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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.

Empathy and Creativity

There are three fundamental principles for the Prevail scenario:

1. The future is not predictable; uncertainty trumps technological determinism. Prediction is a fool’s errand. That’s why we need multiple scenarios to navigate the future.

2. Connectedness is crucial: “a gradual ramp of increased bridging of the interpersonal gap.” I share with Howard Rheingold the belief that our technologies can serve rather than substitute for fleshier connections. But I agree with Jaron Lanier that eternal vigilance is called for to assure that the design and execution of our social networking technologies not lead us astray toward bogus connectivity.

3. We can achieve social transcendence by expanding the radius of empathy, but not so far as to include all living things.

Let me expand especially on the third: Empathy is essential. And compassion. But Jaron Lanier is also right to hold out for the creativity of innovative individuals—artists, poets, scientists, musicians.

One of the most challenging aspects of the Prevail scenario lies in navigating the narrow pass between too much individualism on the one hand, and too much collectivism on the other. We tend to think in binary terms: A or non-A. But the Prevail scenario calls for a more complex path: Not the One of hyper-individualism, not the All of Communist collectivism, but the less precise Some of limited community.

The radius of empathy cannot extend into the infinite. You can’t “friend” billions. Nor can it contract to the precious self of solipsism and narcissism. Is there an ideal size to the Some of a thickly empathetic community? No. And that’s part of what makes this idea of “Not One, not All, but Some” so intractable and intellectually unsatisfying.

But, hey, that’s life. Some communities will contract too far toward the exclusivity of we precious few. That way lies tribalism. Some communities will seek such broad inclusivity that their specialness will be leveled out and homogenized. We’ll lurch from the too small Some to the too large Some and back again because there is no ideal number.

This is why Joel Garreau has to describe the Prevail scenario as a series of “fits and starts, hiccups and coughs, reverses and loops—not unlike the history we humans always have known.” Its trajectory will not follow a downward deterministic curve toward oblivion. Nor will it carve an ascending arc toward an asymptotic approach to the Singularity. Instead it will look rather more like a pubic hair.

Jay Oglivy is the author of “Creating Better Futures” and is one of the founders of the pioneering scenario-planning firm Global Business Network.

Prevailing Over Technology

Thirty years ago I wrote Taming the Tiger about our conflicted attitude towards technology: we distrust machines, even as we rely on them; we are always surprised by the unintended consequences of technology, as if our creations should be perfect; and we are eager to adopt the next new thing, even as we bemoan the good old days.

Our ambivalence, as I saw it then and still do, is the result of several misunderstandings. For example, we assume that technological change will inevitably be accompanied by loss, and we tend to romanticize past machines such as clipper ships, old handicrafts, even old towns. But the rosy image is rosy. The tall ships were inhuman work environments, dangerous and physically debilitating; old crafts often involved mind-numbing labor, and the beautiful objects that we admire in museums were available only to a wealthy few; and the old towns that we visit while on holiday lacked the technological amenities—running water, flush toilets, central heating—that we take for granted today. I think we can blame a good deal of this romanticizing tendency on the movies, which have portrayed history in highly selective ways. In truth, Robin Hood and his Merry Men endured lice and continual tooth-aches; the noble cowboy loners portrayed by Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd were illiterate, crude louts; the Edwardian swells portrayed on Masterpiece Theater suffered from gout, rheumatism (damp, drafty houses), and venereal disease.

We often confuse a device with its purpose. The hammer is an elegant tool, but the nail came first, that is, the need to hammer nails came first. Because we focus on the device we tend to fetishize machines, whether they are iPads or smart phones. Paradoxically, this attitude imbues machines with power that they don’t have, while at the same time trivializing their actual functions. For example, the so-called American love affair with the automobile in the Fifties and Sixties produced such momentous advances as chrome grills, wraparound windshields, and tailfins (meanwhile the Japanese and the Germans were actually solving transportation problems). We are seeing a replay of this distortion today in our fascination with green buildings and green cities. Certainly, our goal should be to develop—and adopt—practices and technologies that reduce global warming. But we can’t help being attracted to the symbols of greenness: grass roofs, wind machines, solar panels. The point is not to drive a hybrid SUV, but to drive less.

Another cause of our ambivalence towards technology is that we assume that machines cause technological change. The personal computer—or vapor ware—create a new world, we say. It is instructive to examine an earlier communications device: the printing press. The press famously appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century, although neither movable type nor paper-making were European inventions, but originated much earlier in Japan and China. What facilitated printing in Europe was advances in metallurgy and water-power; metallurgy, because it was needed for the spread of typesetting (the early types were made by goldsmiths), and water-power, because it permitted the manufacture of cheap paper. Cheap paper, replacing parchment made from calfskin or goatskin, was a prerequisite for printing. But the prime driver was a cultural change: a growing demand for books, that is, a growing desire to read and write. In other words, the human activity came first, the machine followed. So today, digital media are not creating a new world, they are enabling a new world that already exists.

