How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

FQXi

Over the spring the Fundamental Questions Institute (FQXi) sponsored an essay contest the topic of which should be dear to this audience’s heart- How Should Humanity Steer the Future? I thought I’d share some of the essays I found most interesting, but there are lots, lots, more to check out if you’re into thinking about the future or physics, which I am guessing you might be.

If there was any theme I found across the 140 or so essays entered in the contest – it was that the 21st century was make- it- or-break-it for humanity, so we need to get our act together, and fast. If you want a metaphor for this sentiment, you couldn’t do much better than Nietzsche’s idea that humanity is like an individual walking on a “rope over an abyss”.

A Rope over an Abyss by Laurence Hitterdale

Hitterdale’s idea is that for most of human history the qualitative aspects of human experience have pretty much been the same, but that is about to change. What are facing, according to Hitterdale, is the the extinction of our species or the realization of our wildest perennial human dreams- biological superlongevity, machine intelligence that seem to imply the end of drudgery and scarcity. As he points out, some very heavy hitting thinkers seem to think we live in make or break times:

 John Leslie, judged the probability of human extinction during the next five centuries as perhaps around thirty per cent at least. Martin Rees in 2003 stated, “I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.”Less than ten years later Rees added a comment: “I have been surprised by how many of my colleagues thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and so considered me an optimist.”

In a nutshell, Hiterdale’s solution is for us to concentrate more on preventing negative outcomes that achieving positive ones in this century. This is because even positive outcomes like human superlongevity and greater than human AI could lead to negative outcomes if we don’t sort out our problems or establish controls first.

How to avoid steering blindly: The case for a robust repository of human knowledge by Jens C. Niemeyer

This was probably my favorite essay overall because it touched on issues dear to my heart- how will we preserve the past in light of the huge uncertainties of the future.  Niemeyer makes the case that we need to establish a repository of human knowledge in the event we suffer some general disaster, and how we might do this.

By one of those strange incidences of serendipity, while thinking about Niemeyer’s ideas and browsing the science section of my local bookstore I came across a new book by Lewis Dartnell The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch which covers the essential technologies human beings will need if they want to revive civilization after a collapse. Or maybe I shouldn’t consider it so strange. Right next to The Knowledge was another new book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David Hand, but I digress.

The digitization of knowledge and its dependence on the whole technological apparatus of society actually makes us more vulnerable to the complete loss of information both social and personal and therefore demands that we backup our knowledge. Only things like a flood or a fire could have destroyed our lifetime visual records the way we used to store them- in photo albums- but now all many of us would have to do is lose or break our phone. As Niemeyer  says:

 Currently, no widespread efforts are being made to protect digital resources against global disasters and to establish the means and procedures for extracting safeguarded digital information without an existing technological infrastructure. Facilities like, for instance, the Barbarastollen underground archive for the preservation of Germany’s cultural heritage (or other national and international high-security archives) operate on the basis of microfilm stored at constant temperature and low humidity. New, digital information will most likely never exist in printed form and thus cannot be archived with these techniques even in principle. The repository must therefore not only be robust against man-made or natural disasters, it must also provide the means for accessing and copying digital data without computers, data connections, or even electricity.

Niemeyer imagines the creation of such a knowledge repository as a unifying project for humankind:

Ultimately, the protection and support of the repository may become one of humanity’s most unifying goals. After all, our collective memory of all things discovered or created by mankind, of our stories, songs and ideas, have a great part in defining what it means to be human. We must begin to protect this heritage and guarantee that future generations have access to the information they need to steer the future with open eyes.

Love it!

One Cannot Live in the Cradle Forever by Robert de Neufville

If Niemeyer is trying to goad us into preparing should the worst occur, like Hitterdale, Robert de Neufville is working towards making sure these nightmare, especially self-inflicted ones, don’t come true in the first place. He does this as a journalist and writer and as an associate of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.

As de Neufville points out, and as I myself have argued before, the silence of the universe gives us reason to be pessimistic about the long term survivability of technological civilization. Yet, the difficulties that stand in the way of our minimizing global catastrophic risks, thing like developing an environmentally sustainable modern economy, protecting ourselves against global pandemics or meteor strikes of a scale that might set civilization on its knees, or the elimination of the threat of nuclear war, are more challenges of politics than technology. He writes:

But the greatest challenges may be political. Overcoming the technical challenges may be easy in comparison to using our collective power as a species wisely. If humanity were a single person with all the knowledge and abilities of the entire human race, avoiding nuclear war, and environmental catastrophe would be relatively easy. But in fact we are billions of people with different experiences, different interests, and different visions for the future.

