Dec 20 2011

Positively Eschatology


In the 1850’s Auguste Comte (famous now as the father of sociology) worked out an elaborate system of religious observance based on humanism, positivism, and rational scientific progress.

If it was just a phase, it would be Comte’s last.  He died in 1857 — but his influential ideas about the application of reason to cultural and religious matters would soon lead to “Temples of Humanity” built in France and Brazil.

It was all founded on Science and Progress and Liberty — but to manage our humanism, this new religion did indeed install priests, prayers, saints (including Isaac Newton), and even a manner of “crossing” oneself that stimulated the phrenological points for Good Works (see John Gray’s Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, Faber & Faber, 2003, for much more — and details on how the very many flavors of fundamentalism issue directly from idealistic moderns).

The Church of Virus (apparently still active at least as late as May, 2011) dresses up similar notions in religious trappings – but does so in blatantly and unapologetically transhuman style.  How many cults (we could name a few: Raelism, Scientology, Heaven’s Gate) take it as their mandate to re-educate people in the name of some sloppy imagining of “scientific progress”?  The trend has worked down deep into many mainstream religious groups as well.  The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, in “reaching the world for Christ,” is still pushing a modernist agenda to convert the pagan and prepare the world for unity under their own “rational theology” and systematic doctrines of salvation. 

But the “social physics” of Comte’s Positivist religion sits somehow simultaneously in two opposing camps.  On the one hand, it is clearly a religion (rites, churches, an eye toward “progress” through the spread of values).  But on the other, it is anti-religious, or at least atheistic.  The principles were that Humanity itself, not gods, would develop and push rational moral systems across the earth to all peoples — and all of it would be based on science, order, and reason rather than inherited beliefs, myths, or superstitions.

In a different time and place, and under different economic pressures, Positivism could have become something a lot more like Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The New Atheists are fond of citing religion (crusades, jihad) as a cause for blood and terror; their critics are fond of citing the terrors atheists brought down on millions under Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot.  Both sides miss the point.  The point is that violent ideology causes blood and terror, and that violent ideology can be religious, anti-religious, or psuedo-religious.

The eschatology of transhumanism, past militant statements, by transhumanists, and the overly simplistic dismissal of history (dull, dirty, dumb) in favor of a cartoonishly idealized future (fun, sexy, smart — hey, no war & no worries!) should give us all pause. It sounds familiar.

It sounds like crows calling.

More Links

Positivist Church of Brazil

John Gray

Dec 18 2011

Conjurations in the Element of Flesh: Balancing the Transhuman and the Transpersonal


What are the critical disciplines by which 21st century humanity will initiate itself? How will those who wish to move from reality’s spectator seats to the middle of the ring do so?

How has humanity done so in the past?

The ancients represented the hall of initiation into the Mysteries as being flanked by two columns — one black, the other white. The tradition survives in Freemasonry, ceremonial magick and the High Priestess card of the Tarot, where Isis as initiatrix into the Mysteries sits between the pillars, reconciling them.

For the ancients, the black pillar represented, among other things, the path of ego calcination; the white, the path of ego dissolution. These more abstract principles. or “ways to do life,” if you will, have ended up in the common parlance as “white and black magic” and have become divorced from their original meaning and taken on new and largely inappropriate baggage.

Restored to their original symbolic association, however, the Pillars of the Temple of Solomon can offer critical suggestions about the modes of transcendence that 21st century humanity is beginning to explore.

For the young psychonaut, I draw clear the lines:

The Left-Hand Path: The Transhuman

Transhumanism is the augmentation, and therefore reinforcement, of the self. It is the current edge of the “project of Western civilization” that is concerned, and always has been concerned, with the extension of the individual will into physical, manifest reality. It is the directed use of technology to amplify the human experience — and technology can easily mean nonphysical means or techniques as well.

Here I place the increasing inseparability of humans and advanced communication technology; actual augmentation of the body with wetware, body modification, nanotech, etc., but also body change techniques like hatha yoga, martial arts, plastic surgery; the work of Wilhelm Reich; energy medicine, EFT/EMDR; the contributions of the Human Potential Movement and the increasingly clever and byzantine supplement industry. We can add modern and ancient brain-change techniques like NeuroLinguistic Programming, the Leary/Wilson Eight Circuit Model, Brion Gysin’s Dreamachine, radionics, tantra, chaos magick and the rest of the never-ending occult and New Age corpus. All of these and more can be used to change, warp, clean out, amp up, empower, manicure and otherwise “make cooler” the thing you call “I.”

Access to these technologies is increasingly wide-spread and I believe their use and refinement will likely produce some admirable customizations of the human experience as well as increasingly grotesque ego distortions as once-normal human beings mutate themselves into what might only be described as “creatures” comprised of a multiplicity of shattered and exaggerated ego shards rather than anything resembling a healthy, grounded, integrated identity.

