Inventing a New World

As the sun is setting into the Pacific Ocean at the end the terminus of Western Civilization, Western Civilization ends here in California at Venice Beach, so we stood there inventing a new world…

                                                                                                                                                 Ray Manzarek

I had been anxiously awaiting Stewart Brand’s scheduled talk at The Long Now which he gave this last Tuesday. Revive and Restore Brand’s project which will explore the prospect of bringing back extinct species is just the latest project of this intellectual maverick and pied-piper of the digital, and what may now be the opening rounds of the biological age. Brand has been a sort of weathervane for the cultural winds of American, or rather a very influential subset of American culture.

He began his career as an ecologist, but quickly became a sort of Forrest Gump of the major cultural and technological currents appearing out of San Francisco and what would become known as Silicon Valley- trails that radiated outward to influence both America and the larger world.

He makes an appearance in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test due to his association with Ken Kesey’s Merry Tricksters, and founded the hippie back to the land bible- The Whole Earth Catalog- a project which a technology giant like Steve Jobs could cite as one of his inspirations. We have Brand to thank for the first iconic pictures of our “big blue marble” from space, for he led a public campaign for NASA to release these photos of earth it had kept secret.

It is somewhat poignant that Brand made his first entry into public consciousness here with the Apollo moon landings. The American foray to the moon proved to be the capstone, rather than as was thought at the time a stepping stone, on a great world- civilizational project to settle the worlds beyond earth. It was a project that required the mass resources of the state and it capacity for committing itself to goals that spanned across generations. This was the same state that Brand and his generation feared, quite rightly, might just end up killing us all. Indeed, the very technologies which threatened the world with thermonuclear armageddon brought us into earth orbit and allowed humans to leave their footprints on our beloved moon.

States don’t do projects like the Apollo missions anymore. The only consolation being that they don’t threaten to kill us off in a nuclear holocaust either. Some saw this twilight coming or helped it along. Brand and his fellow travelers represented a generational rebellion against the “system” and the “establishment” for the way it both crushed individuals and the kinds of existential risks it posed to both humanity and the natural world. What was odd about Brand in this mix of rebels and hippies was the instrument he chose to be the primary tool against the system wasn’t psychedelic drugs or music but the computer- a device that up until then in the form of corporate and government mainframes was associated with most dehumanizing features of the system itself- turning human being into “numbers”.

In the 1970s and 80s Brand helped create the idea that computers and computer networks could be transformed into a liberating force of individual empowerment and personal exploration, and to this effect not only brought hackers to public attention, but helped establish another bible, this one for the Internet during the period of the dotcom boom of the 1990s, Wired Magazine.

In the late 1990s Brand launched yet another bold project, The Long Now Foundation, whose mission is to take a long term perspective of human affairs- 10,000 years into the human past and 10,000 years into its future. As he himself put it:

Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth.

The Long Now Foundation often deals with topics which the state is no longer up to or those which have such a global aspect that it’s difficult to frame them within the context of territorially defined states at all.

Revive and Restore seem like a poignant culmination point for the 74 year old Brand bringing together his first love of ecology, his belief in the utopian potential of technology, and his interest in understanding and coming up with solutions to problems within a wide historical arc. The effort to revive extinct species, not just in zoos, but in the context of restored habitats is a perfect long term project that would take multiple generations to achieve. It seeks to undo some of the damage from our ancestors not just from the recent past, as is the case from extinctions in the early early part of the last century such as the Passenger Pigeon and the Tasmanian Tiger, but going back to our spear throwing ancestors who killed off megafauna such as the Woolly Mammoth  at the very beginning of Brand’s long now.

The world would be a better place if there were more Stewart Brands, nevertheless, I think it might be wise to consider not so much his current project as the assumptions that have been at the root of most of them, assumptions he brought from the commune movement of the early 1970s whose attitude towards the political world was that it was rotten to the core and so- the hell with it.

These were assumptions that would be widely shared among a certain segment of the left- represented by Brand and his fellow travelers, and even more so by the right beginning with the same man who presided as governor of the tie- dyed California of Brand’s young adulthood, Ronald Reagan. Both would so revolutionize the world that by the early 21st century techno-philanthropists and visionaries of the kind that surround Brand and his projects would be trying to fulfill many of the roles that were formerly the task of governments-  the founders of corporate titans whose very nature as global entities under constant innovative pressure left traditional forms of government starved of the very funds that allow it to function.

The argument that Brand and the people around him were largely responsible for our ideas that digital technology would be a liberating force but had they also brought into this discourse a kind of disconnectedness from surrounding social reality has been made before, and excellently, by Fred Turner in his From Counterculture to Cyberculture. Yes, the internet and personal digital technology are liberating, but the idea that they are purely so can only be supported when one ignores the underlying social reality upon which they rest. Smart phones in our hands or computers on our desktops bring with them all sorts of potential, but one needs to remember that there are other, and often low paid, human beings who make such things. The communications revolution allows and amazing degree of personal empowerment, but it has also run hand in glove with perhaps the largest explosion of economic inequality in the history of both the United States and the larger world.