In a sense, the future is a collective action problem. Our species’ prospects are effectively what economists call a “common good”. Every person has a stake in our future. But no one person or country has the primary responsibility for the well-being of the human race. Most do not get much personal benefit from sacrificing to lower the risk of extinction. And all else being equal each would prefer that others bear the cost of action. Many powerful people and institutions in particular have a strong interest in keeping their investments from being stranded by social change. As Jason Matheny has said, “extinction risks are market failures”.

His essay makes an excellent case that it is time we mature as a species and live up to our global responsibilities. The most important of which is ensuring our continued existence.

The “I” and the Robot by Cristinel Stoica

Here Cristinel Stoica makes a great case for tolerance, intellectual humility and pluralism, a sentiment perhaps often expressed but rarely with such grace and passion.

As he writes:

The future is unpredictable and open, and we can make it better, for future us and for our children. We want them to live in peace and happiness. They can’t, if we want them to continue our fights and wars against others that are different, or to pay them back bills we inherited from our ancestors. The legacy we leave them should be a healthy planet, good relations with others, access to education, freedom, a healthy and critical way of thinking. We have to learn to be free, and to allow others to be free, because this is the only way our children will be happy and free. Then, they will be able to focus on any problems the future may reserve them.

Ends of History and Future Histories in the Longue Duree by Benjamin Pope

In his essay Benjamin Pope is trying to peer into the human future over the long term, by looking at the types of institutions that survive across centuries and even millennia: Universities, “churches”, economic systems- such as capitalism- and potentially multi-millennial, species – wide projects, namely space colonization.

I liked Pope’s essay a lot, but there are parts of it I disagreed with. For one, I wish he would have included cities. These are the oldest lived of human institutions, and unlike Pope’s other choices are political, and yet manage to far out live other political forms- namely states or empires. Rome far outlived the Roman Empire and my guess is that many American cities, as long as they are not underwater, will outlive the United States.

Pope’s read on religion might be music to the ears of some at the IEET:

Even the very far future will have a history, and this future history may have strong, path-dependent consequences. Once we are at the threshold of a post-human society the pace of change is expected to slow down only in the event of collapse, and there is a danger that any locked-in system not able to adapt appropriately will prevent a full spectrum of human flourishing that might otherwise occur.

Pope seems to lean toward the negative take on the role of religion to promote “a full spectrum of human flourishing” and , “as a worst-case scenario, may lock out humanity from futures in which peace and freedom will be more achievable.”

To the surprise of many in the secular West, and that includes an increasingly secular United States, the story of religion will very much be the story of humanity over the next couple of centuries, and that includes especially the religion that is dying in the West today, Christianity. I doubt, however, that religion has either the will or the capacity to stop or even significantly slow technological development, though it might change our understanding of it. It also the case that, at the end of the day, religion only thrives to the extent it promotes human flourishing and survival, though religious fanatics might lead us to think otherwise. I am also not the only one to doubt Pope’s belief that “Once we are at the threshold of a posthuman society the pace of change is expected to slow down only in the event of collapse”.

Still, I greatly enjoyed Pope’s essay, and it was certainly thought provoking.  

Smooth seas do not make good sailors by Georgina Parry

If you’re looking to break out of your dystopian gloom for a while, and I myself keep finding reasons for which to be gloomy, then you couldn’t do much better to take a peak and Georgina Parry’s fictionalized peak at a possible utopian future. Like a good parent, Parry encourages our confidence, but not our hubris:

 The image mankind call ‘the present’ has been written in the light but the material future has not been built. Now it is the mission of people like Grace, and the human species, to build a future. Success will be measured by the contentment, health, altruism, high culture, and creativity of its people. As a species, Homo sapiens sapiens are hackers of nature’s solutions presented by the tree of life, that has evolved over millions of years.

The future is the past by Roger Schlafly

Schlafly’s essay literally made my draw drop, it was so morally absurd and even obscene.

