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1 January 2017

The best books I read in 2016

Antidotes to the six horsemen of the Trumpocalypse

Here’s one of my deeply held beliefs. We owe it to ourselves to take best advantage of the insights and experiences of those who have gone before us. Where researchers have seen more clearly or understood more deeply than their predecessors or contemporaries, we should pay special attention to their words and concepts. Where these researchers have written books that make accessible key aspects of their hard-won expertise, we should prioritise finding the time to read these books.

But in 2016, not everyone agreed that expertise is worth attention. Experts are over-rated, we heard. The elites deserve a comeuppance.

That sentiment is an ominous echo of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its opposition to the “four olds” – a revolution which, between the years 1966-1976, resulted in horrific damage to the country and many millions of deaths. A later candid assessment by the Chinese government described that period of wilful ignorance as being

Responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic.

I have no truck for those rabble-rousers who declared in 2016 that “we have had enough of experts”. I choose expertise every time, over wishful thinking, hearsay, and dogmatism. I choose to keep on educating myself in the arts of critical thinking, rather than bowing my honest opinion to the rants of the populist press or the false certainties of the demagogues in our midst.

At a time where the six dreadful horsemen of the Trumpocalypse are gathering speed – when perverse interactions are growing more unpredictable between radical over-confidence, divisive boasts of “my tribe first”, enthralment to personal egos, trigger-happy vindictiveness, shameless lying, and fake news designed to inflame rather than to enlighten – we need calm, rational, evidence-based thinking more than ever.

The hard thing, of course, is knowing where true expertise really lies. It can be difficult to distinguish the trustworthy experts from self-declared “experts”. And it is important to perceive the limitations of the expertise of any one person or any one discipline. Thankfully, these tasks can be aided  group intelligence, as we collectively develop an appreciation for which writers are the most reliable in particular areas.

In that spirit, I list below the books that I read and rated as “5 stars” during 2016 on GoodReads. I tend to rate books that highly if:

  • They contain novel material which addresses highly important themes
  • They are well-written – giving good evidence and rationale for the points of view they advance
  • They maintained my interest all the way to the end of the book.

Hopefully my brief reviews will provide some inspiration to guide you in your own reading, research, and projects during 2017. Do let me know.

(Click on any book cover below, to visit the GoodReads page for the book.)

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

homo-deus

Written by Yuval Noah Harari. Of all the books on my list, this is the one that provides the largest perspective. This book explains how the three terrible scourges which have confronted humans throughout history – plague, famine, and war – will be replaced in the 21st century by three huge new projects, labelled as “immortality”, “happiness”, and “divinity”. Here are three brief quotes from Harari’s book on these grand projects:

  • “Struggling against old age and death will merely carry on the time-honoured fight against famine and disease, and manifest the supreme value of contemporary culture: the worth of human life… Modern science and modern culture don’t think of death as a metaphysical mystery, and they certainly don’t view death as the source of life’s meaning. Rather, for modern people death is a technical problem that we can and should solve”
  • “Being happy doesn’t come easy. Despite our unprecedented achievements in the last few decades, it is far from obvious that contemporary people are significantly more satisfied than their ancestors in bygone years. Indeed, it is an ominous sign that despite higher prosperity, comfort and security, the rate of suicide in the developed world is also much higher than in traditional societies… The bad news is that pleasant sensations quickly subside and sooner or later turn into unpleasant ones… This is all the fault of evolution. For countless generations our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness”
  • “In seeking bliss and immortality humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods. Not just because these are divine qualities, but because in order to overcome old age and misery humans will first have to acquire godlike control of their own biological substratum… If we ever have the power to engineer death and pain out of our system, that same power will probably be sufficient to engineer our system in almost any manner we like, and manipulate our organs, emotions and intelligence in myriad ways. You could buy for yourself the strength of Hercules, the sensuality of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena or the madness of Dionysus if that is what you are into.”

Harari’s book also makes plain that these projects risk enormous upheavals in society – potentially facturing humanity into “the near gods” and “the near useless”. Even that thought isn’t the largest in the book. He writes near the end:

  • “The Internet-of-All-Things may soon create such huge and rapid data flows that even upgraded human algorithms cannot handle it. When the car replaced the horse-drawn carriage, we didn’t upgrade the horses – we retired them. Perhaps it is time to do the same with Homo sapiens…”
  • “When genetic engineering and artificial intelligence reveal their full potential, liberalism, democracy and free markets might become as obsolete as flint knives, tape cassettes, Islam and communism.”

I therefore pick Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow as the single most profound book of 2016.

Note: I presented a personal review of this book near the start of a London Futurists event on the 4th of October. Here’s a video recording:
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The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease

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Written by Daniel E. Lieberman. This book shares with Homo Deus the fact that it has an enormous scope. It casts a careful eye back over the long prehistory of human (and hominid) evolution, and draws fascinating conclusions about problems of disease and health experienced by people in the 21st century.

The book presents a wealth of compelling evidence about the various stages of evolution between ape and modern-day human. It also introduces the concepts of “dysevolution” and “mismatch diseases”. Aspects of human nature that made great sense in our previous environments sit uneasily in the new environments in which we now exist. This includes aspects of our physiology and aspects of our psychology.

To what extent can these aspects of our physiology and psychology be re-engineered, using 21st century skills in genetics, nanotech, 3D printing, smart drugs, and so so? Lieberman is cautious in drawing conclusions, suggesting that we’ll find it easier to re-engineer our environment than to reengineer ourselves. His view deserves attention, even though I believe he underestimates the pace of forthcoming technological change.

The Industries of the Future

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Written by Alec J. Ross, who spent four years working as Senior Advisor for Innovation to the Hilary Clinton when she was Secretary of State for Defence. The style of writing is highly accessible to people in political roles – whether in office, in the civil service, or in an advisory capacity.

The subjects Ross covers – including robots, genomics, cryptocurrency, cyberwarfare, big data, and the Internet of Things – can also be found in books by other futurists. But he provides a refreshingly international perspective, highlighting ways in which different parts of the world are adapting (or failing to adapt) to various technological trends. He also has a candid view on potential downsides to these technology trends, alongside their potential upsides. He gives plenty of reasons for believing that there will many large changes ahead, but he emphasises that the actual outcomes will need careful shepherding.

If Hilary Clinton had become the US President, I would have felt comfortable in knowing that she could draw on insight about future trends from such a well-informed, balanced advisor. This is not an author who offers brash over-confidence or wishful thinking.

Bitcoin: the Future of Money?

bitcoin-the-future-of-money

Written by Dominic Frisby. Bitcoin, along with its underlying “blockchain” technology, remains the subject of a great deal of speculation as 2016 draws to a close. I read a number of books on this topic in the last 12 months. Of these books, this was the one I enjoyed the most.

Frisby has a pleasant conversational style, but also has an eye for the big picture. Bitcoin/blockchain is too important a topic to ignore. The biggest disruptions it creates may well be in areas outside of present-day mainstream focus.

London Futurists will be returning to Bitcoin and/or blockchain several times in the months ahead. Watch this space!

The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts

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Written by by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind. This book provides a comprehensive account of how technology and automation are transforming work within professions such as law, auditing, education, architecture, healthcare, accounting, and the clergy.

The writers – a father and son – have been researching this field since the 1980s. They have interviewed leading practitioners from numerous professions, and are fully aware of the arguments as to why automation will slow down in its impact on the workforce. They assess these arguments at great length (perhaps almost too fully), and give strong reasons why all professions will, on the contrary, be significantly transformed by ever-more powerful software in the decades ahead. As they make clear, this is not something to be feared, but is something that will provide low-cost high-quality expertise to ever-larger numbers of people – rather than such expertise being accessible to the wealthy.

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

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Written by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. This book makes a powerful case that movements for political change need to find a powerful over-arching positive vision. Merely “occupying” and “criticising” isn’t going to take things very far.

The vision offered in this book is that automation, rather than being seen as a threat to jobs, should be embraced as a precondition for a new society in which people no longer need to work.

Note: the authors gave a presentation about their ideas at a London Futurists event on the 20th of August. Here’s the video recording from that event:

The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism

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Written by Calum Chace. This book is the third on my list that focuses on technological unemployment as caused by automation and AI (artificial intelligence). Of the three, it’s probably the easiest to read, and the one that paints the widest context.

Like Srnicek and Williams (the authors of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work), Chace foresees that technological unemployment may portend the end of capitalism. Whether this forthcoming “Economic Singularity” will be a positive or negative development remains to be seen. The Economic Singularity therefore shares some of the characteristics of the “Technological Singularity”, which Chace also covers in this book.

Note: the author gave a presentation on his ideas to London Futurists on the 8th of October. Here’s the video recording:
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The Gene: An Intimate History

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Written by Siddhartha Mukherjee. This book covers the history of ideas and experiments on the subject of genetic inheritance, from the thinkers of ancient Greece right up to the latest research. Along the way, the author weaves in accounts from the medical experiences of his own family members that suffered from inherited diseases. He is a compelling story-teller. He is also an accomplished cancer physician, with training from Stanford University, University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School, and Columbia University Medical Center.

I was familiar with many of the historical episodes from my own prior reading, but I learnt a great deal from the additional material assembled by Mukherjee – for example about the attempts at different times by eugenics enthusiasts to alter society by human interference with “natural selection”. The book is particularly strong on the interplay of nature and nurture.

