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. Fire can burn down as well as provide heat. Metalwork can create swords as well as ploughshares. Chemistry can create explosive weapons as well as agricultural fertilisers. Biotech can create deadly new pathogens as well as nutritious new superfoods. Surveillance technology can be used to monitor and harass political opponents as well as checking for infrastructure weaknesses. Social media technology can distort and mislead as well as informing and educating. 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 developed and deployed. These steps can take a long, long time. These steps can be delayed – perhaps indefinitely – on account of all kinds of obstacles: 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? If an earnest appeal to rationality is insufficient, what other measures can be taken?
This Manifesto envisions a vital role being played by a change in the public mood – as explored in the next chapter. This Manifesto also 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. These are the subjects of the present chapter.
Beyond present-day politics
Politics is the management of power within a society. Politics is meant to provide citizens with liberty from being unduly manipulated by powerful elites or marauding scavengers. If we dislike how power is being exerted in society, we need to turn to better politics.
Good politics can enable and encourage patient long-term investment in beneficial technological developments. Bad politics prevents or discourages such investments from taking place. Good politics can ensure technological products serve the needs of all members of society. Bad politics acquiesces when such products serve only a narrow portion of society.
Alas, politics has often been a hindrance to positive technological progress. Politicians, wittingly and unwittingly, have imposed cumbersome legal restrictions on breakthrough innovations. They have elevated doctrinaire ideologues over evidence-minded pragmatists. They have re-routed funds from deserving causes to self-serving gravy train projects. And they have created flashy distractions that divert public attention.
As tensions rise in the run-up to the 2020s, substandard politics poses increased risks of seismic social destabilisation – so long 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 malignant subsets of society from exerting unwarranted control over the populace as a whole. These subsets, which are akin 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 we give greater credence to opinions that are expressed most forcefully? Or more eloquently? Or 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. Out of a sense of group loyalty, electors may decide to turn a blind eye to various pieces of evidence. Due to the mechanics of “first past the post” vote-counting systems, 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 find these viewpoints inconvenient.
In a superdemocracy, advice from relevant domain experts is valued and respected. Where someone can demonstrate that a particular political idea seems to stand in defiance of scientific principles or the principles of sound project management, that observation needs to be given careful attention. Such observations will not be swept away under a carpet, regardless of the embarrassment they pose to prevailing popular ideologies. But whilst experts will not be ignored, neither should their views dictate any decisions. Expert viewpoints will help guide the overall decision, but these viewpoints may well suffer from shortcomings and uncertainties of their own. After all, experts frequently disagree among each other, or speak over-confidently outside their own particular area of deep knowledge. In the end, it must be the electors as a whole who take decisions, directly or indirectly – not any technocratic elite.
In a superdemocracy, there is no rush to premature judgements. Superdemocracy extends from the personal level to the community level the shrewd remark of F. Scott Fitzgerald that the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time whilst still retaining the ability to function. Superdemocracy resists any impulse to submerge minority dissident opinions; it retains these opinions in the overall collective intelligence of the electorate. Superdemocracy is not a system whereby the majority vanquishes the minority; it’s a system where the valid observations and aspirations of minority opinions are respected – whilst society retains the ability to function well.
Indeed, in a superdemocracy, 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 previous 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. It also encourages the introduction into the debate of a wider number of perspectives. With more minds tuned into the discussion, key issues and opportunities can be noticed more readily.
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. By analysing vast amounts of comments, these reviews 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”. This enables 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 inventiveness.
There is no need for us to be stuck with a political system that too often panders to the lowest common denominator – a system where electors have to decide which option is “the least worst of a sorry assortment”. Instead, we can look forward to revitalised political processes that generate novel compound solutions – solutions which voters from all sides can resoundingly endorse.
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.
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.
Beyond right and left
Here’s one important example where politics urgently needs to become 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.
Two important specific areas where right wingers and left wingers tend to disagree sharply are the topic of redistributive taxation and the topic of political oversight of the free market. The question of taxation is addressed in Chapter 10 of this Manifesto, “Abundant creativity”. The question of the operation of the free market extends over the remainder of the current chapter.
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, remarkably, 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. There’s nothing inevitable about the pace of progress remaining constant indefinitely.
Close observation of long-term ongoing improvements actually 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. Their occurrence is far from being predetermined.
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.