IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Fellows > Jamais Cascio > Futurism > Technoprogressivism > SciTech
Living Inside a Scenario
Jamais Cascio   Aug 31, 2011   Open the Future  

For more than a decade, I have worked in the field of scenario development, consulting with businesses, governments, and NGOs about possible futures. There’s sort of a rule of thumb among professional futurist-types: scenario elements that sound plausible are almost certainly wrong, while scenario elements that sound utterly implausible are very likely on-target.

That’s generally true, although it applies more to the disruptive aspects of a scenario than to the everyday aspects. (That said, a scenario that said “most people in the West continue to live quiet lives, using their barely-sufficient income to pay for disposable commodity goods and overly-processed food,” while both plausible and very likely on-target for the next decade or three, is more depressing than illuminating.)

Good scenario disruption points should be things that, in the here-and-now, would make you say “Oh, crap” if you heard them in the news.

Oh, crap.

Nanotechnology researchers in Mexico, France, Spain, and Chile have been targeted by a terror group calling itself “Individuals Tending Towards Savagery,” and claiming to be inspired by the Unabomber.

Unabomber-copycat terror cell hits nanotech researchers in the developing world and Europe—I’m not sure that anything could sound more like a headline from a scenario exercise.

bombYou can find the manifesto of the group in Spanish here (this is not the group’s website, but a site that republishes relevant material); a Google translate version in English is here. The translation is a bit spotty in places, but gets the message across. For me, the most unsettling part is that (a) I know several of the people they mention as villains, and (b) I fit their criteria for potential targets.

Reading the piece is like a checklist for a scenario’s anti-technology movement: beyond the approving Unabomber citations, they have quotes from Bill Joy’s essay, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” misunderstandings of what nanotechnology is and isn’t, and intimations of further violence against researchers, along with (now trendy!) attacks on Facebook for destroying the ability of young people to think. For the record, I don’t believe that Joy or any of the other non-Unabomber folks whose writing they cite approvingly (explicitly or implicitly) would in any way support this group.

But this is why I keep writing pieces like “Not Giving Up” and “Sanity”—reminders (especially to myself) that the way forward is going to be filled with danger, but we can’t let danger—and chaos, and despair, and the relentless demands that we just give up—be the only option.

I’ve been thinking, recently, that one way to define “progress” is “when the future turns out better than we expect it to be.” Given how grim things seem to be, and how many signals of disruption we seem to be getting, I can only hope that we’ll be seeing a bit of progress any time now.

Jamais Cascio is a Senior Fellow of the IEET, and a professional futurist. He writes the popular blog Open the Future.



COMMENTS

I reckon progress happens when we define what we want and then get closer to that objective. I agree about the way forward being filled with danger, but I’m less convinced about relying on “hope”. Determination and well-targeted action seem more promising.

At http://peterwicks.wordpress.com I’ve briefly sketched out the beginnings of an argument that human intention might even have the power to reverse the second law of thermodynamics. No idea whether this is original, let alone remotely robust, but I find the idea that the “thermal death” scenario might not be our inevitable fate to be quite exciting.

As for the “individuals tending towards savagery”, it occurs to me that they are part of a long tradition, starting with the Luddites and continuing more recently with Al Qaeda, of neurotic and doomed protest against modernity. Should we be taking them seriously?

“I’ve been thinking, recently, that one way to define “progress” is “when the future turns out better than we expect it to be.” “

Interesting definition of progress.
Key, too, is understanding where extending existing ethics are likely to bring that about and where extending existing ethics may work against that goal and need to be revised.

One thing is certain about our future—it will be enmeshed in a staggering number of inputs, each of which will have staggering variable degrees of intensity. This superabundant complexity will rebuff human predictions and computer models as the future holds too many imponderables, too many things that we don’t know and cannot even insert placeholders for because we don’t know how to approximate their values.  One example is the forecasting of severe seismic and weather events: even the best science of our day hasn’t come close to mastering something so elemental (which is not the same as saying elementary). And even if we did have that particular aptitude, there would remain a raft of other combinatorial problems too varied for us to factor into a timely and coherent prospectus. Although some hold out hope for an intelligence explosion that will be able to solve the hard intangibles about the future, even the intelligence explosion is contingent upon numerous latent factors that could delay or even defeat efforts to realize it.

