Jeff Vail’s Theory of Power

June 1st, 2012 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Jeff Vail’s Theory of Power)

by Dave Pollard

Jeff Vail’s short, free online book A Theory of Power begins with a series of provocative theses:

  • The best representation of our world, of what ‘is’, is not matter, but the connections between matter.
  • These connections define ‘power-relationships’ — the ability of one entity to influence the action of another.
  • The ‘law’ of evolution can therefore be restated as: if new patterns of forces can survive their impacts with one another, if they tend to hold together rather than tear apart, they then represent a stable collection of power-relationships which survive, self-replicate, and mutate into further new patterns which are in turn subject to the same law.
  • This law applies to physical (matter), biological (gene) and cultural (meme) patterns; all matter and life and consciousness, and their evolution, are ‘creatures’ of their/our material, genetic and cultural constituents, created for the perpetuation of these patterns and sustained through their stable power-relationships.
  • Because of the evolutionary success of memes (due to their ability to adapt and change much more quickly and successfully than genes), culture has come to play an increasingly dominant role in our planet’s power-relationships.
  • Most significantly, the advent of agriculture, which was provoked by climate change (the ice ages) brought about a necessary power shift from the individual to the group in the interest of memes’ survival, to the point the individual became largely enslaved to the culture, and the survival of the civilization culture now outweighs in importance the survival of any of its members or communities.
  • A consequence of that has been the advent of the codependent cultural constructs of market and state, and, as agriculture has enabled exponential growth in population and created new scarcities, egalitarian societies of abundance have given way to hierarchical societies of managed scarcity.
  • This hierarchy has been further entrenched with the cultural evolution of technologies that enable even greater self-perpetuation of the memes that gave rise to it, and have led to the ‘efficient’ subjugation of the human individual to technology — that’s the power-relationship that most supports the survival and stasis of the culture, and under it even those at the top of the hierarchy become slave-hosts to the memes and culture.
  • These memes and culture can now self-perpetuate and thrive more effectively with technology and the artificial constructs of market and globalizations than they could with inefficient and unreliable human hosts, so technology growth is now even outstripping human growth, to the point that humans are becoming commodities and could even become redundant.
  • So: if we are now becoming slaves to the machine-powered perpetuation of memes that are outgrowing their need for us (to the point that although catastrophic global warming and human extinction now seem inevitable, this is not something our meme-culture ‘cares’ about) can we, the human slaves, thanks to the genetic and memetic evolution of self-awareness, ‘liberate’ ourselves and defeat the meme-culture before it destroys us? In other words, can we consciously, collectively take control for the first time over power-relationships, and establish new power-relationships that put the genetic survival of the human race (and, hopefully, the survival of all other life on Earth on which that genetic survival depends) ahead of the reckless survival of the Frankenstein ‘civilization’ culture we have created?

Vail’s answer to this final question is a qualified ‘yes’. He argues that the way to establish power-relationships that put our genes’ interest ahead of memes’ is to “confront hierarchy with its opposite — rhizome — a web-like structure of connected but independent nodes”, borrowing from successful models in nature of such structures. The working units (nodes) of this ‘revolutionary’ structure are self-sufficient, egalitarian communities, and the concept of ‘ownership’ in such communities is eliminated to prevent the reemergence of hierarchy.

Rhizome-based structures need to be developed and then institutionalized from the bottom up to replace hierarchical ones, Vail argues, in all areas of our society — social, political, economic, educational etc. to entrench the power and sustainability of self-sufficient communities and render them invulnerable to re-expropriation of that power by hierarchies. In practical terms, he says:

Power remains distributed to the level of the individual rhizome node through local, functional self-sufficiency—a modern equivalent to the Domestic Mode of Production. In other words, functional self-sufficiency means the ability to produce at the household level at least the minimum necessities for day-to-day existence without relying on outside agents or resources. Self-sufficiency removes the individual rhizome node from dependence on the standard set of outside suppliers. It does not eliminate exchange, but creates a situation where any exchange exists as a voluntary activity. The commodities that each node must provide for itself include staple foodstuffs, energy for heating, basic habitat and small group interaction.

Self-sufficient energy coops, and local permaculture-based food movements are examples of rhizome structures. Such networks are also the most effective means for the dissemination of information on how to make rhizome activities even more effective — they have much less signal loss than hierarchical methods that require information to flow up and then down controlled and constricted paths. Rhizomes are also, while less ‘efficient’, more effective and more resilient than hierarchies.

Next, Vail argues that, once established, to defend against attacks from vestiges of hierarchical systems, rhizome networks need to adopt asymmetrical methods — by reducing the desire of hierarchy to re-achieve power (e.g. by making it difficult or unrewarding to do so on its own terms) and by becoming ‘invisible’ to the hierarchy (e.g. dropping out quietly and not taking part in the hierarchy’s social, political and economic activities). Vail concludes:

A new vision, with individual freedom to pursue arts and spirituality, above the pettiness of bickering for power, may prove possible if we learn to control the powers that have dominated us throughout history. In the spirit of this vision, the message will ultimately fail if forced upon others. Only through personal example, by showing that a realistic and preferable alternative exists, will these concepts succeed on a large scale. We will act as pioneers, who will begin to create diverse rhizome nodes, each one representing an individual’s struggle to solve the problems of hierarchy and human ontogeny. The more we learn and break free from the control of genes and memes, the more success these pioneers will have. Effective tools and practices will spread, and the rhizome network will grow and strengthen. As this network evolves, it will provide a realistic, implementable alternative to hierarchy—an alternative that fulfills our genetic ontogeny and empowers us as individuals. Nature has shown us that the structure of the rhizome can compete with hierarchy and stratification. When combined with an understanding of reality and humanity that makes us our own masters, we may finally learn from the events of the past…and gain control of our future.

NaturalCommunity
This is entirely consistent with the approach I have been arguing for — the bottom-up creation of a combination of working models of (a) self-sufficient, sustainable (probably polyamory) egalitarian intentional communities operating under Gift Economy principles, (b) natural enterprises and (c) peer-to-peer information and organization networks.

The concern many have expressed about models like Vail’s and mine is how to scale them up — how to get them to the ‘tipping point’ at which, like viruses, they start spreading quickly and supplant the old hierarchical ones. One approach Vail mentions is Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZs, or ‘pirate utopias’). Bey’s zones are based on the principles of (a) 30-50 person ‘bands’ replacing families (Bey quotes Gide: “Families, how I hate them! The misers of love!”), (b) a continuous ‘festival’ culture of conviviality, abundance, sharing, celebration, and joy and (c) no private ownership.