Consider a mundane decision to walk along the top of a cliff. Conventional advice would be to be safe by staying away from the edge. But as Tegmark explains, that safety is only an illusion. What you perceive as a decision to stay safe is really the creation of a clone who jumps off the cliff. You may think that you are safe, but you are really jumping to your death in an alternate universe.

Armed with this knowledge, there is no reason to be safe. If you decide to jump off thecliff, then you really create a clone of yourself who stays on top of the cliff. Both scenarios are equally real, no matter what you decide. Your clone is indistinguishable from yourself, and will have the same feelings, except that one lives and the other dies. The surviving one can make more clones of himself just by making more decisions.

Schlafly rams the point home that under current views of the multiverse in physics nothing you do really amount to a choice, we are stuck on an utterly deterministic wave-function on whose branching where we play hero and villain, and there is no space for either praise or guilt. You can always act as a coward or naive sure that somewhere “out there” another version of “you” does the right thing. Saving humanity from itself in the ways proposed by Hitterdale and de Neufville, preparing for the worst as in Niemeyer and Pope or trying to build a better future as Parry and Stoica makes no sense here. Like poor Schrodinger’s cat, on some branches we end up surviving, on some we destroy ourselves and it is not us who is in charge of which branch we are on.

The thought made me cringe, but then I realized Schlafly must be playing a Swiftian game. Applying quantum theory to the moral and political worlds we inhabit leads to absurdity. This might or might not call into question the fundamental  reality of the multiverse or the universal wave function, but it should not lead us to doubt or jettison our ideas regarding our own responsibility for the lives we live, which boil down to the decisions we have made.

Chinese Dream is Xuan Yuan’s Da Tong by KoGuan Leo

Those of us in the West probably can’t help seeing the future of technology as nearly synonymous with the future of our own civilization, and a civilization, when boiled down to its essence, amounts to a set of questions a particular group of human beings keeps asking, and their answer to these questions. The questions in the West are things like what is the right balance between social order and individual freedom? What is the relationship between the external and internal (mental/spiritual) worlds, including the question of the meaning of Truth? How might the most fragile thing in existence, and for us the most precious- the individual- survive across time? What is the relationship between the man-made world- and culture- visa-vi nature, and which is most important to the identity and authenticity of the individual?

The progress of science and technology intersect with all of these questions, but what we often forget is that we have sown the seeds of science and technology elsewhere and the environment in which they will grow can be very different and hence their application and understanding different based as they will be on a whole different set of questions and answers encountered by a distinct civilization.

Leo KoGuan’s essay approaches the future of science and technology from the perspective of Chinese civilization. Frankly, I did not really understand his essay which seemed to me a combination of singularitarianism and Chinese philosophy that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.  What am I to make of this from the Founder and Chairman of a 5.1 billion dollar computer company:

 Using the KQID time-engine, earthlings will literally become Tianming Ren with God-like power to create and distribute objects of desire at will. Unchained, we are free at last!

Other than the fact that anyone interested in the future of transhumanism absolutely needs to be paying attention to what is happening and what and how people are thinking in China.

Lastly, I myself had an essay in the contest. It was about how we are facing incredible hurdles in the near future and that one of the ways we might succeed in facing these hurdles is by recovering the ability to imagine what an ideal society, Utopia, might look like. Go figure.

The Lost Art of Architectonic

Palmanova

One of the things that most strikes me when thinking on the subject of our contemporary discourse regarding the future is just how seldom those engaged in the discussion aim at giving us a vision of society as a whole. There are books that dig deep but remain narrow  such as Eric Topol’s: The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, and George Church’s recent Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. Many of these books are excellent, but one walks away from reading them with a good idea of where a particular field or part of our lives might be headed rather than society as a whole.

Even when authors try to extend the reach of speculation out more broadly they tend to approach things from certain lens that ends up constraining them. Steven Johnson’s Future Perfect tries to apply the idea of peer-networks to areas as diverse as politics, education, economics and the arts while Peter Diamandis, and Steven Kotler in Abundance appear to project the mindset and passions of Silicon Valley: exponential growth in computers, the D.I.Y movement, billionaire philanthropy, and the spread of the benefits of technology to the world’s poorest, into a future where human potential can finally be met.  However good these broader approaches are they seldom leave you with an idea of how all the necessary parts of the future societies they hint at and depict fit together let alone what it might be like to actually live within them.

