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Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.

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The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Virtual Heaven -- A View from the Commanding Heights

*
The virtual community of Second Life has attracted many businesses, commentators, real estate brokers, trend watchers, journalists and, well, odd people. Not to mention writers, artists, innovators, scientists and other creative and visionary types. Many Second Life boosters can no doubt defend the communities peculiarities or at least wax rhapsodic about "Second Life at its best." Tech boosters are good at obscuring reality with a glorious vision of the hypothetical, utopian future.

Ironically, it's that Platonic ideal of Second Life, that glorious utopia-to-be, that is the threat I wish to address today.

A thought occurred to me when Anders Sandberg gave a lecture, "Keep on Raging Against Aging," on Second Life. The idea of an array of people actively engaged in creating the future (or at least enthusiastic spectators to the future rising before their eyes) assembling in virtual bodies to hear a talk on the radical near-future was intriguing, to say the least. Ironically, that lecture looked almost like the kind of ultimate Internet discussed in the heady days of the late 90s, a place where you could discuss radical, world-changing ideas with mavericks from across the globe.

And for transhumanist enthusiasts, paradise, at least in that hour, was clearly already here. Naturally participants in a VR world like Second Life are a self-selected group, and are more apt to be interested in certain things like, well, VR, online networks, the online world, the uploading of human consciousness, etc. What could be better for someone looking to discuss these concepts in depth?

But therein lays my concern: I wonder to what degree the "irrational exuberance" of the Dot.Com era was fed by a relatively small group of hard-core enthusiasts talking mainly to each other and their admiring fans. If you consider how much the residents of places like Silicon Valley were talking to themselves, the members of other tech enclaves, those first-adopters initially entering the Internet and Web, and businessmen, writers and politicians eager to tap into the Next Big Thing the Net was becoming... If you consider these factors, you can see how the real-world and online communities helped to seal themselves off from disquieting criticism, while appearing to be completely open to outside ideas.

My point? I wonder to what degree the discipline of future studies and many business forecasting efforts are warped by the fact that technology experts tend to be online and highly wired, and part of virtual communities that still overselect for, say, computer programmers and tech workers. Whatever virtues the U.S. Army's latest future combat system concept may have had, one wonders if there would have been such an emphasis on connectivity and wiring the "common grunt" into the military's digital communications networks if that research hadn't come out of a period in which greater connectivity was seen as the solution to almost everything.

Meanwhile, science-fiction visions of the future seem dominated by a specific breed of technology popular among online SF fans -- AI, nanotech assemblers, cybernetics and/or human uploading. That's not entirely surprising, if you ask fans who are programmers if they believe AI is possible, you're much more likely to get an affirmative than if you ask the Man on the Street. It's not surprising that the philosophers pushing the idea of a computer-driven "Singularity" have heavy backgrounds in computer hardware or software development. (Singularity -- a point when technological change is happening too rapidly for ordinary human minds to be able to remotely guess what might happen next; usually brought on by the rise of higher intelligence, whether biological or artificial.)

Futurists talking online about "human enhancement" and other forms of radical evolution seem to be much more taken with the idea of using cybernetic implants or uploading to enhance human intelligence -- rather than, say, genetic enhancement or nootropic drugs. Much less the use of accelerated learning, self-hypnosis or other exercises or disciplines. Is that a purely rational assessment, or the result of having relatively limited sources of information on the subject of human evolution?

Returning to the rise of VR worlds, is it possible that a "reality" which increasingly draws in so many of our writers, leaders, visionaries and commentators is going to have a wildly disproportionate impact on the world's thinking? On the one hand, you may end up a lot of the world's brilliant and innovative minds hanging out together and working together. On the other, you may end up in an intellectual hothouse where the inhabitants aren't just sharing much the same limited viewpoint on the world, but in which the issues of their particular, heavily represented sliver of civilization loom large over everything else in the greater society.

For example, how many people remember the aggressively ultra-Libertarian philosophy that emerged in the tech industry during the 90s boom? You would forever be hearing some programmer who'd just gotten his first stock options ranting about how the government was obsolete (even for some age-old tasks as law enforcement, military defense, and road construction) and how the Market, and, of course, the Net, were going to sweep everything else aside and transform the world into a hyper-capitalist utopia.

And regardless of how much of a Libertarian, Socialist, moderate, anarchist, etc you might be, it was always interesting to see how little many ideological champions seemed to know about how the world actually works, and what kinds of sincere objections people might have to their agendas. So issues like making stock options tax free and as easy to hand out as possible seemed much more important than trivial concerns like taxing some of that money sloshing around for other societal needs (like maintaining that Internet thing) or preventing tax fraud or insuring more tech startups were actually viable. How could any of those things be important?

Which raises a concern about having large numbers of very intelligent people spending vast amounts of time residing in worlds in some ways more appealing than the real one. What happens if these people become even more detached from reality than those Dot.Boom programmer/revolutionaries looking at the world from a corner office in Silicon Valley through the filter of Cliffnotes' Ayn Rand? And what happens if a more subtle bias comes into existance in which everything not acknowledged and accepted by the core "society" becomes a fringe concern, if not irrelevant?

Soc, Tech
Future Imperative

11 Comments:

Anonymous Entity said...

You have some very good points here.

April 02, 2007 4:49 PM  
Blogger Shenanigoat said...

Hi Ralph, this is off topic (sorry! I couldn't find your email))but I wanted to let you and your readers know about the new transhumanist social/community network at transhumanists.org
. We are trying to develop a community that crosses the broad interest spectrum of transhumanism and facilitates lively discussions from enthusiasts/experts in all relevant fields...science, technology, politics,
philosophy, ethics, and so forth. We hope you can join us.

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