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2 August 2021

Follow-ups from the future of Transhumanist Studies

Last Saturday’s London Futurists event experimented with the format.

After the by-now usual 90 minutes of speaker presentation and moderated Q&A, and a five-minute comfort break, the event transitioned into a new phase with informal on-camera audience discussion. Audience members who stayed on for this part of the meeting were all transformed from webinar viewers into panellists, and invited to add their voices into the discussion. Questions to seed the discussion were:

  • What did you particularly like about what you have heard?
  • What would you like to add into the discussion?
  • What might you suggest as a follow-up after the event?

The topic for the event as a whole was “The Future of Transhumanist Studies”. The speaker was Natasha Vita-More, the executive director of Humanity+. Natasha kindly agreed to stay on for the informal phase of the event and provided more insight in that phase too.

I’m appending, below, a copy of the video recording of the main part of the event. What I want to share now are my personal take-aways from the informal discussion phase. (That part wasn’t recorded, but I took notes.)

1. The importance of increments

Transhumanism has a vision of a significantly better future for humanity.

To be clear, it’s not a vision of some kind of perfection – some imagined state in which no change ever happens. Instead, it’s a vision of an open, dynamic journey forward. Max More has written eloquently about that point on many occasions over the years. See in particular the Principles of Extropy (v3.11) from 2003. Or this short summary from the chapter “True Transhumanism” in the 2011 book H+/-: Transhumanism and Its Critics:

Transhumanism is about continual improvement, not perfection or paradise.

Transhumanism is about improving nature’s mindless “design”, not guaranteeing perfect technological solutions.

Transhumanism is about morphological freedom, not mechanizing the body.

Transhumanism is about trying to shape fundamentally better futures, not predicting specific futures.

Transhumanism is about critical rationalism, not omniscient reason.

What arose during the discussion on Saturday were questions about possible incremental next steps along that envisioned journey.

In part, these were questions about what science and technology might be able to deliver in the next 2, 5, 10 years, and so on. It’s important to be able to speak in a credible manner about these possible developments, and to offer evidence supporting these forecasts.

But there were also questions about specific actions that transhumanists might be able to take in the coming months and years to improve public awareness of key transhumanist ideas.

One panellist posed the question as follows:

What are the immediate logical next steps across the Transhumanist agenda that could [achieve wider impact]?

The comment continued:

The problem I see with roadmaps generally… is that people always look at the end of the roadmap and think about the end point, not the incremental journey… People start planning around the final slide/item on the roadmap instead of buying into the bits in between while expecting everyone else to do the work to get us there. That usually results in people not buying the incremental steps which of course stifles progress.

That thought resonated with other participants. One added:

This is a crucial idea. A sense of urgency is hard to engender in long term issues.

I am reminded of the excellent analysis by Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter. Kotter has probably done more than anyone else to understand why change initiatives frequently fail – even when the people involved in these initiatives have many admirable qualities. Here are the eight reasons he identifies for change initiatives failing:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management reorgs can unravel the progress made).

Kotter’s positive suggestions for avoiding these failures can be summed up in a slide I’ve used in various forms many times in my presentations over the years:

That brings me back to the topic of incremental change – envisioning it, communicating it, enabling it, and celebrating it. If that’s not done, any sense of urgency and momentum behind a change initiative is likely to falter and stall.

That’s why a credible roadmap of potential incremental changes is such an important tool.

Watch out for more news on that front soon.

2. Transhumanism becoming mainstream

Here’s another line of discussion from the informal conversation at the end of Saturday’s event.

Many members of the public, if they know about transhumanism at all, tend to see it as other worldly. It’s the subject of science fiction, or something that might appear in eccentric video games. But it’s not something relevant to the real world any time soon.

Or they might think of transhumanism as something for academics to debate, using abstract terminology such as post-modernism, post-humanism, and (yes) trans-humanism. Again, not something with any real-world implications.

To transhumanists, on the other hand, the subject is highly relevant. It’s relevant to the lives of individuals, as it covers treatments and methods that can be applied, here and now, to improve our wellbeing – physically, rationally, emotionally, and socially. It can also provide an uplifting vision that transforms our understanding of our own personal role in steering a forthcoming mega-disruption.

Moreover, transhumanism is relevant to the real-world problems that, understandably, cause a great deal of concern – problems about the environment, social interactions, economics and politics, and the runaway adoption of technology.

As Albert Einstein said in 1946, “a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move to higher levels”.

My own view is that transhumanism is the “new kind of thinking” that is, indeed, “essential” if we are to avoid the many dangerous landmines into which humanity currently risks sleepwalking.

That’s a core message of my recent book Vital Foresight: The Case For Active Transhumanism.

In that book, I emphasise that transhumanism isn’t some other worldly idea that’s in search of a question to answer. Instead, I introduce transhumanism as the solution of what I describe as eleven “landmines”.

Snippets of ideas about transhumanism are included in the early chapters of my book, but it’s not until Chapter 11 that I introduce the subject properly. That was a deliberate choice. I want to be clear that transhumanism can be seen as the emerging mainstream response to real-world issues and opportunities.

