Dec 26 2011

Will Joel Garreau & Jamais Cascio Prevail — Along With The Rest Of Us?

""){ ?> By R.U. Sirius


Joel Garreau’s Prevail Project (joined by advocate Jamais Cascio) declares as its slogan a William Faulkner quote: “I decline to accept the end of man” — which, as our many transhumanly-inclined readers will note — now has at least two possible meanings. And yes, they do mean it in both ways. But I’ll let them tell it eloquently in this email based conversation.

Joel Garreau is, among other things, the author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means To Be Human and a former writer and editor for Washington Post.

Jamais Cascio is a noted futurist who has worked on scenario planning for groups like the Global Business Network. In 2003, with Alex Steffen, he co-launched the popular environmental website Worldchanging. In 2009, he released his first book, Hacking the Earth: Understanding the Consequences of Geoengineering.

RU SIRIUS: The “About” section of Prevail seems pretty confident (if that’s the right word) about the rapid evolution of technologies for intelligence increase, life extension, and other far out projections that are still controversial in some circles. Broadly, do you think some of these “transhuman” wet dreams could stall… and would that be a bad thing?

JAMAIS CASCIO: They could and they will. Stall doesn’t mean “never happen,” though; it just means that the developers discover that some problems end up being far harder to solve than they expected. Even getting past a stall doesn’t mean that everything’s become perfect — it’s a peculiar defect of many transingularitarihumanitarians that they often forget that technologies of all kinds remain buggy and flawed long after they have been introduced. There’s no such thing as a straight line to technologically-mediated transcendence.

As for whether it would be a bad thing… it undoubtedly would be for the people beta testing the brain implants who discover that listening to any music in the key of G causes seizures, or those who get the first cellular rejuvenations only to find that they now can’t retain new memories.

But for the rest of us, no, it would not be a bad thing. It would give us more time to consider what we want versus what we need versus what’s possible. It doesn’t mean that we’ll reject the developments (whoever we mean by “we”), but it does give us a chance to have a more reasonable perspective on them.

JOEL GARREAU: In the Prevail Project, we assiduously avoid predictions. I don’t have a crystal ball and I don’t know anyone who does. I am ever mindful of the vacation hotels on the moon I was promised as a youth. This shaped all my work as a Washington Post reporter on the impact of technology on culture, values and society, and as the author of Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – And What It Means to Be Human.

I have, however, for 20 years found “scenario planning” to be a very powerful way to think systematically, rationally, and rigorously about the future. In fact, Jamais and I met at Global Business Network, the pioneering scenario planning outfit.

Scenario planning starts with the facts on the ground. These today include Moore’s Law, which clearly is abetting exponential increases in the GRIN technologies – the genetics, robotics, information and nano revolutions. It is simply a matter of reporting – not prediction – to note that everything from cognition-enhancing pharmaceuticals to brain implants to flying robots the size of insects either already exist commercially or are well on their way to becoming common in our lives. (For more factual information on where hundreds of technologies actually are located in the pipeline, and how seriously we should take them, I commend to your attention “The Seven Horizons Project” — which is part of The Prevail Project. Join and contribute!)

Using these predetermined facts as a common base, scenario planning evolves hugely different stories about our possible futures. The object is to create strategies for any future we can credibly imagine, and – most important – human organizations that can learn.

I discuss the three scenarios, Heaven, Hell and Prevail in the about section for the project and in my book, Radical Evolution. They are wildly different stories about what the future might hold.

If you were to graph them, Heaven would expect a nice smooth upward curve in which our technologies rapidly compound to conquer pain, suffering, stupidity and death:

Hell – its mirror image – projects an equally inevitable downward curve to the destruction of humanity – or all of life on earth.

But Prevail’s graph would display the kind of belches, loops, reversals and farts of which history is so full:

And The Prevail Project aims to embrace that possibility to humanity’s advantage.

The critical difference between the Prevail Scenario and the Heaven Scenario is humanism – as distinct from technodeterminism.

Heaven and Hell each might make a good summer blockbuster movie, featuring amazing special effects. But they have the same story line: We are in for revolutionary change; there’s not much we can do about it; hang on tight; the end. The Prevail Scenario, if nothing else, has better literary qualities. It is a story of struggle and action and decision. In that way, it is also more faithful to history, which can be read as a remarkably effective paean to the power of humans to muddle through extraordinary circumstances.

In fact, The Prevail Project aims to make it clear how heroic and profound “muddling through” has been for the human race. Prevail stories ring down through the ages, from the Bible’s Exodus, to Huckleberry Finn, to the British “nation of shopkeepers” prevailing against the Third Reich.