I also appreciated the way the author highlighted the drawbacks of the haphazard quality control  in the early experiments in gene replacement therapies – experiments with tragic consequences. The lack of care in these experiments led to an understandable institutional backlash which arguably set back this field of therapies by around a decade.

By the time I read this book, I had already published my own book “The Abolition of Aging: The forthcoming radical extension of healthy human longevity”. I was relieved to find no reason to alter any of the conclusions or recommendations in my book as a result of the magisterial quantity of research reviewed by Mukherjee.

The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution

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Written by David Stipp. During the course of writing my own book “The Abolition of Aging” I consulted many books on medical treatments for anti-aging. I read this particular book all the way through, twice, at different stages of my research.

Stipp has been writing on the subject of medicine and aging for leading publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Fortune since the early 1980s. Over that time, he has built up an impressive set of contacts within the industry.

Stipp’s book is full of fascinating nuggets of insight, including useful biographical background details about many of the researchers who are pushing back the boundaries of knowledge in what is still a relatively young field.

Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World

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Written by David Brion Davis. This sweeping account of the history of slavery draws on many decades of the author’s research as one of the preeminent researchers in the field. The book interweaves heart-rending accounts with careful reflection. This is a story that includes both dreadful low points and inspiring high points of human behaviour. There’s a great deal to be learned from it.

Davis quotes with approval the prominent Irish historian W.E.H. Lecky who concluded in 1869 that:

The unwearied, unostentatious, and inglorious crusade of England against slavery very may probably be regarded as among the three or four perfectly virtuous acts recorded in the history of nations.

The thorough analysis by Davis makes it clear that:

  • The abolition of slavery was by no means inevitable or predetermined
  • There were strong arguments against the abolition of slavery – arguments raised by clever, devout people in both the United States and the United Kingdom – arguments concerning economic well-being, among many other factors
  • The arguments of the abolitionists were rooted in a conception of a better way of being a human – a way that avoided the harsh bondage and subjugation of the slave trade, and which would in due course enable many millions of people to fulfil a much greater potential
  • The cause of the abolition of slavery was significantly advanced by public activism – including pamphlets, lectures, petitions, and municipal meetings
  • The abolition of slavery cannot be properly understood without appreciating the significance of moral visions that “could transcend narrow self-interest and achieve genuine reform.”

On reason I read this book was to consider the strengths of a comparison I wanted to make in my own writing: a comparison between the abolition of slavery and the abolition of aging. My conclusion is that the comparison is a good one – although I recognise that some readers find it shocking:

  • With its roots in the eighteenth century, and growing in momentum as the nineteenth century proceeded, the abolition of slavery eventually became an idea whose time had come – thanks to brave, smart, persistent activism by men and women with profound conviction
  • With a different set of roots in the late twentieth century, and growing in momentum as the twenty-first century proceeds, the abolition of aging can, likewise, become an idea whose time has come. It’s an idea about an overwhelmingly better future for humanity – a future that will allow billions of people to fulfil a much greater potential. But as well as excellent engineering – the creation of reliable, accessible rejuvenation therapies – this project will also require brave, smart, persistent activism, to change the public landscape from one hostile (or apathetic) to rejuveneering into one that deeply supports it.

American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity

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Written by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson. Many of the great social reforms of the last few centuries required sustained government action to make them happen. But governments need to work effectively alongside the remarkable capabilities of the market economy. Getting the right balance between these two primal forces is crucial.

The authors of this book defend a very interesting viewpoint, namely that the mixed economy was the most important social innovation of the 20th century:

The mixed economy spread a previously unimaginable level of broad prosperity. It enabled steep increases in education, health, longevity, and economic security.

They explain the mixed economy by an elaboration of Adam Smith’s notion of “the invisible hand”:

The political economist Charles Lindblom once described markets as being like fingers: nimble and dexterous. Governments, with their capacity to exercise authority, are like thumbs: powerful but lacking subtlety and flexibility. The invisible hand is all fingers. The visible hand is all thumbs. Of course, one wouldn’t want to be all thumbs. But one wouldn’t want to be all fingers either. Thumbs provide countervailing power, constraint, and adjustments to get the best out of those nimble fingers.

The authors’ characterisation of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up by lots of instructive episodes from American history, going all the way back to the revolutionary founders:

  • Governments provide social coordination of a type that fails to arise by other means of human interaction, such as free markets
  • Markets can accomplish a great deal, but they’re far from all-powerful. Governments ensure that suitable investment takes place of the sort that would not happen, if it was left to each individual to decide by themselves. Governments build up key infrastructure where there is no short-term economic case for individual companies to invest to create it
  • Governments defend the weak from the powerful. They defend those who lack the knowledge to realise that vendors may be on the point of selling them a lemon and then beating a hasty retreat. They take actions to ensure that social free-riders don’t prosper, and that monopolists aren’t able to take disproportionate advantage of their market dominance
  • Governments prevent all the value in a market from being extracted by forceful, well-connected minority interests, in ways that would leave the rest of society impoverished. They resist the power of “robber barons” who would impose numerous tolls and charges, stifling freer exchange of ideas, resources, and people. Therefore governments provide the context in which free markets can prosper (but which those free markets, by themselves, could not deliver).

It’s a deeply troubling development that the positive role of enlightened government is something that is increasingly poorly understood. Instead, as a result of a hostile barrage of ideologically-driven misinformation, more and more people are calling for a reduction in the scope and power of government. This book describes that process as a form of collective “amnesia” (forgetfulness). It was one of the most frightening books I read in 2016.

In describing this book as “frightening”, I don’t mean that the book is bad. Far from it. What’s frightening is the set of information clearly set out in the book:

  • The growing public hostility, especially in America (but shared elsewhere, to an extent) towards the idea that government should be playing any significant role in the well-being of society
  • The growing identification of government with self-serving empire-building bureaucracy
  • The widespread lack of understanding of the remarkable positive history of public action by governments that promoted overall social well-being (that is the “amnesia” of the title of the book)
  • The decades-long growing tendency of many in America – particularly from the Republicans – to denigrate and belittle the role of government, for their own narrow interests
  • The decades-long growing tendency of many others in America to keep quiet, in the face of Republican tirades against government, rather than speaking up to defend it.

I listened to the concluding chapters of American Amnesia during the immediate aftermath of the referendum in the UK on the merits of remaining within the EU. The parallels were chilling:

  • In the EU, the positive role of EU governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of EU governance
  • In the US, the positive role of US governance has been widely attacked, over many decades, and only weakly defended. This encouraged a widespread popular hostility towards all aspects of US governance. The commendable ambitions of the Obama government therefore ran into all sorts of bitter opposition.

I wrote the following in July, in a Transpolitica review article “Flawed humanity, flawed politics”:

The parallels might run one step further. To me, and many others, it was almost unthinkable that the referendum in the UK would come down in favour of leaving the EU. Likewise, it’s unthinkable to many in the US that Donald Trump will receive a popular mandate in the forthcoming November elections.

But all bets are off if the electorate (1) Feel sufficiently alienated; (2) Imbibe a powerful sense of grievance towards “the others” who are perceived to run government; (3) Lack a positive understanding of the actual role of big government.

I take no pleasure in what turned out to be the prescience of those remarks. That was a prediction where I did not want to be correct.

And the Weak Suffer What They Must?: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future

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Written by Yanis Varoufakis. This book has some striking parallels with American Amnesia: the author provides an gripping survey of many parts of history that have consequences for the present time. Varoufakis focuses on the development of the European Union.

Time and again I discovered in the pages of this book important new aspects of events that I thought I already knew well, but where it turned out there were key connections that I had missed. In short, the book is full of powerful back stories to the current EU situation.

Whilst supporting many of the ideals of the EU, Varoufakis is an incisive critic of many of its aspects. Like the supporters of Brexit, he sees plenty that is deeply dysfunctional about  the current organisation of the EU. However, he believes that fixing the EU is both more practical and more desirable than turning our backs on it, and hoping to benefit from its likely subsequent unravelling. Varoufakis is one the leaders of the DiEM25 movement that describes itself as follows:

DiEM25 is a pan-European, cross-border movement of democrats.

We believe that the European Union is disintegrating. Europeans are losing their faith in the possibility of European solutions to European problems. At the same time as faith in the EU is waning, we see a rise of misanthropy, xenophobia and toxic nationalism.

If this development is not stopped, we fear a return to the 1930s. That is why we have come together despite our diverse political traditions – Green, radical left, liberal – in order to repair the EU. The EU needs to become a realm of shared prosperity, peace and solidarity for all Europeans. We must act quickly, before the EU disintegrates.

I expect the influence of DiEM25 to grow during the next few months, as the public discussion about the future of Europe becomes more contentious. They’re holding a public meeting in London on the evening of Friday 27th January:

A troubled Britain is on its way out of a troubled European Union. Disintegration and xenophobia are in the air. The government in London is in disarray. But so is every other government in Europe, not to mention the European Commission whose authority is tending increasingly towards zero.

The only forces to be gathering strength everywhere are those of what might be called a Nationalist International, spreading their belligerent reach to Trump’s America. Bellicose nativism is on the rise propagating a thinly-veiled discursive ethnic cleansing. Even sections of the Left are succumbing to arguments in favour of retreating behind the nation-state and stricter border controls.