With regard to massive technological change, I—along with many others—deplore violence and threats, favoring instead: ongoing scenario-planning; continually revised plans for regression testing; and studies aimed at probing the problems of unintended consequences, patent/ownership gridlock, and the effects on the truly disadvantaged.  These futurological studies would, of course, always be preliminary and heuristic in nature, and not represent any kind of direct forecasting.  Humanity will proceed into the technological future via a kind of intellectual daisy-chaining, not in one imaginative leap.

Just because anticipating massive change will be difficult and necessarily incomplete of course doesn’t mean it is not worth doing. I would encourage all sides, technophobes, techno-skeptics and techno-progressives, to set out on a dialectical path together, one that frankly looks at both potential up- and downsides to massive change rather than going down the polemical, eristical or triumphal paths that have been far too much in evidence. 

My emphasis on uncertainty and caution may rub some the wrong way, so it might be worthwhile to consider the words of a writer who considered himself a consummate rationalist, Friedrich Engels—materialist thinker, sponsor and colleague of Karl Marx, and co-author of The Communist Manifesto. In an excerpt from a letter written in 1890, Engels’ articulates his views on the materialist conception of history:

History proceeds in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, and every one of them is made into what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus, there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces, which give rise to one resultant—the historical event. This may in its turn again be regarded as the product of a power that operates as a whole, unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else and what emerges is something that no one intended.

Engels’ flatly no-nonsense look at the unfolding of history will, it is hoped, serve as a realistic antidote both to the glassy-eyed hosannahs of the Singularitarians as well as the retreat into violence and fear on the part of Catastrophists who fixate on worst-case scenarios without acknowledging the many potential benefits from innovation by technical means.

The actual Luddites didn’t oppose technology in general and they didn’t target scientists. This group employs different tactics and has different goals from both the Luddities and Al Qaeda.

@Summerspeaker.. Point taken, yes of course there are differences. But similarities as well.

To answer my own question, I think the answer is yes, we should take these people seriously. But not too seriously, for the reason noted by Jamais Cascio: it risks breeding fatalistic defeatism, which at the moment I think is a greater threat than hubris.

@ rascheR duB

Quote - “My emphasis on uncertainty and caution may rub some the wrong way..”

In fact, not at all! Perhaps the more realistic view and “safeguard”, is the acceptance of the uncertainty to which you point out. If we change our outlook to one of acceptance of uncertainty, (obsolete the dilemma), then we may be able to dispel the dangerous irrational fears of the future, both for and from such radical groups and luddite/religious fundamentalists?

In other words we may use this certainty of uncertainty of the future to encourage the dismissal of irrational fears, rather than support or give credence to the importance of fear mongering from radical groups?

Am I talking about faith in the future, whatever future unfolds? Yes! Yet not merely blind hope, (which implies some weak-willed acceptance of fatalism?) I am talking constructive and determined faith that leads to positive actions and solution seeking, and a directive towards positive change in global consciousness to support this world view?

And how would we do that? .. Well I’m glad you asked!


Now the answer to all of our woes and troubles, confusion, uncertainty and misdirection may be “eased” and eventually superseded by?... wait for it? The emerging Global mind, (or noosphere, as iPan also alludes to recently).

And why?

Without going into a massive rant once more, here are some key words to contemplate

Supercomputers!
Internet connectivity, (allegedly access is now a human right.. right?)
Social networks
Crowd sourcing and re-sourcing
Data mining 24/7
Transparency
Free market and trade without political restriction nor interference
The eventual elimination of hoarding and tax evasion, illicit trade dealing and etc
Socio-economic change and stability through international cooperation
Supercomputers!
Dissemination of knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment, and ideas
Dissemination of technologies, healthcare and expertise
Instantaneous dissemination of Global news and information
The emergence of the interconnected global mind, (the mind that never sleeps)
Supercomputers!
The Transformation of Global human consciousness
Oracle of combined re-sourcing, emerging collective intelligence, (impartial)
Eventual Mind-machine interfacing
The evolution of planet Earth as an intelligent ecosystem, biosphere, bio-mechanical sphere
Individualism and diversity supported by a fundamental understanding of connectivity and interconnectedness, and the shift in human global consciousness to embrace this.
Spiritual, (dirty word), and ethical evolution for humanity


