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14 June 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a timely vision

I find myself in a great deal of agreement with Fully Automated Luxury Communism (“FALC”), the provocative but engaging book by Novara Media Co-Founder and Senior Editor Aaron Bastani.

It’s a book that’s going to change the conversation about the future.

It starts well, with six short vignettes, “Six characters in search of a future”. Then it moves on, with the quality consistently high, to sections entitled “Chaos under heaven”, “New travellers”, and “Paradise found”. Paradise! Yes, that’s the future which is within our grasp. It’s a future in which, as Bastani says, people will “lead fuller, expanded lives, not diminished ones”:

The comment about “diminished lives” is a criticism of at least some parts of the contemporary green movement:

To the green movement of the twentieth century this is heretical. Yet it is they who, for too long, unwisely echoed the claim that ‘small is beautiful’ and that the only way to save our planet was to retreat from modernity itself. FALC rallies against that command, distinguishing consumption under fossil capitalism – with its commuting, ubiquitous advertising, bullshit jobs and built-in obsolescence – from pursuing the good life under conditions of extreme supply. Under FALC we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.

The book is full of compelling turns of phrase that made me think to myself, “I wish I had thought of saying that”. They are phrases that are likely to be heard increasingly often from now on.

The book also contains ideas and examples that I have myself used on many occasions in my own writing and presentation over the years. Indeed, the vision and analysis in FALC has a lot in common with the vision and analysis I have offered, most recently in Sustainable Superabundance, and, in more depth, in my earlier book Transcending Politics.

Four steps in the analysis

In essence, FALC sets out a four-step problem-response-problem-response sequence:

  1. A set of major challenges facing contemporary society – challenges which undermine any notion that social development has somehow already reached a desirable “end of history”
  2. A set of technological innovations, which Bastani calls the “Third Disruption”, with the potential not only to solve the severe challenges society is facing, but also to significantly improve human life
  3. A set of structural problems with the organisation of the economy, which threaten to frustrate and sabotage the positive potential of the Third Disruption
  4. A set of changes in attitude – and political programmes to express these changes – that will allow, after all, the entirety of society to fully benefit from the Third Disruption, and attain the “luxury” paradise the book describes.

In more detail:

First, Bastani highlights five challenges that, in combination, pose (as he puts it) “threats whose scale is civilisational”:

  • Growing resource scarcity – particularly for energy, minerals and fresh water
  • Accelerating climate change and other consequences of global warming
  • Societal aging, as life expectancy increases and birth rates concurrently fall, invalidating the assumptions behind pension schemes and, more generally, the social contract
  • A growing surplus of global poor who form an ever-larger ‘unnecessariat’ (people with no economic value to contribute)
  • A new machine age which will herald ever-greater technological unemployment as progressively more physical and cognitive labour is performed by machines, rather than humans.

Second, Bastani points to a series of technological transformations that comprise an emerging “Third Disruption” (following the earlier disruptions of the Agricultural and Industrial Revoutions). These transformations apply information technology to fields such as renewable energy, food production, resource management (including asteroid mining), healthcare, housing, and education. The result of these transformations could (“if we want it”, Bastani remarks) be a society characterised by the terms “post-scarcity” and “post-work”.

Third, this brings us to the deeper problem, namely the way society puts too much priority on the profit motive.

Transcending capitalism

The economic framework known as capitalism has generated huge amounts of innovation in products and services. These innovations have taken place because entrepreneurs have been motivated to create and distribute new items for exchange and profit. But in circumstances when profits would be small, there’s less motivation to create the goods and services. To the extent that goods and services are nowadays increasingly dependent on information, this poses a problem, since information involves no intrinsic costs when it is copied from one instance to another.

Increasingly, what’s special about a product isn’t the materials from which it is composed, but the set of processes (that is, information) used to manipulate those material to create the product. Increasingly, what’s special about a service isn’t the tacit skills of the people delivering that service, but the processes (that is, information) by which any reasonably skilled person can be trained to deliver that service. All this leads to pressures for the creation of “artificial scarcity” that prohibits the copying of certain types of information.

The fact that goods and services become increasingly easy to duplicate should be seen as a positive. It should mean lower costs all round. It should mean that more people can access good quality housing, good quality education, good quality food, and good quality clean energy. It’s something that society should welcome enthusiastically. However, since profits are harder to achieve in these circumstances, many business leaders (and the hangers-on who are dependent on these business leaders) wish to erect barriers and obstacles anew. Rather than embracing post-scarcity, they wish to extent the prevalence of scarcity.

This is just one example of the “market failures” which can arise from unfettered capitalism. In my own book Sustainable Superabundance, five of the twelve chapters end with a section entitled “Beyond the profit motive”. It’s not that I view the profit motive as inherently bad. Far from it. Instead, it’s that there are many problems in letting the profit motive dominate other motivations. That’s why we need to look beyond the profit motive.

In much the same way, Bastani recognises capitalism as an essential precursor to the fully automated luxury communism he foresees. Here, as in much of his thinking, he draws inspiration from the writing of Karl Marx. Bastani notes that,

In contrast to his portrayal by critics, Marx was often lyrical about capitalism. His belief was that despite its capacity for exploitation, its compulsion to innovate – along with the creation of a world market – forged the conditions for social transformation.

