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26 May 2021

A preview of Vital Foresight

Filed under: books, Vital Foresight — Tags: , , — David Wood @ 8:33 am

Update on 23rd June 2021: Vital Foresight has now been published as an ebook and as a paperback.

Here are the Amazon links:

The open preview mentioned in this post has now ended.

For more details about the book, including endorsements by early readers, see here.

The original blogpost follows:


Vital Foresight is almost ready.

That’s the title of the book I’ve been writing since August. It’s the most important book I’ve ever written.

The subtitle is The Case for Active Transhumanism.

Below, please find a copy of the Preface to Vital Foresight. The preface summarises the scope and intent of the book, and describes its target audience.

At this time, I am inviting people to take a look at previews of one or more of the chapters, and, if you feel inspired, to offer some feedback.

Here are examples of what I encourage you to make comments or suggestions about:

  • You particularly like some of the material
  • You dislike some of the material
  • You think contrary opinions should be considered
  • There appear to be mistakes in the spelling or grammar
  • The material is difficult to read or understand
  • The ideas could be expressed more elegantly
  • You have any other thoughts you wish to share.

Unless you indicate a preference for anonymity, reviewers will be thanked in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book.

The chapters can be accessed as Google Doc files. Here’s the link to the starting point.

This article lists twenty key features of the book – topics it covers in unique ways.

And, for your convenience, here’s a copy of the Preface.

Preface

“Transhumanism”?

“Don’t put that word on the cover of your book!”

That’s the advice I received from a number of friends when they heard what I was writing about. They urged me to avoid “the ‘T’ word” – “transhumanism”. That word has bad vibes, they said. It’s toxic. T for toxic.

I understand where they’re coming from. Later in this book, I’ll dig into reasons why various people are uncomfortable with the whole concept. I’ll explain why I nevertheless see “transhumanism” as an apt term for a set of transformational ideas that will be key to our collective wellbeing in the 2020s and beyond. T for transformational. And, yes, T for timely.

As such, it’s a word that belongs on the cover of many more books, inspiring more conversations, more realisations, and more breakthroughs.

For now, in case you’re wondering, here’s a short definition. It’s by Oxford polymath Anders Sandberg, who expressed it like this in 1997:

Transhumanism is the philosophy that we can and should develop to higher levels, physically, mentally, and socially, using rational methods.

Sandberg’s 1997 webpage also features this summary from trailblazing Humanity+ Board member and Executive Director, Natasha Vita-More:

Transhumanism is a commitment to overcoming human limits in all their forms, including extending lifespan, augmenting intelligence, perpetually increasing knowledge, achieving complete control over our personalities and identities, and gaining the ability to leave the planet. Transhumanists seek to achieve these goals through reason, science, and technology.

In brief, transhumanism is a vision of the future: a vision of what’s possible, what’s desirable, and how it can be brought into reality.

In subsequent chapters, I’ll have lots more to say about the strengths and weaknesses of transhumanism. I’ll review the perceived threats and the remarkable opportunities that arise from it. But first, let me quickly introduce myself and how I came to be involved in the broader field of foresight (also known as futurism) within which transhumanism exists.

Smartphones and beyond

Over the twenty-five years that I held different roles within the mobile computing and smartphone industries, it was an increasingly central part of my job to think creatively and critically about future possibilities.

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my work colleagues and I could see that computing technology was becoming ever more powerful. We debated long and hard, revisiting the same questions many times as forthcoming new hardware and software capabilities came to our attention. What kinds of devices should we design, to take advantage of these new capabilities? Which applications would users of these devices find most valuable? How might people feel as they interacted with different devices with small screens and compact keypads? Would the Internet ever become useful for “ordinary people”? Would our industry be dominated by powerful, self-interested corporations with monolithic visions, or would multiple streams of innovation flourish?

My initial involvement with these discussions was informal. Most of my time at work went into software engineering. But I enjoyed animated lunchtime discussions at Addison’s brasserie on Old Marylebone Road in central London, where technical arguments about, for example, optimising robust access to data structures, were intermingled with broader brainstorms about how we could collectively steer the future in a positive direction.

Over time, I set down more of my own ideas in writing, in emails and documents that circulated among teammates. I also had the good fortune to become involved in discussions with forward-thinking employees from giants of the mobile phone world – companies such as Nokia, Ericsson, Motorola, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Fujitsu, and LG, that were considering using our EPOC software (later renamed as “Symbian OS”) in their new handsets. I learned a great deal from these discussions.