The Right-Hand Path: The Transpersonal

If transhumanity can be seen as a continuing quest for dominance over the physical body and physical world, the transpersonal offers a much more direct (if perhaps even more dangerous) path — that of breaking down the barriers which separate the small-s self from the wider world itself. This is what might more vaguely be called the “spiritual path” — the path of the dissolution of the ego by uniting it with something larger than itself.

Under the heading of transpersonal we must place the many branches of mysticism: Gnosticism, Sufism, Qabalah, Advaita Vedanta, Mahayana Buddhism, the higher Yogas, true Tantra, shamanism, depth psychology and the activities that stem from the accelerated empathy that these practices can produce: namely activism, human rights work, ecology work, directed work on the problems of the human race and other such forms of “doing the world’s dishes.”

Leaving questions of actual higher spiritual perception or “cosmic consciousness” aside for the moment, and grounding the spiritual directly into the material world, I believe we can find the highest expression of the transpersonal path in the growing field of ecopsychology: a psychological model which proposes, broadly, that individual problems are in fact manifestations of the problems of the world itself, and that it becomes impossible to talk about healing a patient without healing the world they live in. Self and world are ultimately indistinguishable. There was never a separation to begin with.

Between the Gates

It’s easy to see how these two paths may overlap and blur at their higher reaches. Push the self to the limits of its expansion, for instance, and you may well break it in the process, allowing the “greater reality” to flood in. Similarly, the depth insights that arise from transpersonal work can and should become more greatly actualized in the physical world through the strengthening and empowerment of the “individual” who experiences them — there comes a time when you may have to lift your scarecrow-like, malnourished body from the meditation mat, do some pushups, put on a suit and start communicating what you’ve learned within the marketplace.

You can also see how these two paths can be intensely antagonistic.

Have no illusions about it: transhumanism arises from the same dominator impulse that gave us empires, Satanic mills, nuclear and biological warfare, technological slavery, the rape and degradation of the physical world, and so on. To the expanded awareness of the transpersonal, the products of Western culture and the calcified, soulless ego-worship of the transhumanists can feel as comfortable as splinters under fingernails.

Alternately, it’s questionable how much effect the insights of mystics actually produce — whether their “higher visions” are actually accurate new views into the human equation or just so much hallucinatory navel gazing. The most lasting contributions of the walkers of the transpersonal way are inner insights that, once expressed, can produce massive shifts in how cultures think — but these insights get turned into bureaucratic dominator religions overnight as soon as the original mystic is (all too often) conveniently disposed of… Godfather-style.

What Are We Left With?

Two paths. The black: Change the self as something separate from the world. The white: Delete the self and erase all separation from the world. Both provide a “beyond human” experience.

Followed exclusively, the transpersonal results in ineffectuality; take the transhuman alone, and end up a soulless machine in a world of soulless machines.

Or step between the pillars, and find something new — with no promises — for those who pass through these pillars step through and onto a yet-unlit road where only few have passed before, and where none has yet seen the destination.

Step mindfully.

Jason Louv is the author of Queen Valentine and editor of Generation Hex, Ultraculture and Thee Psychick Bible.

Oct 16 2011

100 Plus: An Accessible Look At The Longevity Revolution


Sonia Arrison’s book, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith is a look at the oncoming longevity revolution written in a style that is accessible to average readers who may not be part of the transhuman early adopters club.

Covering everything from desktop organ printing to Cynthia Kenyon’s successful work discovering lifespan regulating genes to Aubrey de Grey’s efforts to “engineer negligible senescence, 100 Plus does an excellent job of rounding up all the projects and advances that are likely leading us towards hyperlongevity while also covers the possible social, economic and political effects that longevity is having — and will have — on humans. But let’s have her tell it.

I interviewed Arrison via email.

RU SIRIUS: Your book is written towards a general audience.  What would you say to the more transhumanist types — many of whom frequent this site — to entice them into your book?

SONIA ARRISON: I think there’s a lot in the book that will appeal to transhumanists. 100 Plus begins with a history of the human drive for longevity, takes a look at the current science, and then dives into a discussion of family relations, economics, and religion in a longer-lived world. The book ends with a discussion of who is leading us into this exciting new era and calls on those with an interest to get involved.

RU: What technological development would you single out as the most promising one in terms of expanded biological lifespan for humans?

SA: The most promising area for expanding human healthspan is regenerative medicine, which includes the techniques of gene therapy and tissue engineering, both of which have demonstrated powerful human successes so far.  Gene therapy has been used to cure blindness and cancer in humans, and it has shown the ability to slow down aging and age-related diseases in lab animals. Tissue engineering is also super-exciting, since it offers the ability to build new organs for those that have worn down, like a heart or a lung.  Already, scientists have grown and successfully transplanted human organs, such as bladders and windpipes, for patients in need.  Human hearts and lungs have not been completed yet, but promising work in lab animals suggests it will be possible.

