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
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
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
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
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:
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.