Saturday, January 24, 2004

Whole Earth Review is dead

According to Cory Doctorow, writing in BoingBoing, the Whole Earth Review -- "Access to Tools and Ideas" -- is dead in the water and unlikely to revive any time soon. I'm kind of aggravated, as I had an article due in their next issue, the Singularity issue. WER published Vinge's seminal essay back in 1994 and probably deserves more credit than it ever actually got for kick-starting the green tech movement.

Anyway, one mag's loss is one blog's gain, I hope, and if nobody screams at me I'll update and post the whole 3000 word piece I wrote for WER on the topic of Panopticon Singularities on CybDem next week.

Friday, January 23, 2004

Staying Alive

Annalee Newitz’s latest Techsploitation column takes on longevity medicine. Although her verdict is ultimately less affirmative than my own, she manages to make the skeptical arguments more pleasantly and amusingly than is usually the case. What is key in her argument for those of us who champion genetic medicine in the hope that it will deliver greater longevity and morphological freedom, is that she shows once again why the technical case for the plausibility of longevity is not enough. We have to explicitly take on political questions that tech-minded longevity triumphalists would sometimes rather not wade into: for example, ensuring that unequal access to longevity treatments doesn’t re-write the already acute crisis of haves and have-nots practically into a kind of permanent speciation – or ensuring that longevity not unduly strain the environmental commons on which we all depend.

Newitz concludes her piece: “Although the idea of taking pills to stay alive an extra 100 years is tempting, the idea of popping one makes me feel profoundly guilty. Life is good, but only if everybody has equal access to it. Maybe someday we'll have solved enough problems in our respective societies that I can suck up the world's resources for an extra 100 years without repercussions. But we're not there yet.”

She is right. Longevity will only represent a good if access to it is shared across human civilization. I think the perspective of a technophilic left should be to insist that the promise of longer lives is a spur to a renewed effort to address problems of global inequality, rather than using the crisis of global poverty to reject or resist the conspicuous goods of longer healthier lives for all. I would like to think that people would behave more rationally and with an eye to the longer-term if longevity medicine promised them that even the distant future was less an abstraction than a world in which they themselves will be living, a world shaped by how responsibly they act here and now. Also, I would hope that a polity that delivered longevity beyond nature’s three score and ten would be one that even silly anti-gu’ment Americans would have the sense to affirm and work to better as citizens.

Voting Without a Trace and the Threat to Democracy

Paul Krugman’s latest NYT Op-Ed nicely summarizes the threats posed by security vulnerabilities in electronic voting systems.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

More Posthuman Queerness: Boytaurs and Ponyplay

Thanks to fleshbot for bringing to my attention one of the new transformation-based sexual subcultures that have been growing via electronic mediation and networking:
boytaur \'boi-tawr\ n 1 : a guy with four (or more) legs 2 : a guy with any of a variety of multilimb or other transformations 3 : a guy who enjoys the company of boytaurs, and is thus a boytaur in spirit

There's something wildly, almost primally, attractive about a guy with four legs: the crowding of long, sculpted thigh muscle, the four calf muscles bobbing and working in rhythm with his four-legged walk, the four strong male feet supporting his powerful boytaur body. Boytaurs know this attraction well, and it is our constant joy, both to have and to share.

Of course, many boytaurs don't stop with four legs. Some add more legs, going six-legged or more. Some add extra arms. And many, enjoying all their boytaur feet, decide to go wristfooted as well. Other boytaurs have completely different transformations, or none at all, but are still boytaurs in spirit, enjoying their augmented bodies, and sharing that joy freely. is dedicated to helping that sharing go on across the internet, all around the world.
Boytaurs are just one of a growing variety of "animal transformation" subcultures.

