dw2

20 April 2010

Creative chaos under the ash cloud

Filed under: challenge, chaos, Humanity Plus, precautionary principle, risks, volcano — David Wood @ 11:45 pm

Seven months of careful planning looked like they were unravelling, in the final seven days.

Discussions about a gathering of futurist and transhumanist thinkers in London’s Conway Hall, on April 24th, have been underway for seven months.  Behind the scenes, we’ve had a planning wiki, a mailing list, and a small group of volunteers each chipping in with suggestions and undertaking different tasks.  A website for the event went live on 19th January, and we started taking registrations a week after that.  Registrations built up, and up, so that I could finally feel comfortable putting my name to the following quote on a press release we issued, “Unprecedented gathering of futurist and transhumanist thinkers in London“:

The UK chapter of Humanity+, an organisation dedicated to promoting understanding, interest and participation in fields of emerging innovation that can radically benefit the human condition, announced today that registrations are on track for record attendance at the Humanity+ UK2010 conference taking place in Conway Hall, Holborn, London, on April 24th.

“Approaching 200 attendees are expected to take part in a full day of thought-provoking lectures, discussions, Q&A, and breakouts, led by a line-up of world class futurist speakers”, said David Wood, H+UK meetings secretary.  “Participants have registered from as far afield as Poland, Sweden, Croatia, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, and the USA.  The Humanity+ movement, previously known as the World Transhumanist Association, is coming of age.”…

However, on the very day of the press release, airplane flight restrictions were announced, for fear of damage from volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland.

At first, I wasn’t particularly worried.  I thought that only three of the ten speakers were overseas, and that there would be plenty of time for flights to resume before the conference.

But the speakers are actors on the global stage, much in demand around the world.  And I gradually learned that no fewer than six of the ten were stranded overseas – in Venice, Montreal, San Francisco, and so on.  And the airplane flight restrictions kept getting extended.  My heart sunk.

I half-imagined that nature was saying:

You Humanity+ people think you can do ‘better than nature‘. Pah!  Take that!

What depressed me most was that initial tests at the venue had already suggested that Internet connectivity in Conway Hall was poor.  So ideas of speakers delivering their presentations via video link seemed impractical.

But necessity is the mother of invention.  Since there was a real possibility that members of both speakers and audience wouldn’t be able to travel to London, we were obliged to reconsider options for Internet connectivity.  And this gives us the possibility for the meeting to rise above being a London-based event, into a happening with a real-time online presence.

I tweeted: What’s the best way to install, for one day, a temporary high bandwidth connection to a conference venue (in London, UK)?

Answers came, fast and varied.  With help from a couple of people from the H+UK event planning team, I followed up about half a dozen different ideas.  The Conway Hall administrators also proved very flexible and helpful.  In a way, it’s still too early to say, but it now looks as though we’re set up:

  • To support remote speakers doing Skype video calls into the event, with the screen on stage showing, sometimes their face, and sometimes their slides;
  • And, to broadcast a live video stream of the event, on a service such as Ustream.tv.

So maybe technology can work around the ravages of nature after all! (At least in small scale.  And, in the decades ahead, in ever larger scale.)

The ash cloud raises other questions relevant to transhumanism – especially how to deal with risk.

One moment, I was in email correspondence about conference logistics with the opening keynote speaker for the event, Max More.  Max is on public record as being critical of the precautionary principleA few moments later, I was watching the BBC news, where a “Cambridge volcano scientist” (I didn’t catch his name) was explaining that there’s something called the precautionary principle which means that aircraft flights through the ash cloud had to be forbidden.  My mind did a quick double take.

To back up: Wikipedia describes the precautionary principle as follows:

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.

This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is evidence of potential harm in the absence of complete scientific proof. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

In his 2005 article “THE PROACTIONARY PRINCIPLE“, Max offers the following criticisms of the precautionary principle:

The precautionary principle has at least six major weak spots. It serves us badly by:

  1. assuming worst-case scenarios
  2. distracting attention from established threats to health, especially natural risks
  3. assuming that the effects of regulation and restriction are all positive or neutral, never negative
  4. ignoring potential benefits of technology and inherently favoring nature over humanity
  5. illegitimately shifting the burden of proof and unfavorably positioning the proponent of the activity
  6. conflicting with more balanced, common-law approaches to risk and harm.

What should we conclude about the wisdom of shutting down the airspace above the UK, on precautionary grounds?  That’s a good question to ask.  If you take part in the event this Saturday, you’ll have the chance to ask Max himself about that point.  (Especially since it now appears the airplanes are flying again, after all.)

Footnote: while writing this blog, I came across, for the first time, Max’s fine 1999 essay “A Letter to Mother Nature“.  It’s well worth reading.  Here’s how it starts:

Dear Mother Nature:

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

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

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

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

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

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