Silicon Secessionists

Moore's Utopia

Lately, there have be weird mumblings about secession coming from an unexpected corner. We’ve come to expect that there are hangers on to the fallen Confederate States of America, or Texans hankering after their lost independent Republic, but Silicon Valley? Really? The idea, at least at first blush, seems absurd.

We have the tycoon founder of PayPal and early FaceBook investor, Peter Thiel, whose hands seem to be in every arch-conservative movement under the sun, and who is a vocal supporter of utopian seasteading. The idea of creating a libertarian oasis of artificial islands beyond the reach of law, regulation and taxes.

Likewise, Zoltan Istvan’s novel The Transhumanist Wager uses the idolatry of Silicon Valley’s Randian individualism and technophilia as lego blocks with which to build an imagined “Transhumania”.  A moveable artificial island that is, again, free from the legal and regulatory control of the state.

A second venture capitalist, Tim Draper, recently proposed shattering mammoth California into six pieces, with Silicon Valley to become its own separate state. There are plans to build a techno-libertarian Galt’s Gulch type city-state in Chile, a geographical choice which given Chile’s brutal experience with right-wing economics via Pinochet and the Chicago-school is loaded with historical irony.

Yet another Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, hopes to do better than all of these and move his imagined utopian experiment off of the earth, to Mars. Perhaps, he could get some volunteer’s from Winnipeg whose temperature earlier this month under a “polar vortex” was colder than that around the Curiosity Rover tooling around in the dead red dust of the planet of war.

What in the world is going on?

By far the best articulation of Silicon Valley’s new secessionists urges I have seen comes from  Balaji Srinivasan, who doesn’t consider himself a secessionist along the lines of John C Calhoun at all. In an article for Wired back in November  Srinivasan laid out what I found to be a quite intriguing argument for a kind of Cambrian explosion of new polities. The Internet now allows much easier sorting of individuals based on values and its only a step or two ahead to imagine virtual associations becoming physical ones.

I have to say that I find much to like in the idea of forming small, new political societies as a means of obtaining forms of innovation we sorely lack- namely political and economic innovation. I also think Srinivasan and others  are onto something in that that small societies, which get things right, seem best positioned to navigate the complex landscape of our globalized world. I myself would much prefer a successful democratic-socialist small society, such as a Nordic one like Finland, to a successful capitalist-authoritarian on like Singapore, but the idea of a plurality of political systems operating at a small scale doesn’t bother me in the least as long as belonging to such polities is ultimately voluntary.

The existence of such societies might even help heal one of the main problems of the larger pluralist societies, such as our own, to which these new communities might remain attached. Pluralist societies are great on diversity, but often bad on something older, and invariably more intolerant types of society had in droves; namely the capacity of culture to form a unified physical and intellectual world- a kind of home- at least for those lucky enough to believe in that world and be granted a good place within it.

Even though I am certain that, like most past efforts  have, the majority of these newly formed polities would fail, as have the utopian experiments in the past, we would no doubt learn something from them. And some might even succeed and become the legacy of those bold enough to dream of the new.

One might wonder, however, why this recent interest in utopian communities has been so strongly represented both by libertarians and Silicon Valley technolphiles? Nothing against libertarian experiments per se, but there are, after all a whole host of other ideological groups that could be expected to be attracted to the idea of forming new political communities where their principles could be brought to fruition. Srinivasan, again, provides us with the most articulate answer to this question.

In a speech I had formerly misattributed to one of the so-called neo-reactionaries (apologies), Srinivasan lays out the case for what he calls “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit”.

He begins by asking in all seriousness “Is the USA the Microsoft of Nations?”and then goes on to draw the distinction between two different types of responses to institutional failure- Voice versus Exit. Voice essentially means aiming to change an institution from within whereas Exit is flight or in software terms “forking” to form a new institution whether that be anything from a corporation to a state. Srinivasan thinks Exit is an important form of political leverage pressuring a system to adopt reform or face flight.

The problem I see is the logic behind the choice of Exit over Voice which threatens a kind of social disintegration. Indeed, the rationale for Exit behind libertarian flight which Srinivasan draws seems not only to assume an already existent social disintegration, but proposes to act as an accelerant for more.

Srinivasan’s argument is that Silicon Valley is on the verge of becoming the target of the old elites which he calls “The Paper Belt: based in:Boston with higher ed; New York City with Madison Avenue, books, Wall Street, and newspapers; Los Angeles with movies, music, Hollywood; and, of course, DC with laws and regulations, formally running it.” That Silicon Valley with it’s telecommunications revolution was “putting a horse head in all of their beds. We are becoming stronger than all of them combined.” That the elites of the Paper Belt  “are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings…” And that  “What they’re basically saying is: rule by DC means people are going back to work and the emerging meme is that rule by us is rule by Terminators. We’re going to take all the jobs.”

Given what has actually happened so far Srinivasan’s tone seems almost paranoid. Yes, the shine is off the apple (pun intended) of Silicon Valley, but the most that seems to be happening are discussions about how to get global tech companies to start paying their fair share of taxes. And the Valley has itself woken up to the concerns of civil libertarians that tech companies were being us by the US as a giant listening device.

Srinivasan himself admits that unemployment due to advances in AI and automation is a looming crisis, but rather than help support society, something that even a libertarian like Peter Diamandis has admitted may lead to the requirement for a universal basic income, Srinivasan instead seems to want to run away from the society he helped create.

And therein lies the dark side of what all this Silicon Valley talk of flight is about. As much as it’s about experimentation,or Exit, it’s also about economic blackmail and arbitrage. It’s like a marriage where one partner, rather than engage even in discussions where they contemplate sacrificing some of their needs threatens at the smallest pretense to leave.

Arbitrage has been the tool by which the global, (to bring back the good old Marxist term) bourgeoisie, has been able to garner such favorable conditions for itself over the past generation. “Just try to tax us, and we will move to a place with lower or no taxation”, “Just try to regulate us and we will move to a place with lower or no regulation”, it says.

Yet, both non-excessive taxation, and prudent regulation are the way societies keep themselves intact in the face of the short-sightedness and greed at the base of any pure market. Without them, shared social structures and common infrastructure decays and all costs- pollution etc- are externalized onto the society as a whole. Maybe what we need is not so much more and better tools for people to opt out, which Srinivasan proposes, than a greater number and variety of ways for people to opt in. Better ways of providing the information and tools of Voice that are relevant, accessible, and actionable.

Perhaps what’s happened is that we’ve come almost full round from our start in feudalism. We started with a transnational church and lords locked in the place of their local fiefdoms and moved to nation-states where ruling elites exercised control over a national territory where concern for the broad society underneath along with its natural environment was only fully extended with the expansion of the right to vote almost universally across society.

With the decline of the national state as the fundamental focus of our loyalty we are now torn in multiple directions, between our country, our class, by our religious and philosophical orientations, by our concern for the local or its invisibility, or our concern for the global or its apparent irrelevance.  Yet, despite our virtuality we still belong to physical communities, our neighborhood, country and our shared earth.

Closer to our own time, this hope to escape the problems of society by flight and foundation of new uncorrupted enclaves is an idea buried deep in the founding myth of Silicon Valley. The counter-culture from which many of the innovators of Silicon Valley emerged wanted nothing to do with America’s deep racial and Cold War era problems. They wanted to “drop out” and instead ended up sparking a revolution that not only challenged the whitewashed elites of the “Paper Belt”, but ended up creating a new set of problems, which the responsibility of adulthood should compel them to address.

The elite that has emerged from Silicon Valley is perhaps the first in history dis-attached from any notion of physical space, even the physical space of our shared earth. But “ultimate exit” is an illusion, at least for the vast majority of us, for even if we could settle the stars or retreat into an electron cloud, the distances are far too great and both are too damned cold.

Shedding Light on The Dark Enlightenment

Eye of Sauron

There has been some ink spilt lately at the IEET over a new movement that goes by the Tolkienesque name, I kid you not, of the dark enlightenment also called neo-reactionaries.  Khannea Suntzu has looked at the movement from the standpoint of American collapse and David Brin within the context of a rising oligarchic neo-feudalism.  

I have my own take on the neo-reactionary movement somewhat distinct from that of either Suntzu or Brin, which I will get to below, but first a recap.  Neo-reactionaries are a relatively new group of thinkers on the right that in general want to abandon the modern state, built such as it is around the pursuit of the social welfare, for lean-and-mean governance by business types who know in their view how to make the trains run on time. They are sick of having to “go begging” to the political class in order to get what they want done. They hope to cut out the middle-man. It’s obvious that oligarchs run the country so why don’t we just be honest about it and give them the reins of power? We could even appoint a national CEO- if the country remains in existence- we could call him the king. Oh yeah, on top of that we should abandon all this racial and sexual equality nonsense. We need to get back to the good old days when the color of a man’s skin and having a penis really meant something- put the “super” back in superior.

At first blush the views of those hoping to turn the lights out on enlightenment (anyone else choking on an oxymoron) appear something like those of the kind of annoying cousin you try to avoid at family reunions. You know, the kind of well off white guy who thinks the Civil Rights Movement was a communist plot, calls your wife a “slut” (their words, not mine) and thinks the real problem with America is that we give too much to people who don’t have anything and don’t lock up or deport enough people with skin any darker than Dove Soap. Such people are the moral equivalent of flat-earthers with no real need to take them seriously, though they can make for some pretty uncomfortable table conversation and are best avoided like a potato salad that has been out too long in the sun.

What distinguishes neo-reactionaries from run of the mill ditto heads or military types with a taste for Dock Martins or short pants is that they tend to be latte drinking Silicon Valley nerds who have some connection to both the tech and trans-humanist communities.

That should get this audience’s attention.