And if this sounds just too much to swallow, may I state that I am not talking about the magical emergence or giant leap towards AGI and machine consciousness. The sheer volume of collectible, stored and shared information, the interaction of human conscious and subconscious as connected “nodes”, (neurons), to a global network, the interconnected human reaction to resourced data - “implies” the emergence of phenomenological interconnected consciousness - the Global mind will be conscious and self-reflexive, because it will be comprised of human minds that already are self-reflexive?

And my point to all of this? .. is that it also supports this realisation of uncertainty about the future that rascheR duB alludes to? And that is the beauty of the emerging Global mind, like the internet, it cannot be constrained not halted. It cannot be manipulated by individuals?

A single idea can change the world view, a single mind is strong enough to create influence, (negative or positive) - this I strongly believe. Yet the “safeguard” against the dangers this article highlights, the dangerous radicalism and nihilism, will be the immersive nature of the Global collective and connected consciousness - in other words, size matters? The Global mind and consciousness will not be easily swayed by secular and isolated groups, nor individuals? Fears and dangerous radicalism will be “absorbed” by the greater whole?

Obviously, there are also potential dangers concerning the sinister manipulation of minds, misdirection, corruption, secrecy and other obstructions and machinations that are opposed to radical change, (usually acted out by those who see themselves with most to lose - ie; rich and powerful elite, and that includes nation state despots and also conservative/luddite governments and political parties).

Francis Heylighen on the Emerging Global Brain
>> http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/goertzel201103


The above quote from Engels seems to align itself with Hegel’s notion of a “world spirit”, (natural emerging phenomena of evolutionary history - albeit with repetitive cycles), proposed by Hegel as replacing the notion of God, and that which effectively renders the individual as insignificant in obstruction and importance to the “whole”. (Not that I necessarily agree with this philosophical view point that is - and nor did the Romanticism that followed Hegel?)

Did Engels in fact derive these ideas from Hegel I wonder?

Are there any experts on Hegel here at IEET?

Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje (ITS) has an important critique of industrial society as a system of domination and a source of profound alienation. Treating the group as irrationally backwards supports the progress narrative that has traditionally functioned to justify all manner of outrages associated with the expansion of colonialism and imperialism.

Concerning shaping “World view” and predicting future hazards and scenarios

Metasystem Transition Theory
>> http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/MSTT.html

@CygnusX1:

Engels’ postion on dialectics was indeed shaped by his reading of Hegel, although Engels held a materialist and economically egalitarian version of The Dialectic (the famous thesis—> antithesis—> synthesis formula was Engels own coinage) as opposed to Hegel’s idealist-metaphysical dialectic that culminated in the manifestation of the Will of a World Spirit.  Hegel’s dialectic was concerned with unity rather than equality (Hegel’s three part schema was unity—> discord—> resolution).

On the subject of potential disruptions along the way forward, Summerspeaker mentions alienation. Hegel was one of the thinkers who first forwarded this now widespread concept. Hegel’s term was Entfremdung, generally translated into English as estrangement or alienation. Hegel’s alienation referred to a fragmented unity—something that he considered a normal, if painful, part of the historical process from which would eventually issue a more profound unity.

More than any other 19th-century authors, Marx and Engels developed a more humanist definition of alienation, which became the seedbed for protest against concentration of capital and ownership.  The Marxian concept of alienation has endured up to the present time, despite the decline of advocates for Marx’s other ideas.  Alienation’s more toxic fruits can be seen in the anti-technocratic backlash from groups such as Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje.  Just as Marx’s notion of alienation stemmed from the workers’ estrangement from the means of production and the surplus value provided by their labor,  ITS seems to position itself as the voice of those distanced from the levers of change and who have no say, those who—like Marx and Engels’ workers—are subject to massive change, but cannot create it, direct it, or prevent it.

If we take violence out of the formula, this is not an unreasonable position to take. People who contribute to society through consumption or by doing unskilled or semi-skilled work are indeed at risk for being stiffed as the delights of the new technological age are being distributed.  The question of fundamental fairness must be addressed.

