I use an app she recommended – WeCroak – which sends me a message five times a day saying ‘Remember you’re going to die.’ According to a Bhutanese Buddhist tradition, the way to happiness is to remember you’re going to die five times a day. And then there’s old-school technologies like my books, my journal, my writing. I have written intentions stuck to my wall. And I have this blog. This is also a spiritual technology, for me and hopefully for you.

There is some excitement around ‘spirit-tech’ at the moment. Yuval Harari thinks the next religion might use virtual reality to immerse us in alternate worlds and fill us with a sense of presence. Virtual reality is already used as a form of distraction therapy, to reduce pain in burn victims, and it’s being developed as a technology for calming meditation. ‘Take a holiday, wherever you are’ is the slogan for a company called Guided Meditation VR.

I got the chance to try out meditation VR earlier this week, when I took part in a one-day retreat designed by Jose Montemayor, founder of the Cyberdelic Society, together with mindfulness teacher Tamara Russell. A group of ten of us meditated together, then listened to a lady talk about her near-death experience. Then we took turns to plug into a VR near-death experience Jose designed, in which your avatar is hit by a car, and its soul leaves the body, flies into space, and goes into various heavenly realms, before returning to Earth. I sat next to the lady who’d had a near-death experience, and she had tears in her eyes when she removed the headset. ‘How did you know what I had gone through?’ she asked.

VR has wonderful potential as an aesthetic and spiritual technology, but this is not new. Humans have always used spiritual technologies to alter consciousness. The cave paintings at Lascaux, which are around 20,000 years old, conjured up a virtual reality in which our ancestors immersed themselves to alter their consciousness. The 72-foot-long Egyptian Book of the Dead in the Metropolitan Museum in New York is an extraordinary textual and visual technology designed to guide the soul on its final journey. Plato’s Phaedo described a near-death experience, and was sometimes read to Greeks and Romans in their final moments. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is another spiritual technology, designed to train the mind and the imaginative memory, so we’re not too confused in the afterlife.

One of the scrolls of the Met Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead

While the written text is an incredibly powerful technology for self-modification, pictures are even more powerful, because, as Aristotle said, ‘we think in images’.  Medieval illuminated manuscripts are technologies for altering consciousness and transforming the self. So are illuminated books of hours. So are rosaries, icons, statues, shrine rooms, stained glass windows, zen gardens, cathedrals. So are psalms, hymns, oratorios, symphonies. The song is perhaps the greatest technology humans have discovered for altering consciousness.

And then there’s plant medicines like ayahuasca. Imagine an intelligent virtual reality machine, which manages to penetrate deep into your subconscious and detect your most toxic beliefs and painful memories – not over years of therapy, but instantly. Imagine it somehow intuits what you need to learn in order to grow, then conjures the idea or experience in front of you with all the skill of a genius theatre director, and helps you confront it, feel it intensely, learn from it and then purge it. Imagine the intelligent machine somehow responds in real-time to your mind, so that a terrifying monster instantly transforms into an ally if you can bring to mind the appropriate intention. Imagine, all around you, members of your group are plugged into the same intelligent machine, and sometimes your virtual realities overlap, so you appear in each other’s visions, help each other and purge for each other. The intelligent machine gives you a glimpse of a reality beyond the individual self, beyond the body, even beyond death. Now imagine that this incredible technology grows wild, can be picked for free, and connects you to the ancient and awesome intelligence of nature.

The habitual use of any of these technologies alters the self. Habitual exposure to a beautiful garden or a sublime landscape soaks into the memory, and gives one an inner reservoir of peace and joy that one can draw on in difficult times – this is Wordsworth’s great creed. One of the advantages the rich have over the rest of us is they can frame their habitat to reinforce serenity, confidence and joy. They have access to better spiritual technologies – gardens, chapels, libraries, works of art, retreats, gurus, drugs – although every technology can become an escape from reality, which leaves the self weaker, less resilient, more proud. Anyway, with a bit of ingenuity, we can cobble together our own technologies, like a spiritual MacGyver. The quality of the intention matters more than the sophistication of the technology – a devoted peasant with a wooden crucifix may go deeper than a distracted billionaire with his own chapel.

What technologies and props are you plugging your self into? What is the quality of the content in your mind-stream? What filters have you set up to protect you from toxic ideas and habits? Does your habitat reinforce habits of kindness, open-heartedness, peace and courage? What prop could you install, this weekend, to strengthen your better self?