To continue with the analogy from above:  it’s as if your cousin had a friend, let’s just call him totally at random here… Peter Thiel, who had a net worth of 1.5 billion and was into, among other things, working closely with organizations such as the NSA through a data mining firm he owned- we’ll call it Palantir (damned Frodo Baggins again!) and who serves as a deep pocket for groups like the Tea Party. Just to go all conspiracy on the thing let’s make your cousin’s “friend” a sitting member on something we’ll call The Bilderberg Group a secretive cabal of the world’s bigwigs who get together to talk about what they really would like done in the world. If that was the case the last thing you should do is leave your cousin ranting to himself while you made off for another plate of Mrs. T’s Pierogies.  You should take the maniac seriously because he might just be sitting on enough cash to make his atavistic dreams come true and put you at risk of sliding off a flattened earth.

All this might put me at risk of being accused of lobbing one too many ad hominem, so let me put some meat on the bones of the neo-reactionaries. The Super Friends or I guess it should be Legion of Doom of neo-reaction can be found on the website Radish where the heroes of the dark enlightenment are laid out in the format of Dungeons and Dragons or Pokémon cards (I can’t make this stuff up). Let’s just start out with the most unfunny and disturbing part of the movement- its open racism and obsession with the 19th century pseudo-science of dysgenics.

Here’s James Donald who from his card I take to be a dwarf, or perhaps an elf, I’m not sure what the difference is, who likes to fly on a winged tauntaun like that from The Empire Strikes Back.

To thrive, blacks need simpler, harsher laws, more vigorously enforced, than whites.  The average black cannot handle the freedom that the average white can handle. He is apt to destroy himself.  Most middle class blacks had fathers who were apt to frequently hit them hard with a fist or stick or a belt, because lesser discipline makes it hard for blacks to grow up middle class.  In the days of Jim Crow, it was a lot easier for blacks to grow up middle class.

Wow, and I thought a country where one quarter of African American children will have experienced at least one of their parents behind bars- thousands of whom will die in prison for nonviolent offenses- was already too harsh. I guess I’m a patsy.

Non-whites aren’t the only ones who come in for derision by the neo-reactionaries a fact that can be summed up by the post- title of one of their minions, Alfred W. Clark, who writes the blog Occam’s RazorAre Women Who Tan SlutsThere’s no need to say anything more to realize poor William of Occam is rolling in his grave.

Beyond this neo-Nazism for nerds quality neo-reactionaries can make one chuckle especially when it comes to “policy innovations” such as bringing back kings.

Here’s modern day Beowulf Mencius Moldbug:

What is England’s problem?  What is the West’s problem?  In my jaundiced, reactionary mind, the entire problem can be summed up in two words – chronic kinglessness.  The old machine is missing a part.  In fact, it’s a testament to the machine’s quality that it functioned so long, and so well, without that part.

Yeah, that’s the problem.

Speaking of atavists, one thing that has always confused me about the Tea Party is that I have never been sure which imaginary “golden age” they wanted us to return to. Is it before desegregation? Before FDR? Prior to the creation of the Federal Reserve (1913)? Or maybe it’s back to the antebellum south? Or maybe back to the Articles of Confederation? Well, at least the neo-reactionaries know where they want to go- back before the American Revolution. Obviously since this whole democracy thing hasn’t worked out we should bring back the kings, which makes me wonder if these guys have mourning parties on Bastille Day.

Okay, so the dark voices behind neo-reaction are a bunch of racist/sexist nerds who have a passion for kings and like to be presented as characters on D&D cards. They have some potentially deep pockets, but other than that troubling fact why should we give them more than a few seconds of serious thought?

Now I need to exchange my satirical cap for my serious one for the issues are indeed serious. I think understanding neo-reaction is important for two reasons: they are symptomatic of deeper challenges and changes occurring politically, and they have appeared as a response to and on the cusp of a change in our relationship to Silicon Valley a region that has been the fulcrum point for technological, economic and political transformation over the past generation.

Neo-reaction shouldn’t be viewed in a vacuum. It has appeared at a time when the political and economic order we have had since at least the end of the Second World War which combines representative democracy, capitalist economics and some form of state supported social welfare (social democracy) is showing signs of its age.

If this was just happening in the United States whose 224 year old political system emerged before almost everything we take to be modern such as this list at random: universal literacy, industrialization, railroads, telephones, human flight, the Theory of Evolution, Psychoanalysis, Quantum Mechanics, Genetics, “the Bomb”, television, computers, the Internet and mobile technology then we might be able, as some have, to blame our troubles on an antiquated political system, but the creaking is much more widespread.

We have the upsurge in popularity of the right in Europe such as that seen in France with its National Front. Secessionist movements are gaining traction in the UK. The right in the form of Hindu Nationalism under a particular obnoxious figure- Narendra Modi -is poised to win Indian elections. There is the implosion of states in the Middle East such as Syria and revolution and counter revolution in Egypt. There are rising nationalist tensions in East Asia.

All this is coming against the backdrop of rising inequality. The markets are soaring no doubt pushed up by the flood of money being provided by the Federal Reserve,  yet the economy is merely grinding along. Easy money is the de facto cure for our deflationary funk and pursued by all the world’s major central banks in the US, the European Union and now especially, Japan.

The far left has long abandoned the idea that 21st century capitalism is a workable system with the differences being over what the alternative to it should be- whether communism of the old school such as that of Slavoj Žižek  or the anarchism of someone like David Graeber. Leftists are one thing the Pope is another, and you know a system is in trouble when the most conservative institution in history wants to change the status quo as Pope Francis suggested when he recently railed against the inhumanity of capitalism and urged for its transformation.

What in the world is going on?

If your house starts leaning there’s something wrong with the foundation, so I think we need to look at the roots of our current problems by going back to the gestation of our system- that balance of representative democracy, capitalism and social democracy I mentioned earlier whose roots can be found not in the 20th century but in the century prior.

The historical period that is probably most relevant for getting a handle on today’s neo-reactionaries is the late 19th century when a rage for similar ideas infected Europe. There was Nietzsche in Germany and Dostoevsky in Russia (two reactionaries I still can’t get myself to dislike both being so brilliant and tragic). There was Maurras in France and Pareto in Italy. The left, of course, also got a shot of B-12 here as well with labor unions, socialist political parties and seriously left-wing intellectuals finally gaining traction. Marxism whose origins were earlier in the century was coming into its own as a political force.  You had writers of socialist fiction such as Edward Bellamy and Jack London surging in popularity. Anarchists were making their mark, though, unfortunately, largely through high profile assassinations and bomb throwing. A crisis was building even before the First World War whose centenary we will mark next year.

Here’s historian JM Roberts from his Europe 1880-1945 on the state of politics in on the eve, not after, the outbreak of the First World War.

Liberalism had institutionalized the pursuit of happiness, yet its own institutions seemed to stand in the way of achieving the goal; liberal’s ideas could, it seemed, lead liberalism to turn on itself.

…the practical shortcomings of democracy contributed to a wave of anti-parliamentarianism. Representative institutions had for nearly a century been the shibboleth of liberalism. An Italian sociologist now stigmatized them ‘as the greatest superstition of modern times.’ There was violent criticism of them, both practical and theoretical. Not surprisingly, this went furthest in constitutional states where parliamentary institutions were the formal framework of power but did not represent social realities. Even where parliaments (as in France or Great Britain) had already shown they possessed real power, they were blamed for representing the wrong people and for being hypocritical shams covering self-interest. Professional politicians- a creation of the nineteenth century- were inevitably, it was said, out of touch with real needs.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Liberalism, by which Roberts means a combination of representative government and laissez faire capitalism- including free trade- was struggling. Capitalism had obviously brought wealth and innovation but also enormous instability and tensions. The economy had a tendency to rocket towards the stars only to careen earthward and crash leaving armies of the unemployed. The small scale capitalism of earlier periods was replaced by continent straddling bureaucratic corporations. The representative system which had been based on fleeting mobilization during elections or crises had yet to adjust to a situation where mass mobilization through the press, unions, or political groups was permanent and unrelenting.

The First World War almost killed liberalism. The Russian Revolution, Great Depression, rise of fascism and World War Two were busy putting nails in its coffin when the adoption of social democracy and Allied Victory in the war revived the corpse. Almost the entirety of the 20th century was a fight over whether the West’s hybrid system, which kept capitalism and representative democracy, but tamed the former could outperform state communism- and it did.

In the latter half of the 20th century the left got down to the business of extending the rights revolution to marginalized groups while the right fought for the dismantling of many of the restrictions that had been put on the capitalist system during its time of crisis. This modus vivendi between left and right was all well and good while the economy was growing and while the extension of legal rights rather than social rights for marginalized groups was the primary issue, but by the early 21st century both of these thrusts were spent.

Not only was the right’s economic model challenged by the 2008 financial crisis, it had nowhere left to go in terms of realizing its dreams of minimal government and dismantling of the welfare state without facing almost impossible electoral hurdles. The major government costs in the US and Europe were pensions and medical care for the elderly- programs that were virtually untouchable. The left too was realizing that abstract legal rights were not enough.  Did it matter that the US had an African American president when one quarter of black children had experienced a parent in prison, or when a heavily African American city such as Philadelphia has a child poverty rate of 40%? Addressing such inequities was not an easy matter for the left let alone the extreme changes that would be necessary to offset rising inequality.

Thus, ironically, the problem for both the right and the left is the same one- that governments today are too weak. The right needs an at least temporarily strong government to effect the dismantling of the state, whereas the left needs a strong government not merely to respond to the grinding conditions of the economic “recovery”, but to overturn previous policies, put in new protections and find some alternative to the current political and economic order. Dark enlightenment types and progressives are confronting the same frustration while having diametrically opposed goals. It is not so much that Washington is too powerful as it is that the power it has is embedded in a system, which, as Mark Leibovich portrays brilliantly, is feckless and corrupt.  

Neo-reactionaries tend to see this as a product of too much democracy, whereas progressives will counter that there is not enough. Here’s one of the princes of darkness himself, Nick Land:

Where the progressive enlightenment sees political ideals, the dark enlightenment sees appetites. It accepts that governments are made out of people, and that they will eat well. Setting its expectations as low as reasonably possible, it seeks only to spare civilization from frenzied, ruinous, gluttonous debauch.

