Archives for The Art of the Long View

Can Egypt Happen in the US?

Umair Haque at the Harvard Business Review offers a grim appraisal of current society, and our future. The mechanisms of the economy that used to support growth now work towards a singular purpose; the transfer of wealth to an increasingly smaller and smaller segment of the population.


And for far too many people, yesterday’s economic institutions are literally not delivering the goods. Yes, the tools of capitalism have lifted entire nations out of poverty. But for decades, real prosperity has been flat. Now, at a macroeconomic level, our current economic institutions simply transfer prosperity upwards, to the richest 10% –> 1% –> 0.1% –> 0.01% and so on. This is what I call a global “ponziconomy” — a titanic, gleaming whirling, wealth transfer machine.

Youth unemployment hovers between 25% and 50% in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and across the Middle East, and has been pointed to as one cause of the revolution. But wait, the numbers aren’t much better for the US, or Western Europe, while in China the “Ant Tribe” of unemployed college graduates threatens stability. On a global scale, the workplace no longer has meaningful jobs to offer.

A problem can’t be solved within the context of the system that created it. Economic problems are the product of political, cultural, and technological systems. But as wealth is funneled ever upwards, people feel less and less connected to the political system, to the ruling elites, possibly even to each other. The sense of pessimism and defeat that has overtaken America is linked to a system that fails to reward success, and arbitrary punishes bad luck, in the form of poor investments, or health problems, or simple accidents, with immediate and permanent poverty. Outrage across the Left and Right is driven by a sense that the system is rigged, that winnings privatized and losses socialized, and that whatever color the politicians are, they’re working for the same elites.

Now, I don’t think Americans will take to the streets to oust their government. The challenge of the democratic, developed world is a quieter rebellion: against a bankruptcy not just of the pocketbook, but of meaning. It’s not to take a stand against a dictator, but to take a stand against an unenlightened, nihilistic, hyperconsumerist, soul-suckingly unfulfilling, lethally short-termist ethos that inflicts real and relentless damage on people, society, the natural world, and future generations.

If we want to deliver the goods — enduring, meaningful stuff that engenders real prosperity — we’re probably going to have start with delivering them to one another. Our untrammeled path back to prosperity — should we choose to blaze it — is millions of personal revolutions made up of billions of tiny choices that reclaim our humanity from the heartless merchants of indifference, fear, anger, and vanity.

Some say it’s impossible. Me? I believe that in a world of bogus prosperity, what’s impossible is for the status quo to stand.

I agree. We’re not going to revolt, only the lunatic fringe has so little to lose as to risk violence. But more and more often, we’ll see people opt out, and fall into alternative economies. Meaning is not like cash, it can’t be carried and exchanged freely, but its the only path to real personal fulfillment. But if we’re going to Prevail, it will take more than dropping out, it will take building alternative economies that support a material standard of life commensurate with human dignity, and consist of activities that we find intrinsically meaningful. Currently, our system does too much of the first and too little of the latter, but we should be careful to find a balance, and not fall all the way through into true poverty.

Humanity’s Quest for Immortality

One of humanity’s oldest impulses has been to conquer death. From Egyptian mummification to the Christian heaven, the idea that some way, through material or spiritual works, we can transcend the mortal coil and live forever is highly seductive. These day, since and technology promise longer lives and immortality, ranging from the modest and sensible precautions of eating correctly and exercising, to the radical biomedical revolutions professed by Aubry de Grey and Ray Kurzweil.

Between antiquity and post-modernity lies a broad area of research into immortality that hasn’t yet been explored. John Grey has come out with an interesting new book examining the quest for immortality in the Victorian and Soviet eras, revealing a fascinating secret history of spiritualists, eugenicists, Soviet utopians, and the science fiction writer HG Wells.

Darwinism is impossible to reconcile with the notion that humans have any special exemption from mortality. In Darwin’s scheme of things species are not fixed or everlasting; there is no impassable barrier between human minds and those of other animals. How then could only humans go on to a life beyond the grave? If all life were extinguished on Earth, possibly as a result of climate change caused by humans, would they look down from the after-world, alone, on the wasteland they had left beneath? Surely, in terms of the prospect of immortality, all sentient beings stand or fall together. Then again, how could anyone imagine all the legions of the dead – not only the human generations that have come and gone but the countless animal species that are now extinct – living on in the ether, forever?

Science could not give these seekers what they were looking for. Yet at the same time that sections of the English elite were looking for a scientific version of immortality, a similar quest was under way in Russia among the “God-builders” – a section of the Bolshevik intelligentsia that believed science could someday, perhaps quite soon, be used to defeat death. The God-builders included Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Lunacharsky, a former Theosophist who was appointed commissar of enlightenment in the new Soviet regime, and the trade minister Leonid Krasin, an engineer and disciple of the Russian mystic Nikolai Fedorov, who believed that the dead could be technologically resurrected. Krasin was a key figure in the decisions that were made about how Lenin’s remains would be preserved.

