Archives for Attempts at Solutions

Prevail and Progress

We try and stay out of partisan politics here at the Prevail Project, because nobody is right on the internet and everybody goes home with their feelings hurt. The Democratic National Convention, however, is reason enough to break our self-imposed silence, because these people understand Prevail.

Take for example keynote speaker, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. Not a worldshakingly powerful position by most metrics. Mayors don’t command armies, launch missions to the moon and Mars, or enact sweeping social reform. Being a mayor is about the little things, zoning disputes, public sanitation, underfunded schools and underfunded police departments. But mayors can make a difference.

“Twenty years ago, [my brother] Joaquin and I left home for college and then for law school. In those classrooms, we met some of the brightest folks in the world. But at the end of our days there, I couldn’t help but to think back to my classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School in San Antonio. They had the same talent, the same brains, the same dreams as the folks we sat with at Stanford and Harvard. I realized the difference wasn’t one of intelligence or drive. The difference was opportunity.

In my city of San Antonio, we get that. So we’re working to ensure that more four-year-olds have access to pre-K. We opened Cafe College, where students get help with everything from test prep to financial aid paperwork. We know that you can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education. We know that pre-K and student loans aren’t charity. They’re a smart investment in a workforce that can fill and create the jobs of tomorrow. We’re investing in our young minds today to be competitive in the global economy tomorrow.

And it’s paying off. Last year the Milken Institute ranked San Antonio as the nation’s top performing local economy. And we’re only getting started. Opportunity today, prosperity tomorrow.”

Imagine if we had 1000 mayors like Julian Castro. 1000 effective leaders for change, willing to invest in opportunities for the next generation rather than play it safe. We’d have a better, stronger, richer, more humane country.

“The days we live in are not easy ones, but we have seen days like this before, and America prevailed. With the wisdom of our founders and the values of our families, America prevailed. With each generation going further than the last, America prevailed. And with the opportunity we build today for a shared prosperity tomorrow, America will prevail.”

Prevailing isn’t about a hero sweeping in to save the day. It isn’t about The Killer App, or The Revolution, or Revelation, or whatever it is you dream about at night. Prevailing is what gets you up in the morning, what lets you look at the mess outside the window, and do something about it. It’s about moving towards the future while not forgetting the lessons of the past. It’s about being skeptical enough to reject a slick snake-oil theory on how to set everything right, while being optimistic enough to try something new. It is what America is best at. Progress doesn’t happen all at once, or by command from the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe who tweak interest rates and tax policies. It happens every day with people who dive into a complex situation and try and make it better, whether they’re in government, business, education, art, or just their own lives. We can prevail!

((And if you need a little bit more of as jolt, nobody does it better than Bill Clinton.))

Breaking News: Jaron Lanier Called to the Witness Stand in London to Discuss the Future of Hip-Hop Music

Tomorrow, Google is sponsoring a debate in London called “Hip-Hop on Trial” to consider the proposition that “Hip-Hop Doesn’t Enhance Society, It Degrades It.” The event will be streaming live on YouTube from 7-830 pm GMT+1 (1-2:30 pm EST) on June 26th.

Why is the Prevail Project interested in what promises to be a loud-spoken affair? (Jesse Jackson + Touré + KRS-One = loud-spoken) Because Jaron Lanier will take the witness stand!

That’s right. Jaron Lanier, champion of the Prevail Scenario and owner-operator of one of the largest collections of ancient music instruments in the world, will be called to the stand – literally – as a witness. For the prosecution or the defense? The press releases do not say; we will have to watch and listen for ourselves. My guess is that Lanier will share many of the same sentiments as The Roots drummer ?uestlove, and legendary producer-lyricist Q-Tip: hip-hop is culture, this culture is complex and complicated, and hip-hop “mos-definitely” has a bright future.

The Google event was sparked, in part, by the role of hip-hop in spreading the protest sentiments of citizens in Egypt and Tunisia. In February 2011 when NPR covered “The Songs of the Egyptian Protests”, hip-hop was a prominent feature of the protest fuel.

In January 2012, the New York Times covered a wider swath of revolutionary hip-hop in a piece titled “The Mixtape of the Revolution.” Hip-hop’s influence in the Arab Spring extends from Libya to Algeria, “from Guinea to Djibouti.”

One of those rappers, El Général, will take the stand Tuesday in London.

Hip hop is often recognized in English departments as the embodiment and progression of the personal essay form, sharing affinities with the best of American poetry from Walt Whitman to Bob Dylan.
As an avid hip-hop fan, the idea that hip-hop in toto “degrades society” is the sort of patently absurd claim that only a lawyer’s guild would make. The question in my mind is not about which side of the isle will win the case, but rather which hip-hop artists Jaron Lanier finds inspirational.

In an age when hip-hop records tend to be tightly controlled by major record labels, perhaps Lanier appreciates the initiative shown by Ghana’s Blitz the Ambassador, who managed to reach the top 10 most downloaded list on iTunes, for a brief spell, without a record deal? Perhaps Lanier fancies the futuristic strain of hip-hop, exemplified by Deltron’s 3030, with Dan the Automator’s vintage lo-fidelity soundscapes?

Tune in to find out, and share in the discussion online at the Google+ YouTube site. Tell them the Prevail Project sent you!

Rio +20 and the (UN)canny Future of Human Sadness

In 2011 Ray Kurzweil made headlines for pointing out that solar energy technologies had been subject to the Law of Accelerated Returns for the past two decades. “It is amazing how predictable this is,” he told an audience in Florida. By 2026, 100% of our energy needs will be satisfied by sunlight.

So sit back and take it easy. Nothing to worry about. Except, perhaps, the logistics of how such innovation will be implemented in time and space.

One objection frequently leveled against Kurzweil is that political and financial interests will not vanish into compliance as these doublings of information technology (bandwidth, processing, storage, etc) impart the capacity to solve global environmental crises, satisfy energy demands, and transform human nature. In response, Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near points out that the Law of Accelerated Returns has always taken shape in a context of social conservatism. The Law finds a way, come what may.

Try telling that to officials at the Rio +20 summit.

The official proceedings of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio +20, begin tomorrow. Much of the press coverage in recent days situates the summit in a context of “global pessimism.” Pessimism, naturally, has led many others to vocally announce that Rio +20 is the planet’s last chance to address environmental crisis and other long-term ills. Ban-Ki Moon, in a dutiful expression of sheer willpower, called the global summit “too important to fail.”