Bastani quotes Marx writing as follows in 1848:

The bourgeoisie … has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

By the way, don’t be put off by the word “communism” in the book’s title. There’s no advocacy here of a repeat of what previous self-declared communist regimes have done. Communism was not possible until the present time, since it depends upon technology having advanced to a sufficiently advanced state. Bastani explains it as follows:

While it is true that a number of political projects have labelled themselves communist over the last century, the aspiration was neither accurate nor – as we will go on to see – technologically possible. ‘Communism’ is used here for the benefit of precision; the intention being to denote a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another. Given the possibilities arising from the Third Disruption, with the emergence of extreme supply in information, labour, energy and resources, it should be viewed not only as an idea adequate to our time but impossible before now.

And to emphasise the point:

FALC is not the communism of the early twentieth century, nor will it be delivered by storming the Winter Palace.

The technologies needed to deliver a post-scarcity, post-work society – centred around renewable energy, automation and information – were absent in the Russian Empire, or indeed anywhere else until the late 1960s…

Creating communism before the Third Disruption is like creating a flying machine before the Second. You could conceive of it – and indeed no less a genius than Leonardo Da Vinci did precisely that – but you could not create it. This was not a failure of will or of intellect, but simply an inevitability of history.

Marx expected a transformation from capitalism to communism within his own lifetime. He would likely have been very surprised at the ability of capitalism to reinvent itself in the face of the many challenges and difficulties it has faced in subsequent decades. Marx’s lack of accurate prediction about the forthcoming history of capitalism is one factor people use to justify their disregard for Marxism. The question, however, is whether his analysis was merely premature rather than completely wrong. Bastani argues for the former point of view. The internal tensions of a profit-led society have caused a series of large financial and economic crashes, but have not, so far, led to an effective transition away from profit-seeking to abundance-seeking. However, Bastani argues, the stakes are nowadays so high, that continued pursuit of profits-at-all-costs cannot continue.

This brings us to the fourth phase of the argument – the really critical one. If there are problems with capitalism, what is to be done? Rather than storming any modern-day Winter Palace, where should a fervour for change best be applied?

Solutions

Bastani’s answer starts by emphasising that the technologies of the Third Disruption, by themselves, provide no guarantee of a move to a society with ample abundance. Referring to the laws of technology of Melvin Kranzberg, Bastani observes that

How technology is created and used, and to whose advantage, depends on the political, ethical and social contexts from which it emerges.

In other words, ideas and structures play a key role. To increase the chances of optimal benefits from the technologies of the Third Disruption, ideas prevalent in society will need to change.

The first change in ideas is a different attitude towards one of the dominant ideologies of our time, sometimes called neoliberalism. Bastani refers at various points to “market fundamentalism”. This is the idea that free pursuit of profits will inevitably result in the best outcome for society as a whole – that the free market is the best tool to organise the distribution of resources. In this viewpoint, regulations should be resisted, where they interfere with the ability of businesses to offer new products and services to the market. Workers’ rights should be resisted too, since they will interfere with the ability of businesses to lower wages and reassign tasks overseas. And so on.

Bastani has a list of examples of gross social failures arising from pursuit of neoliberalism. This includes the collapse in 2018 of Carillion, the construction and facilities management company. Bastani notes:

With up to 90 per cent of Carillion’s work subcontracted out, as many as 30,000 businesses faced the consequences of its ideologically driven mismanagement. Hedge funds in the City, meanwhile, made hundreds of millions from speculating on its demise.

Another example is the tragedy of the 2017 fire at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in West London, in which 72 people perished:

The neoliberal machine has human consequences that go beyond spreadsheets and economic data. Beyond, even, in-work poverty and a life defined by paying ever higher rents to wealthy landlords and fees to company shareholders. As bad as those are they pale beside its clearest historic expression in a generation: the derelict husk of Grenfell Tower…

A fire broke which would ravage the building in a manner not seen in Britain for decades. The primary explanation for its rapid, shocking spread across the building – finished in 1974 and intentionally designed to minimise the possibility of such an event – was the installation of flammable cladding several years earlier, combined with poor safety standards and no functioning sprinklers – all issues highlighted by the residents’ Grenfell Action Group before the fire.

The cladding itself, primarily composed of polyethylene, is as flammable as petroleum. Advances in material science means we should be building homes that are safer, and more efficient, than ever before. Instead a cut-price approach to housing the poor prevails, prioritising external aesthetics for wealthier residents. In the case of Grenfell that meant corners were cut and lives were lost. This is not a minor political point and shows the very real consequences of ‘self-regulation’.

Bastani is surely right that greater effort is needed to ensure everyone understands the various failure modes of free markets. A better appreciation is overdue of the positive role that well-designed regulations can play in ensuring greater overall human flourishing in the face of corporations that would prefer to put their priorities elsewhere. The siren calls of market fundamentalism need to be resisted.

I would add, however, that a different kind of fundamentalism needs to be resisted and overcome too. This is anti-market fundamentalism. As I wrote in the chapter “Markets and fundamentalists” in Transcending Politics,

Anti-market fundamentalists see the market system as having a preeminently bad effect on the human condition. The various flaws with free markets… are so severe, say these critics, that the most important reform to pursue is to dismantle the free market system. That reform should take a higher priority than any development of new technologies – AI, genetic engineering, stem cell therapies, neuro-enhancers, and so on. Indeed, if these new technologies are deployed whilst the current free market system remains in place, it will, say these critics, make it all the more likely that these technologies will be used to oppress rather than liberate.

I believe that both forms of fundamentalism (pro-market and anti-market) need to be resisted. I look forward to wiser management of the market system, rather than dismantling it. In my view, key to this wise management is the reform and protection of a number of other social institutions that sit alongside markets – a free press, free judiciary, independent regulators, and, yes, independent politicians.