Yet, as the experience in authoritarian societies such as Libya, Egypt and Syria shows (and even the authoritarian wonderchild of China is feeling the heat) democratic societies are not the only ones undergoing acute stresses. The universal nature of the crisis of governance is brought home in a recent book by Moisés Naím. In his The End of Power  Naím lays out how every large structure in society: armies, corporations, churches and unions are seeing their power decline and are being challenged by small and nimble upstarts.

States are left hobbled by smallish political parties and groups that act as spoilers preventing governments from getting things done. Armies with budgets in the hundreds of billions of dollars are hobbled by insurgents with IEDs made from garage door openers and cell phones. Long-lived religious institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, are losing parishioners to grassroots preachers while massive corporations are challenged by Davids that come out of nowhere to upend their business models with a simple stone.

Naím has a theory for why this is happening. We are in the midst of what he calls The More, The Mobility and The Mentality Revolutions. Only the last of those is important for my purposes. Ruling elites are faced today with the unprecedented reality that most of their lessers can read. Not only that, the communications revolution which has fed the wealth of some of these elites has significantly lowered the barriers to political organization and speech. Any Tom, Dick and now Harriet can throw up a website and start organizing for or against some cause. What this has resulted in is a sort of Cambrian explosion of political organization, and just as in any acceleration of evolution you’re likely to get some pretty strange mutants- and so here we are.

Some on the left are urging us to adjust our progressive politics to the new distributed nature of power.  The writer Steven Johnson in his recent Future Perfect: The case for progress in a networked age calls collaborative efforts by small groups “peer-to-peer networks”, and in them he sees a glimpse of our political past (the participatory politics of the ancient Greek polis and late medieval trading states) becoming our political future. Is this too “reactionary”?

Peer-to-peer networks tend to bring local information back into view. The fact that traditional centralized loci of power such as the federal government and national and international media are often found lacking when it comes to local knowledge is a problem of scale. As Jane Jacobs has pointed out , government policies are often best when crafted and implemented at the local level where differences and details can be seen.

Wikipedia is a good example of Johnson’s peer-to-peer model as is Kickstarter. In government we are seeing the spread of participatory budgeting where the local public is allowed to make budgetary decisions. There is also a relatively new concept known as “liquid democracy” that not only enables the creation of legislation through open-sourced platforms but allows people to “trade” their votes in the hopes that citizens can avoid information overload by targeting their vote to areas they care most about, and presumably for this reason, have the greatest knowledge of.

So far, peer-to-peer networks have been successful at revolt- The Tea Party is peer-to-peer as was Occupy Wall Street. Peer-to-peer politics was seen in the Move-ON movement and has dealt defeat to recent legislation such as SOPA. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East were toppled by crowd sourced gatherings on the street.

More recently than Johnson’s book there is New York’s new progressive mayor-  Bill de Blasio’s experiment with participatory politics with his Talking Transition Tent on Canal Street. There, according to NPR, New Yorkers can:

….talk about what they want the next mayor to do. They can make videos, post videos and enter their concerns on 48 iPad terminals. There are concerts, panels on everything from parks to education. And they can even buy coffee and beer.

Democracy, coffee and beer- three of my favorite things!

On the one hand I love this stuff, but me being me I can’t help but have some suspicions and this relates, I think, to the second issue about neo-reactionaries I raised above; namely, that they are reflecting something going on with our relationship to Silicon Valley a change in public perception of the tech culture and its tools from hero and wonderworker to villain and illusionist.

As I have pointed out elsewhere the idea that technology offered an alternative to the lumbering bureaucracy of state and corporations is something embedded deep in the foundation myth of Silicon Valley. The use of Moore’s Law as a bridge to personalized communication technology was supposed to liberate us from the apparatchiks of the state and the corporation- remember Apple’s “1984” commercial?

It hasn’t quite turned out that way. Yes, we are in a condition of hyper economic and political competition largely engendered by technology, but it’s not quite clear that we as citizens have gained rather than “power centers” that use these tools against one another and even sometimes us. Can anyone spell NSA?

We also went from innovation, and thus potential wealth, being driven by guys in their garages to, on the American scene, five giants that largely own and control all of virtual space: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Micro-Soft with upstarts such as Instagram being slurped up like Jonah was by the whale the minute they show potential growth.

Rather than result in a telecommuting utopia with all of us working five hours a day from the comfort of our digitally connected home, technology has led to a world where we are always “at work”, wages have not moved since the 1970’s and the spectre of technological unemployment is on the wall. Mainstream journalists such as John Micklethwait of The Economist are starting to see a growing backlash against Silicon Valley as the public becomes increasingly estranged from digerati who have not merely failed to deliver on their Utopian promises, but are starving the government for revenue as they hide their cash in tax havens all the while cosying up to the national security state.

Neo-reactionaries are among the first of Silicon Valleians to see this backlash building hence their only half joking efforts to retreat to artificial islands or into outer space. Here is Balaji Srinivasan whose speech was transcribed by one of the dark illuminati who goes by the moniker Nydwracu:

The backlash is beginning. More jobs predicted for machines, not people; job automation is a future unemployment crisis looming. Imprisoned by innovation as tech wealth explodes, Silicon Valley, poverty spikes… they are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings, and this is something which we need to identify as false and we need to actively repudiate it.

Srinivasan would have at least some things to use in defense of Silicon Valley: elites there have certainly been socially conscious about global issues. Where I differ is on their proposed solutions. As I have written elsewhere, Valley bigwigs such as Peter Diamandis think the world’s problems can be solved by letting the technology train keep on rolling and for winners such as himself to devote their money and genius to philanthropy.  This is unarguably a good thing, what I doubt, however, is that such techno-philanthropy can actually carry the load now held up by governments while at the same time those made super rich by capitalism’s creative destruction flee the tax man leaving what’s left of government to be funded on the backs of a shrinking middle class.

As I have also written elsewhere the original generation of Silicon Valley innovators is acutely aware of our government’s incapacity to do what states have always done- to preserve the past, protect the the present and invest in the future. This is the whole spirit behind the saint of the digerati Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation in which I find very much to admire. The neo-reactionaries too have latched upon this short term horizon of ours, only where Brand saw our time paralysis in a host of contemporary phenomenon, neo-reactionaries think there is one culprit- democracy. Here again is dark prince Nick Land:

Civilization, as a process, is indistinguishable from diminishing time-preference (or declining concern for the present in comparison to the future). Democracy, which both in theory and evident historical fact accentuates time-preference to the point of convulsive feeding-frenzy, is thus as close to a precise negation of civilization as anything could be, short of instantaneous social collapse into murderous barbarism or zombie apocalypse (which it eventually leads to). As the democratic virus burns through society, painstakingly accumulated habits and attitudes of forward-thinking, prudential, human and industrial investment, are replaced by a sterile, orgiastic consumerism, financial incontinence, and a ‘reality television’ political circus. Tomorrow might belong to the other team, so it’s best to eat it all now.

The problem here is not that Land has drug this interpretation of the effect of democracy straight out of Plato’s Republic- which he has, or that it’s a kid who eats the marshmallow leads to zombie apocalypse reading of much more complex political relationships- which it is as well.  Rather, it’s that there is no real evidence that it is true, and indeed the reason it’s not true might give those truly on the radical left who would like to abandon the US Constitution for something more modern and see nothing special in its antiquity reason for pause.

The study,of course, needs to be replicated, but a paper just out by Hal Hershfield, Min Bang and Elke Weber at New York University seems to suggest that the way to get a country to pay serious attention to long term investments is not to give them a deep future but a deep past and not just any past- the continuity of their current political system.

As Hershfield states it:

Our thinking is that the countries who have a longer past are better able see further forward into the future and think about extending the time period that they’ve already been around into the distant future. And that might make them care a bit more about how environmental outcomes are going to play out down the line.

And from further commentary on that segment:

Hershfield is not using the historical age of the country, but when it got started in its present form, when its current form of government got started. So he’s saying the U.S. got started in the year 1776. He’s saying China started in the year 1949.

Now, China, of course, though, is thousands of years old in historical terms, but Hershfield is using the political birth of the country as the starting point for his analysis. Now, this is potentially problematic, because for some countries like China, there’s a very big disparity in the historical age and when the current form of government got started. But Hershfield finds even when you eliminate those countries from the equation, there’s still a strong connection between the age of the country and its willingness to invest in environmental issues.

The very existence of strong environmental movements and regulation in democracies should be enough to disprove Land’s thesis about popular government’s “compulsive feeding frenzy”.  Democracies should have stripped their environments bare like a dog with a Thanksgiving turkey bone. Instead the opposite has happened. Neo-reactionaries might respond with something about large hunting preserves supported by the kings, but the idea that kings were better stewards of the environment and human beings (I refuse to call them “capital”)  because they own them as personal property can be countered with two words and a number King Leopold II.

Yet, we progressives need to be aware of the benefits of political continuity. The right with their Tea Party and their powdered wigs has seized American history. They are selling a revolutionary dismantling of the state and the deconstruction of hard fought for legacies in the name of returning to “purity”, but this history is ours as much as theirs even if our version of it tends to be as honest about the villains as the heroes. Neo-reactionaries are people who have woken up to the reality that the conservative return to “foundations” has no future. All that is left for them is to sit around daydreaming that the American Revolution and all it helped spark never happened, and that the kings still sat on their bedeckled thrones.

On Recognizing Deep Fragility

 

Eastern Hemisphere from Space Nasa High Resolution

If we take what amounts to the very long view of the matter it’s quite easy to see how both the tradition of human rights and transhumanism emerge from what are in effect two different Christian emphasises on the life of Christ. Of course, this is to look at things from the perspective of the West alone. One can easily find harbingers of both human rights and transhumanism outside of  Christianity and the West in Non-Western societies and religious/philosophical traditions in Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism among others. For now though, lets stick with seeing things through the lens of the Western tradition alone.

