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September 29, 2009

New FC: The Singularity and Society

My Fast Company essay this week is a long one, offering up an overview of the Singularity concept for people who haven't following it closely -- as well as some thoughts about what might be missing.

Despite the presence of the Singularity concept within various (largely online) sub-cultures, it remains on the edges of common discussion. That's hardly a surprise; the Singularity concept doesn't sit well with most people's visions of what tomorrow will hold (it's the classic "the future is weirder than I expect" scenario). Moreover, many of the loudest voices discussing the topic do so in a manner that's uncomfortably messianic. Assertions of certainty, claims of inevitability, and the dismissal of the notion that humankind has any choice in the matter--all for something that cannot be proven, and is built upon a nest of assumption--do tend to drive away people who might otherwise find the idea intriguing.

And that's a problem, as the core of the Singularity argument is actually pretty interesting, and worth thinking about. Increasing functional intelligence--whether through smarter machines or smarter people--will almost certainly disrupt how we live in pretty substantial ways, for better and for worse. And there have been periods in our history where the combination of technological change and social change has resulted in quite radical shifts in how we live our lives--so radical that the expectations, norms, and behaviors of pre-transformation societies soon become out of place in the post-transformation world.

The essay ends with an invitation to join me for the Singularity Salon in New York this Saturday. Cross-marketing, people!

September 23, 2009

If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want to be Part of Your Singularity

All of the details have been worked out, so now I can talk about it: I will be speaking in New York City on October 3, at the New York Futures Salon. The subject?

Singularity Salon:
Putting the Human Back in the Post-Human Condition

aka If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want to be Part of Your Singularity

I'm very happy to announce that acclaimed futurist Jamais Cascio will be coming to lead our discussion of the Singularity, and what we should be doing about it. He's going to kick us off with a provocative call-to-arms:

With their unwavering focus on computing power and digital technology, leading Singularity proponents increasingly define the future in language devoid of politics and culture—thereby missing two of the factors most likely to shape the direction of any technology-driven intelligence explosion. Even if the final result is a "post-human" era, leaving out human elements when describing what leads up to a Singularity isn't just mistaken, it's potentially quite dangerous. It's time to set aside algorithms and avatars, and talk about the truly important issues surrounding the possibility of a Singularity: political power, social responsibility, and the role of human agency.

This should provide more than enough fodder for a lively discussion. I'm looking forward to a very special evening.

This is, in essence, counter-programming for the Singularity Summit, happening that same weekend (I'm not attending the Summit, fwiw). The 7pm start time for my event gives Summit attendees a chance to come on over after the last Saturday talk.

This is the first time I've give a talk on futures in New York, and it's open to the public (via registration for the Future Salon group). Hope to see you there.

September 18, 2009

New FC: Futures Thinking - the Basics

This week's Fast Company is now up. Futures Thinking: The Basics is an introduction to foresight and futurism, with the goal of making it something that many people can engage in productively.

Long-time futures practitioners may find the method described overly-simple, but my goal wasn't just to present something that could be readily understood by a reader without any futures experience. I also wanted it to be something that the people using the method could easily explain to their peers.

It's a pretty common problem in foresight work -- people engaged in a futures workshop get excited about the project and its implications, but find that they are unable to explain to their colleagues back home what they went through and what it meant. They keep getting caught up in trying to make sense of the process, to explain it in a way that is meaningful to those not in attendance.

The four scenario archetypes I describe are also quite a bit simpler than the "futures archetypes" employed by graduates of the University of Hawaii Futures Studies program. Those four (Growth, Collapse, Discipline, and Transformation), while useful, still require a bit of explanation as to their meaning. Is a slow decline a Collapse? Is Transformation a positive scenario? The advantage of the super-simplified archetypes (listed below) is that they're casual, not jargon, and most people would have roughly parallel interpretations of their meaning.

One technique that's good to start with is to use what some professionals call "futures archetypes"--generic headlines that offer platforms upon which to build more specific stories. Four that can be very easy to use are expectations:
  • The future is what I expect.
  • The future is better than I expect.
  • The future is worse than I expect.
  • The future is weirder than I expect.
The first three are fairly self-explanatory, but the last may be a surprise. The goal with the fourth archetype is to explore possibilities that completely shake things up (a big earthquake, perhaps, or a war, or a revolution in computing power). This doesn't mean fantasy--alien invasions and robot uprisings are probably best left to the movies--but it does mean something outside of your expectations. The phrase I love to use for this is "plausibly surreal."

