Monday, May 22, 2006

Dispatches from the Frontier

by Mathijs van Zutphen
Philosopher, educator, artist and creator of VISH
Philosopher Catalyst in the Knowledge Stream Life Sciences at the Summit for the Future

Heaven and Earth abolish the old and bring about the new,

Then the four seasons complete their changes.
Tang and Wu abolished the old and brought about the new.
They obeyed the will of Heaven
In accord with the wishes of people.
The time and meaning of abolishing the old is truly great!
(I Ching, commentary on Ch. 49)

This year’s Summit for the Future provided once more a powerful and intoxicating cocktail of intriguing people and exotic idea. Risk was the central theme to the proceedings, and it provided an effective thread integrating the myriad ideas and opinions brought to the conference. We live in a challenging era, characterized by rapid change and an unprecedented increase in possibilities, not all good. Traditional systems and long established habits are being swept away by wave after wave of novelty. We face ever faster technological change, a stunning rate of increase in complexitystupefying most ordinary citizens, and a rapid dissolution of boundaries: between actual and virtual reality, between countries, continents, cultures, political and economic interests. Add to this a number of worrying and potentially disastrous threats like global warming and an ever increasing gap between rich and poor, and you face a pretty daunting reality, a vision of chaos.
The upheaval created by these chaotic conditions at the beginning of our new millennium is exacerbated by the fact that the institutions and systems currently in place to organize and regulate our global societies are proving to be inept. They are the product of an industrial era that lies behind us. Profit driven multinational entities proclaiming a message of “bigger is better”, who measure value only in dollars, and defer social responsibility to governments, are no longer where it’s at. Innovation and technological breakthroughs are the domain of small specialized companies who exist in a dynamic network of partners where trust and collaboration are the name of the game. Your competitor might be your client tomorrow, your business model may become obsolete overnight (something about which the music industry is in a strong state of denial). Centrally managed control driven hierarchies don’t stand a chance in this new context. We see the reality of this in the fact that the bottom-line of large corporations is all about optimization, profit is produced by outsourcing and cost cutting, and there is an absolute limit to the amount of costs you can cut.

The Life Sciences represent a context where the rapid rate of technological development creates truly complex dilemmas. Ahmed El Sheik presented us with a compelling vision of mankind; its past and its immanent future. “Evolution through Acquisition” expresses the great conceptual leap forward that occurred in some early hominids and that has been driving the development of our primitive ancestors towards Homo Sapiens Sapiens trapped in its current condition. There is something unique about the human ability to acquire external objects and use them as extensions of our own capacities. Certain animals use tools as wellchimpanzees catch termites with a stick, sea otters crack mussels on a small rock they rest on their belly, but this behavior is ad hoc, and the tool is discarded as soon as the goal is reached. Humans don’t discard their tools, we cherish them and keep them around; we develop and improve them; we combine them and integrate them into vast systems capable of tasks that transcend the ability of any biological life form.

Simple tools are extensions of simple functions. We have been developing our tools gradually throughout the evolutionary timeline to fulfill ever more complex functions for us. We invented chariots and swords, sailing ships, gunpowder, taxation, non-linear mathematics and jetfighters. We have now reached a level where even our most complex functions, those related to perception and cognition, are performed by tools and machines external to us. Telescopes extend vision, as do satellites; computers extend our memories and our ability to perform calculations. We exist in a symbiotic relationship with this technology, and this symbiosis is becoming ever more explicit. We have started to integrate technology back into our physical systems: artificial joints, pacemakers, synthetic organs. We are experimenting with integrating electronic circuitry in our neural system. Soon there will be no physical impairment that will not have a technological solution.

As more and more parts of our bodies can be turned into machine; as the symbiosis consolidates itself; what does this mean in terms of who we are? What will happen to Homo Sapiens Sapiens? The moral implications of all this are as yet unclear. As usual technology moves much faster than our theories of ethics, leaving us rather empty handed in the light of these dilemmas. We lacked the time to delve into them, it is a big subject, deserving a conference of its own.

This discussion emphasizes a crucial point. Rapid and complex technological change is not an abstract issue, it is not something that happens far away from your living room in the ivory towers of corporate R&D departments. It is going to affect your own personal integrity, your daily life; it is going to change your human identity, it may mean the end of the human race.

Nietzsche wrote “Man is something that has to be overcome”, but are we willing to give up on physical self? Are we ready for our incarnation as cyborgs? Not science, not ideology, not government, not religion are going to help us answer these questions. Some may find the cyborg vision appealing, entice by a profound expansion of our abilities and the potential to eliminate human suffering. We can become magicians: turn a normal cell phone into a tiny implantable micro system and telepathy is a reality. The risk is of course in the technology itself. All technology is subject to technical failure. When technology is master you reach disaster faster. Who is to judge which changes are good and which are bad?

We have no choice but to reconnect to our own internal compass: our. Each and everyone of us will have to address these fundamental questions and come up with unique and personal answers. This resonates strongly with the appeal to self- empowerment that several speakers emphasized. Futurist Glen Hiemstra told us that one of the greatest threats to a sustainable future is the lack of positive visions for the future. That then is what we need to address here. It is true that incumbent systems overshadow the power of the individual, it is true that many of us feel powerless against these Molochs of established power. Yet the only effective way forward is through a process of reflection that starts with the realization that each individual has the power to change our reality. We ourselves are the center of the new world. We have to stubbornly create this mental image of what we desire, and strengthen our conviction by aligning this vision with our deepest values. Our own personal vision is what will guide us as we start identifying new patterns which are emerging out of the current chaos. Our own values will drive this process.

Risk was the central theme. So what is risk? Risk is not a numbers game about expected ROI within a limited period. Such limited conceptions are dangerous because risk is a matter of perception. A perceived risk is a product of our own personal predilections, a mere bias. We fear the disasters that happened to us in the past, and through our focus on this fear we invite the same disasters to strike us again. We should ignore our obsession with the particulars of our own personal past. The true risk is in engaging the future with the same disposition and the same limited values that have defined our past.