This page contains Chapter 3 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist manifesto for the 2020s and beyond
Note: The text of this chapter of the Manifesto is draft and is presently undergoing regular revision.
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3. Beyond technology
The project to advance into the era of sustainable superabundance depends critically on technology. However, it needs more than technology. Technology is not enough. That’s for two reasons.
First, any given piece of technology is capable of misuse as well as use. The more powerful the technology, the greater the potential for misuse (whether intentional or unintentional).
Second, before a piece of technology can live up to its positive potential, it needs to be researched, developed, and deployed. These steps can be delayed – perhaps indefinitely – on account of intellectual obstacles, financial obstacles, institutional obstacles, philosophical obstacles, social obstacles, and political obstacles.
In short, just because it would rationally be the right thing for society to do, to support the development and deployment of a given piece of transformational technology, it’s by no means inevitable that this implementation will happen.
What more is needed, beyond technology – and beyond an earnest appeal to rationality?
This Manifesto envisions vital roles being played by politics, by free market forces, and by targeted investment – not in their present forms, but in significantly improved forms.
Beyond present-day politics
Politics is the management of power within a society. If we dislike how power is being exerted in society, we need to turn to politics.
Unfortunately, politics has often been a hindrance to positive technological progress. Politicians, wittingly and unwittingly, have imposed unnecessary legal restrictions, elevated doctrinaire ideologues over evidence-minded pragmatists, created distractions that divert public attention, and re-routed funds from deserving causes to gravy train projects. As tensions rise in the run-up to the 2020s, politics poses increased risks of seismic social destabilisation, as politicians continue to pursue ill-advised policies, hold fast to outdated worldviews, and promote (wittingly and unwittingly) incivility and outrage.
But there’s no inherent reason for politics to be so dysfunctional. We can, and must, do better.
When done well, politics is the mechanism for the democratic self-oversight of society. When done well, politics holds to account society’s leaders and would-be leaders.
When done well, politics orchestrates collective action to prevent subsets of society exerting undue control over the populace as a whole. These subsets, which can be likened to potential cancers afflicting (if unchecked) the body of society, include corporate monopolies or cartels, banking dynasties, media tycoons and their empires, and “complexes” of overlapping business, military, and political interests. These subsets also include authoritarian politicians who seek to wield power freed from the overall checks and balances of democratic institutions.
When done well, politics involves wise, well-informed collective decisions about which new technologies and other social innovations should be restricted or steered, and which should be incentivised or encouraged. When done well, politics also ensures that such decisions are carried through, and are revised in a timely manner whenever necessary.
But if politics remains in its present dysfunctional state, all bets are off, regarding whether technology is deployed for the benefit of the few or the benefit of the many. All bets are off, regarding whether important safety considerations for disruptive innovations are recklessly sidelined or prudently reviewed. All bets are off, regarding which sets of interests dominate decision-making, and which priorities receive tangible support. All bets are off, regarding what kind of future will transpire – a future of human diminution and alienation, or a future of human flourishing and exultation.
We can, and must, do better. With the growing application of collective transhumanist intelligence, politics can become a powerful force for the collective good. Invigorated by the blossoming of superdemocracy (to be described below), politics can learn to hold obstructionist forces at bay. Public institutions, which have operated on far too many previous occasions for the benefit of just a narrow subset of society, can be reconfigured and revitalised to operate instead for the benefit of society as a whole.
Beyond present-day democracy
One major difficulty, of course, is in determining which actions will truly advance the collective good of society. To which reputed experts, or groups of experts, should we listen? When there are disputes and disagreements, should we give equal credence to every different opinion? Should a majority vote determine the best policies, with electoral popularity being taken as a paramount sign of worthiness?
As a method to make decisions, democratic voting is far from perfect. Simple votes of the electorate suffer from a number of troubling drawbacks. Electors are often ill-informed. Having little incentive to research issues objectively, electors can be badly misled by misinformation. Electors may feel pressured to cast an inauthentic tactical vote for an option other than their own first choice, for fear that their first choice vote would be “wasted”. In some cases, electors are bribed, directly or indirectly, to vote in particular ways. Once in power, political parties can stifle further discussion by portraying their electoral mandates as an inviolable “voice of the people”, regardless if new information emerges that throws doubt on the wisdom of that choice.
In the light of such drawbacks, it is little wonder that some critics have called for a diminution of democracy – for a reduction of the reliance society puts into gaining electoral approval from voters.
However, consider instead the concept of “superdemocracy”.