The Long Now’s Revive and Restore is a sexy project that has managed to get a lot of press, yet, there is a danger that the digerati are merely building the 21st century version of the Egyptian pyramids- lasting monuments that nonetheless end up sapping. or at least fail to support, the society underneath them. Just as needed are efforts to gather the San Francisco elites who flock to The Long Now’s wonderful seminars to discuss how to get their companies revenue into the hands of governments, or at least those parts of the government that are doing things the digerati consider worthwhile. This is the lesson to be drawn from the recent tax scandal involving Apple, which through clever accounting tricks that are ubiquitous across the large multi-national companies was able to avoid tens of billions in taxes.

Recovering the billions in taxes lost from Apple alone would allow us to do far more in the effort to protect at risk species and habitats than any effort to revive lost species. With 10 billion dollars we could triple the budget of NOAA from 5 to 15 billion. That would certainly help at risk marine life and habitats, but if our goal was to confront extinction directly, recovering just 10 billion from Apple would allow us to triple the combined budget for the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species Program.

It is certainly the case that the tech-giants- Apple, Google, Microsoft,  Facebook and Amazon along with all the great American multinationals are now global companies to an extent that being able to capture some of their revenue for the purpose of supporting the community from which they spring might be well nigh impossible. It is also the case that forums such as The Long Now Foundation, the TED Conference, or most of all The World Economic Forum at Davos are some of the few places, almost all of them dominated by non-government actors, where the global aspects of many of our problems are acknowledged and the idea of a common future for humanity- the very idea Brand wanted to get across by pushing NASA to publish its photos of earth from space- embraced. That is, global intellectual and business elites realize there is need for global coordination and action across a whole range of problems if humanity is to prosper and some might argue even survive.

As Peter Diamandis points out in his Abundance, today’s economic titans, a great number of which rose to prominence on the back of the computer revolution foreseen and pushed forward by Brand, are much more socially conscious than any of their predecessors. Today’s elites are not only aware of global problems they are desperate to do something meaningful to address them. Yet, in presenting this group of innovators whom Diamandis calls “techno-philanthropists” as capable of solving the world’s problems almost single handedly, through the application of the same technological and entrepreneurial methods through which they built their high tech companies, Diamandis distorts the relationship between techno-philanthropists and the state by overplaying the impact of the former and almost ignoring the impact of the latter.

From Christina Freeland’s insightful book, Plutocrats, here is Bill Gates head of the largest and most laudable of the techno-philanthropist on the relationship between government and his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Our foundation tends to fund more of the up-front discovery work, and we’re a partner in delivery, but government funding is the biggests. Take delivering AIDS medicine. We did the pilot studies that you could deliver ARBs [angiotensin II receptor blockers] in Africa, and then PEPFAR [the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the U.S. government program which is five billion [dollars] a year, which is way more than our whole program, just that one U.S. government help program- just one country- came in and scaled up from that. (75-76)

The dangers of the institutions created and supported by government are that they will degenerate as rules and procedures accumulate over time into the kinds of arbitrary bureaucracy presented in Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel The Castle where the system has become so detached from its original purpose to be not only incomprehensible but pointless. The second danger is that those who belong to such institutions will confuse the well being of the institution and its members with the goals of the institution itself.

The innovative nature of technological-philanthropy might be able to break through the Byzantine walls of bureaucracies that have themselves now become part of the problem- you can see something like this in The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation challenge to entrenched educational interests such as teacher’s unions. But this isn’t the whole story.

The types of institutions that spring from government or something like government are necessary for the slow plodding work of pursuing goals over multi-generational spans of time. Their existence is necessary for any task we hope to accomplish that cannot be achieved all in one go. These are precisely the types of problems Brand believes society is no longer addressing- the inspiration behind his organization The Long Now.

Added to this aspect of being multi-generational problems many of the world’s challenges are, as the current elites recognize, global in scope. Climate change is a global problem that will not be solved overnight, the same can be said for the threat from asteroids or pandemics, or the sixth great extinction. Many security problems now have a global aspect as will the need to find a working modus vivendi with potentially transformative technologies such as synthetic biology. The pictures of our shared earth that Brand pressured NASA to publish also remind us that the natural beauty of the earth and even its cultural and historical legacy is something all of us on our small world share and need to collectively preserve.

One of our primary problems is how to develop and support the kinds of international institutions that are necessary for our new global world in an era dominated by multinational corporations that skillfully avoid taxation by “locating” in the country with the lowest tax rate?

Here is an idea: perhaps we could initiate a global tithe on these world spanning corporations, a minimum tax that would be funneled into existing international institutions and perhaps new ones that support the long term future of humanity along with the preservation of the biosphere and the legacy of life on earth in all its aspects. This would truly be a Long Now type endeavor one that would help close the rift between the new innovative elites and the “establishment” they abandoned in the heady utopianism of the late 20th century.