You never know what unexpected quirky stuff is going to show up if you keep your eyes open.
This afternoon, Erin and I visited the Pasadena Museum of California Art to see an exhibition of works by Edgar Payne. We’re both fans of American plein-air painting, and Payne was a master of the technique – so the exhibition was a great success. But parking up, we found the Museum’s garage had its own artistic charm.
The graffiti is by artist Kenny Scharf, and instantly caught my eye with its images of rocket ships and swirling galaxies. The garage – or Kosmic Kavern – is the colorful legacy of an exhibition of Scharf’s work in the gallery proper in 2004 – his graffiti in the garage was just never cleaned off! Scharf’s work is influenced by the 1962 animated comedy sit-com The Jetsons, and there are other bits of space and nuclear iconography from the Golden Age of American Science spotted around – like the mushroom cloud and atom-swirl.
Some of the Jetson’s techno-utopia became a reality. But not, unfortunately, the aerocar or three-day week.
Imagine a future world where technology lets us control our own destiny, enhance our physical and mental performance, extend our lives – perhaps indefinately. How will we come to see ourselves as human beings? What will it mean to be human? And how can we manage it all for the common good.
This is the world of Humanity 2.0, and the subject of a new book from Warwick University Professor of Sociology Steve Fuller.
I have to say up front this is the first of Fuller’s books I’ve read through cover to cover, and frankly it was quite a challenge. Whether it’s the sociologist’s writing style or the somewhat discordant mix of practical and theological content, extracting what Fuller is really trying to say, his thesis if you like, was an uphill job. To his credit, Fuller has made a series of six short videos summarising his content, and which I’ve added to the end of this post. They came too late for me, but you’re advised to watch them before reading the book.
That said, I want here to give an overview of the content and critique a few areas particularly where I have issues.
Fuller wants to create egalitarian policy for the development and implementation of transhumanist technologies, and justify sociology’s seat at the multi-disciplinary table that will deliver it. It’s the laudable focus of his Chapter 3.
But his broader agenda is to dethrone what he sees as a prevailing hegemony of Neo-Darwinism (essentially what Darwin knew plus our knowledge of molecular genetics) and get an alternative variant of intelligent design (I.D.) taught in school science classes; p180:
…the most controversial aspect of my position, namely, that the active promotion of a certain broadly Abrahamic theological perspective is necessary to motivate students to undertake lives in science and to support those who decide to do so.
He’s accordingly raised his game by developing a brand of I.D. better suited to the task as he sees it; p177:
As a true social constructivist, I see myself as one of the constructors of intelligent design theory. I am not simply remarking from the sidelines about what others have done or are doing, as a historian or journalist might. Rather I am making a front-line contribution to defining the theory’s identity.
although it’s not clear how much of this is driven from heart-felt conviction. Variously describing himself as a Secular Humanist, Humanist, and now Transhumanist, in this Guardian interview from 2006 he appeared not to favour I.D., but felt it deserved a “fair run for its money”; apparently backing any horse, however lame, that will run against Neo-Darwinism.
Fuller’s appeal to I.D. in Humanity 2.0 is itself ambiguous: he uses the term variously in contexts related to a recognisable deity, p187:
I have been quite open about identifying the ‘intelligence’ of intelligent design with the mind of a version of the Abrahamic God into which the scientist aspires to enter by virtue of having been created in imago dei.
then more in relation to nature, as in his discussion around civic religion, p182:
But what remains specifically ‘religious’ about ‘civic religion’? Two aspects: (1) Science’s findings are framed in terms of the larger significance of things, nature’s ‘intelligent design’, if you will. (2) Science’s pursuit requires a particular species of faith – namely, perseverence in the face of adversity – given science’s rather contestable balance sheet in registering goods and harms….
The former quote is consistent with Fuller’s broader counter to Neo-Darwinism, my reading of which can be summed up as (i.e. my words):
Those committed to a Neo-Darwinist world view are aligned with a historical tradition that decrees we can never know a god who is different from us in kind. Such people are uninterested in science or technology beyond that required for a continued existence with their fellow animals in a sustainably snug microcosm. They likewise have no interest in the science and technology of a transhumanist agenda.
It’s never quite clear whether Fuller is projecting God’s image onto man, or man onto God – a model more in line with his version of secular humanism as described in the aforementioned Guardian interview: “human beings at the centre of reality, creating God in their image and likeness” and “taking control of evolution”. With I.D. tied up with hardcore Creationism in the US, however inappropriately from Fuller’s perspective (he doesn’t support Creationism), some clarification would be helpful.