I share the view of political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, articulated in their fine 2016 book American Amnesia: Business, Government, and the Forgotten Roots of Our Prosperity, that the most important social innovation of the 20th century was the development of the mixed economy. In a mixed economy, effective governments work alongside the remarkable capabilities of the market economy, steering it and complementing it. Here’s what Hacker and Pierson have to say about the mixed economy:

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

These writers 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 characterisation by Hacker and Pierson of the positive role of government is, to my mind, spot on correct. It’s backed up in their book 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 poorly understood in much of contemporary public discussion. 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. That tendency – the tendency towards market fundamentalism – urgently needs to be resisted. But at the same time, we also need to resist the reverse tendency – the tendency towards anti-market fundamentalism – the tendency to belittle the latent capabilities of free markets.

To Bastani’s credit, he avoids advocating any total government control over planning of the economy. Instead, he offers praise for Eastern European Marxist writers such as Michał Kalecki, Włodzimierz Brus, and Kazimierz Łaski, who advocated important roles for market mechanisms in the approach to the communist society in which they all believed. Bastani comments,

[These notions were] expanded further in 1989 with Brus and Łaski claiming that under market socialism, publicly owned firms would have to be autonomous – much as they are in market capitalist systems – and that this would necessitate a socialised capital market… Rather than industrial national monoliths being lauded as the archetype of economic efficiency, the authors argued for a completely different kind of socialism declaring, ‘The role of the owner-state should be separated from the state as an authority in charge of administration … (enterprises) have to become separated not only from the state in its wider role but also from one another.’

Bastani therefore supports a separation of two roles:

  • The political task of establishing the overall direction and framework for the development of the economy
  • The operational task of creating goods and services within that framework – a task that may indeed utilise various market mechanisms.

Key in the establishment of the overall direction is to supersede society’s reliance on the GDP measure. Bastani is particularly good in his analysis of the growing shortcomings of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and on what must be included in its replacement, which he calls an “Abundance Index”:

Initially such an index would integrate CO2 emissions, energy efficiency, the falling cost of energy, resources and labour, the extent to which UBS [Universal Basic Services] had been delivered, leisure time (time not in paid employment), health and lifespan, and self-reported happiness. Such a composite measure, no doubt adapted to a variety of regional and cultural differences, would be how we assess the performance of post-capitalist economies in the passage to FALC. This would be a scorecard for social progress assessing how successful the Third Disruption is in serving the common good.

Other policies Bastani recommends in FALC include:

  • Revised priorities for central banks – so that they promote increases of the Abundance Index, rather than simply focusing on the control of inflation
  • Step by step increases in UBS (Universal Basic Services) – rather than the UBI (Universal Basic Income) that is often advocated these days
  • Re-localisation of economies through what Bastani calls “progressive procurement and municipal protectionism”.

But perhaps the biggest recommendation Bastani makes is for the response to society’s present political issues to be a “populist” one.

Populism and its dangers

I confess that the word “populist” made me anxious. I worry about groundswell movements motivated by emotion rather than clear-sightedness. I worry about subgroups of citizens who identify themselves as “the true people” (or “the real people”) and who take any democratic victory as a mandate for them to exclude any sympathy for minority viewpoints. (“You lost. Get over it!”) I worry about demagogues who rouse runaway emotional responses by scapegoating easy targets (such as immigrants, overseas governments, transnational organisations, “experts”, “the elite”, or culturally different subgroups).

In short, I was more worried by the word “populist” than the word “communist”.

As it happens – thankfully – that’s different from the meaning of “populist” that Bastani has in mind. He writes,

For the kind of change required, and for it to last in a world increasingly at odds with the received wisdom of the past, a populist politics is necessary. One that blends culture and government with ideas of personal and social renewal.

He acknowledges that some thinkers will disagree with this recommendation:

Others, who may agree about the scale and even urgent necessity of change, will contend that such a radical path should only be pursued by a narrow technocratic elite. Such an impulse is understandable if not excusable; or the suspicion that democracy unleashes ‘the mob’ is as old as the idea itself. What is more, a superficial changing of the guard exclusively at the level of policy-making is easier to envisage than building a mass political movement – and far simpler to execute as a strategy. Yet the truth is any social settlement imposed without mass consent, particularly given the turbulent energies unleashed by the Third Disruption, simply won’t endure.

In other words, voters as a whole must be able to understand how the changes ahead, if well managed, will benefit everyone, not just in a narrow economic sense, but in the sense of liberating people from previous constraints.

I have set out similar ideas, under the term “superdemocracy”, described as follows:

A renewal of democracy in which, rather than the loudest and richest voices prevailing, the best insights of the community are elevated and actioned…

The active involvement of the entire population, both in decision-making, and in the full benefits of [technology]…

Significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty – overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.

That last proviso is critical and deserves repeating: “…overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power”. Otherwise, any movements that build popular momentum risk devouring themselves in time, in the way that the French Revolution sent Maximilien Robespierre to the guillotine, and the Bolshevik Revolution led to the deaths of many of the original revolutionaries following absurd show trials.

You’ll find no such proviso in FALC. Bastani writes,

Pride, greed and envy will abide as long as we do.

He goes on to offer pragmatic advice,

The management of discord between humans – the essence of politics – [is] an inevitable feature of any society we share with one another.

Indeed, that is good advice. We all need to become better at managing discord. However, writing as a transhumanist, I believe we can, and must, do better. The faults within human nature are something which the Third Disruption (to use Bastani’s term) will increasingly allow us to address and transcend.

Consider the question: Is it possible to significantly improve politics, over the course of, say, the next dozen years, without first significantly improving human nature?