3. Academics who write about transhumanism

In some parts of the world, there are more people who study and write about transhumanism than who actively support transhumanist projects. That was another topic at the end of Saturday’s London Futurists event.

From my own reading, I recognise some of that academic work as being of high quality. For example, see the research of Professor Stefan Lorenz Sorgner from the History and Humanities department at John Cabot University in Rome. Sorgner featured in a London Futurists webinar a few months ago.

Another example of fine academic research into transhumanism is the 2018 PhD thesis of Elise Bohan of Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia: A History of Transhumanism.

On the other hand, there’s also a considerable amount of academic writing on transhumanism that is, frankly, of a shockingly poor quality. I stepped through some of that writing while preparing Chapter 12 of Vital Foresight – the chapter (“Antitheses”) where I evaluate criticisms of transhumanism.

What these critics often do is to imagine their own fantasy version of transhumanism, and then criticise it, with little anchoring to the actual transhumanist community. That is, they criticise “straw men” distortions of transhumanism.

In some cases, these critics latch onto individual statements of people loosely connected with transhumanism – for example, statements by the fictional character Jethro Knights in the novel The Transhumanist Wager – and wrongly assume that these statements are authoritative for the entire movement. (See here for my own review of The Transhumanist Wager.)

These critics often assert: “What transhumanists fail to consider is…” or “Transhumanists never raise the question that…” whereas, in fact, these very questions have been reviewed in depth, many times over, in transhumanist discussion lists.

From time to time, critics of transhumanism do raise some good points. I acknowledge a number of examples throughout Vital Foresight. What I want to consider now are the questions that were raised on Saturday:

  1. How can transhumanists keep on top of the seemingly growing number of academic articles about us?
  2. What is the best way to respond to the misunderstandings and distortions that we notice?
  3. As a good use for our time, how do interactions with these academics compare with trying to share transhumanist messages with more mainstream audiences?

To answer the third question first: ideas matter. Ideas can spread from initially obscure academic settings into wider contexts. Keeping an eye on these discussions could help us to address issues early.

Moreover, what we can surely find, in amongst the range of academic work that addresses transhumanism, are some really good expressions and thoughts that deserve prominence and attention. These thoughts might also cause us to have some “aha” realisations – about things we could, or should, start to do differently.

Flipping to the first question: many hands make light work. Rather than relying on a single person that tries to review all academic mentions of transhumanism, more of us should become involved in that task.

When we find an article that deserves more attention – whether criticism or praise – we can add it into pages on H+Pedia (creating new pages if necessary).

The main event

Now you’ve read the after thoughts, here’s a recording of the event itself. Enjoy!

22 December 2012

Symbian retrospective: hits and misses

Filed under: More Than Smartphones, Nokia, Psion, retrospection, Symbian, Symbian Story — David Wood @ 12:19 pm

As another calendar year draws to a close, it’s timely to reflect on recent “hits” and “misses” – what went well, and what went less well.

In my case, I’m in the midst of a much longer reflection process, surveying not just the past calendar year, but the entire history (and pre-history) of Symbian – the company that played a significant role in kick-starting the smartphone phenomenon, well before anyone had ever heard of “iPhone” or “Android”. I’m channeling my thoughts into a new book that I’m in the midst of writing, “More than smartphones”. The working subtitle is “Learning from Symbian…”

I’ve got no shortage of source material to draw on – including notes in my electronic diary that go all the way back to January 1992. As I note in my current draft of the introductory chapter,

My analysis draws on an extensive set of notes I’ve taken throughout two decades of leadership positions in and around Symbian – including many notes written in the various Psion PDA organisers that have been my constant electronic companions over these years. These Psion devices have been close to my heart, in more than one sense.

Indeed, the story of Symbian is deeply linked with that of Psion, its original parent. Psion and Symbian were both headquartered in London and shared many of the same personnel…

The PDAs that Psion brought to market in the 1980s and 1990s were the mobile game-changers of their day, generating (albeit on a smaller scale) the same kind of industry buzz as would later manifest around new smartphone releases. Psion PDAs were also the precursors for much of the functionality that subsequently re-emerged in smartphones, satellite navigation products, and other smart mobile devices.

My own Psion electronic diary possibly ranks among the longest continuously maintained personal electronic agendas in the world. The oldest entry in it is at 2.30pm on Friday 31st January, 1992. That entry reads “Swedes+Danes Frampton St”. Therein lies a tale.

At that time, Psion’s commercial departments were located in a building in Frampton Street, in central London, roughly midway between the Edgware Road and Maida Vale tube stations. Psion’s technical teams were located in premises in Harcourt Street, about 15 minutes distance by walking. In 1992, the Psion Series 3a PDA was in an early stage of development, and I was trialling its new Agenda application – an application whose UI and rich set of views were being built by a team under my direction. In parallel, discussions were proceeding with representatives from several overseas distributors and partners, about the process to create versions of Psion PDAs for different languages: German, French, Italian, Spanish… and Swedish and Danish…

As the person who assembled and integrated all the files for different software versions, I met the leads of the teams doing the various translations. That day, 31st January 1992, more than 20 years ago, was among my first meetings with work professionals from the Nordic countries.