Coming to structure and content. The first two chapters major on the idea of human ‘distinctiveness’, or that which makes us uniquely human, discussed in the frame of race and religion aligned with various biological and theological perspectives from the past, present, and future. Chapter two specifically defines world views broadly corresponding to ‘naturalistic’ Neo-Darwinism, and a divinely-inspired alternative.
Where naturalistics see themselves “embedded” at one with nature, animals like any others emerging from a process of evolution with natural selection, the divinely-inspired are special: fundamentally separate and above animals, they recognise God because he is an intelligently-designing technician as they are, intent on preserving the essence of their specialness – their humanity. Traditionally they’d look to do that in soul form, but now have an eye to the alternatives future transhumanist technologies might offer. All a bit sci-fi for now, but think of uploading thoughts, memories, consciousness to a microchip, robot, clone, hive-mind, or whatever.
Chapter three’s more grounded ‘Policy Blueprint’ centres around the so-called Converging Technologies Agenda (CTA) for the delivery, management, and regulation of technologies for human enhancement, or transhumanism; so: Nanotechnology, Information Technology, Biotechnology and Cognitive Sciences working together under Fuller’s favoured policy regime of ‘anticipatory governance’.
Although more a check-list than a roadmap – I’m still uncertain of the next steps, there’s interesting discussion here on topics like the substantive PR task of selling transhumanist ideas to a CT-sceptical public (think nanotech), use of IT-style early-end-user-involvement to progress it, and the role for media and science communication.
We can expect issues around personal risk and willingness to participate in enhancement technology trials. Fuller points to the danger of CT perceived as hollow rebranding (again, echos of Nanotech’s relation to chemistry), and questions around standards and norms for developments and applications: e.g. would we take a nanotech or medical lead in a medical situation using that technology? There are also emerging and diverse management philosophies to accommodate or rationalise; so the USA taking a more ROI-focused, proactionary, human performance emphasis, hands off approach; while Europe favours a precautionary, state-controlling, human welfare emphasis.
For Fuller, sociology’s egalitarian pedigree, manifest in the Welfare State, qualifies its latent contribution. And with funding for CT industries biased to the private sector, it looks like the common man is going to need a champion. No centrally driven, government funded, benevolent upgrade for the species this. The portents are rather for increasing societal inequality and differentiation: a position Fuller contrasts with the public-focused ‘common good’ research environment of the Cold War. Cynically, and outside any higher moral ambition, CTA could simply serve as a ‘techno-fix’ for over-population or other pressures on the Welfare State, forcing us to work harder and longer for our deferred pensions – no thanks, or getting us off the hook of our ecological responsibilities.
It’s all scary stuff. When we’re popping cogno-enhancers over the cornflakes, and little Jimmy’s off to college by the grace of his cerebral implant, and your investment-banker neighbours have signed up for the latest ‘life-doubler’ programme; one wonders what will qualify us to live, never mind defining our humanity. That’s me fantasising, but drug-based cogno-enhancement is here, and Fuller’s born “always already disabled” scenario could happen, hitting hardest the under-priviledged and those who don’t want, or can’t afford, the latest upgrades.
Chapters four and five are a return to theology and full-on Neo-Darwinist bashing, which is a shame given I suspect there is so much more to say in the vein of Chapter three.
Various off-shoots and mini-theses sprout off the core agenda, like discussion on the debt owed to religion by Science and both the Secularist and Enlightenment movements for their existence, albeit with a concession the influence has waned:
..even if it is true that all supernaturally motivated scientific insights are eventually absorbed into the naturalistic worldview, it does not follow either that the supernaturalism was unnecessary or that naturalism is the final word.
Newton appears as the quintessential religiously motivated scientist, which is fair enough provided we remember back then he had only religion to explain anything. It’s interesting to ask what sort of science a modern-day Newton might pursue. Would he be one of Fuller’s Neo-Darwinists for whom ‘God differs in kind’, causing him to eschew all impractical science like cosmology, particle physics and String Theory?
I do struggle with this idea that scientists can’t, won’t, or won’t want to do fancy science unless they turn all ‘intelligent design’. It’s saying we have to be designed in order to aspire to knowledge or value truth. Or that because Neo-Darwinists wouldn’t recognise God if they found him curled up in the 10th dimension, they wouldn’t bother with String Theory.
Yet scientists, many of whom are Neo-Darwinists, do that kind of science – big time! So what is it – force of habit? Well why not? Maybe we enjoy all that Brian Cox ‘wonders’ stuff because of an evolutionary misfire: a historic brain artifact associated with some evolved inquisitive tendency for practical survival. We do fancy science, we make a discovery, we revel in our dopamine spike, we do more fancy science. Simples. That’s why scientists are such fun folk to have around.