What seems to be missing in many works on the future is the sense of a traveler’s perspective on worlds they depict. The interesting thing about being a traveler is that you both experience the society you are traveling in as an individual and are at the same time outside of it, able to take a bird’s eye view that allows you to see connections and get a sense for how the whole things fits together like an artful building designed by an architect.

We used to have a whole genre devoted to this architectonic way of looking at the future, the literature of utopia. Writing utopias may seem very different from envisioning positive versions of the future, but perhaps not as much as we might think. Like futurists, many utopian writers tried to extrapolate from technological trends. Way back in 1833, John Adolphus Etzler, wrote a utopia  The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, that bears remarkable similarity to the arguments of Diamandis and Kotler though the technology that was thought would finally end human want was nascent industrial era machines, and Etzler embedded his argument in a narrative that gave the reader an idea of what living in such a society should look like. More famous example of such extrapolations are Edward Bellamy’ s Looking Backward, 1887 or the incomparable H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, 1905.

One might object that futurism is a predictive endeavor whereas utopianism tries to prescribe what would be best and therefore what we should do. Again, I am not quite sure this distinction holds, for much of futurists writing is as much arguments about potential and are meant to coax us into some possible future, or as Diamandis and Kotler put it in Abundance: “The best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” (239). Utopianism is at least transparent in the fact that it is being prescriptive as opposed to futurism which often tries to come across as tomorrow’s news.

I am not quite sure who we could blame for this state of affairs, but surely Friedrich Engels of  the duo Marx and Engels would bear part of the responsibility. Back in 1880 Engels in his essay Socialism: Utopian and Scientific made the case that Marxism as opposed to the utopianism such found in figures such as Robert Owen was “scientific” in that it was based upon an understanding of the future as determined. Marxists in this view weren’t trying to influence the course of history they were just responding to and playing a role in underlying forces that would unfold to an inevitable conclusion anyway.  Whether he wanted to or not, Engels had removed human agency when it came to the issue of deciding what the human future would look like, or rather he drove such agency into the shadows, unacknowledged and occult.

One might ask, what about futurism that is focused not on good scenarios at least from the author’s point of view, but bad outcomes- predictions of disaster and explorations of risk? Even here, I think, futurists are trying to shape the future as much as predict it like a fortune teller. It’s a sadistic prophet indeed who merely tells you your society will be destroyed without giving you someway to avoid that fate. Futurism that focuses on negative futures are largely warnings that we need to take steps to prevent something terrible from happening or at the very least prepare.

We can find utopian literature in this world of negative futures too or at least the doppelganger of utopia- the realm of dystopia. Indeed, dystopian literature has provided us with some of the best early warning systems we have ever had such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We which warned us about Soviet totalitarianism, Jack London’s The Iron Heel which provided us with a premonition of fascism or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which has proved a better reflection of the future with its depiction of the dystopia of consumer society than George Orwell’s 1984.

The one place where compelling architectonic versions of the future continue to be found is in science-fiction. Writers of science-fiction continue to play this social role, and often do so with brilliance as this praise for Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel 2312 attests. This teasing out and wrestling with both the positive and negative possible worlds we might arrive at given our current course or with some changes in our trajectory lend evidence to the observation that science-fiction whose surface often seems so silly is in fact the most socially and philosophically serious form of fiction we have.

Yet there are differences between science-fiction and utopian literature not the least of which is utopia’s demand to convey an architectonic vision of possible worlds. The desire in utopias to get every detail right down to how people dress and what they eat make utopian literature some of the worst we have because it takes away from the development of characters. In a utopia the normal way fiction is organized is inverted: the world portrayed is the real character whereas the protagonists and others are the mere backdrops  for this world.

Unlike much of science-fiction, the focus of utopia is more on social organization than science and technology  although even in one of the earliest and the most famous utopia- Plato’s Republic- science and technology play a role, just not in a form we would readily recognize. Plato based his work on some of the most advanced applied-sciences of his day: pedagogy, dialectical philosophy, geometry, musicology, medicine/athletics, and animal husbandry. Yet these sciences and technologies were not the driver of his utopia. They were the building blocks he used to create a certain form of social organization.