Yes, once again I work "plausibly surreal" into the conversation.

September 10, 2009

....and another FC: APIs Are Not A Substitute for Ethics

Building on a Twitter post from the other day, my latest Fast Company essay looks at what happens when we try to limit misbehavior through tools, not rules.

The best kind of rules are those we apply to ourselves, those we believe in. Ethics--sometimes thought of as "how you behave when no-one is looking"--have the advantage of being readily applied to novel situations, and able to guide responses fitting the spirit of the law. People in positions of social power (such as doctors and lawyers) often receive training in ethics as part of their educations. What I'd like to see is the introduction of ethics training in these new catalytic disciplines.

Computer programmers, biotechnologists, environmental scientists, neuroscientists, nanotech engineers--all of these fields, and more, should have at least a course in ethics as part of their degree requirements. Ideally, it should be a recurring element in every class, so that it's not seen as just another hoop to jump through (check off the "is this ethical? Y/N" box), but instead as a consideration woven into every professional decision.

Along the way, I take a slap at a couple of my usual targets, too.

September 9, 2009

New Fast Company: Awareness is Everything

I'm a bit late in noting this, but last week's Fast Company article is indeed available. "Awareness is Everything" looks at what happens as we keep adding sensory awareness to our personal devices.

Imagine a desktop with a camera that knows to shut down the screen and eventually go to sleep when you walk away (but stays awake when you're sitting there reading something or thinking), and will wake up when you sit down in front of it (no mouse-jiggling required).

Or a system with a microphone that listens for the combination of a phone ringing (sudden loud noise) followed by a nearby voice saying "hello" (or similar greeting), and will mute the system automatically. [...]

... the question isn't "can this happen?," it's "will we want it?"


September 1, 2009

Social Transition Stress Disorder

In 2002, I wrote Broken Dreams, a guidebook for the Steve Jackson Games "Transhuman Space" role-playing game series. Broken Dreams covered global traumas such as conflict, social disorder, economic decline, and intellectual property. Part of the book concerned how various societies reacted to the big changes underway in the world, and in that section I included a brief description of a common response: Social Transition Stress Disorder, or STSD.

Here's how the description read:

Social Transition Stress Disorder, or STSD, first identified in 2052, is a chronic memetic illness affecting millions of people around the globe. Originally described as a traumatic reaction to interaction with robots (hence the common name, "cybershell-shock"), STSD is now recognized as encompassing a broad range of psychological effects arising from rapid, discontinuous social change. Known triggers for STSD include significant economic disruption or transitions, encounters (particularly unpleasant or threatening encounters) with new technologies, and paradigm shifts resulting from assimilation of new memeplexes. Symptoms vary, but usually manifest as depression and apathy; less frequently, paranoid anxiety or irrational hatreds (sometimes including violence) can result.

Incidence of STSD rises with the speed, degree, and surprise of a given change, and is typically cumulative – a succession of moderate cultural shocks can be much more damaging than a single large event. STSD is most commonly found in societies undertaking a rapid transition from Third Wave (or pre-Third Wave) to Fourth Wave culture and technology, although cases have also resulted from advanced regions falling into rapid decline (due to environmental or economic disasters). Treatment, typically a combination of memetic therapy and designer drugs, is well-understood, and can be very effective. Unfortunately, many of those most in need of STSD treatment are those least able to afford it.

I intended STSD to be something arising in a world of too-rapid change, a more medical/psych update of "future shock" -- something appearing late in this century, in a world of uploaded minds, self-aware AI, bioengineered robots, and so forth.

Looking back on this, however, it looks more like a description of the present. Set aside for a moment the in-game jargon about "Third Wave" and "Fourth Wave," cybershells and memes, and just think about what's being described here: psychological dislocation triggered by the social effects of big technological (or political, or demographic) changes.

One could easily diagnose the "keep government hands off my Medicare" screamers at political gatherings this Summer as suffering from STSD; certainly, the paranoid delusions about Obama's ancestry fit here. And it's not just politics. Moral panics around Facebook and anti-vaccination fears seem like manifestations of STSD, as well.

So what does this all mean?

Honestly, I'm not sure yet. It's definitely not just "new technology freaks people out, man," nor is it "[fill in the blank] just can't handle The Future." It's something more subtle, about perceived losses of control attributable to a world that differs in significant ways from the world they believed to be real.

My guess is that we're going to be seeing a lot more of it in the years to come.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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