According to the Deviant Desires website,
Human-into-animal transformation is the stuff of shamanic ritual and children's fairytales. It's also one of the core metaphors of two of the most popular niche fetishes around today, PONYPLAY (and its many human pet subcategories, such as cowplay, piggyplay and puppyplay) and FURVERTS (with related subcategories fursuiters and plushies.) In both of these fetishes, people dress up in animal costume and behave like animals in more or less scripted scenarios.
At the "If Wishes Were Horses" site, which is devoted to the fantasy of being able to transform into a horse or unicorn, they devote a great deal of attention to future technological methods which will permit such transformations, such as nanotechnology:
Nano-bots could literally reconstruct a body from one form to another, providing they had the requisite information. Whether this would be a comfortable process or one in which the subject would have to be heavily dedated would have to be seen. The subject, if being rebuilt into a horse, would also need to either eat constantly or be intravenously fed with raw material for the nano-bots to build mass with. The easiest route would result in a horse that is equine cosmetically only: still genetically human. However, eventually nanotechnology might be be able to re-engineer DNA itself, and thus make a true equine.
There are many, many animal transformation sites, such as an active site for people who write transformation fantasy stories.

Anyway, I wrote my first transhumanist essay ten years ago and titled it "Embracing Change with all Four Arms: A Defense of Human Genetic Engineering" and I've been asked many times since "Why would anyone want four arms?" Now I've got an answer. At least for four legs.

Monday, January 19, 2004

Treder: Time to Make a Choice About Nanotechnology

Betterhumans has published an excellent paper from Mike Treder on regulating nanotechnology. I like his phrase "nano-anarchy," a policy that would surely lead to some of the grim scenarios described in the article.

When Treder described the type of social disintegration that could occur, I was reminded of the Mongol Hordes who swept through Asia and Europe hundreds of years ago. While they didn't have radically advanced technology per se, they did have the advantage of possessing superior and novel military tactics, an advantage of information technology. They were untouchable, and their Empire was one of the most formidable in all of human history. Similarly, I worry sometimes that a small band of fanatics could take the world hostage with nanotechnology.

Interestingly, it can be argued that our civil liberties would likely disappear in a world of nano-anarchy. As 9/11 so blatantly showed, when disaster strikes, the knee-jerks with similar force. It's only through tight and accountable regulatory regimes that we can have the confidence to maintain civil freedoms.

Because Pacifism Doesn't HAVE to be Dour and Frumpy

Strip-mining the Moon

In the midst of a surprising Reuters story that puts the Moon-Mars initiative in the appropriate context of the US militarization of space, the piece also mentions the possibility of the US achieving independence from OPEC oil through the mining of the moon's Helium 3. (link)
The moon, scientists have said, is a source of potentially unlimited energy in the form of the helium 3 isotope -- a near perfect fuel source: potent, nonpolluting and causing virtually no radioactive byproduct in a fusion reactor. "And if we could get a monopoly on that, we wouldn't have to worry about the Saudis and we could basically tell everybody what the price of energy was going to be," said (John) Pike. Gerald Kulcinski of the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Madison estimated the moon's helium 3 would have a cash value of perhaps $4 billion a ton in terms of its energy equivalent in oil. Scientists reckon there are about 1 million tons of helium 3 on the moon, enough to power the earth for thousands of years. The equivalent of a single space shuttle load or roughly 30 tons could meet all U.S. electric power needs for a year.
Hmm. Not only would the expropriation of the moon's Helium 3 be a land grab in violation of the UN treaties we never signed, but whaddya wanna bet that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-et-al. corporate cabal figure out some way to profit from its exploitation? Instead of a NASA-Russian-European mining operation freeing the world from fossil fuels, the oil industry becomes a space-based helium industry, and life goes on.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Richard Florida on the Creative Class War

Richard Florida, a Carnegie-Mellon prof and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, argues in this article published in the Washington Monthly that the Bushies' policies have helped depress the "creative class" industries in the US, and drive them to other countries.
For several years now, my colleagues and I have been measuring the underlying factors common to those American cities and regions with the highest level of creative economic growth. The chief factors we've found are: large numbers of talented individuals, a high degree of technological innovation, and a tolerance of diverse lifestyles. Recently my colleague Irene Tinagli of Carnegie Mellon and I have applied the same analysis to northern Europe, and the findings are startling. The playing field is much more level than you might think. Sweden tops the United States on this measure, with Finland, the Netherlands, and Denmark close behind. The United Kingdom and Belgium are also doing well. And most of these countries, especially Ireland, are becoming more creatively competitive at a faster rate than the United States.