RU: What cultural development would you say most reflects this oncoming change?

SA: This could be answered in a few ways.  First, baby boomers are now visibly aging and many are looking for a cure to the problem.  As a generation, they’ve driven a lot of change and their collective biological plight is increasing interest in this field.

Second, because biology is becoming an information technology, it opens it up to the engineering culture of the tech community.

Looking at human repair from an engineering perspective, rather than from the traditional biological perspective, has caused a change in the way we go about solving various health problems.

RU: What — if anything — might stop the trend toward hyperlongevity?

SA: I don’t think anything will stop it in the long run, but there are a lot of things that could slow it down to the point that some of us alive today won’t be able to benefit.  For instance, government agencies like the FDA do not recognize aging as a disease.  This makes it difficult for scientists and companies to produce effective agents to slow aging, which is the number one risk factor for many debilitating diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

RU: Is current interest in radical life extension largely limited to people who are economically privileged, relatively speaking?  Or put more colorfully, what do you think the Chinese factory worker who made my iPad would say to an offer to live another 130 years?

SA: Living longer and healthier is a universal and perennial human desire. In the case of a Chinese factory worker, I think the more relevant question is whether he or she will be able to afford life extension technologies.

RU: Let’s follow up on that one. What do you think is likely to happen with the availability of maximum health and longevity to people of average or even low incomes?

SA: That depends on which technology hits the market first and how much it costs to provide.  It is worth noting at this point that there are already large divides in life expectancy around the world and even within the United States.  Within the US, Native American males in South Dakota have a life expectancy of 58 years, compared with Asian females in New Jersey, with a life expectancy of 91 years. Internationally, the gap is even larger.  A person living in Monaco can expect around 89 years, whereas someone living in Angola can only expect 38 years. That’s a 51 year difference – almost an entire lifetime.  If wealthier people and nations have access to the technology first, which they will, they will also have larger economic gains, because they will be able to be productive for longer periods of time.  So, the disparity between individuals and nations could grow more than we’ve ever seen before.  The one potential reason for some optimism on this point is that new technology is spreading faster than ever before, so the technology delay between those on the leading edge and those on the lagging edge may shrink.  Think, for instance, of how countries without large landline phone systems simply skipped that step and went straight to cell phones.  Historically, the distribution of new technology has been speeding up, not slowing down.

RU: You get into an area that might be controversial among transhumanists and singularitarians — the idea that those who embrace these philosophies have some similarities with religious believers. Could you expand on this idea?

SA: I argue in the book that religion will not fade away as we get further away from death.  That’s because there is more to religion than a promise of the afterlife.  Religion also speaks to the purpose of life.  Why are we here, what is the good life, and how should we live our lives?  These are questions that religion is well positioned to help answer.  If we look at religion as something that has a number of required elements, such as explaining the purpose of life and offers of transcendence, one can see these themes in movements like singularitarianism.  I point out in the book that one of the leaders in the singularity movement, Ray Kurzweil, offers up many of these elements.  The singularity, according to Kurzweil, is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”  He also has an answer for the purpose of life.  He says that the purpose of the universe “reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.”  There are other elements besides these two that make something a religion according to scholars who study this area, and I detail it in the book.  The bottom line is that not all transhumanists or singularitarians are religious, but there are some who do fit the category.

RU: When and how do you think we’ll know that we’re able to live to 150 or 300?  In other words, the year radical life extension is likely to be recognized and how we’ll know without waiting around 100 years to see if a 50-year-old makes it to 150?

SA: If scientists were able to use gene therapy to slow down aging in humans, as they have in lab animals, then the onset of the diseases of aging would happen at later and later ages.  Later onset of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease would be a good sign that the technology was successful and that human life span is about to break Jeanne Calment’s 122 year record.  When will we get there?  That’s tough to predict.  Gene therapy is only now coming out of the funk that it was in due to some early failures.  That said, because of the enormous successes that have already occurred in the field of tissue engineering, it seems likely that we will have the ability to replace many of our organs while we are waiting for holy grail solutions like gene therapy to slow overall aging, so the future looks pretty good.

Oct 14 2011

Is Stiff Academia Killing Mental Evolution?


One thing I have noticed about the Transhumanist community is that there is a division between the academic crowd and the consciousness expansion crowd. Previous Transhumanist movements have battled on idealistic grounds for the notion of what Transhumanism was really about. Was it the hard scientific outlook with the academic credentials and PowerPoints or was it the consciousness expansion outlook with the mind altering psychedelics and technological revolution? Was the hard academic current stopping the freethinking cyberpunk current from being viewed as Transhuman and was the freethinking cyberpunk current stopping the hard academic current from being taken seriously?

I used to say that the stiff academics were killing mental evolution and I completely sided with the freethinking cyberpunk current. Yet I have recently come to the realization that both currents of Transhumanism are equally important. As freethinking cyberpunks we need hard academics to build a sustainable movement or we will simply come off like a bunch of techno-hippies.

