By Sally Morem, essayist and singularitarian
We begin this meditation on technology and politics with a question: what could such different processes have in common? Both are ways by which we humans attempt to get rid of intolerable situations. Our non-human ancestors began the process by learning to build mental models of their world. They were just starting to discover what was and to distinguish that from what could be. As they became human, they began distinguishing their dissatisfaction with what was from their hope for improvement through conscious consideration of past experience.
Imagine a very early ancestor stumbling upon a pile of shards, picking one up, cutting his fingers, and realizing that it was sharp enough to cut other things. Imagine him cutting roots or meat with it. Imagine his happiness at finding out how effective it was. Even though he hadn’t fashioned it, it became a tool. Technology is born. Imagine him continuing on, deliberately fracturing rocks in order to produce a sharp one. Accelerating technology is born.
Technology is exactly that: an environmental management system. It consists of any and all tools and processes we devise and use by which we eliminate any intolerable aspect of our physical surroundings and reshape other aspects closer to our desires. The excellence of each such system is measured by the order within it that fits that system’s given purpose. These systems enable us to protect our bodies from inclement weather, warm ourselves, feed and hydrate ourselves, transport ourselves and our belongings, send messages to others, record vital information for future use, and protect ourselves from dangerous beasts, including other humans.
Which leads us directly to politics. Those intolerable situations it deals with are interminable, unpredictable, and widespread threats and acts of violence. Politics seeks to end or ameliorate these through enforcement of societal mandates and bans. Politics involves the establishment and maintenance of these social norms. Each society’s political process is concerned with the asking and answering of some very basic societal questions. Who is a member of our group? Who is not? What acts must be mandated or banned? What acts must not be? Who must decide things for the group? Who must not be allowed such power? By what means must the decision-makers decide? What are the permissible means by which their decisions will be enforced?
Imagine a society of our somewhat more recent ancestors. They have become masters of the art of abstraction through language. They are using some very emotional words while arguing over someone’s undesirable conduct and deciding on the spur of the moment what to do about it. Later, they are hashing out proposals on how to deal with the mysterious and dangerous ways of the tribe living across the river. Politics is born.
Politics is exactly that: a human conflict management system. It consists of every concept, philosophy, institution, and process we devise and use in order to eliminate all undesirable social situations that crop up in a group of sensitive, intelligent beings that live in close proximity to one another and to reinforce all desirable behaviors in that group.
Technology and politics are two very different things, and yet they are closely connected. Technology permits; politics commands. New tools permit the creation of new types of societies with new political forms. For instance, better forms of transportation permit people to congregate and to trade further from home. Societies grow in numbers and in the territories they command. New technologies, such as new forms of communications, permit them to engage in political decision-making processes inconceivable to their ancestors. They disperse knowledge, permitting a wider range of people to know about more about more things, especially political issues. They learn what other people in their society are saying about those issues and in turn are able to express their own feelings, often directly to those people.
If technology permits, why does it seem to invariably trigger the creation of new technologies? If technology doesn’t command, couldn’t people turn down the open invitation to innovate? They could and they have done so from time to time. But usually, they don’t. Why? Every time a new technology is invented and implemented in any given society, it has changed that particular society if only by the tiniest bit. Each change makes it that much more likely that further change will occur down the line. Changes trigger cascades of changes over time. The society adapts—especially its political system. Secondary and tertiary changes ensure that the society will be much better off retaining the by now well-established technology rather than giving it up. A cultural ratchet effect forms. The system itself makes backsliding difficult.
A cultural ratchet makes sense. But why faster? Why accelerating technology? People in each age of technology must deal with what they have—which they then begin changing. The next generation will receive a slightly different toolkit from their parents than what their parents began with. It will incorporate more successful applications of the old technology along with all gains made by all preceding generations. In short, the children will never have to reinventing the wheel their great-grandparents had so painstakingly first crafted. The most inventive of those children will work on new technology.
There is also an aspect of cultural evolution going on here. Inventors tend to apply greater resources and efforts to improving the most effective existing technologies. By so doing, they tend to improve the best of the best over the generations and weed out the rest. A positive feedback loop of growing mastery results. Inventors don’t skip around in design space. They stick to their knitting. But as they innovate, their toolkits diversify. One older tool becomes the prototype for five different tools…and each of those may generate five more, and so on.
Inventors also learn how to make tools that make other tools in a more efficient and precise ways. Endless chains of tools making tools making tools erupt, leading towards tools undreamed of by wheel-making great-grandparents. By tightening up their tool-making procedures and making more effective tool-making tools, each technological advance takes a little less time than the previous advance. Acceleration always begins very slowly, but even in the earliest days of human tool-making, it was already underway.