...By 2000, the 21 regions with the largest concentrations of the creative class and the highest-tech economies voted Democratic at rates 17 percent above the national average. Regions with lower levels of creative people and low-tech economies, along with rural America, went Republican. In California, the most Democratic of states, George Bush won the state's 14 low-tech regions and rural areas by 210,000 votes. Al Gore took the 12 high-tech regions and their suburbs by over 1.5 million.

...Thanks to the GOP takeover of Washington, and the harsh realities of the Big Sort, economically lagging parts of the country now wield ultimate political power, while the creative centers - source of most of America's economic growth - have virtually none. Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer speak for Silicon Valley and Hollywood. New York's Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, also Democrats, represent New York's finance and publishing industries. Washington State, home to Starbucks and Microsoft, has two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. Boston's Route 128 and Washington's high-tech Maryland suburbs are also represented by Democratic senators. It's hard to understate how little influence these senators have with the Bush White House and in the GOP-controlled Congress.
The political upshot? Florida says Howard Dean is the creative class candidate this year, but that even Dean doesn't understand the potential. Yes, isolationism and religious fundamentalism alienates the creatives, but the real policy push should be on expanding higher education:
Most of the Democratic candidates for president have rightly sounded the alarm about rising college-tuition costs and offered ideas to expand college access. That's well and good, but we need to think far, far bigger. Our research universities are immigrant magnets, the Ellis Islands of the 21st century. And, with the demand among our own citizens for elite education far outstripping the supply, we should embark on a massive university building spree, for which we will be paid back many-fold in future economic growth. Building some of these top-flight universities in struggling red-state regions might give their economies a shot at a better future and help bridge the growing political divide.

More on Basic Income on Changesurfer Radio

Listen to my interview with my old friend David Glenn, about his article "Lending a Lasting Hand," in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education ("CHE" as we effectionately know it.) He reviews proposals for (a) giving government subsidies to hire the otherwise unattractive unemployed, (b) expanding government employment, and (c) setting up a universal basic income.

Robot-for-President yahoo group

A robot rights and robopsychology group has been in existence on yahoo since 1999: Robot-for-President
NASA-Ames is working on a HAL-like program which could be completed in as soon as 10 years we are told. Perhaps they reason that such AI's could advance the space program better than any human. An overall superhuman AI like this in time for US Election 2012 would transform the 'body politic' like nothing else in history. No political candidate would be competitive without a 'political avatar' because a superhuman AI (SHAI) would be able to field questions better than any human. SHAI's would spell 'The End of Work' as Rifkin titles his book. Since some presidents like those in the US are also military commanders-in-chief, there must also be a covert AI Arms Race underway. Should a secret military or private project complete an SHAI without public knowledge, the public could lose its freedom and privacy overnight, without even knowing it. These and other issues in the political psychology of robots and total automation are on topic.

'In 2008, she obtained her Ph.D. and joined U.S. Robotics as a 'Robopsychologist', becoming the first great practitioner of a new science.' (From Asimov's, 'I, Robot')"

Sterling reflects to Reason on uploading

Reason: Are we on the verge of post-humanity?

Sterling: I think we are on the verge of post-humanity, but I don't think it's going to look like what any Extropian thinks it's going to look like. At the end of my novel Holy Fire [Bantam, 1997], two post-humans meet. The woman is assessing her former husband and says he's a god. But he's not a god. He's a tommyknocker or a garden gnome. He' this thing which is no longer human and doesn't have human concerns.

There are methods of speculating about how this will play out, and some will have some traction, and some will be ideological or otherwise mistaken. The Extropian problem is thinking you can upload yourself into a computer and have this rapture of the nerds. It was a powerful fantasy of escaping the unbearable pressures of being human. And there are many unbearable pressures of being human. But you find that when you escape one of these things you generally bring all your baggage with you. We will escape some of the limits, but we will not escape into some pure electro-Platonic world any more than the Internet will turn out to be this pure electro-Platonic philosophers' realm.

Keep Tabs on the Iowa Caucus, On-Line, Realtime