I do, however, wish to address a part of academia that has been upsetting me for a while. I’m talking about the anti-philosophy part which states that philosophy is irrelevant to Transhumanism because we now have technology. The “why have discussions on philosophy when we can build new machines?” people. They are the ones who are killing mental evolution because they dismiss philosophical discourse on the future as all talk and no action.

The last time I checked it appeared that philosophical discourse was required for action to exist in the first place. Would we be able to build new machines if we didn’t philosophize about technology? Why would we want to live in a society of robot builders if we couldn’t even theorize about what we were building? All talk and no action is a definite waste of time but all action and no talk is a cold society devoid of free thought and revolution. I feel that we need a mixture of both. We need the talk and we need the action. We need the techno-hippies who have just discovered LSD and Robert Anton Wilson to throw the raves and we need the MIT graduates to advance genetic research and throw the conferences. We need each and every person in this movement.

Transhumanism has split off into a bunch of different currents and in 2011 this has reached a level so meta-meta-meta that there are at least 30 different groups on Facebook for different currents of Transhumanism. Recently someone in the Singularity Network group asked a question to the effect of “why was I just added to 15 different Transhumanist groups?” Can we blame the hard academic elite or can we blame the petty infighting that every movement inevitably has to deal with? Should we be placing any blame in the first place or should we be embracing the splintering off of so many new movements?

In the end, I believe every MIT graduate was once a freethinking cyberpunk or — at the very least — they embraced these ideals in their youth. I also believe that every freethinking cyberpunk would benefit from a more academic education so they could turn their visions into realities via technology and scientific theory. The only thing killing mental evolution is the idea that ideas are no longer important because … “Hey! Check out those robots over there… and stop talking.”

Sep 16 2011

Where’s The Desperate Joy?


The grand old website Slate has been featuring a debate about transhumanism (human enhancement). Since it is the sort of site that is read by the “intelligentsia,” this means that a lot of writers and “opinion leaders” are becoming cognizant of the need to look at how technology seems to be inextricably moving us towards a confrontation with our potential to technologically alter in radical ways.  (As a side note, we have reached such a decentralized cultural overflow that probably the only people who think serious intellectuals are “opinion makers” are those striving to be “opinion makers” themselves, a life option that is probably being foreclosed by technological changes just as the option to become a college professor is being foreclosed by political ones.  Anyway, the reality is that the actual influential opinion makers in our time are braying  lunatics and halfwits who have massive audiences that serious intellectuals pay no attention to.)

While the discussion is interesting and entertaining enough, what is missing for me is a sense of desperation.  To wit: civilization has evolved technologically in the philosophical shadow of Malthus and it has come to be broadly understood by most intelligent observers that a technologically static humanity will reap apocalyptic results from population growth.  It may seem a bit of a leap to assume that the pursuit of human self enhancement falls into the same category as the need for technologies for human sustenance, but I’m quite certain that it does, both in terms of real practical developments (think of nanotechnology as one of the great hopes for clean energy and hyperlongevity) and in terms of the spirit of the age (the Space Age defining a sort of optimism that energized people as opposed to, say, the Pinched Mean Shriveled Age in which people resent having to save the life of a poor person in need of medical care, ad infinitum).

I’m not going to unpack my entire argument on this lovely Friday afternoon, but I do think an expansive human species is a humane and generous species.  This may not necessarily be always manifest today in the transhumanist discourse, but it is a Zeitgeist Spirit that we caught a glimmer of in the 1990s and that we may yet see rise again, technology and weather permitting.

Aug 31 2011

Transhumanism Against Scarcity: A Conversation with AnonymousSquared


“… why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?


A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by AnonymousSquared — a fellow who had read somewhere that I was thinking about writing a book titled “Steal This Singularity.“ (I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.)  He sent me a copy of his book-in-progress, which he calls “Transhumanism Against Scarcity.”   And while the book needs some work, it had some interesting ideas.  So I decided to have an email conversation with him.  Here goes more-than-nothing…

RU SIRIUS:  This discussion about ending human scarcity has a long and deep history.  Technologically, we may be moving in the right direction… towards molecular machines, desktop manufacturing, the digitization of everything.  But you say in your book that we’re headed in the wrong direction.

ANONYMOUSSQUARED:  I see two problems.  One is that environmental problems may intervene.  I don’t know if I can do anything about that.  The other problem that I see is a strain of libertarian absolutism that is fairly prevalent inside transhumanist circles and that is having way too much impact on politics in the real world. Maybe I can have some impact on that in a small way.

