5 August 2014

Convergent Risk, Social Futurism, Wave (1)

.@WAVE_Movement. @TZMGlobal. #AntiStatism. #AntiState.

This article was published with permission and is an excerpt from a chapter of Anticipating 2025, the book

In recent years there has been a growing understanding that technologies often do not develop in isolation, but instead affect and frequently accelerate each other’s’ development. This process of increasing interdependence between developing technologies is known as convergence. When discussing this phenomenon, commentators tend to focus on the convergence of NBIC (Nanometre scale, Biological, Information, and Cognitive) technologies.

We live in a world in which rapid change presents both great opportunities and risks. Futurists are used to thinking about the concurrent development of emergent technologies, to the extent that we can meaningfully predict such complex processes. When assessing risks, however, we often make the mistake of considering them as independent, rather than interdependent and convergent. For example, just as advancing computer technology has greatly benefited the development of biotechnology, advancing resource and economic crises can themselves increase the risk of war and other problems.

Unless the promise of convergent technologies can be used to promptly solve the serious problems facing humanity, then humanity itself may not survive much longer. We now stand at a crossroads, and after another decade of converging promise and risk we will face a stark choice between using technologically-driven change to solve those problems, or allowing it to destroy us. The following chapter will outline the various major categories of convergent risk, propose an alternative to our current model of societal organization, and offer a ‘toolkit’ of policy and strategic steps we can take toward a positive future.

1.1   Technological & Environmental Risks

In each of the following three sections I will briefly discuss two categories of risk at a time, in order to illustrate the interdependent nature of risk. We should begin by considering technological risk, which (along with environmental damage) is often thought of as the dark side of technological promise.

Technological risk includes any situation in which the misapplication of or lack of appropriate control over a technology creates danger. Eye-grabbing headlines tend to focus on the most dramatic examples, such as runaway nanotechnology or Artificial Intelligence. However, the simple fact is that in a world where technological development (however mundane) is multiplying and accelerating, risk associated with those technologies is also multiplying and accelerating.

The most prominent technologically driven danger is arguably that from climate change, which is a significant environmental risk. Such connections between risk categories illustrates the natural and often seamless relationship between those categories. For example, pollution of various types is argued to be the primary cause of climate change [1], and pollution will remain coupled with technological development until we actively work to develop technologies which do not cause (or preferably even reduce) environmental damage. A similar and terrible interaction between technological and environmental risks was demonstrated by the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, in which a national-level natural risk was amplified by ill-maintained technology into an international disaster. As technology plays a greater role in our lives, the level of risk it represents will grow correspondingly and converge with other risks, unless we take steps to manage it appropriately and comprehensively.

1.2 Economic Failure & Civil Discord

We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living. 
R. Buckminster Fuller
The Western world has endured some economic hardship in recent years, caused by serious financial destabilization in the banking sector. We are told that the economy is now recovering, and that all is well. Even if we did not have reason to doubt such claims [2], clearly we would have great trouble getting through a second economic crisis any time inside the next decade. Our lives are effectively organised around the idea of Capital investment, and crises in investment occur periodically. Under the wrong circumstances this can endanger the entire fabric of society.

Capitalism might be thought of as a machine, or a process. It is an engine of sorts which has yielded great value for society, having made a high-technology future possible. Unfortunately, the engine’s operations also yield some unfortunate side-effects. The sensible move at this point would be to optimise the process; to maximise the engine’s efficiency and minimise its negative societal effects. Unfortunately, however, it would appear that if Capitalism is a machine, it is a machine with no off-switch or pause button. It appears to be a kind of runaway process.

Furthermore, financial and economic crises do not play out in isolation from social and political factors. Economic strife can give rise to civil discord, potentially radicalising those who once were satisfied, and giving voice to radicals who once were ignored. Multiple factors can mediate the causal relationship between economic and civic crises, but the point remains that one set of circumstances coming to fruition makes another more likely. [3] Although civil discord may offer some promise if it can lead to reform of a deeply dysfunctional system, it is far from without risk. Societal destabilization intrinsically leads to loss of emergency and support services, which will inevitably cost lives. It often favours extremist elements, if discord is allowed to run unchecked for too long. It is also prone to escalation, which in turn increases the likelihood of civil discord continuing for longer than is safe. Finally, civil discord can itself increase the likelihood of other dangerous developments, such as further economic collapse, not to mention civil or even international war. [4]

1.3 Resource Issues & War

On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.  
Chuck Palahniuk
It is not hard to see at least some of the ways in which economic and civic health is related to reliable access to resources. That is true on the level of an entire society which will run into trouble if resources (such as oil and gas) become scarce and therefore expensive, but also on the level of individual citizens who will often react badly if they feel they do not have equitable access to resources. As long as resources are plentiful and inequalities are not too obvious, then everything can operate fairly smoothly. However, as soon as resources become prohibitively expensive and extremely unequal patterns of distribution become obvious, there is scope for problems to develop.

We can now see that such resource problems would be intimately connected to other risks we have already considered, such as economic destabilization and civil discord. As resource shortages deepen then there will be greater incentive to pursue remaining resources at the expense of the environment, which we already know to cause civil disruption (e.g. anti-fracking protests in the UK [5].

