Nov 04 2012

Upcoming Humanity Plus Conference On Writing — An Interview With Natasha Vita-More

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.

May 30 2012

The Not-So-Fine Line Between Privacy and Secrecy

As weird as people familiar with my work and the subjects I write about might find this, I only recently acquired a copy of The Transparent Society by David Brin. I have been told many times that most of my views about transparency have been discussed by David, and indeed, I’m laughing my tail off at the sheer number of phrases and examples we share in common, and I’m not even all the way through chapter one yet.

Now, David and I correspond on occasion, ever since I was one of the very few people who responded to a challenge he wrote to find a “Global Warming Skeptic” who is not merely blindly following the conservative playbook. While we agree to disagree on AGW, and probably many other topics as well, when it comes to transparency and it’s inevitability, we are in pretty close agreement, and one of David’s examples in the opening chapter struck me as a very good starting point to explain the difference between privacy and secrecy, and how it is possible to have privacy even in a society in which there are no secrets.

It’s even one I’ve used before myself – a restaurant. So imagine you are sitting at a restaurant filled with numerous tables, with groups sitting at each one. Would you brazenly listen in on the conversation of the table next to you? Would you try to look up that pretty girls skirt sitting two tables over? Would you reach over and simply take the bread basket from the table behind you?  How about moving over to another groups table uninvited?

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the answer is no. Why? It’s a little convention called social invisibility. Even though you can do any and all of these things, you make a conscious choice not to, because if you don’t, the negative consequences to yourself outweigh the potential gains. You are in plain view of everyone else, so if you fail to give them the same courtesy they are giving you by not doing any of those things to you, the entire restaurant full of people could see you, and take any number of actions to show you how displeased they are at you. This could range from embarrassment to eviction from the restaurant depending on your offense. In other words, you are completely accountable for your actions, and as such, make a decision to give everyone else privacy in exchange for them giving it to you. So long as you are not putting yourself on display in a manner that intrudes on their privacy, you have the same freedom to talk about anything you wish with your group, and behave in whatever manner you choose that is not disruptive, and they will pretend you don’t exist and that they cannot hear a word you say.

This little scene plays out millions of times daily all around the world, and it is a simple, almost automatic reaction regardless of culture. We grant those around us privacy in order to receive the same courtesy of privacy back. That privacy comes not because we are hidden but because it is an active process of society. I couldn’t tell you what the table next to me was doing, despite it being in full view, because I actively wasn’t paying attention due to the fact that I didn’t wish to suffer penalties from society for violating social invisibility.

Now, David takes this scenario a step further. Take the same restaurant, but put up silk walls between each table, so that no-one can tell if there is anyone sitting next to them. You don’t know if what you say is being listened to by someone unknown. You don’t know if the person at the table next to you is eating a hamburger, or their fellow diner. Perhaps the person has a pinhole thorough the wall and is staring at you. Maybe they have a microphone and are recording anything you say. You have no idea what, if anything, is going on behind that silk wall. You have real invisibility to anyone, but note the difference. You are hidden away from everyone! You can dance naked on your table, cut your table mates throat, and do anything! There is no accountability to your society, no penalties for any action, utter freedom to do anything you want, right? All those things you wouldn’t do in the previous scenario, you would be far more likely to do in this one, because you could escape being held accountable.

Secrecy is a threat to society precisely because it allows people to escape accountability. It protects dictators from masses of angry protestors, because it keep those protestors from knowing exactly how harmful the dictators’ actions have been. It’s the enabling force behind nearly every single form of authoritarian leadership ever conceived. It shielded Mubarak and Gaddafi for decades, and still protects numerous other “unpopular leaders” in both nations and corporate offices. Once that secrecy is pierced, and what was hidden is revealed, society enforces an accounting.

And that is the point that both David and I try to make constantly. Transparency forces accountability. Secrecy enables an escape from accountability. It really cannot be made any plainer than that.

We are going to become a Transparent Society despite David’s fears that the “elites” will find a method to retain secrets while forcing complete transparency on the rest of society, because the simple truth is that unified effort by all the various competing “power groups” at the level it would actually be required to prevent any group from forcing transparency on another group is so unlikely I would bet on air spontaneously turning into gold first. While I have every confidence that efforts to preserve secrecy on the part of the PTB will be attempted, the Surveillance Arms Race is going to render those efforts pointless in the not very long run. There is no encryption that cannot be cracked; no technological fix that can prevent universal surveillance from becoming a reality; and far too many uses for such ubiquitous monitoring of everywhere that we will find too liberating and convenient to use to make me believe that any of the efforts of “privacy advocates” who can’t tell the difference between “Privacy” and “Secrecy” will have any real effect. Sooner or later, everyone will be as visible to us as those diners at the next table.

And just like that restaurant, we will be every bit as visible to them. And we will ignore that fact, as they ignore us, and we in turn ignore them, and everyone will have all the privacy that they are willing to give. Yes, the “elites” are going to try and keep their secrets, and even succeed for a brief time, but in the end, even they will lose that ability because they will whittle it away in their paranoid need to peek at each other’s secrets for non-mutual advantage and because it is impossible to prevent all progress. And that is where David and I disagree. He fears that it will be possible to create a perfect “one way mirror” while I can see no manner in which it could be achieved.

And that is how, despite all the constant accusations from paranoid conspiracy theorists that I endorse totalitarian government by supporting the rapid proliferation of numerous surveillance systems, I can view transparency as a wholly positive force for improving the lives of billions, and one of the most basic enablers of a truly free society. Accountability is the key, and it can only exist where secrecy does not.

That isn’t to say very bad scenarios in which enormous numbers of people die at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported by one way surveillance systems cannot occur, simply that such scenarios are inherently self limiting and unstable, and will almost certainly proceed to a revolution and the creation of a society in which complete accountability and complete transparency eliminates secrecy and permanently ends any possibility of further authoritarian governance. While such scenarios are extremely undesirable, and should be avoided if at all possible, they are not dead ends, merely hazardous and costly detours.

Because if you truly want privacy, and a free and permissive society, where you can do anything you want so long as it causes no harm to another, nonconsenting, individual, then understanding the difference between privacy and secrecy is essential. It’s what will ensure we avoid the paranoid “Big Brother” detours and chart a much more pleasant course into the future.