I don’t really have a beef with libertarianism per se… as a soft concept, finding our way towards a world with a lot less government coercion seems like a good thing.  I think the problem comes when ideals collide with the real world.  And you’ll notice that much of what I’ve written is focused on the world today, not on the future.  I thought of calling it Transhumanism Against Austerity, which is the way that global monetary policy is reintroducing scarcity into parts of the world where it had been all but eliminated.  It should be obvious to futurists that this is the wrong direction, if for no other reason than to avoid massive riots and an uprising of neoluddism.

We’re already very deep into a wildly technological time.  People notice stuff like artificial biology, bulletproof skin, the stuff that kids take for granted on their cell phones… people running around talking about robots overachieving us.  This is not lost on ordinary people.  And they’re looking around unemployed and with their homes “underwater” and medical costs rising and bankers getting free money from the government while they’re being asked to tighten their belts and they’re saying to themselves, “So this is what the techno-world is!”  Some of the people in this transhuman community have no idea what’s going to hit them.

RU:  The argument, of course, goes that the best way to end scarcity is to unleash an unfettered market.

AS: Sure, and you can’t argue with someone who is absolutely convinced that is the case.  It could conceivably even make sense at some point in the future, where a sort of tipping point is reached with nanotechnology and even the garbage pickers will be rich.  But it’s more likely that we need to think about how to get wealth to a majority of people who are economically superfluous… or we abandon them to penniless suffering.

The two main forces that are making most people economically superfluous are roboticization and globalization.  And of nearly equal importance is disintermediation of the intellectual creative classes.  Certainly corporations and business still need workers and people still want services and apps, but there’s a limit to all that.

The obvious one that everybody thinks about is that, with globalization, most types of work can be farmed out to places where there’s cheap labor, lower expectations and lower expenses.  Less obvious is that — with a globalized market, individuals are also superfluous as consumers.  So it’s the death of Keynsean economics, in the sense that global corporations and financing concerns feel no pain when Americans or Greeks stop spending.  And that’s because the possible market is so large that even with economies in recession, they’ve got more consumers than they’ve ever had before.

RU:  A few years ago, I was at a Singularity Conference and somebody whose name I forget gave a talk about robotization.  And he suggested that when robots can do everything that humans do faster, better and more efficiently, then we’ll have to give people what they need gratis.  And about a third of the audience booed him.  It was the only time I’ve ever heard a speaker get booed at one of these conferences.

AS:  Those people are against the future.  That’s the irony.  They’re trying to force ideas from the past onto the future and they’re doing damage to the present in the process.

I understand that in the 1970s, there was a lot of talk even among many libertarians that there was going to be this cybernetic age soon and people’s jobs would be replaced by machines… and how are we going to deal with that?  And they talked about the least bureaucratic ways to let people enjoy their lives after the machines take over… ideas like a reverse income tax or running some large centralized enterprise and giving everybody free stock.  It was just assumed that we wouldn’t leave people out in the cold when they were no longer necessary.  After all, as a society we wouldn’t be any poorer because the machine rather than the human is producing.  This seems so fundamentally human and obvious.  I think there’s been a massive dehumanization since then.

RU:  I lived through the seventies and they were pretty miserable.  Alienation with the internet is definitely less isolating and boring than alienation with it.  

Anyway, the popular argument with the idea that you have to help people who were replaced by technology is that we’ve learned that new technologies create new economic opportunities and new jobs and so forth.  I think it’s a partial truth that deteriorates as we go deeper into the postindustrial era, but it’s an argument that’s out there.

AS:  Well, we could go into the conventional arguments about actual income stagnation and insecurity but it’s all been said before and everybody has their arguments ready.  But I think anybody would have to admit that it’s already a weird economy. A big chunk of the market economy exist solely on the basis of the eventual expectation of advertising. How perverse is that… when you actually examine it? Where it really falls apart is when you have a billion busy little small entrepreneurs hustling some product.  Who has the attention and the need for what they have to offer… assuming it hasn’t already been hacked and distributed free anyway?  And why should anyone want to participate in an infinite unending marketplace.  What kind of human being sees that as the ultimate goal?

RU: Is there any reason to be optimistic?

AS:  Sure.  There are plenty of people with all types of ideological influences including libertarianism who are truly humanistic and want only to solve big problems ranging from scarcity to death. I want to ask them to be against austerity policies now. When you’re inviting people to be bold and excited and transhuman about the very extreme technological changes that are taking place, maybe it would be smart not to yank the floor out from underneath them at the same time.

Aug 03 2011

Jason Louv’s Queen Valentine: A Romance in Two Worlds


Jason Louv’s new novel Queen Valentine is a hallucinatory trip through the supernatural underbelly of New York City… as one reviewer put it, “Like Alice in Wonderland if Lewis Carroll had overdosed on the opposite of Prozac. A twisted, dark, comical take on the origins of our hopes, dreams and nightmares.”

