It's October 2009. I'm on the plane from London, flying home to New York through Montreal. I've been blissfully engaged by Tom Wolfe's non-fiction novel, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test", letting the true tale of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters seep into my thoughts, using Wolfe's precisely evocative language to turn my own direct moment into something mythical, something more than just another gig, another film shoot. That's what I like to do, anyway. I like to live mythically. Wolfe ponders:
"It takes a rare kind. Because always comes the moment when it's time to take the Prankster circus further on toward Edge City. And always at that point some good souls are startled: Hey, wait! Like Ralph Gleason with his column in the Chronicle and his own clump of hipness. Gleason is one of those people... Kesey can remember them all, people who thought he was great so long as his fantasy coincided with theirs. But every time he pushed on further -- and he always pushed on further -- they became confused and resentful..."
When I read that passage it took me back to the night before in London, Canary Wharf, to a private room at the Four Seasons Hotel, where I'm standing next to Garo, the CEO of a firm called Antigenics. He'd said to me, "You know, John, most people don't like change. They actually fear it."
Garo has an aura of calm assurance about him. He tends to his business like a gardener tends to his vegetables. He tends to his employees in an almost motherly way. He is masculine in demeanor, but emotionally, he is very generous. Maybe he's channeling his grandmother back in Armenia, where he grew up. To me, he shows himself to be a supremely fearless leader. He leads by gathering good people and letting them do their own work.
I've been drawn into Garo's world because of my current assignment. I'm shooting a documentary with Hilary Birmingham for Cabin Creek Films. The film is inspired by people who are terminally ill; people who know they are going to die and can't bear to do anything but wait for death. They'll attempt to change the outcome, and find ways to live as long as they possibly can.
Garo's company has developed a cancer vaccine that is unique to each individual patient. The vaccine is created directly from the tumor itself. If someone other than the cancer victim were to take it, nothing would happen. But, when the cancer victim takes it, when the disease has been detected at an early stage, the body learns to fight the cancer. Think about it. Cancer is not a virus, it's a renegade group of cells that grow without regard to the overall plan normally employed by the body. It's a failure to process information. It's a horrific sneak attack by renegades bent on pure annihilation. The concept of the vaccine is to restore the body's ability to recognize the rebellion in the cells and kill them off, which is what immune systems do when things are working the way they are supposed to.
Garo and his team went to London to make a presentation to the medical bodies that give approval to new drugs -- the European equivalent of the US FDA. They've chosen to seek approval with the European body instead of making a presentation in America because the FDA has no model for approving treatments that are unique to the individual. They only know how to consider approving drugs for release into the general population on a mass scale, something that can be approved for everyone.
Garo is a visionary. He founded Antigenics 15 years ago. He's been building his company around several product concepts, and some are already profitable. But, in this case, this cancer vaccine needs his company more than the company needs the vaccine. In fact, there are voices inside the company who don't want to pursue approval -- they'd rather make money where money can be made.
There was a moment during the past week when Garo asked me what I did in my free time. I could have told him about the big lake dredging project I was managing directly in front of my home, up near the Shawangunk Mountains, but instead I told him about a book that I'd been reading by Carl Calleman called "The Purposeful Universe." Calleman is a biologist with a twenty year background in cancer research, looking for environmental causes to the disease. I found Calleman's previous book, "The Mayan Calendar and the Transformation of Consciousness" while wandering the racks at Barnes and Noble about four years ago, and I've been fairly enthralled by his visionary style since.
Calleman's description of the meaning of the Mayan system of tracking time, which goes all the way back to the Big Bang, to the moment of the creation of the Universe, is different from any other explanation of the calendar's meaning.
It is most like Terence McKenna's idea of Novelty Theory, which notices first and foremost that there is an acceleration to the rate of change. In the early Universe, things moved slowly -- except for the moment of the Big Bang, when something called the Inflationary phase of the Universe happened in a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a second. As we understand it, all of three dimensional space made its appearance simultaneously. Afterwards, it took billions of years for the elements and structures that make up the galaxies and solar systems to develop. The Big Bang happened 12-15 billion years ago, as we measure time according to the movement of the earth around the sun. The Earth appeared about four billion years ago, and the first appearance of life came very shortly thereafter.
Since Darwin's discoveries, we've had a narrative of evolutionary change from simple life forms to the more complex, the first proto-human upright anthropoid beings appearing between one and four million years ago. The basic human being, homo sapiens, has been on the planet about one hundred thousand years. What we can all agree to be the known civilizations -- basically, recorded history -- can be accounted for over the last five thousand years. Modern industrial civilization has been around for the last two hundred fifty, and electronic information systems have been part of our world only since the middle of the twentieth century, when science and physics unearthed descriptions of nature at the smallest energetic levels, which enabled the development of computers, cyberspace, and, as McKenna referred to it, the present era of "hyperconnectivity," when "all points become connected to all other points."
McKenna liked to say, "time is speeding up." He noticed this acceleration in the rate of change from the Big Bang to the present moment. Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel Corporation, announced in the 1970's that the number of transistors on a computer chip would double every 18 months into the foreseeable future, and that we could expect faster information processing at an exponential rate. Moore's prediction, known in computer environs as "scaling" has been at the core of the growth of the world of information technology, and is a purely physical manifestation of McKenna's postulation that "time is speeding up."
Carl Calleman's description of the Mayan calendar matches this idea of the exponential acceleration in the rate of change. The Mayan system describes nine underworlds, which is a concept that outlines the emergence of cycles of creation. Think of a musical octave. The same song, the same Do-Re-Me-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do, plays over and over at higher and higher frequencies.