Technodeterminism says that the future is shaped by our creations – by how many transistors we can hook up. The humanism of Prevail boldly asserts (hopes?) that the future will continue to be controlled by how many ornery, cussed, surprising humans can be hooked up in a bottom-up way to throw the Curve a curve. That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

The heart of Prevail is: perhaps there are two curves of change, not one. If our technological challenges are heading up on a curve, but our responses are more or less flat (like we’re waiting for House Judiciary to solve our problems), the species is clearly toast. The gap just keeps on getting wider and wider.

But suppose we are seeing an increase almost as rapid in our unexpected, bottom-up, flock-like social adaptations. Then you’d be looking at high-speed human-controlled co-evolution.
There are reasons for guarded optimism about this.

If you looked out at the future of the human race from 1200 A.D., you’d see marauding hordes, and plague, and you’d say, okay, it’s over for this species.

But then in 1450 we developed moveable type and the printing press, and a brand new way widely to share and store our ideas. The results were quite amazing. First we got the Renaissance, and then the Enlightenment – which lead to science itself, and democracy, and now the world we have today in which 1200 A.D. is ancient history in every sense. These transformations are interesting because they were beyond the imagination of any one king or country. They came in a bottom-up way – frequently in opposition to top-down authority, notably the Pope.

You see the bottom-up nature of Prevailing again on 9/11 when the fourth airplane – Flight 93 – never makes it to its target. Why was that? Because the Air Force was so smart? Ah, no. Because the White House was so smart? Hell no. It’s because a few dozen people on board that aircraft – empowered by their air-phone technology – figured out, diagnosed, and cured their society’s ills in about an hour flat. Was it an ideal solution? No – they all died. But it was good enough. They Prevailed.

So the question before us today is whether we are seeing a rapid increase in this sort of bottom-up, flock-like human response to novel challenges. Well, how about eBay? That’s not just the world’s biggest flea market. That’s hundreds of millions of people doing very complicated things without leaders. How about YouTube? It helped swing an American presidential election. How about the Arab Spring? I have no idea what Twitter is good for, but if it flips out dictators, I’m interested.

The Prevail Project is all about helping people eliminate barriers to this sort of rapid increase in adaptive co-evolution to our challenges.

Prevail does not rely on there being glitches in the Curve of technological change. Nor is it predicting them. But should such glitches occur, and should that give humans more time to respond socially to the colossal change we are facing, it’s occurred to us that that wouldn’t necessarily be all bad. At the same time, history offers few examples of the future turning out to be a nice smooth projection from the present – at least at any scale recognizable by people raising kids and trying to plan for retirement. (That’s why we are so often surprised.)

RU: I read and really enjoyed Joel’s book Radical Evolution a few years back in which he (you) laid out those three possible futures — Hell, Heaven and Prevail. For my readers, could you say a little bit about those scenarios and I wonder if you both believe that there’s a solid boundary between them, other than a perceptual one.

JG: For transhumanists – and the rest of the species — we hope The Prevail Project opens up a whole new vista for action and involvement in helping shape the evolution of human nature. Towards this end, we are recruiting volunteer myth makers, authors, moderators, virality mavens and video curators. To apply, please contact us at, telling us about yourself.

Prevail is not about the technology – the boys and their toys. It’s about the humans. It’s about us taking control of our own futures, and those of our kids – not contritely accepting those shaped by our creations.

As we say in the “About” area of The Prevail Project’s web site:

“The critical issue, of course, is not technology, but where all this takes society. How does it change what it means to be human for us and our kids?

“There are three scenarios: Heaven – in which our inventions conquer pain, suffering, stupidity, ignorance, and even death. Hell – in which our creations wipe out the human race or all of life on earth within a generation. And Prevail – which argues that these first two scenarios are technodeterministic.

“In the Prevail Scenario, what really matters – as always – is not how many transistors we get to talk to each other, but how many ornery, imaginative, unpredictable human beings we can bring together to arrive at surprising ways to co-evolve with our challenges. Because only in this bottom-up way will humans really control their destinies, rather than have them controlled by our creations.”

We are not predicting that the Prevail Scenario is the one that will happen. All three scenarios are credible. But as humanists, Prevail is the one we are rooting for, and the one we aim to revolutionarily encourage. As we say:

“The Prevail Project aims to be the worldwide clearinghouse for humanistic response to rapid technological change. Its goal is to accelerate bottom-up, enlightened triumph in the face of exponential challenges the way the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency accelerates technology. Its core hope is that in the face of unprecedented transformation, humans will continue to prevail, shaping their own futures, toward their own ends, rather than being the pawns of their explosively powerful technologies. For the only enduring advantage is to learn faster than the competition. And the best way to anticipate the future is to invent it yourself.”