The early evolution of technology and political systems
Long before the emergence of civilization, even before the emergence of agricultural villages, people were already putting their new toolkits to good use. Sometime late in the Neolithic Era, hunter-gatherer groups began coalescing, especially during the fecund summer months. They would congregated by the hundreds for fishing on the banks of teeming rivers. They would gather berries and nuts by the bushel basket and engage in the Big Hunt with carefully crafted slings and spears. With that many people living so close together, even only for a few months, the traditional means of handling conflicts by elders or headmen were swamped by the rising tide of vital societal information.
Societies were growing more complex, more capable, more diverse, more conflict-ridden. And their political systems grew more elaborate in response. As a group grows arithmetically the potential numbers of paired relationships between members will rise exponentially, which of course also includes the potential number of conflicts. Some sociologists believe that as a result of pure mathematical logic that the maximum number of people in the simplest form of human society—the hunter-gatherer band—is roughly 50. Any more people and the potential for conflict simply explodes.
Every single societal enlargement of that basic group of 50 has been the result of accelerating technology interacting with accelerating politics. We can simplify the historical analysis by beginning with that group. Consider the novel decision-making and conflict-resolution procedures, the continual fissioning of work into more specialties and sub-specialties, and the growing complexity of society into steepening hierarchical structures as the number of individuals in our hypothetical group increases step-wise by a factor of ten:
A hunter-gatherer group of 50
A village of 500
A town of 5,000
Technological and political acceleration began feeding off of each other. New tools and weapons permitted populations to boom. Arguments over hunting lands occurred repeatedly. Herding societies emerged. People traveled more, traded more. People found their once-distant societies coming into contact and conflict. And then as the first farmers began taking land into cultivation, dustups between “the farmer and the cowman” broke out, ages before Rodgers and Hammerstein depicted them humorously in “Oklahoma.”
No one person ever actually noticed these changes in his lifetime. Or in ten lifetimes. Nevertheless, these technological changes had profound effects on ancient practices and beliefs. In the long ages before civilization and writing, people, no doubt, responded badly to the stresses quite often. Occasionally they responded brilliantly to the dire need for managing accelerating information loads generated by growing populations. The intricate drawings and paintings in the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet may well have been the result of numerous such attempts over several thousand years.
And then consider what happens much later as the following came to be:
A city of 50,000
A kingdom of 500,000
An empire of 5,000,000
A nation of 50,000,000
A trading bloc of 500,000,000
A world economy of 5,000,000,000.
No political authority or structure can remain the same as such numbers and the inevitably intricate coalitions and conflicts grow. Political leadership has changed historically from the lead hunter, the elder, the village headman, the petty king, the citizen of the polis, the senator or assemblyman, the proconsul, the high king, the emperor, the governor. the prime minister, the president These officials have served as decision makers in governments as varied as any you’ve read about in political philosophy—hunter-gatherer bands, agricultural villages, city-states, princedoms and kingdoms, democracies, republics, dictatorships, tyrannies, and empires of innumerable shape and dimension.
There is one very pointed fact that any political scientist must face when studying societies. In the larger societies, no individual will ever know more than a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of his fellow citizens. The citizen can count on the fact that he will never have a one-on-one relationship with any but the comparatively very few relatives, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances he actually does meet in his lifetime. The implications of this stark fact are manifest in the massive, impersonal, bureaucratic, hierarchical systems we have erected ever since the numbers of people and their complex interactions, and vital maintenance systems warranted these kinds of structures.
Throughout history, during boom and bust, even during collapse, technological development continued to accelerate. For instance, the water wheel was invented and spread rapidly throughout Europe after the Roman Empire crumbled into petty kingdoms during what was mistakenly called the Dark Age. The first factories on river banks demonstrated that water power could effectively replace human and animal power to drive machinery, driving down costs as well. This new technology was so manifestly useful that even monks put it to work in their monasteries. Upon such inventions and their colossal wealth-producing power, nobles and kings built the modern European nation-state.
The S-curve and disruptive change
Picture the classic S-curve graph which depicts a trend line for technology over time. The vertical axis stands for measured excellence in a society’s aggregate technology. Measurements take place in four dimensions: computation, precision, miniaturization, and replication or in any appropriate combination of these dimensions. The horizontal axis stands for time. We follow the S-curve from the distant past on the left where it is apparently not rising at all to roughly present-day technology in which the line has taken a decidedly upward turn to the near-term future on the right where it turns more and more sharply upward to an imagined future at which it achieves virtual verticality. At some point, it presumably will begin slowing down and the line will become more gently horizontal, but we see no signs of that happening in the near-term future.
What can such a graphic abstraction possibly mean? The S-curve is a distillation of an enormous number of events in the history of technological development and an informed guess on its future based on those past trends. The S-curve is an assertion about the nature of technology and its development. It states that development is not arithmetical and cannot be arithmetical. It states that any real development must be exponential.
When did people first start noticing such changes within their lifetimes? A good educated guess would place this in the age of revolution during the 18th century. A real political revolution, not a mere coup d’etat, is always an emergent response to a gut sense of the presence of deep, ongoing change. It is never planned. It is always a surprise. Novel means of production and the novel nature of the goods being produced were beginning to have a pronounced political effect on the West.