By 2004 my job title was Executive VP for Research. It was my responsibility to pay attention to potential disruptions that could transform our business, either by destroying it, or by uplifting it. I came to appreciate that, in the words of renowned management consultant Peter Drucker, “the major questions regarding technology are not technical but human questions”. I also became increasingly persuaded that the disruptions of the smartphone market, significant though they were, were but a small preview of much larger disruptions to come.

As I’ll explain in the pages ahead, these larger disruptions could bring about a significant uplift in human character. Another possibility, however, is the destruction of much that we regard as precious.

Accordingly, the skills of foresight are more essential today than ever. We need to strengthen our collective capabilities in thinking creatively and critically about future possibilities – and in acting on the insights arising.

Indeed, accelerating technological change threatens to shatter the human condition in multiple ways. We – all of us – face profound questions over the management, not just of smartphones, but of artificial intelligence, nanoscale computers, bio-engineering, cognitive enhancements, ubiquitous robots, drone swarms, nuclear power, planet-scale geo-engineering, and much more.

What these technologies enable is, potentially, a world of extraordinary creativity, unprecedented freedom, and abundant wellbeing. That’s provided we can see clearly enough, in advance, the major disruptive opportunities we will need to seize and steer, so we can reach that destination. And provided we can step nimbly through a swath of treacherous landmines along the way.

That’s no small undertaking. It will take all our wisdom and strength. It’s going to require the very highest calibre of foresight.

That’s the reason why I’ve spent so much of my time in recent years organising and hosting hundreds of public meetings of the London Futurists community, both offline and online – events with the general headline of “serious analysis of radical scenarios for the next three to forty years”.

I acknowledge, however, that foresight is widely thought to have a poor track record. Forecasts of the future, whether foretelling doom and gloom, or envisioning technological cornucopia, seem to have been wrong at least as often as they have been right. Worse, instead of helping us to see future options more clearly, past predictions have, all too frequently, imposed mental blinkers, encouraged a stubborn fatalism, or distracted us from the truly vital risks and opportunities. It’s no wonder that the public reputation of futurism is scarcely better than that of shallow tabloid horoscopes.

To add to the challenge, our long-honed instincts about social norms and human boundaries prepare us poorly for the counterintuitive set of radical choices that emerging technology now dangles before us. We’re caught in a debilitating “future shock” of both fearful panic and awestruck wonder.

Happily, assistance is at hand. What this book will demonstrate is that vital foresight from the field I call active transhumanism can help us all:

  1. To resist unwarranted tech hype, whilst remaining aware that credible projections of today’s science and engineering could enable sweeping improvements in the human condition
  2. To distinguish future scenarios with only superficial attractions from those with lasting, sustainable benefits
  3. To move beyond the inaction of future shock, so we can coalesce around practical initiatives that advance deeply positive outcomes.

The audience for vital foresight

I’ve written this book for everyone who cares about the future:

  • Everyone trying to anticipate and influence the dramatic changes that may take place in their communities, organisations, and businesses over the next few years
  • Everyone concerned about risks of environmental disaster, the prevalence of irrationalism and conspiracy theories, growing inequality and social alienation, bioengineered pandemics, the decline of democracy, and the escalation of a Cold War 2.0
  • Everyone who has high hopes for technological solutions, but who is unsure whether key innovations can be adopted wisely enough and quickly enough
  • Everyone seeking a basic set of ethical principles suited for the increasing turbulence of the 2020s and beyond – principles that preserve the best from previous ethical frameworks, but which are open to significant updates in the wake of the god-like powers being bestowed on us by new technologies.

Although it reviews some pivotal examples from my decades of experience in business, this is not a book about the future of individual businesses or individual industries.

Nor is it a “get rich quick” book, or one that promotes “positive thinking” or better self-esteem. Look elsewhere, if that is what you seek.

Instead, it’s a book about the possibilities – indeed, the necessity – for radical transformation:

  • Transformation of human nature
  • Transformation of our social and political frameworks
  • Transformation of our relations with the environment and the larger cosmos
  • Transformation of our self-understanding – the narratives we use to guide all our activities.

Critically, this book contains practical suggestions for next steps to be taken, bearing in mind the power and pace of forces that are already remaking the world faster than was previously thought possible.