Technology is not inhuman or dehumanizing, quite the opposite. In the concluding chapter of Taming the Tiger I quoted the German philosopher Arnold Gehlen. Gehlen wrote that technology mirrors man, “like man it is clever, it represents something intrinsically improbable, it bears a complex, twisted relationship to nature.” It is another way of saying that we are as much a part of the technological environment—and it is as much a part of us—as of the natural world.

Witold Rybczynski is an award-winning critic, professor at the University of Pennsylvania and columnist with Slate who has been thinking about humanity and technology since the 1980s, when he published his first two books, “Paper Heroes: Appropriate Technology: Panacea or Pipe Dream?” and “Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology.”

The Art of Civil Disobedience

Look, I’m not much of an abstract thinker. In my field—trying to do something about global warming, the worst problem the planet has ever faced—I’ve long since figured out what it is we must prevail over. That would be money, the gobs of it possessed by the fossil fuel industry. I’m no theologian, but I believe they have more money than God, and they’ve used it effectively to corrupt our political process, making sure that no serious attempts to change our energy regime manage to make headway. As surely as the scientific method has worked, that’s how badly the political method has failed, and at root money is the cause.

So we need a different currency in which to work if we’re going to have a chance. And right at the moment we’re experimenting a good deal with one: our bodies. I’ve just finished helping coordinate the biggest spate of civil disobedience in several decades in this country, two weeks of daily sit-ins at the White House that ended up with 1253 people in jail for urging Barack Obama to block a proposed pipeline from the tarsands of Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. (Short course: those tarsands are the second-largest pool of carbon on the planet. If we burn them in a big way, according to Jim Hansen at NASA, it’s ‘essentially game over for the climate.’)

Now, civil disobedience is a technology like any other, and people have been experimenting with it for a long time, at least since Thoreau. There have been real experts—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, some of the folks who pushed the Arab spring this past year. But we don’t really know that much about it—we haven’t studied it with the same systematic diligence that, say, West Point or Sandhurst applies to the arts of war.

So it was fascinating to try and figure out what would work best. One thing we tried to avoid was the usual suspects: we asked old people to come, not college kids. We didn’t ask participants their age (that’s rude) but we did ask them who was president when they were born. And the biggest cohorts came from the Truman and FDR administrations.

We also told everyone that they had to wear a dress, or a coat and tie, if they wanted to take part. Why? Because we wanted to make crystal clear who the radicals in this scenario were. Not us. Radicals work for Chevron and Shell—radicals are people who are willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere. That’s the most radical scheme anyone ever thought up. We’re…conservatives, trying hard to preserve the planet in something like the shape it was when we were born.

We managed to take a regional issue and turn it into a national and even global one in two weeks (there were sympathy protests at Canadian and U.S. embassies on every continent). That doesn’t mean we’ll carry the day; the odds are still against us, since money remains awfully powerful. But we’ve begun rebuilding this retro technology for a new day; it will be fascinating to see how it turns out.

Bill McKibben is the author of “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age,” and the founder of 350.org, a climate-change advocacy group. The “prevailing” he is currently working on centers on non-violent resistance to a tar-sands oil pipeline.

To Prevail

I have in front of me a late 1960s advertisement from the Burroughs Corporation. It shows a sketch of a guy — in a snappy suit and crisp haircut — sitting at what one must assume is a Burroughs business computer. A large genie-like figure billows from the machine, and the caption reads MAN plus a Computer equals a GIANT!”

I love this image, despite the outdated sexism. It’s a healthy reminder that the notion of computers making humans something supremely powerful (and distinctly no longer human) isn’t just an idea dreamt up in the heady days of the 1990s, as Moore’s Law seemed to be really taking off. It’s been woven into the fabric of our relationship with “thinking machines” for decades. While there may have been no Mad Men-era Singularitarians fantasizing about being uploaded into a B6500 mainframe, it was clear even then that there was something about these devices that went beyond mere tool. They were extensions not of our bodies, but of our minds.

Of course, anyone sitting down at a 1960s Burroughs business machine right now expecting to become a figurative “giant” is in for a surprise. It may be something of a cliché at this point to note that a cheap mobile phone has far more computing power than a mainframe of a generation or two ago, but it’s true. Yet instead of making us all “giants,” our information technologies played something of a trick: they made us more human. All of the things that humanize us — love, sex, despair, creativity, sociality, storytelling, art, outrage, humor, and on and on — have been strengthened, given new power and new reach by the march of technology, not discarded.

That’s not the conventional wisdom. Western intellectual culture is in the midst of a civil war between two superficially distinct viewpoints: a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization, eliminating our humanity even if they don’t simply destroy us, versus a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization and replace it (and eventually us) with something better. We’re on the verge of disaster or the verge of transcendence, and in both cases, the only way to hang onto a shred of our humanity is to disavow what we have made.