We may trace these revolutionary stirrings back to Gutenberg’s printing press three centuries earlier. As a result of that invention, writing was no longer the preserve of the very few learned scribes, theologians, or philosophers. Neither was reading. Religious laypeople discovered that it was important to own and to be able to read a Bible. They never felt that need before because they couldn’t afford such a precious thing as a book. Gentleman scientists discovered that they needn’t write dozens of letters on their discoveries to their colleagues; they merely had to write one article to any of a number of newly founded scientific journals. That kind of change in the mastery of information dissemination transferred readily to ongoing political discourse. The kinds of philosophical and political energies these growing capabilities unleashed in Europe and later in America shaped a new era, one which had been given a name by historians: The Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment meant exhilaration. The newly felt sense of possibilities. The revolution of rising expectations. The Faustian sense that wholly new wealth could be created out of virtually nothing by newfangled machinery. The Enlightenment meant suffocation. The sense of feeling constricted by formerly venerated institutions, traditions, rulers, and laws. These are the political pressures that grew and grew in direct response to technological change until they exploded. Two such explosions were also given names: the American and French Revolutions.
What kind of political system was fit for people living in changing times? Certainly not a top-down, autocratic system in which only the favored few heirs to power got to decide. Perhaps some sort of representative government as in Parliament or American colonial assemblies. Or perhaps a system fit for small societies in which every citizen represented only himself, as in the New England town meeting. But monarchy? Aristocracy? These had to go.
And what sorts of lawmaking should be done in these new revolutionary assemblies? Thinkers realized that in a free society, laws must achieve a kind of active or at least tacit consent by the great bulk of the public. The consent of the governed. If not, disobedience would become rife when laws are seen as nonsensical or against the interest of a large number of people. The problem of legitimacy. Political philosophers realized that the law is seen as legitimate only if and when most people believe in it and obey it. Popular sovereignty.
None of these political insights were even remotely realizable in practice until transportation and communications systems of the new industrial age were able to link the fast growing numbers of citizens in intricate networks of political and economic exchange in the emerging mass democracies. And as these societies continued to grow far more complex, as arts and sciences and manufacturing continued to specialize and sub-specialize, people grappled with the problem of managing greater and faster information loads. Efforts to do so led to even more revolutionary technologies as we shall see.
Overcoming inertia caused by authoritarian governments
Why were democratic societies so much better at generating technological change and handling the stresses change generated? Why are authoritarian societies handicapped in handling the same? Let’s consider the case of an early 19th century inventor. In a democracy, a farmer who wished to invent a better plow did not have to ask His Lordship’s permission to tinker. He had no lord. Nor did he have to ask permission of his commissar. He had no commissar. He merely had to invent. He would scribble his ideas in the summer and tinker in the winter at his leisure. If the plow worked as well as he hoped next spring, he likely shared the idea with neighbors and relatives. Or perhaps he would start a small company and sell to his neighbors.
Acquaintances might think him impractical and dreamy, but if the invention worked, they pounced on it and improved their own crop yields thereby. Multiply this example ten thousand-fold and you will discover the secret of democracy with respect to innovation. It permits and even encourages private decision-making and deal-making at the grassroots level. Powerful creative forces emerge as people build upon their technological and economic successes. The skills these nascent inventors developed were readily transferred to the growing transportation, communications, and manufacturing sectors of Western economies. Democracy drove innovation hard in the 19th century—straight to and through the second industrial age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The enormous expansion of capabilities exhibited by industry in the realms of communications, transportation, manufacturing production capabilities, and marketing, didn’t occur because engineers simply installed conveyor belts and powered machinery in factories. Engineers also developed the first information control systems decades before the development of electronic computers. Cards and reports were printed and distributed by the planning department detailing exactly who and what went where and when and what each were to do in the factory at all times. Each motion of a worker and a machine were fitted together to optimize assembly at the most efficient speed.
It worked. In the most famous example of mass production, Henry Ford kept tweaking his assembly line over decades. When his first factory began making Model Ts, they would come off the line every 12 ½ hours. In 20 years, when Ford was ending production and shifting to the Model A, the tempo of production had increased so much that cars were coming off the line every half-minute. Technological deflation permitted him to drop the price of cars so that his own workers could afford to buy them.
Critics blasted Ford and other producers for turning highly skilled human machinists into essentially unthinking, unskilled machines. Any attentive engineer would have gotten the hint. A machine is far better at acting like a machine, at making regular and precise motions, than any human could ever be. Unthinking motions were ripe for the plucking by automation. Sure enough, Ford automated as many of those jobs as he could. Such factories can be seen as the world’s first replicators. They were huge, noisy, extremely expensive, and yet extremely effective in producing millions of replicas of the original design of each product.
