Tag archives for Prevail

Prevail and Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A few good people

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

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

In A World of Rapid Change, What Kind of Critter Do You Want to Be?

There are two kinds of critters on this planet. One produces zillions of offspring, then pays scant attention to them, playing the odds that some will survive. The other produces few offspring, but nurtures each lavishly to increase their chances of being the best they can be.

Each strategy has its plusses and minuses. The upside of having few progeny is that you can shape them to most highly adapt to their existing environment. The downside is, if you lose one, the result is devastating. The upside of having lots of ankle-biters is that if the world they are born into is up for grabs, such heirs as make it to adulthood are likely to be adapters, capable of rapidly evolving. The downside is that in periods of stability, we tend to view them as under-evolved vermin – as weeds.

There are lessons here for human enterprises. If the world we’re heading into is on tumble-dry, which kinds of critters do we want to be?

Our friend Jamais Cascio of OpenTheFuture.com offers a very Prevail-ish answer: both.

Cascio notes we are in a period in which even instability is not stable. If instability were constant, then it would clearly favor the high-reproduction throw-everything-at-the-wall and see what sticks mode, even if the outcome is not optimal. But, he says, it’s not. It is punctuated by periods of consolidation. Think Silicon Valley. A new innovation produces a flood of startups striving for advantage. But eventually, a small number of highly-evolved dominant players emerge.

Therefore, it is dangerous to rely on strategies that assume the continuation of either stability or instability. “Neither relying upon scale and incumbency nor relying upon rapid-fire iteration will succeed as fully and as dependably as we might wish,” says Cascio. “We can’t rely on either the garage hacker or the global corporation to push us to a new phase of history.”

What we want is resilience. The way to get it is by having the two kinds of critters collaborating with – and feeding off – each other.

To Prevail, then, is to create a new ecosystem that we can push in the right direction. For that we need rapid humanistic social bottom-up response to rapid technological change. It doesn’t take a genius to see that states and corporations can’t seem to figure out what to do, or how to plan for tomorrow, using only their slow, legacy, top-down means. In a period where the patterns we’ve seen before don’t seem to be working right, the answer is lots of small and large components in dense networks, bringing the wisdom of the edge to the core, or even bypassing the core, and fast.

Humanistic response means ideas and decisions that take into account the unique, individual values of every human being. It means organizations that allow people to flourish and grow, rather than grind them down and burn them out. Bottom-up means humans self-organizing as useful flocks, capable of rapidly creating powerful change without relying on the merely ambitious. Think of the hundreds of millions on eBay organizing extremely complex behavior without leaders, or YouTube helping swing an American presidential election, or even Twitter, heaven help us – if it terrifies tyrants, it must be good for something. Rapid technological change means transformative revolutions like genetics, robotics, information and nanotechnology, increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny – and thus, what it means to be human.

Thus, our goals: quickly forging community, integration, foresight, and wisdom. It will not be easy to achieve, but all are necessary if we are to prevail.

May we start building all this here, now.