Dune, Density, and Polymathology (2007)

Note: A previous futuristguy blog post linked to the RadoXodaR version of Dune, Density, and Polymathology and gave the official abstract from the Wikiklesia website. Here is the full version of the article, copied here from my RadoXodaR blog.

Introduction (2008)

About 18 months ago, I was in the midst of writing my chapter for the Wikiklesia Project and its  Volume 1, which was Voices of the Virtual World: Participative Technology and the Ecclesial Revolution.(Several Wikiklesia authors have noted recently that some of the seminar ideas in this book are now appearing on the blogging horizon in discussions.) This fascinating self-perpetuating virtual collaboration publishing venture was inaugurated by John La Grou and Len Hjalmarson. The idea behind Wikiklesia was for a set of editors to pick a topic and a charity to receive all profits from book sales. Then they needed to assemble a production team, solicit writers, compile and format the manuscript in print and audio forms, and make it available as downloadable or print-on-demand. And then … turn over the reigns to another team of editors who would do approximately the same. (Volume 2 planning is underway as I write this.)

I cannot even recall now why I picked the topic I did then – my brain was a mushy state of burn-out at the time from work that was all-systems and no-sabbaths for so-long a time. Perhaps it was because, after two and a half years of effort, I had finally finished reading the entire Dune series (all six prequel novels, all six Frank Herbert novels). (And now there are three more postquels with two more in the making!) And read the source documents and early versions in The Road to Dune. And skimmed parts of Dreamer of Dune – a biography of Frank Herbert by his son Brian.

And found the Dune: Behind The Scenes information website. And read-and-viewed The Secrets of Frank Herbert’s Dune book/DVD, with its incredible essay on the use color schemes to signify culture and transformation in the “Cinematic Ideation of the Film” by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. And watched – multiple times – the wonderful SciFi TV mini-series of Dune (with a superb portrayal of Paul Muad’Dib by Alec Newman) and Children of Dune (with a pre-Narnia appearance by James McAvoy, in which I knew he was made for greatness). And viewed the varieties of versions of the 1984 Dune film.

And – most amazing of all! – finally located a copy of Chaos Theory, Asimov’s Foundations and Robots, and Herbert’s Dune: The Fractal Aesthetic of Epic Science Fiction by Donald E. Palumbo. (One of those hundred-dollar books that on rare occasions shows up for less on eBay. And, no, I didn’t get it about what the title meant at first either, but wow! What a mind-blowing book turned out to be!)

Or was it a lateral mental extrusion from a heart-level desire to continue with church planting strategy team work – after all, it was my church planter strategist friend Deb Roy who introduced me to the wonders of Dune in the mid-1990s.

Or, maybe just nothing else could capture my attention just then. When one is that burned out, it sometimes takes something mentally challenging rather than only rest to break through the physical depression and respark the imagination.

Nevertheless, and for whatever reasons, the topic evolved into this rather esoteric intersection among the concepts of/in Dune, density, and polymathology.

Whenever I do run across my notes about the reasoning for this writing, I shall scurry right back here to emend the text.

Meanwhile, let me close the commentary section for now with one last notation. We were limited to 2,000 words for the print/download version. I think I used every single one of them. However, for the audio version there was some fudge-factor, as we were to record our own chapter (a very fun add-on feature!) So, I added back in an audio pre-amble that gave more background on polymaths, and that is one of my favorite parts of the entire piece, actually. And so, now, on with the abstract, and then my chapter: Dune, Density, and Polymathology.

Abstract (from Wikiklesia Website)

Some people are destined as polymaths – those who absorb and integrate information from diverse fields of study, and become philosophers. Such a generalist leaning may come “hardwired” in at birth via DNA and learning styles, or perhaps by “software” programming responses to spiritual and cultural formation experiences. Either way, polymaths should follow the God-given muse to pursue new approaches to processing life, and not feel self-limiting or peer pressure to be only “The Theologian” or “The Practitioner,” since they will likely play those roles and so many, many more.