Systems of all kinds were becoming highly centralized during the height of industrialization. Politics was no exception. All utilities—electrical, gas, water, sewage, streets, railroads—were placed in the hands of utilities companies or local governments. School districts were consolidated and rural children attended school with their fellow students in town. Radio, and later television, permitted millions of people to watch the same sports, entertainment and news shows. Millions of people joined major political parties and campaigned and voted for their favorites. Party platforms were constructed out of planks based on broad ideological principles. Government control over large sectors of the economy advanced rapidly in the form of regulations and outright ownership. Government programs for the indigent and elderly were begun and grew to huge proportions. Centralization of decision-making powers was seen as a fact of industrial life. Intellectuals assumed the future would bring more of the same.
Decentralization enabled by miniaturization of electronics
As we’ve seen, industrial development triggered the formation of more precise information controls over production. The development of the first electronic computers after World War II at first merely emphasized the centralizing character of such controls. After all, these computers filled entire rooms and required highly trained specialists to program and maintain them. But then computers became the leading edge of acceleration and as such their nature began to change. As their components became miniaturized and more precise, they became much smaller. And yet they could hold much larger memory and execute far more calculations per second than their predecessors. And along with all those benefits of acceleration, technological deflation took hold and costs dropped drastically. This permitted even small companies and colleges to own the computing power it took the economic power of governments and large corporations to afford a mere generation earlier. Later, individuals were able to afford personal computer, laptops, and now tablets and smart phones. The decentralizing power of the Internet, linking all of these devices in densely connected networks is now manifest.
Automation had long ceased to be merely a matter of replacing human workers with machines. The work of the machines had already far surpassed that of the humans. Our marvelously dexterous fingers and thumbs had been turned into comparatively immense ungainly things at the scale of miniaturization already being done by the 1960s. Our most skilled machinists simply could not work to the kinds of tolerances that high precision technologies required. Automation plays a much more important role in production today. It has been years since any human has made a computer chip by hand.
If we take 1960 to be the year in which the very first information economies were beginning to emerge, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find something occurring that will feel very familiar to those historians knowledgeable about the age of revolution: That the massively centralized character of systems in what used to be industrial societies were beginning to break down. Decentralization of telecommunications systems led the way. Political systems were overloaded with problems needing consideration. People were startled to discover that centralization was actually inefficient. Political activists were aggravated by a sense of uncaring, unfeeling, unresponsive hugeness in systems they once admired. They began forming their own organizations and create their own ideologies of liberation from what they deemed oppression.
But they were dreaming ahead of their time. Western societies were still mostly industrial with all the limits and needs for hierarchies remaining intact. But then computers started to get very inexpensive and people found they could do all sorts of interesting things with them. The true age of decentralization of decision-making had begun in the computer clubs and garage workshops of the 1970s.
The 20th century was the first century in which parents expected their children to live a different kind of life than they had led. Accelerating technology was reshaping societies each generation, and then each decade by the time the Information Age emerged by continually interweaving numerous technologies into newer and ever-changing supple systems of great productive power. If accelerating technology rates are themselves accelerating, can politics be very far behind?
Replicators and the Abundance Society
What happens when knowledge becomes massively and easily distributed, enabling smaller and smaller groups of people to handle processes that used to take the effort of thousands or even millions? And finally, what happens when technology gets so powerful and inexpensive that each one of us will command the potential creative and production power of today’s nation states? This is what happens: the Abundance Society.
As excellence in computation, replication, miniaturization, and precision grows, automation will produce almost everything we use. Those items not automated will be things we enjoy making ourselves. When we reach this point, economics as we’ve known it will end.
The seeds of the Abundance Society already exist in 3-D printers, 3-D scanners, and CAD programs. Right now, these technologies are digitizing consumer items, turning them into pure information—ready to print in any quantity desired.
We aren’t there yet. We need to fill in a few more pieces in order to achieve true technological systems of Abundance. 1. A means by which waste is turned into printer toner. 2. A means by which molecules are sorted and moved precisely into place as directed by the CAD program. 3. A means by which the printer and its control software are themselves printable. At the point when anything becomes a resource, nanotechnology becomes the producer, and the entire system can be readily reproduced on demand, printing will evolve into true replicator technology.
The power of the Abundance technology will generate a revolution more all-encompassing than the agricultural and industrial revolutions combined. It will offer every individual everywhere a universal toolkit with the ability to “grow” every gadget, article of clothing, book, article, recording, appliance, power generator, recycling system, electrical and plumbing system, car, house—anything imaginable, and much that is not imaginable today. For example, Abundance will spread the life-giving ability of creating potable water anywhere, at any time. The blessings of clean water will be especially appreciated in Third World nations, which will rapidly cease being Third World as Abundance spreads.
A truly advanced replicator will also offer the ability to “build” any food to exact specifications. “Earl Grey. Hot.” A chef who enjoys cooking could use the replicator as a sous chef to produce chopped and grated ingredients on demand. A person who does not enjoy cooking could order the replicator to produce an entire meal indistinguishable from the original composed of ingredients from nature. No chef or chemist could tell the difference even after extensive testing. For instance, you could order a grilled steak (with the sizzle) that had never seen the inside of a cow. Highly advanced replicators could also monitor your health and produce medicines and cell repair machines to cure what ails you.