Perhaps the primary source for human rights in Christianity would be the idea of Christ as God relocated into the fragility of a human body, a consciousness supremely sensitive to the most vulnerable among us- the sick, the poor, the excluded, the powerless and insisting on the spiritual equality of human beings. Roots of transhumanism can be found in another Christ tradition- the idea of man made God, the desire to transcend human limits to seek and find enlightenment.

Putting aside the elitism of the gnostics, such doubled vision need not necessarily be understood as the source of irreconcilability and conflict, but more like a gestalt drawing where two pictures can exist in one. What picture one sees becomes a matter of what you are looking for at the moment.

Historically zooming in a little closer to the Age of Enlightenment we can again see both the tradition of human rights and something like a proto- transhumanism existing side by side. If an enormous increase in the span of biological or material longevity is taken to be the sine qua non of transhumanism, then the Marquis de Condorcet who predicted in his 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit that:

….a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents or of the flow and gradual decay of the vital powers and that the duration of the middle space of the interval between the birth of man and this decay will itself have no assignable limit. (368)

Was at the same time a staunch defender of much human rights as we would now understand them- the abolition of slavery, equal rights for women, and political rights as they had been articulated in the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and especially in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Yet, if if human rights and proto-transhumanism can often be found right next to one another, so to speak, in both Christianity and the Enlightenment it is certainly difficult to argue that such is the case today. Or only if we narrowly define rights in terms of so-called “negative rights” that is liberties which are used by many transhumanists to argue that they have a right to pursue transcendence, augmentation, and increased powers. How then did the two become so clearly separated in our consciousness?

Often the emergence of human rights and transhumanism is presented sequentially with human rights appearing first and transhumanism or posthumanism occurring afterwards. You find this in Steve Fuller who characterizes human rights (both economic and political) as “humanity 1.0” whereas posthumanism is the newer “humanity 2.0” a separate and sometimes rivalrous utopian project.

This kind of temporal positioning of the utopian project to universally achieve human rights as the ideal of the past with posthumanism as a set of goals for the future is, despite its intuitive appeal, not very historically accurate. For the sharp separation of the human rights and transhumanism can only be dated to their emergence as two clearly defined utopian projects.

It might be surprising to learn exactly how contemporary the appearance of these movements as clearly distinguishable utopian projects actually is. For starters, the very recent appearance of the global movement for human rights is something that has been stressed strongly in recent years by Marxist scholars who want to alert us the inadequacies of the rhetoric of human rights in providing a path through which lasting change in the conditions of humanity in the early 21st century might be achieved. The perspective of this critique can be found in the political writings of the activist and fiction author China Mieville, but by far the most comprehensive argument for both the contemporary nature of human rights and their inadequacy is found in the work of the historian Samuel Moyn.

In his The Last Utopia: Human Rights in Human History Moyn makes a pretty compelling case that far from being the telos of history human rights emerged as the only 20th century utopian project left standing in the 1970’s. For Moyn, human rights emerged as the dominant utopian narrative precisely because all other utopian projects had failed.  Soviet style communism proved itself a failure not with its Eastern European collapse in 1989 but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 which showed that state communism could not be reformed by democratic means.

Liberalism had failed with the American debacle in Vietnam, and even self-determination which had since the American and French Revolutions had been seen as the only path through which rights could be truly secured had proven itself a failure as the new post-colonial states failed to not only institute rights but went on the offensive against national minorities.

Unlike other utopian projects Moyn holds that human rights was able to survive because it was moralistic rather than programmatic. It gave idealistic youth in the West something to focus their energies on that ultimately had little bearing on the actual political regime either domestically or internationally. The rhetoric of human rights gave communist dissidents a moral kludge with which they could hammer away at Eastern bloc violations of human rights without calling for the end of the communist project and without the need to insight revolution.

I have some problems with Moyn’s insistence on an extremely sharp historical separation between what we understand as human rights and what came before. We have known that human rights and self-determination (in terms of peoples) have had a troubling mutually interdependent relationship since Edmund Burke criticized the ideas behind the French Revolution. The problematic relationship between human rights and self-determination was brilliantly explored back in the 1940’s by Hannah Arendt.

That the articulation of rights in the Universal Declaration of Rights in 1948 was written under the assumption that European colonial empires would be retained is less than Moyn argues a sort of moralistic distraction from European powers hopes to retain their colonies than an attempt to guarantee rights outside of the context in which they had previously resided i.e. the sovereign nation-state. Moyn also makes no mention of international movements that have little connection with the nation-state as such and therefore bear more similarity to human rights as understood today such as the movement to abolish slavery and the rights of women and children.

The Universal Declaration was also written, I should add,  in light the recognition that the of the economic crisis that had collapsed the capitalist economic system and led to the Second World War necessitated the universal adoption of egalitarian systems- social democracy-  as the only forms of society that were sustainable, humanistic, and just.

Where Moyn is helpful is in focusing our view on the contemporary period rather than trying to find deeper historical currents. I found his Last Utopia especially fruitful in understanding how human rights and transhumanism separated course and also in grasping how the separation of either utopian project from the broader question of political and economic composition is, a both Moyn and China Mieville suggest for human rights alone, is likely to lead us into a cul de sac.

Let me start with one of the Soviet dissidents that Moyn thinks was instrumental in launching the human rights movement, Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. Sakharov was instrumental in the creation of the Soviet hydrogen bomb. The Americans had gotten their first. The explosion of the American hydrogen bomb over the Bikini Atoll in 1954- a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the fission nuclear weapons dropped on Japan in 1945 signaled the birth of the human capacity to destroy both civilization and life on earth.

The Soviets would explode their own “true hydrogen bomb” a year later in 1955 based largely on Sakharov’s design. Perhaps the responsibility for what he had made possible had affected him, or perhaps his scientific grasp of the destructive potential of these new weapons had made him aware of the universal fragility of life, but by the 1960’s Sakharov had thrown himself into political activism.

His 1968 essay Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom marked his appearance onto the political scene. What is remarkable about this essay is the way it combines different utopian projects that have since become distinct rivals, and which we are only now attempting to recombine. Sakharov moves from the call for international peace to environmentalism to the encouragement of continued technological progress and development of the Third World to human rights.

What unites all of these for Sakharov is both an understanding of a shared human destiny and the recognition of our universal fragility especially in the face of modern, and largely man made, catastrophic risks.

Our challenges and possibilities can not be hermetically sealed off from one another but form a continuum requiring answers on all fronts. The role of science and technology is especially interesting here for Sakharov sees them as not only the source of many of our challenges but as the best and most essential tools we have for solving our problems. Yet, it is the essentially the political choice of what to use those our powers for that is the primary question.

Sakharov’s views are also infused with the perspective that both capitalist and communist societies had arrived at a sort of egalitarian consensus. Communist critiques that capitalism lead to inequality and immiseration and that the victory of communism over capitalism was a moral imperative to save the world’s poor no longer held now that capitalist societies had adopted social democratic policies and aimed at the development and dominance of a broad middle class. The same kind of consensus on social democracy that had been seen in the Universal Declaration.

Sakharov would go on to be a fierce defender of the idea that human right represented the best universvisable ethic for a new global age. Yet the kind of fusion of rights, social democracy, environmentalism and scientific and technological progress seen in his Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom would take a quite different turn in the West a kind of perfusion and splintering of utopian projects whose missions became quite distinct and even rivals for human commitment.

In the late 1960’ and 70’s Western environmentalism took a stand against science and technology a position that is only now being challenged. The struggle for human rights was cut off not merely from environmentalism but from the kinds of social democratic and egalitarian concerns with which it had emerged in tandem. Like environmentalism, human rights had very little to say in terms of the world’s geopolitical order and therefore too often became a ready made masks for US and Western geopolitical interests.

The idea of science and technology as a utopian project also in the 1970’s became separated from its fellow travelers. One can trace this back to the idea of “digitopia” conceived in Silicon Valley which saw in science and technology solutions to all of the world’s problems if only government would get out of the way. Much of contemporary transhumanism would embrace the libertarian assumptions found in “California culture” and this strain is still strong today. This, for instance, is the venture capitalist Peter Thiel a vocal (and financial) supporter of transhumanist causes such as the Methuselah Foundation which our earlier Condorcet would certainly recognize:

 In our time, the great task for libertarians is to find an escape from politics in all its forms—from the totalitarian and fundamentalist catastrophes to the unthinking demos that guides so-called ‘social democracy.’ . . . We are in a deadly race between politics and technology. . . . The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.

For this reason Theil supports utopian seasteading the goal of which “is to innovate more minimalist forms of government that would force existing regimes to change under competitive pressure.” Ostensibly, such islands would be havens for the testing of all sorts of transhumanist innovations.

Yet, the “island” we are actually on isn’t in the middle of any ocean, but the earth itself. It was from a recognition of this fundamental shared fragility of not just humanity but all of the earthly life that has come to depend upon it that Sakharov was able to envision the integration of many of the 20th centuries utopian projects. Even transhumanism the most seemingly optimistic of modern utopian projects emerges from the recognition of our fragility- the desire to be “god-like” is the best sign that we are very far from being “gods”.

One might view much of transhumanism today as built on the same sorts of isolationist assumptions that underlie the project of utopian seasteading. The greatest danger would be a transhumanism that serves as a tool in the stratification of societies along class lines where transhumanists put up “islands” within societies whose overall well being they have abandoned in the name of achieving post-human ends.

Yet, it may be the the sheer interdependence of the 21st century world makes it impossible to pursue any utopian project that fails to take the shared fate of humanity into account. There is a great need of a truly global movement that integrates our various problems and hopes as it becomes increasingly clear that modern crises do not fit squarely into singular versions of utopia or dystopia. The current crises in Syria and Egypt are environmental, rights based, technological, social democratic and geopolitical all at the same time.

We need a utopian project that addresses all of these problems simultaneously and articulates and expands human possibilities for everyone. Let’s hope that the recent profusion of early 21st century movements that seek the reintegration of utopian projects help break us out of our log jam. With these I would include a branch of transhumanism known as techno-progressivism which has the potential to bridge the recently emerged gap between human rights (along with the rest of life) and transhumanism. One of the best way to do this might be for techno-progressives to become aware of and adopt some of the new reformulation of rights as “capabilities” rather than the traditional notion of rights as entitlements. But that is for another time.