Louv is best known for his three previously published three anthologies on consciousness studies, Generation Hex (which Grant Morrison called “Your invitation to the party that might just bring the house down”), Ultraculture and Thee Psychick Bible with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, and although the new book is a foray into fiction, it continues his themes of consciousness expansion, posthumanity, magic and the hidden occult side of the world. I caught up with him briefly by e-mail to discuss the new book.

RAY TESLA: So what is Queen Valentine?

JASON LOUV: It’s a novel exposing the supernatural underworld beneath New York, as seen through the eyes of a young woman who’s lost her soul working in advertising, and ends up stumbling into the world beneath. It’s a bit like Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race mashed up with “Mad Men.”

RT: Can you say more?

JL: Well, the premise is essentially this. In the middle ages, the people of Europe took it for granted that non-human beings — often called the Sidhe or the faery folk — were as real as humans, and regularly trafficked with the human world. Just like “modern” people sometimes claim to see UFOs or to have been abducted by aliens, in the middle ages people often claimed to have happened upon secret Sidhe kingdoms, to have been abducted to faerie land, or to have had their children swapped for faerie babies. That’s where we get a lot of European mythology from. And then we stop hearing about them as soon as the Inquisition and then the Age of Reason come in.

So the question is, what happened to those beings? And the answer in the book is, well, they did what lots of displaced people do. They emigrated to New York, or the settlement that became New York. And they’ve been living in secret catacombs and warrens underneath the city ever since, in their own shadow version of the city and shadow economy — along with their evil half, the Unseelie, who are like creatures created by pure nightmare energy. And after four hundred years, the Unseelie are tired of hiding, and they want to make a bid to subjugate the human side of the city.

RT: What were your main inspirations writing this?

JL: Having been involved both in advertising world and the supernatural underworld of New York.

RT: You’ve previously written about consciousness expansion and magic (Generation Hex, Ultraculture, Thee Psychick Bible) and about the transforming effects of technology on the soul. Do you see this as a continuation or a departure from those topics? Why the switch to fiction?

JL: Definitely a continuation. There’s only so much truth you can express about the hidden corners of reality in non-fiction or essay form before people start wondering if you’re making it up. The threshold is very low. With fiction, hopefully I can put it all in there and instead of that nagging voice in your head while you’re reading it being “I wonder if he made this up,” it might be “I wonder if any of this is actually true?”

RT: So are you saying there’s actually coded occult information in Queen Valentine?

JL: No. Certainly not.

RT: You’ve also written about transhumanism and posthumanity. Does that tie in with the book?

JL: In a way. The book is in many ways a critique of transhumanism from the perspective of the original guardians of the earth, the nature spirits who’ve had to adapt to our technological progress and find a way to live in the cracks like any diaspora culture. A lot of the tension in the book revolves around the different responses from different factions of the Sidhe to the direction humanity is going. There’s also a lot of satire of the Faustian need for physical augmentation. I don’t want to give too much away, but the crux of what’s being discussed is whether humanity will be allowed to manifest the kind of nightmare future that it seems to be hellbent on creating.

RT: Does that mean you have an essentially pessimistic view of the future?

JL: Not really. I’m a great believer in posthumanity. But there’s certainly a dark road that I see people heading down that I think they shouldn’t. I think if we keep pushing on things like genetically modified crops and voluntary surveillance social media there’s a good chance we could end up living a real shit of a situation. I’m disturbed on a daily basis by the fact that we’ve essentially allowed things like Facebook to turn our interpersonal space into a strip mall. And I see one tendency of humanity to become more and more soulless, more and more surrendered to mechanization and regimentation. But luckily we still have things like science fiction to create and advertise better futures. By any imaginary means necessary!

RT: What’s next for you?

JL: I’m done plotting the next book and on into writing it. I’d really like to get into wider media to educate more young minds. That’s what it’s about! I’d like to write some comics if they’ll let me at them.

Jul 20 2011

I Predict That My Predictions Will Be Proven Wrong


“Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic…”


Tonight, the audio podcast “Future Forward” will be uploading an interview with myself, Sonia Arrison and George Dvorsky.  Before doing the interview (twice, but that’s a whole other story) we were informed that we would be talking about likely human enhancements 25 years from now.

This got me thinking about the nature of predicting the future and the transhumanist project.  I began to wonder how accurate the predictions made by “futurists” 25 years ago would look today.  My unscientific sense (based on my admittedly faulty memory) is that most predictions made 25 years ago were probably either way too optimistic or way too pessimistic.  I can remember, for instance, when the very existence of genetic engineering seemed to hold a near future promise of mega-cures for the worst diseases.  Now we’ve got the whole genome and curing — for example — cancer is still a work in progress.  Thirty years ago, the future was in space colonization.  By 1986, disillusionment had already set it. (I suppose a study of futurist predictions made in 1986 is in order.  Meanwhile, Singularity Hub provides these predictions of the future from the 1960s.  The results are mixed… and amusing.)