Decentralization of the massive industrial systems we now use for production and distribution of all goods and services will be the natural outgrowth of accelerating Abundance technology. These systems will crumble as people abandon them. Why would people go to any government or private corporation for health care, education, welfare, or any goods or services? Why would anyone ever waste time and effort to ship anything anywhere when they could just post the CAD program online and alert specific recipients?
And, exactly why would people work for a living? They would have no reason at all to do so, since every one of them would be the owners of their own means of production and livelihood. They would simply do what interests them, not what other people want them to do. As corporate and governmental hierarchies are automated out of existence, there would be very little left for humans to do as far as tedious, onerous work is concerned. The very concept of a “job” would become obsolete. The implications for politics are obvious and revolutionary. Ask the question: Who will control the Abundance Society? It answers itself: Everybody.
Once the first replicators came online, the technology would diffuse throughout the world rapidly. In months? Very likely. Or perhaps it will be only a matter of weeks. The originators would likely work for high-tech firms and would try to keep the design secret. Political leaders will likely try to help them. But as technology accelerates and the word gets out about what is possible, Open Source inventors would figure out quickly enough how to reinvent the technology. And they would be even quicker to duplicate the work and distribute the CAD software online. Intellectual property rights attorneys and courts will be running the Red Queen’s race against them with their Injunctions. Inventors will find hundreds of ways around patent restrictions with CADs programmed to mutate and evolve. One gadget could be tweaked into a hundred different gadgets in mere minutes. Every attempt to stop or even slow down the Abundance cascade of inventions would merely spur the inventors on.
Any even moderately handy person will find it easy to build his own replicator at home using online CAD software and then reusing it to build more for friends, relatives, and neighbors. As acceleration races on, as technological deflation shreds costs, duplication rates for production of replicators will rise around the world. When the replicator costs the equivalent of the proverbial cup of sugar…or a piece of paper, any sense of felt deprivation arising out of the act of sharing anything, let alone valuable things like replicators and CAD programs, will ebb away. The day may come when children will wonder at the meaning of such odd words as “selfish” and “unselfish.” Distinctions that are vital to us will mean nothing to them. Their sense of morality, of what acts should be banned or mandated, will shift as well.
Another word that may lose meaning is “pollution.” Raw material for replicators can be found everywhere, literally dirt cheap. Users will pick up material in junk piles and landfills (until there are none left) and even in their own backyards—dead leaves, sticks and twigs, and grass clippings will become handy sources of carbon for food and graphene products. Why would anyone ever send material up in smokestacks, pour waste into rivers, or send the garbage and sewage out when every single molecule of such “waste” can be reused by replicators?
In a weird way, capitalism may well eliminate itself by generating the world’s very first truly Abundant society through the workings of its own massively creative networks of competition and cooperation. When all scarcities end, all economic systems must end, including capitalism. Not through bombs and barricades, but through neglect. An apparent political paradox: We may achieve the ultimate socialist dream through capitalist methods evolving into a fundamentally libertarian society.
If I’m right about the growing pace of change in certain key technologies, we may enter the Abundance Society by the early 2020s. This will NOT be the technological Singularity. The Singularity will occur when the rate of change is so steep, technologies will be emerging that are unimaginable to us right now. The Abundance Society, on the other hand, is fully predictable and understandable, and we are much closer to it than most people realize.
The role of governance in the future
Politics at its very core addresses questions of direction for the society: What shall we do as a people? Should certain things be subject to political control? In the Abundance Society the field of political debate will contract as the real work of automation reshapes society. Governments will have to start sharpening their enforcement skills and let whatever distribution skills they’ve garnered over the past century atrophy.
Think about every single function taken up by every single human government since the beginning of time. The question is not which one of these functions should be or could be automated, but which ones must be and which ones should not be. The debate over bans and mandates is the only real political debate remaining worth having in an age in which technology can change everything quickly—for better or for worse.
Discussion and implementation of specific effective means of enforcement against seriously dangerous uses of replicators, including the fabrication of lethal chemicals, biologicals, and nuclear material, as well as mandates on replicator controls in order to avoid runaway replication, must await the work of cutting-edge scientists and engineers in the field. I will simply note that these means will almost certainly have to be automated because the threats will arise very quickly, as in minutes or even seconds. And so, enforcement will not be able to include our traditional legal procedures. No cops, no attorneys, no judges, nor juries. No time.
When we achieve the Abundance Society, we will cease having to address questions of equity or equality. As noted above, these questions simply won’t mean very much to people who live in Abundance. Political freedoms will remain robust, but it’s doubtful that very many people will be very politically-minded. Social and cultural freedoms will be widespread, but if any actions come close to the very sharply drawn danger line presented by the powerful technologies, those actions will be stopped by what will be likely be even more powerful policing and defense technologies.
