This is a brain dump that on a document that I’ve kept open for a month now. I need to move on so here it is. It is a long post where I’ve done a first attempt to show how a transformative shifts differs from a incremental by using narratives from four books. The four books are:
- Ted Kaczynski’s “Technological Slavery” with
- Bill Joy’s “Why the future doesn't need us”
- Ray Kurzweil’s “The Singularity Is Near”
- Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants“
The background to this post is that I often get questions about what books I would recommend regarding different issues. I have always found the question difficult to answer and one main reason is that most interesting books are more interesting in a broader context, not on their own.
As long as the author has an interesting question and argue in a reasonably coherent way I often find the book interesting. Still most ideas presented in books do not break any new ground, but they can open up new ways of thinking when you see them in relation to ideas in other books. I picked a book that I found people had difficulty understanding the value of, “Technological Slavery”.
Ted Kaczynski’s “Technological Slavery” as part of a cluster When I discussed Ted Kaczynski’s “Technological Slavery” (Kaczynski is probably better know to many as the "Unabomber") I realized that referring to the book as interesting and well worth reading for those interested in technology´s role in society was controversial. Many seem to think that if a person gets “different enough” and have acted in ways they do not agree with, then the ideas they have written about in a book are not worth exploring, even without knowing what’s in the book.
For me the more radical a person thinking is, the more interesting it is in most cases. I understand that the way media use the word have resulted in a situation when “radical” to many is the same as a person that is impossible to understand, mad, or even dangerously aggressive. The relation between Kaczynski’s ideas and his actions is an interesting topic, but for me the ideas in themselves and how they relate to different perspective of technological development is even more interesting.
I want to point to the obvious fact that the word “radical” comes from the Latin word “radix” which means “root”. What is interesting in a book are radical ideas, a radical person might also interesting (someone that goes to the roots of something), but that is another issue and when I read books it is the ideas that I focus on. Although I have to admit that people not walking the talk are not as interesting as those actually doing what they talk about.
Technology matrix: A standard approach I think Kaczynski’s book has some merits on its own, especially as it is rough/written during difficult times and is a mix of different texts. There is a theme he never departs from when it comes to our relation to nature that I think should be taken more serious in a time where environmental organizations are falling over each other trying to put a price on nature (eco system services is just one of many concepts that is used by people how claim to know the price of nature, but not the value). But it is when the book in seen relation to other books that interesting things emerges.
Below is just an example of the kind of patterns that I find interesting to explore when I read a new book. By creating a matrix, in this case different ways to approach technological development, individual books can become part of a larger picture that often can result in tools to understand certain aspects. By putting Kaczynski’s book together with three other, well-known, books it highlights some interesting aspects. (I added some quotes from each book representing the core ideas I wanted to contrast). The books have more layers than those I highlight here, and this is the case with most interesting books. It is important to understand that the authors themselves are more complex (or in some cases more simple) that the matrix. The matrix is based on ideas, not individuals.
Initially when I read and thought about Ted’s book I created a matrix for how the future of technology can be approached. In this “Standard” matrix the tension is between: Pessimistic and Optimistic on one axis and between Enlightenment and Deterministic on the other.
Ted’s book moves beyond the rational and put nature above human society and he tools created by enlightenment. He also has a pessimistic view on humanity and see a small group bringing down the current society as the only way forward.
For me he helped create a pattern regarding how we approach technology and that people like the enlightened discussions (the rational) and tend to lean toward the optimistic. Policy makers and business leaders would not agree that they support the views of Kurzweils Singularity, but their fear of “the mad engineer” throws them in the arms of the “happy engineer”… This is the system that brought us nuclear power (soon so cheap that we can give it away according to scientists in the 60’s), chemical agriculture, GMO’s, etc and when pressed for solutions digs deeper holes/higher smoke stacks (CCS, nuclear waste storage, etc).
No one who want to be more than a marginal figure in public discussions today will chose to challenge both enlightenment and see problems, but you can challenge one of them. The easiest to challenge is the rational/enlightenment and turn technology into God (or God into technology) like Kelly does in What Technology Wants“. This is entertaining and the “crazy engineer” makes the “happy engineer” looks like a sober choice.
Every once in a while someone with a more pessimistic perspective is allowed some room, but interestingly those ideas, like the text “Why the future doesn't need us” by Joy are never taken serious. Only critique that require incremental changes tend to become part of the discussion. “Why the future doesn't need us” is interesting as it is radical and still managed to become part of the discourse… But still the ideas in the text are not addressed at all. The fact that Joy had a background as a “happy engineer” allowed him some room in the discussion.