In terms of people being too optimistic or pessimistic, the latter half of the 20th Century was filled with promises of utopia and/or apocalypse.  Indeed, the design theorist Buckminster Fuller made the case that it was going to be one or the other.  And yet, we seem instead to have muddled through, at least so far.

So on the one hand, I fear that those of us whose hopes have been raised by the transhumanist project may find ourselves 25 years hence still awaiting hyperlongevity, molecular engines of creation, really smart bots and so on.

On the other hand, assuming the technological ducks are in a row and astounding technological developments already in progress should be bearing magnificent fruit within 25 years, I find myself — in this age of massive oil spill disasters, crazy weather, announcements that the oceans are dying, and natural disasters rubbing up against nuclear power plants — wondering whether we will arrive at 2036 intact and without having encountered major disruption.

On the whole, the potential for environmental havoc that is disruptive enough to cancel the future seems to be a taboo subject in most transhumanist circles.  Indeed, Ray Kurzweil claims to have charted how two world wars and an economic depression didn’t seriously impede exponential growth in information processing power.  But the death of the oceans?

Of course, many transhumanist advocates will rise up to defend the memeplex by arguing that the science behind those predictions is all wrong.  People choose the science they want to believe and find the arguments — and even the statistics — to support their views. Of course, they could be right.

Am I becoming a pessimist?  I hope not.  I prefer to be agnostic on the optimism v. pessimism question.  Some otherwise hardcore rationalists argue that we should be optimistic because it generates positive action.  It’s also been shown that people with strong spiritual faith tend to be healthier and to live longer. (I’m just sayin’). Personally, when I hear someone who is generally upbeat being pessimistic, it makes me optimistic, because it tells me that this person is trying to deal honestly with things as they are rather than as they want them to be.

Meanwhile, on the Fast Forward show, I tossed out a brief challenge to the whole predicting thing and then let myself get carried along in the “what if” scenarios.  Ok, I’ll admit it. If nothing else, speculating can be fun.

Jul 14 2011

Optimist Author Mark Stevenson Is Trippin’… Through The Tech Revolution


“The oddest thing I did was attend an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives.”

Mark Stevenson’s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future is a rare treat — an upbeat tour visiting major shakers behind all the technologies in transhumanism’s bag of tricks — written by a quippie (a culturally hip person who uses amusing quips to liven up his or her narrative).  Stevenson trips through visits to genetic engineers, robotics, nanotechnology enthusiasts, longevity seekers, independent space explorers and more among them names you’ll recognize like Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Eric Drexler and Dick Rutan.

I interviewed him via email.

RU SIRIUS:  Were you an optimist growing up?

MARK STEVENSON:  No, not especially – although I was always trying new things. For most of my childhood I was convinced I was going to be a songwriter for a living.

RU: What made you look forward to the future?

MS: I think that’s a natural thing that humans do. Time is a road. Those who don’t pay attention to the road tend to crash. A better question is: what stops people looking to the future? One reason is because the story we hear about the future is so rubbish. I mean think about it. If I recall the story of the future I’ve been used to hearing since I was born pretty much it goes something like this: “The future is not going to be very good (especially if you vote for that guy), it was better in the old days, you’ve got to look after yourself, the world is violent and unsafe, your job is at risk, your boss is an idiot, your employees are lazy, the generation below you are feral and dangerous, things are changing too fast and you can’t trust those scientists/ new-agers/ left wingers/ right wingers /religious people /atheists /the rich /the poor /what you eat /your neighbor. You are alone. Make the best of it. Vote for me. Buy my paper. I understand.” It’s hardly inspiring, is it?

RU:  As you’ve promoted the book, have you run into arguments or questions that challenge optimistic views?  What’s the most important argument or question?

MS:  I’m not intrinsically optimistic about the future; I’m not an optimist by disposition. I’d say I’m a possibilist – which is to say, it’s certainly possible that we’ll have a much better future, but it’s also certainly possible that we’ll have a really rubbish one. The thing that’s going to move that in one direction or another will be how all of our interactions in the march of history nudge us. One thing I do know is, if you can’t imagine a better future, you’re certainly not going to make it happen. It’s like going into a job interview thinking about how you’re not going to get it. You just won’t get the job. The biggest problem I have is semantic. As soon as you associate yourself with the word “optimism” some people will instantly dismiss you as a wishful thinker who really hasn’t understood the grand challenges we face. As a result, I constantly have to battle against a lazy characterization of my views that suggest I am some kind of Pollyanna in rose-tinted spectacles. My position is simply this: that we should have an unashamed optimism of ambition about our future, and then couple that with our best creative and critical skills to realize those ambitions. Have good dreams – and then work hard to do something about them. It’s obvious stuff but it seems to me that not nearly enough people are saying it these days.

RU:  Since writing the book, what has happened that makes you more optimistic?