Those who feel excluded or unrepresented by The Incredibly Weird Technological Future may feel, like the workers depicted by Marx, that their “labor is external . . . it does not belong to their intrinsic nature . . . The workers therefore only feel themselves outside their work, and in their work feel outside themselves.” As can easily be imagined, dissociation and disenfranchisement from the currents of new technology may engender a deep, visceral and angry reaction toward massive technological change. As others have pointed out, ITS shares this visceral anger with al-Qaeda, as well as fundamentalists and backward-looking extremists of all stripes, a type of bitter-ender that Hans Magnus Enzensberger has dubbed The Radical Loser

As far as the Global Brain, let me add: beware of the Global Syntax Error, the Global Bad Result, the Global System Crash.  CygnusX1 posted a link to an interview about the Global Brain in which Francis Heylighen said:

. . . a search engine such as Google answers a query: it does not provide a single answer that you have to take or leave, it provides an ordered list of possibilities, and you scroll down as deep as you want if you don’t like the first suggestions. In practice, the search technology used by Google is already so good that in many cases you will stick with the first option without even looking at the next ones. In practice, this means an increase in individual freedom.”

Contrast that with recent observations by science writer James Gleick in his 8/18/2011 review of Steven Levy’s book In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives:

Google’s business is not search but advertising. More than 96 percent of its $29 billion in revenue last year came directly from advertising . . . Like all forms of artificial intelligence, targeted advertising has hits and misses. Levy cites a classic miss: a gory New York Post story about a body dismembered and stuffed in a garbage bag, accompanied on the Post website by a Google ad for plastic bags . . .There is no information utopia. Google users are parties to a complex transaction . . . Governments are responding in part to organized complaints by Google’s business competitors, including Microsoft, who charge, among other things, that the company manipulates its search results to favor its friends and punish its enemies.

Google is a commercial not a humanitarian or inherently generous operation and we should expect it and other players in the AGI/Global Brain field to be answerable to inquiries about values, ethics, privacy, and system capabilities (redundancy, self-correction, restore-points, auto-shutdown).

There are genuine social issues here. One need not go to the extreme of endorsing sabotage and intimidation to realize that it is naive to think of the rapidly expanding developments in AI, robotics, nano, and gentech as value-neutral and equal-access. We must all be willing to analyze the political and profit motives of advanced technology enterprises. This means being willing to ask uncomfortable questions about who benefits and who is being taken for a ride (pleasant as that ride may seem to the unwary). 

Maintaining openness and encouraging participation between the designers of the technological future and the citizens who will be inducted like-it-or-not into the technological future is the best way I can think of to reduce violent backlash and isolation.  And therein lies, to my mind, the way in which the essays and comments on IEET can play a significant role, i.e., by allowing for intelligent debate on issues of fairness and justice as they pertain to changes in technology, education, and the human paradigm.

@ rascheR duB..

Thanks for the information and clarification regarding Engels and Hegel, and for highlighting summerspeaker’s important point regarding alienation.


Quote – “.. Just as Marx’s notion of alienation stemmed from the workers’ estrangement from the means of production and the surplus value provided by their labor, ITS seems to position itself as the voice of those distanced from the levers of change and who have no say, those who—like Marx and Engels’ workers—are subject to massive change, but cannot create it, direct it, or prevent it.”

Quote – “If we take violence out of the formula, this is not an unreasonable position to take. People who contribute to society through consumption or by doing unskilled or semi-skilled work are indeed at risk for being stiffed as the delights of the new technological age are being distributed. The question of fundamental fairness must be addressed.”

Quote – ” Google is a commercial not a humanitarian or inherently generous operation and we should expect it and other players in the AGI/Global Brain field to be answerable to inquiries about values, ethics, privacy, and system capabilities (redundancy, self-correction, restore-points, auto-shutdown).”

Excellent points!

May I propose yet again, that the emerging Global mind is, in fact, the solution to all of these issues, including the problems and potential hazards that the global mind itself creates? That rather than reliance and hope upon some singular point of salvation, (or fear of destruction), or “dreams” of post scarcity utopia, that we focus on utilising the infrastructure and the technology and the tools that we already accept and take for granted here today, namely the World Wide Web, and the Internet, and the increasing emergence of online human activities?