But these two ideas ultimately tell the same story: by positing these changes as massive forces beyond our control, they tell us that we have no say in the future of the world, that we may not even have the right to a say in the future of the world. We have no agency; we are hapless victims of techno-destiny. We have no responsibility for outcomes, have no influence on the ethical choices embodied by these tools. The only choice we might be given is whether or not to slam on the brakes and put a halt to technological development — and there’s no guarantee that the brakes will work. There’s no possible future other than loss of control or stagnation.

Such perspectives aren’t just wrong, they’re dangerous. They’re right to see that our information technologies are increasingly powerful — but because our tools are so powerful, the last thing we should do is abdicate our responsibility to shape them. When we give up, we’re simply opening the door to those who would use these powerful tools to manipulate us, or worse. But when we embrace our responsibility, we embrace the Prevail scenario.

To Prevail is to accept that our technological tools are changing how our humanity expresses itself, but not changing who we are. It is to know that such changes are choices we make, not destinies we submit to. It is to recognize that our technologies are manifestations of our culture and our politics, and embed the unconscious biases, hopes, and fears we all carry — and that this is something to make transparent and self-evident, not kept hidden. We can make far better choices about our futures when we have a clearer view of our present.

To Prevail is to see something subtle and important that both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution often miss: our technologies will, as they always have, make us who we are.

Human plus a Computer equals a Human.

Jamais Cascio is a founder of Worldchanging.org, and author of “Hacking the Earth.” Prevailing for him involves seeing technologies as expressions of ourselves, not alterations or degradations of human nature.

Avail to Prevail

“Prevail Project” is about the subtle and interesting notion that some day soon, some of us may not be human.

My readers are presumably human, and so might find this topic of dubious relevance.  So let’s get right into the “subtlety” aspect. There are stem cells among us, we can all agree on that, but is a stem cell “human”?  Stem cells exist as technological facts on the ground,  but do they have any “human rights”?  What happens when stem cells divide and multiply, and become a “test tube baby?”

Since the late 1970s, a huge, healthy cohort of “test tube babies” have appeared among us as our fellow citizens.  “Test tube adults” are not subjected to social stigma — we don’t consider them squalid Brave New World subhumans, as we did when they were science-fictional — but we might have done that.   We might have “relinquished” the technology through legislation, due to strong moral qualms about it.  Then many of us would have been denied parenthood.  Many of us would not be here.  One of the missing might have been you.

Nowadays, the term “test tube baby” has fallen out of use.  It’s archaic and de-controversialized, replaced by the cozier term “in vitro fertilization.”  But beneath this apparent triumph of social assimilation, the technology has continued to reticulate.  A fertilized human egg is a stem cell of sorts, because it has the capacity to form all human organs.  Further study revealed that many cells in the human body have a similar capacity.

This is the promise of “stem cell therapy” — that we pull living stem cells from the human body, tinker with their huge expressive capacity, and have them grow again inside the patient.  You could think of that as a kind of pureed and homogenized test-tube baby, if you were allowed to frame the issue in that repulsive way.  The odds are you would not be allowed that framing.  The way we mentally tackle these issues is a complex and subtle matter of “law, culture and values.”  It’s our law, culture and values that see to it that certain paradigms are unlikely to get a sustained airing.  Even if they’re quite logical and firmly based in science, in touch with the facts on the ground.

You’re very likely to hear that stem cell therapy is the murder of an unborn human being.  You’re also likely to hear, from a different point on  the ideological compass, that stem cell therapy can make the lame walk and the blind see.  You’re very unlikely to hear that stem cell therapy could be used to reduce fat, erase wrinkles or increase sexual potency, even though those are three colossal, highly profitable industries with every means, motive and opportunity for making sure that stem-cell therapy becomes mundane and unquestioned some day.

Now I ask you, in all seriousness: suppose that I’m 95 years old.  And yet my skin has no wrinkles, my hair is flaxen and wavy, I have fine muscle tone and I’m the father of four by a twenty-six-year old woman.  Am I human?  I’m not mumbling like Frankenstein or clanking like Robocop.  I can vote, and like a lot of elderly people I may be very street-wise and rather well-to-do.  Yet my body’s a chimeric patchwork of flesh that was formerly my own stem cells, rejuvenated in  a petri dish and injected back into me.

Naturally you may be entertaining a few qualms about my behavior, the way you do about, say, Barry Bonds’ baseball abilities or Silvio Berlusconi’s harem of leggy TV presenters.  But the odds are that I can put up a pretty good argument on my own behalf — I may well be a prosperous lawyer.  Or your political leader.  The odds are that you envy me.  The odds are that my entire society is sliding in my direction without ever making a conscious decision about it — maybe with the same hectic speed that we adapted desktop computers.  Or with the same blithe joy that we planted kudzu and unleashed Australian rabbits.