Philosophies of politics can in principle be split into four groups, depending on the answer they give to that question:

  1. We shouldn’t try to improve human nature; that’s the route to hell
  2. We can have a better politics without any change in human nature
  3. Improving human nature will turn out to be relatively straightforward; let’s get cracking
  4. Improving human nature will be difficult but is highly desirable; we need to carefully consider the potential scenarios, with an open mind, and then make our choices.

For the avoidance of doubt, the fourth of these positions is the one I advocate. In contrast, I believe Bastani would favour the second answer – or maybe the first.

Transcending populism

(The following paragraphs are extracted from the chapter “Humans and superhumans” of my book Transcending Politics.)

We humans are sometimes angelic, yet sometimes diabolic. On occasion, we find ways to work together on a transcendent purpose with wide benefits. But on other occasions, we treat each other abominably. Not only do we go to war with each other, but our wars are often accompanied by hideous so-called “war crimes”. Our religious crusades, whilst announced in high-minded language, have involved the subjugation or extermination of hundreds of thousands of members of opposing faiths. The twentieth century saw genocides on a scale never before experienced. For a different example of viciousness, the comments attached to YouTube videos frequently show intense hatred and vitriol.

As technology puts more power in our hands, will we become more angelic, or more diabolic? Probably both, at the same time.

A nimbleness of mind can coincide with a harshness of spirit. Just because someone has more information at their disposal, that’s no guarantee the information will be used to advance beneficial initiatives. Instead, that information can be mined and contoured to support whatever course of action someone has already selected in their heart.

Great intelligence can be coupled with great knowledge, for good but also for ill. The outcome in some sorry cases is greater vindictiveness, greater manipulation, and greater enmity. Enhanced cleverness can make us experts in techniques to suppress inconvenient ideas, to distort inopportune findings, and to tarnish independent thinkers. We can find more devious ways to mislead and deceive people – and, perversely, to mislead and deceive ourselves. In this way, we could create the mother of all echo chambers. It would take only a few additional steps for obsessive human superintelligence to produce unprecedented human malevolence.

Transhumanists want to ask: can’t we find a way to alter the expression of human nature, so that we become less likely to use our new technological capabilities for malevolence, and more likely to use them for benevolence? Can’t we accentuate the angelic, whilst diminishing the diabolic?

To some critics, that’s an extremely dangerous question. If we mess with human nature, they say, we’ll almost certainly make things worse rather than better.

Far preferable, in this analysis, is to accept our human characteristics as a given, and to evolve our social structures and cultural frameworks with these fixed characteristics in mind. In other words, our focus should be on the likes of legal charters, restorative justice, proactive education, multi-cultural awareness, and effective policing.

My view, however, is that these humanitarian initiatives towards changing culture need to be complemented with transhumanist initiatives to alter the inclinations inside the human soul. We need to address nature at the same time as we address nurture. To do otherwise is to unnecessarily limit our options – and to make it more likely that a bleak future awaits us.

The good news is that, for this transhumanist task, we can take advantage of a powerful suite of emerging new technologies. The bad news is that, like all new technologies, there are risks involved. As these technologies unfold, there will surely be unforeseen consequences, especially when different trends interact in unexpected ways.

Transhumanists have long been well aware of the risks in changing the expression of human nature. Witness the words of caution baked deep into the Transhumanist Declaration. But these risks are no reason for us to abandon the idea. Instead, they are a reason to exercise care and judgement in this project. Accepting the status quo, without seeking to change human nature, is itself a highly risky approach. Indeed, there are no risk-free options in today’s world. If we want to increase our chances of reaching a future of sustainable abundance for all, without humanity being diverted en route to a new dark age, we should leave no avenue unexplored.

Transhumanists are by no means the first set of thinkers to desire positive changes in human nature. Philosophers, religious teachers, and other leaders of society have long called for humans to overcome the pull of “attachment” (desire), self-centredness, indiscipline, “the seven deadly sins” (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth), and so on. Where transhumanism goes beyond these previous thinkers is in highlighting new methods that can now be used, or will shortly become available, to assist in the improvement of character.

Collectively these methods can be called “cognotech”. They will boost our all-round intelligence: emotional, rational, creative, social, spiritual, and more. Here are some examples:

  • New pharmacological compounds – sometimes called “smart drugs”
  • Gentle stimulation of the brain by a variety of electromagnetic methods – something that has been trialled by the US military
  • Alteration of human biology more fundamentally, by interventions at the genetic, epigenetic, or microbiome level
  • Vivid experiences within multi-sensory virtual reality worlds that bring home to people the likely consequences of their current personal trajectories (from both first-person and third-person points of view), and allow them to rehearse changes in attitude
  • The use of “intelligent assistance” software that monitors our actions and offers us advice in a timely manner, similar to the way that a good personal friend will occasionally volunteer wise counsel; intelligent assistants can also strengthen our positive characteristics by wise selection of background music, visual imagery, and “thought for the day” aphorisms to hold in mind.

Technological progress can also improve the effectiveness of various traditional methods for character improvement:

  • The reasons why meditation, yoga, and hypnosis can have beneficial results are now more fully understood than before, enabling major improvements in the efficacy of these practices
  • Education of all sorts can be enhanced by technology such as interactive online video courses that adapt their content to the emerging needs of each different user
  • Prompted by alerts generated by online intelligent assistants, real-world friends can connect at critical moments in someone’s life, in order to provide much-needed personal support
  • Information analytics can resolve some of the long-running debates about which diets – and which exercise regimes – are the ones that will best promote all-round health for given individuals.