I really like the idea of a festival culture. Bey sees the zones as temporary (nomadic, to prevent their being attacked by the prevailing hierarchical culture). Vail says they will only be needed “until the size of the rhizome network provides enough power” to sustain them.

But that’s not how viral models work in nature. They get a foothold and then replicate. Assuming we can create some successful working models without having them destroyed by fearful or envious corporatists (and though I’m perhaps naive, I don’t think the establishment would be bothered to try to destroy them when they’re below the radar screen, and after that it’s too late), how might they replicate virally?

Suppose we were to invite people to just begin. We could use Open Space invitations to find the people who are ready to create some working models of TAZs. We could facilitate Open Space sessions to let invitees form TAZ ‘tribes’, each tribe consisting of about fifteen contiguous intentional community ‘clans’ of about 100 people, with each clan having 2-3 natural enterprise ‘bands’ operating within them. Then, any clan that was so popular that it attracted new members to grow beyond the magic number of 150 people would ‘split’ into two new intentional communities (members would self-select which of the two clans to belong to), and any tribe that exceeded about 2000 people would ‘split’ into two new tribes the same way. This is the way viruses replicate, and the way that some groups of animals instinctively hive off when their membership exceeds a certain threshold. As our rhizome-culture working models became more and more popular, and the hierarchical civilization culture collapses, we would simply and organically take over. Bottom-up, a model that has evolved to work replacing one that has ceased to function. That’s life.

These sustainable, natural bands, clans and tribes would support each other through network connections, physical and technological. Each would be autonomous and self-sufficient, and evolve in its own self-determined, wonderfully diverse way.

The great challenge, of course, is finding arable land that can sustain these extraordinary experiments. One solution would be simply to wait until climate change, pandemic, economic collapse or other disasters depopulate an area to the point its land becomes free or nearly so. Another approach I’ve mentioned before is to find philanthropists willing to donate the land on a successful-efforts basis. Or, we they could start in Russia and other countries where serious depopulation has already begun.

Are you ready for this? Is the world?

 

Editorial Notes

Thanks to Dave Pollard for an excellent summary, as well as his thoughts on the book. We’ve run several of Jeff Vail’s articles and are interested in his theories. Although they are abstract and not easy to digest, the theories make explicit ideas that seem to be on the minds of many people.

Vail’s theory about “rhizome” structures has a lot of applications today: the permaculture movement, guerrilla warfare, the Web, the peak oil blogosphere…

The idea of rhizome social structures as an alternative to hierarchy has historical roots:

  • Communitarian anarchism, as in the works of Peter Kropotkin
  • Utopian socialism
  • A strain within libertarianism, voiced by Karl Hess.
  • Jeffersonian democracy and agrarianism (as in the works of Wendell Berry).
  • The self-sufficiency and commune movements of 60s and 70s, as well as the back-to-the-land movements of the 30s and 40s, and communal movements in the 19th century (e.g., Shakers).
  • Many traditional and peasant cultures have similar elements.

Jeff Vail’s blog is A Theory of Power.

 

Original Article: Energy Bulletin.

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What Would it Look Like?

March 21st, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on What Would it Look Like?)

What if the world embodied its highest potential? What would it look like? As the structures of modern society crumble, this video contemplates a set of unexamined assumptions that form the very basis of our civilization. In this beautifully shot 25-minute film, it asks us to reflect on the state of the world and ourselves–and to listen more closely to what is being asked of us at this time of unprecedented global transformation.

 

Via Karma Tube.

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Bye Bye Apocalypse: 5 Hopeful Trends

February 16th, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Bye Bye Apocalypse: 5 Hopeful Trends)

Ok, the future of doom and gloom is getting old fast. At this point, nobody can predict the future, not even Bruce Sterling, Dmitri Orlov or Warren Buffett. Even the billionaires are getting hosed by the economic downturn.  But what this really proves is we have entered a new era where the old rules no longer apply.  That prospect scares a lot of people, especially the ones who’ve gained the most money and power by maintaining the status quo.  The elite have become naive enough to think they can continue getting away with theft and cronyism without any consequences (i.e. mob revolt), but this time they’re wrong. Asynchronous power is getting stronger all the time, which is why the worlds most powerful military is loosing to a small number of decentralized insurgents. I predicted the current economic crisis back in 2002, in my post Capital, Power and Ecology, simply because business as usual is not sustainable.  It was destined to collapse, and my best guess at the time was that it would happen sometime within the next decade or so.

There is nothing like a crisis to spur rapid evolutionary growth. We are witnessing a level of creative destruction that is unprecedented both globally and historically. Yet solutions for every problem we face are already available right now. We have all the information we need. In fact we are drowning in it.

The current economic collapse, rather than being a indicator of worse things to come, is instead a wake-up call to re-engineer our society from the bottom-up to become more resilient, capable of withstanding unexpected change and upheaval. A resilient economy is also one that is more sustainable and integrated with the planetary ecology, and more responsive to the needs of all of its citizens. Economic growth can and will accelerate, but not by converting precious resources into cheap disposable products, but by making more intelligent use of the materials we already have! There is no reason why this intelligent growth (getting more from less) can’t increase indefinitely, or at least until we’re ready to leave the planet. This is what is called a regenerative economy, or what Bucky Fuller called, ephermalization, which is the idea of progressively doing more with less.

What most doomsayers like Dmitri Orlov don’t get is the process of ephermalization.  His prediction is that our only solution is to accept that we’re all going to be a lot poorer, and we should just get used to it. This is just nonsense, and he’s not helping the situation any. I suppose if wealth is defined as having tons of disposable material goods, then yes our wealth will diminish.  But is that what we really want?  Having an economy that depends on cheap imported products from China, using up more non-renewable resources powered by coal-fired plants polluting the atmosphere while inducing severe climate change, is just plain stupid.  So yes Dmitri is right, we are going to become a lot poorer in terms of Stupid Wealth, but a lot richer in terms of Smart Wealth (Please read the Smart Growth Manifesto for a great explanation of this idea).

The answers to future growth and wealth production are decentralization via localization, regeneration, remediation, renewables, and cybernation all of which results in greaterresiliency.  If we can achieve both local and global resiliency we can grow out of our technological adolescence and become a type 1 civilization.  This means the odds of our species surviving this century increases dramatically, and we can go on to become a space faring immortal civilization should that be our wish.