Fuller might see that as a reductionist, even nihilistic, worldview. He’s said that when Darwin killed God he also killed man, or the only part of man that matters – his humanity. And this is why despite presenting his arguments in a frame of reasoned academic detachment, I’m coming round to thinking Fuller’s propositions are at end religious plain and simple – even if the religion is his own science-flavoured brand. He ‘feels’ there is no humanity without god, so we must have god.
If you’re not used to reading sociology texts, which I’m not, Humanity 2.0 is hard going.
It should be clear by now that Humanity 2.0’s high-tech cover art conceals a heavy theological edge with pervasive references to intelligent design in the context of an anti-Neo-Darwinism agenda. And that’s a shame because it distracts from the more diverse, and frankly more interesting, material also there in plenty for those with open minds.
There’s nothing wrong with theological arguments per se, but mixing rational policy debate with what many will see as off-the-wall, politically charged, I.D. rhetoric is a mistake that’s likely to destructively provoke the very individuals and organisations Fuller should be onboarding to secure sociology’s role in the transhumanist agenda.
On the technology website Ars Technica last week, Jonah Lehrer argued that taking a sneaky peep at the end of a novel to see how the plot works out needn’t necessarily spoil a good read.
For myself, I quite like surprises, in fiction at least, so for the foreseeable future I’ll be taking my revelations, denouements, and tricks-of-the-tale in the order the author intended.
Real life’s different though, and I do for the most part like to see what’s coming. And, for sure, there are any number of would-be oracles, specialists, think-tanks, and other miscellaneous pundits ready to enlighten me.
But therein lies a problem. When the brain gets too much information from too many sources it doesn’t cope so well. And given that this is all important stuff we need to have an opinion on: over-population, global warming, peak oil, mass epidemics, starvation, save the panda – asteroid strikes; what’s needed is someone to critically scan, boil down, and filter the myriad forecasts and predictions into a digestible round-up.
Enter Jon Turney’s latest book, The Rough Guide to The Future
‘Rough’ is a curious term to describe a guide that in style, by my reckoning, is both scholarly and popular; but, as Turney says, it’s really more of a recognition that no study about everything can ever be complete.
All the same, Rough Guide to the Future is as comprehensive an analysis of forecast data and topical opinion that you’re likely to find, and one I heartily recommend.
I should also say that I read the Guide, in a fitting juxtaposition of futurity with the primal, on my smartphone whilst halfway up a mountain in a tent. And while I’m sure there’s virtue in that, I’m missing the pencil scrawl and Post-its I’d ordinarily now be pawing over for a review. Kindle highlights and notes just don’t do it for me.
Here goes anyhow.
In terms of the certainty of its themes and predictions, the Guide follows a sort of three part soft-hard-soft progression. Kicking off with a more philosophical discussion around types of futurity and the methods of futurology, there follows a middle section on relatively near-reach developments on issues we really need to sort this century – so a focus on the 50-100 year time scale. With more speculative and far-reaching ideas boxed off in the later chapters, it’s an effective mix that majors on practical concerns but with plenty of material to keep budding futurists, sci-fi enthusiasts, and philosophy types on board.
Chapters combine quotations, literature survey, case studies, a Prediction File, and a Further Exploration section (references to futurist texts, various government, NGO and think-tank reports, plus a good dose of science fiction). The Guide is packed with helpful hyperlinks.
The Predictions Files capture the diverse views of fifty invited commentators asked for their highest hope, greatest fear, and best bet for the future. Turney’s own replies give something of the flavour:
Highest Hope:“We navigate through the eye of the needle of the middle decades of the century well enough to allow the bottom billion a real chance of a humane life.”
Worst Fear:“The environmental calamity so many informed scientists predict gathers pace faster than our efforts to forestall it.”
Best Bet:“Crises, muddling through and continuing vast inequalities are the order of the day. In spite of that, it remains, technologically and culturally, the most fascinating of times to be alive.”
Scanning the whole set is a roller-coaster ride between optimism and pessimism. From Anne Skare Nielsen’s High Hope along the lines of the world being what we make it:
“That the majority of the world’s inhabitants will come to the sensible conclusion that if we keep on asking others to change, nothing grand will ever happen. That we – as Buddhists say – have to be the change we want to see in other people. We should stop instructing and start constructing. I hope that we can let go of our need to control, learn to “listen louder” and co-create better solutions that will bring out the best in people”
to the sombre hopelessness of Sohail Inayatullah’s Greatest Fear:
“Endless fear, endless poverty, endless loss of spirit, continued nationalism, crisis after crisis with the inability to see the links, deeper causes, or pattern of crises.”
