I was recently at SXSW Interactive–a giant technology conference in Austin, Texas–and sat in on a keynote by the famous technologist and author Ray Kurzweil. Although I’m fairly familiar with Kurzweil’s ideas, his said something new that really got me thinking about the future of contemplation. He pointed out that in 1995 we completed mapping the human genome. “At that point,” he said, “genetics became an information technology.” This mapping was essentially us decoding the complex pattern of how our genome is constructed. The final result was very much like computer code, an informational pattern that we could start to understand at a more fundamental level, and eventually begin to reprogram. In other words, having genetics become an information technology was the first step toward being able to modify and change our biological programming. The ramifications of this are profound!
What I realized, at that moment, is that contemplation is also becoming an information technology. We’re beginning to understand the significance, and diversity, of many of the contemplative systems that have been passed down through human history (many of which had their origins in the axial period). We’re translating them into language and cultural understanding that removes much of the mythical and dogmatic elements. We’re also beginning to get a clearer map of what’s happening in the human body and brain when people do these practices and learn from these systems. Loads of neuroscientific research is pouring out on this topic, in large part thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Mind & Life Institute and their connecting the fields of Buddhist contemplation and science. Science is telling us a lot about our practice, and it’s helping us to decode the contemplative genome.
One might then say, “Well look, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the information contained within the contemplative wisdom traditions. It’ll take 100s of years to decode all that information.” It’s an important point, and interestingly the critics of the human genome project said exactly the same thing! In the same keynote talk that I attended, Kurzweil went on to point out that 7 years into the 15 year human genome project only 1% of the genome had been decoded. The critics claimed that at this rate it would take 100s of years to complete. And they were right, if the process were a linear one, and it continued at that linear rate, it would have taken 100s of years to complete. The thing is, it ended up being an exponential process, because their process proceeded exponentially due to the exponential increase in the power of the technologies they were using to decode the genome. And so with several more doublings in speed after they had decoded the first %1, the genome was done being decoded, several decades before expected.
An interesting thing will happen when contemplation becomes an information technology. It will operate based on different rules, because the substrate will have shifted from the biological to the digital, from atoms to bits. And bits can be tweaked, redesigned, reprogrammed, and optimized. Bits can take advantage of the doubling power of technology–things like Moore’s Law, Kryder’s Law. The evolution of technology (bits) is not like biological evolution. It’s a hell of a lot faster. Actually, it’s exponentially faster. As contemplation becomes an information technology we may see the dawning of something like a Moore’s Law for the mind. And not a moment too late.