Here are details for the five trends I listed, and how each can change the world for the better:

Decentralization

This applies across the board.  Anytime critical needs are centralized the resources for those needs are subject to attack and failure.  If one power plant fails a domino effect can take place, knocking more power plants offline. The solution to creating a resilient energy supply that is resistant to overloads or sabotage is to localize power production through locally available renewable resources like solar, wind, and geothermal.  If every community had at least one power generator for every thousand people in combination with more renewable energy being generated on local rooftops, there is nothing short of a nuclear blast that could shut it all down. The more decentralized, localized and miniaturized the power generation, the more resilient and reliable it becomes.  In an ideal world all the power would be generated by the house or building itself.  This applies equally to food production, means of exchange (localized currency), manufacturing and defense. For an interesting read on localized defense, read John Barr’s Power To The People. The topics John covers are both frightening and reassuring. But here is a good excerpt:

A newly vigilant and networked public will push for much greater levels of transparency in government and corporate operations, using the Internet to expose, publish, and patch potential security flaws. Over time, this new transparency, and the wider participation it entails, will lead to radical improvements in government and corporate efficiency.

On the national level, we’ll see a withering of the security apparatus, but quite possibly a flowering in other areas. Energy independence and the obsolescence of conventional war with other countries will reduce tensions between the United States and the rest of the world. The end of oil will also force corrupt states, now propped up by energy income, to make the reforms they need to be accepted internationally, improving life for their people.

Perhaps the most important global shift will be the rise of grassroots action and cross-connected communities. Like the Internet, these new networks will develop slowly at first. After a period of exponential growth, however, they will quickly become all but ubiquitous–and astonishingly powerful, perhaps as powerful as the networks arrayed against us.

Localization

This is really the same thing as decentralization.  The localization movement is definitely picking up steam, as more people are beginning to realize that governments don’t work very well, and needs are best met locally.  The aftermath of Katrina is a classic case of government gone wrong. There is a great book called The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, which is a users manual for transitioning your community from one dependent on centralized sources of food, energy, and currency to a localized one.  A localized resilient community would be one that generates all of its own food, energy and many or most of its products. Desktop manufacturing will do a lot to bring the power of production down to the local level, reducing the current expensive and polluting means of transporting products from one corner of the globe to another. A product designed in Malaysia can then be sent online to you in Kansas, where it can be manufactured locally. A resilient community would also have a robust locally issued currency that is immune from government issued fiat currency that is fixed and manipulated by the most powerful for their benefit at the expense of everyone else.(See the video Money is Debt, for a fantastic explanation of the evils of corporate banking and government issued fiat currency). Localized currency is the way to go, and their many thriving examples, including the Totnes Pound in the UK, and the Berkshares in Western Massachusetts.  At last count there are over 1200 local currencies in the US alone. The Totnes Pound was the brainchild of the author who wrote The Transition Handbook.  He’s created a network of towns in the UK that are all making the transition to local resilience.

Another great idea is a Time Bank, where you deposit time by doing tasks for other members, who in turn get paid for your services with time they deposited. Time Banks are now operating in 22 countries and growing.  Here’s a good quote from a guy who has combined the two concepts of local currency and time into what he calls Ithaca hours, in Ithaca New York.

We printed our own money because we watched Federal dollars come to town, shake a few hands, then leave to buy rainforest lumber and fight wars. Ithaca’s HOURS, by contrast, stay in our region to help us hire each other. While dollars make us increasingly dependent on transnational corporations and bankers, HOURS reinforce community trading and expand commerce which is more accountable to our concerns for ecology and social justice.”

Regeneration

Regeneration is the ultimate endpoint of comprehensive recycling.  To accomplish this will require two primary fronts of advancement.  The first is new, efficient and cost-effective means to recycle materials we’ve already created, and the second is transitioning more of our products to using materials that can be recycled.  Advances on both fronts will result in a middle ground combination of materials that are biodegradable, low or negative carbon footprint specific, and/or easily recycled non-biodegradable stock.  Advances are happening on all these fronts, and those companies willing to spend money on research and development stand to reap huge financial rewards from innovation in recyclable materials and processes.

In the meantime, there are huge tracts of land that have been destroyed by pollution or non-sustainable agricultural processes.  The solution is to engage in aggressive bioremediation efforts to regenerate the soil, clean up the toxic waste and polluted water stores.  Solutions for this are already here, including nanofilters for cleaning water, microbes for cleaning and rendering harmless toxic waste, and advanced permaculture methods for bringing dead land back to life. John Todd developed what are called Living Machines, that can turn waste water back into drinkable water.  With Todd’s help the Tennessee Valley Authority has already done this with their water supply, and has cleaned up their polluted river in the process. There are many good sources for information on how to  do this for yourself. Some good starter books include Introduction to PermacultureFrom Eco-Cities To Living Machines,  Edible Forest Gardens, and Mycelium Runnng (which shows how to remediate dead soil using mushrooms).

Renewables

This is a no-brainer.  If your energy supply is produced locally from readily available sources such as wind, solar and geothermal, there is no dependence on outsiders, whether it be large energy corporations or foreign states for supple of your energy needs.  The added bonus is the energy is clean, green and non-polluting, which in turn eliminates the expenses added by pollution, including health costs and remediation of polluted lands.

Cybernation

This involves both the continuing transformation of more of our world into bits, which can be transported and replicated at next to no cost, and the increasing intelligent automation of more of what makes our world run.  If more of our services and products are conducted and generated online, it reduces the need for material and energy costs of doing the same thing in the analog world.  Just imagine how much energy costs will be reduced by reducing dramatically the need for transportation of goods, when they can be made locally by the advancement of desktop manufacturing technologies.

Then there is the continuing network effect ov more people get online, more high quality information becoming available, and connections to people and resources becoming more relevant through semantic intelligence, peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and better social networking services.  And with Moore’s Law of accelerating returns we’ll continue to get computer power for less and less money.  Advances in all the areas mentioned above will become accelerated too, as everyone can connect with the right people at the right time, spreading knowledge, know-how and creative solutions more rapidly than ever before.

Resiliency & Anti-Fragility and Thrivability

So what’s the result of all this?  Our quality of life will improve dramatically because we’ll all be wealthier, healthier, and safer from smart growth.  This will produce cost savings in the trillions per year, reductions in pollution and far greater resiliency for our world.  Imagine the incredible reduction in cost when all of the materials that are currently being chewed up by mining, the cutting down of rain forests, and the pollution of lands and waters, are no longer needed.  Imagine if you can get almost everything you need within 5 miles of your home.  Imagine the cost reductions when food, energy and materials are all available locally through permaculture, biointensive gardening, local aquaculture, living machines, abundant clean energy and desktop manufacturing.  It’s a future worth working on, and we can start building it today.

