One of you pointed me to Jamais Cascio’s attempt to offer a two dimensional axis-landscape representing belief sets about the future. As ever, when this quintessential New Modernist speaks, it is well worth your time spent listening! See this spectrum metaphor at: Open the Future.
(In response to an earlier draft of this posting - and other commentary - Jamais has posted a revised version I will nevertheless continue to post my comments because I just learned of his revision, of-late. Readers are free to view this as a dynamic exchange.)
There is much to agree with in Cascio’s metaphor -- especially his caution, almost a core tenet of the New Modernism -- that the map is not the territory. Metaphors are tools, not crutches or constraints. The sooner we admit that simplistic models can’t encompass human complexity, the sooner that complexity will become (somewhat) tractable.
First off, he is quite right that there is more than a little frenetic and quasi-religious millennialism to be found in the “Idealist-Optimist” camp of Ray Kurzweil and the extropian-singularitans. See my paper about the yin/yang of a coming “technological singularity,” where I take this tradition all the way back to Teilhard de Chardin. It is a vein of “techno-transcendentalism” that seems (as Jamais says) to be at least as much a function of personality as evidence. See Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism About the Human Future.
Still, if you trace the persistence and age of this tradition , you quickly see how it blends with and emerges from other strains of millennialism. Personality traits do not seem to map on Cascio’s axes the way he suggests. Indeed, the people he put in the lower-right corner -- e.g. classic Marxists and rapture-revelation fundamentalists -- would hardly agree to call themselves “pessimists”! They perceive a happy ending in the offing, with all of their incantations are proved right as the curtain is rung down at the completion of history.
True, by Cascio’s defined standards, the fundies are “pessimistic,” in that WE (those of us reading this) would all be losers, consigned to perpetual torture for the fault of having believed (with all good intent) in a Creator who spectacularly made trillions of worlds, rather than a cramped and boring little one. Yes, their definition of “success” is highly discriminatory, bigoted and exclusive. We New Modernists are especially slated to gush blood from our eyeballs, when The Day arrives. Yum. Still, it is a goal, and you gotta hand them that. They are cheerfully optimistic and working hard to achieve it. God bless em.
This raises the first very important point, when it comes to efforts like this one, to create new “axis” metaphors, by which to make sense of a political or personality landscape.
1. A spectrum should not be pejorative. Ideally, you should choose axes that everybody can agree upon, because the values represented by those axes really do reflect how each person and/or group sees themselves. No one should much mind or disagree with where they fall on the chart.
Let me admit that I’ve thought a lot about this. I, too, have tried my hand at this kind of arrogant modelling. Enraged by the continuing use of that French Monstrosity... the hoary-horrific and nearly meaningless so-called “left right political axis,” that nobody can ever define, yet constrains and hampers 21st Century minds... I tried to present an alternative or two.
Of course others have done likewise. But if you look closely at those presented by the Libertarian Party, by Jerry Pournelle, and so on you will see that they all suffer from yet more demeaning faults.
2. Tendentiousness. The axes seem designed to coax people into choosing a predetermined quadrant. They are polemical, aimed at recruitment, or drawing a foregone conclusion.
3. Axes aren’t orthogonal. You learn this in physics. It’s best when the two or three “axis traits” don’t have anything in common. This allows a far better separation of variables and a better picture to form. Example, both Pournelle and the LP use “statism” and “coercion” which certainly shadow each other, as does a belief in proactive human and social perfectibility.
4. The axes should pragmatically separate groups that clearly do not like each other and have different goals. Likewise, they should illustrate nearness when groups share goals and the means to achieve them. And above all, nearness and farness ought to matter.
Getting back to Cascio’s personality spectrum, one can immediately see a problem in that all of his examples are people who CARE about the future! They all believe that better days may lie ahead. There are huge differences between those who believe that apotheosis will arrive through hard work and hard negotiation vs those who expect it to be hand-delivered... and I applaud Jamais for pointing this out. But even this trait is not cleanly distributed across his chart.
Take Julian Simon & Bjorn Lomborg and other champions of FIBM (Faith In Blind Markets) - the cult that opposes the equally fanatical cult of fatalistic environmental doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich. The FIBMers clearly belong in the lower left of Cascio’s chart and the doomies in the lower right. (Indeed, the latter are far better examples of “pessimists” than the ones Jamais offered.)
