Stanislaw Lem: 1964 – Envisioning the InfoSphere

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The emergent “cybernetic – sociotechnical” shell will enclose the civilization under discussion within itself. – Stanislaw Lem, 1964

Stanislaw Lem wrote this in 1964 long before the Internet as we know it existed. He was of course well read in structuralism, cybernetics, and the sciences. Here he envisions what would become the future of the InfoSphere, Internet, and Cyberspace:

Every civilization creates an artificial environment for itself while transforming the surface of its planet, its interior, and its cosmic neighborhood. Yet this process does not cut it off from Nature in any radical way; it only moves it further away from Nature. But the process can be continued so that an “encystment” of a civilization in relation to the whole Universe eventually takes place. Such “encystment,” which could be enacted through a particular application of cybernetics, would facilitate the “tamponing” of excess information and the production of information of an entirely different kind.  A civilization that is experiencing an information crisis and that already has access to feedback from Nature, and to sources of energy that will guarantee its existence for millions of years— while realizing that an “exhaustion of Nature’s information potential” is not possible, whereas continuing with the current strategy may result in a defeat (because the constant march “inside Nature” will eventually lead to the dismantling of science as a result of its hyperspecialization and thus, possibly, to a loss of control over its own homeostasis)— will be able to construct an entirely new type of feedback, from within itself. Producing such “encystment” will involve having to construct “a world within a world,” an autonomous reality that is not directly connected with the material reality of Nature. The emergent “cybernetic–sociotechnical” shell will enclose the civilization under discussion within itself. The latter will continue to exist and grow, but in a way that is not visible to an external observer anymore (especially one in outer space).1


  1. Lem, Stanislaw (2013-03-01). Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations) (Kindle Locations 1926-1940). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.

Stanislaw Lem: Blind Brain Theory and Solaristics

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In Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris there comes a point when he confronts Snaut, another scientist and cybernetician on the laboratory station that hovers above a massive ocean of intelligence that the humans of this fictional world have been trying with no success to contact for over seventy-six years. I want go into the details that precede the exchange, but only mention the crux of the issue at hand. Kelvin and Snaut after long and fractious testing, analysis, and suffering sit down in the cafeteria and assent to a dialogue about actual alien contact. As they ponder all the things that have happened since Kelvin arrived a few weeks before (I’ll not relate the details or spoilers), Snaut tells Kelvin that in his estimation the living intelligence that encompasses the ocean of this planet is absolutely Blind:

“No. Kelvin, come on, it’s blind…”

“Blind?” I repeated, unsure whether I’d heard right.

“Of course, in our understanding of the word. We don’t exist for it the way we do for each other. The surface of the face, of the body, which we see, means we encounter one another as individuals. For it, this is only a transparent screen. After all, it penetrated the inside of our brains.”

“All right. But what of it? What are you getting at? If it was able to create a person who didn’t exist outside of my memory, bring her to life, and in such a way that her eyes, her movements, her voice… her voice…”

“Keep talking! Keep talking, man!!”

“I am talking… I am… Yes. So then… her voice… This means it can read us like a book. You know what I’m saying?”

“Yes. That if it wanted to, it could communicate with us?”

“Of course. Is that not obvious?”

“No. Not in the slightest. It could simply have taken a procedure that didn’t consist of words. As a fixed memory trace it’s a protein structure. Like the head of a spermatozoon, or an ovum. After all, in the brain there aren’t any words, feelings, the recollection of a person is an image written in the language of nucleic acids on megamolecular asynchronous crystals. So it took what was most clearly etched in us, most locked away, fullest, most deeply imprinted, you know? But it had no need whatsoever to know what the thing was to us, what meaning it held. Just as if we were able to create a symmetriad and toss it into the ocean, knowing the architecture and the technology and structural materials, but with no understanding of what it’s for, what it means to the ocean…”

“Quite possibly,” I said.

“Yes, that’s possible. In such a case it had no… perhaps it had no intention of trampling on us and crushing us the way it did. Perhaps. And it only unintentionally…”1

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Stanislaw Lem’s Proof of an Independent Reality

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Rereading Solaris of late I came across his unique approach to proving through science rather than philosophical speculation that indeed reality does exist independent of our mind. Kelvin troubled that he is going mad due to the strange things happening in the station lab hovering above the weird planet describes his test for independent reality:

I was already thinking there was no way out of the vicious circle of madness—after all, no one can think with anything but his brain, no one can be outside himself to check whether the processes taking place in his body are normal. Then suddenly I was struck by an idea that was as simple as it was apt.

I jumped up from the pile of parachutes and ran straight to the radio station. It was empty. I glanced at the electric wall clock. It was coming up to four in the agreed-upon night of the Station, because outside a red dawn was breaking. I quickly turned on the long-distance radio equipment, and as I waited for the lamps to warm up, in my mind I went over the various stages of the experiment.

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Stanislaw Lem: Liberal Utopics as the Last Commodity – Being Inc., Redivivus

Innumerable stories bear witness to the fact that the desire for precisely such freely given emotions gnaws at mighty rulers and men of wealth; in fairy tales he who is able to buy or use force to obtain anything, having the means for this, abandons his exceptional position so that in disguise— like Harun al Rashid, who went as a beggar— he may find human genuineness, since privilege shuts it out like an impenetrable wall.