Srećko Horvat, a Croat philosopher, Elif Shafak, renowned Turkish novelist, and Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s former finance minister, bring to this conversation an intriguing perspective. As intellectuals who know Britain well, they understand first hand the perils of nationalism, disintegration, isolationism and marginalisation. They will place post-Brexit Britain in a context informed by a view of Europe and Britain from the continent’s opposite ‘corner’, sharing insights from Greece’s tensions with Brussels and Berlin, Yugoslavia’s disintegration, and Turkey’s fraught relationship with a Europe that both courts and marginalises it.

Moderated by Owen Jones, a passionate campaigner for a quite different Britain in a quite different Europe, it promises to be an evening that restores confidence in Britain’s and Europe’s humanist and internationalist potential.

I’m looking forward to it!

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice

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Written by Bill Browder. Any vision for a better future needs to include an assessment of the power and intentions of the regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia. Since there are many dark clouds on the international horizon, it’s understandable that some thinkers are clutching at straws of hope that Putin could become a reliable partner in the evolution of the international system. Perhaps. But any such thoughts need to be well aware of the horrific dark side of the Kremlin. We would be foolish to risk rose-tinted spectacles in this case.

This book provides ample documentation of many truly shocking abuses of power in Russia. Browder has an intriguing personal back story, which takes up the first half of the book. This part of the book explains how Browder’s investment fund Hermitage Capital, came to be the leading non-Russian participant in Russia companies following the wave of post-Soviet privatisations. It also explains Browder’s fierce legal conflicts with some of the Russian oligarchs, as Browder sought to prevent further fleecing of the assets of companies in which he had invested.

For a while, it seems that Putin supported what Browder was doing. But then Browder became an increasing annoyance to the Kremlin. What happens next is astonishing. Of all the books I read in 2016, this was the most gripping.

Browder is sometimes described as “Putin’s No. 1 enemy”. The book provides considerable justification for that claim. The story is by no means over. Browder continues to speak publicly about his story: I saw him speak at the Wired 2016 event in November in London. I commend the Wired organisers for having the breadth of vision to provide Browder with a key speaking slot.

Politics: Between the Extremes

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Written by Nick Clegg. Clegg is the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party who was deputy prime minister of the UK from 2010 to 2015. His subsequent fall from power, as the LibDems were trounced in the May 2015 general election, was harsh and bitter. Huge numbers of former supporters of the party turned against it.

Nevertheless, Clegg is one of the most thoughtful politicians in the UK today. His book includes candid assessments of the mistakes he made, and his regrets for not doing things differently. One of the biggest regrets is not paying more attention to matters of communication: the LibDems frequently failed to get the credit for important contributions to the coalition government. As such, the party was out-manoeuvred by more powerful forces.

The book is an eloquent appeal for greater “liberalism” in politics – less certainty and dogmatism, more tolerance of diversity, more openness to new opportunities, and more willingness to embrace tricky coalitions. Despite the notes of sadness in the book, there are real grounds for optimism too.

Clegg comes across in the book the same as I have observed from several public events where I have seen him speak at close hand – as an eminently likeable person, honest about his mistakes, with a passionate belief in better politics and a willingness to build bridges. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of him in 2017.

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

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Written by Jeff Sutherland. No matter how much we improve our foresight skills, we’re still likely to encounter surprises as our projects unfold. The world is full of uncertainty. We therefore need to improve our agility skills in parallel with our foresight skills. Agility gives us the ability to change our focus quickly, in the light of better feedback about likely future scenarios.

Scrum is one of the most influential sets of practice for agile working. This book, by one of the co-creators of Scrum, makes it clear that Scrum has wide applicability beyond the context of software development in which it initially grew to fame. Sutherland provides a host of telling examples of how large, cumbersome projects could be transformed into sleeker, more effective vehicles by the application of Scrum ideas such as sprints, scrum masters, transparency, estimation, waste management, and pivots.

If anyone ever feels overwhelmed by having too much to do – or too much to think about – the ideas in Sutherland’s book could help you break out from being bogged down in analysis-paralysis.

In my own futurist consulting activities, I’m finding that professional audiences are showing increasing interest in the few slides I sometimes include on the topic of “Agile futurism”. Perhaps I ought to flesh out these slides into a new service offering in its own right!

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9 November 2016

The missing vision

Filed under: politics, vision — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 10:04 am

The United States of America have voted. In large numbers, electors have selected as their next President someone committed to:

  • Making it much harder for many types of people to enter the country
  • Deporting many of the current residents
  • Ramping up anti-Islam hostility
  • Denouncing global warming as a hoax
  • Undoing legislation to protect the environment
  • Reducing US support for countries facing hostile aggression
  • Dismantling the US deal with Iran over nuclear technology
  • Imposing punitive trade tariffs on China, likely triggering a trade war
  • Packing the Supreme Court with conservative judges who are opposed to choice.

Over the past months, I have tried – and usually failed – to persuade many of my online “friends” of the dangers of voting for Donald Trump. Smart people have, it seems, their own reasons for endorsing and welcoming this forthcoming “shock to the system”. People have been left behind by the pace of change, I’ve been told. Who can blame them for reaching for an outsider politician? Who can blame them for ignoring the objections of elites and “experts”?

Because of the pain and alienation being experienced by many electors, it’s no surprise – the argument runs – that they’re willing to try something different. Electors have proven themselves ready to overlook the evident character flaws, flip-flops, egotism, sexism, and indiscipline of Trump. These flaws seem to pale into insignificance beside the hope that a powerful outsider can deliver a hefty whack on the side of a dysfunctional Washington establishment. Their visceral hatred of present-day politics has led them to suspend critical judgement on the Trump juggernaut. That hatred also led them to lap up, unquestioningly, many of the bogus stories circulating on social media, that levelled all kinds on nonsense accusations on the leadership of the Democratic Party.

(For a thoughtful, heartfelt analysis of why so many people leave behind their critical judgement, see this Facebook essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky.)

There are already lots of arguments about who is to blame for this development – about whose shoulders failed to hold the responsibility to uphold sensible rather than fantasist politics. For example, see this Intelligence Squared debate on the motion “Blame the elites for the Trump phenomenon”.

My own analysis is that what was missing was (and is) a credible, compelling vision for how a better society is going to be built.

Electors were unconvinced by what they heard from Hillary Clinton, and (indeed) from the other non-Trump candidates for nomination. What they heard seemed too much of the same. They imagined that any benefits arising from a Clinton presidency would be experienced by the elites of society, rather than by the common citizen.

What’s needed, therefore, is the elaboration of a roadmap for how all members of society can benefit from the fruits of ongoing and forthcoming technological progress.

I call this vision the “Post-scarcity vision”. Because it involves the fundamental adoption of new technology, for progressive social purposes, it can also be called a “Technoprogressive vision”.

I’ve tried to share my thinking about that vision on numerous occasions over the last 5-10 years. Here are some slides taken from a presentation I gave last month to the IC Beyond (Imperial College Beyond) Society in Central London:

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If you want to hear my explanation of these slides in the context of a longer discussion of the impact of automation and technological unemployment on society, here’s a video of the entire meeting (the “vision” slides are in the second half of the presentation):

As this post-scarcity technoprogressive vision evolves and matures, it has the potential to persuade more and more people that it – rather than Trump-style restrictions on movement, choice, and aggregation – represents a better route to a society that it better for everyone.

But beliefs have deep roots, and it’s going to require lots of hard, wise work to undo all kinds of prejudices en route to that better society.

Footnote: I first wrote a formal “Transhumanist Manifesto” in February 2013, here (with, ahem, somewhat flowery language). For other related declarations and manifestos, see this listing on H+Pedia. Out of the growing community of technoprogressives and transhumanists, there’s a lot of potential to turn these visions into practical roadmaps.

8 November 2016

Agile organisations for agile politics

Filed under: Agile, H+Pedia, politics, Transpolitica, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 6:23 pm

The pace of change in politics over the last twelve months has been breathtaking. It’s possible the change will accelerate further over the next twelve months:

  • Huge dissatisfaction exists with present-day political parties, candidates, and processes
  • Ideas can spread extremely rapidly, due to extensive usage of social media
  • Although many people feel alienated from mainstream politics, they have a hunger for political change.

Growing awareness of forthcoming technological disruptions heightens the general feeling of angst:

  • Technological unemployment (automation) threatens to eliminate whole swathes of jobs, or to reduce the salaries available to people who continue in their current roles
  • Genetic editing and artificial intelligence have the potential for people living “better than well” and even “more than human”, but it’s unclear how widely these benefits will be shared among all sectors of society
  • Technologies such as blockchain and 3D printing raise the possibility of decentralised coordination – coordination with less need for powerful states or corporations
  • Virtual Reality, along with new types of drug, could lead to large-scale disengagement of citizens from mainstream society – with people “tuning in and dropping out” as never before
  • Breakthroughs in fields of energy, nanotech, the Internet of Things, synthetic biology, and self-learning artificial intelligence could result, intentionally or unintentionally, in extremely chaotic outcomes – with recourse to new types of “weapons of mass destruction” (including cyber-terrorism, nano-terrorism, gene-terrorism, and AI-terrorism)
  • Technologies of surveillance could put more power than ever before in the hands of all-seeing, all-manipulating governments and/or corporations
  • Misguided attempts to “geo-engineer” planetary solutions to potential runaway climate change could have devastating unintended consequences for the environment.