MS: That there is a huge hunger for pragmatic change – in fact I’m setting up The League for Pragmatic Optimists to help catalyze this. Also I’m being asked to help organizations re-imagine themselves. That’s challenging and hopeful. The corporation is one of the biggest levers we have for positive change.

RU:  Less optimistic?

MS: When we talk about innovation we easily reference technology, medicine – or we might talk about innovation in music, dance, fashion. But we rarely talk about institutional innovation, and nowhere is this more apparent than in government. Almost every prime minister or president at some point early into their first term of government gives a rousing and highly ironic speech about how they wish to promote innovation. But isn’t it strange that while governments (and many corporations it has to be said) so often talk about stimulating innovation they themselves don’t change the way they work. When we introduced parliamentary democracy in the 1700s it was a massive innovation, a leap forward. Yet here we are, 300 years later and I get to vote once every four years for two people, both of whom I disagree with to run an archaic system that cannot keep up with the pace of change. To quote Einstein,  “We can’t solve problems we’ve got by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” It’s why I now dedicate much of my life helping institutions change the way they think about their place in the world and the way they operate.

RU:  Among the technologies you explore, we can include biotech, AI and nanotech.  In which of these disciplines do you most see the future already present.  In other words, whether it’s in terms of actual worthwhile or productive activities or in terms of stuff that’s far along in the labs, where can you best catch a glimpse of the future?

MS:  To quote William Gibson: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” So, synthetic biology is already in use, and has been for a while. If you’re diabetic, it’s almost certain your insulin supply is produced by E. coli bacteria whose genome has been tinkered with. The list of nanotechnology-based consumer products already available numbers thousands including computer memory and microprocessors, numerous cleaning products, antimicrobial bandages, anti-odour socks, toothpaste, air filters, sunscreen, kitchenware, fabric softeners, pregnancy tests, cosmetics, stain resistant clothing and pet furniture, long-wearing paint, bed-ware, guitar strings that stay sounding fresh thanks to a nano-coating and (it seems to me) a disproportionate number of hair straightening devices. It looks set to underpin revolutions in energy production, medicine and sanitation. Already we’re seeing it increase the efficiency of solar cells and heralding cheap water desalinization/purification technology. In fact, the Toffler Institute predicts that this will “solve the growing need for drinkable water, significantly reducing global conflict between water-starved nation-states.” In short, nanotech can take the ‘Water War’ off the table.

When it comes to AI I’m going to quote maverick Robot designer Rodney Brooks (formerly of MIT): “There’s this stupid myth out there that AI has failed, but AI is everywhere around you every second of the day. People just don’t notice it. You’ve got AI systems in cars, tuning the parameters of the fuel injection systems. When you land in an airplane, your gate gets chosen by an AI scheduling system. Every time you play a video game, you’re playing against an AI system”

What I think is more important to pay attention to is how all these disciplines are blurring together sometimes creating hyper-exponential growth. If you look at progress in genome sequencing for example — itself an interplay of infotech, nanotech and biotech — it’s outstripping Moore’s Law by a factor of four.

RU: What would you say was the oddest or most “science fictional” scene you visited or conversation you had during the course of your “tour”?

MS: The most “science fictional” was meeting the sociable robots at MITs Personal Robotics Group. Get onto You Tube and search for “Leo Robot” or “Nexi Robot” and you’ll see what I mean. Talking of robots, check out video of Boston Dynamics “Big Dog”  too.

The oddest thing I did was attend an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives – the idea of the first elected president of the nation, Mohamed Nasheed. (I was one of only one of four people not in the government or the support team allowed in the water). As we swam back to the shore I found myself swimming next to the president. His head turned my way and I must have looked startled because he made the underwater hand signal for “Are you okay?” I signalled back to assure him I was because there is no hand signal for “Bloody hell! I’m at an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives! How cool is that?!”

RU: Many of our readers are transhumanists.  What course of action would you recommend toward creating a desirable future.

MS: During my journey I spoke to a man called Mark Bedau, a philosopher and ethicist who said: “Change will happen and we can either try to influence it in a constructive way, or we can try to stop it from happening, or we can ignore it. Trying to stop it from happening is, I think, futile. Ignoring it seems irresponsible.”
This then, I believe, is everybody’s job: to try an influence change in a constructive way. The first way you do that is get rid of your own cynicism. Cynicism is like smoking. It may look cool but its really bad for you — and worse still its really bad for everyone around you. Cynicism is an institution of the mind that’s just as damaging as anything our governments or our employers can do to us.

I also like something a man called Dick Rutan told me when I visited the Mojave Space Port. He’s arguably the world’s finest aviator, most famous for flying around the world nonstop on one tank of gas. He’s seventy years old and still test piloting high-performance aircraft, and he told me: “Never look at a limitation as something you ever comply with. Never. Only look at it as an opportunity for greatness.”

RU: Your book is pretty funny… and you’ve been a stand up comedian.  What’s the funniest thing about the future?

MS: My next book, obviously!