Weakened in Britain, belief in gradual progress had ceased to exist in Russia. An entire civilisation had collapsed, and the incremental improvement cherished by liberals was simply not possible. The idea of progress was not abandoned, however. Instead it was radicalised, as Russia’s new rulers were confirmed in their conviction that humanity advances through a succession of catastrophes. Not only society but human nature had to be destroyed, and only then rebuilt. Humans did not go on to a new life on the other side. There was no other side. When humans died they returned to dust, just like other animals. But once the power of science was fully harnessed, the God-builders believed, death could be overcome by force. Eventually all of humankind could look forward to scientifically guaranteed immortality, but the process of technological resurrection would begin with the most valuable of human beings – Lenin.

Read the full excerpt at The Guardian.

The protagonists of John Grey’s book are the immediate sources of the current technological quest for immortality. Though the scientific barriers we face today are different, the philosophical quandaries and contradictions of physical immortality are similar. What will life mean without the end of death? How can society evolve when the powerful never relinquish their power? Is living forever truly the highest goal than e can devote ourselves to? There a difference between individual immortality, and the continued survival of humanity as a whole. For our species and our culture, death is tragic, but ultimately necessary and even unavoidable.

Should we seek immortality, or are our scientific resources best used elsewhere? John Grey’s history of the strange quest for immortality may help us decide.

How Do Morals Change?

Emotions such as empathy and disgust might be at the root of morality, but psychologists should also study the roles of deliberation and debate in how our opinions shift over time, argues Paul Bloom. 

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v464/n7288/full/464490a.html

Eagleman’s Six Requirements of A Durable Civilization

Civilizations always think they’re immortal, Eagleman noted, but they nearly always perish, leaving “nothing but runes and scattered genetics.”  It takes luck and new technology to survive.  We may be particularly lucky to have Internet technology to help manage the six requirements of a durable civilization:

  1. “ Try not to cough on one another ” – More humans have died from epidemics than from all famines and wars.  All businesses should develop a work-from-home capability for their workforce.
  2. “ Don’t lose things ” –  As proved by the destruction of the Alexandria Library and of the literature of Mayans and Minoans, “Knowledge is hard won but easily Lost.”  Distribute, don’t re-invent.
  3. “ Tell each other faster ” – Don’t let natural disasters cascade.  The Minoans perished for lack of the kind of tsunami alert system we now have.
  4. “ Mitigate tyranny ” – The USSR’s collapse was made inevitable by state-controlled media and state-mandated mistakes such as Lysenkoism, which forced a wrong theory of wheat farming on 13 time zones, and starved millions.  We should reward companies that stand up against censorship, as Google has done in China.
  5. “Get more brains involved in solving problems ” – Undertapping human capital endangers the future.  Open courseware from colleges is making higher education universally accessible.  Perhaps the next step is “society sourcing”.
  6. “ Try not to run out of energy ” – when energy expenditure outweighs energy return, collapse ensures.  E-mail saves trees and trucking.  We need to expand the ability to hold meetings and conferences online.

              http://fora.tv/2010/04/01/Six_Easy_Steps_to_Avert_the_Collapse_of_Civilization

China’s Censors Tackle And Trip Over The Internet

Since late March, when Google moved its search operations out of mainland China to Hong Kong, each response to a Chinese citizen’s search request has been met at the border by government computers, programmed to censor any forbidden information Google might turn up.  “Carrot” — in Mandarin, huluobo — may seem innocuous enough. But it contains the same Chinese character as the surname of President Hu Jintao. And the computers, long programmed to intercept Chinese-language searches on the nation’s leaders, substitute an error message for the search result before it can sneak onto a mainland computer. 

This is China’s censorship machine, part George Orwell, part Rube Goldberg: an information sieve of staggering breadth and fineness, yet full of holes; run by banks of advanced computers, but also by thousands of Communist Party drudges; highly sophisticated in some ways, remarkably crude in others.

The one constant is its growing importance. Censorship used to be the sleepy province of the Communist Party’s central propaganda department, whose main task was to tell editors what and what not to print or broadcast. In the new networked China, censorship is a major growth industry, overseen — and fought over — by no fewer than 14 government ministries.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/08/world/asia/08censor.html

The White House Wants To Hear From You

As part of its efforts to introduce fully open government, the White House is reaching out to the at-large scientific community to discuss America’s national scientific and technological priorities.  Through AAAS, and our new Expert Labs program, the Obama administration wants to draw on the collective wisdom of scientists everywhere in deciding which scientific and technological challenges should be the focus of policy initiatives in the coming years. 

http://promo.aaas.org/expertlabs/grandchallenges.html

Meet “FBIo”

Titled the Biological Sciences Outreach Program, the campaign to start a dialogue with biologists about potential biosecurity risks from their science has begun with the synthetic biology community and is spreading from there.  It’s being praised by biosecurity experts for its foresight. 

http://www.the-scientist.com/templates/trackable/display/article1.jsp?a_day=1&index=1&year=2010&page=44&month=5&o_url=2010/5/44/1

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