More than a million years ago, when primitive man first stood upright and stared at the light of a gibbous moon, he did not know his bones were made of stardust; but, his descendants would.
Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greek mathematician, Pythagoras, described the perfect harmony of nature: music and mathematics were precisely related. His discovery became a blend of science and mysticism. When Pythagoras stared at the evening sky, he saw the perfection of circles and heard the silent melody of life. The motion of heavenly bodies and the nature of human understanding became the music of the spheres.
Pythagoras could not have predicted how the music would speed up, grow louder, and surround the earth in polyphonic layers; but, he may have known that it was inevitable. The impulse to know, to understand, to gather facts and process information has accelerated irresistibly. Consciousness has raced along an inevitable circular path in a relentless search for itself. Now the music of the spheres fills the air but it will be modulated in the twenty-first century, as never before, by technology and the law.
In the beginning, there was not much information to pass along. For more than a billion years, single-celled organisms delivered everything life had to offer to an endless series of duplicates by simple cell division. Sexual reproduction complicated things, quickened the pace, added variety. More information, more complex instructions, lead to central nervous systems and bigger brains, brains with extra capacity, switching yards, dedicated not just to chemistry but information.
Millions of years ago, the genus Homo introduced a dim self-awareness, ritualized behavior, language and primitive culture, a bundle of precursors leading to us. Six thousand years ago, following the last ice age, our ancestors took a monumental step. Civilization, and especially farming, led to surpluses, stability and creative freedom. Writing appeared. It was the first information technology. It was evolution by other means. Knowledge became tangible and permanent, no longer circumscribed by painting, mythology, memory and song.
Paper appeared in China in the second century BC and moved through Baghdad, Byzantium, Spain and the rest of Europe. Crossing two continents took fifteen hundred years. Knowledge, recorded, became bountiful and precious. The Emperor Charlemagne and Benedictine Monks kept great libraries dedicated to its care. In the Middle Ages, when books were still produced by hand, thousands of volumes were chained to their shelves. These were the catenati, intellectual gemstones imprisoned by their scarcity and worth. Only the printing press could break the chains.
Beginning with Gutenberg’s Bible in the middle of the fifteenth century, the music of the spheres became a symphony. The book was the first significant item of mass production and it expanded human consciousness and changed the course of history in a way that was unprecedented.
Before the printing press, European intellectual effort in the Middle Ages was expressed in Latin, a vestige of Roman domination. Information and learning were largely confined to universities and the church. The printing press changed everything. Books, including the Bible, were translated from Latin into the common vernacular and copied mechanically. Gutenberg’s machine lead to Martin Luther’s Reformation, the Renaissance in Florence and Rome and subsequent scientific and industrial revolutions. Five centuries later, Gutenberg’s legacy has lead inexorably to computers and the World Wide Web.
Now, in the information age, knowledge hangs in the air, ubiquitous, expanding exponentially and circulating around the globe with an audible hum. We are heading into what Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, describes as the knee of the curve, a period of steep, inevitable, unifying acceleration and discovery.
A trillion calculations per second; neural networks; a single, global, biomechanical pulse; pure consciousness in celebration of itself: that is a single-celled organism unlike the ones in the beginning. There will be some hesitation, some resistance, and some impedance in the lines. It’s happened before: the Japanese abandoned firearms for three hundred years; the Chinese recalled the world’s greatest navy and left the oceans to Spain and Portugal; Islam rejected the printing press as sacrilege. But here is the problem for modern Luddites: they will be overwhelmed by the sheer size and speed of the machines. The weavers are too nimble. The looms are too fast and the human spirit too eager for whatever comes next. It’s the way we’re made.
Only the law is liable to intervene, to interpret, to direct the traffic and regulate the flow. New internet technology and the law are a natural combination because there is no principle of stare decisis in terra incognita. Kurzweil is among the theoreticians who believe that, “in the next century most conscious entities will have no permanent physical presence.” How will a Writ of Habeas Corpus apply? What will Descartes’ famous, “Cogito ergo sum” mean then?
A cyber Code of Hammurabi will not suffice. There was no artificial intelligence in Babylon. Another Magna Carta will be required, another Grotius, another Blackstone. Within the body of law that does not yet exist Dred Scott and Marbury v. Madison may seem trivial or quaint.
To interpret the music of the spheres where computers and the law intersect requires an ability to read the score and hit a moving target. It is difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when the wind is blowing at the speed of light.