 

 

 

 

Science Fiction and the occulted canvass of time

Leonardo Davinci's Inventions

In a recent interview the ever insightful and expansive Vernor Vinge laid out his thoughts on possibility and the future. Vinge, of course, is the man who helped invent the idea of the Singularity, the concept that we are in an era of ever accelerating change, whose future, beyond a certain point,- we cannot see. For me, the interesting thing in the Vinge interview is just how important a role he thinks imagination plays in pulling us forward into new technological and social possibilities. For Vinge, our very ability to imagine some new technological or social reality signals our ability to create it in the near future. Imagination and capability are tied at the hip.

One of his own examples should be sufficient to explain. It was a lack of imagination, not so much technological as social, which prevented the ancients from seeing Hero’s steam engine as something better than an amusing toy.  “For what,” an ancient anchored to the past of what had seemingly always been “ could be a more productive and efficient a system than slavery?”

The ancients were tied to the short chain of the past, we have a very different orientation to time- our gaze is forward not backward. In part, the accelerating rate of technological change today emerges out of this change in our imaginative orientation away from the past and towards the future. Many of us are both thinking about the future seriously, and have a broadened perspective on what is possible because we have learned how to dream. We are, in Vinge’s words “grabbing the fabric of reality and pulling it towards us” a great change in the attitude towards the future than could be found a mere 500 years ago.

Vinge is right about this, the idea of imagining the future as something fundamentally different from the past is a relatively recent human habit of mind. If the future was a painting one might say that for most of human history the painting remained monotonously the same with the new only added very slowly to it. To continue with this analogy, what one started to see beginning around the late 1200s was the appearance of blank space on an expanded canvas to which the new could be added, something that would eventually happen at an accelerating pace.

And it has been the kinds of imagination we associate with Vinge’s craft -science-fiction- that has played a large role in producing despite Ecclesiastes “new things under the sun”.  Science-fiction, its progenitors and its derivatives were one of the main vectors by which the new could be imagined. We merely had to await the improvement in our technical skill, our ability to “paint” them- to bring them into being. Here is one of the first and maybe the most powerful example. Way back in the late 1200s Roger Bacon in his Epistola de Secretis Operibus Artis et Naturae Magiae predicted the future with an accuracy that would make Nostradamus blush. Predicting:

Machines for navigation can be made without rowers so that the largest ships on rivers or seas will be moved by a single man in charge with greater velocity than if it were full of men. Also cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity… Also flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of a machine revolving some engine by which artificial wings are made to flap like a bird… Also a machine can easily be made for walking in the seas and rivers, even to the bottom without danger.” (Aladdin’s Lamp  417-418)

Now, Roger Bacon seems to disprove part of Vinge’s ideas regarding imagination and the future, namely; the idea that if we can dream of something we are likely to make it happen right away, for it would take another seven centuries for us to be driving in cars or flying in airplanes. Yet this gap would disappear, in fact it would be measured in decades rather than centuries, for almost all of the history of science-fiction, up until recently that is. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Leonardo Da Vinci also still belongs to the age when the ability to imagine ran far out in front of our capacity to create in the real world. Da Vinci in  imagining flying machines or submarines or tanks- such as the speculative inventions pictured above- might be said to be practicing an early type of science- fiction, expanding the realm of what was imaginable and therefore potentially possible, but like the possibilities sketched out in Bacon they would take a long time in coming.

Related to this expansion in imaginative possibilities that began in early modern Europe that same region also experienced an expansion of the world itself.  During the Age of Exploration Europeans came face-to-face with the true size of the world, but it would be sometime before they knew the details about the human societies that inhabited it. This was a recipe for the imagination to run wild and provided an arena of fantasy in which European anxieties and hopes could be played out. One got all sorts of frightening stories about “cannibals”, but one also had Utopian lands presented as ideal cities rediscovered. These stories allowed Europeans to imagine alternatives to their own societies. After the discovery in the same period that the moon and planets were also “earth-like” worlds you get the birth of that staple of science-fiction- intelligent life on other planets- with works such as Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds that allowed brave writers to explore alternative versions of their societies in yet another landscape.

By the 1800s the gap between what we dreamed and what we could do was closing incredibly fast. Not only was the world being transformed by industrialization it was also clear that technology was steadily improving and thus revolutionizing and expanding the prospects for human societies in the future – we now call this progress. Our canvas was being filled in, but was also being even further stretched out to allow for yet more possibilities. Science-fiction writers were to play a large role in driving  this expansion both of what we could do and what, because it was imaginable was deemed possible.

To name just a few of these visionaries: even if predicting the future of technology wasn’t his intention, Jules Verne expanded our technological horizon by dreaming up trips to the moon and undersea voyages. Then there was the cultural sensation of Edward Bellamy and the incomparable H.G. Wells.

Bellamy, in his futuristic Looking Backward 2000-1887 was just one of many who thought the new landscape of human flourishing would be found through the proper organization of the enormous powers of industrialization. Bellamy got a number of things right about the future, from department stores and credits cards to a version of the radio and the telephone that lay less than a century into the future.

H.G. Wells was even better, his trope of a time machine in lieu of a Rip-Van Winkle type sleep to get one of his protagonists into the future notwithstanding, he got some pretty important, though sadly dark, things from atomic bombs to aerial warfare essentially correct. Less than half a century after Wells had imagined his nightmare technologies they were actually killing people.

For a time the solar system itself, not because it contained living worlds resembling the earth as Fontenelle had imagined, but because it was at last reachable seemed to hold the hope of yet another canvas upon which different versions of the future could be drawn. The absolute master in presenting the sheer enormity of this canvas was Olaf Stapledon who in works like Last and First Men and Star Maker placed humanity’s emigration into space within the context of the history of life on earth and even the universe itself giving such a quest what can only be called a religious dimension.

Stapledon was thinking in terms of billions of years, but the technologies to take us into space spurred forward by the Second World War- Nazi V rockets, and then the Cold War “space race” seemed to be bringing his dreams into reality almost overnight.

This was the perfect atmosphere not only for pulp science-fiction and comics based around the exploration and settlement of space, but for much deeper fare such as that of Stapledon’s great heir, Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote his own religious versions of the meaning of the space race.

Yet,  it was our future in space where the narrowing gap between what we can dream and what we could do began to not only stop narrowing but actually to widen.  Clarke was eerily on the money when it came to the development of telecommunications and the personal computer, but wide off the mark when it came to our immediate future in space. His 1968 novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has us taking manned missions to Jupiter in that millennial year which, sadly, has come and gone without even having men return to the moon.  Despite his hopes, his beautiful fiction did not inspire the creation of actual space ships twirling space stations and missions, but a whole series of big budget films and television series based in outer space. More on that in a minute.

Right around the time American astronauts were setting foot on the moon science-fiction  was taking some other and ultimately introspective turns more aligned with the spirit of the times. In the words of the man Fredric Jameson in his Archaeologies of the Future called the “Shakespeare of science-fiction”, Philip K. Dick:

Our flight must be not only to the stars but into the nature of our own beings. Because it is not merely where we go, to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, but what we are as we make our pilgrimages there. Our natures will be going there, too. “Ad astra” — but “per hominem.” And we must never lose sight of that. (The Android and The Human)

It would be a while until we’d make it to Alpha Centaurus or Betelgeuse, for humanity’s rabbit leap movement into the solar system sputtered to a turtle-like crawl with the end of the Apollo missions in 1972. Like the picture of our big blue marble from space seemed to tell us, we, serious science-fiction writers included, were going to have to concentrate on the earth and ourselves for a while, and no question here was as important perhaps than that implied by Dick of what exactly was our relationship with the technological world we had built and how to react in light of this world changing into something new with both promise and danger?

Even if the 70s and 80s were a period of retreat from the actual human settlement and exploration of space they were a heyday of dreaming about it. I was a kid then, and I loved it! There was Star Wars and Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica and a new Buck Rogers.  Special effects, even if they seem primitive by today’s standards had gotten so good that one felt, at least if you were 10, like you were really there. And yet, we were nowhere near the things that could be dreamed stuck instead in low-earth orbit like David Bowie’s Major Tom.

This very ability to produce such vivid dreams of what could be was itself driven by technological changes that actually were happening a fact that became even more the case with the development of computers that were fast enough and cheap enough to make realistic computer animation possible- CGI- possible. Our waking dreams will become even more lifelike given the resurrection and inevitable improvement of 3D.

This new gap between our dreams and reality has resulted in a weird sort of anxiety in the generation, and no doubt mostly men of that generation, who grew up with the idea “the year 2000” would be some magical technological era of cites in space and the next stage of our interstellar adventure. No one, perhaps, has been more vocal in expressing this mindset than the technologists and billionaire, Peter Thiel who in a 2011 interview in the New Yorker stated the case this way:

One way you can describe the collapse of the idea of the future is the collapse of science fiction,” Thiel said. “Now it’s either about technology that doesn’t work or about technology that’s used in bad ways. The anthology of the top twenty-five sci-fi stories in 1970 was, like, ‘Me and my friend the robot went for a walk on the moon,’ and in 2008 it was, like, ‘The galaxy is run by a fundamentalist Islamic confederacy, and there are people who are hunting planets and killing them for fun.’

Doubtless, Theil downplays the importance of the revolution in computers and telecommunications that occurred in this period- a revolution he himself helped push forward. While states provide incapable or unwilling or both of pursuing Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of our future in space, a generation of bohemians and tech geeks succeeded in making his dreams about personal computers and a global communications network which had rendered location irrelevant come true. Here is Bill Gates in his Spock- like hyper-rational yet refreshingly commonsensical way on Peter Thiel’s slogan for technological pessimism:

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

I feel sorry for Peter Thiel. Did he really want flying cars? Flying cars are not a very efficient way to move things from one point to another. On the other hand, 20 years ago we had the idea that information could become available at your fingertips. We got that done. Now everyone takes it for granted that you can look up movie reviews, track locations, and order stuff online. I wish there was a way we could take it away from people for a day so they could remember what it was like without it.