The future of work and the future of education

Roy Bahat is the head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture fund backed by Bloomberg. He also works on the future of work, and – like a lot of people in Silicon Valley – is a vocal supporter of Universal Basic Income (UBI). I met up with him in San Francisco to talk about the future of work and the importance of lifelong learning. 

How worried should we be about automation and AI threatening our livelihood?

Extremely. The narrative on it is mostly wrong. The typical narrative is ‘the robots are coming and in the future your job will be eliminated and you should worry in the present’. The right way to think about it is that all of our jobs are constantly being eliminated all the time, it just happened over a longer time scale in the past, so people could basically tough it out. The classic example is the transition from an agricultural to a mercantile economy, where the received wisdom is humanity weathered it just fine. What really happened was the parents stayed on the farm and the children moved to the city. If I think about the timescale of transitions now, all of us are mastering new tools to do our work at a rate that is much more rapid. The amount of uncertainty is going up, so the right response is preparedness, vigilance and an attitude of constant learning and reinvention. People often ask me what percentage of jobs will automation eliminate and the answer is 100%, but we don’t know over what timescale.

Hopefully it will create new jobs too.

Sure. I just went to a small town in California, where there is no large export employer. The largest employer is the hospital, the second-largest is the university and so on. And I met a number of people working in ministry – they were in the practice of creating spiritual and religious venues, generally Christian, where people could come and pray and gather. That’s an area where there is limitless demand. Culture and ideas, there’s also limitless demand. So we will continue to define whatever we spend our days doing as ‘work’, and maybe the social definitions evolve. I do think there will be jobs – or ‘work’ anyway. There’s a valid question of whether that work will pay a sufficiently high wage for people to thrive and have the material needs in life. That’s why I’m involved in the guaranteed income question. There’s no rule that just because you’re working the market clearing wage will be sufficient to live on. One of the issues we’re seeing now is, in part because of automation, the market-clearing wage for many jobs is below what is required what to exist. People say ‘oh if you’re doing empathetic jobs you’ll still be OK’. That’s BS.

Why?

Because nobody knows what will be safer or less safe. There are bedtime stories we tell ourselves to feel safe, but those stories provide reassurance, not actual information. It’s very clear that people are perfectly happy to accept the care of the machine. There’s a great book called The Man Who Lied To His Laptop about how we anthropomorphize our machines.

In Japan, for example, there’s a lack of labour in elderly care so those roles are being filled by machines.

Sure. There’s a great little indie comedy called Robot and Frank, about an ageing man with dementia and the love-story with his robot caretaker. It’s part of the movie Her too – he falls in love with a robot. I always think what’s the first trigger in many of the changes in our cultural views about technology, and I can’t find an earlier trigger than science fiction. The earliest indications for many of the transitions we go through come from story-tellers. One reason is the variety of experimentation that can take place when the physical cost of it is zero. The other is we don’t appreciate how rule-bound fiction is. Reality obeys fewer rules that narrative – narrative has a structure that is quite constraining and therefore powerful for focusing the imagination on possibilities. I’m involved with a non-profit that did a contest for science fiction stories about futures that include guaranteed income. Just to start to imagine what that might like feel like in a more complete way than policy thinking which is often ‘introduce a change, imagine one effect of the change’ which makes it hard to imagine the system of unintended consequences.

Are there sci-fi writers you really rate at the moment?

I don’t think I can rate them on their predictive value, it’s unknowable, but…

Who do you like?

Well, Charlie Jane Anders is a science fiction writer who I read recently. Octavia Butler. All the science fiction traditions that emerge which are not straight white men probably will have a different imaginative substrate than what we’ve got in the past from nerdy straight white men. What I’m looking for is focused imagination and trying to discover other sources of insight. That was with a non-profit, but Bloomberg Beta is also often thinking about what ideas to introduce into the conversation about the future of work. We’ve had film directors, including the director of Robot and Frank, we’ve had the author of a sci-fi story called After On, about a machine that gains consciousness. Those conversations between practitioners building things and imaginers framing how those things may unfold is a really valuable dialogue.

What’s your working story about a future with Universal Basic Income (UBI)? How is it different to now?