In the light of such uncertainty, two skills are becoming more important than ever:

  • The skill of foresight – the anticipation and evaluation of new scenarios, arising from the convergence of multiple developing trends
  • The skill of agility – the capability to change plans rapidly, as unexpected developments take on a life of their own.

An update on the Transhumanist Party of the UK

This context is the background for a significant change in a political party that was formed nearly two years ago – the Transhumanist Party of the UK (TPUK).

As a reminder, here’s a 90 second promotional video for TPUK from April last year:

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The messages in that video remain as relevant and important today as when the Party was founded:

The Transhumanist Party – Transcending human limitations

Harnessing accelerating technology:

  • Enabling positive social change and personal freedom,
  • With no-one abandoned,
  • So technology benefits all – not just vested interests.

Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment

  • Policies informed by science and evidence,
  • Ideology and divisiveness replaced by rationality and compassion ,
  • Risks managed proactively, enabling innovation to flourish.

Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics

  • Smart automation and artificial intelligence addressing age-old human burdens,
  • Huge personal and financial benefits from preventive medicine and healthy longevity,
  • Politics transcending past biases and weaknesses.

However, despite this vision, and despite an initial flurry of positive publicity (including the parliamentary candidacy of Alex Karran), the Party has made little progress over the last 6-9 months. And in the last couple of weeks, two key members of the Party’s NEC (National Executive Committee) have resigned from the Party:

These resignations arise from the recognition that there are many drawbacks to creating and developing a new political party in the United Kingdom:

  • The “first past the post” electoral system makes it especially difficult for minority parties to win seats in parliament
  • Political parties need to establish a set of policies on a wide range of issues – issues away from the areas of core agreement among members, and where dissension can easily arise
  • The timescales spoken about for full electoral success – potentially up to 25 years – are far too far into the future, given all the other changes expected in the meantime.

Party executives will each be following their own decisions about the best way to progress the underlying goals of transhumanist politics. Many of us will be redoubling our efforts behind Transpolitica – the think tank which was established at the same time as the Transhumanist Party. The relationship between Transpolitica and TPUK is covered in this FAQ from the Transpolitica website:

Q: What is the relation between Transpolitica and the various Transhumanist Parties?

Transpolitica aims to provide material and services that will be found useful by transhumanist politicians worldwide, including:

  • Transhumanist supporters who form or join parties with the name “Transhumanist Party” in various countries
  • Transhumanist supporters who form other new parties, without using the word “transhumanist” in their party name
  • Transhumanist supporters inside other existing political parties, including mainstream and long-established parties
  • Transhumanist supporters who prefer not to associate closely with any one political party, but who have an interest in political action.

Transpolitica 2016

Transpolitica is hosting a major conference later this year – on 3rd December. It’s a conference with a very practical ambition – to gather and review proposals for “Real world policy changes for a radically better future”. There will be 15 speakers, covering topics in three broad sections:

  • Regulations, health, and transformation
  • Politics, tools, and transformation
  • Society, data, and transformation

Click here for more details, and to register to attend (while tickets are still available).

I’ll be kicking off the proceedings, with a talk entitled “What prospects for better politics?”.

dw-speaker-transpolitica-2016

Watch out for more news about the topics being covered by the other speakers.

Note that a focus on devising practical policies for a radically better future – policies which could become the focus of subsequent cross-party campaigns for legislative changes – resonates with an important evolution taking place within the IEET (the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies). As James Hughes (the IEET Executive Director) writes:

I am proposing that the IEET re-focus in a major way, on our website, with our blog, with our community, and in our work, on the explicit project of building a global technoprogressive ideological tendency to intervene in debates within futurism, academe and public policy. While we will remain a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and will not be endorsing specific candidates, parties or pieces of legislation, we can focus on the broad parameters of the technoprogressive regulatory and legislative agenda to be pursued globally.

Regarding a first concrete project in this new direction, I have in mind our editing a Technoprogressive Policy Briefing Book, comparable to the briefing books of think tanks like the Brookings Institution, AEI, or Heritage Foundation. This project can collect and collaborate with the excellent work done by Transpolitica and other technoprogressive groups and friends. Each policy briefing would state a general issue in a couple of paragraphs, outline the key technoprogressive policy ideas to address the issue, and then list key publications and links to organizations pursuing those policies.

Next steps with the TPUK

As the official Treasurer of the TPUK, and following (as mentioned above) the resignation of both the leader and deputy leader of the Party, it legally falls to me to manage the evolution of the Party in a way that serves the vision of the remaining members. I’m in discussion with the other remaining representatives on the National Executive Committee, and we’ll be consulting members via the Party’s email conferencing systems. The basic principles I’ll be proposing are as follows:

  1. Times of rapid change demand organisational agility, rather than any heavyweight structures
  2. We will retain our radical purpose – the social changes ahead could (and should) be momentous over the next 5-25 years
  3. We will retain our progressive vision, in which technology benefits all – not just vested interests
  4. We will provide support across the spectrum of existing political parties to sympathisers of transhumanist and technoprogressive changes
  5. We will be ready to play a key positive enabling role as the existing political spectrum undergoes its own changes ahead – including the fragmentation of current parties and the creation of new alliances and new initiatives
  6. We will continue to champion the vision of (a.) Harnessing accelerating technology to enable positive social change and personal freedom; (b.) Sustainable, bright green policies – good for humanity and good for the environment; (c.) Regenerative solutions – for body, mind, education, society, and politics
  7. We will aim to provide actionable, practical analyses – of the sort being presented at Transpolitica 2016 – rather than (just) statements of principle
  8. Rather than maintain an expensive infrastructure of our own, we should feed our work into existing systems – such as H+Pedia, Transpolitica, the IEET, and the Transhuman National Committee of the United States
  9. As far as possible, we will remain collaborative rather than divisive
  10. We will hold onto our domain names
  11. We will retain the option to field our own candidates in future elections, in case that turns out to be the most sensible course of action at that time (this means the Party will remain officially registered with the Electoral Commission – at modest cost)
  12. We will offer our donors and members a refund of the payments they have provided the Party within the last six months, in case they feel they no longer support our vision.

 

30 September 2016

A declaration for radical healthspan extension

Filed under: aging, healthcare, medicine, rejuveneering, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 5:26 pm

I’m writing during a short break in the proceedings of the 2016 Eurosymposium on Healthy Ageing, which is being held in central Brussels.

The organisers have in mind that attendees could issue a declaration at the end of the event, tomorrow, Saturday 1st October – a date which happens to be Longevity Day.

Please find some draft text for this declaration. Lots of other text has been proposed too, but this is a fairly minimal version.

Before the text of the declaration is finalised, I’m interested to hear comments:

  • What should be added – or omitted?
  • What’s unclear?
  • What do people particularly like about it?
  • What improvements might be made to the language?
  • What changes (if any) would convince you to add your signature to it?
  • What’s a good way to conclude the declaration?

Please let us know!

Note: Many thanks are due to various members and supporters of Heales for suggesting text – especially Didier Coeurnelle.

(Update 6pm Brussels time 1st October – the draft text has evolved. The latest version is below.)

declaration-v3

The Brussels Declaration for Radical Healthspan Extension

The defeat of aging lies within our collective grasp. It’s time to seize this remarkable opportunity.

This 1st of October 2016, during International Longevity Day, the Eurosymposium on Healthy Ageing (EHA) meeting in Brussels proclaims the possibility and the imperative of a moonshot project to overcome all age-related diseases within 25 years by tackling aging as their root cause.

The result will be a world:

  • Where healthcare is far less expensive
  • Where human well-being can be radically extended
  • Where people place greater value on the environment and on peace, in view of their expectation of much longer lives
  • Where the right to life is more precious than ever, because life is longer.

Key steps in this initiative will include:

  • A paradigm shift stressing the need for research on aging itself, rather than only on individual diseases of old age
  • The removal of regulatory and other barriers which prevent or disincentivize companies from developing treatments for aging itself
  • An accelerated program to test anti-aging interventions on a much larger scale than anything that exists at the moment, leading to multiple human clinical trials of genuine rejuvenation biotechnologies by 2021.

These programs will require a coordinated effort at national and international level, integrating diverse existing and novel research approaches. They need to be financed by both public and private organizations, and create inclusive, affordable solutions available on equal terms to everybody.

15 September 2016

Two cheers for “Technology vs. Humanity”

On Saturday I had the pleasure to host Swiss futurist Gerd Leonhard at a London Futurists event in central London. The meetup was organised in conjunction with the publication of Gerd’s new book, “Technology vs. Humanity”.

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This three minute video from his website gives a fast-paced introduction to Gerd’s thinking:

The subtitle of Gerd’s book indicates the emphasis that comes across loud and clear in its pages: “The coming clash between man and machine”. I have mixed feelings about that emphasis. Yes, a clash between humanity and technology is one of the possible scenarios ahead. But it’s by no means set in stone. If we are smart, much better futures lie ahead. These better future see a combination of the best of present-day humanity and the fruits of technological development, to create what I would call a Humanity+ future.

In the Humanity+ future, technology is used to enhance humanity – making us healthier, kinder, smarter, wiser, more compassionate, and more engaged. In contrast, Gerd expects that technology will result in a downgrade of humanity.

The video of Saturday’s London Futurists event records some dialog on exactly that point. If you’ve got a spare 60 minutes, it’s worth watching the video all the way through. (The Q&A starts after 44 minutes.)

You’ll see that Gerd is an engaging, entertaining presenter, with some stunning visuals.

