Inventing a New World

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

                                                                                                                                                 Ray Manzarek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Ubiquitous Conflict between Past and Future

Materia and Dynamism of a Cyclist by Boccioni

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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