I touched on ideas from the first part of the book, related to time perception and the nature of past and future in my last blog post, so won’t expand further here.
The ‘hard’ ground at the core of the Guide comprises discrete chapters on what Turney calls Global Basics: energy, climate, water, food, health, biodiversity, war, and disasters. These are preceded and supported by generic discussions on science futures and population, and followed by material covering softer issues (but not as speculative as those in later chapters) around life, societal values, economic models and sustainability, and global cooperation – the logic being these topics overlay or integrate with the Global Basics. In the chapter Life, Society and Values, I particularly liked the description of Futurelabs’ 3-Worlds exercise, that considers how the world might look were we to adopt or migrate to different sets of dominant social values.
I’m not about to trot through each and every Global Basic here, but it’s impossible to write, or write-up, a guide to the future without mentioning energy and climate change.
Unfortunately, the problems associated with climate change come in two flavours neither of which, as a species, we’ve met before on any scale or have a record of resolving: (a) their impact is global and therefore shared, and (b) they operate over multi-generational timescales. The challenge is well summed up in former Shell chairman Ron Oxburgh’s Worst Fear:
“That each country acts in its own perceived short term interests in the belief that this will maintain or raise its economic competitiveness; that emissions will continue to rise, and wealthy nations will use their wealth and technology to achieve a degree of short-term adaptation to a rapidly deteriorating climate, allowing the developing world to take its chances.”
If there’s one common message from the whole guide, but particularly the Global Basics discussion, for me it’s the need not to see our scientific, technical, societal, and political futures in isolation. It’s easy to retreat to a technical focus, but some thought leaders are striving for the bigger picture – as challenging a task as that might be. This quote from Tim Jackson of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission stuck with me:
“the reason why nobody asks the difficult questions that we are asking here is because nobody really has any answers to them”
A somewhat depressing prospect given that the difficult questions are also the important ones. For me, the apparent absence of any roadmap to transition from what we appear to be in – a treadmill of unsustainable, consumer-driven growth, is deeply worrying. Few believe this is the century mankind will ramp up to some Utopian ideal, but it will be a poor show if we can’t make substantive corrections to the inequalities in health, wealth and opportunity that characterise today’s (in)humanity.
Incidentally, another message I gleaned from the Guide is that forecasts are, or should be, constantly revised – and some, like the impact of birth rate on future population, are sensitive to small changes. Likewise the need to question received truths and revisit sources.
Moving to more speculative territory in the last third of the Guide, I should mention how through his many references Turney pays tribute to science fiction. Since the 19th century, science fiction writers have painted imaginative alternative futures built around surreal technologies, alien life, and revolutionary social orders; and the fiction of the past has often become the fact of the future.
I’ve never been a science fiction nut, but remember as a teenager lapping up futurist works like Arthur C Clarke’s Profiles of the Future and Report on Planet 3, then in the 90’s Francis Kinsman’s Millenium 2000, and most recently Damien Broderick’s Year Million collection. Now, thanks to the Guide, I’ve rediscovered the works of H.G.Wells and W.Olaf Stapledon – who both convince me how few ideas are truly new.
There’s discussion around life extension, cryogenic preservation, and transhumanism – including the increasingly ubiquitous concept of The Singularity, a condition some think will arise, even within the next 50 years, whereby technology and artificial intelligence will run exponentially away from us, designing and building ever superior versions of itself – even attaining its own form of consciousness. My take from the Guide on this? The jury is still well and truly out.
The good news is that through improved nutrition and medicine many more people will be living very much longer (but not necessarily at their leisure). And through genetic upgrades, we’ll be enhancing our physical performance, visual range, and cognitive abilities. A brave new world made real.
Then there’s the prospect for life on other worlds, the concept of deep time, and the ultimate fate of life, the universe, and everything; which, cheerfully, boils down to the heat death of the universe in some tens of trillions of years: a concept clarified not as some giant toasting (although the Earth does get one of those along the way), but the end of heat, energy, and everything from the potato chip to the proton.
So sitting in my tent having completed the Guide, from the seemingly overwhelming challenges of Global Basics to the end of the universe, I ask myself the obvious question: “Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?….”.
At which point I remind myself I’ve two more weeks of holiday to go, and keep on smiling.
After all, there’s still time to put things right. And the end of the future is a long way off.