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November 29, 2011

"To Prevail"

The following is my essay for Joel Garreau's Prevail Project.

I have in front of me a late 1960s advertisement from the Burroughs Corporation. It shows a sketch of a guy — in a snappy suit and crisp haircut — sitting at what one must assume is a Burroughs business computer. A large genie-like figure billows from the machine, and the caption reads “MAN plus a Computer equals a GIANT!


I love this image, despite the outdated sexism. It’s a healthy reminder that the notion of computers making humans something supremely powerful (and distinctly no longer human) isn’t just an idea dreamt up in the heady days of the 1990s, as Moore’s Law seemed to be really taking off. It’s been woven into the fabric of our relationship with “thinking machines” for decades. While there may have been no Mad Men-era Singularitarians fantasizing about being uploaded into a B6500 mainframe, it was clear even then that there was something about these devices that went beyond mere tool. They were extensions not of our bodies, but of our minds.

Of course, anyone sitting down at a 1960s Burroughs business machine right now expecting to become a figurative “giant” is in for a surprise. It may be something of a cliché at this point to note that a cheap mobile phone has far more computing power than a mainframe of a generation or two ago, but it’s true. Yet instead of making us all “giants,” our information technologies played something of a trick: they made us more human. All of the things that humanize us — love, sex, despair, creativity, sociality, storytelling, art, outrage, humor, and on and on — have been strengthened, given new power and new reach by the march of technology, not discarded.

That’s not the conventional wisdom. Western intellectual culture is in the midst of a civil war between two superficially distinct viewpoints: a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization, eliminating our humanity even if they don’t simply destroy us, versus a claim that transformative information technologies are set to sweep away human civilization and replace it (and eventually us) with something better. We’re on the verge of disaster or the verge of transcendence, and in both cases, the only way to hang onto a shred of our humanity is to disavow what we have made.

But these two ideas ultimately tell the same story: by positing these changes as massive forces beyond our control, they tell us that we have no say in the future of the world, that we may not even have the right to a say in the future of the world. We have no agency; we are hapless victims of techno-destiny. We have no responsibility for outcomes, have no influence on the ethical choices embodied by these tools. The only choice we might be given is whether or not to slam on the brakes and put a halt to technological development — and there’s no guarantee that the brakes will work. There’s no possible future other than loss of control or stagnation.

Such perspectives aren’t just wrong, they’re dangerous. They’re right to see that our information technologies are increasingly powerful — but because our tools are so powerful, the last thing we should do is abdicate our responsibility to shape them. When we give up, we’re simply opening the door to those who would use these powerful tools to manipulate us, or worse. But when we embrace our responsibility, we embrace the Prevail scenario.

To Prevail is to accept that our technological tools are changing how our humanity expresses itself, but not changing who we are. It is to know that such changes are choices we make, not destinies we submit to. It is to recognize that our technologies are manifestations of our culture and our politics, and embed the unconscious biases, hopes, and fears we all carry — and that this is something to make transparent and self-evident, not kept hidden. We can make far better choices about our futures when we have a clearer view of our present.

To Prevail is to see something subtle and important that both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution often miss: our technologies will, as they always have, make us who we are.

Human plus a Computer equals a Human.

The Prevail Project

Joel Garreau has one of the most sensitive radars for big changes of anyone that I know. I first met him back at GBN, and I quickly came to realize that I should pay very close attention to whatever he's thinking about or working on -- and what he's working on now is definitely worth the time to check out.

The "Prevail Project" (named for one of the scenarios in his book Radical Evolution) at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University is an attempt to draw together people thinking about -- and building -- a livable human future, one that uses (but is not dominated by) transformative technologies.

Joel's statement in the press release sums up his perspective:

"Prevailproject.org will be a place for everybody from my mother to technologists inventing the future to grapple with some of the most pressing questions of our time: How are the genetics, robotics, information and nano revolutions changing human nature, and how can we shape our own futures, toward our own ends, rather than being the pawns of these explosively powerful technologies?” said Joel Garreau, the Lincoln Professor of Law, Culture and Values at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and director of The Prevail Project: Wise Governance for Challenging Futures.

“The Prevail Project is a collaborative effort, worldwide, to see if we can help accelerate this social response to match or exceed the pace of technological change,” Garreau said. “The fate of human nature hangs in the balance.”

I'll set aside my resistance to the traditional "social response to technological change" model to celebrate the placement of this project in the Law School, and not as part of the school of engineering or some technical discipline. It's far too common to see these issues dominated by technologists (and technology-fetishists) with little understanding of law and culture; it's vital to get a more sophisticated understanding of society into the conversation.