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The 2009 quest for Edge is “What will change everything?”. There are lots of great ideas, many of them transhumanist in flavor, including indefinite lifespans and superintelligence. Below are some of my favorites:

The Limits of Reductionism in an Open Universe from Stuart Kauffman:

The evolution of the biosphere, the economy, our human culture and perhaps aspects of the abiotic world, stand partially free of physical law and are not entailed by fundamental physics. The universe is open. Many physicists now doubt the adequacy of reductionism, including Philip Anderson, and Robert Laughlin. Laughlin argues for laws of organization that need not derive from the fundamental laws of physics.

I’ll give one example – autocatalytic sets. The central point about the autocatalytic set theory is that it is a mathematical theory, not reducible to the laws of physics, even if any specific instantiation of it requires actual physical “stuff”. It is a law of organization that may play a role in the origin of life. But then it is not true that the unfolding of the universe is entirely describable by natural law. This contradicts our views since Descartes, Galileo and Newton. The unfolding of the universe seems to be partially lawless. In its place is a radically creative becoming.
The Renaissance of Global Education:

Haim Harari has this to say:

First, a technology-driven globalization is forcing us to see, to recognize and to fear the enormous knowledge gaps between different parts of the world and between segments of society within our countries. It is a major threat to everything that the world has achieved in the last 100 years, including democracy itself. Today’s world, its economy, industry, environment, agriculture, energy, health, food, military power, communications, you name it, are all driven by knowledge. The only way to fight poverty, hunger, diseases, natural catastrophes, terrorism, war, and all other evil, is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, i.e. research and education.  The time is with cheap and ubiquitous communication technology to make all the worlds knowledge available to everyone.

As someone whose spent any years teaching young people, I found Chris Anderson‘s words inspiring.

Take this simple thought experiment. Pick your favorite scientist, mathematician or cultural hero. Now imagine that instead of being born when and where they were, they had instead been born with the same in-built-but-unlocked abilities in a typical poverty-stricken village in, say, Ethiopia of 1980. Would they have made the contribution they made? Of course not. They would never have received the education and encouragement it took to achieve what they did.  Conversely, an unknown but vast number of those grinding out a living today have the potential to be world-changers… if only we could find a way of unlocking that potential.

Two ingredients might be enough to do that. Knowledge and inspiration. If you learn of ideas that could transform your life, and you feel the inspiration necessary to act on that knowledge, there’s a real chance your life will indeed be transformed. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students.

The realization that today’s best teachers can become global celebrities is going to boost the caliber of those who teach. For the first time in many years it’s possible to imagine ambitious, brilliant 18-year-olds putting ‘teacher’ at the top of their career choice list. Indeed the very definition of “great teacher” will expand, as numerous others outside the profession with the ability to communicate important ideas find a new incentive to make that talent available to the world.

Achieving A Type I Civilization

A lot my thinking, especially recently, has centered around how we can become a Type 1 Civilization.  Doing so means we have grown up and matured out of our technological adolescence. We’ve achieved global peace and prosperity, created a total regenerative and environmentally sustainable economy, and abundant clean energy.  It means we have learned to live in peace with ourselves and our fragile planet, and our ready to move off-world and begin colonizing the galaxy.  (See my post Healing the Planet, on some ways we might achieve this).

From Michael Shermer:

This January, 2009, in particular, finds us at a crisis tipping point both economically and environmentally. If ever we needed to look to the past to save our future it is now. In particular, we need to do two things: (1) stop the implosion of the economy and enable markets to function once again both freely and fairly, and (2) make the transition from nonrenewable fossil fuels as the primary source of our energy to renewable energy sources that will allow us to flourish into the future. Failure to make these transformations will doom us to the endless tribal political machinations and economic conflicts that have plagued civilization for millennia. We need to make the transition to Civilization 1.0.

Let me explain. In a 1964 article on searching for extraterrestrial civilizations, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev suggested using radio telescopes to detect energy signals from other solar systems in which there might be civilizations of three levels of advancement: Type 1 can harness all of the energy of its home planet; Type 2 can harvest all of the power of its sun; and Type 3 can master the energy from its entire galaxy.

We are close. Looking from this past toward the future, we can see that the forces at work that could prevent us from reaching Civilization 1.0 are primarily political and economic, not technological. The resistance by non democratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Type 0.4 chiefdoms. The opposition toward a global economy is substantial, even in the industrialized West, where economic tribalism still dominates the thinking of most people. The game-changing scientific idea is the combination of energy and economics — the development of renewable energy sources made cheap and available to everyone everywhere on the planet by allowing anyone to trade in these game-changing technologies with anyone else. That will change everything.

The Transhuman Cambrian Explosion

I think the metaphors most futurists use limit the imagination of what’s possible.  Talk of “machines” or “robots” or “artificial intelligence” simply doesn’t do the post-human universejustice.  I do like Andy Clark‘a crack at it:

But what really matters is the way we are, as a result of this tidal wave of self- re-engineering opportunity, just starting to know ourselves: not as firmly bounded biological organisms but as delightfully reconfigurable nodes in a flux of information, communication, and action. As we learn to celebrate our own potential, we will embrace ever-more-dramatic variations in bodily form and in our effective cognitive profiles. The humans of the next century will be vastly more heterogeneous, more varied along physical and cognitive dimensions, than those of the past as we deliberately engineer a new Cambrian explosion of body and mind.

A Never-Ending Childhood Through Re-establishing Brain Plasticity in Adults

From Leo Chalupa:

Several laboratories have already discovered ways to manipulate the brain in ways to make mature neurons as plastic as during early development. Such studies have been done using genetically engineered mice with either a deletion or an over-expression of specific genes known to control plasticity during normal development. Moreover, drug treatments have now been found to mimic the changes observed in these mutant mice.

In essence this means that the high degree of brain plasticity normally evident only during early development can now be made to occur throughout the life span. Imagine being able to restore the plasticity of neurons in the language centers of your brain, enabling you to learn any and all languages effortlessly and at a rapid pace. This technology could provide a powerful means to combat loss of neuronal connections, including those resulting from brain injury as well as various disease states.

I am optimistic that these treatments will be forthcoming in my lifetime. Indeed a research group in Finland is about to begin the first clinical study to assess the ability of drug treatments to restore plasticity to the visual system of adult humans.

See Alison Gopnik for more implications of this.