Superdemocracy involves, not just a one-time simple vote, but an informed deliberation among electors before any top-level decision is taken. In such a deliberation, the most important insights should have a fair chance to rise to wider attention, rather than being drowned out or distorted (as frequently happens in present-day elections) by the loud voices of vested interests who are opposed to these viewpoints.
In such a deliberation, new ideas can emerge over time, integrating insights from positions that were previously opposed to each other. The result is no mere “average” of the initial viewpoints – some lowest common denominator – but a higher synthesis that arises from a dynamic, constructive, conversation, and which attains wider buy-in as a result.
These improvements in political discussion will arise, in part from changes in style and process, in part from adoption of new technological tools, and, critically, from voters taking advantage, as individuals and also as groups, of transhumanist boosts to their all-round intelligence and all-round creativity.
Beyond lowest common denominator voting
A key concept of superdemocratic decision-making is that, as far as possible, the set of considerations pertinent to the decision should be made public, in ways accessible to the general population. This openness allows fuller scrutiny of the arguments taking place, and encourages the introduction into the debate of a wider number of perspectives.
Indeed, the scrutiny of these arguments can benefit, not just from contributions from multiple human perspectives, but from reviews carried out by increasingly capable systems of artificial intelligence – reviews that can highlight underlying tensions between different ideas, and suggest novel syntheses.
Furthermore, superdemocracy upholds the concept of delegated voting, via systems such as “liquid democracy” that enable citizens to delegate their votes in specified areas of debate to people whom they trust in these areas. In case someone changes their mind, delegations can be revoked or reassigned at any time.
Liquid democracy is a tech-enabled improvement to those parliamentary systems in which a single elected member of parliament is meant to represent the voter in all areas of debate. With liquid democracy, representation is no longer an all-or-nothing affair. Accordingly, liquid democracy moves away from the unhelpful fiction that politicians are supposed to have been elected to carry out every nook and cranny of their election manifesto. It enables a set of approvals and affirmations that is much more fine-grained – an ongoing dynamic conversation with nuance and creativity.
To summarise, we should avoid overreacting to present-day examples of apparently irrational behaviours by individual voters. We should resist any attempt to diminish the influence of these voters over public decisions. Rather than seeking less democracy, we should demand better democracy. We should look forward to improvements in the reasoning capabilities of all voters – at both individual and group levels – and to a politics that is less confrontational and more creative.
With voters more informed and more engaged, our politicians will be obliged in turn to become more informed and more responsive – responsive, not to manipulation by ulterior vested interests, but to the increasingly lucid voice of the citizenry. Better politics will arise in parallel with better voters.
Beyond right and left
Here’s one important example of politics becoming less confrontational and more creative.
The journey to better politics involves respecting and integrating important insights from both the traditional right wing of politics and the traditional left wing of politics.
Traditional right wingers are correct to point to the many positive accomplishments of free markets, to mistrust the potential over-reach of politicians and career civil servants, to wish to uphold as much individual freedom as possible, to prefer to minimise undue state intervention, and to admire the marvels that can be achieved by competitive-minded self-made individuals.
Traditional left wingers are correct to point to the many positive accomplishments of the welfare system safety net, to mistrust the actions of profit-seeking corporations and financial speculators, to wish to uphold as much social solidarity as possible, to prefer to increase equality of opportunity, and to admire the marvels that can be achieved by collaboration-minded progressive coalitions.
Rather than a hostile battle between such positions, let’s ensure that a spirit of constructive exploration prevails. The goal is not the triumph of “our side”. It is the attainment of sustainable superabundance for all.
Beyond the free market
A competitive free market in goods and services often encourages significant improvements in the utility, attractiveness, performance, and affordability of these goods and services, in ways that benefit purchasers of these goods and services. Free markets have stimulated and facilitated remarkable innovation and enterprise. As an example, modern supermarkets are one of the marvels of the world, being stocked from the floor to the ceiling with all kinds of items to improve the quality of daily life. People around the world have access to a vast variety of all-round nourishment and experience that would have astonished their great grandparents.
However, there are circumstances in which markets cease to be open to new competitors, and in effect become cartels or monopolies. In these cases, when barriers to new entrants are too high, free markets can no longer be relied upon to produce the best improvements in goods and services.
Free markets can also be distorted by the imposition of rules or standards that unfairly favour incumbent providers; in such cases, industry regulators are said to have been “captured” by vested interests.
What’s more, markets often neglect to properly consider so-called “externalities”, such as impacts (either positive or negative) of products on the environment, public knowledge, public infrastructure, and public health.
