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Why Decline to Accept the End of Man?

There are at least two clearly distinct ways of interpreting the word “end” in William Faulkner’s statement “I decline to accept the end of man.”

“End” could mean something like the downfall, obsolescence, or ruin of man. This would certainly be something worth rejecting.

Alternatively, “end” could be interpreted as a teleological projection of the developmental trajectory of mankind. In this far more interesting frame, Faulkner could be declining to accept the limitations of our cultural imagination.

It is this second sense of “the end of man” that I find so fascinating. Today one can find immensely variegated projections of mankind’s proper role on the planet.

Environmental indicators have produced a growing awareness that the modernist view of man’s end being conquest of nature and cessation of strife took precedence over the ethical aspiration to be good stewards of nature, leading western civilization to ignore the ecological impacts of its machinations.

Many civil society groups and religious organizations are beginning to speak out about the dangers of emerging technologies such as synthetic biology, arguing in effect that care must be taken to counteract mankind’s tendency to irreversibly alter the natural order through forms of ethical transgression. Often these groups would like to confine scientific experimentation to the laboratory. However, the logistical needs of an increasing human population combined with economic incentives provide an impetus to bring successful experiments beyond the laboratory, into the marketplace, into earth’s ecosystems.

Varieties of transhumanists, Singularitarians, posthumanists and others are beginning to gain attention with arguments that the end of man lay in some form of technology-enabled transcendence of the limitations of evolutionary biology. Developments in the GRIN technologies — genetics, robotics, information technology, nanotechnology — contribute a sense of urgency to such questions.

I could go on, discussing the competing values and visions of mankind’s “end” at work in thousands of unique cultural milieus, from the Horn of Africa to Taiwan and Teleuse.

It is the Prevail Project’s desire to build capacity for hosting the global conversation about the end of man. There are many reasons for declining to accept the end of man. If mankind is to thrive, overcome, and indeed continue, whither culture? Whither the body? What can be expected of man?

In developing a clear view of our ambition to become a digital clearinghouse for this capacity building, The Prevail Project has been forced to face its own contemporary limitations, from resource scarcity to the practical difficulties of developing a solid network of visionary content contributors. We are working to address these limitations in hopes of returning anew in the near future.

The Prevail Project lives.

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.

Technological Determinism, Human Decisions

We’ve all heard the stories of inevitability: more and more transistors per square centimeter, with momentous leaps to new computing hardware whenever material capacity reaches its limit. While massively parallel, one-to-many molecular computation hardwares are certainly in the works, we should keep in mind that what looks like technological determinism from the outside is constituted by human decisions. What we call the Heaven Scenario — in which machine intelligence takes over the entire innovation process, designing super-intelligence without need of human intervention, transforming human bodies and cultures, spreading super-intelligence throughout the universe at 10 to the 90 computations per second — merely seeks pre-Heaven historical vectors, as it were. According to this narrative, all of us today are embedded within the pre-history of a cosmic Transcension. But what about this pre-history?

What if we traveled to today’s laboratories and spoke directly with the architects of each incremental advance in computer hardware, each conceptual leap on the road to Heaven? Would we be astounded by the range of plausible courses available to mankind even within this powerful narrative? Perhaps this is part of the allure of the Heaven Scenario: no one knows quite specifically how we’ll get there. We know there is a tremendous privilege afforded by the unforgiving universe and our own evolutionary endowments. In short, nothing seems to be stopping us beyond the accidents of our own history: technological lock-in, material bottlenecks, uncertainty, ignorance.

As the scholar of foresight methodologies Cynthia Selin has noted, intervening in people’s vision of the future actually intervenes in the future. In this sense the Heaven Scenario functions to alert growing numbers of people to the plausibility of a remarkable societal and cosmic modification sequence. This is the self-fulfilling prophesy aspect of Heaven: the future may hinge upon being predicted in the first place.