The pessimism I share with a large mass of humanity coexists with a long-term commitment to developing mankind’s capacity to will things into existence. I am therefore torn. This mixture of pessimism and brute force erupted today as I strolled through Cherry Hill Park in Falls Church, Virginia, on my way to a local coffee shop, into a form of laughter that expresses sadness. None of my reasons for feeling this way have anything to do with Kurzweil’s portrayal of inevitability, which, if accepted, would cast Rio +20 in a pitiful light. Far from seeing Rio +20 as sheer folly, I view such convenings in terms of an on-going international struggle among “the Three D’s”: Development, Diplomacy, and Defense.

Does Rio +20 offer yet another Archimedian pivot toward a world with a green economy, aware of environmental crisis, planetary boundaries, and human values beyond the GDP, as some have suggested? Or does the elaborate event planning, document drafting, and proclamation of institutional commitments crumble beneath the harsh weight of Development’s famous bodyguard, Defense, and spokesman, Diplomacy?

Is it not cause for sad laughter when 130 Heads of State convene to develop a working consensus about anything? Those of us cruising the Happy Hour scene in Washington DC are also induced to sad laughter by candid conversations with mid-level US officials, who almost universally see nothing substantive emerging from Rio. And if you think mid-level officials are uninformed, think again — they are the ones doing the prep work and back-of-stage negotiations.

In the United States, development never leaves the side of its defense-diplomacy entourage. Simply put, it is “the Three D’s,” rather than development per se, that frame the Rio +20 discourse. As such, attempts to frame sustainable development in terms of planetary boundaries and environmental crisis must contend with the mighty powers of state interest, national defense, economic competitiveness, and the martial arts of mass persuasion.

From this vantage, the UN Conference could be viewed in a light similar to the way Jacques Derrida viewed the global student movement of 1968: “It does not disturb” the institutions it seeks to modify. The moment it begins to disturb, dominance behaviors emerge. When specific countries insist on amendments to the language of proposed agreements, or refuse to sign on the dotted line, this is typically a sign that development’s entourage feels a bit uneasy about something.

If these remarks suggest I have made a statement of outcome before the event has officially commenced, that is exactly what living in Washington and studying public policy has done to me. There may be dozens of outputs, in form of documents, advisory panels, and commitments to further meetings, but there is quite a big difference between outputs and outcomes.

In defense of Rio +20, consider Kurzweil’s response to the objection of social conservatism: energy innovation, technology transfer, and international development have always occurred in a context of conservative forces. But then, sustainable development has never been attempted at this scale. There is no clear indication, even in the presence of new international agreements, that the distrubution of benefits from energy innovation, for example, will suddenly reach every hut and hamlet on the planet in the coming decades. While tremendous gains have been achieved in the past 50 years — one billion people saved from poverty, 80% reductions in global infant mortality, etc — development still entails a tough slog through history. UN Millenium Development Goals are a long way from achievement, even as the Rio +20 summit delegations seek to expand those goals to include environmental and natural resource features through new sustainability metrics.

But outputs are not outcomes.

The angel of my better nature believes this is what muddling through looks like. Good ideas must influence millions of human decisions in order to have systemic impacts. There is no magic formula for implementing solution options. I may find it sadly comical that convening 130 Heads of State is viewed as a recipe for anything successful, but who doesn’t love surprises?

Is Rio +20 subject to a collective act of will? Can we muddle through a swamp of social conservatism and achieve any of the goals frequently set by the UN, such as the Millenium Development Goals or the newly-proposed Sustainable Development Goals?

History remains a solid ground for measuring expectations of global social change. In my estimation, Rio +20 does not seem poised to overturn such deeply human madness as expressed in 2002 by the President of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, who refused to accept GM corn as emergency aid during a food crisis: “We would rather starve than get something toxic,” he said. (Who is this We he speaks of?) The result of this refusal was that rural Zambians were eating poisonous berries and nutritionless twigs for supper. As this stark example demonstrates, considerations of diplomacy and defense frequently trump aspirations for human flourishing through sustainable development.

When Rio +20 takes off tomorrow, the Three D’s will begin their elaborate dance. I am prepared for something uncanny, and wish the planet all the best. You can watch it unfold from your living room, from outer space, or from the middle of the jungle (ah, the Doubling!) here.

EMERGE: Artists + Scientists Redesign the Future

Here at Prevail, we care deeply about the future. And a big part of caring about the future is caring about our collective images of the future, the questions that we ask about it, and the tools that we use. Which is why I’m proud to announce the EMERGE Event, at Arizona State University March 1st-3rd.

What is EMERGE? An unparalleled campus–wide event uniting artists, engineers, bio scientists, social scientists, story–tellers and designers to build, draw, write and rethink the future of the human species and the environments that we share.

Who will be there? Global leaders from industry and creative practice will join distinguished ASU faculty and talented students along with present a line-up of world class keynote speakers for the conference-closing Keynotes Session (March 3, open to the public with RSVP) including noted writers, designers and futurists such as Stewart Brand (The Whole Earth Discipline), Bruce Sterling (The Difference Engine, Beyond the Beyond), Sherry Turkle (Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other), Bruce Mau (Incomplete Manifesto for Growth, Massive Change Network), Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, Reamde) and ASU President Michael Crow.

What will we be doing? MAKING THE FUTURE.

If you’re in the Phoenix area in early March, please come by. Particularly for the Digital Culture festival which will be open to the public on March 3rd.

The World Bank’s First Experiment in Online Gaming: Letter from the Front Lines

Prior to 2010, I did not consider online gaming a likely venue in which to witness state-of-the-art anti-globalization activism, 4th generational warfare, or organized resistance to global institutions. But then I participated in Jane McGonigal’s 2010 World Bank Institute collaboration, Urgent Evoke: A Crash Course in Changing the World.

I should have suspected fireworks from the beginning: the game’s official slogan was, “This is not a game.” 

I caught wind of the McGonigal/WBI project in March 2010 via the blogosphere. A Harvard business school PhD published a link to an intriguing YouTube video. Suddenly I was being confronted by the leader of a clandestine organization, Alchemy, whose words produced a cascade of endorphins in my innards.

“Wherever you are, Whoever you are, if you found this message it’s your destiny to join us.”

Game designers published a sequence of graphic comic-style episodes, with each episode presenting a futures scenario provoking players to undertake research that could build capacity to begin solving global problems today: social innovation, food scarcity, electricity infrastructure, water crisis, the future of money, global gender inequality, crisis networking, etc.

The game design was remarkably sophisticated. Gamers could issue points for creativity, innovation, and other qualities of posted comments and solution options. Moderators could issue bundles of points. Top gamers would be flown to Washington D.C. to participate in World Bank forums, while dozens of Evoke Agents would be offered mentorship opportunities or $1,000 seed funding for social innovation projects. The game was rolling along smoothly for five weeks or so; but that’s when a group of ultra-sophisticated activist gamers showed up.