As Joel Garreau surmises, in that postulated situation, we have “passed an inflection point of self-modification.”  Thanks to a new suite of technical possibilities — the genetics of stem cells were just one such field of potential action — our human minds, human memories, human metabolisms have proved unexpectedly ductile.  We are changing ourselves.  We have the means:  the new means.  We have the motives — ancient motives, powerful motives, fear, greed, lust for power, spiritual transcendence, all of them.  And we have the opportunities, because there are so many areas where these practices could be made to flourish.

They could flourish in business, of course, but also in medicine, sports, the military, even in academia.  The street finds its own uses for things, and an innovation created for a legitimized purpose will undergo mission-creep as time passes.  Narcotic abuse is a major global industry despite decades of organized repression.   Sports doping, cosmetic surgery, the hairline cracks of posthumanity are everywhere.  The military will take most any step to get its lethal work done, but there’s nothing commoner than a military technology clumsily repackaged for civilian life — assault weapons, nuclear power, autonomous drones.

The question is metaphysical: “what is mankind?”  That question gets fought over every day, and in the cases of Terri Schiavo and Eluana Engaro, it shut down two different G-7 governments.  But it’s not only a metaphysical matter.  There are other pressing questions.  How, as a practical matter, can we watch the “inflection points?” How can we name and number the areas of potential crisis?  How quickly and effectively can we react?  Who are the watchmen, what are their proper duties?  Who watches the watchmen?

We’ve already had plenty of practice, much of it very unpleasant, in declaring certain people human or nonhuman.  There are stem cells, the brain-dead, the differently-abled, gays, untouchables, the bearers of contagious disease, existential ethnic enemies who must be “cleansed” or “finally solved” by whatever means possible; there are campaigners who will burn, maim and kill for the legal and ethical rights of animals.  We know how “law, culture and values” can make human history; what we don’t know is what genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology can and will do when tossed into this ever-bubbling stew.

Maybe the stew becomes a divine ambrosia.  That would be the “heaven scenario.”  Maybe the pot breaks and its boiling contents set the  stove on fire.  That would be the “hell scenario.”  Or maybe the pot more or less keeps at it, while some well-informed people spend more effort taking judicious sips of the brew.  That would be common sense, if we had any.

Not that these commonsensical observers are the boss chefs or anything; they’re just uneasily aware that, where the good old Nail Soup of History used to have onions and barley and carrots, nowadays it’s got brocco-cauliflower, cloned mutton and athletic-performance enhancers.

I am a fan of this effort, and I am speaking out in its support, because I know that it doesn’t have to succeed to be important.  Suppose it fails — suppose that in five years, ten years, twenty years or fifty, there are in fact many former-people among us who are blatantly no longer human.  Suppose they are tomorrow’s GRIN mutants, “people” who, for some wide and no-doubt compelling variety of reasons, chose to desert the formerly-human condition.

They’ll need an effort like this.  They will need it because they will know, with an existential certainty still closed to us, that they have crossed a mighty boundary and they cannot go back.  The “Prevail Project” is about peering through the keyhole of Pandora’s Box, but whoever breaks that box has to own it.   They will not be relieved from “law, culture and values;” they will merely have the awful quandary of creating their own.  Not in a vacuum, either.  We, who are human, have the grisly comforts of our quarter-million years of natural evolution, but  these evolutionary radicals will be beset by their own ambitions — plus the ambitions of many rival radicals.

They don’t have to be human for you to pity them.  If Milton could pity Satan, you could pity that.  I like it that this effort, the “Prevail Project,” is still framed within that venue, that it’s humanistic, that it’s contemplative, that it’s literary.  That’s why it’s me, a novelist, writing this conflicted essay, instead of it being the emanation of some chrome-plated New Model Superman, or some hooded Inquisitor, hunting down mankind’s heretics.

The “Prevail Project” is an inquiry into culture, law and values; it’s not a political party or a revolutionary movement.   Nobody is going to seize power over genetics, robotics, information or nanotech by compiling some data here, or by joining in these discussions, or by diligently feeding the nonhuman spiders that so busily catalog our texts nowadays.  Contributing to a site like this is a moral act.  It’s like joining Erasmus’s “Republic of Letters,” that “humanist” coterie of the twilight half-enlightened.  A small group, maybe, but they mattered to futurity.

It wasn’t so much that they prevailed, those earnest inquirers who scribbled in their dusty Latin; it was more that they made it possible to imagine a prevalence.

Bruce Sterling is the best-selling and prize-winning author of future fictions such as “The Difference Engine” and “Holy Fire,” that, like our world today, occupy the nexus of the strange and the terrifying. He blogs at Beyond the Beyond.