And yet, would you call Paul Ehrlich an ally of fundamentalists, or Simon an extropian? YES, Jamais is talking about Personality As It Reflects Upon The Future. A narrow conceptual range. Yet we are behooved to pick at limits to this metaphor.
Finally, about the word “modernism.” Clearly I am a complete (welded at the hip) fellow-traveller with Jamais at the top of his spectrum, a “realist” who yearns to be optimistic, but who knows how much work it will take. And yet, are the extropians not modernist too? In their own way? Their cloud-cuckoo idealism may seem dreamy and silly to us. But we love to be invited to their meetings and play the role of grouchy elder brother. If they claim the title of New Modernists, I will be the last to eject them.
We need all the help we can get.
Chris Phoenix eloquently weighs in: ”Jamais asks at the end of his post, "What does this matrix miss?" The matrix can't really describe me, because it assumes I have a dichotomous view of the future--that I see the future as either good or bad, either transcendent or mundane.
“Now, I do recognize the possibility that things will go so sour that we wipe ourselves out, and I also recognize the possibility that we'll all live happily ever after, for ever and ever amen. But my view of the future goes beyond ignorance about which of two choices we'll end up in. I see the possibility of a weird superposition of states. We could all be happy slaves. Or we could be struggling individualists who have transcended today's problems but face bigger ones. Or we could split into a race of terrestrial couch potatoes and adventurous starfarers (one of Brunner's books has this theme). Or...
“Ask yourself this koan: Are we happier than our caveman ancestors? It is not only ignorance of the past that prevents us from answering.”
==AND NOW A PERSONAL REFLECTION==
Stepping back, it seems that my version of the New Modernism is way up at the realist-pragmatist end of Cascio's spectrum and I am proud of it. Reciprocal Accountability and Citokate and all that...
. . . .and yet, I now realize that this isn't all of what's going on. In fact, there is a corner of me that's deeply worried - even a little HOSTILE - toward notions like lifespan extension and nanomanufacturing and all of that. Because part of me fears we are still way too stupid to deal with these things in ways that will make us the exception to the Fermi Paradox.
When I look across the innovations that I have personally pushing... ranging from research into indignation addiction to to predictions registries to my newly patented Holocene communications software, to all this blather about transparency, I think I now see what's in common.
I feel we have to get smarter. Maybe a LOT smarter, before we will be able to deal with AI and immortality and molecular manufacturing and nanotech and bioengineering. Effective intelligence is where we really should be investing research and development. Because if we do get smarter, or make a next generation that is, then the rest of it could be much easier.
Frankly, when I look at Aubrey de Gray and Ray Kurzweil... and when I look in a mirror... I see jumped up cavemen who want to live forever and get all pushy with the universe and quite frankly, I am not at all sure that cavemen are ready to leap into the role of gods.
Not without either becoming more godlike in the best ways... or making gods who are far more worthy of the tasks ahead.
Chris: “I have sometimes thought that rather than focusing on MM policy and implications and all that stuff, we should just put an all-out effort toward neurotech research--the stuff that Zach Lynch talks about. Neurotech could be developed before MM gets here, and it might well be sufficient to save us--if we actually use the technology once we have it.”
DB: Actually, I consider this to be vastly too important to leave to the dubious powers of biological science. I do not expect it to be easy to artificially augment human intelligence, which may be our most complex and delicate quality. Initial attempts may bring 90% madness. We ALL know very bright people who --- well --- do not handle it well. There are a myriad synergies involved, almost none of which are understood.
This is why I concentrate on the methodologies that have already enhanced human effective intelligence. Our error-detecting transparency traditions and accountability arenas. Sum-of-the-parts citizenship. Suspicion of authority memes. Citizen resiliency + professional anticipation. Philanthropy, markets...
...and have pushed for extensions of these things, so that they can be more effective: predictions registries, philanthropy ideas, neo-markets, a “fifth accountability arena of disputation,” improved online conversation interfaces, and so on. This really is held together by the common theme that human aggregate intelligence is far easier to engender, enhance and fine tune than it will be to make individual humans smarter.
This has been very interesting. I don’t think I ever put all my interests together and saw the unifying theme, before.
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Disputation Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit
An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry and Social Psychology
Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism about the Human Future
Accountability for Everyday Prophets: A Call for a Predictions Registry