Several users — chief among them ”Panamericana” and “Sarah O. Connor” – identifying themselves as Argentinian, with expertise in a variety of world-class software tricks, intentionally disrupted gamer culture, blasting comments pages with critiques of World Bank practices, “the hypocricy of constructing a game to solve problems the World Bank would create,” etc. When moderators attempted to block the users, they appeared in greater numbers under a host of different user names, offering persuasive rhetorical flourishes about democratic gaming standards and the questionable ethics of forum moderators, eventually forcing Jane McGonigal herself to post direct responses on the Evoke site. Allegedly, Panamericana violated the rules and threatened Jane McGonigal in some way. For several weeks, all the top-scoring gamers, while striving to win the grand prize trip to World Bank headquarters, were also being recruited by the Argentinian activist gamers to participate in an Evoke offshoot called Delta Squad, a sort of proxy website for sharing data on cyber warfare, DIY cryptography, et cetera.

I got my invitation to Delta Force soon thereafter, in the form of a sweet message from Sarah O. Connor, who self-identified as Panamericana’s girlfriend.

Hi Cameron, I’m Sarah, Panamericana’s girlfriend,
I was waiting for you to come back,
we need you in Delta, check my posts to find out
what we are up to.
I think we desperately need a visionary like you,
apparently they broke the mold after people like you.

Of course I  joined up — how flattering! – if nothing else,  to see what this was all about.

I entered the online equivalent of a discomforting trailer, the kind occupied by the token villain in a television cop drama, with hundreds of newspaper articles pasted on the walls with circles around them, demonstrating some self-righteous form of premeditated action. The Argentinians posted pictures: ”Panamericana” claimed to be a former Argentine Air Force special operations pilot, which seemed credible judging from numerous hand-held photos obviously taken from inside a fighter jet cockpit; his girlfriend, “Sarah”, posted pictures in which she and her girlfriends were dressed in sexy revolutionary outfits holding machine guns. Because of the apparent authenticity of the Air Force pictures, I gave the sexy machine gun photos the benefit of the doubt. 

Delta Squad users were posting mostly DIY cryptography manuals and such like, which were probably very interesting, but completely over my head. After a week of this, I posted a comment on their main page saying, “Thanks for the thrills, but you people are weird. I live in an American suburb.” I deleted my account.

Jane McGonigal’s collaboration with the World Bank proceeded thereafter, for a total of 10 weeks; but honestly, from a gamer’s perspective, the innocence was gone. The activists had introduced a radical alien culture to the Edenic bubble of Urgent Evoke. Was I participating in an educational immersion — A Crash Course in Changing the World — or were these missions an unprecedented form of gamer exploitation? Here I was spending thirty hours a week searching for solutions to food shortages in Africa, offering advice to doctoral students and NGO workers writing business plans for new companies to assist in the honorable and dignified pursuit of improved quality of life and sustainability; but I could not shake off the question of how to analyze and evaluate my gaming experience.

This was not the purely fictional World of Warcraft. This was a game about the future of the actual planet, designed by a powerful institution. This was a game that explicitly told you: “This is not a game.” Was the World Bank providing global citizens an opportunity to anticipate global food shortages, infrastructure meltdowns, and other terrible outcomes?Many gamers were paying by the hour to participate from internet cafes in Africa, where frequent blackouts are the norm. Was this the future the World Bank was offering?

As time went on — week 7, week 8, finally week 10 – many of the gamers who invested the most energy in Urgent Evoke began venting their frustrations. I recall one gentleman from rural India in particular who claimed to have spent 50 hours a week researching local solution options, blogging, networking, and communicating with moderators. He hoped to receive World Bank funding for various initiatives in his village. First off, he paid for internet access by the hour, viewing this as an investment that would produce ample returns, once the World Bank listened. Second, when the game was over, and a few big winners were selected to present their particular business plan to World Bank headquarters, the rest of the gamers were left in the lurch, nothing to show for their efforts but a digital Evoke Certificate  investing the gamer with a credential –  something like Certified World Bank Social Innovator.

For most, this was a major sleight. There was no comprehensive follow up website where gamers could monitor the progress of their solution options, check if their new friends were actually implementing the companies they claimed to be designing, etc. While there was a website where gamers could donate money to fund the ideas of other gamers, donations were just enough to fuel the frustration.

Overall, despite the admirable attempts of perhaps hundreds of programmers, moderators, comic book artists, and staff, the Evoke project did not obtain the magic confluence of forces required to marry the noble desires for positive humanistic outcomes of thousands of highly-invested gamers with a viable sequence of “next best steps” in the present.

Better luck next time, I suppose.

Season 2 of Urgent Evoke took place in the summer of 2011, but this time the gaming context was significantly reduced to educational institutions in 20 countries, precisely to remove the activist culture from creative engagement with Evoke scenarios. While this move makes sense from a World Bank Institute perspective, effectively targeting pre-teens and teenagers, it would appear that the activists made a mark on the history of online gaming for transformative social innovation. Evoke, the first experiment of its kind, will go down in history as a demonstration of the power of small insurgent groups to disrupt large sociotechnical systems, at low cost, with amplified costs to the dominant institution. Panamericana and Sarah Connor forced WBI to reassess its expectations, operations, and project goals.

In a world of accelerated sociotechnical change, with complex adaptive systems out the wazoo, the World Bank’s first experiment in online gaming demonstrates some powerful insights. Chief among them, in my opinion, is the old cybernetic quagmire, as mentioned in the concluding chapter of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock:

There is, in the words of W. Ross Ashby, a brilliant cyberneticist, a mathematically provable law to the effect that ”when a whole system is composed of a number of subsystems, the one that tends to dominate is the one that is the least stable.

 

Komen Backs Down on Planned Parenthood.

From the New York Times:

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation reversed its decision to cut funds for breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood affiliates and apologized, saying the move had cast doubt on its “commitment to our mission of saving women’s lives.”

The announcement came after an avalanche of criticism online from people voicing their dismay on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr about the move. The decision led to hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to Planned Parenthood this week, including a $250,000 donation that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced on Thursday.

It’s not surprising to me that the Komen foundation made some fantastically bad decisions about supporting Planned Parenthood, or that they reversed them after a massive public outcry. What I find interesting is what this says about power and PR in the 21st century. Planned Parenthood has been a continual partisan whipping boy because of their firm stance that a woman has a right to choose, even though abortions are a tiny part of what they do. Komen has been very agressive in promoting their brand-Pink things and sole use of “The Cure”-even if only 20% of their money goes to cancer research.