And it shows that foresight, framed well, can provide not only a stirring vision, but also the agility and resilience to cope with the many contingencies and dangers to be encountered on the journey forward.

Looking ahead

Here’s my summary of the most vital piece of foresight that I can offer.

Oncoming waves of technological change are poised to deliver either global destruction or a paradise-like sustainable superabundance, with the outcome depending on the timely elevation of transhumanist vision, transhumanist politics, and transhumanist education.

You’ll find that same 33-word paragraph roughly halfway through the book, in the chapter “Creativity”, in the midst of a dialogue about (can you guess…?) hedgehogs and foxes. I’ve copied the paragraph to the beginning of the book to help you see where my analysis will lead.

The summary is short, but the analysis will take some time. The scenarios that lie ahead for humanity – whether global destruction or sustainable superabundance – involve rich interactions of multiple streams of thought and activity. There’s a lot we’ll need to get our heads around, including disruptions in technology, health, culture, economics, politics, education, and philosophy. Cutting corners on understanding any one of these streams could yield a seriously misleading picture of our options for the future. Indeed, if we skimp on our analysis of future possibilities, we should not be surprised if humanity falls far short of our true potential.

However, I realise that each reader of this book will bring different concerns and different prior knowledge. By all means jump over various sections of the book to reach the parts that directly address the questions that are uppermost in your mind. Let the table of contents be your guide. If need be, you can turn back the pages later, to fill in any gaps in the narrative.

Better foresight springs, in part, from better hindsight. It’s particularly important to understand the differences between good foresight and bad foresight – to review past examples of each, learning from both the failures and, yes, the occasional successes of previous attempts to foresee and create the future. That’s one of our key tasks in the pages ahead.

In that quest, let’s move forward to an example from the rainbow nation of South Africa. Before we reach the hedgehogs and foxes, I invite you to spend some time with (can you guess…?) ostriches and flamingos.

==== Click here for the full preview, and to be able to make comments and suggestions ===

4 Comments »

  1. Hello David,

    it will be a pleasure to read through and comment on this preface. I hope my comments won’t seem too pedantic. I have an Arts background and was drilled in adolescence to finecomb expressions for concision, clarity etc. Scientists and philosophers are more focussed on the essentials – content, consistency – but I somehow can’t help getting goosebumps when grammar or idiomacy appear wrong.

    Hope all is well with you and that you enjoy our new relative freedoms.

    Catarina

    Comment by cryonica2030 — 26 May 2021 @ 9:13 am

    • Many thanks for any comments or suggestions you make Catarina. Wherever my text has mistakes of grammar, or gets an idiom confused, I definitely want to fix it.

      At least three of my backgrounds predispose me to pedantry too: mathematics, philosophy of science, and software engineering. Where I’ve definitely got something wrong, I’ll try to make amends.

      However, I’ve chosen in this book to be discursive. So I’ve by no means always chosen the most concise way of expressing myself. That’s often been a deliberate choice. I want to tell stories, as well as to provide summaries.

      Comment by David Wood — 26 May 2021 @ 9:38 am

  2. I much enjoyed this preview. When do you expect to publish the book? I will love to read it. One thought: Yuval Harari, who practices Vipassana meditation, expresses the concern (somewhere, in some youtube video) that while AI has enabled us to make spectacular progress in intelligence, we have so far seen – in his words – “exactly zero” progress in consciousness. In addition, the idea of a conscious underlying field of reality is the basic assumption of Eastern philosophy and techniques. So Harari worries that, if we only take AI and non-biological substrates into account, and enhance ourselves mind and body with non-biological extensions, we may lose sight of, and even simply lose, abilities we didn’t even know we had. Will it be possible to even understand such an underlying field ( if it exists) if our minds are no longer biological?

    Comment by cryonica2030 — 26 May 2021 @ 11:15 am

    • I appreciate all your feedback, thanks! I will probably accept several of your proposed textual improvements, when I have time later to think about them more carefully.

      I’m expecting to publish next month, June, unless there’s some kind of disruption beforehand.

      Regarding consciousness, that’s a very important topic. A search in my master copy of the book finds 32 hits for the word “consciousness”. The longest discussion on that topic is in the section “Data-centrism” in Chapter 12

      Comment by David Wood — 26 May 2021 @ 12:04 pm


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