Beyond Governments and Markets: Fluid Social Cooperatives

New social systems have been the hope of utopian and hippie thinkers, but maturing networked communications technology could make it practical and achievable.

From Yochai Benkler:

The Great Deflation of 2008 has shown the utter dependence of human society on the possibility of well-functioning government to assure some baseline stability in human welfare and capacity to plan for the future. On the other hand, a gradual rise in volunteerism and cooperation, online and offline, is leading to a reassessment of what motivates people, and how governments, markets, and social dynamics interoperate. I expect the binary State/Market conception of the way we organize our large systems to give way to a more fluid set of systems, with greater integration of the social and commercial; as well as of the state and the social. So much of life, in so many of our societies, was structured around either market mechanisms or state bureaucracies. The emergence of new systems of social interaction will affect what we do, and where we turn for things we want to do, have, and experience.

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Optimism or Bust

January 1st, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Optimism or Bust)

I was just released from the hospital yesterday after having my gallbladder removed. This followed several months of debilitating pain that was difficult to diagnose.  I will write about this in more detail later, but today, the first day of 2009, I wanted to pass along some good ideas to kick start 2009.

First I’d like to quote extensively from Alex Steffan over at Worldchanging.

The first is from the highly acclaimed Worldchanging book:

Optimism is a political act.

Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.

Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics. Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.

 

More from Alex in his post titled, The Apocalypse Makes Us Dumb:

Courtesy of fear-mongering=money Hollywood, we have the following largely false precepts:

1) The Apocalypse is coming. There is a tendency to believe that big, catastrophic and singular events are going to come and destroy everything: that the Bird Flu or whatever is going to suddenly happen and immediately life will be hell. (The funniest example of this is climate change in The Day After Tomorrow, where sea level rise is so sudden that water rushes down the streets of New York in great rolling waves.)

2) The Apocalypse is forever. In disaster movies and such, people seem to lack the ability to regroup and rebuild.

3) The Apocalypse is everywhere. In the movies, collapse makes the whole world a wasteland. Everything crashes and burns; everyone dies; knowledge and law are driven entirely from the planet, or at very least confined to some very distant semi-mythical outpost paradise for which the survivors year

But reality is quite different from this. In reality, even the worst large-scale disasters come in variable speeds; in even the worst disasters, effects are uneven, with some places devastated and others left only mildly scathed; and in almost all disasters, rebuilding begins almost immediately (even the Black Death killing a third to half of the population didn’t put much of dent in Europe’s evolution — indeed some argue it accelerated trade and innovation).

In reality, in a disaster those with the largest stable group and the highest degree of cooperation come out on top, and, in fact, it is often those places which are best governed and most socially coherent that assist other places in the rebuilding… and those hard-hit places are generally quite receptive to good ideas for putting the pieces back together.

Because the intelligent response to looming crisis is a mix of all-out efforts toward prevention and widespread societal preparation. It’s foresight, planning and cooperation, good investments and strong public service capacities. The smart move, when you’re worried about the end of the world end, is to change it.

 

Alex then makes some insightful comments in his post Lazy Dystopia’s, which echoes much of what I’ve been saying for years:

Why is the dystopian future always literally dark? Why is it always raining or overcast? Why is the architecture always a mix of hyper-modernism, brutalism and squatter slum? Why is the politics always so transparently totalitarian, so fascist-plus-rebels? Why is it so retro and abstract?

Why doesn’t the dystopian vision ever include sunshine and children playing in its ruins? Why does it not include the constant, untiring efforts of most people to do what they can with what they have to improve their situations? Why are most people in the dystopian future always powerless to change anything? I could go on, but you get the point.

Jason Stoddard proclaims the need for speculative fiction that is strange and happy:

The world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve read about active corneal overlays for augmented reality and Russian chatbots good enough to pass simple Turing tests (and immediately being used for sex chat.) Where we live is getting strange. But this doesn’t mean it’s a dystopia, or that we’ll be bowing to evil corporate overlords whose only mission statement is to rape the planet, or that we’ll have mind control installed against our will, or that we’ll all die because of climate change or slowing economic growth or whatever the cause du jour is. So why can’t we be strange–and happy?

As I commented to Alex Steffan today:

I believe the current and extended dark spell got it’s start in the early Rea years of 1981-82, with movies like Blade Runner and Mad Max, and was further exacerbated by the works of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling who cemented us into Legacy Futures (courtesy Jamais Cascio) of dystopian cyberpunk and steampunk dead ends. This dystopian way of thinking became so pervasive, that even Star Trek started it’s irreversible decline toward bleak dystopianism with the advent of Deep Space Nine shortly after Roddenberry died.

Alex adds to this sentiment and says

The fault lies with a few other people as well, including Ridley Scott, Alan Moore, William Gibson, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Masamune Shirow. Scott brought us “Blade Runner,” and pioneered a vision of the future that used postmodern pastiche not as a clever device (as in Nouvelle Vogue films like “Week-end”), but as a worldbuilding tool. In the same year “Blade Runner” was released, Moore published “V for Vendetta,” and followed it up with “Watchmen” four years later. Both stories feature totalitarian regimes infecting previously-democratic societies and exacerbating systemic poverty and oppression. The result is a bricolage aesthetic of mingled opulence and detritus. But you could say the same about Gibson’s novels from the same decade, as well as Otomo’s and Shirow’s manga — “Blade Runner,” “V for Vendetta,” and the “Akira” manga all came out in the same year, and since then, anyone dealing with dystopian futures has struggled with the glorious burden of that heritage.

Alex made a point of talking to Syd Mead, the designer who did much of the worldbuilding for the movie Bladerunner.

I asked him this very question: what would it take to make a movie of Bladerunner’s imaginative power, set in a positive future? He paused for a second and said he thought it’d be very difficult, that catharsis is so important to people, and people are so terrified of the future, that you’d need some completely new vision of what the future will look like to even set the scene for a new narrative… and that is obviously no mean feat.

Most science fiction sucks, as Norman Spinrad said, precisely because it’s too lazy to imagine let alone devise workable solutions to how these futures can either be diverted or ameliorated should we find ourselves in them. This pessimistic malaise that afflicts so many otherwise intelligent thinkers continues to motivate me today to keep writing, inspiring and working towards better solutions.  As Spinrad says,

‘What’s wrong with science fiction is part of the same damn crisis, and I’m not kidding. What’s wrong with science fiction ultimately is an aspect of what’s wrong with conglomerate corporate capitalism, the publishing part, because in terms of how many good books are being written every year, there’s nothing wrong. The last ten years, there are 20 or 30 good-to-great novels every year, and you really can’t complain. The problem is, they’re buried in an avalanche of cynical commercial crap. That’s a dysfunction of the publishing industry, and it affects what writers write.