JC: Fortunately, it looks like Joel & I are more-or-less on the same page on the big issues.

It comes down to humanism.

One bit of snark I’ve used before is that transhumanists focus too much on the “trans” and not enough on the “humanist.” As I said earlier, I’m more adamant in my anti-Singularitarianism than in my anti-Transhumanism, but in both cases it’s not because I reject the notion that our technologies are changing rapidly. It’s because I firmly believe that it’s not a one-way process. Technologies change us, but we change the technologies, too. Technology is not an external force emerging from the very fabric of the universe (and, as you know, there are some Singularitypes out there who seriously believe that Moore’s Law is woven into the laws of nature); our technologies (plural, lower-case T) are cultural constructs. They are artifacts of our minds, our norms and values, our societies.

Our tools do not make us who we are. We make tools because of who we are.

RU: Since my audience is largely transhumanism-oriented, I read this as pro-transhumanist but anti-singularitarianism. Would that be broadly accurate?

JG: That’s more broad than it is accurate, but there are elements of truth to it.

As we all know, there are many flavors of transhumanism, some of which I’m more comfortable with than others. I find Nick Bostrom and Jay Hughes to be very thoughtful. But many forms of transhumanism – and I guess just about all versions of singularitarianism – exhibit belief in the power of prediction, linear projection, and technodeterminism that I find eyebrow-raising. I’m also disturbed by any cult-like manifestations.

Having said that, we treat everybody who is thinking hard about the future of human nature with respect and attention – including the bioconservatives (even if one might wish that they had more solutions to our predicament than standing in the road yelling “Stop!”).

As I write in the “Transcend” chapter of Radical Evolution:

“I do not wish to be cast as an opponent or a debunker of the social critics of technology. I hope I have presented them and their scenarios fairly. Readers should examine their arguments carefully. They offer important reasoning regarding the cautions we should consider. I wish we’d had such an informed discussion before we embraced nuclear power. It
could well have benefited everybody—including the electricity industry.

“In the absence of an attractive alternative, however, I elect to light out for the Territory in the words of Huckleberry Finn. I choose to examine the possibility that human nature might continue to evolve and be improvable, and to consider what transformation might actually look like and what it might mean. ‘What is a man? A seed? An acorn unafraid to destroy itself in growing into a tree?’ asks David Zindell in The Broken God.

“Exploring the Transcend hypothesis adds specificity, measurements and means to the goal of controlling our evolution in the fashion of The Prevail Scenario. At the very least it casts light on our current age by causing us to wonder about our present definitions of human nature and evolution and the meaning of transcendence.”

JC: While my views parallel many of the perspectives of the transhumanist/H+ subcultures, I strongly reject the notion that what’s going on is inherently distancing from humanity. I really dislike the term “transhuman.” I find it unnecessarily divisive and self-congratulatory. A movement that sees itself as transcending humanity is culturally far more likely to bring about the backlash and paranoia embodied by (e.g.) Fukuyama than would any biological difference.

And as you know, I’m on the record as being rather skeptical of the traditional singularity story.

In short, the standard singularity idiom is anti-social, focusing exclusively on technological developments without regard to where they come from or how they’re used (and, as noted, with little appreciation of the inherent challenges of developing and deploying these kinds of technologies). But adding people to the mix — adding cultural biases, and social norms, and ethical quandaries — changes the scenario fundamentally.

That’s what attracted me to the Prevail project: it recognizes that technological change is a social phenomenon, first and foremost.

RU: Is there an implicit or explicit politics to this?

JC: There is for me; I can’t speak for Joel.

By politics, I don’t mean in a partisan/party sense; I mean it in the political science sense, the way in which power is distributed across a social system. The key ethical question, for me, is how much say do we all have in the development and deployment of disruptive technologies, both before and after the fact. Narratives that put these decisions solely into the hands of a narrow priesthood are, for me, highly suspect, especially given the physical and economic power some of these technologies would allow.

How we describe and define these technological developments is very much a political concern.

JG: Oh hell yes. I mean, we have no more time for Washington politics-as-usual than anyone else. But politics, in its most useful incarnation, is the marketplace of ideas. It’s about how we allocate our dreams. Prevail also hopes to play a role in the emerging political split between those who look at the future and see hope, and those who look at the future and see fear. After all, The Prevail Project wants to save the human race. I mean, somebody’s got to do it, right? ; -)

RU: “The Protester” has been named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In some ways, it seems like the attention this year has been less on what role technology will play in the society of the near future and more on how we govern and distribute wealth. What role does mass dissatisfaction and disaffection around the world play in the Prevail view?