In many ways. My fear scenario is that a culture outside of the West does it first, and then we’re copying an example from Chinese culture, say – it will be very different for different cultures, and I  don’t want us to over-generalize. Setting aside many difficult implementation questions, I believe there is a possibility of much less human suffering – instead of being forced to live within distant-commuting range of a service job that barely pays you enough to cover your commute, you could choose to live somewhere else. In the woods, say. My family is Israeli, and the kibbutz model of families pooling their resources feels very familiar to me, and a guaranteed income might facilitate guaranteed income communes, I don’t know. So there could be unpredictable stuff in terms of geography. There is a case to be made that many people will refuse to do work that is demeaning and low paid, which is both bad – if the economy needs those jobs done – and good, in the sense of honouring the humanity of those people. There’ll be an interesting tension there. I also think people will take more risks professionally.

And creatively?

Yeah. It’s difficult to imagine risk without creativity.

I think of artists like Geoff Dyer talking about how important their early years on the dole were for creative experimenting.

I love that, and should read more about it. I feel the difficult thing about the dole is it binds together two things – a resource which enables you to practice your creative profession, and shame. It’s hard to flourish creatively, or has been for me, when I feel shame. One of the cool things about a universal guaranteed income is it allows people to subsist while feeling proud to participate in the commons. That would be very cool, I don’t think we’ve seen that before, other than artists’ patronage. It’s sort of like patronage in everybody and a belief in inherent human potential before it’s proven, and without dependence on a single person’s favour, which is the danger of the patronage model.

There’s also the view that necessity is the mother of invention. You can have rich kids who struggle to find meaning because they don’t have to do anything.

Yes, I think that’s valid in the sense that, sure, people could sit in their mother’s basement, watch Netflix and play video games. They do that already by the way. It’s foolish to think that having something makes you stop wanting more. If anything it allows them to escape the poverty trap that prevents them from participating fully in the profit-motive-oriented society. We don’t know. That’s why I’m looking so closely at experiments – Stockton, California is doing one. There’s 20 programmes doing some kind of cash transfer, and I’m curious to see what unfolds as a result. The thing that is hardest to predict is what the received wisdom will be: what will we call this? How will we think of people who choose to live on this? We define work right now as labour in exchange for wage. That is not a decision given by the physical laws of the universe, that’s a consensus formed by propertied white men who said ‘it will be hard for us to count in gross domestic product domestic labour, if money is not exchanged it may not be valuable’. People exchange things other than money. They exchange love. For all the people who care for an elderly relative without being paid, guaranteed basic income is an opportunity to recognize that and allow people to do that and feel proud of what they do. We have in the US the beginning of relatives being paid to be nurses to their relatives through state programmes, and I think that’s a step in the right direction.

What’s the probability of UBI being introduced?

Great question…I don’t know. It’s hard for me to see an alternative to it. The best is the continued expansion of the welfare state, but we see how poor government is in general at administering programmes, and the complexity and size of government creates as many difficulties as it solves. The most interesting questions may come in countries which already have healthcare figured out. In the US, if we give someone a guaranteed income without figuring out how to pay for healthcare, have we actually helped them at all? We’ll need solutions to both those issues simultaneously, along with others like housing and education. So I’d say it feels necessary, not sufficient, and I have no idea on the timing.

What’s your working scenario if UBI doesn’t happen?

We did a year-long study with an NGO called New America to try and envision some scenarios. In all of them there were some common features – individuals need to be less reliant on corporations to provide the benefits required to sustain modern life, so more self-sufficient. All the things that I think are inevitable in the future probably already exist now – as they say in science fiction, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

I’ve been freelance since I was 25, I have a portfolio career of a few different streams, quite self-reliant but still attached to larger institutions. Is that the way things are going?

It’s an option for some people. Another model is the campaigns model – you work intensively for some time. Why is the retirement all bunched up at the end. They may work hard at one thing and then stop for a while.

Will people invest a lot in self-development? You see that a lot in the Bay Area.

Yeah. As societies get better at handling the bottom level of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy – food, clothes, housing – what remains is investment in our own minds and hearts. The particular brand of North Californian self-development is a peculiarity of a single place at a single time, I don’t know if Burning Man is a fixture of the future.

If we’re all more self-reliant, how will we find belonging?

I think finding belonging through the work-place is a relatively new phenomenon.

But think about the longer history of humanity – the tribe, or your place in a feudal system.