”There’s another thing wrong with science fiction, and I think it comes from the culture too. How much science fiction is being published now that’s set in worlds that are better than ours? Not that have bigger shopping malls or faster space ships, but where the characters are morally superior, where the society works better, is more just? Not many. It becomes difficult to do it, and that’s a feedback relationship with what’s happening in the culture, with science fiction being the minor note. People don’t credit it anymore! Not just better gizmos and more virtual reality gear, but better societies. People don’t believe the future will be a better place. And that is very scary.

‘Providing hope is something science fiction should be doing. It sounds arrogant to say it, but if we don’t do it, who the hell will? One of the social functions of science fiction is to be visionary, and when science fiction isn’t being visionary, it hurts the culture’s visionary sense. And when the culture isn’t receptive, neither is science fiction. It’s a downward spiral.’

Alex concludes and says, “We may be at the turning point, however, if other readers are feeling the same sense of saturation that you are.”

I think we are.  During the Depression, people didn’t go to the movies to see more downers, they went to see the grand musicals and spectacles to uplift and inspire them. If recent box office failures like the dreadfully bad remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still are any indicator, Hollywood better get their asses in gear and start making bright, green, optimistic, and convincing stories of the future if they to continue getting movie goers.

I think we are long overdo for a radical change in narrative.  We have a new president on the way, and problems that can be solved now if we are willing to work our asses off to make them a reality.

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Heal the Planet, Live Forever, Travel the Stars

December 8th, 2008 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on Heal the Planet, Live Forever, Travel the Stars)
floating-green-ecocities

Vincent Callebaut’s Lilypad Ocean City

Solutions to all the world’s problems are all around us.  Every day there are thousands of new solutions presenting themselves to solve every pressing problem facing the planet and humanity.

It was Bucky Fuller who made this observation back in the 1960’s, that given sufficient willingness we have everything we need now to house, clothe and feed every human being on the planet ten times over, and at a standard of living equal to a billionaire.  What is required, Bucky Fuller said, is a Design Science Revolution.  Updating this for modern time, what we really need is a Green Design Science Revolution.

Green architecture comes in many forms, and they get more amazing by the day – urban skyscraper farms, floating eco-citiesglowing solar towersturbine-driven skyscrapersmagnetically levitated wind collectors. Where does it end?! Vincent Callebaut is definitely of the leading architectural visionaries leading this movement.

Lets start with the picture [to the right]. The so-called Lilypad Project is perhaps the most fantastical of these green wonders. The idea is to create a series of floating self-sufficient ocean-going eco-city islands. Each one would be able to house 50,000 residents and would support a great deal of biodiversity. Collecting pools located in their centers would gather and filter water for use on board.

These would be places for adventurers and refugees alike as water levels rise around the world and threaten many, particularly island, habitats. As fears of global warming induced population displacement are steadily realized, the allure of waterborne aquatecture becomes more and more enticing.

floatingcity143

Designed by Alexander Asadov, this incredible floating Aerohotel (pictured above) features a lighter-than-air aesthetic that sits serenely atop an elegant system of supports. Conceived as an elevated aquatic structure replete with hanging gardens, the space-age floating island preserves the entire extent of the ecosystem beneath it, contrasting with man-made islands that disrupt their immediate environment with tons of gravel fill.

The beauty of most of these solutions is they not only solve their intended design problem, they also solve many of the other problems of the world as well. Whether it’s poverty, pollution, political tyranny, climate change, disease, or environmental degradation, they are all related to each other via a complex web of life in a materially closed system at the bottom of a gravity well.  Solve one piece of the puzzle, and the rest of the puzzle gets a little bit easier to solve as well.

Although I’m still a bit jaded with the American political process, I’m more hopeful than ever before. The reasons are many, but most especially the “can do” attitude that is sweeping the nation since Obama’s victory.  It’s a shift in consciousness.  I’m seeing solutions, rather than intractable problems.  I’m seeing that we can do anything if we’re willing enough. And I’m not the only one feeling it, millions around the world are.

Thanks to 8 long years of disastrous policy and rampant corruption, people have seen just how much bold faced lies and crap they can take. People are fed up with the constant bullshit, and they are not going to take it anymore.   When pundits and other so-called “experts” say we can’t do this, or we can’t do that, people are crying foul!  I’ve heard it on the radio, and seen it on the streets. People know now that we can do anything if we set our mind to it.

I heard a recent radio interview with some so-called electric car supporter saying it will takes us decades to convert even 25% of our car fleet to electric and plug-in hybrids, except this time he was out smarted, and out WILLED by everyone else on the panel, including the callers, who said their is no reason we can’t convert to 100% renewable and electric vehicles in half the time – if we are willing.

Better Place, a company that aims to build a worldwide electric car charging infrastructure, has announced an agreement with the state of California to build a $1 billion network in the Bay Area. Meanwhile, Tesla CEO Elon Musk says his company is looking at rapid charge technology, and the possibility of swappable batteries.  The entire US fleet of vehicles could be powered by renewable energy.

recent study done by Mark Z. Jacobson at Stanford University says that wind, water and sun beat biofuels, nuclear and coal for clean energy.

Wind was by far the most promising, Jacobson said, owing to a better-than 99 percent reduction in carbon and air pollution emissions; the consumption of less than 3 square kilometers of land for the turbine footprints to run the entire U.S. vehicle fleet (given the fleet is composed of battery-electric vehicles);l the savings of about 15,000 lives per year from premature air-pollution-related deaths from vehicle exhaust in the United States; and virtually no water consumption.

 

“There is a lot of talk among politicians that we need a massive jobs program to pull the economy out of the current recession,” Jacobson said. “Well, putting people to work building wind turbines, solar plants, geothermal plants, electric vehicles and transmission lines would not only create jobs but would also reduce costs due to health care, crop damage and climate damage from current vehicle and electric power pollution, as well as provide the world with a truly unlimited supply of clean power.”

Jacobson’s research is particularly timely in light of the growing push to develop biofuels, which he calculated to be the worst of the available alternatives. In their effort to obtain a federal bailout, the Big Three Detroit automakers are increasingly touting their efforts and programs in the biofuels realm, and federal research dollars have been supporting a growing number of biofuel-research efforts.

“That is exactly the wrong place to be spending our money. Biofuels are the most damaging choice we could make in our efforts to move away from using fossil fuels,” Jacobson said. “We should be spending to promote energy technologies that cause significant reductions in carbon emissions and air-pollution mortality, not technologies that have either marginal benefits or no benefits at all”.