It’s not easy to distinguish clear trends here, but it seems like the people can tell the difference between organizations that are mostly cattle and mostly hat, to mangle an old Texas-saying (everybody else does it, so why not me?). PR doesn’t count for as much in this media saturated environment, when the loudest and most consistent voices are actually your enemies. But clever organizations can take bad press and move with it, sticking to their guns and winning out in the end. The internet hates hypocrisy and loves an underdog.

I’ve longed believed that only when rhetoric matches reality can people make consistently good decisions. Hopefully, this is a step towards a world with more truth and less ‘truthiness’.

Solving Traffic, One Motorist at a Time

I hate traffic, you hate traffic, we all hate traffic, but we can’t do anything about it because we are traffic. The conventional wisdom, at least, my conventional wisdom on any of my local freeways, is to get out of it by driving as fast as possible, and perhaps that slow drivers should be charged with crimes against humanity. (Yeah, guess where I grew up…) Well, instead of getting mad about it, what if we asked why traffic jams happen? William Beatty applies fluid mechanics to traffic flow, and comes up with some surprising results: Drive at an even speed, maintain at least two car lengths between you and the car ahead of you, and don’t punish people by merging. When he tried this out.

Once upon a time, years ago, I was driving through a number of stop/go traffic waves on I-520 at rush hour in Seattle. I decided to try something. On a day when I immediately started hitting the usual “waves” of stopped traffic, I decided to drive slow. Rather than repeatedly rushing ahead with everyone else, only to come to a halt, I decided to try to drive at the average speed of the traffic. I let a huge gap open up ahead of me, and timed things so I was arriving at the next “stop-wave” just as the last red brake lights were turning off ahead of me. It certainly felt weird to have that huge empty space ahead of me, but I knew I was driving no slower than anyone else. Sometimes I hit it just right and never had to touch the brakes at all, but sometimes I was too fast or slow. There were many “waves” that evening, and this gave me many opportunities to improve my skill as I drove along.

I kept this up for maybe half an hour while approaching the city. Finally I happened to glance at my rearview mirror. There was an interesting sight.

It was dusk, the headlights were on, and I was going down a long hill to the bridges. I had a view of miles of highway behind me. In the other lane I could see maybe five of the traffic stop-waves. But in the lane behind me, for miles, TOTALLY UNIFORM DISTRIBUTION. I hadn’t realized it, but by driving at the average speed, my car had been “eating” traffic waves. Everyone ahead of me was caught in the stop/go cycle, while everyone behind me was forced to go at a nice smooth 35MPH or so. My single tiny car had erased miles and miles of stop-and-go traffic. Just one single “lubricant atom” had a profound effect on the turbulent particle flow within the “tube.”

Wow! Now, this is the kind of experiment I’ll have to repeat next time I’m stuck in rush-hour traffic.

Will Joel Garreau & Jamais Cascio Prevail — Along With The Rest Of Us?

Cyberculture luminary R.U. Sirius has done a great interview with Joel and Jamais about the Prevail Project, and what we’re trying to accomplish. As Joel says, ”Politics, in its most useful incarnation, is the marketplace of ideas. It’s about how we allocate our dreams.

Prevail also hopes to play a role in the emerging political split between those who look at the future and see hope, and those who look at the future and see fear.” The grounding is moving beneath our feat, but flexibility and muddling through has riumphed again and again over false truths and fixed points.

Joel Garreau’s Prevail Project (joined by advocate Jamais Cascio) declares as its slogan a William Faulkner quote: “I decline to accept the end of man” — which, as our many transhumanly-inclined readers will note — now has at least two possible meanings. And yes, they do mean it in both ways. But I’ll let them tell it eloquently in this email based conversation.

Joel Garreau is, among other things, the author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means To Be Human and a former writer and editor for Washington Post.

Jamais Cascio is a noted futurist who has worked on scenario planning for groups like the Global Business Network. In 2003, with Alex Steffen, he co-launched the popular environmental website Worldchanging. In 2009, he released his first book, Hacking the Earth: Understanding the Consequences of Geoengineering.


RU SIRIUS: The “About” section of Prevail seems pretty confident (if that’s the right word) about the rapid evolution of technologies for intelligence increase, life extension, and other far out projections that are still controversial in some circles. Broadly, do you think some of these “transhuman” wet dreams could stall… and would that be a bad thing?

JAMAIS CASCIO: They could and they will. Stall doesn’t mean “never happen,” though; it just means that the developers discover that some problems end up being far harder to solve than they expected. Even getting past a stall doesn’t mean that everything’s become perfect — it’s a peculiar defect of many transingularitarihumanitarians that they often forget that technologies of all kinds remain buggy and flawed long after they have been introduced. There’s no such thing as a straight line to technologically-mediated transcendence.

As for whether it would be a bad thing… it undoubtedly would be for the people beta testing the brain implants who discover that listening to any music in the key of G causes seizures, or those who get the first cellular rejuvenations only to find that they now can’t retain new memories.

But for the rest of us, no, it would not be a bad thing. It would give us more time to consider what we want versus what we need versus what’s possible. It doesn’t mean that we’ll reject the developments (whoever we mean by “we”), but it does give us a chance to have a more reasonable perspective on them.

JOEL GARREAU: In the Prevail Project, we assiduously avoid predictions. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know anyone who does. I am ever mindful of the vacation hotels on the moon I was promised as a youth. This shaped all my work as a Washington Post reporter on the impact of technology on culture, values and society, and as the author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – And What It Means to Be Human.

I have, however, for 20 years found “scenario planning” to be a very powerful way to think systematically, rationally, and rigorously about the future. In fact, Jamais and I met at Global Business Network, the pioneering scenario planning outfit.

Scenario planning starts with the facts on the ground. These today include Moore’s Law, which clearly is abetting exponential increases in the GRIN technologies – the genetics, robotics, information and nano revolutions. It is simply a matter of reporting – not prediction – to note that everything from cognition-enhancing pharmaceuticals to brain implants to flying robots the size of insects either already exist commercially or are well on their way to becoming common in our lives. (For more factual information on where hundreds of technologies actually are located in the pipeline, and how seriously we should take them, I commend to your attention “The Seven Horizons Project” — which is part of The Prevail Project. Join and contribute!)

Using these predetermined facts as a common base, scenario planning evolves hugely different stories about our possible futures. The object is to create strategies for any future we can credibly imagine, and – most important – human organizations that can learn.