In the sense that they were often seen as proposing a blueprint for the human world utopian literature was often serious in a way science-fiction need not be. Etzler did not merely write a utopia he tried to build one in Venezuela based upon his ideas. Edward Bellamy is a mere footnote in American literature compared to the geniuses who shared the stage with him during his era: Herman Melville, Henry James or Mark Twain. Yet, Bellamy’s work was considered serious enough that it inspired clubs to debate his ideas regarding the future of industrialism all throughout the United States and  influenced real revolutionaries such as V.I. Lenin. Would any serious social thinker today dare to write a version of the future in the form of a utopia?

Perhaps what we need today is less a revival of utopia as a literary form- something it was never very good at- than a new way to imagine architectonic possible futures. Given the fact that we are a long way off from the day when a person like H.G. Wells could conjure up a vision of utopia sure in the belief that he had some working knowledge of everything under the sun this new form of utopia would need to be collaborative rather than springing from the mind of just one individual.

I can imagine gathering together a constellation of individuals from across different disciplines in a room: scientists, engineers, artists, fiction writers, philosophers, economists, social scientists etc and asking them to design together the “perfect” city. They would ask and answer questions such how their imagined city provides for its basic needs, how it is layed out, how it fits into the surrounding ecosystem, how its economy works,  how its educational system functions, its penal system. Above all it would attempt to create a society whose pieces fit together in an architectonic whole. Unlike past utopian literature, such exercises wouldn’t present themselves as somehow final and perfected, but merely provide us with glimpse of destinations to which we might go.

The Ubiquitous Conflict between Past and Future

Materia and Dynamism of a Cyclist by Boccioni

Perhaps one of the best ways to get a grip on our thoughts about the future is to look at the future as seen in the eyes of the past. This is not supposed to be a Zen koan to cause the reader’s mind to ground to a screeching halt, but a serious suggestion. Looking at how the past saw the future might reveal some things we might not easily see with our nose so close to the glass of contemporary visions of it. A good place to look, I think, would be the artistic and cultural movement of the early 20th century that went under the name of Futurism.

Futurism, was a European movement found especially in Italy but also elsewhere, that took as its focus radical visions of a technologically transformed human future. Futurists were deeply attracted to the dynamic aspects of technology. They loved speed and skyscrapers and the age of the machine. They also hated the past and embraced violence two seemingly unrelated orientations that I think may in fact fit hand in glove.

The best document to understand Futurism is its first: F.T. Marinetti’s The Futurist Manifesto.  Here is Marinetti on the Futurist’s stance towards the cultural legacy of the past that also gives some indication of the movement’s positive outlook towards violence:

Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of venerable towns!

 

Given what I think is probably the common modern view that technology, at least in its non-military form, is a benign force that makes human lives better, where better also means less violent, and that technology in the early 21st century is used as often to do things such as digitally scan and make globally available an ancient manuscript such as The Dead Sea Scrolls  as to destroy the past, one might ask what gives with Futurism?

Within the context of early 1900s Italy, both Futurisms’ praise of violence and its hatred for the accumulated historical legacy makes some sense. Italy was both a relatively new country having only been established in 1861, and compared to its much more modernized neighbors a backward one. At the same time the sheer weight of the past of pre-unification Italy stretching back to the Etruscans followed by the Romans followed by the age of great Italian city-states such as Florence, not to mention the long history as the seat of the Roman church, was overwhelming.

Italy was a country with too much history, something felt to be holding back its modernization, and the Futurist’s  hatred of history and their embrace of violence were dual symptoms of the desire to clear the deck so that modernity could take hold. What we find with Futurism is an acute awareness that the past may be the enemy of the future and an acknowledgement, indeed a full embrace, of the disruptive nature of technology, that technology upends and destroys old social forms and ways of doing things.

We might think such a conflict between past and future is itself a thing of the past, but I think this would be mistaken. At bottom much of the current debates around the question of what the human (or post-human) future should look like are really debates between those who value the past and wish to preserve it and those who want to escape this past and create the world anew.

Bio-conservatives might be thought of as those who hope to preserve evolved human nature and or the evolved biosphere in intact in the face of potentially transformative technology. Transhumanists might be thought of as holding the middle position in the debate between past and future wanting to preserve in varying degrees some aspects of evolved humanity while embracing some new characteristics that they hope technology will soon make widely available. Singularitarians are found on the far end of the future side of the past vs future spectrum, not merely embracing but pursuing the creation of a brand new evolutionary kingdom in an equally new substrate- silicon.