The three best alternatives that Jacobson is mentioning are each seeing revolutionary advancements. The Maglev wind turbine is designed to generate up to 1GW of power.

maglev2

Magnetic levitation is an extremely efficient system for wind energy. Here’s how it works: the vertically oriented blades of the wind turbine are suspended in the air above the base of the machine, replacing the need for ball bearings. The turbine uses “full-permanent” magnets, not electromagnets — therefore, it does not require electricity to run. The full-permanent magnet system employs neodymium (”rare earth”) magnets and there is no energy loss through friction. This also helps reduce maintenance costs and increases the lifespan of the generator. Maglev wind turbines have several advantages over conventional wind turbines. For instance, they’re able to use winds with starting speeds as low as 1.5 meters per second (m/s). Also, they could operate in winds exceeding 40 m/s. Currently, the largest conventional wind turbines in the world produce only five megawatts of power. However, one large maglev wind turbine could generate one gigawatt of clean power, enough to supply energy to 750,000 homes. It would also increase generation capacity by 20% over conventional wind turbines and decrease operational costs by 50%. If that isn’t enough, the maglev wind turbines will be operational for about 500 years.  A few hundred of these could power the entire American car fleet.

Beyond centralized solutions, there are plentiful cheap individual ones as well.  Accessible individual wind power is getting cheaper all the time, such as Helix Wind residential wind turbine.

On the Solar front we have Nanosolar’s printed solar cell.  They are already creating and selling massive sheets of solar cells for less than $1.00 per watt.  Their current manufacturing output now exceeds all other solar manufacturers in the world combined!  They are claiming prices of less than 30 cents/watt are achievable once manufacturing goes mainstream. To put this in perspective, the current price for coal is $2.10 per watt.  Solar and wind are becoming cheaper all the time, and are no competitively cheaper than the more dirty alternatives.  There is no excuse anymore to use the dirtier alternatives, other than providing corporate welfare to obsolete industries (coal, oil, nuclear, etc.).  The only downside to sources like the sun and wind, is they are not continuously available.

Enter Deep Geothermal.  Currently, geothermal plants exist near fault lines and other areas where hot temperatures are closer to the surface.  For example just south of Reno, Nevada there is a geothermal plant that powers the entire city, or equivalent to 220,000 homes. This tiny plant and all of its facilities takes up less than 8 acres of land.  This plant works because it’s sitting on top of a geothermal basin, where hot temperatures are right under the surface. So location is everything with current geothermal implementations.  Deep geothermal technologies change this because they are able to dig deep enough, that location doesn’t matter anymore.  With deep geothermal power water is pumped down to the hot rock, heated, and then brought back to the surface to turn turbines for electricity. Dig deep enough and boiling hot temperatures are available everywhere.  You could set up a geothermal plant anywhere power is needed.  Nevada is also home to Solar One, the third largest solar concentration plant in the world, producing 64MW of power on less than 400 acres.  Combine Nevada’s abundance of sun, wind (especially in Northern Nevada) and resident surface geothermal could power most of the United States, turning Nevada into one of the 10 biggest economies in the world.

Cars meanwhile could be converted over to running mostly or entirely by electricity.  About 90% of the population drives their cars less than 100 miles a day.  So the limited range of current battery technology would take care of 90% of automobile energy consumption. The other 10% could be a combination of electric and plant-based fuels with 100 – 300 miles per gallon possible.Rather than these plants taking place of food crops, they could be saltwater based and be grown in currently non-arable areas.  The use of saltwater crops for food and fuel could expand the world’s arable land by 50%! That’s over 50 million square miles of previously uncultivated territory in the world’s coastal deserts, inland salty soils, and over-salinized agricultural land (For more information on salt-water agriculture see Food vs Fuel).  The water for these salty plants could come directly from the ocean.  Meanwhile a portion of this seawater could be desalinized, bringing fresh water to the very arid regions that need it. An added benefit of all these saltwater plants along with renewable energy could cut global greenhouse gases back to pre-industrial levels

As I mentioned in Regreening the Earth, the European Union has proposed building out a massive renewable energy works that would tie together very-large scale solar facilities in Northern Africa, offshore wind powered turbines in the North Sea to form a large universal energy grid. The Africans would also get a cut of this cheap energy, since most of the solar plants would be in the Northern Sahara.  As part of this plan,  large scale desalination plants would line the African coastline to bring much needed water to areas of Africa that have been suffering from devastating droughts and desertification.  This massive increase in fresh water to Africa would alleviate many of Africa’s problems with hunger, disease, and poverty. The potential for re-greening Africa is very compelling, and could be a model for re-greening much of the rest of the world.  Comprehensive solutions like this EU proposal is precisely what the world needs to making the world a better place and bringing us all into a prosperous and robust 21st century future. .

However, climate change is but one part of our current environmental crisis.  The other is the wholesale destruction of fragile ecosystems taking place around the world. Locations like Indonesia and the Amazon are seeing the most diverse plant and animal kingdoms give way under chain saws and bulldozers. These vital ecosystems, having evolved over millions of years, are bring destroyed for short-term economic gain.

The problem of resource depletion is big, and it will require an equally big solution  What we need is a wholesale transition to a world-wide regenerative economy – based on value, rather than debt.  (  A regenerative economy is one that recycles and regenerates everything it uses and creates back into the economic fold to be used again and again.  This eliminates both the need for chewing up the planet or creating toxic landfills.

To get a better understanding of the regenerative economy, I recommend watching Sustainability is Only Half the Solution, Regeneration is the Other Half.

Below is an artist depiction of San Franciscos powered by geothermal energy “mushrooms” and algae-harvesting towers produce hydrogen, which is stored and distributed via a series of carbon nanotube walls. Fog catchers capture moisture from the atmosphere to distill fresh water.

sf-ecotopia

A network of above ground and underground systems “fulfill infrastructural needs for the movement of people, water, hover-cars, and energy throughout the city”. Taking cues from nature, a giant super system resembling seaweed and chantrelle mushroom will hold together this network to collect water, power and distribute it across the city.

sf-ecotopia-004

The biggest challenge in creating a regenerative economy is converting waste back into useful materials.  This includes all of our waste such as water, petroleum based plastics, and precious metals.  One solution to having abundant clean water will be the widespread adoption of cheapnanofilters, which have already proven effective in treating waste water. Biodegradable and recyclable plastics exist, and only require infusions of capital investment to become cheap enough to compete head on with traditional plastics.  Saltwater agriculture + plant based plastics = win-win regeneration.   Add in the growing potential of nanotechnology and microbe-based reclamation tools, and we could clean up and eliminate ALL of the toxic materials we’ve ever created, while simultaneously restoring damaged ecosystems. Human civilization finally becomes a deeply organic and fully integrated part of the biosphere.