I discuss the three scenarios, Heaven, Hell and Prevail in the about section for the project and in my book, Radical Evolution. They are wildly different stories about what the future might hold.

If you were to graph them, Heaven would expect a nice smooth upward curve in which our technologies rapidly compound to conquer pain, suffering, stupidity and death:

Hell – its mirror image – projects an equally inevitable downward curve to the destruction of humanity – or all of life on earth.

But Prevail’s graph would display the kind of belches, loops, reversals and farts of which history is so full:

And The Prevail Project aims to embrace that possibility to humanity’s advantage.

The critical difference between the Prevail Scenario and the Heaven Scenario is humanism – as distinct from technodeterminism.

Heaven and Hell each might make a good summer blockbuster movie, featuring amazing special effects. But they have the same story line: We are in for revolutionary change; there’s not much we can do about it; hang on tight; the end. The Prevail Scenario, if nothing else, has better literary qualities. It is a story of struggle and action and decision. In that way, it is also more faithful to history, which can be read as a remarkably effective paean to the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.

In fact, The Prevail Project aims to make it clear how heroic and profound “muddling through” has been for the human race. Prevail stories ring down through the ages, from the Bible’s Exodus, to Huckleberry Finn, to the British “nation of shopkeepers” prevailing against the Third Reich.

Technodeterminism says that the future is shaped by our creations – by how many transistors we can hook up. The humanism of Prevail boldly asserts (hopes?) that the future will continue to be controlled by how many ornery, cussed, surprising humans can be hooked up in a bottom-up way to throw the Curve a curve. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

The heart of Prevail is: perhaps there are two curves of change, not one. If our technological challenges are heading up on a curve, but our responses are more or less flat (like we’re waiting for House Judiciary to solve our problems), the species is clearly toast. The gap just keeps on getting wider and wider.

But suppose we are seeing an increase almost as rapid in our unexpected, bottom-up, flock-like social adaptations. Then you’d be looking at high-speed human-controlled co-evolution.
There are reasons for guarded optimism about this.

If you looked out at the future of the human race from 1200 A.D., you’d see marauding hordes, and plague, and you’d say, okay, it’s over for this species.

But then in 1450 we developed moveable type and the printing press, and a brand new way widely to share and store our ideas. The results were quite amazing. First we got the Renaissance, and then the Enlightenment – which lead to science itself, and democracy, and now the world we have today in which 1200 A.D. is ancient history in every sense. These transformations are interesting because they were beyond the imagination of any one king or country. They came in a bottom-up way – frequently in opposition to top-down authority, notably the Pope.

You see the bottom-up nature of Prevailing again on 9/11 when the fourth airplane – Flight 93 – never makes it to its target. Why was that? Because the Air Force was so smart? Ah, no. Because the White House was so smart? Hell no. It’s because a few dozen people on board that aircraft – empowered by their air-phone technology – figured out, diagnosed, and cured their society’s ills in about an hour flat. Was it an ideal solution? No – they all died. But it was good enough. They Prevailed.

So the question before us today is whether we are seeing a rapid increase in this sort of bottom-up, flock-like human response to novel challenges. Well, how about eBay? That’s not just the world’s biggest flea market. That’s hundreds of millions of people doing very complicated things without leaders. How about YouTube? It helped swing an American presidential election. How about the Arab Spring? I have no idea what Twitter is good for, but if it flips out dictators, I’m interested.

The Prevail Project is all about helping people eliminate barriers to this sort of rapid increase in adaptive co-evolution to our challenges.

Prevail does not rely on there being glitches in the Curve of technological change. Nor is it predicting them. But should such glitches occur, and should that give humans more time to respond socially to the colossal change we are facing, it’s occurred to us that that wouldn’t necessarily be all bad. At the same time, history offers few examples of the future turning out to be a nice smooth projection from the present – at least at any scale recognizable by people raising kids and trying to plan for retirement. (That’s why we are so often surprised.)

RU: I read and really enjoyed Joel’s book Radical Evolution a few years back in which he (you) laid out those three possible futures — Hell, Heaven and Prevail. For my readers, could you say a little bit about those scenarios and I wonder if you both believe that there’s a solid boundary between them, other than a perceptual one.

JG: For transhumanists – and the rest of the species — we hope The Prevail Project opens up a whole new vista for action and involvement in helping shape the evolution of human nature. Towards this end, we are recruiting volunteer myth makers, authors, moderators, virality mavens and video curators. To apply, please contact us at prevailproject@asu.edu, telling us about yourself.

Prevail is not about the technology – the boys and their toys. It’s about the humans. It’s about us taking control of our own futures, and those of our kids – not contritely accepting those shaped by our creations.

As we say in the “About” area of The Prevail Project’s web site:

“The critical issue, of course, is not technology, but where all this takes society. How does it change what it means to be human for us and our kids?

“There are three scenarios: Heaven – in which our inventions conquer pain, suffering, stupidity, ignorance, and even death. Hell – in which our creations wipe out the human race or all of life on earth within a generation. And Prevail – which argues that these first two scenarios are technodeterministic.

“In the Prevail Scenario, what really matters – as always – is not how many transistors we get to talk to each other, but how many ornery, imaginative, unpredictable human beings we can bring together to arrive at surprising ways to co-evolve with our challenges. Because only in this bottom-up way will humans really control their destinies, rather than have them controlled by our creations.”

We are not predicting that the Prevail Scenario is the one that will happen. All three scenarios are credible. But as humanists, Prevail is the one we are rooting for, and the one we aim to revolutionarily encourage. As we say:

“The Prevail Project aims to be the worldwide clearinghouse for humanistic response to rapid technological change. Its goal is to accelerate bottom-up, enlightened triumph in the face of exponential challenges the way the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency accelerates technology. Its core hope is that in the face of unprecedented transformation, humans will continue to prevail, shaping their own futures, toward their own ends, rather than being the pawns of their explosively powerful technologies. For the only enduring advantage is to learn faster than the competition. And the best way to anticipate the future is to invent it yourself.”

JC: Fortunately, it looks like Joel & I are more-or-less on the same page on the big issues.

It comes down to humanism.

One bit of snark I’ve used before is that transhumanists focus too much on the “trans” and not enough on the “humanist.” As I said earlier, I’m more adamant in my anti-Singularitarianism than in my anti-Transhumanism, but in both cases it’s not because I reject the notion that our technologies are changing rapidly. It’s because I firmly believe that it’s not a one-way process. Technologies change us, but we change the technologies, too. Technology is not an external force emerging from the very fabric of the universe (and, as you know, there are some Singularitypes out there who seriously believe that Moore’s Law is woven into the laws of nature); our technologies (plural, lower-case T) are cultural constructs. They are artifacts of our minds, our norms and values, our societies.