Hip, hip…

Overall, I am happy to give two cheers to Gerd’s new book – two loud cheers.

The first cheer is that it has many fine examples of the accelerating pace of change. For example, chapter three of his book reviews “ten megashifts”. Gerd starts his presentation with the bold claim that “Humanity will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300 years”. He may well be right. Related, Gerd makes a strong case that major change can sneak up on people “gradually and then suddenly”. That’s the nature of exponential change.

The second cheer is even louder than the first one: I completely agree with Gerd that we need to carefully consider the pros and cons of adopting technology in greater areas of our lives. He has a brilliant slide in which human’s attitude towards a fast-improving piece of technology changes from “Magic” to “Manic” and then to “Toxic”. To avoid such progressions, Gerd recommends the formation of something akin to a “Humanity Protection Agency”, similar to the “Environmental Protection Agency” that constrains corporations from polluting and despoiling the environment. Gerd emphasises: just because it is possible to digitise aspects of our lives, it doesn’t mean we should digitise these aspects. More efficient doesn’t always mean better. More profit doesn’t always mean better. More experiences doesn’t always mean better – and so on. Instead of rushing ahead blindly, we need what Gerd calls “exponentially increased awareness”. He’s completely right.

So I am ready to say, “Hip, hip…” – but I hold back from the third cheer (“hurrah”).

Yes, the book can be a pleasure to read, with its clever turns of phrase and poignant examples. But to my mind, the advice in the book will make things unnecessarily hard for humanity – dangerously hard for humanity. That advice will unnecessarily handicap the “Team Human” which the book says it wants to support.

Specifically:

  • The book has too rosy a view of the present state of human nature
  • The book has too limited a view of the positive potential of technology to address the key shortcomings in human nature.

Let’s take these points one at a time.

Human nature

The book refers to human unpredictability, creativity, emotion, and so on, and insists that these aspects of human nature be protected at all costs. Even though machines might do the same tasks as humans, with greater predictability and less histrionics, it doesn’t mean we should hand these tasks over to machines. Thus far, I agree with the argument.

But humans also from time to time manifest a host of destructive characteristics: short-sightedness, stupidity, vengefulness, tribalism, obstructiveness, spitefulness, and so on. It’s possible that these characteristics were, on the whole, useful to humanity in earlier, simpler stages of civilisation. But in present times, with powerful weaponry all around us, these characteristics threaten to plunge humanity into a new dark age.

(I touched on this argument in a recent Transpolitica blogpost, “Flawed humanity, flawed politics”.)

Indeed, despite huge efforts from people all over the globe, the planet is still headed for a potential devastating rise in temperature, due to runaway climate change. What’s preventing an adequate response to this risk is a combination of shortcomings in human society, human politics, human economics, and – not least – human nature.

It’s a dangerous folly to overly romanticise human nature. We humans can, at times, be awful brutes. Our foibles aren’t just matters for bemusement. Our foibles should terrify us.

unfit-for-the-future

I echo the thoughts expressed in a landmark 2012 Philosophy Now article by  Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, “Unfit for the Future: The Urgent Need for Moral Enhancement”:

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?…

Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.

We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities…

Underestimating technology

This brings me to the second point where Gerd’s book misfires: its dogmatic dismissal of the possibility of technology to make any significant improvement in “soft” areas of human life, such as emotional intelligence, creativity, and intuition. The book asserts that whilst software might be able to mimic emotions, these emotions will have no real value. For example, no computer would be able to talk to a two year old human child, and hold its attention.

This assessment demonstrates a major blindspot regarding the ways in which software can already provide strong assistance for people suffering from autism, self-doubt, early stage dementia, or other emotional or social deficits. As one example, consider a Guardian article from last year, “How robots are helping children with autism”.

zeno-the-smiling-robot-008

Consider also this comment from Dr Lucy Maddox, an NHS clinical psychologist and lecturer:

There are loads of [computer] apps that claim to use psychological principles to increase wellbeing in some way, encouraging you to keep track of your mood, to manage worry, to influence what you dream about … Can an app really distil something useful from psychological research and plug you into some life-influencing wisdom? I think some can…

This discussion brings to mind the similar dismissals, from the 1970s and early 1980s, of the possibility that the technology of in-vitro fertilisation (“test-tube babies”) could result in fully human babies. The suggestion was that any such “devilish” technology would result in babies that somehow lacked souls. Here’s a comment from Philip Ball from New Humanist:

Doubts about the artificial being’s soul are still with us, although more often expressed now in secular terms: the fabricated person is denied genuine humanity. He or she is thought to be soulless in the colloquial sense: lacking love, warmth, human feeling. In a poll conducted for Life in the early days of IVF research, 39 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men doubted that an “in vitro child would feel love for family”. (Note that it is the sensibilities of the child, not of the parents, that are impaired.) A protest note placed on the car of a Californian fertility doctor when he first began offering an IVF service articulated the popular view more plainly: “Test tube babies have no souls.”

In 1978 Leon Kass – said, later, to be the favourite bioethicist of President George W. Bush – thundered his opposition to in-vitro fertilisation  as follows:

More is at stake [with IVF research] than in ordinary biomedical research or in experimenting with human subjects at risk of bodily harm. At stake is the idea of the humanness of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment, our sexual being, and our relation to ancestors and descendants.

These comments by Kass have strong echoes to the themes developed by Gerd in Technology vs. Humanity.

It turned out, contrary to Kass’s dire forecasts, that human society was more than capable of taking in its stride the opportunities provided by IVF technology. Numerous couples found great joy through that technology. Numerous wonderful children were brought into existence in that way.

It ought to be the same, in due course, with the opportunities provided by technologies to enhance our emotional intelligence, our creativity, our intuition, our compassion, our sociability, and so on. Applied wisely and thoughtfully, these technologies will allow the full potential of humanity to be reached – rather than being sabotaged by our innate shortcomings.

Emphatically, I’m not saying we should be rushing into anything. We need to approach the potential offered by these new technologies with great thoughtfulness. And with a more open mind than Gerd displays.

Dogmatism

I found my head shaking in disbelief at many of the paragraphs in Technology vs. Humanity. For examples, here’s Gerd’s description of the capabilities of Virtual Reality (VR):

Virtual travel technologies such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung VR, and Microsoft’s HoloLens are just beginning to provide us with a very real feeling for what it would be like to raft the Amazon River or climb Mount Fuji. These are already very interesting experiences that will certainly change our way of experiencing reality, of communicating, of working, and of learning… [but] there is still a huge difference between these new ways to experience alternate realities and real life. Picture yourself standing in the middle of a crowded bazaar in Mumbai, India, for just two minutes. Then, compare the memories you would have accumulated in a very short time with those from a much longer but simulated experience using the most advanced systems available today or in the near future. The smells, the sounds and sights – all of these are a thousand times more intense than what even the most advanced gadgetry, fuelled by exponential gains, could ever hope to simulate.

“A thousand times more intense”? More intense than what “the most advanced gadgetry could ever hope to simulate”? Ever?! I see these sweeping claims as an evidence of a closed mind. The advice from elsewhere in the book was better: “gradually, and then suddenly”. The intensity of the emotional experience from VR technology is likely to increase gradually, and then suddenly.

Opening the book to another page, my attention is drawn to the exaggeration in another passage, in the discussion of the possibility of ectogenesis (growing a baby outside a woman’s body in an artificial womb):

I believe it would be utterly dehumanising and detrimental for a baby to be born in such a way.

During his presentation at London Futurists, Gerd used labelled the technology of ectogenesis as “jerk tech”. In discussion in the Marlborough Arms pub after the meetup, several women attendees remarked that they thought only a man could take such a high-handed, dismissive approach to this technology. They emphasised that they were unsure whether they would personally want to take advantage of ectogenesis, but they thought the possibility should be kept open.

Note: for a book that takes a much more thoughtful approach to the possibilities of using technology to transform genetic choice, I recommend Babies by Design: The Ethics of Genetic Choice” by Ronald Green.

babies-by-design

Transhumanism

The viewpoint I’m advocating, in this review of Technology vs. Humanity, is transhumanism:

…a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.

Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom puts it like this:

Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways. Current humanity need not be the endpoint of evolution. Transhumanists hope that by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have.

One of the best introductions to the ideas of transhumanism is in the evocative “Letter to Mother Nature” written in 1999 by Max More. It starts as follows:

Dear Mother Nature:

Sorry to disturb you, but we humans—your offspring—come to you with some things to say. (Perhaps you could pass this on to Father, since we never seem to see him around.) We want to thank you for the many wonderful qualities you have bestowed on us with your slow but massive, distributed intelligence. You have raised us from simple self-replicating chemicals to trillion-celled mammals. You have given us free rein of the planet. You have given us a life span longer than that of almost any other animal. You have endowed us with a complex brain giving us the capacity for language, reason, foresight, curiosity, and creativity. You have given us the capacity for self-understanding as well as empathy for others.

Mother Nature, truly we are grateful for what you have made us. No doubt you did the best you could. However, with all due respect, we must say that you have in many ways done a poor job with the human constitution. You have made us vulnerable to disease and damage. You compel us to age and die—just as we’re beginning to attain wisdom. You were miserly in the extent to which you gave us awareness of our somatic, cognitive, and emotional processes. You held out on us by giving the sharpest senses to other animals. You made us functional only under narrow environmental conditions. You gave us limited memory, poor impulse control, and tribalistic, xenophobic urges. And, you forgot to give us the operating manual for ourselves!