Since we tend to be ahead of our time, one way we who are polymaths can extend our impact through generations is by the equivalent of downloading our inherently complex hearts and minds into a virtual platform. For instance, we could create sort of a time-capsule of our journey to Christlikeness so those who come after us can data mine our hypermediation as sources for “Kingdom Culture” meditation. It is a stewardship thing, really, and I would suggest we should feel neither shame nor guilt for producing something dense, but only partially polished and with tantalizing whisps of incomplete ideations woven throughout. Think Frank Herbert and Dune. Think J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth. Think Thomas Jefferson and preparation for writing the U.S. Constitution. Think Beatrix Potter, lichens/symbiotic mycology, and The Tale of Peter Rabbit… What kind of interdisciplinary legacy might we leave for those intrigued enough to explore the virtual voice that survives us, whether we are polymath-philosophers are not?

Dune, Density, and Polymathology (2007)

Bonus Pre-Amble

In July 2001, I had a most intriguing conversation with my church planting strategist friend Linda Bergquist. She identified me and two other people we know in the San Francisco Bay Area as “Christian philosophers.” Linda felt the Church doesn’t particularly like philosophers, but she believed it still needs them. Specifically, she sensed these three people were being raised up to help the Church transition into what we then were calling the post-postmodern era. Ahh, how terms change over time!

Anyway, Linda told me how she’d recently read that Thomas Jefferson was offered all kinds of military commissions and other strategic jobs during the Revolutionary War. Instead of taking any of those opportunities, he went back home and worked diligently on the background for creating the American Constitution. He had confidence the Revolution would succeed, and so he was free to do the philosophizing that was necessary for the establishment of long-term goals and sustainability of this new union. As a “renaissance man” and philosopher, Jefferson trusted his abilities matched this historic opportunity, and he knew where he should invest his time in order for a larger payoff in the long run.

Similarly, Linda was convinced that these three church planting philosophers in the Bay Area need to NOT feel pressured to be “The Theologian” or “The Practitioner,” but to invest in the most important roles we could play right now for the future of the Kingdom – research and development, and philosophy. This encouraged me then, and it remains comforting now, six years later, while I am still working on the same massive set of trainings in paradigm and cultural systems for growing Kingdom Culture. I am a polymath; I am called to be a philosopher; I am stewarding something important for the long run of the Kingdom. It requires complex thinking and dense communicating. So, regardless of what may be published during my lifetime, I know at a deep level that pouring myself out in these tasks will have paid off in the long run for what God is doing in His world. It is a privilege, within God’s providence, even when at times I feel wearied from and worried for this project …

Compelled Toward Other Directions

Has the Spirit ever shifted your direction majorly in mid-course? My original topic for “Voices of the Virtual World” captured my farthest-forward edge musings on 4D thinking, game theory, AI and VR, complex systems theory, yadda-yadda. But then a critical question from Scott, a church planter, forced me to refocus: So, what are you doing to replicate yourself? Since my answer involves technology and faith, I felt compelled to shift my Wikiklesia chapter from theoretical to personal.

One of my long-time favorite passages of Scripture is Psalm 145, especially verse 4: “One generation shall extol Thy works to the following one, and set forth Thy mighty acts” (Modern Language Bible). My life’s work is about facilitating spiritual growth and social transformation in next generations.

For 12 years, I have persevered through huge frustrations on a mega-project that I have come to believe is more for next generations in the Kingdom than for ones now in “power” in the church. It’s a hypermedia/eLearning training series on paradigms, culture, and contextualization. It’s designed to help disciples figure out how to catalyze personal transformation toward Christlikeness in individuals and toward embodying “Kingdom Culture” in society. The modules integrate searchable text plus hyperlinked glossaries, images, animations, charts, film studies, simulation games, group-based learning exercises, and who knows what else I’ll add between now and whenever I finish this – hopefully 13 months from now. I feel a new phase in life will arrive then. (And no, I’m not superstitious about number 13, not being a Templar, although some do see me as a neo-monastic monk.)

What I’m about to write feels like the intersection of science fiction and faith. It’s like those many sci-fi plots where people are desperate to download their soul into some sort of virtual reality state, so they can live on for eternity. Ummm … well, that eventuality is already covered. Meanwhile, the natural course of life in a fallen world is bringing my body to deterioration, while the accelerated change in global culture is preparing the way for more heightened interest in my under-the-radar material. How do I ensure the work God invested in me, which is relevant but not yet wanted, is somehow planted now for some kind of harvest then? I’m not downloading my soul into cyberspace. It’s more of an archiving of my mind, or creating a time-capsule of my work.

It’s a stewardship thing, really.