Our tools do not make us who we are. We make tools because of who we are.

RU: Since my audience is largely transhumanism-oriented, I read this as pro-transhumanist but anti-singularitarianism. Would that be broadly accurate?

JG: That’s more broad than it is accurate, but there are elements of truth to it.

As we all know, there are many flavors of transhumanism, some of which I’m more comfortable with than others. I find Nick Bostrom and Jay Hughes to be very thoughtful. But many forms of transhumanism – and I guess just about all versions of singularitarianism – exhibit belief in the power of prediction, linear projection, and technodeterminism that I find eyebrow-raising. I’m also disturbed by any cult-like manifestations.

Having said that, we treat everybody who is thinking hard about the future of human nature with respect and attention – including the bioconservatives (even if one might wish that they had more solutions to our predicament than standing in the road yelling “Stop!”).

As I write in the “Transcend” chapter of Radical Evolution:

“I do not wish to be cast as an opponent or a debunker of the social critics of technology. I hope I have presented them and their scenarios fairly. Readers should examine their arguments carefully. They offer important reasoning regarding the cautions we should consider. I wish we’d had such an informed discussion before we embraced nuclear power. It
could well have benefited everybody—including the electricity industry.

“In the absence of an attractive alternative, however, I elect to light out for the Territory in the words of Huckleberry Finn. I choose to examine the possibility that human nature might continue to evolve and be improvable, and to consider what transformation might actually look like and what it might mean. ‘What is a man? A seed? An acorn unafraid to destroy itself in growing into a tree?’ asks David Zindell in The Broken God.

“Exploring the Transcend hypothesis adds specificity, measurements and means to the goal of controlling our evolution in the fashion of The Prevail Scenario. At the very least it casts light on our current age by causing us to wonder about our present definitions of human nature and evolution and the meaning of transcendence.”

JC: While my views parallel many of the perspectives of the transhumanist/H+ subcultures, I strongly reject the notion that what’s going on is inherently distancing from humanity. I reallydislike the term “transhuman.” I find it unnecessarily divisive and self-congratulatory. A movement that sees itself as transcending humanity is culturally far more likely to bring about the backlash and paranoia embodied by (e.g.) Fukuyama than would any biological difference.

And as you know, I’m on the record as being rather skeptical of the traditional singularity story.

In short, the standard singularity idiom is anti-social, focusing exclusively on technological developments without regard to where they come from or how they’re used (and, as noted, with little appreciation of the inherent challenges of developing and deploying these kinds of technologies). But adding people to the mix — adding cultural biases, and social norms, and ethical quandaries — changes the scenario fundamentally.

That’s what attracted me to the Prevail project: it recognizes that technological change is a social phenomenon, first and foremost.


RU: Is there an implicit or explicit politics to this?

JC: There is for me; I can’t speak for Joel.

By politics, I don’t mean in a partisan/party sense; I mean it in the political science sense, the way in which power is distributed across a social system. The key ethical question, for me, is how much say do we all have in the development and deployment of disruptive technologies, both before and after the fact. Narratives that put these decisions solely into the hands of a narrow priesthood are, for me, highly suspect, especially given the physical and economic power some of these technologies would allow.

How we describe and define these technological developments is very much a political concern.

JG: Oh hell yes. I mean, we have no more time for Washington politics-as-usual than anyone else. But politics, in its most useful incarnation, is the marketplace of ideas. It’s about how we allocate our dreams. Prevail also hopes to play a role in the emerging political split between those who look at the future and see hope, and those who look at the future and see fear. After all, The Prevail Project wants to save the human race. I mean, somebody’s got to do it, right? ; -)

RU: “The Protester” has been named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In some ways, it seems like the attention this year has been less on what role technology will play in the society of the near future and more on how we govern and distribute wealth. What role does mass dissatisfaction and disaffection around the world play in the Prevail view?

JG: It’s a cliché, but still true: it’s hard to imagine how Occupy or the Arab Spring or now the Russian convulsion would have happened without emerging technologies. Social technologies were not a cause. But they certainly were enablers. And that’s what Prevail is trying to harness.

The underpinning assumption of Prevail seems self-evident: the ground is moving beneath our feet, socially, economically, and politically. Extraordinary change is being created in no small part by the continued exponential rise in destabilizing enabling technologies. Jobs and companies wink out and pop up elsewhere in a heartbeat. When our college students were born, who knew what a “webmaster” might be? Now the question is, how do we handle this upheaval?

Any sensible primate, when the ground moves beneath his or her feet, will look for something solid to hang on to. I think that’s a big reason for the success of demagogues with simple messages that purport to explain everything, whether or not they line up with the facts.

You can decry the followers of these firebrands all you want, but the real way to challenge them, I think, is to come up with superior narratives. So I find Occupy interesting because it’s success is precisely that. They’ve come up with a narrative (“the 99 percent”) that has changed the conversation quite sweepingly. I hope Prevail systematically helps to eliminate barriers to the creation of similar superior narratives. In fact, it’s occurred to me to wonder whether we need a myth-making corps. Lord knows we have enough underemployed story tellers.

JC: Joel writes, “When our college students were born, who knew what a ‘webmaster’ might be.”

In a way, this question offers an illustration of the very phenomenon we’re talking about: in my experience, the notion of a “webmaster” as a distinct occupation is fading into the Trash Icon of History. Some of those duties have been split among several more focused roles (editor, tech, experience designer, etc.), but much of the work of a “webmaster” has been automated through powerful tools and smart algorithms. So, yes, when the current crop of college sophomores was born, the concept of a webmaster hadn’t yet crystallized (I first heard the term in 1994, I think); but when said sophomores get out of grad school (assuming a nice respectable 2-year Master’s degree), the notion of a webmaster will likely sound as archaic as “travel agent.” As Joel says, the ground is moving beneath our feet.

As much as my sympathies lie with the Occupiers and Arab Springers, I can’t help but worry about the accelerated myth-making enabled by distributed, democratized social technology. Social technology a promiscuous tool, and won’t be limited to freedom-loving, big-bank-hating hippies. We should remember that the Rwandan massacres of the mid-1990s were enabled in part by the spread of small radio stations, microbroadcasters spreading false rumors and encouraging violence – and the myths that were made had bloody results. I once asked in a talk what the “hashtag for genocide” might be; I suspect we’ll find out soon enough.