JG: It’s a cliché, but still true: it’s hard to imagine how Occupy or the Arab Spring or now the Russian convulsion would have happened without emerging technologies. Social technologies were not a cause. But they certainly were enablers. And that’s what Prevail is trying to harness.

The underpinning assumption of Prevail seems self-evident: the ground is moving beneath our feet, socially, economically, and politically. Extraordinary change is being created in no small part by the continued exponential rise in destabilizing enabling technologies. Jobs and companies wink out and pop up elsewhere in a heartbeat. When our college students were born, who knew what a “webmaster” might be? Now the question is, how do we handle this upheaval?

Any sensible primate, when the ground moves beneath his or her feet, will look for something solid to hang on to. I think that’s a big reason for the success of demagogues with simple messages that purport to explain everything, whether or not they line up with the facts.

You can decry the followers of these firebrands all you want, but the real way to challenge them, I think, is to come up with superior narratives. So I find Occupy interesting because it’s success is precisely that. They’ve come up with a narrative (“the 99 percent”) that has changed the conversation quite sweepingly. I hope Prevail systematically helps to eliminate barriers to the creation of similar superior narratives. In fact, it’s occurred to me to wonder whether we need a myth-making corps. Lord knows we have enough underemployed story tellers.

JC: Joel writes, “When our college students were born, who knew what a ‘webmaster’ might be.”

In a way, this question offers an illustration of the very phenomenon we’re talking about: in my experience, the notion of a “webmaster” as a distinct occupation is fading into the Trash Icon of History. Some of those duties have been split among several more focused roles (editor, tech, experience designer, etc.), but much of the work of a “webmaster” has been automated through powerful tools and smart algorithms. So, yes, when the current crop of college sophomores was born, the concept of a webmaster hadn’t yet crystallized (I first heard the term in 1994, I think); but when said sophomores get out of grad school (assuming a nice respectable 2-year Master’s degree), the notion of a webmaster will likely sound as archaic as “travel agent.” As Joel says, the ground is moving beneath our feet.

As much as my sympathies lie with the Occupiers and Arab Springers, I can’t help but worry about the accelerated myth-making enabled by distributed, democratized social technology. Social technology a promiscuous tool, and won’t be limited to freedom-loving, big-bank-hating hippies. We should remember that the Rwandan massacres of the mid-1990s were enabled in part by the spread of small radio stations, microbroadcasters spreading false rumors and encouraging violence – and the myths that were made had bloody results. I once asked in a talk what the “hashtag for genocide” might be; I suspect we’ll find out soon enough.

Which is all a round-about way of answering your question. I think what Joel is saying (and certainly what I am saying) is that just because the explicit topic of conversation isn’t about the impacts of some tools we’re calling “technology” doesn’t mean that the tools aren’t important. Technology isn’t a separate phenomenon, it’s a cultural artifact (literally and figuratively), and frankly I think we’ll get a better perspective on the repercussions of various technological developments when we focus on the people and not the toys.

RU: I’m wondering if Joel shares Jamais’ view that their isn’t some kind of intrinsic patterning in nature that is reified in the evolution of technology (if I’m understanding that correctly) and what you (Jamais and/or Joel) think are the flaws in ideas like those presented in Kevin Kelly’s theory of a “technium”?

JG: I think Kevin has written an incredible, impressive, tour de force scenario. Kevin, of course, is presenting it as, at the very least, a hardcore prediction, if not a law of nature. And he’s done an amazing job. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to test this hypothesis empirically. Nor do I know how to translate it into a strategy. (Other than “Relax, everything’s cool.”) Of course, the fault may lie in my notoriously limited brain, and if others can help me to a superior understanding, I am open.

In some ways I read What Technology Wants as a very rich and textured version of a Heaven scenario. If I’m reading him correctly, and if he’s right, I guess I should chill because the future doesn’t require human effort or intervention.

JC: And that’s a concept that terrifies me, really – I think we’re far more likely to end up in a scenario that we really don’t want if we abandon human agency in the evolution of these technologies. I don’t trust a “relax, everything’s cool” scenario – it’s too easily co-opted by those with ill intent.

My earlier comment, by the way, was less about Kevin Kelly’s idea than about a crude articulation I’ve heard from hardcore Singularitarians, that something akin to Moore’s Law (regular doubling of information-processing power) is actually part of the structure of reality. If that’s true – and I’m reasonably certain it’s not – then to me it would be definitive evidence that we’re living in one of the ultra-advanced history simulations that Nick Bostrom talks about, and not a very good one at that. An underlying doubling of information power hard-coded into the rules of the universe is such a lazy programmer’s trick.

