In search of the Noosphere (Ollie Millington/Redferns)

January 9, 2024   5 mins

After years of being told that the smartphone revolution has turned us into an atomised scrolletariat, we may be on the cusp of liberation. As part of his latest project, OpenAI’s will-he-won’t-he CEO Sam Altman has set his sights on shattering the screen-based paradigm — by building the “iPhone of AI”. Nor is he the only one: towards the end of last year, Humane launched the screenless Pin, a $699 clip-on AI voice assistant.

On the surface, this new race to curb screen time seems like a positive development. For years, underwhelming iPhone launches have triggered dreary sighs of boredom rather than round-the-block queues, while critiques of addiction-powered surveillance capitalism have trickled out of the academy and into the mainstream press. If screens are our tormentor, one could easily conclude, then perhaps these screenless devices will be our salvation.

But what if our obsession with “screen time” is itself a smokescreen? What if, rather than saving us, this vanishing act obscures the deeper drivers of our digital dissatisfaction? After all, the real rot at the core of modern computing is not screens, but the Scylla and Charybdis of digital life: the unceasing acceleration of culture and human anxieties about our finitude.

Once upon a time, speed was the aspiration of commerce. The rise of clock time and the industrial revolution made doing things quickly the lifeblood of competition. Responding to this acceleration of life after the Second World War, French philosopher and architect Paul Virilio lamented how: “The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world.” Since then, speed has graduated from being the aspiration of commerce to becoming the central objective of culture. Whether it’s the movement of goods and services or the diffusion of ideas, Virilio’s theory of “dromology” explores how intense capital investment in technologies that compress time and space have become our defining logic. These technologies accelerate the transportation of matter and ideas, scrambling our experience of time and place. In Open Sky, his 1997 polemic on technology, he mourns: “How can we live if there is no more here and everything is now?”

If Virilio saw time-space compression as an inherently destructive force, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a 20th-century Jesuit theologian and palaeontologist (best known for discovering Peking Man) actively cheered it on. To Teilhard de Chardin and his Silicon Valley intellectual descendants, the creation of a light-speed sphere of knowledge and communication that floats above our mundane world was the ultimate aspiration of humanity. Through his Darwin-inspired Catholicism, he longed for an invisible consciousness that he termed the “Noosphere” — a realm of cognition between the atmosphere and the biosphere. This, he dreamed, would foster a unified connected human consciousness which would be the final stage of evolution: the convergence of the physical (the “hardware” of human brains and technologies) and the metaphysical (the “software” of human soul and intellect). At this evolutionary end point, which he called the Omega Point, humanity would achieve divine salvation.

Virilio and Teilhard de Chardin’s competing worldviews represent the tension at the heart of this battle of salvation from screens. Altman and Humane identify screens as the barrier to a better future, but Virilio leads us to an altogether different view: screens are not the problem. They are simply the portal that enforces constant communion with this Noosphere. It is the possibility of being connected to it, and transcending ordinary life, that is breaking our brains — not the medium that gets us there.

The notion that the Noosphere gives us rapid and better knowledge drips into all facets of life. In Politics of the Very Worst (1999), Virilio describes the phenomenon of “teleobjectivity”, the idea that some remote consciousness is better than what we can do with our bodies. The TripAdvisor star-rating of a restaurant overrules your eyes and nose. Google Translate kills the need to dust off one’s GCSE French. Wikipedia’s objectivity makes you interrupt conversation to check one’s phone for the right answer. We trust the Noosphere, not ourselves.

This remote consciousness, Virilo explains, “destroys the world as we know it”, leaving us feeling that our messy and fleshy experiences are not quite as good as the infinite Noosphere. And here lies the flaw in Altman and Humane’s vision of humanity: the obsession with overcoming our inevitable finitude. In this, they merely represent the latest expression of a phenomenon described by philosopher Martha Nussbaum in Upheavals of Thought (2001): “Human beings appear to be the only mortal finite beings who wish to transcend their finitude.”

To Altman and Humane, this finitude can only be overcome by helping people address their apparent lack of self-control by removing the screen which they see as a portal to the world of dopamine-inducing distractions. Yet, the real battle is not with the portal — but instead with the cosmic FOMO spawned by the idea that there is a better self and life floating out there in the Noosphere. It is easy to remove the glass and stainless steel in our hands. To curb our longing to be super-infinite is harder.

Paradoxically, then, this hype around “humane technology” does not reveal a hunger for humanity. Quite the opposite: it exposes a desire to transcend our very human frailty and ignorance once and for all.

If anything, these devices could become the first mainstream transhumanist product, further normalising a millenarian Silicon Valley ideology of self-optimisation among everyday consumers. Consider the AI Pin’s live translation feature: demonstrated last year, the synchronous translation system renders the cognitive and cultural struggle of learning a language meaningless.

Nussbaum, by contrast, states that human “development entails many moments of discomfort and frustration”. She continues: “if everything were always simply given in advance of discomfort, [humanity] would never try out its own projects of control.” In other words, by chaining us to the Noosphere and providing real-time cognitive babysitting in every moment, these new technologies may simply eradicate the impulse for humans to struggle or engage their brains at all. The problem won’t be that we are Amusing Ourselves to Death — rather, we will entirely opt out of projects that create that sense of self in the first place.

Poignantly, with its live translation feature, the AI Pin appears to be a real-world manifestation of Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Humane is simply conjuring Douglas Adams’s “small, yellow, leech-like” creature that “feeds on brainwave energy” and excretes a telepathic matrix that enables one to “instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language”. Adams, of course, named this fish after the Tower of Babel. In Genesis 11:1–9, the Babylonians, drunk with pride in their ability to speak one language, attempt to build a tower that reaches into the heavens and challenges God’s power. Irritated by the hubris, God came down and scattered them across the world.

In a similar way, screenless smartphones and the ancient Babylonians are two sides of the same eternal coin. They represent an innate thirst for grand projects of human perfectibility — a longing for a deus ex machina with which to defeat with nature. Yet, we are all fallible. Until we see that the real battle is not with screens but with our own dissatisfaction with the present, nothing will Change Everything. Endless scrolling will simply be replaced with new mindless interactions; we will remain anxiously plugged in, dreaming of perfection.

As Virilio writes in Pure War (1983), “wealth is the hidden side of speed and speed the hidden side of wealth”. And here we can see the hidden side of Humane and Altman’s salvation narratives: the real motivation is not to rescue us, but to simply compress time and space better than an iPhone can. What could this achieve? A quick glance at Apple’s $3-trillion market value says all you need to know. Silicon Valley’s talk of screens and “humane” technology is simply sheep’s clothing. Beneath it, ravenous wolves await, hungry for your attention and wallet.

Louis Elton is a theological anthropologist, strategy consultant and conceptual artist.