The technoprogressive feedback cycle

One criticism of the initiative I’ve just outlined is that it puts matters the wrong way round.

I’ve been describing how individuals can, with the aid of technology as well as traditional methods, raise themselves above their latent character flaws, and can therefore make better contributions to the political process (either as voters or as actual politicians). In other words, we’ll get better politics as a result of getting better people.

However, an opposing narrative runs as follows. So long as our society is full of emotional landmines, it’s a lot to expect people to become more emotionally competent. So long as we live in a state of apparent siege, immersed in psychological conflict, it’s a big ask for people to give each other the benefit of the doubt, in order to develop new bonds of trust. Where people are experiencing growing inequality, a deepening sense of alienation, a constant barrage of adverts promoting consumerism, and an increasing foreboding about an array of risks to their wellbeing, it’s not reasonable to urge them to make the personal effort to become more compassionate, thoughtful, tolerant, and open-minded. They’re more likely to become angry, reactive, intolerant, and closed-minded. Who can blame them? Therefore – so runs this line of reasoning – it’s more important to improve the social environment than to urge the victims of that social environment to learn to turn the other cheek. Let’s stop obsessing about personal ethics and individual discipline, and instead put every priority on reducing the inequality, alienation, consumerist propaganda, and risk perception that people are experiencing. Instead of fixating upon possibilities for technology to rewire people’s biology and psychology, let’s hurry up and provide a better social safety net, a fairer set of work opportunities, and a deeper sense that “we’re all in this together”.

I answer this criticism by denying that it’s a one-way causation. We shouldn’t pick just a single route of influence – either that better individuals will result in a better society, or that a better society will enable the emergence of better individuals. On the contrary, there’s a two way flow of influence.

Yes, there’s such a thing as psychological brutalisation. In a bad environment, the veneer of civilisation can quickly peel away. Youngsters who would, in more peaceful circumstances, instinctively help elderly strangers to cross the road, can quickly degrade in times of strife into obnoxious, self-obsessed bigots. But that path doesn’t apply to everyone. Others in the same situation take the initiative to maintain a cheery, contemplative, constructive outlook. Environment influences the development of character, but doesn’t determine it.

Accordingly, I foresee a positive feedback cycle:

  • With the aid of technological assistance, more people – whatever their circumstances – will be able to strengthen the latent “angelic” parts of their human nature, and to hold in check the latent “diabolic” aspects
  • As a result, at least some citizens will be able to take wiser policy decisions, enabling an improvement in the social and psychological environment
  • The improved environment will, in turn, make it easier for other positive personal transformations to occur – involving a larger number of people, and having a greater impact.

One additional point deserves to be stressed. The environment that influences our behaviour involves not just economic relationships and the landscape of interpersonal connections, but also the set of ideas that fill our minds. To the extent that these ideas give us hope, we can find extra strength to resist the siren pull of our diabolic nature. These ideas can help us focus our attention on positive, life-enhancing activities, rather than letting our minds shrink and our characters deteriorate.

This indicates another contribution of transhumanism to building a comprehensively better future. By painting a clear, compelling image of sustainable abundance, credibly achievable in just a few decades, transhumanism can spark revolutions inside the human heart.

That potential contribution brings us back to similar ideas in FALC. Bastani wishes a populist transformation of the public consciousness, which includes inspiring new ideas for how everyone can flourish in a post-scarcity post-work society.

I’m all in favour of inspiring new ideas. The big question, of course, is whether these new ideas skate over important omissions that will undermine the whole project.

Next steps

I applaud FALC for the way it advances serious discussion about a potentially better future – a potentially much better future – that could be attained in just a few decades.

But just as FALC indicates a reason why communism could not be achieved before the present time, I want to indicate a reason why the FALC project could likewise fail.

Communism was impossible, Bastani says, before the technologies of the Third Disruption provided the means for sufficient abundance of energy, food, education, material goods, and so on. In turn, my view is that communism will be impossible (or unlikely) without attention being paid to the proactive transformation of human nature.

We should not underestimate the potential of the technologies of the Third Disruption. They won’t just provide more energy, food, education, and material goods. They won’t just enable people to have healthier bodies throughout longer lifespans. They will also enable all of us to attain better levels of mental and emotional health – psychological and spiritual wellbeing. If we want it.

That’s why the Abundance 2035 goals on which I am presently working contain a wider set of ambitions than feature in FALC. For example, these goals include aspirations that, by 2035,

  • The fraction of people with mental health problems will be 1% or less
  • Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent.

To join a discussion about the Abundance 2035 goals (and about a set of interim targets to be achieved by 2025), check out this London Futurists event taking place at Newspeak House on Monday 1st July.

To hear FALC author Aaron Bastani in discussion of his ideas, check out this Virtual Futures event, also taking place at Newspeak House, on Tuesday 25th June.

Finally, for an all-round assessment of the relevance of transhumanism to building a (much) better future, check out TransVision 2019, happening at Birkbeck College on the weekend of 6-7 July, where 22 different speakers will be sharing their insights.

7 June 2019

Feedback on what goals the UK should have in mind for 2035

Filed under: Abundance, BHAG, politics, TPUK, vision — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 1:56 pm

Some political parties are preoccupied with short-term matters.

It’s true that many short-term matters demand attention. But we need to take the time to consider, as well, some important longer-term risks and issues.

If we give these longer-term matters too little attention, we may wake up one morning and bitterly regret our previous state of distraction. By then, we may have missed the chance to avoid an enormous setback. It could also be too late to take advantage of what previously was a very positive opportunity.