(Looking at my last two comments, I realize that I sound like I’m hiding in my bunker, frightened of my own digital shadows. I’m not – I’m actually pretty optimistic about how these tools will be used. I’m just especially sensitive to their potential drawbacks. Honestly, I have never needed anti-anxiety medication. I’ll plead the fifth on anti-depressants, however.)

RU: I noticed Jaron Lanier is an important reference point on your website. My sense from reading You Are Not The Gadget is that Jaron is suspicious of what we might call extreme democratization, crowdsourcing, “free” culture and so on. I wonder what your respective takes on this might be.

JG: I think you should ask Jaron this question. But my read of Jaron is that he’s all about smashing anything that would diminish what it means to be human. Which I wildly applaud. His critique of “extreme democratization,” as I understand it, is that it can be a tyranny against the individual. And he hates it. Don’t know how I’d argue against that. Again, if I misunderstand, I am open to enlightenment.

JC: I have an admittedly cynical perspective on this, since I asked both Jaron and (in a separate conversation) Bill Joy about the role of open-source/distributed-democratized technosocial movements, and each responded with immediate and vitriolic dismissal of open-source code as crudely derivative of the real work done on real Unix back in the 70s and 80s, work that they both were involved with to varying degrees. Like I said, I’m a bit cynical.

So let’s set that aside – if we read Jaron simply as saying that mass democratization is not inherently good, I’m right there with him, as my previous comments would illustrate. It’s very possible for mass movements to be dangerous and dehumanizing. It’s uncomfortably easy, in fact.
But here’s the twist: while democratization isn’t inherently good (or inherently evil), I believe that any good future will inherently be democratic. So just pushing for more participation, more decentralization, without paying close attention to how that decentralized participation actually manifests won’t necessarily lead us to the Prevail scenario. But dismissing participation, decentralization, and democratization as dangerous and/or irrelevant guarantees we won’t get the Prevail scenario.

RU: What do you think are some likely activities of a prevail movement in the near future?

JC: Near future work for Prevail movements (as there will be multiple versions, I suspect) will probably focus on getting broad expertise, becoming deep generalists. Learning a lot about a lot of things, and – just as important – getting a real understanding of how they are connected. I use both “deep” and “generalist” intentionally. The Prevail scenario is intrinsically adaptive, but what nature shows us is that the species that adapt best to radically changing environments are the generalists. But most generalists are shallow, living on the peripheries of more specialized ecosystems.

This dichotomy, unfortunately, requires me go off on a tangent (one that I explored in more detail earlier this year. My apologies.

Bioscientists think a lot about adaptation, and have developed a language to talk about different approaches. They refer to the kinds of species that reproduce quickly, fill any and all available ecological niches, and do whatever they can to hang on during big disruptions as having an “r” reproductive strategy. The rest of us tend to refer to those kinds of species as “pests,” because the best examples are things like rats and weeds. Not the ideal model for a Prevail movement.

Those species that optimize for a stable environment, usually with much energy (and, where appropriate, attention) devoted to protecting limited numbers of offspring, rely instead on a “K” strategy. K strategists flourish in stable systems. But in periods of great environmental upheaval, K species adapt slowly, and are often the first ones to die off. Also not an ideal model for Prevail.

So r means rapid iteration and diversification – along with a willingness to abandon failed experiments; K means optimization and environmental integration – and significant complexity. A Prevail model – call it P – would combine the two, using iteration in service of complexity, diversity as a means of dynamic integration into a changing environment. It would be a “Deep Generalist” strategy. It would take finesse, almost supernatural awareness of impacts and implications, and quite a bit of creativity. It would require us to think ahead, being ready to adapt when necessary, building long-lasting systems when possible.

How to do all that? Um. Well. I’ll get back to you.

JG: Damn I wish I knew in any detail what creative and adaptive co-evolution will look like. It would make life so much simpler. But I’m afraid I’m in the position of the French revolutionary who said “There go the people; I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

The warp-speed increase in flocks of change-makers that Prevail aspires to help enable represents a serious realignment of human affairs. Leaders may determine an overall goal, but participants at the lowest possible level—who are constantly innovating—create the actual execution on the fly. They respond to changing situations without requesting or requiring permission. In some cases, even the goal is determined collaboratively and nonhierarchically.

Sounds Prevailish to me.


Other Links to this Post

  1. Will Joel Garreau & Jamais Cascio Prevail — Along With The Rest Of Us? | The Prevail Project — January 2, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  2. Ghosts Of Mars. « The Sonny Wilkins Chronicle — January 5, 2012 @ 11:58 am