2012 Humanity+ Day 1 – Part 2 – David Brin

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on the Humanity+ 2012 conference.
Previous post here.

After David Orban, David Brin gave a presentation via Skype, which is a terrible way to present at a conference.  It took several minutes of futzing around to get the connection working properly and Brin still complained that he couldn’t see the audience.  Brin is primarily concerned that transhumanists will be burned at the stake.  He referenced Giordano Bruno, who was supposedly burned at the stake for having relatively more accurate cosmological views than those approved by the church.  I am highly skeptical of Brin’s vision.  First of all, the vast majority of people may never understand what a transhumanist even is.  Secondly, those few people that do oppose tranhumanism will be hopelessly disadvantaged by their lack of augmentation.  Thirdly, I mean, what the hell?  Burning at the stake?  What century are we living in?

He went on to admonish us to build bridges with our Christian neighbors to forestall the inevitable mob-of-peasants-with-torches-and-pitchforks scenes that lay ahead.  He illustrated some parallels between transhumanism and Christianity that I won’t bother repeating here.  My main argument with him is that I don’t happen to know any damn Christians.  This is the Bay Area.  None of my neighbors are Christians.  They are all liberals and lesbians and swing dancers and whatnot.  For that matter, I doubt that many transhumanists elsewhere know any Christians either.  It’s a self-segregation thing.  Why would a futurist hang out anywhere near any Christian?  (In terms of social distance.)

Brin went on to invoke Toynbee’s “creative minority.”  Ignoramus that I am, I had to look this up briefly, but it seems that Toynbee asserts that societal decay stems from the breakdown of the “creative minority.”   The creative minority fails when they stop finding solutions to problems and fall back to a worship of their former selves.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Peter Thiel was a fan of Toynbee.  I see parallels in his stagnation of innovation hypothesis.

However, I wonder how coherent the idea of a cultural creative minority is becoming in this inter-connected 21st century.  Many members of the creative minority in Silicon Valley are actually from overseas.  Which culture can lay claims to the innovation of Google or SpaceX?  But then all roads led to Rome at one time, so maybe these distinctions never existed in the first place.  Which is to say, maybe it was inaccurate to refer to the creative minority of Rome as “Roman” given that it’s members probably hailed from all over the ancient world as well.  It may be that as a culture decays it seems less cool and ceases to be a nexus or attractor of talent.  I am not sure, I will ask around.

So yeah, Brin wants us to go back to being a more pragmatic and problem solving society.  No problem, I will get right on that.  Let’s see, we need to rescue eugenics from the Nazi’s.  Ok, I guess Rachel Haywire was tapping into a zeitgeist when she mentioned that.  What else, oh yes, we need to get off our foreign oil dependency and stop sending cash to  these pernicious wahhabis.  I guess we are already on track for that, thanks to fracking.  Over all, I found a lot to disagree with in Brin’s talk, but I guess I will check out his book Existence and see if it’s any good.

More to come.

A Visit To Sudo Room and a Resuscitated Dog Head

Tonight I went to visit Sudo Room, the new hacker space in Oakland.  It’s just a small room with the obigatory 3D printer and arduino TI MSP430 Launchpad controlled door on the fritz.  They do have a large shared common space though, and they will be holding an Un-conference this weekend.  I chatted with some hackers and one fellow showed me an arduino app that controls an attached LED matrix to display one LED for each active TCP session on your computer, color coded by continent of the destination.  It was sort of like this Spider Labs blinkie light network monitor.

But the most disturbing part of the evening was when someone showed a video of a severed dog head being supposedly resuscitated by Russian scientists in the 1920’s with a primitive precursor to a heart and lung machine.  Please don’t click that link unless you really want to see a severed dog head reacting to stimuli.  It makes me shudder to think what other sort of horrible experiments were run in US labs.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand that these sorts of experiments probably validated a technology that went on to save many lives.  But I do suspect that it takes a borderline sociopath to do this sort of thing.  Better to devote your cold-blooded heart to the advancement of science than chopping up male prostitutes and storing them in your freezer I suppose.