While claims of plausibility often merge with claims of inevitability, the Heaven Scenario is no mere hype-driven rhetorical effort to produce an outcome. If I may go Foucaldian for a moment: major steps toward the technical hardware of Transcension and Singularity are an ongoing production of real-life scientist’s and engineer’s who demonstrate an uncommon spirituality: “the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself [or herself] in order to have access to the truth.” (as quoted in Paul Rabinow, 2011, The Accompaniment) Here “the truth” is a result of engaging, critiquing, and transforming inherited techniques, from textbook explanations of how things work to the instruments used to make things happen. In other words, the Heaven Scenario entails harrowing human encounters with the (human) universe.

This is easy to overlook, or treat superficially. In the face of tremendous cultural conditioning, the Heaven Scenario requires genuine insights and personal sacrifice, in millions and millions of variations. In the process, forms of cultural conditioning do not disappear suddenly in the light of Transcension. Rather, there is ever the chaos of mutual adjustments, with technical breakthroughs struggling for uptake amidst the violence of the ordinary market. Even if accidental insight or an unprovoked “Eureka!” spawns key innovations, Heaven hinges on human decisions.

This is where the Prevail Project situates its encounter with the contemporary pre-history of Heaven. We don’t just ask ornery rhetorical questions of this discourse, questions designed to dismiss the narrative’s allure such as “The Gospel according to Who?!” Rather, we consider the present moment a kind of Singularity of singularities. In the scientist, engineer, and mathematician’s spiritual quest for the truth — so to speak — we take up the call of William Faulkner to offer them a rendering of man’s lifted heart. Without man Heaven is unbelievable for this world. Thus, on man’s heart hinges the character and feeling of any Heaven that might arise. In pursuit of a discussion of these themes, and with an awareness that the Heaven, Hell, and Prevail scenarios each hinge upon present human practices, we at the Prevail Project invite participation from all walks. We’re looking for eye contact and a venue. In the months to come we will be developing strategies toward this end. Please keep posted.

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For more perspectives on transhumanism from humanistic perspectives, check out these podcasts and consider this new book.

Drone Swarm

They’re everywhere! Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have done some amazing work with formation flying drones (make sure to check out the obstacle avoidance at the end).

Smarter flying robots are going to be a vital part of the future. They’re getting cheaper and more capable every day, and not everybody needs a multi-million dollar intercontinental spy to take out terrorists. The founders of the Genocide Intervention Network suggest that drones could be used by activists to record and prevent crimes against humanity and the environment. The Guardian reports that the UK drone industry is lobbying for special airspaces and colors to designate drones serving in the public interest. And futurist and security expert John Robb has been running a great series on how swarming drones are unstoppable by any weapon other than more drone swarm,s and that drones represent a new tool for diplomatic policy, “comply or die.”

What’s in store for the future of drones? I don’t know, but for politicians, police, and the paparazzi, drones are just too useful to give up. Keep watching the skies!

Book Review: The Art of the Long View

I’ve been calling myself a futurist for the past five years, and for five years, I’ve been lying. But no longer, because I’ve read this book, which is every bit as a thought-provoking as Science Fiction for Prototyping proved disappointing. Peter Schwartz is one of the founders of the Global Business Network consulting firm, and honed his skills designing scenarios for Shell Oil in the 1980s. His scenario planning techniques underpin the Prevail Project. In The Art of the Long View, he makes a strong case for the utility of scenario planning, explains how to develop a proper futurist mindset, and how to create your own scenarios.

Scenario planning is not predicting the future. Rather, it is about challenging the official future, and the assumptions that underlie it. Scenarios force you to examine your unspoken beliefs and values, the evidence supporting them, and how you might react in the future. An organization that includes scenario planning in its process is better able to react to rapidly changing conditions, and less likely to be rendered slowly obsolete through technological change.

Scenario planning is inherently interdisciplinary. A scenario plan has to include technological, economic, cultural, and political factors, as well as individual psychology. Broad areas of knowledge rather than deep and narrow research is better suited at picking up on trends. The ideas and forces that most powerfully influence the future originate on the margins of society, among the dispossessed, the utopian, or the just plain weird. Finally, Schwartz includes a detailed, 8 stage guide to using scenarios in your own organization, with a good balance of theories and examples. Perhaps the ultimate success of scenario planning is that it creates a shared language to talk about the future.

