Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Schlock and Awesome; Or, The Futurists Are Worse Than You Think

Very Serious Futurologist and Dean Martin impersonator (just a heartfelt suggestion, dude) Patrick Tucker, begins his discussion of the book Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler by complaining that too “many of us have fallen to the urge to surrender, to turn away from the growing needs of a bulging global population, to deny the reality of humanity’s impact on the Earth and the climate, to nurse our collective anxiety with the false comfort of ignorance and isolationism.” He cites as a cause of this a number of impacts of global human population growth which suggests, all things being equal, “energy demand will rise by 60% between 2002 and 2030. The number of people on the brink of starvation is above one-sixth of the total number of people on the planet, or at least one billion people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It will only get worse as current trends predict that two-thirds of the global population will live in a water-stressed environment by the year 2030, a phenomenon exacerbated by climate change.”

Tucker follows this sobering stock-taking and admonition of those who prefer escapism over actually grappling with the urgent problems at hand by doing what anybody who doesn’t actually follow futurism would regard as flabbergasting: he advocates precisely the escapism he admonished a moment before. Tucker enthuses: “Nine billion people in 2050, all needing food, shelter, clean air, intellectual and physical stimulation, isn’t the big problem we think it is, say Diamandis and Kotler. It’s actually nine billion problems but with nine billion potential solvers. Once you start counting the solutions, the ideas, the assets that we have and those that we are inventing -- once you begin counting the new connections that we’re making daily, hourly, and globally -- those nine billion problems look pretty paltry.”

Needless to say, even if it were true that the “connections” being made on Facebook and Twitter weren’t mostly one-liners by comedians and sales pitches and pretexts for marketing and surveillance and actually were substantial as absolutely they are not, even if it were true that guru-wannabes and think-tank ego-fluffers and celebrity CEOs weren’t mostly endlessly repackaging stale useless crap and flogging hyperbolic press releases to skim profits from the unwary in the face of crumbling infrastructure and diminishing returns and actually were stunning “idea leaders” as absolutely they are not, even if it were true that real solutions equal to our problems were being proposed and implemented through entrepreneurial innovation and functional accountable public-spirited well-governed civic apparatuses as absolutely they are not, even if all these things were true as absolutely they are not, even then the global problems of climate change, resource descent, exploitation, starvation, pandemics would be the farthest imaginable thing from “look[ing] pretty paltry.” It is hard to express just how appalling, how irresponsible, how cynical that statement is, especially coming as it does on the heels of something like a recognition of the scope and scale of some of the planetary problems that beset us.

When Diamandis and Kotler suavely and cynically propose that nine billion actually needy people living in a stressed finite planet aren’t a problem but “nine billion potential solvers” it is hard not to gasp at the outrageous glibness of their response. Everybody is born with a stomach that renders them vulnerable to starvation, but nobody is born with an education or access to law or influence to change their circumstances just because they are also born with a brain. Like millions and millions and millions of precarious, silenced, exploited, starving, unhealthy human beings on earth right now -- every one of whom is “a potential problem solver” in the utterly vacuous and smug sense Diamandis and Kotler deploy to reassure the privileged readers of their books that the catastrophic environmental and socioecomic and demographic realities that beset us won’t actually impinge on their own privileged existences -- so too few of the nine billion “potential problem solvers” on their way will have anything like the means to implement solutions to our problems even as they suffer the worst effects of the failure to solve them.

It should be emphasized that Diamandis is the Chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation -- which in my view fosters the absurd Randroidal ideological fantasy that prize money and for-profit competition can beat public investment to solve intractable shared problems, so far with the result mostly of attracting huge amounts of attention pretending that brief-duration low-gravity amusement park quality plane rides in low earth orbit constitute a "space program" like NASA was and still is, with profitable space hotels and asteroid mining colonies on the way any minute now, of course, and also pretending that anybody was ever going to buy Elon Musk’s slick Green DeLorean boondoggle, all the while ignoring the indispensable role of government money still enabling everything the least bit substantial to come out of this whole narcissistic Silicon Valley CEO superstar circle-jerk through government contracts and public university educations anyway. Diamandis is also the founder of Singularity University, you know, where Very Serious digital utopians and other assorted futurological nuts fancy they are coding a history-ending Robot God who will solve all of our problems for us (if it doesn’t reduce the world instead to computronium goo, the equally idiotic disasterbatory place their fancy sometimes takes them to instead) through the application of an "artificial super-intelligence" that apart from not existing and never arriving despite interminable predictions by the experts pretty much every year on the year since the 1950s and seems even in principle to lack some fairly obvious and indispensable things that are always present in actually-existing exhibitions of intelligence, like biological brains functioning in living mortal bodies subject to limits imposed by the vantages in which they are situated and expressing themselves in the context of complex and dynamic societies engaged in historical stakeholder struggles.

Tucker enthuses that “[n]o one is in a better position to cast light on these new ideas and solutions than Diamandis,” who is, Tucker proclaims, “a sort of international solutions hunter. His adventures rocketing around the world (and bringing the world to him at the Singularity University campus in Silicon Valley) are detailed wonderfully in this book… Diamandis’s journeys have brought him into contact with an amazing network of idea folks, from Craig Venter to Ray Kurzweil… and other entrepreneurs across the globe.” You will forgive me if I propose that Diamandis’s hob-nobbing with Craig Ventor and Ray Kurzweil and other boutique techno-fixers and entrepreneurial skimmers and scammers and TED squawkers means that almost EVERYONE is in a better position than him to cast light on our actual problems and engage in efforts at education, agitation, and organization to address them. Not to put too fine a point on it, I think Diamandis is just one more self-important bamboozlement peddler smiling his big toothy smile and raking in the dough from failure to failure while the world grows more perilous, precarious, and polluted by the minute.