You also find an awareness of this conflict between past and future in the most seeming disparate of thinkers. On the future as destroyer of the past side of the ledger you have a recent mesmerizing speech at the SXSW Conference by the science-fiction author, Bruce Sterling. Part of the point Sterling seems to be making in this multifaceted talk is that technologists need to acknowledge that technology does not always produce the better, just the different. Technology upends the old and creates a new order and we should both lament the loss of what we have destroyed and embrace our role in having been a party to the destruction of the legacy of the past.

On the past as immovable anchor that prevents us from realizing not just the future but the present side of the ledger we have the architect Rem Koolhaas who designed such modern wonders as the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing. Koolhaas thinks the past is currently winning in the fight against the future. He is troubled by the increase in the area human being have declared “preserved”, that is off-limits to human development. This area is surprisingly huge, Koolhaas, claims it is comparable to the space of the entire country of India.

In a hypothetical plan to deal with the “crisis” of historic preservation in Beijing Koolhaas proposed mapping a grid over the city with areas to be preserved and those where development was unconstrained established at random. Koolhaas thinks that the process should be random to avoid cultural fights over what should be preserved and what should not, which end up reflecting the current realities of power more than any “real” historical significance. A version of “history is written by the victors”. But the very randomness of the process not only leaves me at least with the impression of being both historically illiterate and somewhat crazy, it is based, I think, on a distorted picture of the very facts of preservation themselves.

Koolhaas combines the area preserved for historic reasons with those preserved for natural ones. Thus, his numbers would include the vast amounts of space countries have set and hope to set aside as natural preserves. It’s not quite clear to me that these are areas that most human beings would really want to live in anyway, so it remains uncertain whether the fact that these areas prohibited from being developed indeed somehow hold back development in the aggregate. Koolhaas thinks we need a “theory” of preservation as a guide to what we should preserve and what we should allow to be preserved in the name of something new.  A theory suggests that the conflict between past and future is something that can or should be resolved, yet I do not think resolution is the goal we should seek.  To my lights what is really required is a discussion and a debate that acknowledges what we are in fact really arguing about. What we are arguing about is how much we should preserve the past vs how much we should allow the past to be destroyed in the name of the future.

What seems to me a new development, something that sets us off from the early 20th century Futurism with which this post began, is that technology, rather than by default being the force that destroys the past and gives rise to the future as was seen in Sterling’s speech is becoming neutral in the conflict between past and future. You can see some of this new neutrality not only in efforts to use technology to preserve and spread engagement with the past as was seen in the creation of a digital version of The Dead Sea Scrolls, you can see it in the current project of the eternal outsider, Stewart Brand, which hopes to bring back into existence extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon through a combination of reverse genetic engineering and breeding.

For de-extinct species to be viable in the wild will probably require the resurrection of ecosystems and co-dependent species that have also been gone for quite some time such as Chestnut forests for the Passenger Pigeon. Thus, what is not in the present and in front of us- the future- in Brand’s vision will be the lost past. We are probably likely to see more of this past/future neutrality of technology going forward and therefore might do well to stop assuming that technological advancement of necessity lead to the victory of the new.

Because we can never fully determine whether we have not at least secondarily been responsible for a species extinction does that mean we should never allow another species to go extinct, if we can prevent it? This would constitute not an old world, but in fact a very new one, a world in which evolution does not occur, at least the type of evolution in large creatures that leads to extinction. When combined with the aim of ending human biological death this world has a strong resemblance to the mythical Garden of Eden, perhaps something that should call the goal itself into question. Are we merely trying to realize these deeply held religious ideas that are so enmeshed  in our thought patterns they have become invisible?

Advances in synthetic biology could lead as Freeman Dyson believes to life itself soon becoming part- software part- art with brand new species invented with the ease and frequency that new software is written or songs composed today. Or, it could lead to projects to reverse the damage humankind has done to the world and return it to the state of the pre-human past such as those of Brand. Perhaps the two can live side by side perhaps not. Yet, what does seem clear is that the choice of one takes time and talent away from the other. Time spent resurrecting the Passenger Pigeon or any other extinct species is time and intellectual capacity spent inventing species never seen.

Once one begins seeing technological advancement as neutral in the contest between the past and future a number of aspirations that seem futuristic because of their technological dependence become perhaps less so.  A world where people live “forever” seems like a very futuristic vision, but if one assumes that this will require less people being born it is perhaps the ultimate victory of the old vs the new. We might tend to think that genetic engineering will be used to “advance” humankind, but might it not be seen as an alternative to more radical versions of the future, cyborg-technologies or AI, that, unlike genetic engineering go beyond merely reaching biological potential that human beings have had since they emerged on the African savanna long ago?

