7. Towards abundant materials

This page contains the opening portion of Chapter 7 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist invitation

tam graphic 7

7. Towards abundant materials

One key task that lies ahead is the development and refinement of technologies capable of providing everyone with sufficient material goods for a life of sustainable superabundance.

Central to this task is the area of technology known as nanotechnology. Nanotechnology has particularly far-reaching implications – including new methods of manufacturing, new methods of repair, and new methods of recycling. These methods will boost the vitality and resilience, not only of individual humans, but of the material infrastructure within which we all operate. As a result, we’ll all be better protected. We’ll no longer need to worry about shortages, or about materials corroding, warping, or disintegrating. Thanks to nanotechnology, we’ll have plenty for all our needs.

Approaching nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the deliberate systematic mechanical manipulation of matter at the nanoscale, that is, at dimensions of around one to a hundred nanometres. A nanometre (nm) is a billionth of a metre, that is, a millionth of a millimetre. For comparison, a human red blood cell is about 8000 nm in diameter. A small bacterium has width around 200 nm, whilst a small virus is around 30 nm. An individual amino acid is just under one nanometre in width, and a water molecule is around a quarter of a nanometre. Accordingly, nanotechnology operates at the scale of individual molecules. In particular, nanotechnology creates and utilises a rich set of nanoscale levers, shafts, conveyor belts, gears, pulleys, motors, and more.

One type of nanotechnology has been taking place inside biological cells for billions of years. In this “natural nanotechnology”, a marvellous dance of chemical reactions reliably assembles various different proteins, molecule by molecule, following codes stored in DNA and RNA. The vision of “synthetic nanotechnology” is that specially designed nanofactories will be able, in a broadly similar way, to utilise atomically precise engineering to construct numerous kinds of new material products, molecule by molecule. But whereas natural nanotechnology involves processes that evolved by blind evolution, synthetic nanotechnology will involve processes intelligently designed by human scientists. These scientists will take inspiration from biological templates, but they look forward to reaching results far transcending those of nature.

The revolutionary potential of nanotechnology was popularised by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology”. That book fired the imagination of a surge of readers around the world. Since that time, however, progress with many of the ideas Drexler envisioned has proven disappointingly slow.

Transhumanists anticipate that the long period in which progress has been disappointingly slow can soon give way to a period of much swifter accomplishment. However, there is nothing inevitable about such a transition. It is the responsibility of transhumanists to make the case for greater funding for the field, so that the many remarkable potential benefits of nanotechnology will be realised more quickly, accelerating the attainment of the era of sustainable superabundance.

Tools that improve tools

The story of human progress can be expressed as the story of improving tools. Tools magnify our capabilities. The more powerful our tools become, the greater is our ability to reshape our environment – and ourselves.

At the dawn of humanity, our tools were rudimentary. As millennia passed, our tools gradually became more refined, as humanity gained greater prowess in manipulating stones, twine, wood, feathers, fur, bones, leather, and more. These tools helped, not only in hunting, fishing, and farming – and not only in the creation and maintenance of clothing and shelter – but in the production of yet more tools. Better tools made it possible, given time and ingenuity, to create even better tools.

In this way, as the stone age gave way to the bronze age and then to the iron age, basic tools helped to improve the process of mining and smelting new metals, which could in turn be incorporated in the next generation of tools.

The positive feedback cycle of tools creating better tools gathered pace with the industrial revolution, as steam engines amplified and complemented human muscle power. Within a couple of centuries, additional impetus was available from electrical motors, factory assembly lines, and computer-based manufacturing. Rudimentary computers played key roles in the design and assembly of next generation computers. Rudimentary software tools played key roles in the design and assembly of next generation software tools. And the cycles continued.

In parallel, chemists gradually grew more capable of causing compounds to react, and of synthesising new chemicals. Each new chemical could become part, not just of a new item of clothing or shelter, etc, but of yet another reactive pathway. New chemicals led to the production of yet more new chemicals.

These positive feedback cycles resulted, not only in tools with greater strength, but in tools with greater precision. Aided first by magnifying glasses, and then by wave after wave of improved microscopes and other imaging appliances, humanity understood the composition of matter on smaller and smaller scales. What’s more, by controlling the environment in ever more ingenious ways, humanity also gained the power to alter matter on smaller and smaller scales – causing molecules to combine together in ways that were not previously possible.

Some thinkers used to suppose that there was a sharp dividing line between the processes of living organisms (organic chemistry) and those of lifeless materials, such as metals and rocks (inorganic chemistry). This “vitalist” dogma was overturned in 1828 when German chemist Friedrich Wöhler demonstrated the creation of the biological compound urea from the inorganic material ammonium cyanate. Further developments led to the biochemical innovations covered in the previous chapter, such as the Haber-Bosch process that revolutionised how crops are fertilised: synthetic fertiliser could replace the fertilisers that had come from biological sources (animal and bird manure).