For these reasons, the Transhumanist Party UK seeks to raise the focus of a number of transformations that could take place in the UK, between now and 2035.

Rather than having a manifesto for the next, say, five years, the Party is developing a vision for the year 2035 – a vision of much greater human flourishing.

It’s a vision in which there will be enough for everyone to have an excellent quality of life. No one should lack access to healthcare, shelter, nourishment, information, education, material goods, social engagement, free expression, or artistic endeavour.

The vision also includes a set of strategies by which the current situation (2019) could be transformed, step by step, into the desired future state (2035).

Key to these strategies is for society to take wise advantage of the remarkable capabilities of twenty-first century science and technology: robotics, biotech, neurotech, greentech, collabtech, artificial intelligence, and much more. These technologies can provide all of us with the means to live better than well – to be healthier and fitter than ever before; nourished emotionally and spiritually as well as physically; and living at peace with ourselves, the environment, and our neighbours both near and far.

Alongside science and technology, there’s a vital role that politics needs to play:

  • Action to encourage the kind of positive collaboration which might otherwise be undermined by free-riders
  • Action to adjust the set of subsidies, incentives, constraints, and legal frameworks under which we all operate
  • Action to protect the citizenry as a whole from the abuse of power by any groups with monopoly or near-monopoly status
  • Action to ensure that the full set of “externalities” (both beneficial and detrimental) of market transactions are properly considered, in a timely manner.

To make this vision more concrete, the Party wishes to identify a set of specific goals for the UK for the year 2035. At present, there are 16 goals under consideration. These goals are briefly introduced in a video:

As you can see, the video invites viewers to give their feedback, by means of an online survey. The survey collects opinions about the various goals: are they good as they stand? Too timid? Too ambitious? A bad idea? Uninteresting? Or something else?

The survey also invites ideas about other goals that should perhaps be added into the mix.

Since the survey has been launched, feedback has been accumulating. I’d like to share some of that feedback now, along with some of my own personal responses.

The most unconditionally popular goal so far

Of the 16 goals proposed, the one which has the highest number of responses “Good as it stands” is Goal 4, “Thanks to innovations in recycling, manufacturing, and waste management, the UK will be zero waste, and will have no adverse impact on the environment.”

(To see the rationale for each goal, along with ideas on measurement, the current baseline, and the strategy to achieve the goal, see the document on the Party website.)

That goal has, so far, been evaluated as “Good as it stands” by 84% of respondents.

One respondent gave this comment:

Legislation and Transparency are equally as important here, to gain the public’s trust that there is actual quantified benefits from this, or rather to de-abstractify recycling and make it more tangible and not just ‘another bin’

My response: succeeding with this goal will involve more than the actions of individuals putting materials into different recycling bins.

Research from the Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified nine “planetary boundaries” where human activity is at risk of pushing the environment into potentially very dangerous states of affairs.

For each of these planetary boundaries, the same themes emerge:

  • Methods are known that would replace present unsustainable practices with sustainable ones.
  • By following these methods, life would be plentiful for all, without detracting in any way from the potential for ongoing flourishing in the longer term.
  • However, the transition from unsustainable to sustainable practices requires overcoming very significant inertia in existing systems.
  • In some cases, what’s also required is vigorous research and development, to turn ideas for new solutions into practical realities.
  • Unfortunately, in the absence of short-term business cases, this research and development fails to receive the investment it requires.

In each case, the solution also follows the same principles. Society as a whole needs to agree on prioritising research and development of various solutions. Society as a whole needs to agree on penalties and taxes that should be applied to increasingly discourage unsustainable practices. And society as a whole needs to provide a social safety net to assist those peoples whose livelihoods are adversely impacted by these changes.

Left to its own devices, the free market is unlikely to reach the same conclusions. Instead, because it fails to assign proper values to various externalities, the market will produce harmful results. Accordingly, these are cases when society as a whole needs to constrain and steer the operation of the free market. In other words, democratic politics needs to exert itself.

2nd equal most popular goals

The 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 7, “There will be no homelessness and no involuntary hunger”, with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. Disagreeing, 11% of respondents judged it as “Too ambitious”. Here’s an excerpt from the proposed strategy to achieve this goal:

The construction industry should be assessed, not just on its profits, but on its provision of affordable, good quality homes.

Consider the techniques used by the company Broad Sustainable Building, when it erected a 57-storey building in Changsha, capital city of Hunan province in China, in just 19 working days. That’s a rate of three storeys per day. Key to that speed was the use of prefabricated units. Other important innovations in construction techniques include 3D printing, robotic construction, inspection by aerial drones, and new materials with unprecedented strength and resilience.

Similar techniques can in principle be used, not just to generate new buildings where none presently exist, but also to refurbish existing buildings – regenerating them from undesirable hangovers from previous eras into highly desirable contemporary accommodation.

With sufficient political desire, these techniques offer the promise that prices for property over the next 16 years might follow the same remarkable downwards trajectory witnessed in many other product areas – such as TVs, LCD screens, personal computers and smartphones, kitchen appliances, home robotics kits, genetic testing services, and many types of clothing…

Finally, a proportion of cases of homelessness arise, not from shortage of available accommodation, but from individuals suffering psychological issues. This element of homelessness will be addressed by the measures reducing mental health problems to less than 1% of the population.

The other 2nd equal most popular goal is Goal 3, “Thanks to improved green energy management, the UK will be carbon-neutral”, also with 74% responses judging it “Good as it stands”. In this case, most of the dissenting opinions (16%) held that the goal is “Too timid” – namely, that carbon neutrality should be achieved before 2035.

