The ambiguous dreams of the techno-optimists

“Here’s one of my scenarios.  Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls.  There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized.  In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not.  But the  box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff.  And there’s a rock sitting next to the box.  Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things.  What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before.  Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.

Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever.  What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”

  — Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.

What is the purpose indeed.

Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?

As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”

In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?

Taiwan and the Taming of Trash

Taiwan is a small country on a large-ish island, much blessed by nature, but struggling with the impact of a dense human population and rapid economic growth. Returning, for the first time in  more than twenty years, to a country that I had lived in, off and on, for about a year, was most interesting.  When I was last in Taiwan it was in the throes of its “Asian tiger” phase, and now has become, at least according to the taxi driver that picked my daughter and I up at the airport,  much less dynamic.  In the best tradition of the Taiwan citizenry, our driver was not at all shy about criticizing his government vigorously and with considerable sophistication.

Taiwan, also called the Republic of China (ROC) as opposed to mainland China, which is the People’s Republic of China (PRC), is always under more or less explicit threat of invasion or bombing by the PRC.  Taiwan’s leaders must  walk a thin line between asserting Taiwan’s right to exist as  a country, which assertion is backed, more or less discretely, by the US,  and provoking Beijing with too unequivocal and evident an existence.   Alongside the global geo-politics are the more local politics that  derive from waves of migration into Taiwan, with the indigenous  Austronesian people of Taiwan  having been displaced by successive sub-cultures of Han Chinese, as well as brief colonial occupations by the Dutch in the 17th  century and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Taiwan is fascinating agriculturally as it has admirably fertile, well-watered alluvial plains on its western coast, which are intensively farmed in small plots (by American standards) usually of only an acre or two – much rice, some taro, vegetables, and fruit orchards.  The excellence of Taiwanese plant breeding is a long-acknowledged fact in tropical agriculture circles.

Taiwan is a place that I found simultaneously delightful, disturbing and dystopian twenty years ago, and still find so, but for mostly different reasons this time around.   One thing that is not so different and, unfortunately, much worse is the air quality in Taiwan. There are many explanations for Taiwan’s terrible air quality, such as major petrochemical processing facilities with footprints in the thousands of acres,  large coal-burning electrical plants, trash incineration plants, the high tail-pipe emissions from the vast herds of scooters,  second-hand pollution from the factories in mainland China, and the fine dust blown up out of the river-beds in dry, windy weather.

On the plus side, I was astounded by their success in addressing solid waste – trash, basically – and in the cleanliness of the rivers and streams.  I have one unforgettably dystopian memory of Taiwan in the 1990’s, a scene glimpsed from the window of a bus –   a man wandering through a vast, burning wasteland of trash in the outskirts of Taipei as the sun struggled to rise through the smoke .  I also remember black, sulfurous waterways fouled with plastic trash, and the lovely white sand beaches of southern Taiwan littered by giant, surreal blocks of white styrofoam.  None of that now, at least that I could see on this quick week-long trip.  Quite an amazing feat, to change the everyday practices of everyday people so drastically, to effect social change so broadly, from big businesses to ordinary folks out in the country.   This has been done through sustained policy efforts  and clever design solutions over the last few decades that continue to evolve, energized by the demands of a politically active populace that demanded government action. Not only that but Taiwan  has developed an outstanding network of buses, metros, trains, and bullet trains.  Which is not to say that Taiwan has become an un-mitigated paradise – far from it –  but there is much to learn from their successes.

Last but not least, for all our taxi drivers critical comments about the stagnant economy, the incompetent government, and the worsening air pollution, there was in him and generally in the people of Taiwan a gentle pride in their country, a sense of collective responsibility for being kind to each other and of representing their country well that my daughter and I felt wistfully envious of and wished, of all things, that we could bring back to the US.

Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea

Last week was tough in a way that I hadn’t expected.

I had two events to go to: the first, a climate change conference put on by our state’s climate change commission, and the second, an agricultural bank board meeting.  It was unexpectedly tough to think about the world  in such disparate ways within a few days of each other.  Tough to reconcile their differences, or not to reconcile but bear those differences when they were not reconcilable.  That was the hardest part and it took a toll on me.