After the gruesome videos of pet-hacking for science, I headed over to check out the street anarchy of Oakland Art Murmur around the corner with a friend from work.  We elbowed our way through the hipsters and grungy artists, but my friend was not impressed by the crowds.  He just returned from vacation in Hong Kong where I guess that they really know how to densely pack humans.  We passed my girlfriend’s favorite spot in uptown, the Rock Paper Scissors Collective which houses a vast ‘zine library.

Next we visited Koreana market on telegraph and my friend drew on his own Korean background to point out items of interest.  They had live fish in nice clean tanks, plenty of kim chee, and this marinated meat called bulgogi.  It was fun and surreal to come from the dark boisterous streets into this bright clean market with various drunken hipster wandering around trying to locate the alcohol.

I like art murmur, it’s a great street party that really draws out many of the artistic elements that Oakland has to offer.  You just couldn’t spontaneously shut down streets in San Francisco to have this sort of event.  Maybe you need a slightly run down area to provide the fertile soil for a cultural rejuvenation.  I think back to my home town of Buffalo which probably had many more music venues per capita that San Francisco because the real estate there is so cheap.  Not that this was enough to keep me there, but still, its a small mercy.  I look forward to checking out Sudo Room’s Wednesday night meetings at 7 pm and getting more involved in my adopted home of Oakland, CA.

2012 Humanity+ Conference Day 1 – Part 1 – David Orban

I attended the 2012 Humanity+ conference this year and had an amazing experience.  I got to meet and chat with a bunch of cool people: successful founders, bright young people, professional writers, and groundbreaking researchers.  It was a very small conference with probably less than 150 attendees.  The quality of presentations was excellent overall.  I am still struggling to absorb all the information that was put forth.  I tried to strike a good balance between socializing and listening to speakers.  I could still kick myself for missing Jaan Tallinn’s talk at the Singularity Summit 2012, so I didn’t want to miss another great talk like that.

The theme of this conference was “Writing the Future” so there was a focus on writers and communication. One major theme was how to convince the public to seriously consider the risks and opportunities of emerging technologies.  This is extremely appropriate for myself who is trying to learn to write about the future.  I don’t feel bad that I probably am not doing it well, since the general consensus was that the media does a terrible job of covering science in general, let alone futurist topics like AI or life extension.  There is a lot of sensationalism and little evaluation of the confidence we should have in new discoveries or proposed technologies.

The first speaker of the conference was David Orban, but I am no morning person, so I missed the beginning of his talk.  He apparently did a similar talk called “Network Society: The Coming Societal Phase Change” at TedX Bologna recently so you might check that out (turn on the Closed Captioning for English subtitles).  The gist of it seems to be that the coming network society will move away from centralized control toward more distributed control.  He offers examples of distributed solar energy and distributed food generation.  He also suggests that BitCoin might represent a move away from centralized banking.  3d printing could do the same in the manufacturing space, allowing us to produce objects locally as we need them as suggested in the Diamond Age and other science fiction novels.

None of these ideas were new to me.   What did attract my interest was Orban’s assertion that our society is comprised of goal seeking structures that constrain the actions of our leaders.  These structures prevent the adoption of solar energy or the dismantling of central banks for example.  I am not sure how seriously Orban meant to apply this anthropomorphism of our cultural institutions.  I might prefer to say something like change is contingent on topology or state vector.  That is, I would prefer to say something like that if I had a proper understanding of dynamical systems theory.

Orban also offers this sage advice to aspiring futurists: to determine if some event will come about, find the opposing forces.  He asked what the opposing forces to Tesla’s free charging stations might be.  One non-obvious consequence of free transportation energy is the tax impact.  Fuel is heavily taxed in Europe, even more than the US.  Governments themselves might oppose free fuel for cars.

He also pointed out that hackers will rule this new networked society.  I tend to agree with him there.  As more and more objects and systems get connected to the internet and controlled by computers, the real owner of an asset will be whoever can hack it.  And unfortunately, the current state of computer security is woefully unprepared to stop this.  Hacking hasn’t destroyed the value of credit cards or online banking yet, but what will happen when your prosthetics can get hacked?

This is Part 1 on an N part series of posts on the 2012 Humanity+ conference.  Here is Part 2. Stay tuned for more.