Two crazy things in all of this. First, even as a futurist who is trained to help people sort out what is plausible and what is preferable, I’m not sure this project will work for me. Second, if after you read Dune, Density, and Polymathology, you resonate with the message, I’m asking you to go and do likewise – create your own form of techno-archive!

Replication and Replicants

So – thanks to Scott – suddenly, I had to face becoming a replicant! If my life’s work is being completed before its fullness-of-time providential moment, then what can I do with this mountain of original material I’ve produced? Here are some thoughts leading to techno-solutions that flashed through my mind during that orienteering process:

  • If I were “a book” in a paperless society, as with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, what book would I be and how would I pass myself on for the sake of those who come afterward?
  • If I were attempting to create a museum exhibit with guiding metaphors for the content of my mind, what forms of media and multimedia would I pick, and how would I execute that project?
  • If I were creating a multi-layered online experience on interpreting future cultures or a how-to on virtual collaboration, what would I focus on and how could I recruit collaborators?
  • If I were recasting my series of multiple-media cultural contextualization skill modules into virtual immersion learning experiences on-the-job and in-the-field, what could that look like?
  • If I were translating my understanding of ecclesiological methodological models into a 2D, 3D, or 4D game representation, what would I include?

It is a highly human desire to live a life with impact; it is a highly post-human spin to want to download ourselves into electronic immortality; it is a highly Kingdom-disciple desire to reproduce ourselves in order to impact the future. And that leads to thoughts about Dune, density, and polymathology. I think I’ll address them in reverse order, just because I feel like it.

Polymathology

Few people are familiar with the term polymath. A polymath is someone with significant levels of knowledge on multiple topics or disciplines, who usually is creative in cross-pollination of theories and skills from various disciplines. (Think Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin, Beatrix Potter.)

Polymaths may seem eclectic because they pull all sorts of info-tidbits out of their brains spontaneously, but it’s actually far more than that. In function, they usually have ascended from being multidisciplinary to integrating into interdisciplinary; what they say on any occasion is likely to be at least indirectly relevant to the conversation at hand, not simply some odd non sequitur. They are complex systems thinkers and analogists, generalists and futurists – with an apparently innate ability to see a “big picture” perspective.

My hunch is that polymaths will be sought after in the near future for their cultural capital. But they have never been in demand in the modernist world. Witness this quote published over 40 years ago, referring to Arthur Koestler’s book, The Act of Creation, in which he integrated theories of physiology, psychology, and creativity/discovery:

This is a bad time for polymaths. The old jibe about a Jack-of-all-trades being master of none has bitten deep into our minds, so that few people will admit to an intellectual grasp of anything more than a narrow range of experience. In a fragmented culture, everybody is expected to be a specialist: so men cling to the professional standards of their guilds as the lifebelts which will keep them afloat on a sea of general ideas which they have lost the capacity either to swim in, or to plumb. … Narrow precision and deductive exactitude carry the palms: analogies are distrusted, virtuosity suspect. So to embark on any large synthesis of the different sciences – still more, to range with confidence through both the sciences and the humanities – a man must have both a level head and a well-stocked mind. […] [H]is personal position must be so well assured that he need no longer be afraid of making mistakes. (From “Koestler’s Act of Creation,” originally published in Encounter magazine, July 1964. It appears in the book, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature, by Stephen Toulmin, University of California Press, 1982.)

In a global culture that needs defragging, polymaths serve as preferred agents of catalyzing new eras of transformation.

Density

Thus, I would assert that generalists – as intercultural, non-compartmentalized thinkers-and-doers – will eventually represent the majority of leaders globally. Specialists will always offer important disciplines, but often they cannot discern the “big picture” of where things fit. Myopia does not allow for a visionary cornucopia, any more than a stream of television series episodes adds up to an epic. If we want to keep our “story” going in a world of increasing complexity, polymaths have what it takes to synthesize systems that create higher levels of cultural and ecological sustainability.

I sense it is especially important for generalists in the West to use technological archiving for as much dense material on cultural transformation and sustainability as possible during the next 25 years of global transition. By dense, I mean: full of our own thoughts on different disciplines and relevant interconnections, full of our thoughts about our thinking process (otherwise known as meta-cognition), full of our feelings about what we are observing and interpreting, full of speculations on where such thinking could take us in the future. By dense, I do NOT mean: full of disconnected details, fully polished, or full of references to the thoughts of others such that our work is fully derivative instead of personal and primary.