Yet, Thiel and the cohort around him are not ones for technological resignation or perhaps even realism. Instead, they are out to make something like the sci-fi space fantasies they were raised on as kids in the 70s and 80s come true. Such is the logic behind what, so far at least, has been the first successful foray of a private company into space exploration- Elon Musk’s Space X. Believe it or not, two companies plan to send missions to Mars in the very near future: Inspiration Mars which hopes to launch a manned orbital probe and the even more ambitious Mars One which hopes to send a human crew to Mars that will not return- permanent settlers- in 2023 with an unmanned mission sending supplies to be sent only three years from now.

In a twist that I am not sure is a dystopian space version of The Truman Show or a real world version of Kim Stanley Robinson’s thought provoking Mars Trilogy the whole experience of the deliberately marooned Mars colonists of Mars One is to be broadcast to us earthlings safe on our couches. If this ends up like the Truman Show what we’ll have is the reduction of Stapledon’s or Clarke’s vision of space as a canvas upon which human destiny is to be written to a banal and way too expensive version of interstellar product placement that would be farcical if it wasn’t ultimately also a suicide mission. Though, instead of virgins in heaven the Martian marooned will see their families made rich by advertising royalties with the only price that they will never see them in person and given the distance will never be able to speak with them in real time again. Yet there are reasons to be optimistic as well.

Perhaps the Mars One mission, if it is successful, will result in something  Robinson’s Mars Trilogy as described in Archeologies of the Future. According to Jameson, Robinson has provided us with a tableau in the form of human colonies on Mars upon which different definitions of what it means to be human and what the ideal society and what we should most value are played off against one another in a way that can never be finally and satisfactorily resolved. Mars One and missions of its type might give us a version of real-world science-fiction, where, as Philip K. Dick suggested it should be, the question is not where we are and what we can do but what we should be? Such adventures might help restore the canvass of the future, both by luring us away from our enticing versions of it which are too far from our grasp, and by allowing us to find some fate other than falling into the black pit of Vinge’s Singularity where our own still human future has been rendered irrelevant.

Then there is the future of science-fiction itself. As David Brin recently pointed out, his fellow science-fiction writer, Neal Stephenson, has launched a fascinating endeavor, Project Hieroglyph that encourages collaboration between science-fiction authors, artists and engineers in creating positive visions of the near human future.

Yet, there is another, even more important role I believe science-fiction can play.

Part of the reality of science and technology today is that it can be used to build radically different forms of society. As Douglas Rushkoff pointed out in this brilliant impromptu speech many of us thought the spread of the Internet was going to rise to one form of society- a society of free time and digital democracy, but instead the Internet has been used as a tool for the disappearance of the distinction between life and work, the application of ubiquitous surveillance by corporations and the government. In a time such as ours when the same technology can be used to pursue very different ends and used to support very different sorts of societies perhaps the primary role of science-fiction is to give us the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to negotiate our technological world- both as individuals and as a society. In this sense science-fiction, which seems to many just “kids’ stuff” is the most serious form of fiction we have, a tried and true road to the future.

How Science and Technology Slammed into a Wall and What We Should Do About It

Captin Future 1944

It might be said that some contemporary futurists tend to use technological innovation and scientific discovery in the same way God was said to use the whirlwind against defiant Job, or Donald Rumsfeld treated the poor citizens of Iraq a decade ago. It’s all about the “shock and awe”. One glance at something like KurzweilAI.Net leaves a reader with the impression that brand new discoveries are flying off the shelf by the nanosecond and that of all our deepest sci-fi dreams are about to come true. No similar effort is made, at least that I know of, to show all the scientific and technological paths that have led  into cul-de-sac, or chart all the projects packed up and put away like our childhood chemistry sets to gather dust in the attic of the human might-have- been.  In exact converse to the world of political news, in technological news it’s the jetpacks that do fly we read about not the ones that never get off the ground.

Aside from the technologies themselves future oriented discussion of the potential of technologies or scientific discovery tends to come in two stripes when it comes to political and ethical concerns: we’re either on the verge of paradise or about to make Frankenstein seem like an amiable dinner guest.

There are a number of problems with this approach to science and technology, I can name more, but here are three: 1) it distorts the reality of innovation and discovery 2) it isn’t necessarily true, 3) the political and ethical questions, which are the most essential ones, are too often presented in a simplistic all- good or all-bad manner when any adult knows that most of life is like ice-cream. It tastes great and will make you fat.

Let’s start with distortion: A futurists’ forum like the aforementioned, KurzweilAI.Net,  by presenting every hint of innovation or discovery side-by-side does not allow the reader to discriminate between both the quality and the importance of such discoveries. Most tentative technological breakouts and discoveries are just that- tentative- and ultimately go nowhere. The first question a reader should ask is whether or not some technique process or prediction has been replicated.  The second question is whether or not the technology or discovery being presented is actually all that important. Anyone who’s ever seen an infomercial knows people invent things everyday that are just minor tweaks on what we already have. Ask anyone trapped like Houdini in a university lab-  the majority of scientific discovery is not about revolutionary paradigm shifts ala Thomas Kuhn but merely filling in the details. Most scientists aren’t Einsteins in waiting. They just edit his paperwork.

Then we have the issue of reality: anyone familiar with the literature or websites of contemporary futurists is left with the impression that we live in the most innovative and scientifically productive era in history. Yet, things may not be as rosy as they might appear when we only read the headlines. At least since 2009, there has been a steady chorus of well respected technologists, scientists and academics telling us that innovation is not happening fast enough, that is that our rates of technological advancement are not merely not exceeding those found in the past, they are not even matching them. A common retort to this claim might be to club whoever said it over the head with Moore’s Law; surely,with computer speeds increasing exponentially it must be pulling everything else along. But, to pull a quote from ol’ Gershwin “ it ain’t necessarily so”.

As Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and the financial muscle behind the Allen Institute for Brain Science pointed out in his 2011 article, The singularity isn’t near, the problems of building ever smaller and faster computer chips is actually relatively simple, but many of the other problems we face, such as understanding how the human brain works and applying the lessons of that model- to the human brain or in the creation of AI- suffer what Allen calls the “complexity break”. The problems have become so complex that they are slowing down the pace of innovation itself. Perhaps it’s not so much of a break as we’ve slammed into a wall.

A good real world example of the complexity break in action is what is happening with innovation in the drug industry where new discoveries have stalled. In the words of Mark Herper at Forbes:

But the drug industry has been very much a counter-example to Kurzweil’s proposed law of accelerating returns. The technologies used in the production of drugs, like DNA sequencing and various types of chemistry approaches, do tend to advance at a Moore’s Law-like clip. However, as Bernstein analyst Jack Scannell pointed out in Nature Review’s Drug Discovery, drug discovery itself has followed the opposite track, with costs increasing exponentially. This is like Moore’s law backwards, or, as Scannell put it, Eroom’s Law.”

It is only when we acknowledge that there is a barrier in front of our hopes for innovation and discovery that we can seek to find its source and try to remove it. If you don’t see a wall you run the risk of running into it and certainly won’t be able to do the smart things: swerve, scale, leap or prepare to bust through.

At least part of the problem stems from the fact that though we are collecting a simply enormous amount of scientific data we are having trouble bringing this data together to either solve problems or aid in our actual understanding of what it is we are studying. Trying to solve this aspect of the innovation problem is a goal of the brilliant young technologist,Jeffrey Hammerbach, founder of Cloudera. Hammerbach has embarked on a project with Mt. Sinai Hospital to apply tools for organizing and analyzing the overwhelming amounts of data gather by companies like Google and FaceBook to medical information in the hopes of spurring new understanding and treatments of diseases. The problem Hammerbach is trying to solve as he acknowledged on a recent interview with Charlie Rose is precisely the one identified by Herper in the quote above, that innovation in treating diseases like mental illness is simply not moving fast enough.

Hammerbach, is our Spiderman. Having helped create the analytical tools that underlie FaceBook he began to wonder if it was worth it quipping: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”.  The real problem wasn’t the lack of commercial technology it was the barriers to important scientific discoveries that would actually save people’s lives. Hammerbach’s conscientious objection to what technological innovation was being applied for vs what it wasn’t is, I think, a perfect segway (excuse the pun) to my third point the political and ethical dimension, or lack thereof, in much of futurists writing today.

In my view, futurists too seldom acknowledges the political and ethical dimension in which technology will be embedded. Technologies hoped for in futurists communities such as brain-computer interfaces, radical life extension, cognitive enhancements or AI are treated in the spirit of consumer goods. If they exist we will find a way to pay for them. There is, perhaps, the assumption that such technologies will follow the decreasing cost curves found in consumer electronics: cell phones were once toys for the rich and now the poorest people on earth have them.

Yet, it isn’t clear to me that the technologies hoped for will actually follow decreasing curves and may instead resemble health care costs rather than the plethora of cheap goods we’ve scored thanks to Moore’s Law. It’s also not clear to me that should such technologies be invented to be initially be affordable only by the rich that this gap will at all be acceptable by the mass of the middle class and the poor unless it is closed very, very fast. After all, some futurists are suggesting that not just life but some corporal form of immortality will be at stake. There isn’t much reason to riot if your wealthy neighbor toots around in his jetpack while you’re stuck driving a Pinto. But the equation would surely change if what was at stake was a rich guy living to be a thousand while you’re left broke, jetpackless, driving a Pinto and kicking the bucket at 75.

The political question of equity will thus be important as will much deeper ethical questions as to what we should do and how we should do it. The slower pace of innovation and discovery, if it holds, might ironically, for a time at least, be a good thing for society (though not for individuals who were banking on an earlier date for the arrival of technicolored miracles) for it will give us time to sort these political and ethical questions through.