For the record, 4th equal in this ranking, with 68% unconditional positive assessment, were:

  • Goal 6: “World-class education to postgraduate level will be freely available to everyone via online access”
  • Goal 16: “The UK will be part of an organisation that maintains a continuous human presence on Mars”

Least popular goals

At the other end of this particular spectrum, three goals are currently tied as having the least popular support in the formats stated: 32%.

This includes Goal 9, “The UK will be part of a global “open borders” community of at least 25% of the earth’s population”. One respondent gave this comment:

Seems absolutely unworkable, would require other countries to have same policy, would have to all be developed countries. Massively problematic and controversial with no link to ideology of transhumanism

And here’s another comment:

No need to work for a living, no homelessness and open borders. What can go wrong?

And yet another:

This can’t happen until wealth/resource distribution is made equitable – otherwise we’d all be crammed in Bladerunner style cities. Not a desirable outcome.

My reply is that the detailed proposal isn’t for unconditional free travel between any two countries, but for a system that includes many checks and balances. As for the relevance to transhumanism, the actual relevance is to the improvement of human flourishing. Freedom of movement opens up many new opportunities. Indeed, migration has been found to have considerable net positive effects on the UK, including productivity, public finances, cultural richness, and individuals’ well-being. Flows of money and ideas in the reverse direction also benefit the original countries of the immigrants.

Another equal bottom goal, by this ranking, is Goal 10, “Voters will no longer routinely assess politicians as self-serving, untrustworthy, or incompetent”. 26% of respondents rated this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “Uninteresting”.

My reply in this case is that politicians in at least some other countries have a higher reputation than in the UK. These countries include Denmark (the top of the list), Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland.

What’s more, a number of practices – combining technological innovation with social innovation – seem capable of increasing the level of trust and respect for politicians:

  • Increased transparency, to avoid any suspicions of hidden motivations or vested interests
  • Automated real-time fact-checking, so that politicians know any distortions of the truth will be quickly pointed out
  • Encouragement of individual politicians with high ethical standards and integrity
  • Enforcement of penalties in cases when politicians knowingly pass on false information
  • Easier mechanisms for the electorate to be able to quickly “recall” a politician when they have lost the trust of voters
  • Improvements in mental health for everyone, including politicians, thereby diminishing tendencies for dysfunctional behaviour
  • Diminished power for political parties to constrain how individual politicians express themselves, allowing more politicians to speak according to their own conscience.

A role can also be explored for regular psychometric assessment of politicians.

The third goal in this grouping of the least popular is Goal 13, “Cryonic suspension will be available to all, on point of death, on the NHS”. 26% of respondents judged this as “Too ambitious”, and 11% as “A bad idea”. One respondent commented “Why not let people die when they are ready?” and other simply wrote “Mad shit”.

It’s true that there currently are many factors that discourage people from signing up for cryonics preservation. These include costs, problems arranging transport of the body overseas to a location where the storage of bodies is legal, the perceived low likelihood of a subsequent successful reanimation, lack of evidence of reanimation of larger biological organs, dislike of appearing to be a “crank”, apprehension over tension from family members (exacerbated if family members expect to inherit funds that are instead allocated to cryopreservation services), occasional mistrust over the motives of the cryonics organisations (which are sometimes alleged – with no good evidence – to be motivated by commercial considerations), and uncertainty over which provider should be preferred.

However, I foresee a big change in the public mindset when there’s a convincing demonstration of successful reanimation of larger biological organisms or organ. What’s more, as in numerous other fields of life, costs will decline and quality increase as the total number of experiences of a product or service increases. These are known as scale effects.

Goals receiving broad support

Now let’s consider a different ranking, when the votes for “Good as it stands” and “Too timid” are added together. This indicates strong overall support for the idea of the goal, with the proviso that many respondents would prefer a more aggressive timescale.

Actually this doesn’t change the results much. Compared to the goals already covered, there’s only one new entrant in the top 5, namely at position 3, with a combined positive rating of 84%. That’s for Goal 1, “The average healthspan in the UK will be at least 90 years”. 42% rated this “Good as it stands” and another 42% rated it as “Too timid”.

For the record, top equal by this ranking were Goal 3 (74% + 16%) and Goal 4 (84% + 5%).

The only other goal with a “Too timid” rating of greater than 30% was Goal 15, “Fusion will be generating at least 1% of the energy used in the UK” (32%).

The goals most actively disliked

Here’s yet another way of viewing the data: the goals which had the largest number of “A bad idea” responses.

By this measure, the goal most actively disliked (with 21% judging it “A bad idea”) was Goal 11, “Parliament will involve a close partnership with a ‘House of AI’ (or similar) revising chamber”. One respondent commented they were “wary – AI could be Stalinist in all but name in their goal setting and means”.

My reply: To be successful, the envisioned House of AI will need the following support:

  • All algorithms used in these AI systems need to be in the public domain, and to pass ongoing reviews about their transparency and reliability
  • Opaque algorithms, or other algorithms whose model of operation remain poorly understood, need to be retired, or evolved in ways addressing their shortcomings
  • The House of AI will not be dependent on any systems owned or operated by commercial entities; instead, it will be “AI of the people, by the people, for the people”.

Public funding will likely need to be allocated to develop these systems, rather than waiting for commercial companies to create them.

The second most actively disliked goal was Goal 5, “Automation will remove the need for anyone to earn money by working” (16%). Here are three comments from respondents:

Unlikely to receive support, most people like the idea of work. Plus there’s nothing the party can do to achieve this automation, depends on tech progress. UBI could be good.