Immersing oneself in such interweavings requires significant commitment – but it also has positive side effects, the set-up for elevated creativity being one of them. How so? In the modernist world, the passions for precision and perfection meant that parameters for creativity gradually became more defined and thus, more narrow. Boundaries are necessary as impetus for rivers of creative processing, but when the boundaries are too strict, they impede progress. If shores are too far apart and without outlet, you have the Dead Sea. If shores are too close, you have flooding. If shores are well spaced, creative waters run fast on the surface without overflowing and yet allow for slower currents underneath to run deep. In the world as it is becoming, there are multiple channels simultaneously for creative waters to flow in. The more complex hypermedia we leave for others to mine, the more channels their creativity can find.

Dune

Frank Herbert – author of Dune – was a master of such wholistic density and integrative creativity. I have been studying him as an author who sees dangers in unlimited technology and in unquestioned authority. Just yesterday I listened to a vintage cassette tape interview from 1983 (purchased on eBay, of course) on Dune – advertised as “A world beyond your experience, beyond your imagination.” In it, Herbert expounded his perspective as a history buff and journalist, who perceived himself as “writing about the current scene,” although his eco-epic Dune is set in the 10th millennium. “The metaphors are there,” he said. “I’m writing about the political ecology, the religious ecology, the social ecology, and the physical ecology of our world. And I think you do not separate any one part of this from the others – separate mind and body – and understand the human being.”

Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, and co-author Kevin J. Anderson produced six prequel novels that establish the historical groundwork for the six volumes Herbert himself wrote. The co-author team also completed a two-volume series from Frank Herbert’s own outline for the final volume – “Dune 7.” Serendipitously, the outline was discovered in a safe deposit box 10 years after Herbert’s death. Wow! Herbert imagined and imaged a complex cosmos that supports 14 volumes, one film, and two television mini-series. And he did it through intentionally dense writing that created a multi-layered story.

In fact, an afterword by Brian Herbert in the 40th anniversary edition of Dune noted that his father’s work continues to intrigue readers because of both its density of disciplines and its loose ends. You can read Dune from an ecological point of view, then go back through with the lens of political power structures, then re-read from the perspective of religious movement maneuvering, then … Each time, you gain insight while considering the storyline from different angles. But Herbert also purposely left loose ends in his storylines. This encouraged reflective revisitation of the story, not just left the door open for sequels. The presence of bits of unresolved plot or the absence of characters who seemingly disappeared gave rise to a sense of speculation, meditation, extrapolation. His is simply a deep and elegant universe in which to navigate!

Done

So – any polymaths reading this: Invest yourself in helping next generations create preferable futures! Archive electronically all you can with subtlety, nuance, layers, metaphors, incomplete descriptions, sophistication, integration. Dream a world for others to absorb, filter, interpret, and re-interpret according to their own time and zeitgeist – even if it is not a “churchy” work, but one of fiction or non-fiction from a biblical base because of your own theological base. Perhaps you’ll even be led to hypermediate a universe of one, creating a lifelong online journal that presents a case study of yourself as a disciple. Whatever the leading, I trust the Kingdom will be better for our efforts.

a longing for eternity

is present in A-T-G-C

not in ‘lectric ones and zeroes

switch us into digital heroes

yet through download density

we leave ‘lectronic legacy

allowing those who us do follow

to discern what’s rich or hollow

— Brad Sargent

Commentary (2008)

Here I am again, the day after posting this article, and I woke up wondering about the flow of the past few years. Given all that I have processed this year about spiritual abuse and lapses in leadership and toxic systems, perhaps reading the Dune series was important “breaking up of the fallow ground.” And it also planted some important thought-seeds. This year, I’ve quoted Frank Herbert’s maxim more than once: “Power is a magnet that draws the corruptible.” Would I have been able to come up with the frameworks I did without that concise, proverbial statement of wisdom? I know that not all who gravitate toward power are bad people; I do know that all of us can let the bad part rule, and power is certain one agent that can bring out the worst in us … or the best as we learn not to misuse our power or position. Anyway, just another point of pondering about the Spirit’s behind-the-scenes influences to prepare us to live into our design and purposes more fully.