There are 3 solutions I can think of that would improve the way science and technology is consumed and presented by futurists, help us get through the current barriers to invention and discovery and build our capacity to deal with whatever is on the other side. The first problem, that of distortion, might be dealt with by better sorting of scientific news stories so that the reader has some idea both where the finding being presented lies along the path of scientific discovery or technological innovation and how important a discovery is in the overall framework of a field. This would prevent things occurring such as a preliminary findings regarding the creation of an artificial hippocampus in a rat brain being placed next to the discovery of the Higgs Boson, at least without some color coating or other signification that these discoveries are both widely separated along the path of discovery and of grossly different import.

As to the barriers to innovation and discovery itself: more attempts such as those of Hammerbach’s need to be tried. Walls need to be better identified and perhaps whole projects bringing together government and venture capital resources and money used to scale over or even bust through these blocked paths. As Hammerbach’s case seems to illustrate, a lot of technology is fluff, it’s about click-rates, cool gadgets, and keeping up with the joneses. Yet, technology is also vitally important as the road to some of our highest aspirations. Without technological innovation we can not alleviate human suffering, extend the time we have here, or spread the ability to reach self-defined ends to every member of the human family.

Some technological breakthroughs would actually deserve the appellation. Quantum computing, if viable, and if it lives up to the hype, would be like Joshua’s trumpets against the walls of Jericho in terms of the barriers to innovation we face. This is because, theoretically at least, it would answer the biggest problem of the era, the same one identified by Hammerbach, that we are generating an enormous amount of real data but are having a great deal of trouble organizing this information into actionable units we actually understand. In effect, we are creating an exponentially increasing data base that requires exponentially increasing effort to put the pieces of this puzzle together- running to standstill. Quantum computing, again theoretically at least, would solve this problem by making such databases searchable without the need to organize them beforehand. 

Things in terms of innovation are not, of course, all gloom and doom. One fast moving  field that has recently come to public attention is that of molecular and synthetic biology perhaps the only area where knowledge and capacity is not merely equalling but exceeding Moore’s Law.

To conclude, the very fact that innovation might be slower than we hope- though we should make every effort to get it moving- should not be taken as an unmitigated disaster but as an opportunity to figure out what exactly it is we want to do when many of the hoped for wonders of science and technology actually arrive. At the end of his recent TED-Talk on reviving extinct species, a possibility that itself grows out of the biological revolution of which synthetic biology is a part, Stewart Brand, gives us an idea of what this might look like. When asked if it was ethical for scientist to “play God” in doing such a thing he responded that he and his fellow pioneers were trying to answer the question of if we could revive extinct species not if we should. The ability to successfully revive extinct species, if it worked, would take some time to master, and would be a multi-generational project the end of which Brand, given his age, would not see. This would give us plenty of time to decide if de-extinction was a good idea, a decision he certainly hoped we would make. The only way we can justly do this is to set up democratic forums to discuss and debate the question.

The ex-hippie Brand has been around a long time, and great evidence to me that old age plus experience can still result in what we once called wisdom. He has been present long enough to see many of our technological dreams of space colonies and flying cars and artificial intelligence fail to come true despite our childlike enthusiasm. He seems blissfully unswept up in all the contemporary hoopla, and still less his own importance in the grand scheme of things, and has devoted his remaining years to generation long projects such as the Clock of the Long now, or the revival of extinct species that will hopefully survive into the far future after he is gone.

Brand has also been around long enough to see all the Frankenstein’s that have not broken loose, the GMOs and China Syndromes and all those oh so frightening “test tube babies”.  His attitude towards science and technology seems to be that it is neither savior nor Shiva it’s just the cool stuff we can do when we try. Above all, he knows what the role of scientists and technologists are, and what is the role of the rest of us. Both of the former show us what tricks we can play, but it is up to all of us as to how or if we should play them.

Immortal Jellyfish and the Collapse of Civilization

Luca Giordano Cave of Eternity 1680s

The one rule that seems to hold for everything in our Universe is that all that exists, after a time, must pass away, which for life forms means they will die. From there, however, the bets are off and the definition of the word “time” in the phrase “after a time” comes into play. The Universe itself may exist for as long as 100s of trillions of years to at last disappear into the formless quantum field from whence it came. Galaxies, or more specifically, clusters of galaxies and super-galaxies, may survive for perhaps trillions of years to eventually be pulled in and destroyed by the black holes at their centers.

Stars last for a few billion years and our own sun some 5 or so billion years in the future will die after having expanded and then consumed the last of its nuclear fuel. The earth having lasted around 10 billion years by that point will be consumed in this  expansion of the Sun. Life on earth seems unlikely to make it all the way to the Sun’s envelopment of it and will likely be destroyed billions of years before the end of the Sun- as solar expansion boils away the atmosphere and oceans of our precious earth.

The lifespan of even the oldest lived individual among us is nothing compared to this kind of deep time. In contrast to deep time we are, all of us, little more than mayflies who live out their entire adult lives in little but a day. Yet, like the mayflies themselves who are one of the earth’s oldest existent species: by the very fact that we are the product of a long chain of life stretching backward we have contact with deep time.

Life on earth itself if not quite immortal does at least come within the range of the “lifespan” of other systems in our Universe, such as stars. If life that emerged from earth manages to survive and proves capable of moving beyond the life-cycle of its parent star, perhaps the chain in which we exist can continue in an unbroken line to reach the age of galaxies or even the Universe itself. Here then might lie something like immortality.

The most likely route by which this might happen is through our own species,  Homo Sapiens or our descendents. Species do not exist forever, and our is likely to share this fate of demise either through actual extinction or evolution into something else. In terms of the latter, one might ask if our survival is assumed, how far into the future we would need to go where our descendents are no longer recognizably, human? As long as something doesn’t kill us, or we don’t kill ourselves off first, I think that choice, for at least the foreseeable future will be up to us.

It is often assumed that species have to evolve or they will die. A common refrain I’ve heard among some transhumanists  is “evolve or die!”. In one sense, yes, we need to adapt to changing circumstances, in another, no, this is not really what evolution teaches us, or is not the only thing it teaches us. When one looks at the earth’s longest extant species what one often sees is that once natural selection comes us with a formula that works that model will be preserved essentially unchanged over very long stretches of time, even for what can be considered deep time. Cyanobacteria are nearly as old as life on earth itself, and the more complex Horseshoe Crab, is essentially the same as its relatives that walked the earth before the dinosaurs. The exact same type of small creatures that our children torture on beach vacations might have been snacks for a baby T-Rex!

That was the question of the longevity of species but what about the longevity of individuals? Anyone interested the should check out the amazing photo study of the subject by the artist Rachel Sussman. You can see Sussman’s work here at TED, and over at Long Now.  The specimen Sussman brings to light have individuals over 2,000 years old.  Almost all are bacteria or plants and clonal- that is they exist as a single organism composed of genetically identical individuals linked together by common root and other systems. Plants and especially trees are perhaps the most interesting because they are so familiar to us and though no plant can compete with the longevity of bacteria, a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen in Utah is an amazing 80,000 years old!

The only animals Sussman deals with are corals, an artistic decision that reflects the fact that animals do not survive for all that long- although one species of animal she does not cover might give the long-lifers in the other kingdoms a run for their money. The “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula are thought to be effectively biologically immortal (though none are likely to have survived in the wild for anything even approaching the longevity of the longest lived plants). The way they achieve this feat is a wonder of biological evolution.The turritopsis nutricula, after mating upon sexual maturity, essentially reverses it own development process and reverts back to prior clonal state.

Perhaps we could say that the turritopsis nutricula survives indefinitely by moving between more and less complex types of structures all the while preserving the underlying genes of an individual specimen intact. Some hold out the hope that the turritopsis nutricula holds the keys to biological immortality for individuals, and let’s hope they’re right, but I, for one, think its lessons likely lie elsewhere.

A jellyfish is a jellyfish, after all, among more complex animals with well developed nervous systems longevity moves much closer to a humanly comprehensible lifespan with the oldest living animal a giant tortoise by the too cute name of “Jonathan” thought to be around 178 years old.  This is still a very long time frame in human terms, and perhaps puts the briefness of our own recent history in perspective: it would be another 26 years after Jonathan hatched from his egg till the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. A lot can happen over the life of a “turtle”.

Individual plants, however, put all individual animals to shame. The oldest non-clonal plant, The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, has a specimen believed to be 5,062 years old. In some ways this oldest living non-clonal individual is perfectly illustrative of the (relatively) new way human beings have reoriented themselves to time, and even deep time.When this specimen of pine first emerged from a cone human beings had only just invented a whole set of tools that would make the transmission of cultural rather than genetic information across vast stretches of time possible. During the 31st century B.C.E. we invented monumental architecture such as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt whose builders still “speak” to us, pose questions to us, from millennia ago. Above all, we invented writing which allowed someone with little more than a clay tablet and a carving utensil to say something to me living 5,000 years in his future.

Humans being the social animals that they are we might ask ourselves about the mortality or potential immortality of groups that survive across many generations, and even for thousands of years. Group that survive for such a long period of time seem to emerge most fully out of the technology of writing which allows both the ability to preserve historical memory and permits a common identity around a core set of ideas. The two major types of human groups based on writing are institutions, and societies which includes not just the state but also the economic, cultural, and intellectual features of a particular group.


Among the biggest mistakes I think those charged with responsibility for an institution or a society can make is to assume that it is naturally immortal, and that such a condition is independent of whatever decisions and actions those in charge of it take. This was part of the charge Augustine laid against the seemingly eternal Roman Empire in his The City of God. The Empire, Augustine pointed out, was a human institution that had grown and thrived from its virtues in the past just as surely as it was in his day dying from its vices. Augustine, however, saw the Church and its message as truly eternal. Empires would come and go but the people of God and their “city” would remain.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the Catholic Church, which chooses a Pope this week, has been so beset by scandal that its very long-term survivability might be thought at stake. Even seemingly eternal institutions, such as the 2,000 year old Church, require from human beings an orientation that might be compared to the way theologians once viewed the relationship of God and nature. Once it was held that constant effort by God was required to keep the Universe from slipping back into the chaos from whence it came. That the action of God was necessary to open every flower. While this idea holds very little for us in terms of our understanding of nature, it is perhaps a good analog for human institutions, states and our own personal relationships which require our constant tending or they give way to mortality.