All of this effort toward creating a sustainable and regenerative economy would simultaneously solve many, if not most of the world problems.  It would create hundreds of millions of new jobs.  It would allow developing and third-world nations the opportunity to leap-frog entirely the polluting and wasteful industrializing phase right into a clean, green, regenerative economy.  This would result in a radical reduction of world-wide poverty and hunger, while bringing them the benefits the best of the 21st Century has to offer.

So this brings me to two other pressing problems – population growth and political tyranny.  As I mentioned previously, all the worlds problems are interrelated.  The rapid rise in pollution, industrial waste, and environmental destruction can be directly linked to population growth.   Population growth in turn means more competition over dwindling resources, which means more wars, genocides, and politically oppressive regimes run by brutal dictators and junta’s, supported by first-world industrialists.  BUT, if the means to health, wealth and economic prosperity can be had without further resource depletion, then the incentive for war is significantly reduced.  The same goes for political oppression and culturally based genocide wars, which are the result of desperate, ignorant people caught in the web of poverty, disease and lack of education.  Economic prosperity and education go hand-in-hand.  If developing nations are able to access the world’s knowledge through the internet, this opens them up to the rest of the world. Freedom is a tantalizing thing, and once people have it they will do everything they can to keep it and expand it.  I found out just yesterday, Saudi Arabia now has it’s own all-girl rock band called Accolade.  Their hit song Pinocchio is getting massive airplay throughout the middle east.  They still can’t perform live, and must wear their black shawls while in public, but the influence of downloadable music and iPods is having a cultural influence on the young in oppressive regimes.

When people are well off economically several things happen – they are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to commit acts of terrorism, and less likely to have children, and less likely to put up with assaults on their freedom.  The net population growth in the First World is zero.  All population growth is happening in Second and Third World countries and their immigration into First World countries.  Improve the economic conditions of the world’s poor, and population growth stops.

All this will take is willingness to make it happen.   Most people don’t even know their are solutions, or think it is way more difficult than it seams.  So it’s about educating and inspiring as many people as possible.  This is why I’m cautiously optimistic that if a minimum threshold of people wake up and adopt a can-do attitude we can in fact make it happen.

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The Singularity and The Apotheosis

February 7th, 2000 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized - (Comments Off on The Singularity and The Apotheosis)

By Eliezer Yudkowsky

The Singularity holds out the possibility of winning the Grand Prize, the true Utopia, the best-of-all-possible-worlds – not just freedom from pain and stress or a sterile round of endless physical pleasures, but the prospect of endless growth for every human being – growth in mind, in intelligence, in strength of personality; life without bound, without end; experiencing everything we’ve dreamed of experiencing, becoming everything we’ve ever dreamed of being; not for a billion years, or ten-to-the-billionth years, but forever… or perhaps embarking together on some still greater adventure of which we cannot even conceive… that’s the Apotheosis.

We accept the possibility that this future may be unattainable; there are many visualizations under which Apotheosis is impossible. Probably the most common category is where the superintelligences have no particular reason to be fond of humanity – all superintelligences inevitably come to serve certain goals, and we don’t have any intrinsic meaning under whatever goals superintelligences serve, or we’re not sufficiently optimized – so we get broken up into spare atoms. Perhaps, in such a case, the superintelligences are right and we are wrong – by hypothesis, if we were enhanced to the point where we understood the issues, we would agree and commit suicide.

There was a point where I was sure that superintelligent meant super-ethical (probably true), and that this ethicality could be interpreted in anthropomorphic ways, i.e. as kindness and love (unknown). Now, with the invention of Friendly AI, things have gotten a bit more complicated. Apotheosis is definitely a possibility. I refuse to hope for an Apotheosis that contravenes the ultimate good, but I can hope that the ultimate good turns out to be an Apotheosis – and if there is no “ultimate good”, no truly objective formulation of morality, then Apotheosis is definitely the meaning that I’d currently choose. So I hope that all of us are on board with the possibility of an Apotheosis, even if it’s not necessarily the first priority of every Singularitarian.

The Principle of Apotheosis covers both the transhumanist and altruist reasons to be a Singularitarian. I hope that, even among the most philosophically selfish of transhumanists, the prospect of upgrading everyone else to godhood sounds like at least as much fun as being a god. There are varying opinions about how much fun we’re having on this planet, but I think we can all agree that we’re not having as much fun as we should.

Even after multiple doses of future shock, and all the other fun things that being a Singularitarian has enabled me to do to my personality, I still like to think of myself as being on track to heal this planet – solving, quite literally, all the problems of the world. That’s how I got into this in the first place. Every day, 150,000 humans die, and most of the survivors live lives of quiet desperation. We’re told not to think about it; we’re told that if we acknowledge it our minds will be crushed. (11). I, at least, can accept the reality of child abuse, cruelty, death, despair, illiteracy, injustice, old age, pain, poverty, stupidity, terror, torture, tyranny and any other ugliness you care to name, because I’m working to stop it. All of it. Permanently.

It’s not a promise. It can never be a promise. But I wish all the unhappy people of the world could know that, whatever their private torment, there’s still hope. Someone, somewhere, is working to stop it. I’m working to stop it. There are a lot of evil things in the world, and powerful forces that produce them – Murphy’s Law, blind hate, negative-sum selfishness. But there are also healers. There are, not forces, but minds who choose to oppose the ugliness. So far, maybe, we haven’t had the knowledge or the power to win – but we will have that knowledge and that power. There are greater forces than the ugliness in the world; ultratechnologies that could crush Murphy’s Law or human stupidity like an eggshell. I can’t show an abused child evidence that there are powerful forces for good in the world, forces that care – but we care, and we’re working to create the power. And while that’s true, there’s hope.

There is no evil I have to accept because “there’s nothing I can do about it”. There is no abused child, no oppressed peasant, no starving beggar, no crack-addicted infant, no cancer patient, literally no one that I cannot look squarely in the eye. I live a life free of “the normal background-noise type of guilt that comes from just being alive in Western civilization”, to paraphrase Douglas Adams (12). It’s a nice feeling. All you have to do is try to help save the world.

Related Links:

The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

The Singularity Principles

Singularity Watch

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