This combination of libertarian laissez faire and extreme control will bewilder anyone familiar with present-day ideological debates. But accelerating tech has been and is the largely unseen driver of political change and, even though technology does not command, the kinds of technologies we are developing today will make it reasonable for us to reshape our ideological beliefs and political actions accordingly. The nation-state as we’ve known it will vanish. The only aspect that will remain of today’s governments will be those carried out now by the police and armed forces: technologically upgraded and very specialized and highly focused enforcement systems. Period.
The establishment of a global government is something that has been the goal of a number of political idealists over the ages. The idea grew out of the dream of finally ending bloody conflict by rationalizing international affairs. There is no possibility of the development of a world government along the lines of existing nation-states in the face of the changes accelerating tech is triggering. There is only one possible form of world government or at least of informal governance. A political power of some sort providing the world the automated enforcement system alluded to above. Accelerating tech would overwhelm any other kind of governance.
Ethics embedded in technology
If the thought of placing all of your trust in one institution with the magnitude of power necessary to defend us from existential dangers is frightening (and it should be), let’s consider an alternative. We could use the Holmesian rule of investigation as our guide in grappling with these issues as we attempt to find a better answer: After dismissing the impossible, we must accept the improbable as being that answer.
Sherlock would suggest the logic of embedding simple, but highly moral rules within the technology itself to make sure it never oversteps moral bounds. The technology would itself be the judge of the morality of its actions. This would enable human ethical thought to be brought to bear extremely quickly under dangerous situations.
This would seem an exceedingly difficult challenge, but we can actually imagine (roughly) how it would work. Simply embed a moral checklist at any point in which an action is about to be taken. One decision-point at the end of a chain of decision-points. Only one checklist, so the system wouldn’t have to spend precious seconds running through endless decision-points and checklists. Each component of the enforcement system, each weapon, would thus include a basic artificial intelligence component.
To illustrate the possibilities, I’ll use some scenarios that could have taken place in the universe described by van Vogt in his science fiction novel, “The Weapons Shops of Isher.” If you aimed the gun at a deer out of hunting season and pulled the trigger, it would not fire. If you did so in hunting season it would fire. If you aimed the weapon at a person, it would not fire, unless you were firing in self-defense or in defense of someone else. This gun would have the kind of moral capability we are looking for within the enforcement technology I have in mind. It would also have to have a deep awareness of its environment and people and their intentions. It would be an AI.
We can’t even imagine being able to count on millions of smart people utilizing empowering future technology wisely and morally every single time. Today, it would only take one guy with an Uzi to ruin everyone’s day. Tomorrow, it would only take one guy (or one uncontrolled weapon) to end everyone’s life. So, we must make sure that all Uzis are, in effect, manufactured in the Weapons Shops of Isher.
Abundance accelerating the acceleration of technology
The Abundance Society won’t end the accelerating development of technology; it will make it even easier to occur. Millions of users of these powerful production facilities will be inventing more gadgets more often and posting CAD programs online. They won’t be forced to await decisions of labor committees or marketing managers for permission. In the words of the shoe company, they’ll just do it. Nor will they have to be particularly handy. They will simply imagine something they would like to use, tell their replicators to write the CAD, and print the prototype. No machinists or carpenters needed. Inventors will simply test their prototypes after printing. As replicators improve and their owners grow more experienced working with them, the rate of invention itself will accelerate, adding to the overall rate of acceleration.
One device may branch out through design space, serving as the seed for thousands of different devices in a matter of weeks or even days, and a bit later in hours and even minutes. Imagine larger and larger shockwave of change ripping through all areas of human life faster and faster, courtesy of the replicators and the Internet.
Clearly, the Abundance Society will not end history. More and more important changes will be happening simultaneously, faster than ever before. The amount of change and the pace of change will accelerate. History will become more like a spaceship than a mule train. As we move up the steepening curve of development, we will enter something we could call the Post-Abundance Society. This society will not cease being Abundant; existence of Abundance will simply be taken as a given. But, the superb control over matter and energy achieved by accelerating technology will enable us to reach past Abundance and allow us to transcend more and more historical limits on our decisions and actions.
People will find it necessary to invent brain and body augments to keep up. Ancient biological rhythms of life will be disrupted. What will happen when traditional human limits no longer apply or are not as restricting as they are now? For instance, political decision-making is now limited to those cycles and to human stamina. We can only take so many meetings and do so much reading before our time and our minds and our bodies are overwhelmed with floods of information and decisions waiting to be made.
Forms and structures of government are already morphing, flattening, fracturing under existing strains. Think about what is to come as accelerating change strains politics past the breaking point. Would a return small republics or direct democracies or even adhocracies be enough to handle things? What about various systems of referenda? What about Delphi polls, betting markets, minarchism, techno-anarchism, just plain anarchism, or rule by Artificial General Intelligences (AGIs)?