It is perhaps difficult for us to realize that our own societies are as mortal as the empires of old, and someday my own United States will be no more. America is a very odd country in respect to its’ views of time and history. A society seemingly obsessed with the new and the modern, contemporary debates almost always seek reference and legitimacy on the basis of men who lived and thought over 200 years ago. The Founding Fathers were obsessed with the mortality of states and deliberately crafted a form of government that they hoped might make the United States almost immortal.

Much of the structure of American constitutionalism where government is divided into “branches” which would “check and balance” one another was based on a particular reading of long-lived ancient systems of government which had something like this tripart structure, most notably Sparta and Rome. What “killed” a society, in the view of the Founders, was when one element- the democratic, oligarchic-aristocratic, or kingly rose to dominate all others. Constitutionally divided government was meant to keep this from happening and therefore would support the survival of the United States indefinitely.

Again, it is somewhat bitter irony that the very divided nature of American government that was supposed to help the United States survive into the far future seems to be making it impossible for the political class in the US to craft solutions to the country’s quite serious long-term problems and therefore might someday threaten the very survival of the country divided government was meant to secure.

Anyone interested in the question of the extended survival of their society, indeed of civilization itself, needs to take into account the work of Joseph A. Tainter and his The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). Here, the archaeologist Tainter not only provides us with a “science” that explains the mortality of societies, his viewpoint, I think, provides us for ways to think about and gives us insight into seeming intractable social and economic and technological bottlenecks that now confront all developed economies: Japan, the EU/UK and the United States.

Tainter, in his Collapse wanted to move us away from vitalist ideas of the end of civilization seen in thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. We needed, in his view, to put our finger on the material reality of a society to figure out what conditions most often lead them to dissipate i.e. to move from a more complex and integrated form, such as the Roman Empire, to a more simple and less integrated form, such as the isolated medieval fiefdoms that followed.

Grossly oversimplified, Tainter’s answer was a dry two word concept borrowed from economics- marginal utility. The idea is simple if you think about it for a moment. Any society is likely to take advantage of “low-hanging fruit” first. The best land will be the first to be cultivated, the easiest resources to gain access to exploited.

The “fruit”,  however, quickly becomes harder to pick- problems become harder for a society to solve which leads to a growth in complexity. Romans first tapped tillable land around the city, but by the end of the Empire the city needed a complex international network of trade and political control to pump grain from the distant Nile Valley into the city of Rome.

Yet, as a society deploys more and more complex solutions to problems it becomes institutionally “heavy” (the legacy of all the problems it has solved in the past) just as problems become more and more difficult to solve. The result is, at some point, the shear amount of resources that need to be thrown at a problem to solve it are no longer possible and the only lasting solution becomes to move down the chain of complexity to a simpler form. Roman prosperity and civilization drew in the migration of “barbarian” populations in the north whose pressures would lead to the splitting of the Empire in two and the eventual collapse of its Western half.            

It would seem that we have broken through Tainter’s problem of marginal utility with the industrial revolution, but we should perhaps not judge so fast. The industrial revolution and all of its derivatives up to our current digital and biological revolutions, replaced a system in which goods were largely produced at a local level and communities were largely self-sufficient, with a sprawling global network of interconnections and coordinated activities requiring vast amounts of specialized knowledge on the part of human beings who, by necessity, must participate in this system to provide for their most basic needs.

Clothes that were once produced in the home of the individual who would wear them, are now produced thousands of miles away by workers connected to a production and transportation system that requires the coordination of millions of persons many of whom are exercising specialized knowledge. Food that was once grown or raised by the family that consumed it now requires vast systems of transportation, processing, the production of fertilizers from fossil fuels and the work of genetic engineers to design both crops and domesticated animals.

This gives us an indication of just how far up the chain of complexity we have moved, and I think leads inevitably to the questions of whether such increasing complexity might at some point stall for us, or even be thrown into reverse?

The idea that, despite all the whiz-bang! of modern digital technology, we have somehow stalled out in terms of innovation is an idea that has recently gained traction. There was the argument made by the technologist and entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, at the 2009 Singularity Summit, that the developed world faced real dangers of the Singularity not happening quickly enough. Thiel’s point was that our entire society was built around the expectations of exponential technological growth that showed ominous signs of not happening. I only need to think back to my Social Studies textbooks in the 1980s and their projections of the early 2000s with their glittering orbital and underwater cities, both of which I dreamed of someday living in, to realize our futuristic expectations are far from having been met. More depressingly, Thiel points out how all of our technological wonders have not translated into huge gains in economic growth and especially have not resulted in any increase in median income which has been stagnant since the 1970s.

In addition to Theil, you had the economist, Tyler Cowen, who in his The Great Stagnation (2011)  argued compellingly that the real root of America’s economic malaise was that the kinds of huge qualitative innovations that were seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries- from indoor toilets, to refrigerators, to the automobile, had largely petered out after the low hanging fruit- the technologies easiest to reach using the new industrial methods- were picked. I may love my iPhone (if I had one), but it sure doesn’t beat being able to sanitarily go to the bathroom indoors, or keep my food from rotting, or travel many miles overland on a daily basis in mere minutes or hours rather than days.

One reason why technological change is perhaps not happening as fast as boosters such as singularitarians hope, or our society perhaps needs to be able to continue to function in the way we have organized it, can be seen in the comments of the technologists, social critic and novelist, Ramez Naam. In a recent interview for  The Singularity Weblog, Naam points out that one of the things believers in the Singularity or others who hold to ideas regarding the exponential pace of technological growth miss is that the complexity of the problems technology is trying to solve are also growing exponentially, that is problems are becoming exponentially harder to solve. It’s for this reason that Naam finds the singularitarians’ timeline widely optimistic. We are a long long way from understanding the human brain in such a way that it can be replicated in an AI.

The recent proposal of the Obama Administration to launch an Apollo type project to understand the human brain along with the more circumspect, EU funded, Human Brain Project /Blue Brain Project might be seen as attempts to solve the epistemological problems posed by increasing complexity, and are meant to be responses to two seemingly unrelated technological bottlenecks stemming from complexity and the problem of increasing marginal returns.

On the epistemological front the problem seems to be that we are quite literally drowning in data, but are sorely lacking in models by which we can put the information we are gathering together into working theories that anyone actually understands. As Henry Markham the founder of the Blue Brain Project stated:

So yes, there is no doubt that we are generating a massive amount of data and knowledge about the brain, but this raises a dilemma of what the individual understands. No neuroscientists can even read more than about 200 articles per year and no neuroscientists is even remotely capable of comprehending the current pool of data and knowledge. Neuroscientists will almost certainly drown in data the 21st century. So, actually, the fraction of the known knowledge about the brain that each person has is actually decreasing(!) and will decrease even further until neuroscientists are forced to become informaticians or robot operators.

This epistemological problem, which was brilliantly discussed by Noam Chomsky in an interview late last year is related to the very real bottleneck in Artificial Intelligence- the very technology Peter Thiel thinks is essentially if we are to achieve the rates of economic growth upon which our assumptions of technological and economic progress depend.

We have developed machines with incredible processing power, and the digital revolution is real, with amazing technologies just over the horizon. Still, these machines are nowhere near doing what we would call “thinking”. Or, to paraphrase the neuroscientist and novelist David Eagleman- the AI WATSON might have been able to beat the very best human being in the game Jeopardy! What it could not do was answer a question obvious to any two year old like “When Barack Obama enters a room, does his nose go with him?”

Understanding how human beings think, it is hoped, might allow us to overcome this AI bottleneck and produce machines that possess qualities such as our own or better- an obvious tool for solving society’s complex problems.

The other bottleneck a large scale research project on the brain is meant to solve is the halted development of psychotropic drugs- a product of the enormous and ever increasing costs for the creation of such products. Itself a product of the complexity of the problem pharmaceutical companies are trying to tackle, namely; how does the human brain work and how can we control its functions and manage its development?  This is especially troubling given the predictable rise in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.   It is my hope that these large scale projects will help to crack the problem of the human brain, and especially as it pertains to devastating neurological disorders, let us pray they succeed.

On the broader front, Tainter has a number of solutions that societies have come up with to the problem of marginal utility two of which are merely temporary and the other long-term. The first is for society to become more complex, integrated, bigger. The old school way to do this was through conquest, but in an age of nuclear weapons and sophisticated insurgencies the big powers seem unlikely to follow that route. Instead what we are seeing is proposals such as the EU-US free trade area and the Trans-Pacific partnership both of which appear to assume that the solution to the problems of globalization is more globalization. The second solution is for a society to find a new source of energy. Many might have hoped this would have come in the form of green-energy rather than in the form it appears to have taken- shale gas, and oil from the tar sands of Canada. In any case, Tainter sees both of these solutions as but temporary respites for the problem of marginal utility.

The only long lasting solution Tainter sees for  increasing marginal utility is for a society to become less complex that is less integrated more based on what can be provided locally than on sprawling networks and specialization. Tainter wanted to move us away from seeing the evolution of the Roman Empire into the feudal system as the “death” of a civilization. Rather, he sees the societies human beings have built to be extremely adaptable and resilient. When the problem of increasing complexity becomes impossible to solve societies move towards less complexity. It is a solution that strangely echoes that of the “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula, the only path complex entities have discovered that allows them to survive into something that whispers eternity.

Image description: From the National Gallery in London. “The Cave Of Eternity” (1680s) by Luca Giordan.“The serpent biting its tail symbolises Eternity. The crowned figure of Janus holds the fleece from which the Three Fates draw out the thread of life. The hooded figure is Demagorgon who receives gifts from Nature, from whose breasts pours forth milk. Seated at the entrance to the cave is the winged figure of Chronos, who represents Time.”