At present this may appear as a purely holistic viewpoint and ideal, and yet it is this holistic viewpoint which is of most fundamental importance. All problems, issues and hazards that arise should be self-correcting, assuming that the global interaction of human minds and consciousness is not politically constrained? Real-time crowd sourcing, data mining and solutions seeking is being utilised by the likes of Google and other corporate giants even as I write. They too see the true potential of online trending and data mining to create real-time solutions to Global issues and concerns.

I propose that the increasing connectivity of human minds and consciousness will fundamentally reshape socio-economics and Capitalism, (which will be the major obstruction to real progress?)
In an online peer-to-peer globally interconnected free-market ideal, import and export politics, political embargo, and the Capitalism ideology will become radically changed, or may become redundant altogether? Replaced by Social-economics?

The sharing of ideas, innovations, technologies and knowledge will become essential, and the rewards and payment for these innovations and innovators will be supported by alternate means of payment and reward that will eventually supplant the materialism of wage and monies altogether, (although I would still imagine the use and necessity of currencies and monies for exchange of goods and services in remote real-world locations?)

How do we overcome the problems of alienation? The answer is increased participation, the essential need and requirement for participation, and the philosophy and understanding of inclusiveness and interconnectedness. As I indicated above, online crowd sourcing, and re-sourcing, (of human minds and interactions), should aid to overcome alienation and hopefully ease existential angst?

In a world of increasing socio-economic instability, mass unemployment, social alienation, frustrations and unrest, and catastrophic dilemmas such as climate change – it is collective online human interaction and participation that can provide the solutions and feedback necessary to overcome hazards and any dilemmas as and when they occur, effectively in real-time?

Imagine geo-engineering solutions applied to interactive crowd sourcing and information of online weather chatter? (as well as the data processing from satellite weather stations).

Imagine earning revenues from participation in online studies, referendum and political opinion? A solution to ease unemployment and increase social participation and overcome alienation?

Imagine earning revenues from market research that drives real-time innovations and design, and which contributes to drive the free-market to provide for what people actually want and need?

And here’s an example of how Google has transformed and migrated from mere consumerism to provide real-time Global solutions to flu pandemics trending and forecasting – which ultimately saves lives, as well as provides valuable insight for international health institutions, drugs manufacture, social government and logistics. Consumerism and advertising, while essential and important for revenue creation and consumer awareness, is merely the tip of the iceberg?

Google.org – Flu Trends

“Each week, millions of users around the world search for health information online. As you might expect, there are more flu-related searches during flu season, more allergy-related searches during allergy season, and more sunburn-related searches during the summer. You can explore all of these phenomena using Google Insights for Search. But can search query trends provide the basis for an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena?”

>> http://www.google.org/flutrends/about/how.html

Quote – ” Maintaining openness and encouraging participation between the designers of the technological future and the citizens who will be inducted like-it-or-not into the technological future is the best way I can think of to reduce violent backlash and isolation. And therein lies, to my mind, the way in which the essays and comments on IEET can play a significant role, i.e., by allowing for intelligent debate on issues of fairness and justice as they pertain to changes in technology, education, and the human paradigm.”

This is precisely the philosophy and ethic that is supported by the realisation of the Global interconnectivity of minds, the Global mind.


What is a world view?

“One of the biggest problems of present society is the effect of overall change and acceleration on human psychology. Neither individual minds nor collective culture seem able to cope with the unpredictable change and growing complexity. Stress, uncertainty and frustration increase, minds are overloaded with information, knowledge fragments, values erode, negative developments are consistently overemphasized, while positive ones are ignored. The resulting climate is one of nihilism, anxiety and despair. While the wisdom gathered in the past has lost much of its validity, we don’t have a clear vision of the future either. As a result, there does not seem to be anything left to guide our actions.”

>> http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/WORLVIEW.html

 

It’s also worth contemplating the pace of rate of change - this does not necessarily mean any obstruction to technological advancement, just how we re-evaluate our Global politics and philosophies to cope with it?


Slow Road to the Future

http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/treder20100514


Why Slow Matters

http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/treder20100615

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