I recall that we discussed features such as keyboards that would cater for the additional characters of the Danish and Swedish alphabets, like ‘å’ and ‘ø’. I had no inkling in 1992 that professionals from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland (including employees of mobile phone juggernauts Ericsson and Nokia) would come to have such a far-reaching influence on the evolution of the software which was at that time being designed for the Series 3a. Nor could I foresee the subsequent 20 year evolution of my electronic agenda file:

  • Through numerous pieces of Series 3a hardware
  • Via the Series 3c successor to the Series 3a, with its incrementally improved hardware and software systems
  • Via a one-time migration process to a new data format, for the 32-bit Series 5, which could cope with much larger applications, and with much larger data files (the Series 3 family used a 16-bit architecture)
  • Into the Series 5mx successor of the Series 5
  • Through numerous pieces of Series 5mx hardware – all of which give (in their “About” screen) 1999 as the year of their creation; when one piece of hardware ceases to work, because, say, of problems with the screen display or the hinge mechanism, I transfer the data onto another in my possession…

Why 1999 is the end of this particular run of changes is a fascinating tale in its own right. It’s just one of many fascinating tales that surround the changing fortunes of the players in the Symbian story…

Step forwards from chapter one to the penultimate chapter, “Symbian retrospective”. This is where I’d welcome some extra input from readers of this blog, to complement and refine my own thinking.

This is the first of two retrospective chapters that draw conclusions from the episodes explored in preceding pages. In this chapter, I look at the following questions:

  • Out of all the choices over the years made by the players at the heart of the Symbian world, which ones were the most significant?
  • Of these choices, which were the greatest hits, and which the greatest misses?
  • With the advantage of hindsight, what are the different options that could credibly have been pursued which would have had the greatest impact on Symbian success or failure?

So far, my preliminary outline for that chapter lists a total of twenty hits and misses. Some examples of the hits:

  • Create Symbian with a commercial basis (not a “customers’ cooperative”)
  • Support from multiple key long-term investors (especially Nokia)
  • Enable significant differentiation (including network operator customisation)
  • Focus on performance and stability

And some examples of the misses:

  • Failure to appreciate the importance of the mobile web browser
  • Tolerating Symbian platform fragmentation
  • Failure to provide a CDMA solution
  • Failure to merge Nokia S60 and Symbian

My question for readers of this blogpost is: What would be in your list (say, 1-3 items) of the top hits and misses of decisions made by Symbian?

Footnote: Please accept some delays in your comments appearing. WordPress may hold them in a queue awaiting my review and approval. But I’m in a part of the world with great natural beauty and solitude, where the tour guides request that we all leave our wireless communication devices behind on the ship when we land for the daily excursions. Normally I would have balked at that very idea, but there are times and places when multi-tasking has to stop!

28 February 2009

Ambushed

Filed under: communications, fun, retrospection — David Wood @ 1:16 pm

The invitation made good sense to me:

Apologies for the short notice but are you free tomorrow afternoon [Friday] after 3pm to meet with us to provide your feedback on MWC please? It should only take 30 mins or so.

It would be a chance to discuss with the Symbian Foundation marcomms team my reflections on our activities at the Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona the previous week: what had gone well, where there was room to improve, what we should try to do differently at future events, and so on. As a big fan of the practice of retrospection, I was happy to carve out 30 minutes in my diary for this purpose.

As I climbed up the stairs to the first floor of #1 Boundary Row – where the marcomms team sits – I briefly rehearsed my thoughts. I had many positive recollections of how everyone had prepared for and then supported the Symbian Foundation presence at Barcelona. (My main negative observation was that the music in the party was, at times, a bit too loud, and impeded networking conversations.)

But when I came into the room, Anatolie Papas asked me to review a press release. I could see there were lots of quotes on it. Then I noticed the title of the release:

DW 2.0 TURNS 5.0

SLIGHTLY BELATED BIRTHDAY PRESS RELEASE FOR IMMEDIATE DISTRIBUTION!

The man who helped put the ‘smart’ in ‘smartphone’ celebrates his half century and becomes a friendly spaceman

and I realised I was being ambushed – but in a very pleasant way!

Then a cake materialised, magnificently decorated with what is becoming an increasingly familiar picture:

A knife and forks appeared, and we collectively set to dividing up the cake and eating it. It was particuarly yummy! (The marcomms team get the credit for the design of the cake, but the manufacture was apparently by Konditor and Cook.)

The endorsements on the “press release” left me (unusually) lost for words. I won’t repeat the endorsements here – that would be far too indulgent – but I do nominate Bruce Carney (from Symbian’s Foster City office) as the provider of the geekiest quote:

“Congratulations on your 0x32nd birthday and thank you for your tireless contribution to get Symbian to where it is today; ready for the most exciting decade in all of our lives; the ‘Internet without wires’”, said Bruce Carney, Symbian^h^h^h^h^h^h^h Nokia.

The upbeat creativity that shone through this “press release” gives me all the more reason to be confident that this team will continue to devise and deliver suberb market communications as the rest of the Symbian Foundation accelerates into top gear over the months ahead.

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