The final and greatest risk is perhaps the one most often historically linked to resource issues: the risk of war. It has become common to imagine that since the fall of the Soviet Union war is merely a risk for third world countries. Despite the tendency of war to come to resource-rich regions who do not trade those resources on an aggressor’s terms [6]. It would be a mistake to imagine that we could not see war in the Western world once again. The USA and Russia (and to a lesser extent China) maintain large enough nuclear arsenals to exterminate most of humanity outright, and even a limited theatre exchange between Pakistan and India could potentially release enough toxins and particles into the atmosphere to induce a multi-year nuclear winter [7] [8] which would kill most if not all humans in a massive agricultural collapse. The risk of such exchanges remains high, with old tensions unresolved and new potential for direct confrontation in Eastern Europe.

Overall, it is important that we understand these risk categories to be interrelated, which means that in the long term they are all more likely to occur than is often believed [9] [10]. Also, we must understand that in the statistical sense (and assuming no drastic reduction of risk across the board) it is the case that given enough time, a catastrophic chain of events will occur. As the quote at the start of this section says, on a long enough time line the survival rate for everyone drops to zero. There are, however, two major caveats to bear in mind here. One is that the time line is only long in a statistical sense, so it is possible (however unlikely) that a catastrophic event could be triggered in the near future. On the other hand, we are not passive observers of this drama, or at least should not be. We can and should take the opportunity to use the transformative power of technology to dramatically reduce risk and build a future in which we not only survive but prosper. That positive future is the topic of the next section.

2.0 Social Futurism

Usually the first problems you solve with the new paradigm are the ones that were unsolvable with the old paradigm.
Joel A. Barker
The problems we face today cannot be solved without technology. Indeed, the technology we have now is too dangerous to simply abandon and hope for the best. We must harness the potential of technology to solve our civilization’s biggest problems once and for all. Ideally, in solving those problems we will be able to usher in a new era of exploration and fulfilment for humanity, but as explained in the first section we have pressing concerns to deal with first.

Although technology can drive the solutions to our problems, we cannot simply ignore the social, political and economic issues that are their essence and hope that technology will somehow bypass such things. We can no longer leave our highest societal imperatives up to markets and short-sighted political processes. The vision we require is of a society which embraces technology and positive values, but does so in an actively engaged way rather than simply assuming that everything will work out well.

There is a broad space of post-Capitalist alternatives potentially that are enabled by new technologies. For example, the internet has spawned an array of decentralised resource-sharing systems, with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin being the example which has most effectively caught the world’s attention. The reason for this is that decentralised resource sharing and other technologies such as 3D printing have the potential to make entire categories of institution obsolete. Given that nature abhors a vacuum, we should expect new modes of social organization to adopt the spaces left by those old institutions.

I am an advocate for a single category within that broad space, which I call Social Futurism. Social Futurism refers to the intelligent and compassionate application of new technologies to individual and societal improvement, with an emphasis upon voluntarism and personal freedom. At this stage, Social Futurism could be considered a synonym for Techno-Progressivism [11], although we cannot know if that will continue to be true as these schools of thought evolve. Some general characteristics of Social Futurism are considered below, with more specific policies presented in section three.

2.1 Evidence, Balance, Engagement, & Transition

All Social Futurist policies should be approached from a pragmatic and flexible (rather than ideologically constrained) point of view. Our main concern is therefore with policies that actually solve problems, so the use of empirical evidence is central to Social Futurism. Policy development and review should emphasise the setting of quantifiable goals and review of empirical evidence wherever that is an option, to encourage policy that evolves to better meet our goals over time.

We should therefore seek pragmatic, optimal balances between polarised ideological positions, to the extent that any given choice may be viewed as a continuum rather than a binary choice. Inevitablism of any sort (e.g. that technology or markets will make everything fine without any effort from us, or that we are all doomed no matter what) is a form of ideological polarity, and the corresponding form of balance is active engagement in concrete activities to secure positive outcomes. Such activities are a necessary feature of Social Futurism.

Another important example of balance can be found in the question of transition, which is to say the process of development from our current PEST (Political, Economic, Social, Technological) status to a more efficient and just society. Political questions are often depicted as a false dichotomy between things as they are on the one hand, and radical utopias entirely disconnected from current reality on the other. What is both preferable and more tractable is an intelligent balance and bridging of the past and future, in the form of a pragmatic transition phase.

In summary, the effectiveness of our methods should be tested by reviewing evidence after applying policy for fixed periods of time, we should balance our policies in a flexible and pragmatic manner (including active engagement rather than an ideologically-driven Inevitablism), and we should seek a staged transition toward a better future.

[1] http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/causes.html
[2] OCC report showing increased concentration in US derivatives market since 2009, indicating greater potential risk to critical financial institutions than existed during the 2008-2009 crisis:
[3] http://www.theguardian.com/business/2011/feb/01/global-economic-recovery-tensions-strains-imf
[4] http://www.gvpt.umd.edu/davenport/dcawcp/paper/111605.pdf
[5] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10874055/David-Camerons-house-fracked-by-protesters.html
[6] http://edition.cnn.com/2013/03/19/opinion/iraq-war-oil-juhasz/
[7] http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/12/061211090729.htm
[8] http://www.envsci.rutgers.edu/~gera/nwinter/nw6accepted.pdf Alan Robock, Luke Oman, George. L. Stenchikov. 2008. Journal Of Geophysical Research 2008;112 [www.pnas.org/content/105/14/5307].
[9] http://www.stat.berkeley.edu/~aldous/157/Papers/yudkowsky.pdf
[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cascading_failure
[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techno-progressivism

By M. Amon Twyman - More articles by M. Amon Twyman

Reprinted from Anticipating 2025 with permission of the author

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