What you have made us is glorious, yet deeply flawed. You seem to have lost interest in our further evolution some 100,000 years ago. Or perhaps you have been biding your time, waiting for us to take the next step ourselves. Either way, we have reached our childhood’s end.

We have decided that it is time to amend the human constitution.

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence. We intend to make you proud of us. Over the coming decades we will pursue a series of changes to our own constitution, initiated with the tools of biotechnology guided by critical and creative thinking. In particular, we declare the following seven amendments to the human constitution…

In contrast, this is what Gerd says about transhumanism (with similar assertions being scattered throughout his book):

Transhumanism, with its lemming-like rush to the edge of the universe, represents the scariest of all present options.

What “lemming-like rush”? Where’s the “lemming-like rush” in the writings of Nick Bostrom (who co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998)? Recall from his definition,

…by responsible use of science, technology, and other rational means we shall eventually manage to become posthuman beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have

And consider the sixth proposed “human constitutional amendment” from the letter by Max More:

Amendment No.6: We will cautiously yet boldly reshape our motivational patterns and emotional responses in ways we, as individuals, deem healthy. We will seek to improve upon typical human emotional excesses, bringing about refined emotions. We will strengthen ourselves so we can let go of unhealthy needs for dogmatic certainty, removing emotional barriers to rational self-correction.

As Max emphasised earlier in his Letter,

We do not do this lightly, carelessly, or disrespectfully, but cautiously, intelligently, and in pursuit of excellence

To Gerd’s puzzling claim that transhumanists are blind to the potential risks of new technology, let me exhibit as counter-evidence the nearest thing to a canonical document uniting transhumanist thinking – the “Transhumanist Declaration”. Of its eight clauses, at least half emphasise the potential drawbacks of an uncritical approach to technology:

  1. Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.
  2. We believe that humanity’s potential is still mostly unrealized. There are possible scenarios that lead to wonderful and exceedingly worthwhile enhanced human conditions.
  3. We recognize that humanity faces serious risks, especially from the misuse of new technologies. There are possible realistic scenarios that lead to the loss of most, or even all, of what we hold valuable. Some of these scenarios are drastic, others are subtle. Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.
  4. Research effort needs to be invested into understanding these prospects. We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.
  5. Reduction of existential risks, and development of means for the preservation of life and health, the alleviation of grave suffering, and the improvement of human foresight and wisdom should be pursued as urgent priorities, and heavily funded.
  6. Policy making ought to be guided by responsible and inclusive moral vision, taking seriously both opportunities and risks, respecting autonomy and individual rights, and showing solidarity with and concern for the interests and dignity of all people around the globe. We must also consider our moral responsibilities towards generations that will exist in the future.
  7. We advocate the well-being of all sentience, including humans, non-human animals, and any future artificial intellects, modified life forms, or other intelligences to which technological and scientific advance may give rise.
  8. We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

It’s a pity that the editors and reviewers of Gerd’s book did not draw his attention to the many mistakes and misunderstandings of transhumanism that his book contains. My best guess is that the book was produced in a rush. (That would explain the many other errors of fact that are dotted throughout the various chapters.)

To be clear, I accept that many criticisms can be made regarding transhumanism. In an article I wrote for H+Pedia, I collected a total of 18 different criticisms. In that article, I seek to show, in each case,

  • Where these criticisms miss the mark
  • Where these criticisms have substance – so that transhumanists ought to pay attention.

That article – like all other H+Pedia articles – is open for further contributions. Either edit the page directly. Or raise some comments on the associated “Discussion” page.

The vital need for an improved conversation

The topics covered in Technology vs. Humanity have critical importance. A much greater proportion of humanity’s collective attention should be focused onto these topics. To that extent, I fully support Gerd’s call for an improved global conversation on the risks and opportunities of the forthcoming impact of accelerating technology.

During that conversation, each of us will likely find some of our opinions changing, as we move beyond an initial “future shock” to a calmer, more informed reflection of the possibilities. We need to move beyond a breathless “gee whiz” and an anguished “oh this is awful”.

The vision of an improved conversation about the future is what has led me to invest so much of my own time over the years in the London Futurists community.

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More recently, that same vision has led me to support the H+Pedia online wiki – a Humanity+ project to spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism and futurism among the general public.

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As the welcome page states,

H+Pedia welcomes constructive contributions from everyone interested in the future of humanity.

By all means get involved! Team Human deserves your support. Team Human also deserves the best information, free of dogmatism, hype, insecurity, or commercial pressures. Critically, Team Human deserves not to be deprived of access to the smart transformational technology of the near future that can become the source of its greatest flourishing.

4 July 2016

Learning by doing: Experimenting with audio

Filed under: The Abolition of Aging — Tags: , , , — David Wood @ 7:47 pm

I keep receiving requests to create an audio version of my book The Abolition of Aging.

That’s a request I fully understand. My own preferred format for books is Audible. I listen to an average of two books a month, from my Audible subscription, usually while I’m walking or driving. When I can’t find an Audible version of a book, I’m disappointed.

So here’s my update.

After researching some options, I’ve created a recording of myself reading the introductory material from The Abolition of Aging. I’ve made that recording available for everyone to listen to, free of charge, here: https://theabolitionofaging.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/01-intro.mp3. The length is 21 minutes.

Before I take the time to record the main content of the book, I’d appreciate some feedback. Which of the following would you endorse?

  1. The quality of the initial recording is good enough. Hurry up and record the other chapters in the same way.
  2. The quality is nearly good enough, but more practice is needed. Consider redoing at least part of this experiment.
  3. The idea is sound, but some of the tools (*) need to be changed.
  4. Don’t mess around. Hire a professional voice artist to read the book.

Books with Zoom recorder 2

(*) I’ve recorded in an upstairs room at home (my house is relatively quiet), with my laptop switched off so there’s no background hum from the cooling fan. I recorded to a Zoom H2n Handy Recorder, before switching my laptop on again and using Audacity software to edit the files. I found I put more spirit into the recording when I was standing up, rather than sitting down.

26 June 2016

#BRITE – a new start for Britain in Europe

Filed under: politics, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — David Wood @ 11:12 am

The people have spoken. The status quo is unacceptable. The United Kingdom cannot continue unchanged, muddling through, somehow hanging on to the politics of the past, with minimal changes in its relationship with Europe and the wider world. That option is a non-starter. It would violate the clear result of the national referendum of 23rd June. The people have called for a bold new start.

Nevertheless, as I write these words, nearly three million people have signed the online petition that, in effect, calls for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

Referendum picture

That figure of nearly three million signatories (which keeps rising higher every time I look at the website) dwarfs the number of signatories of all the other petitions (more than 10,000 in total) on the UK government website. The second most popular petition received 823,000 signatures.

List of petitions

In short, although the people have spoken – by a majority of 52% to 48% – huge swathes of the British population are deeply dissatisfied by the outcome. To be clear, I count myself among them. The dissatisfaction includes:

  • Wide recognition that the claims of the Leave campaign were full of exaggerations and (to use an unparliamentary word) lies
  • Observation that leaders of the Leave campaign are already vigorously, shamefully, evasively, back-pedalling on the promises they made before the vote – promises such as ring-fencing additional funding for the NHS and on dramatically reducing immigration
  • Realisation that the vote is likely to trigger Scottish independence – the breakup of the United Kingdom.

Even lots of people who voted Leave are now experiencing voter’s regret. For example, see the compilation in the Evening Standard, “‘I really regret my vote now’: The Brexit voters who wish they’d backed remain”.

This dissatisfaction is eloquently, passionately expressed in a remarkable piece of writing by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman, “I want my country back”. If you haven’t read it, you should stop and view it now. I’ll be waiting here when you return.

Also worth pondering is this fine note “The three tragedies” from the Financial Times comments section.

In this context, and with the benefit of some sleep to clear my mind, I offer a proposal. This is not yet a manifesto, but it’s the draft of a potential manifesto.

Tentatively, I label this proposal BRITE – for BRitain In a Transformed Eu. Here goes. There are three parts to it.

1. A different form of second referendum

In the wake of the first referendum, negotiations must proceed on how Britain could leave the EU. These negotiations will flesh out lots of details that have so far been very vague – details where different members of the Leave campaign expressed starkly different opinions. Once the deal is reached, it will make clear features such as:

  • Our new relationship (if any) with the European Economic Area
  • The resulting requirements for payments and for open migration of workers
  • New trading agreements with countries elsewhere in the world
  • What will replace all the EU laws and regulations that currently are taken for granted as parts of British law
  • Impacts on Britain’s financial well-being, house prices, pension funds, etc – impacts on both the rich and the poor throughout the country
  • The likely future of the UK farming industry, fishing industry, the City of London, and so on.

In parallel, it will become clear how the United Kingdom itself would change:

  • Whether Northern Island would leave the United Kingdom and join a United Ireland
  • Whether Scotland would leave the United Kingdom
  • Borders that would need to be put in place.

But before that deal is actioned, with all its momentous consequences, the UK people should be asked whether they agree with it – or whether, instead, they prefer the UK to remain in what might be a seriously transformed EU.

That would be the second referendum.

2. A transformed EU

As I said, the people have spoken. The current status of the EU is unacceptable.

Quite likely, if there were referendums in other European countries, people in several other countries would, at this time, likewise reject ongoing EU membership. So wide is the distrust of existing government systems.