As the Prevail Project kicks off its public unveiling, it has invited a set of writers to offer up their thoughts on what it means to "prevail" in a transformative future. Bruce Sterling's essay went up yesterday; mine went up today.

November 22, 2011


Just a quick update: after much complaining from people who wanted to comment but didn't like the authentication methods I had enabled, I've turned "anonymous" (i.e., enter an email address that doesn't get published) commenting back on. I'll have to filter more spam that way, but I'll persevere.

November 17, 2011


"We are as gods and might as well get good at it." -- Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Catalog, 1968.

Stewart Brand's observation has simultaneously enchanted, terrified, and driven me ever since I first heard it (probably some 20-25 years after he wrote it). It's both an admonition (we're not very good at being gods) and encouragement (...but we could be!); Brand saw that our capabilities as humans (when using the tools devised by human minds) equalled or exceeded most of the capabilities of the gods of myth, and even those abilities not yet in our toolkit would likely be right over the horizon. Brand also saw that our sense of ourselves, and our responsibility to the world, remained firmly rooted in simple humanity.

"We have more power than we think we do," he seemed to be saying, "and we can't use it wisely until we acknowledge that fact."

The statement can be critiqued from a number of perspectives, and has been. (My own push-back against it these days is that it has the equation exactly backwards. Gods are just people who can truly see the extent of their power.) But there's one observation about the "We are as gods..." line that I haven't seen elsewhere -- and it requires a little digression.

Matt Jones at BERG London asked me to participate in the "Tomorrow's World" event they were putting on for Internet Week Europe. "A night of drinks and ten minute talks" was the capsule description, and everyone who spoke had been asked to talk about the "near-future of..." some idea. Matt asked me to talk about the near-future of redesigning the planet.

I'm sure Matt expected that I'd do a quick geoengineering song-and-dance, and that was my original plan. But the more I thought about the topic, lying in bed at 4am cursing jet lag, the more I realized that I needed a different direction. And then I remembered the Brand line, and was struck by something I hadn't heard anyone else say.

"We are as gods --" okay, but which gods? In our generally monotheistic age, we tend to lump all "gods" and "godlike powers" into a bucket of Almighty Power. But that's not the way humans have thought of gods until relatively recently; for much of human civilization, gods were seen as individuals, with their own personalities, domains, and entries in an AD&D manual.

We are gods, but we're the gods of an earlier age. Powerful, yes, but petulant; wise yet warlike; arrogant and utterly capricious... and also able to create sublime beauty. The Greek gods were the ones that came to mind last week, but really nearly every mythic pantheon followed a similar pattern.

We are as gods, but we have gotten pretty good at it -- as long as we remember that this means we are as likely to be Loki as Athena.

November 16, 2011

Hacking the Earth, in London

TandBtalk geo

On Thursday, November 10, I gave a talk on geoengineering for the "Truth and Beauty" series at the Hub/Westminster. The host of the event, Vinay Gupta (a name you might recall from Worldchanging), video'd the talk and subsequent Q&A, and gave me a copy of the digital file. After a bit of iMovie fiddling, I managed to work the file down to under 500MB, and stuck it up on Vimeo. You can watch it there, or below:

HACKING THE EARTH at "Truth & Beauty" London, Nov 2011 from Jamais Cascio on Vimeo.

Some notes about the talk: I drop a few f-bombs, scattered throughout -- if you're of delicate sensibilities (or my mother), theres's your fair warning; for a variety of technical reasons (both production and post-production), the video image quality isn't what it could be -- fortunately, the sound quality is quite good, especially given that it uses the on-camera mic; and, as with most talks I give, this one is entirely extemporaneous, so expect a few mistakes -- I mention (and correct) one on the video, but there are undoubtedly more. If you catch something that's wrong, however, please do let me know.

November 1, 2011

London Calling At the Top of the Dial

I will be in London next week, and have arranged a talk -- open to the public -- on the topic of Geoengineering.

Thursday evening, November 10, I'll be speaking at the Hub Westminster, as part of the TruthAndBeauty series. I'll be giving a talk on geoengineering aimed at a general audience, talking mostly about the political and social complexities of the issue. Both geoengineering advocates and geoengineering opponents will find material to chew on (and probably get pissed about) here.

I'm using my standard geoengineering talk title: "Hacking the Earth (Without Voiding the Warranty)"

Talk begins at 8pm, dinner at 6:45.

Hub Westminster
80 Haymarket, London, SW1Y 4TE (map link)

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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