Tuesday, April 25, 2006


In English today we discussed ICT and Language, and the point that we are all interdependent when it comes to technology came up. Even someone who knows how to program a computer doesn’t necessarily know how the PC actually works. Computer technology and its close affiliate, information technology, have spawned a whole raft of ideas and concepts that would be unfamiliar to anyone from before about the 1920s and with the rapid development in these fields techniques and concepts can rapidly become irrelevant and whole new problems can crop up overnight (being flippant here, but you know what I mean).

I’m prepared to bet £300 that if you took any group of 100 people from a progressive Western democracy, dumped them on a completely untamed and uncivilized planet (as they do in Strata) with only the most basic tools (i.e. axe, hammer, shears – this is cheating a bit anyway) most of them would be dead within a month, and those that survive would probably not continue to do so for very long (however in Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross the posthuman AI-run-amok deposits people on barely terraformed planets with cornucopia engines and suchlike).

The point is that you can’t sit down in a jungle and make a 3 GHz Intel Celeron processor chip using “the knowledge of the woods” or some garbage. Every achievement in every field of human endeavour is the top of a massive, broad pyramid of ideas based on things like subsistence agriculture.

In his recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail and Succeed Jared Diamond (such a brilliant name!) discusses how social trends during times of economic success affect the rise and fall of civilizations (there’s a whole lot more as well, and it looks to be a fascinating book…). It is a point of considerable debate in some quarters as to exactly how durable and resilient our society actually is.

What we can justifiably assume from human nature is that when things are going well people will tend to assume they will stay that way forever. Do I need to back this assertion up? Probably, but I can’t be bothered. Look at the .com bubble. Look at the whole stock market for Chrissakes. People expect things to stay pretty much the same as they always have done, and act surprised when things change. As Ray Kurzweil explains in The Singularity is Near people have difficulty absorbing trends that take more than five years or so to become apparent because our resolution of events tends towards the second – minute – hour level, with perhaps the top end of perception being in the region of a year (speculation, people, speculation).

www.cyborgdemocracy.net is a blog and website that advocates democratic transhumanism. Go see them for their explanation for what a transhumanist is, what a democratic transhumanist is, and what a libertarian humanist (or extropian) is. The origins of the extropian movement are complex (i.e. I can’t be bothered to describe it in detail and would rather make a crass generalisation from limited knowledge, which is much more fun than being professionally journalistic ;-)). As far as I can work out a sentiment among Americans, represented by the ideals of libertarianism, which advocates limiting of the control of the state over the individual, rampant free-market capitalism, a night watch state, and the abolition of hierarchy, collided with the creation of the Internet and simultaneous progress in fields like AI, biotechnology (e.g. the Human Genome Project), and the imminent arrival of nanotechnology.

Libertarians who lived in the time of Thomas Carlyle were allowed to run rampant in Britain between about 1830 and 1860, and the night watch state that was instituted for much of that time simply didn’t work. Free markets were revealed to be just as capable of crushing people underfoot as dictatorships and kingdoms. The wealthy couldn’t be relied upon to be charitable enough to help those unable to help themselves and the interdependence of people is society was revealed: no one could pull anywhere unless they pulled together. As a result of the backlash against this state of affairs you get Karl Marx, Engels, socialism and a fifty year-war that almost destroyed the planet. However social reforms like the NHS in Britain, universal suffrage, and the New Plan in the US resulted in the wonderfully progressive, generally cheerful and happy-go-lucky tradition of liberal democracy that we (i.e. someone who owns or has access to a PC, Internet connection, is housed, and has time to spare to read weblogs (OK: that’s someone in one of the aforementioned progressive liberal democracies – or China…)) enjoy living with today.

Many libertarians, however, felt that all this social reform meant that more and more power was being taken back by the state (e.g. ID cards, control orders, evil instruments of the unholy like mobile telephone masts and speed cameras etc) and sometimes expressed themselves rather badly.

The problem was the libertarian system had been shown not to work. People needed the state for things like welfare, healthcare, education, crime fighting, and defence. Advances in technology seemed to offer a solution though: if you can develop an anti-aging technology it would remove much of the need for a public healthcare organisation in a stroke (lol) and with viable nanotechnology-based “autodocs” we could…

And on and on and on… The point is that extropians imagine that “magic technology” can cure all of society’s ills (including, apparently the need for a state). I don’t buy this personally. It’s a utopian dream for sure, and maybe one day we could all live long, happy and fulfilling lives by virtue of our wondrous sufficiently advanced technology. But first: who makes the nanotech? Second: who makes the AI? Third: What about commons? Fourth: Anarchy doesn’t work sunshine (we had anarchy way back in 4000 BC, and now we don’t – I wonder why?).

You could argue that the last two solve themselves: commons are replaced by magic technology, real estate by constant expansion out into space by home-grown diamond starships, courts and justice systems can by bought and sold (mmm really?) and anyway we’ll-all-be-uplifted-superintelligences-living-in-a-computer-so-we-won’t-disagree-
about-anything-anyway (more cynical noises – we’ll leave out the posthumans ’cause lets face it: we don’t know nuffink about ’em).

The point is that although technology can empower the individual (I’m writing a blog her after all…), it can’t (yet) solve every damn problem we have. I think we still need a democratic state structure (possibly modelled on the Swiss version of nearly direct democracy, rather than our own FPTP representative version – direct democracy is an interesting topic and one that could be pursued on a much larger basis now communications technology and connectivity are such as they are in the developed world).

If the admirable aims of transhumanists are to be realised I think it will only be through cooperation and integration into a broader, global, society. I don’t mean globalisation; I mean something more like this. The fact is that even if I had a PhD in “the application of artificial stem cells using Darwinian algorithms to solve problems in a surgical context” I would probably not be able to design the chips the computer that ran the algorithm or have enough expertise in polymer creation to make the fabric of the swivel chair I used at my work station, or know how to hunt a seal for that matter.

Twenty odd years ago a certain British politician was purported to have said that there “is no such thing as society”, and today we are still living with the consequences of her philosophy. Technology can’t replace society as technology is society, and society is people. Ergo, technology is people.

Society is as much a technology as anything else, as is any structure of the mind, like language, which helped our genetic ancestors get to our level of intelligence. Evolution is a dynamic process, after all, even if it is way out of our aforementioned perception of change, and it would seem that the advent of tool-use, language and fire all contributed to us. As we continue this ongoing process it accelerates as we adopt more and more effective methods to amplify our actions and our ideas. Thinkers like Ray Kurzweil reckon that once we’ve got this AI thing cracked then the next stage of the evolution of intelligence will be attached to the increasingly increasing rate of improvement in ordered information (as in: information with a purpose, the better the order, the better it can fulfil its purpose, which can be sentient, intelligent life).

It is frightening to consider how helpless I would be as an individual in an unknown and hostile environment, having to fend for myself against nature and all her ills. But fortunately for me I live within a web of devices, both large and small, tangible and intangible, that ensure I am well fed, looked after, educated and reasonably happy. The transhumanists are right: technology will allow us to transcend the poorer aspects of our nature and become better than we are, we know this because to a large extent it already has.

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