There is no lasting solution to the conflict of past vs future nor is it a condition we should in someway lament. Rather, it is merely a reflection of our nature as creatures in time.If we do not hold onto at least something from our past, and that includes both our individual and collective past, we become creatures or societies without identity. At the same time, if we put all of our efforts into preserving what was and never attempt the new we are in a sense already dead frozen in amber inside a world of what was. The sooner we acknowledge this conflict is at the root of many of our debates the more likely we are to come up with goals to shoot for that neither aim to destroy the deep legacy of the past, both human and biological, nor prevent us from ever crossing into the frontier of the new.

Accelerando I

The New Earth Archive has a list of 70 books that help us think our way through the future that every educated person concerned with our fate is encouraged to read. Though his book is a novel, Charles Stoss’s Accelerando should be at the top of that list. Perhaps even, at the very top.

I picked up a copy of Accelerando after I heard an interview with Venor Vinge, one of the founders of the Singularity Movement, who praised the work as one of the few examples of fiction that tried to peer behind the dark veil of the singularity. I had originally intended to do a review of Accelernado all in one post, but then realized how much it made my head hurt, but in a good way. I figured that I might make my readers’ heads hurt in the same way if I tried to explain the book all in one go.  Accelerando is so bizarre, profound, and complex that it needs to be described in digestible doses, the same way I found myself wrestling with the novel. To take it all on in one post is a fool’s errand.

What follows below then is a general sketch of the plot of Accelerando. I then dive into what I think are some very important things Stross has to say about our current economic model through the medium of his novel. In a future post I’ll try to tackle something even more important he takes on in the book- the nature and evolution of technological civilization, and the fate of the human species.

The plot of the novel centers- around the story of four generations of the Macx clan: Manfred, Amber, Sirhan, and Manni.  All of the Macx’s are befriended/manipulated by the robotic cat, Aienko, who plays a central role in the story.  The book begins with Manfred Macx, a kind of Julian Assange/George Soros who is hated by almost everybody- especially tax hungry IRS agents and his ex-wife, Pamela, (who happen to be one of the same) for giving his brilliant ideas away for free.

Manfred is an example of a type of human being Stross sees just over the horizon, constantly plugged-in, with so much of his self offloaded into the cloud, that he loses his identity the minute his” glasses”, which are his interface with net, are stolen.

He is also a new type of political figure managing to revive a form of communism by creating a centralized-planning algorithm that can interface with market based systems.  At the same time he is a pioneer in granting rights to increasingly sentient emergent AIs of whom a group of uploaded lobsters originally created by the KGB  can be counted.

If Manfred represents the first stage of the singularity, the stage we can now be said to be in, and are therefore somewhat familiar, his daughter Amber represents the stage that follows. Purposefully enslaving herself on a slave ship on a mission to mine a moon of Jupiter, Amber eventually sets up a “kingdom” on a small asteroid.  At this point the story becomes fantastical. The line between the real and the virtual essentially disappears, persons at this stage are able to split themselves into virtual “ghosts”, and Amber and her crew eventually set off in a star-ship the size of a Coke can, the crew able to embed themselves in its virtual world. Their destination is the source of alien messages some three light years away from Jupiter. What they discover are a particularly intelligent and ravenous group of space lobsters, who Manfred had liberated from the KGB years before, who exist as scavengers upon a civilization that has collapsed under the weight of their own singularity- more on the latter in a moment.

When the “virtual” Amber returns from her space mission she finds that the “real” Amber has married and had a child, named Sirhan, with Sadeq- the fundamentalist Muslim theologian who had come to the Jupiter system to bring the word of Muhammad to the aliens beyond the solar system, and found himself, instead, caught up in the legal struggles between Amber and her mother, Pamela.  The site of their empire now centers around Saturn.

What Amber and her crew discovered on their trip to the alien router outside the solar system was a dark fact about the singularity.  Many, indeed most, civilizations that reach the stage of singularity collapse, having consumed itself along with the original wet-ware species that had given it birth. What is left, or passersby, huddling closely to their parent star- a closed network.