Perhaps people could enter an electronic legislative assembly and leave it as their desires for better and more nuanced security systems are met and their interests change? Will that assembly exist as a mere pattern of activity, a standing wave of interaction on the Internet or in Virtual Reality, as the membership keep changing moment by moment? Perhaps such a system could keep up the pace for a while. But it will seem as soon as some innovative form of government is offered by political science as a palliative, it may already be rendered obsolete. There may never be one best system of government ever again.
We can always guess as to what changes might be taking place in terms of societies and politics, even though we can’t know, not until we get there ourselves. To handle such immense change, people may choose to augment their brains and bodies to computer speed. Or they may choose to upload their minds into an immensely capable computer-based Virtual Reality, sometimes referred to as a noosphere, so that they may continue to experience existence at ever greater speeds. They would become incomprehensibly intelligence from our standpoint. They may choose to double their knowledge, experience, and capabilities at the same dizzying rate that technology is exploding in order to keep up.
Could transhuman technology eventually disrupt the cohesion of society?
Political philosophy has rested tacitly or overtly over the centuries on the recognition of a number of human limits. What happens when those limits are surpassed by the emergence of transhuman bodies and minds? Accelerating times will cause a problem with time itself. People no longer have the time to adjust, to take meetings, to read, to make trade-offs, to settle moral/ethical quandaries. Things simply keep changing faster and faster. We humans need time to figure difficult problems out, and acceleration will not give us that time. We’ll struggle to keep up. We’ll get our brain augments for purely practical reasons: We’ll need to think a million times faster than we do now in order to deal with a reality that’s changing at least that fast.
Those aspects of traditional societies and politics that had survived the gauntlet of Abundance will likely get shredded by the extreme tempo of change of the Singularity. A moral sense, a sense of being a member of a community of fellow humans, a sense of limits, a set of social skills, a sense of rights and of justice, a sum of our behaviors, our perceptions, our capabilities, our tendencies, our emotions, what we tend to love and tend to hate, and again, our sense of limits. All of these will become vulnerable to extreme rates of change.
When we Upload, when we change our bodies into any shape on whim and then do so over and over again, when we master endless skills and combine them in endless ways for amusement and personal growth, when we have far more power than today’s nation-states at our fingertips, when we are able to swap memories with other humans and AGIs whenever we desire more experiences, when we can enter into group minds and leave them at will, what realm of existence could be left for politics, except perhaps for a strange form of virtual adhocracy, group minds through which individuals merge and detach as decisions are made?
And what of the possibilities offered by extreme life extension and youth extension? Political systems today are structured to deal with ancient cycles of birth, childhood, adulthood, elderhood, and death. If other drastic changes didn’t unhinge politics as we’ve known it, life extension surely would.
Those thinkers, such as Francis Fukuyama, mindful of the potential of radical societal change offered by accelerating technology, express a fundamental, quite reasonable fear: That we will soon cease sharing a common humanity, that inequalities far more fundamental and injurious than any we have ever experienced will become our fate as the human race fissions into a thousand drastically different races, or perhaps different species. And would this fissioning continue as people differentiate themselves within those races and species, each generation splintering more and more? As we upgrade our brains and Upload our minds, our capabilities could soon become so differentiated that we could never see each other as truly recognizably human.
How sociable and courteous would all these beings be with one another? Would life become so different for these beings that they would no longer be able to communicate or even apprehend the existence of one another? What would moral and immoral intentions and actions directed toward such various beings entail? What would enforcement of norms entail? What would norms entail? Could such varied beings ever form one moral community? Could they ever treat each other as equals, or even think of the other as an equal, at least in some limited way? A modicum of trust in politics is vital to establishing any kind of effective decision-making system for the group—or for numerous interacting groups. Here, trust must be virtually non-existent. Think about how badly humans have treated the dreaded stranger, the other, over the ages. Based on past performance, the prognosis does not look good.
The warnings are dire. We face a post-human future in which dangerously chaotic forces make survival precarious. In this potential future, the remnants of democracy are incinerated in the heat of extreme change. Human freedom dies in the flames. Those who fear this future recommended relinquishment of advanced technologies to prevent it. A very harsh response. But, never mind for the moment if relinquishment is desirable or not. Is it even possible?
The infeasibility of technological relinquishment
Let’s say we set out to control the nanotechnology revolution and the biotechnical revolution and the computer revolution and the replicator revolution and so on. Let’s say we will mandate the end of all advances in computation, replication, miniaturization, and precision. What would we have to do? In order to make enforcement of norms against advanced technology effective, political efforts would have to include arriving at a deep understanding of what exactly dangerous technologies are, achieving strict international agreements and conventions against said dangerous technologies, and establishing effective enforcement procedures to wipe out said dangerous technologies. Is such understanding possible? Are such agreements possible? Are such procedures possible? We lack substantial agreement on any sort of universal values system—individuals, groups, and nations are in sharp disagreement on so many such norms. We have the additional difficulty of a lack of a recognized, valid set of international decision-makers. We would also face one insurmountable obstacle, a true paradox: It would take advanced technology to enforce a ban on advanced technologies.