[Technology future matrix: Standard]
Technology matrix: A transformative approach When the standard matrix was done I started to think about the changes needed and what happens when society moves from one state to another (beyond the incremental).
If we just change the values on the axis slightly we can get a matrix that helps us explore the transformative with the help of the same texts.
Pessimistic => Realistic Optimistic => Naïve Enlightenment => Incremental Deterministic/Paradigm shift
The most important shift is the one on the y-axis where the two shifts move the matrix from a situation where current thinking is the norm (enlightenment) and those challenges this are dismissed (I used “deterministic, but could have used irrational/emotional or any other value that is used to polarize against the enlightenment).
The challenge is of course that those using the “enlightenment” often use it in a narrow sense, especially in economics where assumptions about linear development and rational humans (rational from a monetary perspective) result in very. It is also part of media situation where current influential companies, such as the fossil companies (oil, energy companies and car companies in particular), but also PR/lobbying companies and business consultants with media create an environmental where few transformative changes are discussed, and even fewer are promoted, even if they could help solve many of the
I want to stress that a paradigm shift does not have to be something that is against enlightenment, but it will most certainly challenge what many today take as common wisdom.
Two areas in particular: 1. How the economy/society is organized and related to that (or determining that to a large degree) 2. The ethics in society.
[Technology future matrix: Transformative]
A better example of the “bought engineer” is a less well known person called Matt Ridley. He is the classic voice of “reason” desperately fighting the idea that disruptive change will happen. Mainstream media love this kind of simplistic message. What is very interesting is that they usually call themselves “rational” in an attempt to signal that any criticism is not rational. Still they are almost never doing a rational assessment where they define the parameters and put numbers on the risks and opportunities. Beside a lack of knowledge regarding the underlying issues http://www.rationaloptimist.com
Kurzweil 1: [Could not find the notes and only have a hard copy of the book, will add later] Kurzweil 2: [Could not find the notes and only have a hard copy of the book, will add later]
Kelly 1: “The universe is mostly empty because it is waiting to be filled with the products of life and the technium, with questions and problems and the thickening relations between bits that we call con scientia – shared knowledge - or consciousness.” Kelly 2: “The technium is not God; it is too small. It is not utopia. It is not even an entity. It is a becoming that is only the beginning. But it contains more goodness than anything we know.” … and on the last page “we can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog”
The last made me laugh when I thought about what kind of God Kelly have, and maybe also what kind of mobile phone… ;) Then it made me sad as it is obvious that this kind of thinking is contributing to the mass extinction we see today.
[Image of frog]
Kaczynski 1: “And such an ideology will help to assure that, if and when industrial society breaks down, its remnants will be smashed beyond repair, so that the system cannot be reconstituted. The factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc.” Kaczynski 2: “Clearly, anyone who feels it is important to preserve human cultural achievements up to the 17th century will be very reluctant to see a complete breakdown of the system, hence will look for a compromise solution and will not take the frankly reckless measures that are necessary to knock our society off its present technology-determined course of development.”
Joy 1: “Given the incredible power of these new technologies, shouldn't we be asking how we can best coexist with them? And if our own extinction is a likely, or even possible, outcome of our technological development, shouldn't we proceed with great caution?” Joy 2: “The new Pandora's boxes of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are almost open, yet we seem hardly to have noticed. Ideas can't be put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don't need to be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are out, they are out. Churchill remarked, in a famous left-handed compliment, that the American people and their leaders "invariably do the right thing, after they have examined every other alternative." In this case, however, we must act more presciently, as to do the right thing only at last may be to lose the chance to do it at all.”
And a final from Joy as he is the one of the four that for me represent a voice that aspire towards wisdom rather than sensationalism and simplicity:
“My continuing professional work is on improving the reliability of software. Software is a tool, and as a toolbuilder I must struggle with the uses to which the tools I make are put. I have always believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses, will make the world a safer and better place; if I were to come to believe the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this work. I can now imagine such a day may come. […] I'm still searching; there are many more things to learn. Whether we are to succeed or fail, to survive or fall victim to these technologies, is not yet decided. I'm up late again - it's almost 6 am. I'm trying to imagine some better answers, to break the spell and free them from the stone.”