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Crossing the Fourth Discontinuity

That idea that we are now crossing the "Fourth Discontinuity" comes from an incredible book called The Fourth Discontinuity by Bruce Mazlish, and which suggests that there is a convergence occurring between human beings and technology, and indeed between the "natural" and "artificial" world.

Mazlish identifies three previous mental barriers or "discontinuities" that the human race has had to overcome. The First Discontinuity started to be crossed when Nicolaus Copernicus proposed his theory of heliocentricity, and which stated that the Earth rotated around the Sun and not the other way around. The Second Discontinuity was then breached when Charles Darwin popularised his theories of evolution and natural selection. The Third Discontinuity then started to be dispelled when Sigmund Freud bridged the divide between our "conscious" and "subconscious", in the process highlighting human beings as psychological as well as physiological creatures.

When Copernicus helped dispel the myth that humanity is at the centre of the Universe, Darwin demonstrated how there is no "brick wall divide" between ourselves and the animal kingdom, and Freud linked our conscious and sub-conscious selves, human beings on each occasion had to accept being slightly less special and less distinct than they had previously imagined. It is similarly mentally uncomfortable for many people to accept the crossing of the Fourth Discontinuity at this point in time, with no absolute divide now existing between ourselves and artificial technology. This is not to suggest that human beings are the same as machines, but rather than there is increasingly a continuous spectrum between the two with no strict binary divide.

Mazlish's proposition that we are now crossing the Fourth Discontinuity is presented in two parts. Firstly, he states that it is no longer realistic to think of humans without machines. Secondly, he suggests that the same paradigms or concepts now explain the very workings of both human beings and many artificial mechanisms. With the development of artificial intelligence, organic biocomputers, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and xenotransplantation -- not to mention progress in life extension and the advocation of transhumanism, both of these propositions also seem at least as reasonable (if not still as uncomfortable) as they did when Mazlish published his book back in 1993. Quite how human civilization will cope with the crossing of the Fourth Discontinuity may well be a matter of considerable technological, cultural and ethical debate. But is also a debate that no sensible business should ignore.

A more detailed explanation of the crossing of the Fourth Discontinuity -- with pictures! -- is included as part of Playing at God?, the final show in my Challenging Reality TV series. I also discuss the concept in Part IV of my book The Next Big Thing.

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