What will be the purpose of humans?

It removes the need to work because their needs are being met by…. what? Universal Basic Income? Automation by itself cuts out the need for employers to pay humans to do the work but it doesn’t by itself ensure that people’s need will be met otherwise.

I’ve written on this topic many times in the past – including in Chapter 4, “Work and purpose “of my previous book, “Transcending Politics” (audio recording available here). There absolutely are political actions which can be taken, to accelerate the appropriate technological innovations, and to defuse the tensions that will arise if the fruits of technological progress end up dramatically increasing the inequality levels in society.

Note, by the way, that this goal does not focus on bringing in a UBI. There’s a lot more to it than that.

Clearly there’s work to be done to improve the communication of the underlying ideas in this case!

Goals that are generally unpopular

For a final way of ranking the data, let’s add together the votes for “A bad idea” and “Too ambitious”. This indicates ideas which are generally unpopular, in their current form of expression.

Top of this ranking, with 42%, is Goal 8, “The crime rate will have been reduced by at least 90%”. Indeed, the 42% all judged this goal as “Too ambitious”. One comment received was

Doesn’t seem within the power of any political party to achieve this, except a surveillance state

Here’s an excerpt of the strategy proposed to address this issue:

The initiatives to improve mental health, to eliminate homelessness, and to remove the need to work to earn an income, should all contribute to reducing the social and psychological pressures that lead to criminal acts.

However, even if only a small proportion of the population remain inclined to criminal acts, the overall crime rate could still remain too high. That’s because small groups of people will be able to take advantage of technology to carry out lots of crime in parallel – via systems such as “ransomware as a service” or “intelligent malware as a service”. The ability of technology to multiply human power means that just a few people with criminal intent could give rise to large amounts of crime.

That raises the priority for software systems to be highly secure and reliable. It also raises the priority of intelligent surveillance of the actions of people who might carry out crimes. This last measure is potentially controversial, since it allows part of the state to monitor citizens in a way that could be considered deeply intrusive. For this reason, access to this surveillance data will need to be restricted to trustworthy parts of the overall public apparatus – similar to the way that doctors are trusted with sensitive medical information. In turn, this highlights the importance of initiatives that increase the trustworthiness of key elements of our national infrastructure.

On a practical basis, initiatives to understand and reduce particular types of crime should be formed, starting with the types of crime (such as violent crime) that have the biggest negative impact on people’s lives.

Second in this ranking of general unpopularity, at 37%, is Goal 13, on cryonics, already mentioned above.

Third, at 32%, is Goal 11, on the House of AI, also already mentioned.

Suggestions for other goals

Respondents offered a range of suggestions for other goals that should be included. Here are a sample, along with brief replies from me:

Economic growth through these goals needs to be quantified somehow.

I’m unconvinced that economic growth needs to be prioritised. Instead, what’s important is agreement on a more appropriate measure to replace the use of GDP. That could be a good goal to consider.

Support anti-ageing research, gene editing research, mind uploading tech, AI alignment research, legalisation of most psychedelics

In general the goals have avoided targeting technology for technology’s sake. Instead, technology is introduced only because it supports the goals of improved overall human flourishing.

I think there should be a much greater focus in our education system on developing critical thinking skills, and a more interdisciplinary approach to subjects should be considered. Regurgitating information is much less important in a technologically advanced society where all information is a few clicks away and our schooling should reflect that.

Agreed: the statement of the education goal should probably be reworded to take these points into account.

A new public transport network; Given advances in technology regarding AI and electrical vehicles, a goal on par with others you’ve listed here would be to develop a transport system to replace cars with a decentralised public transportation network, whereby ownership of cars is replaced with the use of automated vehicles on a per journey basis, thus promoting better use of resources and driving down pollution, alongside hopefully reducing vehicular incidents.

That’s an interesting suggestion. I wonder how others think about it?

Routine near-earth asteroid mining to combat earthside resource depletion.

Asteroid mining is briefly mentioned in Goal 4, on recycling and zero waste.

Overthrow of capitalism and class relations.

Ah, I would prefer to transcend capitalism than to overthrow it. I see two mirror problems in discussing the merits of free markets: pro-market fundamentalism, and anti-market fundamentalism. I say a lot more on that topic in Chapter 9, Markets and fundamentalism”, of my book “Transcending Politics”.

The right to complete freedom over our own bodies should be recognised in law. We should be free to modify our bodies and minds through e.g. implants, drugs, software, bioware, as long as there is no significant risk of harm to others.

Yes, I see the value of including such a goal. We’ll need work to explore what’s meant by “risk of harm to others”.

UK will be part of the moon-shot Human WBE [whole brain emulation] project after being successful in supporting the previous Mouse WBE moon-shot project.

Yes, that’s an interesting suggestion too. Personally I see the WBE project as being longer-term, but hey, that may change!

Achieving many of the laudable goals rests on reshaping the current system of capitalism, but that itself is not a goal. It should be.

I’m open to suggestions for wording on this, to make it measurable.

Deaths due to RTA [road traffic accidents] cut to near zero

That’s another interesting suggestion. But it may not be on the same level as some of the existing ones. I’m open to feedback here!

Next steps

The Party is very grateful for the general feedback received so far, and looks forward to receiving more!

Discussion can also take place on the Party’s Discourse, https://discourse.transhumanistparty.org.uk/. Anyone is welcome to create an account on that site and become involved in the conversations there.

Some parts of the Discourse are reserved for paid-up members of the Party. It will be these members who take the final decisions as to which goals to prioritise.

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