To my mind, the clearest analysis of the drawbacks of the way the EU is functioning is by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. See for example his analysis of the potential impending disintegration of the EU. Over the last few weeks, I’ve listened to the entirety of his recent new book “And the weak suffer what they must”. It was gripping listening. The book is full of important back stories to the current EU situation.

Varoufakis has raised a roadmap of proposals for reforming the EU from a democratic perspective. The initial steps are small but significant. Here’s an EU petition for “Transparency in Europe now!”

As Citizens of the European Union we demand, effective immediately,

  • the live-streaming of the entire European Council, Eurogroup, ESM Board of Governors and Ecofin meetings, and the subsequent publication of official transcripts for all such meetings
  • a full set of minutes for each ECB Governing Council meeting to be published three weeks after the conclusion of each regular meeting, and complete transcripts of these meetings to be published within two years
  • an exhaustive list of all Brussels lobbyists and a register of every one of their meetings with elected or unelected EU officials
  • electronic publication of all TTIP negotiating documents and full transparency at every stage of the TTIP negotiations.

So here’s my proposal. In parallel with the Leave negotiations, supporters of EU reform should be doubling down, hard and skillfully, to accelerate groundswell support for democratic transformation of the EU.

Some skeptics say such a transformation can never take place. I believe they’re unduly skeptical. They are under-rating the reforms that have already taken place, over the history of the EU, and they are under-rating the potential for future change.

But we will see. The UK electorate would have the chance to decide, in, say, 18-24 months’ time, which of two parallel processes have heralded the best future for the UK:

  • Brexit – Britain exiting the EU – under the more detailed proposals that have been hammered out by that time (see point 1. above)
  • Brite – Britain in a transformed EU – under any progress that has taken place with EU reforms by that time.

3. An inclusive Britain

The third part of what needs to happen is, perhaps, the most important of all. It is to comprehensively address the growing sense of alienation that is widespread in many parts of Britain – parts that are disadvantaged from an economic or inclusive point of view. With justification, these parts feel that Westminster politicians pay them scant attention.

As a futurist, I have been writing for several years (e.g. here) about the growing inequality arising from rapid technological progress. We’re living in an increasing “winner takes all” environment. Some people do very well. Many others are in jobs with slow-growing salaries, with little prospect for improvement. In some parts of the world, life expectancy is actually declining among whole strata of people, due to growing despair as much as to anything else. (Despair leads to alcoholism and drug addiction.) See for example the article “Middle-Aged Americans are Dying of Despair”:

Even as longevity increases across the rich world, uneducated white Americans are living sicker and dying earlier…

This despair is driving populist, ugly, dangerous politics all around the world. It’s a fast-growing trend. Unless politicians address it, quickly and wisely, all bets are all for the future.

This may well require a new coalition in the UK, of progressive politicians who understand the threat, and who are willing to take the courageous, imaginative steps to address it.

change-948024_1920

23 June 2016

Acceptance and change

Is it narcissist to seek a cure for aging? Is it egocentric or immature?

That’s an accusation that often comes my way.

The short answer is that it’s no more narcissist to seek a cure for aging than it is to seek a cure for cancer, or for dementia. (Moreover, as I argue in Chapter 2 of my book The Abolition of Aging, the most effective route to cure cancer may well be to cure aging first.)

Nor was it narcissist of previous medical pioneers to seek cures for TB, or for malaria.

Nor was it narcissist for slaves to dare to want to be free of their bondage. Nor was it narcissist for women to dare to want the right to vote. Thank goodness.

Suffragettes 1024x576

There’s a section in Chapter 1 of The Abolition of Aging where I review a variant of this argument. Here’s a copy of that section.

Acceptance and change

At first glance, rejuveneers seem to stand opposed to a profound piece of humanitarian wisdom – wisdom expressed by, among others, Gautama Buddha, 2nd century Stoic advocate Marcus Aurelius, and 20th century American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

That wisdom urges serenity and acceptance in the face of life’s deep challenges. There’s no merit in becoming unnecessarily agitated about an issue – such as the onset of aging – if there’s nothing that can be done about that issue. Why discuss a painful problem if you can’t change the outcome? What’s the point of complaining if there’s no solution available?

It’s as stated in the opening lines of Niebuhr’s famous “serenity prayer” (a prayer that everyone can appreciate, without any need to believe in a supernatural deity):

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

A similar thought lies at the heart of Buddhism. The “Four Noble Truths” state that suffering arises from attachment to desires, and that suffering ceases only when attachment to desire ceases. To transcend the omnipresence of suffering, we have to learn to accept life as it is, and to set aside desire – such as the desire for better material possessions, pleasure, security, or long life.

The Stoic philosophy of life, developed in ancient Greece and Rome, likewise emphasises an attitude of acceptance. As Epictetus (55-135 AD) stated,

Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.

Stoic advocate Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), who was emperor of Rome for the last 19 years of his life, posed the following questions in his “Meditations”:

Why do you hunger for length of days? The point of life is to follow reason and the divine spirit and to accept whatever nature sends you. To live in this way is not to fear death, but to hold it in contempt. Death is only a thing of terror for those unable to live in the present. Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.

Admiration of “Stoic calm” persists to the present day. Former American president Bill Clinton has been quoted as saying that “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius” was his favourite book. Stoicism is highlighted by self-education advocate Paul Jun as providing “9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos”:

Not only does philosophy teach us how to live well and become better humans, but it can also aid in overcoming life’s trials and tribulations. Some schools of thought are for more abstract thinking and debate, whereas others are tools that are immediately practical to our current endeavours.

The principles within Stoicism are, perhaps, the most relevant and practical sets of rules for entrepreneurs, writers, and artists of all kinds. The Stoics focus on two things:

  1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?
  2. How can we become better human beings?

The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, realizing our ephemeral nature and the short time allotted—these were all meditative practices that helped them live with their nature and not against it.

It is in contrast to these philosophies of mature acceptance – philosophies that emphasise uncomplaining acknowledgement of our finitude and our limits – that rejuveneers can be portrayed as arrogant, grasping, and juvenile. Rejuveneers dare to complain about the perceived insult of deteriorative aging. Rejuveneers have the audacity to imagine that an outcome unavailable to the greats of the past – including giants such as Marcus Aurelius, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Gautama Buddha – namely, the option of indefinite youthfulness – might shortly be available to present-day folk. Rejuveneers, according to this line of thought, lack the self-awareness to realise how unreasonable their ambition is. Indeed, the hubris of the rejuveneers can seem absurd.

Three sages

But the quotes given above tell only a part of the story. For example, there’s more to Buddhism than acceptance. Buddhist mindfulness coach Sunada Takagi comments as follows:

Acceptance is the first step toward change

I recently had a couple people raise doubts to me about the Buddhist idea of “accepting what is.” Isn’t it too passive? What if we’re in a situation that’s really unacceptable?

I’ve come across a few things recently that speak to this. Each makes a slightly different point, but they all basically say the same thing. “Accepting what is” does not mean passive acquiescence. Far from it, it’s the first step in making real and lasting change…

So “accepting what is” is not about passivity at all. It’s about clear seeing… Paradoxically, it’s when we take responsibility for our own failings and difficulties, or those of the world around us, that the real process of change can begin to take place. I see it as an essential starting point for anything we take on in life.

Paul Jun, the writer I quoted above on the Stoic philosophy, also adopts a strong action-orientation. For him, being stoical is far from being passive. It can, as he says, be the prelude to urgency:

Remind yourself that time is our most precious resource

What I particularly love and find challenging about Stoicism is that death is at the forefront of their thoughts. They realized the ephemeral nature of humans and how this is repeated in many facets of life.

It provides a sense of urgency, to realize that you’ve lived a certain number of hours and the hours ahead of you are not guaranteed as the ones you have lived. When I think of this I realize that everyday truly is an opportunity to improve, not in a cliché kind of way, but to learn to honestly appreciate what we are capable of achieving and how we are very responsible for the quality of our lives.

This makes our self-respect, work ethic, generosity, self-awareness, attention, and growth ever more important. The last thing any of us wants to do is die with regret, hence why following principles of Stoicism puts your life into perspective. It humbles you and should also deeply motivate you.

That brings us back to the serenity prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr. Above, I quoted the first clause of that prayer – the so-called “acceptance clause”. But there are two more clauses: an action clause and a wisdom clause. Here’s the entirety:

God grant me
The serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things that I can
And the wisdom to know the difference
.

Just as people can, rightly, be criticised for foolhardily attempting to change something that cannot be altered, so also can they, again rightly, be criticised for passively accepting some massive flaw or shortcoming which, it turns out, lay within their capacity to fix.

The most important clause in this prayer, arguably, is the “wisdom clause”: if we can find out, objectively, whether something lies within our collective ability, it makes all the difference as to whether the right thing to do is to seek accommodation or to seek transformation.

For rejuveneering, I have no doubt that the right thing to do is to seek transformation. Doing otherwise would be akin – to borrow another motif from Christian heritage – to walking past on the other side of the road, keeping well away from an unfortunate traveller who has been mugged, stripped of his clothing, and left half dead. When regarding the unfortunate state of everyone around the world that is already “half dead” due to the approach of diseases of old age, who amongst us will prove to be a “good Samaritan” that sees the plight and provides tangible support? And who, in contrast, will be like the priest and the Levite of the biblical parable, rushing past with eyes averted, preoccupied with whatever else fits the accepting-aging paradigm?