Also, as an October 2008 add-on, here are interesting tidbits of jots and thoughts from 2004-2006, first appearing in my Randomocities blog. I’ve been going through that archive the past few days, and recollecting how immersed in Dune I became, especially during the mind-numbing period of August 2004-October 2005, when I shuffled myself and my stuff around over 35 times in 13 months! And so, here are those archive excerpts:

Other news: will begin reading the Dune series of books sometime soon. Lots of intriguing theological bridge-points for dialoging with people from eco-spiritual backgrounds. (Just after I’d arrived back in Marin County after a year in a residential community in Austin, Texas. August 11, 2004, Randomocities.)

On the intellectual front, looks like I’ll be starting to read the Dune series this week. I’ve got most of the first six books in the series, have seen the movie version and the two TV mini-series. Have some miscellaneous books about the making of the film/TV versions. Looking forward to contemplating theological themes therein. My idea of fun! (August 15, 2004, Randomocities.)

Anyway, breaktime is over, so I have to move on to more work. Will blog again when I can. Have been reading the Dune series and thinking about various conceptions of time, space, and eternity in Dune, novels by Philip K. Dick (e.g., which became films: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Paycheck, Minority Report), and Greek versus Hebrew concepts of time, futures, and prophecy. Another time then … (September 1, 2004, Randomocities.)

I’m soaring through the Dune series. Nearly done with the fourth book of six that Frank Herbert wrote. It’s a fascinating mix of ecology, futures, theological questions and explorations. Amazing stuff. After that, Philip K. Dick, his dystopic views of possible futures, and literary criticism of his work. (He wrote the short stories that became: Screamers, Total Recall, Blade Runner, Paycheck, and Minority Report.) Interesting thought: We may think of both hope and temptation as grounded in beliefs (and therefore the mind), but I think they’re more grounded in imagination. Both hope and temptations give us other ways of seeing life than what we have at the moment. (So do prayers.) With hope, it’s positive, Christ-grounded futures and possibilities. With temptations, it’s destructive, self-grounded probabilities. Takes the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and, often, prayer to change the volitional dial from otherwise inevitable sins to what we could never do on our own … (September 15, 2004, Randomocities.)

[From a Review of The DaVinci Code movie.] when i realized that jurgen prochnau played the swiss bank night manager, i definitely thought that was a secret sign. it put me highly in mind of prochnau ‘s (likewise notable) performance in the 1984 screen version of Dune. lots of similarities between The DaVinci Code (TDVC) – The Book-and-Movie – and Dune – The Book-and-Movie. both had strong followings, perhaps even their own cultus. both speculative religioso-politico thrillers with complex backstories. both faced severe condensation issues in the translation from page-turner books to stone-burner films. [sidenote: i read TDVC – The (page-turner) Book three years ago and heard TDVC – The (track-flipper) Audiobook for an unabridged 15 hours of CDs just a few weeks ago. we’re talking long books here.] i would much rather that TDVC – The Book had graduated summa cum applauda to its incarnation as TDVC – The Movie. sadly, it seemed more an incarceration than an incarnation. as with Dune – The Movie. but Dune – The Six-Hour Sci-Fi Channel Miniseries was far better at letting the life and complexity of the characters shine, so i think mr. brown probably will be more happy with a TDVC – The Six-Hour Miniseries version. so, I’ll wait with great expectations to see what the dickens they do with this inevitability! (May 28, 2006, Randomocities.)

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2 thoughts on “Dune, Density, and Polymathology (2007)

  1. Enjoyed the blog chat a while back. Looks like there are two common uses of the word “falsification” – one is in the philosophical / theoretical sense and the other in applied math and sciences. In the former, falsification isn’t helpful. In the latter, it’s common practice. The Wiki entry on modus tollens spells out the historical limits of falsification, gets into Popper, etc.. I still think Popper is helpful, but not in an absolute sense.

    • Yo, John-oh! Thanks for dropping by. Yeah, that was a stimulating comment-a-thon a few years back. Some helpful ideas and, to quote the Code of Dinotopia, “Every drop raises the ocean.” Nothing gets wasted, even if not always understood at the time …

      In re-reading this post on Dune, Density, and Polymathology, I’m even more amazed at how “prophetic” it was. Here I am, three years later, wrapping up the digital time capsule I talked about then. Hope those who uncover it later glean from it some needed inspiration and encouragement!

      So … there you have it. Rock on, doktor John!

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