Calleman compares the movement of the emergence of life and change, of the pulse of cosmic evolution to the growth of a seed from germination to flowering. He says the Maya described each underworld as divided into thirteen equal parts -- or, the notes of the octave -- which he refers to as heavens, or as seven days and six nights.
These pulses of creation make up the process of evolution. They repeat themselves over and over again. According to the Mayan system of keeping time, as each new underworld comes into being, the rate of the acceleration of change increases.
Each underworld is twenty times faster than the preceding one. In the first underworld, each "day" and "night" is more than a billion years long. When we get to recorded history, which is roughly the last 5,000 years, these days and nights are 350 years long. Calleman calls this era the sixth underworld.
In other quarters, this process is known as the Mayan Long Count Calendar, and to most people, when they're speaking about the Mayan calendar, they're speaking of this cycle. But there are nine of these cycles, and they are nested within one another. Underworld seven began in 1755, the days and nights nineteen years long. Underworld eight started recently, in 1999, where the days and nights decreased to being 360 days long.
According to Calleman's description of the Mayan system, McKenna's observation is as real as oxygen. "Time is Speeding Up" is not a slogan from an advertising campaign. It's a manifestation of the process of creation, and its origin is grounded in a Cosmic Pulse, an intelligent Divine Plan.
The last octave is said to be twenty times faster than the previous cycle. Calleman's ninth underworld begins and ends within the year 2011, and each day and night is only eighteen days long. The final underworld in the cycle of creation will take place over a period of 234 days.
Calleman calls it the end of the process of Divine Creation, which is obviously not the same thing as the end of the world. It's more like a graduation. Human beings, now understood to be the pinnacle of creation, not a mere accident, will move beyond known experience to... well, that's the fun part. Who can say?
McKenna had a similar way of communicating this. He died of a brain tumor in 2000, but he saw an Omega Point in the year 2012, the year most people use to describe the "end" of the Mayan calendar. He never met Carl Calleman, but when I interviewed him in 1998 at his home in Hawaii, and I asked him what this moment beyond the end date would be, he said:
"Asking that question is like asking a man looking East at 2AM to describe the coming sunrise. He can't, because it is literally over the event horizon of the future. And when we look into the future, we see that the East is streaked with rosy dawn, but we cannot conceive of the day that is about to come. All we can see is the dim glow of some kind of eschatological promise. Ask me this question in 2010, and I'll have different answer."
McKenna's gone, but Calleman's here, and in his new book you can see what he thinks. He's not as keen to predict. Instead, he's offering a re-visioning of cosmic evolution. Pointing to recent observations in physics and cosmology, he's calling for a New Big Bang Theory, and an update to the core principles of Neo-Darwinism.
Instead of a chaotic explosion from nothingness, the Big Bang is an organizing event. Instead of random change, the Universe is fine tuned for the generating life. Calleman is serious.
Intellectually, he delves into an alchemical, yogic mindset. He stretches your mind, and requires elasticity, so be careful as you read him that your ingrained habits of thinking and deep crevices in your brain don't fracture, and your mental ligaments don't simply snap.
When I was a teenager, I was inspired by Marshall McLuhan, the godfather of modern media theory (Wired Magazine lists him as its patron saint). McCluhan noticed that as we invent new technologies we create new metaphors that are images of our bodies. In the industrial era, we invented machines, which are the extensions of physical strength, of muscle power. We don't call it "horsepower" for nothing. But notice: "horsepower" refers to the strength of an internal combustion engine. McCluhan's great insight: we name the new technology using images from the previous technology. McCluhan died in 1980, so he missed the era of modern computing as extensions of and an augmentation of human intelligence, but he still anticipated it through his observation of electric communication, which travels at the speed of light and brings information to all people instantaneously. Marshall McCluhan even coined the term "Global Village" in the 1960's.
The industrial era mirrored animal muscle power. The telecommunications era mirrored the nervous system. The computer era mirrored the flow of information systems within a living organism.
Maybe Garo's Antigenics is on to something really important. Maybe the right way to fight cancer is by fixing the flow of information. When I was shooting Garo's team as they prepared for their medical presentation, they said the vaccine must help the body "re-learn" itself to recognize the cancer cell, so the body's immune system would "know" how to kill the errant information generating the renegade cancer cells. McCluhan-esque.
In the second half of "The Purposeful Universe," Calleman suggests that DNA cannot be the sole blueprint for complext life. He points to the role of the centriole as the organizing entity for the knitting together of complex life forms. He notices that the human genome and the roundworm genome are so similar that the difference between them cannot possibly explain the complexity of a human being, and he suggest we have to look elsewhere for our answers. Calleman isn't just positing a new cosmology, he's offering a new biology.
I'm wondering if Garo's cancer vaccine isn't a reflection of this new biology. If Calleman's notions hold up to scrutiny, will it mesh with McCluhan's metaphors that help us move from the body as flesh and bone to the body as information. And if time keeps speeding up exponentially, might we be truly at the cusp of another revolution, where we move beyond germ theory to information theory, where we see disease as just broken communication pathways?
We might already be there, but our institutions are lagging behind. Perhaps the governing bodies are victims of institutional inertia, and we are victims of their ossified thinking. In this case, naming it is not the same thing as fixing it, and I can't begin to figure out how we get there from here.
Based on what I've learned about exponential change, I remain optimistic. Even though we can't quite see it, the new reality may be just over the exponential event horizon, and people like Garo, Calleman, and McKenna have undoubtedly inspired its timely arrival.
Image by Vincenzo Fileccia, courtesy of Creative Commons license.