Which is all a round-about way of answering your question. I think what Joel is saying (and certainly what I am saying) is that just because the explicit topic of conversation isn’t about the impacts of some tools we’re calling “technology” doesn’t mean that the tools aren’t important. Technology isn’t a separate phenomenon, it’s a cultural artifact (literally and figuratively), and frankly I think we’ll get a better perspective on the repercussions of various technological developments when we focus on the people and not the toys.

RU: I’m wondering if Joel shares Jamais’ view that their isn’t some kind of intrinsic patterning in nature that is reified in the evolution of technology (if I’m understanding that correctly) and what you (Jamais and/or Joel) think are the flaws in ideas like those presented in Kevin Kelly’s theory of a “technium”?

JG: I think Kevin has written an incredible, impressive, tour de force scenario. Kevin, of course, is presenting it as, at the very least, a hardcore prediction, if not a law of nature. And he’s done an amazing job. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to test this hypothesis empirically. Nor do I know how to translate it into a strategy. (Other than “Relax, everything’s cool.”) Of course, the fault may lie in my notoriously limited brain, and if others can help me to a superior understanding, I am open.

In some ways I read What Technology Wants as a very rich and textured version of a Heaven scenario. If I’m reading him correctly, and if he’s right, I guess I should chill because the future doesn’t require human effort or intervention.

JC: And that’s a concept that terrifies me, really – I think we’re far more likely to end up in a scenario that we really don’t want if we abandon human agency in the evolution of these technologies. I don’t trust a “relax, everything’s cool” scenario – it’s too easily co-opted by those with ill intent.

My earlier comment, by the way, was less about Kevin Kelly’s idea than about a crude articulation I’ve heard from hardcore Singularitarians, that something akin to Moore’s Law (regular doubling of information-processing power) is actually part of the structure of reality. If that’s true – and I’m reasonably certain it’s not – then to me it would be definitive evidence that we’re living in one of the ultra-advanced history simulations that Nick Bostrom talks about, and not a very good one at that. An underlying doubling of information power hard-coded into the rules of the universe is such a lazy programmer’s trick.

(Looking at my last two comments, I realize that I sound like I’m hiding in my bunker, frightened of my own digital shadows. I’m not – I’m actually pretty optimistic about how these tools will be used. I’m just especially sensitive to their potential drawbacks. Honestly, I have never needed anti-anxiety medication. I’ll plead the fifth on anti-depressants, however.)

RU: I noticed Jaron Lanier is an important reference point on your website. My sense from reading You Are Not The Gadget is that Jaron is suspicious of what we might call extreme democratization, crowdsourcing, “free” culture and so on. I wonder what your respective takes on this might be.

JG: I think you should ask Jaron this question. But my read of Jaron is that he’s all about smashing anything that would diminish what it means to be human. Which I wildly applaud. His critique of “extreme democratization,” as I understand it, is that it can be a tyranny against the individual. And he hates it. Don’t know how I’d argue against that. Again, if I misunderstand, I am open to enlightenment.

JC: I have an admittedly cynical perspective on this, since I asked both Jaron and (in a separate conversation) Bill Joy about the role of open-source/distributed-democratized technosocial movements, and each responded with immediate and vitriolic dismissal of open-source code as crudely derivative of the real work done on real Unix back in the 70s and 80s, work that they both were involved with to varying degrees. Like I said, I’m a bit cynical.

So let’s set that aside – if we read Jaron simply as saying that mass democratization is not inherently good, I’m right there with him, as my previous comments would illustrate. It’s very possible for mass movements to be dangerous and dehumanizing. It’s uncomfortably easy, in fact.
But here’s the twist: while democratization isn’t inherently good (or inherently evil), I believe that any good future will inherently be democratic. So just pushing for more participation, more decentralization, without paying close attention to how that decentralized participation actually manifests won’t necessarily lead us to the Prevail scenario. But dismissing participation, decentralization, and democratization as dangerous and/or irrelevant guaranteeswe won’t get the Prevail scenario.

RU: What do you think are some likely activities of a prevail movement in the near future?

JC: Near future work for Prevail movements (as there will be multiple versions, I suspect) will probably focus on getting broad expertise, becoming deep generalists. Learning a lot about a lot of things, and – just as important – getting a real understanding of how they are connected. I use both “deep” and “generalist” intentionally. The Prevail scenario is intrinsically adaptive, but what nature shows us is that the species that adapt best to radically changing environments are the generalists. But most generalists are shallow, living on the peripheries of more specialized ecosystems.

This dichotomy, unfortunately, requires me go off on a tangent (one that I explored in more detail earlier this year. My apologies.

Bioscientists think a lot about adaptation, and have developed a language to talk about different approaches. They refer to the kinds of species that reproduce quickly, fill any and all available ecological niches, and do whatever they can to hang on during big disruptions as having an “r” reproductive strategy. The rest of us tend to refer to those kinds of species as “pests,” because the best examples are things like rats and weeds. Not the ideal model for a Prevail movement.

Those species that optimize for a stable environment, usually with much energy (and, where appropriate, attention) devoted to protecting limited numbers of offspring, rely instead on a “K” strategy. K strategists flourish in stable systems. But in periods of great environmental upheaval, K species adapt slowly, and are often the first ones to die off. Also not an ideal model for Prevail.

So r means rapid iteration and diversification – along with a willingness to abandon failed experiments; K means optimization and environmental integration – and significant complexity. A Prevail model – call it P – would combine the two, using iteration in service of complexity, diversity as a means of dynamic integration into a changing environment. It would be a “Deep Generalist” strategy. It would take finesse, almost supernatural awareness of impacts and implications, and quite a bit of creativity. It would require us to think ahead, being ready to adapt when necessary, building long-lasting systems when possible.

How to do all that? Um. Well. I’ll get back to you.

JG: Damn I wish I knew in any detail what creative and adaptive co-evolution will look like. It would make life so much simpler. But I’m afraid I’m in the position of the French revolutionary who said “There go the people; I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

The warp-speed increase in flocks of change-makers that Prevail aspires to help enable represents a serious realignment of human affairs. Leaders may determine an overall goal, but participants at the lowest possible level—who are constantly innovating—create the actual execution on the fly. They respond to changing situations without requesting or requiring permission. In some cases, even the goal is determined collaboratively and nonhierarchically.

Sounds Prevailish to me.

The Institute for Ethical Magic

When the idea for creating The Prevail Project first formed, I wondered if I could get away with calling it “The Institute for Ethical Magic.”

As my daughters were growing up in the 1990s, I was struck by how, in their lives, the most magical change seemed utterly routine. First – abracadabra! – came the Internet and then the World Wide Web. Suddenly unseen wizards conjured up cell phones the size of candy bars, palm computers smaller than paperbacks, and music players not much bigger than credit cards.