This chapter concerns the overturning of another dogma – the dogma that atomically precise manufacturing can only take place in biological contexts. Working inside living cells, ribosomes can assemble lengthy chains of amino acids into proteins. The vision of nanotechnology is that nanoscale devices, designed by human ingenuity, can build lots of other products with similar atomic precision. These products can include ultra-efficient solar energy arrays, materials that combine ultra-resilience with extraordinary strength, fabrics that never need to be cleaned, and swarms of nanobots that can roam in the bloodstream to identify and eliminate cancer cells.


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There’s more to democracy than voting

Suppose that the UK held another referendum on the subject of Brexit. Suppose that the numerical result was essentially the same as before: around 52% voting for the UK to leave the EU, and around 48% voting for the UK to remain.

In that case, would that referendum prove to have been a massive waste of time and money?

My answer: not necessarily. Such a vote could actually lead to the healing of the nation, rather than to continued divisiveness and chaos.

politics chaos or healing

It all depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during that referendum.

If supporters of Leave came forward, during the campaign, with arguments that were less contestable and more compelling than before, this could lead to a healing of the nation. People who voted for the other option in the referendum might still feel disappointed. But they could accept that there were sound arguments in favour of the side that won. And, unlike the case of the first Brexit referendum, they could move forward, reconciled to the outcome. They could tell themselves they had lost a fair battle.

A similar conclusion could apply if, in a variant potential future scenario, it were Remain that won the second referendum, even if just by a narrow margin. Again, there’s no inherent reason why that conclusion would lead to ongoing bitterness. Again, it depends, not on the numerical result, but on the calibre of the arguments raised during the campaigns.

Not just a re-run

Various critics of the idea of a second referendum are doubtful that anything positive could arise from a new round of campaigning. It would just be a re-run of the previous campaign, they say, perhaps with a few people changing their minds. Nothing essentially new could arise. Forget healing. We would just get more chaos.

But I give a much more positive assessment to the idea of a second, better, referendum.

For one reason, people have learned a great deal in the intervening 30 months. Opinions which could be seen as plausible two years ago, have long since been shown up as deeply wrong. As an example, consider the now thoroughly discredited claim that it would be “the easiest deal ever” to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU (witness “EU trade deal ‘easiest in human history'” and “All the times David Davis said that Brexit was simple”.) On such matters, we’re all wiser now.

But more fundamentally, it’s now widely recognised that it’s in everyone’s interest to cool down the debate, rather than letting matters be inflamed further.

The falsification principle

As a step away from ideology to objectivity, participants in the debate should start by reflecting long and hard about which circumstances would cause them to change their minds. This is in line with the falsification principle of science: people aspiring to scientific methods should set out in advance which experimental findings would cause them to seriously rethink their currently favoured theories.

Therefore, people favouring Remain should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Leave instead. In this way, they would identify the potentially strongest arguments in favour of Leave. For example, to my mind, the strongest argument in favour of Leave would be if the structural weakness of the eurozone were shown to be likely to lead to huge financial chaos, of a sort that the UK could best hope to escape by being outside of the EU altogether.

Likewise, people favouring Leave should describe the circumstances that would cause them to consider switching to Remain instead. For example, they might be prepared to alter their vote if they gained confidence in the flexibility and genuineness of EU reform proposals.

Debate participants unable to set out such a “falsifying circumstance” would have to acknowledge they are driven by ideology, rather being open to new findings.

Preparing to build bridges

In parallel, participants in both sides of the debate need to set out proposals for how the UK could unwind from any state of internal hostility after the campaign was concluded.

To this end, supporters of Remain need to acknowledge that many on the Leave side are profoundly ill at ease with what they see as the direction of social development. More than that, Remain supporters need to be ready to commit to a credible programme to address key causes of this alienation, including the bitter perception many people have of being “left behind”.

Similarly, supporters of Leave need to acknowledge that many on the Remain side are profoundly ill at ease with the potential unravelling of processes of multilateral decisions, in a post-Brexit race-to-the bottom world of increasing deregulation.

Towards superdemocracy

That’s the vision – the vision of a better politics being expressed in a better referendum.

It’s a vision that goes beyond democracy-as-counting-votes. It’s a vision of emerging superdemocracy (to use a term that has featured in the last two Transpolitica books – Transcending Politics and Sustainable Superabundance).

Is this vision credible? Or are we doomed to a politics dominated by feelings of vengeance and obliteration?

That is, is a second referendum likely to lead to even greater chaos, or to healing?

Personal leadership

To an extent, the answer will be influenced by the personal qualities of the people leading each side of the debate. Do these people have high personal integrity? Are they open to learning? Are they able to build bridges? Do they have high emotional intelligence? Or are they, instead, obsessive and self-serving?

The answer (chaos or healing) will also depend on how the media conducts itself. Is the media looking for high drama? Will it seek out and amplify the most inflammatory soundbites? Or will it show restraint and care?

To my mind, everyone who cares about the future of the UK has to get behind the processes of healing, rather than the processes of chaos.

That means a commitment to debating honestly – to considering the merits and demerits of different arguments fairly, rather than with a partisan spirit.

This also means a commitment to building bridges – to discovering shared common values, even with people who express views very differently to our own.

It won’t be easy. But the cost of failure would be enormous.

Image source: “Big Ben at Sunset” – Photo by M N on Unsplash

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