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.

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.

Extreme Futurist Festival Pre-Party with Dorkbot SF, 11-30-2012, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a three-part review of the XFF pre-party.  See Part 1 here.  See Part 2 here.

The next speakers were part of DorkbotSF, which I had never heard of, but seems like a cool thing that us futurists should all check out:

dorkbot-sf is a spinoff of dorkbot-nyc which is
“a monthly meeting of artists (sound/image/movement/whatever), designers, engineers, students and other interested parties from the new york area who are involved in the creation of electronic art (in the broadest sense of the term.)”

the purpose of dorkbot is to

  • give artists/programmers/engineers an opportunity for informal peer review
  • establish a forum for the presentation of new art works/technology/software/hardware
  • help establish relationships and foster collaboration between people with various backgrounds and interests
  • give us all a chance to see the cool things that our neighbors are working on
Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain started out the DorkBotSF portion of the program by showing some of her film studio’s “Cloud Filmmaking:”
They invite people from all over the world to send in art work and videos, they mash it all together and make films that they then invite people to help translate.  The Moxie Institute then makes free customized versions for non profits all over the world.
Three of these short films have now been released from the series “Let it Ripple: Mobile Films for Global Change.”
I found the videos to be very moving, but I am a sucker for this stuff.  One of her primary themes is that people should recognize and embrace the concept of global interdependence to temper our Western tendency toward independence.  This thread of her presentation expanded on Rothman’s theme of a social singularity.  In fact, one film that she sneak-previewed for the audience addressed the idea of a Friendship singularity. As our list of “friends” on social media sites continues to grow exponentially, we will be friends with every living person at some point:  The Friendship.  This is actually a logical extension of Pinker’s Better Angels thesis.  It’s hard for me as a natural pessimist to get my head around, but I do take comfort in the idea.
Arts producer and executive, Amy Critchett gave a presentation on “The Bay Lights: World’s Largest LED Light Sculpture:”


The Bay Lights is an iconic light sculpture designed by internationally renowned artist Leo Villareal. This stunning fine arts experience will live for two years on the San Francisco Bay Bridge West Span, starting with the Grand Lighting on March 5, 2013.

However, I was busy chatting with folks and hearing a cheerful analysis that modern Russia is like America in the 1930’s except the top gangsters have nukes and computers.  Ah, just what I needed to extinguish the warm fuzzies brought on by considering a friendship singularity.
Next up was Ken Goldberg who talked about his Bloom project:
Ken has developed several projects that use a live feed of seismic data from the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab. One example is Ballet Mori, a performance to commemorate the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, where SF Ballet Principal Dancer Muriel Maffre responded to a musical composition modulated by real-time seismic data.
I personally wasn’t much interested in this art project.  But, I found his comments about Heidegger’s “Question Concerning Technology” to be interesting.  I don’t really understand it, but I guess that Heidegger was asserting that modern science reduces everything in the environment to a resource.  Goldberg went on to suggest that with modern mobility technology, we have made ourselves into a resource that is always available.  This called to mind Rushkoff’s idea that we should unplug more often.  However, there seemed to be some tension between this and Shlain’s more positive view of mobile technology.  Nonetheless, this is one of those cases where the underpinnings of the artwork seem more interesting than the actual product.  But then, I can be a philistine sometimes.
My favorite speaker of the evening was Mark Pauline of Survival Research Labs.
Mark constructed and designed dozens of large, complex robots and machines for use in these performances and has trained and supervised the efforts of over 400 assistants in the art of machine performance.
I had never heard of SRL, but I was blown away by the videos that Mark showed at the end.  It struck me as an incredible mashup of deviant performance art and robot wars.  I don’t have much further to say about it, but I look forward to the XFF and I am definitely going to bring some serious hearing protection.