– Stanislaw Lem, A Perfect Vacuum

In this latter day of commodity travel one can buy almost anything: swim with whale sharks in Donsal in the Philippines, travel to Germany and become a race car driver (Nuerburgring), run the bulls in Tamil Nadu, India, try Heli-skiiing in the Chugach Mountains in Alaska, tow surfing the jaw break in Peahi, Maui, bike across the Sahara, ice climb in the Canadian Rockies, sandboard in Cerrano Blanco, Peru, or finally, take a private cruise into space, the last frontier of personal experience. Has experience itself become the final commodity?

So, then, the one area that has not yet been turned into a commodity is the unarranged substance of everyday life, intimate as well as official, private as well as public, with the result that each and every one of us is exposed continually to those small reversals, ridiculings, disappointments, animosities, to the snubs that can never be paid back, to the unforeseen; in short, exposed— within the scope of our personal lot— to a state of affairs that is intolerable, in the highest degree deserving a change; and this change for the better will be initiated by the great new industry of life services. (A Perfect Vacuum, Stanislaw Lem)

A society in which one can buy— with an advertising campaign— the post of president, or a herd of albino elephants painted with little flowers, or a bevy of beauties, or youth through hormones, such a society ought to be able to put to rights the human condition. The qualm that immediately surfaces— that such purchased forms of life, being unauthentic, will quickly betray their falseness when placed alongside the surrounding authenticity of events— that qualm is dictated by a naïveté totally lacking in imagination. When all children are conceived in the test tube, when then no sexual act has as its consequence, once natural, procreation, there disappears the difference between the normal and the aberrant in sex, seeing as no physical intimacy serves any purpose but that of pleasure. And where every life finds itself under the solicitous eye of powerful service enterprises, there disappears the difference between authentic events and those secretly arranged. The distinction between natural and synthetic in adventures, successes, failures, ceases to exist when one can no longer tell what is taking place by pure accident, and what by accident paid for in advance.

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Stanislaw Lem: Aura of the Real

I remember well my feelings when I read Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow. Now, I thought that book very good— so good that I have read it several times. Indeed. But most of the things that Mr. Bellow attributed to his hero, Mr. Sammler, in recounting his experiences in a Poland occupied by the Germans, didn’t sound quite right to me. The skilled novelist must have done careful research before starting on the novel, and he made only one small mistake— giving a Polish maid a name that isn’t Polish. This error could have been corrected by a stroke of the pen. What didn’t seem right was the “aura”— the indescribable “something” that can be expressed in language perhaps only if one has experienced in person the specific situation that is to be described. The problem in the novel is not the unlikeliness of specific events. The most unlikely and incredible things did happen then. It is, rather, the total impression that evokes in me the feeling that Bellow learned of such event‹ from hearsay, and was in the situation of a researcher who receives the individual parts of a specimen packaged in separate crates and then tries to put them together. It is as if oxygen, nitrogen, and water vapor and the fragrance of flowers were to be mixed in such a way as to evoke and bring to life the specific mood of a certain part of a forest at a certain morning hour. I do not know whether something like this would be totally impossible, but it would surely be difficult as hell. There is something wrong in Mr. Sammler’s Planet; some tiny inaccuracy got mixed into the compound. Those days have pulverized and exploded all narrative conventions that had previously been used in literature. The unfathomable futility of human life under the sway of mass murder cannot be conveyed by literary techniques in which individuals or small groups of persons form the core of the narrative. It is, perhaps, as if somebody tried by providing the most exact description of the molecules of which the body of Marilyn Monroe was composed to convey a full impression of her. That would be impossible.

– Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds 

Stanislaw Lem: Skeptic, Iconoclast, Materialist

“Each of us is aware he’s a material being, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and that the strength of all our emotions combined cannot counteract those laws.  It can only hate them.  The eternal belief of lovers and poets in the power of love which is more enduring than death, the finis vitae sed non amoris that has pursued us through the centuries is a lie.  But this lie is not ridiculous, it’s simply futile.  To be a clock on the other hand, measuring the passage of time, one that is smashed and rebuilt over and again, one in whose mechanism despair and love are set in motion by the watchmaker along with the first movements of the cogs.  To know one is a repeater of suffering felt ever more deeply as it becomes increasingly comical through a multiple repetitions.  To replay human existence – fine.  But to replay it in the way a drunk replays a corny tune pushing coins over and over into the jukebox?”

            – Stanislaw Lem, Solaris

In a 1992 interview with Peter Swirski, Stanislaw Lem commented that, if he were to state his philosophical affiliation in terms of the “accepted nomenclature,” he would rank himself “in a large measure with the skeptics” (Stanislaw Lem Reader 42). In the same context, Lem expressed his irreverence for the natural sciences – an irreverence matched, however, by his dismissal of various religious and philosophical belief systems. Lem further characterized himself as “a kind of wide-ranging heretic”. Although he contended that it is not possible “to prove solipsism false”, he affirmed the mind-independent reality of the external world.1

Lem tells us in an interview that he never had the urge to “speak my piece” to the world at large, “as far as philosophy goes. Perhaps this disinclination comes from my conviction that the time of crafting seamless, unified philosophical systems is long past. This is so, I claim, because the results of the new “hard” sciences, led by physics, begin to exceed the abilities of reasoning — the various events and descriptions of states which fly in the face of visual perception as well as any other human sense or intuition, all that stuff conjured by the human mind”. Another in a long line of anti-philosophical writers Lem adds “if the scientific results exceed the horizons of human intellectual comprehension, then human philosophy must be left behind, limiting itself to reflection on the way the world is thoroughly known to us as a niche for a certain thinking species or to considerations of the human position in this world, its correctness and dangers.” How sad the wit of such a writer fell into his own pessimism. Maybe Schopenhauer was right after all: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

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