Scenario planning might not be about predicting the future, but a futurist who makes no predictions isn’t very useful. The book was published in 1991, and some parts feel oddly anachronistic, like the Japanophilia, the groping towards a ‘digital global teenager’, and the absence of the War on Terror. On the other hand, he offers three scenarios for the world in 2005: New Empires focused on regional militarism, Market World with multicultural entrepreneurialism, and Change Without Progress, where the wealthy hollow out states, and fear of losing what little remains prevents successful action. Change Without Progress is strikingly similar to the world today, with our 1%ers and 99%ers, paralyzed multinational bodies, and collapsing infrastructure.

Scenario planning is not a strict methodology that automatically produces valid results, it’s an attitude towards the future that is based on broad understandings of historical forces and skepticism about the status quo. The results will vary on the quality of the questions you can ask, the data available, and the conversation you foster. But as far as crystal balls go, scenario planning is one of the best.

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.

A Year In Prevail

What a year it’s been! Starting with the little things, the Prevail Project itself has been active for about a year, running in stealth mode for most of that time. But we launched (and I invite you to check out our amazing featured guest posts). But anything that we’ve done is small potatoes compared to the changes that happened in the world.

A year ago, professional intelligence analysts thought that Belgium was more likely to experience political turmoil than Egypt. Then the Arab Spring happened, and ordinary people rose up and overthrew governments across the region. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, dictators fell like dominoes. In Bahrain, protesters were crushed with overwhelming force, and in Syria the battle rages on. Just compare Foreign Policy’s top 100 global thinkers in 2011 and 2009, and you can see the kind of change that nobody foresaw. The Arab Spring was echoed by protests worldwide, most notably the Occupy movement in the United States, anti-austerity riots in Greece, and the first mass protests in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is the kind of people power that hasn’t been seen since 1968, and possible even since 1848, years which shook the old order.

If networks and bottom-up ideas had a banner year in 2011, centralized institutions managed not to fall apart completely. Congress’s brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling dropped America’s credit rating from AAA to AA, not that financial markets have appeared to notice. The European Union could’t come to a decision on the Greek debt crisis, casting the very future of the EU into doubt. And in Durban, the IPCC agreed to come to an agreement about global carbon emissions in 2015, with binding limits coming into effect in 2020. It’s been a lousy year for experts and elites, and if you know of any centralized decision-making bodies that haven’t made complete fools of themselves recently, I’d love to hear about them.

The only group that came out worse than experts were authoritarian leaders. Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt were forced out of office by popular revolutions. Qaddafi was shot by rebel forces. Kim Jong Il died. And after 3 terms, Silvo Berluscion was forced to resign under a cloud of corruption and scandal. If I were a colorful authoritarian leader, I’d be watching my back.

As for what happens next in the world, who knows? The Arab Spring could quite possibly lead to another round of dictators or theocrats. Some vital cog in the global economic system could come undone, with catastrophic results. But personally, I’m hopefully. The refrain of the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe, whether economic wizards or brutal dictators, has always been “There is no alternative.” If there’s one lesson that we’ve learned from 2011, it’s that there are lots of alternatives. 2011 was a year to dream and deconstruct. 2012 will be a year to learn and grow.

Whatever happens, we’re living in interesting times. And the Prevail Project is here to nurture a human future.

On the occasion of the end of the war in Iraq

By Dr. Richard O’Meara

On December 15, 2011, the last US flag was cased and the War in Iraq was declared over. It is well to remember that since the end of WWII, wars have ended without much fanfare and with a great deal of ambiguity regarding what the idea of victory means. Korea is still in a military truce, Vietnam is now one of America’s largest trading partners, the Gulf War ended in a truce as well, setting up the conditions for a second conflict. Change is inevitable yet the definition of what victory is remains elusive. Those who serve us in ambiguous times are worthy of considerable respect; they constantly show up and do the work even as the rest of us sit idly by. Kudos Iraqi veterans and thank you for your service!

…click here to read more

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