For all these reasons, goods and services that deliver the highest short-term financial returns to investors aren’t necessarily those which would maximise increases in human flourishing. One example is that pharmaceutical companies often turn away from developing drugs for the “neglected” diseases that afflict only people in low-income regions of the world. Another example is that it can be more profitable to repeatedly sell people drugs that keep them in a state of semi-invalidity, than to develop a comprehensive one-off cure for their condition. Barriers to newcomers entering an industry can mean that incumbents avoid competitive pressures from would-be market disruptors.
Accordingly, let’s avoid raising the free market onto any pedestal in which it would be beyond criticism. Democratic supervision of the free market should seek to avoid any large negative effects of free markets, without undermining the positive capabilities of these markets.
After all, the marketplace is a kind of technology, and conforms to the general pattern of technologies, having both positive and negative potential. The task of gaining the positive benefits without a surfeit of negative results is far from simple, and requires regular assessment and review, freed from ideological prejudice.
Beyond corporate financing
On many occasions, the goals of profit-seeking corporations align with the goals of accelerating human flourishing. But on other occasions, the goals diverge – especially when a project to improve an element of human flourishing would require large investment. Private financiers are, understandably, reluctant to undertake long-term, patient investment of risky projects which may provide them with little specific opportunities for direct commercial payback. The result is the “tragedy of the commons”: resources from which everyone would benefit, fail to receive the care, replenishment, or new financing they deserve.
For this reason, it has generally been public bodies that have led the way in investing in basic science and underlying technology. Initiatives such as the Manhattan project, the Apollo moonshot, the foundations for the Internet, the original network of GPS satellites, and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, would not have happened without strong sustained public coordination, championed by visionary politicians.
It’s the same with many of the projects needed to accelerate the technologies for sustainable superabundance. We cannot rely on Venture Capitalists to provide sufficient capital in such cases. A more powerful coordination is needed – especially when a bold jump is required from an existing technological platform to a new one which will require considerable time to mature.
Such jumps often end up taking a lot more time and resources than initially imagined. A phase of slow, disappointing progress often precedes the eventual faster breakthroughs. That phase of disappointment can cause investors with a short time horizon to panic. In their panic, they urge engineers to concentrate on modest incremental developments rather than the more dramatic improvements previously considered. As a result, investment can become diverted into steps to “preserve the cash cow” rather than developing the next generation solution. Without patient, visionary understanding of the true potential of emerging technologies, the opportunity for radical progress will be lost.
Beyond predetermined exponentials
Unfortunately, the remarkable ongoing exponential improvements in some areas of technology, extended over many decades, risk misleading observers about what needs to take place in order for such progress to continue.
In the field of semiconductors, Moore’s Law has operated since around 1959 to the present day, describing regular doubling of the performance of silicon integrated circuits. Cooper’s Law describes similar doubling in the bandwidth capacity of wireless networks, going all the way back to the 1890s. Swanson’s Law describes how the price of solar photovoltaic modules has halved on a regular basis since the 1970s. Likewise, the Carlson curve describes how the price of genomic sequencing has halved on a regular basis, also from the 1970s.
To an extent, these improvements are all driven by “learning curve” scale effects: the more experience engineers have with a technology, the more ways they can find to improve its performance. Positive feedback cycles prevail, in which innovations can layer on top of each other.
Nevertheless, periods of exponential improvement generally come to an end, once the potential for any one technological architecture has been fully utilised. Close observation of long-term ongoing improvements shows a combination of two separate effects: incremental improvements within individual architectures (platforms), and disruptive transitions from one platform to a new generation. Accordingly, an overall exponential curve is made up of an ascending series of ‘S’ curves. Careful inspection often shows that the ‘S’ curves arrive at varying timing. There’s nothing predetermined about their appearance.
The incremental improvements are relatively easy to finance, whereas the disruptive transitions are considerably more challenging. The former are safer investments, whereas the latter are riskier, involving unproven technologies. The latter may also require the development of new applications to take advantage of the potential latent within the new platform. What’s more, new auxiliary services may need to be put in place – such as a network of electrical recharging stations to enable the electric car industry, or an application store (and associated certification programmes) to enable the smartphone industry.
Depending on the particular industry, the costs of the jumps to new generations may exceed in magnitude what private financing is willing to bear. In such circumstances, public support becomes critical. Otherwise the overall progress stalls.
Deciding and overseeing the priorities for the deployment of public investment is one of the most pressing tasks that lie ahead – one that will require great collective intelligence.
The next chapter of the Manifesto sets out the principles whereby that task can be steered and accelerated – principles which can engage and transform the public mood.