Knowing this is their likely fate Amber, and her family, launch a political party the Accelerationista that is pushing a referendum to flee into the Milky Way from the “Vile Offspring” that have been created in the singularity, have consumed the inner planets in their quest for energy and processor space, and will soon consume what is left of the earth.  The Accelerationista lose the election to the conservative party who prefer to stay put, but Amber and her family still manage to get a large number of people to make a break for it with the help of the space lobsters. In exchange the lobsters want to send a cohort of humans, including a version of Manfred off to explore a strange cloud that appears to be another version of the singularity out in the further depths of the universe

It’s a wild plot, but not as mind blowing as the deep philosophical questions Stross is raising with the world he has envisioned.

Right off the bat there’s the issue of economics, and here Stross attempted to bring to our attention problems that were largely off the public radar in 2005, but hold us in their grip today.

The protagonist of the story, Manfred Macx, doesn’t believe in the profit economy anymore. He gives his ideas away for free, and indeed Stross himself seemed to be following this philosophy, releasing the novel under a Creative Commons license.  In the novel copyright comes under the “protection” of mafias that will break your legs if you infringe on their copyright as they threaten to do to Manfred for giving away the musical legacy of the 20th century, again, for free. This battle between traditional copyright holders and the “sharing” economy has only become more acute since Stross published his novel, think SISPA and beyond.

Manfred’s attitude to money drives both the US government (and his ex-wife) crazy.  America is creaking under the weight of its debt as the baby boom generation retires en mass, but stubbornly refuses to die.  Since Accelerando was published debt politics and the consequences of demographic decline have come to the forefront of political debate in the US, but especially in Europe. One thing Stoss got definitively wrong, or better probably will have gotten wrong, is that he imagines a strong European supra-state in our near-future.  From our current angle it seems hard to imagine how even the relatively weak union Europe has now will survive the current crisis.

Stross also seems to be criticizing, or at least bringing to our attention, the hyper-innovative nature of financial instruments and legal contracts and doing this several years before the financial crisis of 2008 made financial exotica like Credit Default Swaps household terms. For, it is precisely in this world of virtual finance and “creative” law where Manfred excels at being innovative.  Manfred may be like Julian Asange in his nomadic lifestyle, and revolutionary ideology, which manages to piss-off just above everyone, but in other ways he resembles George Soros in that many of his best innovations are the result of Soros-like arbitrage, exploiting the gaps between reality and expectation and especially the differences between states.  Manfred displays this skill when he frees his daughter Amber from her mother by having Amber sell herself into slavery to a company based in Yemen, where her slave owner will trump the custody rights of her mother.

Stross also plays with the idea of how crazy the world of virtual trading, and image management on platforms such as FaceBook  have become, imagining bubbles and busts of bizarre bits of ether such as those traded in his “reputation market”.

Stross’s critique of capitalism may even run somewhat deeper for he has Manfred align himself with the old school communist Gianni to bring the command economy back from the dead using artificial intelligence able to link up with market mechanism- what exactly that means and would look like is really not all that clear, but that order is quickly superseded by another period of hyper-competition known as Economics 2.0

Indeed, this updated version of capitalism Stross portrays as the biggest threat to civilization as it approaches the singularity. Such hyper-capitalism built around  “corporations” that are in reality artificial intelligences might not be a phenomenon of human begun civilization alone,  Stross seems to be providing us with one possible explanation to Fermi’s Paradox – the silence of the universe seemingly so ripe for life.  Civilizations that reach the singularity are often so ravenous for resources, including the intelligence of the very beings that sparked the singularity in the first place, that they cannibalize themselves, and end up huddled around their parent star with little desire to explore or communicate after collapse.

The fate Stross paints for Economy 2.0 societies reminded me of a quote by Hannah Arendt who interpreted the spirit of Western capitalism and imperialism in the desire of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes to “annex the planets”, and Thomas Hobbes conception of human kind’s limitless lust for more and more power that became the core assumption of the modern age:

But when the last war has come and every man has been provided for, no ultimate peace is established on earth: the power accumulating machine, without which the continual expansion would not have been achieved needs more material to devour in its never ending process. If the last victorious Commonwealth cannot proceed to” annex the planets” it can only proceed to destroy itself in order to begin anew the never-ending process of power generation*

I will leave off here until next time…

*Origins of Totalitarianism, Imperialism, 147