Footnote

I’ll be addressing some of the themes of The Abolition of Aging at a London Futurists event this Saturday. Click here for more details.

DW Scenarios for life extension Slide 18

21 June 2016

5G World Futurist Summit

Filed under: disruption, Events, futurist — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 11:30 pm

Intro slide

On Wednesday next week, 29th June, it will be my pleasure to chair the Futurist Summit which is one of the free-to-attend streams happening as part of the 5G World event taking place at London’s Olympia.

You can read more about the summit here, and more about the 5G World event here.

The schedule for the summit is as follows:

11:00 Introduction to the Futurist Summit
David Wood – Chair, London Futurists & Principal, Delta Wisdom

11:30 Education 2022 – MOOCs in full use, augmented by AIs doing marking and assessment-setting
Julia Begbie – Deputy Director of Studies – KLC School of Design

12:00 Healthcare 2022 – Digital healthcare systems finally fulfilling the promise that has long been expected of them
A
vi Roy – Biomedical Scientist & Research Fellow at the Centre for Advancing Sustainable Medical Innovation (CASMI) – Oxford University

12:30 Finance 2022 – Anticipating a world without physical cash, and in many cases operating without centralised banks
Jeffrey Bower, Digital Finance Specialist, United Nations

13:00 Networking Lunch

14:00 Reinventing urban mobility for new business strategies…self-driving cars and beyond
Stephane Barbier – CEO – Transpolis

14:30 The Future of Smart Cities
Paul Copping – Smart City Advisor – Digital Greenwich, Royal Borough of Greenwich

15:00 The Future of Computer Security and ‘Cybercrime’
Craig Heath, Director, Franklin Heath 

15:30 What happens when virtual reality experiences become more engaging than those in the real world?”
Steve Dann, Founder & CEO, Amplified Robot 

16:00 End of Futurist Summit

Speakers slide

Each of the 30 minute slots in the Summit will include a presentation from the speaker followed by audience Q&A.

If you’re in or near London that day, I hope to see many of you at the Summit!

Note that, although the Futurist Summit is free to attend, you need to register in advance for a Free Expo Pass, via the 5G World conference registration page. You’ll probably see other streams at the event that you would also like to attend.

Stop press: Any members of London Futurists can obtain a 50% discount off the price of a full pass to 5G World – if you wish to attend other aspects of the event – by using the Priority Code Partner50 on the registration webpage.

 

 

10 June 2016

Lessons from Underground Airlines

In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

For example, consider the influence of Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. What alternative history might have arisen if that great statesman had been felled by an assassin’s bullet, not (as in actual history) in 1865, after the conclusion of the American Civil War, but much earlier in his presidency?

That alternative scenario provides the backdrop to the speculative novel “Underground Airlines” by Ben H. Winter. It’s a novel that speculates, masterfully, about the trajectory of an alternative history.

Underground Airlines

Imagine if early martyrdom of Lincoln, before any civil war could start, had precipitated a colossal long-standing compromise in the United States, with northern anti-slavery states warily coexisting with southern pro-slavery states, not just for a few more years, but for long decades – indeed, right up until the present day. Imagine if the “underground railroad” rescue mechanism of safe houses and secret routes to transport fugitive escaped slaves, that existed in actual history from the 17th to the 19th century, persisted in modified, modernised form right up until the twenty first century, now known as “underground airlines” (the words which form the title of Winter’s book). Imagine if the latest features of modern society – such as GPS tracking and ubiquitous mobile computers – coexisted with industrial scale slavery in the “Hard Four” recalcitrant states of the deep south. And, worst of all, imagine an extension, right up till today, of the massive double think (self-deception) in which good people persuade themselves that the whole system is acceptable. Imagine the double think with which these bystanders view fugitive slaves on the run, as fair game to be hunted by trackers from the south acting on behalf of massive slave-holding conglomerates.

Winter’s book features double think writ large. Characters that, to outward appearances, seek to help runaway slaves, are secretly assisting the trackers, and allow themselves to feel comfortable with that double think. They accept the brute facts of slavery, and make peace (of a sort) with their personal accommodation to that worldview.

Personalities from actual history intrude, under the skilful choreography of the writer, into the alternative Underground Airlines history. Shunned by much of the rest of the industrialised world, the alternative America occupies a relative backwater on the global stage. The FDR and LBJ mentioned in quiet moments in the narrative wielded an impact far more local, in Underground Airlines history, than in actual history. A reference to a recent “gulf war” turns out to have nothing to do with the Middle East.

More than clever plotting

Winter’s book deserves praise for its clever plotting. Revelations of character motivations come as surprises, but not as jolts: the reader is gradually made aware of a bigger picture with its own, horrible logic. It adds up to gripping reading.

But more than that: Underground Airlines deserves praise for its astuteness in recognising that there was nothing inevitable about the abolition of slavery. The circumstances that we nowadays find overwhelmingly objectionable – the “Inhuman Bondage” described at length by real-world historian David Brion Davis in his epic account of the rise and fall of new world slavery – could be seen by otherwise admirable men and women as necessary, inevitable parts of a way of life that has many redeeming positive aspects. These apologists were wrapped in a set of perceptions – their “accepting slavery” paradigm – which prevented them from acknowledging the full awfulness of bound servitude. Despite their intelligence, their thinking was constrained. Despite the kindness that lay in their hearts, there were marked limits to their compassion.

Inhuman Bondage

I came across the work of David Brion Davis in the course of researching my own recently published book, The Abolition of Aging. Here’s an extract from near the end of my book:

The analysis by Davis makes it clear that:

  • The abolition of slavery was by no means inevitable or predetermined
  • There were strong arguments against the abolition of slavery – arguments raised by clever, devout people in both the United States and the United Kingdom – arguments concerning economic well-being, among many other factors
  • The arguments of the abolitionists were rooted in a conception of a better way of being a human – a way that avoided the harsh bondage and subjugation of the slave trade, and which would in due course enable many millions of people to fulfil a much greater potential
  • The cause of the abolition of slavery was significantly advanced by public activism – including pamphlets, lectures, petitions, and municipal meetings.

With its roots in the eighteenth century, and growing in momentum as the nineteenth century proceeded, the abolition of slavery eventually became an idea whose time had come – thanks to brave, smart, persistent activism by men and women with profound conviction.

With a different set of roots in the late twentieth century, and growing in momentum as the twenty-first century proceeds, the abolition of aging can, likewise, become an idea whose time has come. It’s an idea about an overwhelmingly better future for humanity – a future that will allow billions of people to fulfil a much greater potential. But as well as excellent engineering – the creation of reliable, accessible rejuvenation therapies – this project will also require brave, smart, persistent activism, to change the public landscape from one hostile (or apathetic) to rejuveneering into one that deeply supports it.

My claim in The Abolition of Aging is that most of us accept a terrible double think. We avidly support research against diseases such as cancer, dementia, and heart failure. We are aware of the destructive nature of all these diseases. But we shy away from research into the main underlying escalator of these diseases – the factor that makes these diseases more likely and (when they occur) more serious. This factor is biological aging – namely, the gradual deterioration of our molecular, cellular, and organic systems. We’re too ready to accept biological aging as a given.

We say it would be good if people could avoid being afflicted by cancer, dementia, or heart failure. We advocate people taking steps to decrease the chances of these diseases – for example, not to spend too much time under the direct sun, unprotected. But we tell ourselves that it’s somehow natural (and therefore somehow admirable) that biological aging accelerates in our bodies. So we acquiesce. We accept a deadly compromise.

The Abolition of Aging seeks to overturn that double think. It argues that rejuvenation is a noble, highly desirable, eminently practical destiny for our species – a “Humanity+” destiny that could, with sufficient focus and organisation, be achieved within just one human generation from now. Rejuvenation – the periodic reversal of the accumulation of significant damage at our molecular, cellular, and organic levels – can lead to a rapid decline in deaths from diseases of old age, such as cancer, dementia, heart failure, and lots more. Despite the implications of this change for our economic and social systems, this is an overwhelming good, which we should welcome wholeheartedly.

I’m happy to report that The Abolition of Aging has already featured as the #1 bestseller (in the UK) of the Gerontology section of Amazon.

Gerontology bestsellers UK

Next steps

Let’s return to the question from the start of this blogpost: In the grand sweep of history, how much difference can one person make?

We can’t all be Abraham Lincoln. But as I review in the final sections of my book, there’s a lot that each one of us can do, to tilt upwards the probability that successful rejuvenation therapies will be widely available by 2040. This includes steps to:

  1. Strengthen communities that are working on at least parts of the rejuveneering project
  2. Improve our personal understanding of aspects of rejuveneering – the science, roadmaps, history, philosophy, theories, personalities, platforms, open questions, and so on – and help to document aspects of that better understanding, by creating or editing knowledgebases or wikis
  3. Become involved with marketing of one sort or another
  4. Undertake original research into any of the unknowns of rejuveneering; this could be part of formal educational courses, or it could be a commercial R&D undertaking; it could also be part of a decentralised activity, in the style of “citizen science”
  5. Provide funding to projects that we judge to be particularly worthwhile.

Our contributions are likely to be more significant when they connect into positive efforts that others are already making. For example, I’m impressed by the activities of the Major Mouse Testing Program (MMTP), which you can read about here. I’ve just made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign, and I encourage you to consider doing the same.

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