These, I realized, were all end-of-century echoes of my Baby Boomer youth and its transformative television, birth control and travel to the moon.
So I found myself looking for the muse of my daughters’ generation, for its Bob Dylan – the seer who would announce to this new generation that “the times they are a-changin.’ ” I expected some Brazilian troubadour to rocket to the top of the charts, spread worldwide by the Web without benefit of any retrograde music industry. Finally it occurred to me that the prophet of their era – the One who would speak of new realities that elders fail to grasp and offer a moral code in the face of lightning change – was here already, in hundreds of millions of books translated into more than 60 languages and carefully tucked away in bedrooms all over the globe: It’s Harry Potter, modern Magus, harbinger of today’s cultural revolution.

All you have to do is look back, as I recounted in The Washington Post a few years ago. The sorcery of the ‘90s was touted as the biggest thing since the printing press, perhaps the biggest thing since fire. It turned a walk through a dark house in the middle of the night into an easy navigation. Tiny lights marked the way in festive red or green, winking from microwaves and clocks, phones and televisions, music players and laptops, smoke detectors and docking stations. Each signaled a step toward the place where my daughters sat, surrounded by more computers than light bulbs.

Yet the decade otherwise was a snooze. The headlines spoke of little save peace, prosperity and Monica. It was the calmest era our society had seen since the golf-playing, kitchen-apron and board-game years of the Eisenhower administration – which of course were followed by the civilization-shaking ‘60s of which Dylan sang.
Perhaps that’s just the way history works. Culture and values change more slowly than innovation. Thus, when upheaval finally does occur, it is of seismic proportions. In the Renaissance, the big deal was not telescopes; it was about realizing that the Earth is a minor planet orbiting an unexceptional star in an unfashionable part of the universe.

Similarly, in the last 10 years the ground has been moving beneath our feet economically, politically, and socially. Flying robots that were science fiction 15 years ago are now at the center of our wars. Industries and jobs wink out and new ones magically appear – when our college students were born, who knew what a “web master” might someday be?

Now we’re aiming inward. We’ve been transforming all creation through genetics, robotics and nanotechnology. The means actually exist in the labs for mind-to-mind communication, via computer. What will the aging – or for that matter the young – do when soon offered memory enhancers, much less immortality? This is about what happens as we perform magic with the most fundamental aspects of our identity.

Today’s young are processing these revolutionary times through their Dylan, the ringing anthem that is the story of Harry Potter. How else do we explain the way those books resonate, how they became the fastest-selling books in history?

My daughters have used magic wands all their lives, raising and lowering the volume on the story boxes that they watch, rapidly switching among narratives. Each day, we wake up in a world that will have changed by sundown. We have absorbed the wisdom of the author Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Harry Potter addresses the question that we encounter as we face such unprecedented change. It is the moral use of our powers. As the anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson says, “Who teaches what’s right is an issue in politics, it’s an issue in religion, it’s an issue in business.”

Hogwarts, the school of witchcraft and wizardry that Harry and his cohort attend, cannot ensure that people will use their powers wisely, responsibly and for the common good. According to the literary critic Alan Jacobs writing in the journal First Things, the educational quandary for the school’s revered headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, “is how to train students not just in the ‘technology’ of magic, but also in the moral discernment necessary to avoid the continual reproduction of the few great Dark Lords like Voldemort and their multitudinous followers.”

Indeed, Harry is tortured by the Sorting Hat – which searches the souls of incoming students to determine in which house or faction they belong – and why it takes so long to group him with the brave and true of Gryffindor, rather than putting him in Slytherin among the careerists, the manipulators, the power-hungry and the just plain nasty, where he could achieve institutional prominence.

“ ‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin.’ ‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different’ ” from the supremely evil Voldemort who threatens all of civilization. “ ‘It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.’ Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned.”

Harry realizes for the first time, according to Jacobs, that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start. He has been asking the question “Who am I at heart?” when he needed to be asking the question “What should I do in order to become what I should be?”

The technologies we are developing offer powers exponentially greater than those of Dumbledore and Voldemort. Yet through these books, the young have learned very old lessons about love and community and how to be human in the face of overwhelming magic. By providing a means of coping with the inexplicable and magical, the Harry Potter books provide a code for coping with real life. The young recognize their own technological age in this magical place.

What they absorb most of all is character – the humanity that overcomes the mysterious. The pivot of the entire series comes in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” when Harry’s acute friend Hermione tells him that the time has come for them to seize the day, defending against the dark arts directly:

“ ‘It’s about preparing ourselves . . . for what’s out there,’ ” she says. “ ‘We’ve gone past the stage where we can just learn things out of books. . . . We need a teacher, a proper one, who can show us.’

“ ‘Who then?’ said Harry, frowning at her.

“ ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ she said. ‘I’m talking about you, Harry.’ ”

This is exactly why I think Harry Potter is the same kind of early-warning agent as was the young Bob Dylan. Granted, the new Magus is not holding a guitar. He is a character in that ancient technology, the book. Nonetheless, Harry is the herald who offers a moral code in times of great upheaval. He is the prophet and precursor of a new generation.

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is
Rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.

At the distinguished university that hosts our organization, when it came to naming it, cooler heads prevailed. Our effort is formally known as “The Prevail Project: Wise Governance for Challenging Futures.”

Nonetheless, the spirit of “The Institute for Ethical Magic” lives.

The question is still what we should do with our powers – “What should I do to become what I should be?” But now we have the magic by which to connect preposterously large numbers of people – hundreds of thousands, millions, in a bottom-up, flock-like way – to help us search for these “should” answers. Right here. Right now.

Prevail’s faith is that – even in the face of unprecedented threats – the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor will wend its way to glory. It puts a shocking premium on Faulkner’s hope that man will prevail “because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

The mean-spirited may say Prevail expects a very large miracle. The more sympathetic may say it expects many millions of small miracles.

Almost like magic.

A few good people

The Prevail Project is looking for a few good people to accelerate the impact of this organization.
Moderators: People who can spark conversations in our groups with their own postings, as well as welcoming new members to the site, guiding them to groups they may be interested in, and encouraging them to join conversations.
Video editors and curators: People interested in scouring the net for videos and graphics that capture the spirit of Prevailing.
Virality mavens: You have connections? We want to link up to your network to help the Prevail Project go viral.
Authors: Those interested in contributing “featured posts” to the site.

To apply, please contact us at prevailproject@asu.edu., with a brief description of your qualifications and how you want to help.

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