By R.U. Sirius
Humanity Plus is sponsoring a conference on “Writing The Future” in San Francisco on December 1 – 2. Among those presenting are Aubrey de Grey, Natasha Vita-More, Jamais Casio, Ben Goertzel, Max More, Sonia Arrison and David Brin. Oh, and me. I’m looking forward to it.
I interviewed Natasha Vita-More, Chairman of Humanity Plus, about the upcoming event and about the topic of writing
R.U. Sirius: What inspired you (and H+) to choose Writing The Future as this year’s theme?
Natasha Vita-More:I started thinking about the abbreviations of language and how human language grew out of symbols and how our cognitive abilities to imagine, problem-solve, and innovate has advanced. Yet, somehow we have reverted back to simple marks. This is easy and quick, and can be a lot of fun. It is also indicative of a tendency to quick-fix explanations and directions. Even though this can marvelously suffice for more lengthy bits of information, often they do not. A distinct amount of misinformation can be cut and paste into a new documents without references and often without contextualization, leaving readers to assume one thing or another, rather than the original meaning of the information, or the author’s original intend, and from which the knowledge sprung. Sometimes writers get it right – like Kevin Kelly, and sometimes they lead us off into the wilds of hyperbole, or second and third hand reporting. Having spent 20+ years writing about future-oriented ideas, I can identify my own lack of in-depth reporting. And having been interviewed for major publications for the same amount of time, I recognize how others misquoted me and even put words in my mouth. Fact checkers often avoid the obvious mistakes, even if you spell them out very clearly to them, if the article’s keywords beckon a high price from the publisher. This past year, I was hired by MIT Publishing to review another writer’s book on the future, and which covered transhumanist ideas. I noticed an excessive amount of mistakes in content and referential information. I also read a number of books and articles that were beautifully written and where the authors had taken the time to actually interview the people whose ideas they were covering. This type of first hand reporting is valuable and we need more of it, rather than second hand—where a writer reads someone else’s book and then borrows the ideas into a new narrative, and then a third writer comes along and does the same, until it become a game of telephone-tag and we all know what happens to the content of sentence structure.
Several years ago, I started working on my own book where I am a co-editor and a contributing author. The book is titled The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology and Philosophy of the Human Future (Wiley-Blackwell 2013) and has 40+ essays by seminal thinkers. Our aim was to produce a book that does its best to get it right — to provide a reliable source of information for students, teachers, and the public who want learn about transhumanist ideas from the lips of those who either initiated a concept or formally contributed to the development of a concept.
The Humanity+ @ San Francisco was discussed by members of Humanity+. I pitched the idea of “writing” because I thought it would tie into the brain trust of San Francisco, our h+ Magazine, and the many transhumanists who are published authors — from science fiction, journalism, blogging, fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, comics, etc. et al. The quality and scope of transhumanist writers is amazing!
RUS: How would you compare the power of the written word to create the future to the power of visual medias?
NVM: I would compare them equally. Images are powerful influencers: what we see has a profound effect on what we do. Psychologists suggest that around 93% of our ability to communicate is based on nonverbal signifiers, such as visual images, and that our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than written words. Historically, the human brain favors images and we identify with certain shapes, such as the circle or the monolith or arrow. Environments that have wide-open vistas make us feel inspired and often shapes that are juxtaposed closely together make us feel anxious. Since human communication has evolved over some 30,000 years or so, and most of this was not verbal or written language, a visual is often easier to comprehend than a sentence or paragraph, not to mention James Joyce’s Ulysses.
But if we talk about the power of words, they can far exceed the implications of an image. How could I have drawn the paragraph I just wrote? It would have to look like a Hieronymus Bosch painting or series of Kandinsky symbols, or a swirling impression of Pollack. Images influence who we are, how we behave, and what we do; but the written word takes us inside and often equally as deeply and passionately, and sometimes more so.
Painting, graphic design, architecture, and sculpture whisper in our ears certain sentiments that are unique to us as the viewer or observer. But reading a passage is heard in our own heads through our own voices, and intimately so.
One thing to consider though is a person’s sensorial abilities. For example, someone who is dyslexic cannot always see the words clearly and an image is more convenient and familiar. Likewise, a person who is visually inept often prefers the articulation of words as not symbolic representations of reality, but actually factual meanings.
RUS: Same question: How would you compare the role of the writer in making the future to that of the scientist and/or technologist?
NVM: The writer has an advantage because s/he is writing for an audience and the scientist is usually tucked away in a lab. The writer, like everyone else, has an agenda: to report, explain, remark, critique, praise, politicize, and/or exaggerate, for example. If a reader is smart, s/he can recognize a writer’s style and reputation and objectify the content for what they write and how they write it. But sometimes writers are crafty and the readers are naïve. This is where things can heat up!
RUS: Who is your favorite novelist and why?
NVM: Jane Austin is my favorite novelist because she is compelling. The characters are timeless. Even though you didn’t ask, I’d like to add my second favorite novelist: Herman Hesse. He was a major influence on my life. I started reading him when I was a teenager and absorbed each book hungrily. I read every single book and some many times. Each story is a journey about self-discovery. Siddhartha, Journey to the East, The Glass Bead Game, Steppenwolf —each one in my mind, is a wide-open vista to reflect on life and journey.
RUS: Who is your favorite nonfiction writer and why?
NVM: I think that my favorite nonfiction writer changes at each stage in my life, depending on what I want to learn. Many years ago it was Pearl S. Buck, and later it was Nietzsche. Over the past many years it has been Kevin Kelly because he is an insightful investigator, a reliable reporter, and his writing always seems to stem from his first hand experiences.