Who could accurately forecast which specific technological development would harm or help humanity and exactly what it would do under various circumstances? What about future technologies any permitted technology would spawn, a cascade of generations upon generations of new technologies now unimaginable to the regulatory panel of experts? What if anything would they have to say about these now non-existent technologies? How could they possibly judge their worth and their danger?
Even if we somehow succeeded in settling these matters, the temptation to defect against relinquishment laws would be severe. The immediate concrete benefits of doing so would be perceived by defectors to greatly outweigh any abstract future risks. Human enhancement involves a very real temptation to defect because such enhancements hold out opportunities to better compete against other humans. Furthermore, an early defector will cause a cascade of defectors. The logic of arms races would prevail.
Temptations to defect hint at the chaotic nature of cooperation under these circumstances. It’s like balancing a top. It will spin nicely for a while, but one little bobble and the time for it to topple over will come very soon. And then there’s the metaphor of the pile of sand at criticality. One more sand particle dropped on it may well set off an avalanche.
Since everyone knowledgeable enough to develop advanced technology would have to, in effect, voluntarily cooperate with a regimen of relinquishment (it’s clear that physically enforced cooperation simply would never work), any individual or small group could effectively destroy the agreements by defecting. There can be but one possible result of relinquishment—utter failure.
Smart brain augmentation facilitating cohesion
However, there may be a wholly different way of dealing with dangerous technology. We must consider the implications of the fact that liberal democracy itself was made possible by these very trends we fear. Democracy was invented by people inspired by the sociological changes accelerating technology was triggering. Its development was fostered by further acceleration. This is no surprise. After all, the human drive to achieve more and more well-being for more and more people is what drove human inventiveness in the first place.
instead of regulation forestalling the fissioning of the human race, which as we’ve seen is doomed to failure, how about using the technology itself to prevent a total rupture of relationships between what may potentially turn out to be many human races? Here is a startling reason for us to develop brain augment technology as soon as possible: It may foster within us very deep sense of mutual fellow-feeling.
The original idea behind this concept was to use brain augments to give us access to a massive growing amount of information with the computing power to handle it. But in brain augments, information could also flow the opposite way. Brain augments could be used to record the massive amount of information the human brain generates when it thinks, feels, remembers, imagines, anticipates, plans, accepts, rejects, and directs the body to do anything. We could do this in order to preserve our sense of self for future Uploading to the Singularity’s noosphere. We could conduct these recordings over any amount of time. Years, perhaps.
Now, while we’re busy recording ourselves, we might also choose to pool copies of portions of our memories and other aspects of our active minds, creating numerous AIs that would retain mental models of what we could call the “baseline human.” These would essentially be recordings of our ordinary, pre-Singularity selves. We might either choose to leave them frozen, unchanged, or perhaps we would interact with them and they would change over time. We might also exchange them, merge them into standard personalities, and copy them for one another. If we do so, we would in effect create the mental template of the baseline human that all future humans would hold in common for ages to come.
And so, as our species fractures, every individual in every human species would retain copies of the baseline human and use them as translating devices to communicate with all other species of humans when desired. Think of them as communications links or archival sources or decoding devices and all of the above and more. If this bridging technology is developed, our future selves may be able to avert the disaster that Fukuyama has warned us against. Even though our future selves may be as radically different as he fears or even more different than he or any of us could imagine, every one of our future selves would still retain the baseline human historical commonality. As such, this commonality, link, translator, AI or whatever, would serve to keep all descendants of humans “together” in some sense hinted at by that vague word. It would give us at least a small felt sense of kinship, of fellow-feeling, or perhaps even the tiniest touch of a sense of egalitarianism. At the very least, it would smooth the rough edges that are sure to grow as we differentiate at accelerating speeds. And it may enable us avert serious violence due to misunderstandings and keep the Singularity reasonably peaceful and secure.
The Singularity is upon us
What I have envisioned is the unexpected: a future in which accelerating technology successfully generates effective accelerating politics for accelerating societies, a future in which new, strange technologies, politics, and societies are being replaced more and more rapidly by newer, truly incomprehensible technologies, politics, and societies.
We have edged our way up close to the event horizon of the technological Singularity, to that point where we can no longer see beyond the onrush of acceleration. As it turns out, life has been striving for that moment all along, unknowingly but continually, in unerring direction, long before the first humans existed. Participation is the necessary work of all, not merely the work of one class or one race or one civilization, but every single human being now living or yet to be born.
An immense historical process is underway—an emergence of accelerating human capacity and capability, the creation of which is becoming even more unimaginable as acceleration continues to flood our awareness with novelties and breakthroughs—faster, faster, faster.
The Singularity is now upon us. Things have gotten very strange. So strange, so far beyond anything we have known that we can no longer distinguish any landmarks nor can we make any recommendations to those who enter here. And so this meditation on technology and politics must come to an end. Our proper response to acceleration at this point, for now, must be silence.
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