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.

Sep 25 2011

Coevolution & The Technology of Desire


A few years ago, the first emotional robot pet hit the market.  Designed by the co-inventor of Furby, Pleo the Dinosaur is an adorable little beast, big eyes and feet, curious and playful and a little awkward… just like a baby dinosaur, except it comes in a box and is full of electronic innards.  Kids can encourage it to seek out their positive reinforcement; or they can traumatize it with abuse.  It imprints on its owners and enjoys being stroked.  And it’s made of plastic.

Pleo — as well as earlier incarnations like Furby, Teddy Ruxpin, and even the Pet Rock — speak to a deep-seated human desire to relate with the world around us.  It takes years for children to distinguish between the personal other (mom, dad, the dog) and impersonal other (plush toys, radios, statues)… and even as adults, the habit of projecting emotions on “happy” cars and “sad” buildings, of seeing faces in knotholes and napkins, never really goes away.  It only makes sense that as the machine world becomes more and more a part of daily life, our technology’s rocket trajectory out of the spirited and sentient world of our ancestors would plunge right back into an age of cute computers.

Maybe personifying our electronics makes sense.  After all, all evolving systems obey the same laws.  With technology, essentially random innovations compete and cooperate under the selective pressures of the market, adapting to human wants. In that important respect, we might think of our relationship with machines as similar to our relationship with the vegetable kingdom.  With his landmark book, The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan gave the world a “plant’s eye view” of the coevolutionary relationship between the human species and domesticated crops like apples and corn.  He argues that our story of bending these creatures to our will is only half the story; after all, we dedicate inestimable labor to their propagation and cultivation.  We are as domesticated by plants as they are by us.

Likewise, Wired magazine’s founding editor Kevin Kelly’s latest book demands that we open a legitimate discussion about What Technology Wants. The conceit of modernity, that an increasingly sophisticated mastery of matter will eventually free us from earthly labor, ignores the fact that reality is more complex.  The explosion of tech support and computer engineering jobs, the ever-growing work week, and the utter dedication to feeding Google and Facebook with our personal information that more and more of us display, all make plain:  the more we use tools, the more they use us.  Gradually, we have developed an intimacy with them as profound as the one between flowers and pollinating insects.

Not that there is any problem with this, any more than there is with our “exploitation” by dogs or cows, roses or bananas.  Few people seem to mind the overt manipulation evident in how a cat’s meow has co-evolved with human emotional circuitry to more closely mimic the frequencies of a crying infant.  (Neurons don’t complain about contributing their electricity to the holistic behavior of the brain…)  The worldwide network of bloggers and other creatives might just as well be understood as stewards of an emerging mega-garden; or as farmers planting and then harvesting cultural experiences.  (Is it any wonder we scrabble after fuzzy iPad cases with tails and invest our hopes and fears in the advent of emotional machines?)

From one angle we are, in Kelly’s words, “the sex organs of technology” — the mushrooms sprouting up from a global mycelium of routers and electrical wiring.  From another angle, we live in loving mutuality with a vast distributed intelligence that constantly reshapes itself to better fit our desires.  Those of us born before Pleo the Dinosaur might balk at the idea, but we are swiftly approaching a newly in-spirited world where living machines make philosophical questions of sentience irrelevant.  As technology commentator Mark Pesce puts it:

Each one of us grew up in a world where people and pets were invested with a certain internal reality that bricks and blocks obviously did not possess. This is not true for our children.  We have crossed a line in the sand, and there’s no going back: the current generation…have a growing expectation that the entire material world will become increasingly responsive to them as they learn to master it.

We might as well give this world the same love we might hope to receive from it. It starts by getting over our prejudice against machines, and embracing the inevitable marriage of the made and the born.