There were two different visions of the world that undergirded these two different meetings, two different ideological positions that were the common, unspoken background of most of the attendees at each meeting, and two different set of blindspots. Continue reading “Whiplash & the Breath of the Sea”

Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to address climate change in terms of policy at the local level,  at the smallest organized unit of government for my area, which is the County of Hawaii, encompassing the island of Hawaii. I am not an expert on climate change or climate change policy in any way, shape, or form, but this may well be the mother of all situations where we will need to learn by doing, rather than waiting on expertise that does not yet exist. Continue reading “Climate Change: Do Politics or Do Nothing?”

What do we tell the kids?

Words don’t begin to

But then that’s all we’ve got. Words, and the stories we weave of them.

I’ve been wondering about this in connection with the study I’m putting together for my MSc. I’m asking pairs of friends who are also parents to record a conversation about climate change, how they feel it may affect the lives of their children, and what if anything they feel they should do about it.

I’m not sure we’ve got a language yet for dealing with these questions. It seems we don’t have the stories we need that would help us navigate this terrain. Continue reading “What do we tell the kids?”

Not Being Heard

The drama that unfolded during the last few weeks over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court took many of us on a journey that no one could have predicted, and that became a drama about something much bigger than the Supreme Court. Bigger than party politics, or even right versus left. It became about being heard.

It became, for some of us, about memory, history, and the way we understood our own lives. Continue reading “Not Being Heard”

Our opposable thumb

Stereoscopic vision, depth perception, certain emotions and other perceptions, and the ability to stretch our thumbs farther than most other species, the ability to build and destroy things, and many other traits individually or in combination separate us from other species, not necessarily all species though.  Other animals with opposable thumbs include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and other variants of apes; certain frogs, koalas, pandas, possums and opossums, and many birds have an opposable digit of some sort.  Many dinosaurs had opposable digits as well.  Granted, most of these are primates, as are we.  I wonder if rationalization is something unique to humans.  The ability to ponder may be as well.” Continue reading “Our opposable thumb”

The Game-Changer

There is a long struggle ahead of us and the outlines of that struggle just got a little more clear this week, when Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, introduced the Accountable Capitalism Act, which is about nothing much less than  changing the game.   Her legislation calls for corporations that make over $1 billion a year to be formally responsible not just to their shareholders but also to their workers, customers, and communities – which last concept hopefully extends to the environment.  This is important because at present the board of directors and the management of corporations are legally bound to maximize economic return.  That is the only criteria – other than not breaking the law – with which they are allowed to make decisions.  This dictate is the backbone of capitalism as we know it, which is to say a most predatory, ruthless, and myopic kind of capitalism which sooner or later is going to get us all killed.

Of course the spokespersons for the titans of industry and finance say not only is Elizabeth Warren “batty” but also that  she is a Communist who must be shut up or all the businesses in America will move to Switzerland ( I kid you not.)   Because heaven knows American Capitalism  Will Not Survive being responsible for anything but making as much money as possible!  Such a fragile flower cannot be asked to clean up its own room or do the dishes.

As the incomparable Charles Pierce puts it:

This is one of the first complete frontal assaults on the economic theories that have ruled American politics in one form or another for the past four decades. It is one of the first substantial efforts to treat the ascendancy of conservative economic ideas as a thoroughgoing blight that must be reversed, and it does so by turning the achievements of which conservative economic ideologues are proudest back on them. Corporate personhood? OK, then we’re going to have corporate jail, too. A rising tide lifts all boats? We’re going to be sure everyone has a seat.

Elizabeth Warren’s Accountable Capitalism Act is significant – perhaps even world-historically significant – but her legislation is just one point in a change in the air, in the mood, in a growing awareness.   She has brought up into the bright light of the national political debate  a simmering knowledge that what we do in pursuit of business success  has complex consequences and those consequences are not adequately weighed and measured in the quarterly accounting of profit and loss, of Return On Investment, and Asset Liquidity.  The long struggle will be to make this point over and over again – that we  all must be responsible to a greater conception of the good and profitable – until it becomes common knowledge and the way we do things.

I tell you what…I’m signing on to her team.

Against Complacency: the fierce voice of Patrick Noble

We don’t need more renewable energy to power how we live, but to change how we live so we don’t need that power.  –  Patrick Noble, https://convivialeconomy.com

There are some writers on the internet that get thousands of clicks and hundreds of comments every week.  Generally these writers work hard to build their online community of readers.   Their art is that of building a common language.

There are others who don’t have the knack or interest in building their readership.   I suspect they are the kind of artist that is fascinated by something on the horizon, something that is not readily visible, and even less readily conveyable.  Their art is that of illumination and discovery. Continue reading “Against Complacency: the fierce voice of Patrick Noble”