Sure. One of the issues is the activities you spend your days doing were very much attached to social class and place. But work can be detached from your class, your place, your gender. Workplace identity might get attenuated, but there’s lots of alternatives, everything from which sports team you’re part of, or what religion, secular or otherwise.

What do you think of secular religion?

Well, religions have historically provided a place of belonging theoretically open to everyone. But as science has gained in authority, it’s been harder for people to believe in theistic religions. There may be alternatives to it. A journalist used the phrase ‘contingent families’ – we spend longer now living with friends who are not your family, forming familial bonds with them. I do think we’ll see a multiplication of sources of identity and belonging.

How do we educate people for the future of work?

This is a topic I’m deeply interested in without claiming much expertise. Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is interesting on this. The central argument, that modern school prepares us for institutional life, to me is borne out. Educational reformers say the skills you should teach are empathy, creativity and problem-solving. That’s valuable for top-level institutional managers. I’d offer some other contenders, like how to manage risk, how to set priorities, how to sell. Why isn’t there a secondary-school level on salespersonship. Those are vocational skills deeply involved in the tradecraft of economic self-determination.

Is that best done in big or small educational institutions?

Universities come from the legacy of teaching clergy how to be clergy, and teaching academics how to pursue knowledge. We’ve grafted onto that professional training and it feels an awkward fit. There are new models emerging, like Olin College, which was ranked by MIT the top engineering college, and they’re teaching the method of creating new things. It’s a powerfully different view of what higher education might be. And, back to unpredictability, we probably need more lifelong education. San Francisco has Free City College, which is interesting because it allows citizens to choose what to learn themselves. I don’t know how effective the education is but the intent feels spot on.

Does your fund invest in adult education?

Sure, all the time. There’s a company called MasterClass that provides online video classes with world-famous experts like Werner Herzog or Margaret Atwood. The cost of communication is so low we can access our heroes, which we’ve done in many ways through media, now we can do it focused on this use. General Assembly is an example of a company that does in-person teaching. There are many experiments right now – we’re in the Cambrian Explosion period of adult education. The cool aspect of it is that everyone is focused on the student experience. It’s worth looking at the educator perspective. We’ve assumed educators should be professional educators or academic researchers who teach on the side, most of whom don’t like it. It’s entirely possible that the right way to practice the learning of these skills is through practitioners who spend some of their time practicing and some of their time teaching. Imagine 50 mid-level managers of Intel sharing some of their insights on day-long courses.

Absolutely. That’s what the senior managers at Rowntree’s did – they invested a lot in adult education and would teach themselves every weekend.

Everything old is new again. Invention is recombination suited to its time.

I guess you’ve seen various different moods in Silicon Valley, from 90s optimism to the present shock that maybe tech disruption is making the world worse. Do you see that?

Yes, for the culture as a whole. I’m unsure how that plays out at specific company. Google just had a letter from employees asking them not to work with certain military clients. It’s a function of power. When you’re powerless, which the internet was at the beginning, it’s easy to focus on principles. Now the facts are the facts of power, it includes wonderful things like the ability to organize a democratic process, and awful things like the ability to put citizens under surveillance at a level we’ve never seen before. The management of power is the new challenge.

Does that mean that tech engineers are having to consider ethical questions for the first time?

Well, they don’t have to, because clearly they’ve done things without that. Should they? Of course. The question is how skilled people are at anticipating consequences and understanding different ethical frameworks. These are the ageless right-versus-right questions which Silicon Valley is grappling with for the first time.

Perhaps the incredible optimism that entrepreneurs need can blind them to unintended consequences?

Yes…The unreasonable nature of the most successful founders can blind them to lots of things. Or sometimes they can be painfully aware. We want these tidy stories that makes sense to us, and reality is not that tidy. I know plenty of entrepreneurs who worry deeply about the consequences of things. How that plays out is a major question for our world. That’s why when we invest in companies we give their managers the opportunity to be exposed to people and ideas from outside the tech monoculture, in the hope that their worldviews and skills will become more developed.

It was great to talk to such a thoughtful investor as Roy. I asked him at the end whether he thought I could successfully set up an adult education venture in California. He gave me some great advice. He said there are various different models of the CEO – the CEO as general, the CEO as servant and so on. He likes the CEO as scientist. ‘Make small experiments and see how they work out.’ Be prepared for surprises and respond to the results. I like that advice.