As I point out in my Futurological Brickbats: “XXIV. It is always magical thinking to declare an outcome need only be profitable for it to be possible.” “LVI. Futurologists keep confusing making bets with having thoughts.” Writes Tucker, “Diamandis and Kotler… got to the future just a few steps before the rest of us.” This is, of course, the deception and self-deception that drives the fraud of futurology through and through. Tucker titles his handwaving review, "An Awesome Adventure to the Future!" (The exclamation point is, I think, implied.) But as I never tire of pointing out (actually, I am tired of it), “The Future” is not a tourist destination. It is not a magical land. There is no there there, it isn't an Emerald City certain lucky rich white people have seen before the rest of us have, that they can report back on, hold our hand and lead the way to while they endlessly pass the collection plate.

More Futurological Brickbats: “V. Futurity is a register of freedom, "The Future" another prison-house built to confine it. Futurity is the openness in the present arising out of the ineradicable diversity of calculating, contending, and collaborative stakeholders who struggle to make and remake the shared world, peer to peer. Futurity cannot be delineated but only lived, in serial presents attesting always unpredictably to struggle and to expression. "The Future," to the contrary, brandishing the shackle of its definite article, is always described from a parochial present and is always a funhouse mirror reflecting a parochial present back to itself, amplifying its desires and fears, confirming its prejudices, reassuring its Believers that the Key to History is in their hands.” “XII. To speak of "The Future" is always to indulge in reaction. All futurisms are finally retro-futurisms.”

“The Future” conjured up by Diamandis and Kotler is less than a mirage, for what it offers as substance is nothing but escapism from the real present, what it offers as solutions are nothing but distractions from problems, what it offers as a championing of the intelligence of exploited, excluded millions is nothing but an insult to their intelligence.

11 comments:

jollyspaniard said...

I found Diamandis' TED most recent TED talk quite creepy. I especially liked the part where he blamed skepticism in superlative futurism on a defect of the human brain. Presumably Diamandis doesn't suffer from the limitations of thinking using a meat brain somehow.

The depressing thing was that he got a standing ovation while a talk about the need to tackle the world's environmental problems using exsisting technology and political and economic reforms got polite applause. But that's venture capitalists for you.

jimf said...

> Dean Martin impersonator. . .

I think futurology needs a Maude Frickert impersonator.

Dale Carrico said...

futurology needs a Maude Frickert impersonator

Prisco, man, this is it, you were born for this!

Patrick Tucker said...

Hello and thank you for your suggestion re: Dean Martin. I'm perfectly aware that the future is not a destination and is but an intellectual construct. It's something we create and recreate in the present to give meaning to our actions and structure to our plans. And I've said so before on numerous occasions. But in my time as a "serious futurologist" I've learned that solutions help promote action better than problems presented without new solutions. This book is full of reasons to be optimistic, new solutions, grounded but hopeful thinking, and novel ideas, and that's why I like it. It's also written in an accessible style that still manages to be serious and...dare I say it...fun. I don't necessarily believe you can reduce future progress to Internet adoption rates and decreasing price of transistors, but you can't dismiss those as significant variables in the trend line, and variables that didn't even exist a few decades ago. I think the picture we are creating of the future is actually improving in several important aspects, so long as we don't lose site of those areas that need improvement. So yes, I'm hopeful. People are more than stomachs or passive participants in their own demise. I believe people are becoming exponentially more capable of solving global problems. I found this book encouraging and useful and...because it was fun and smart...awesome.

But ebullience is easy to poke fun at. I get it. Thanks for reminding me.

PS. If you would like to start cross posting some of your future-related blog posts at the World Future Society blog we would be happy to have you.

We may disagree but I'm not actually the Dean Martin impersonator you think I am.

Patrick Tucker

Dale Carrico said...

I don't necessarily believe you can reduce future progress to Internet adoption rates and decreasing price of transistors, but you can't dismiss those as significant variables in the trend line

You don't "necessarily" believe that? Well, that's good, since that is an obviously and absolutely wrong thing to believe. And while I don't altogether dismiss the decrease in the cost of transistors in my deliberations, I daresay I'd put it rather lower on the priority list than you might. I'm right to do so.

I think the picture we are creating of the future is actually improving in several important aspects

I happen to think futurologists assign considerably more efficacy to such picture-painting activities than they deserve. Although you assert you are not beholden to the falsifications of "the future as destination" do you not discern the way in which you figuratively depend on precisely this conceit when you speak of painting a picture of the future that presumably exerts some wholesome force? Snark aside, how deeply have you really interrogated the enabling assumptions of the futurological. Take a look at my Condensed Critique of Transhumanism, even if you continue to disagree, it is (mostly) very serious.

So yes, I'm hopeful.

I'm not NOT hopeful. But I tend to lodge my hopes, such as they are, in real knowledge production (not hyperbole) and in real democratic struggle (not fandom).

People are more than stomachs or passive participants in their own demise.

This may be the key term on which our dispute turns. I say it is not enough simply to assert that people are powerful, and then pretend that anybody exposing the ways in which under-educated, under-documented, under-served, under-fed, over-exploited people lack the actual agency of those differently situated is insulting them or simply lacking in can-do spirit is profoundly wrongheaded. Rather than simply assuming that will be different in "the future" I think we need to struggle to ensure those outcomes (refer to the "hope" question, above), and I fear these struggles tend not to be "fun" -- tho' they have their entertaining moments.

people are becoming exponentially more capable of solving global problems

Uh-huh. Why can't futurologists help saying things like this? Even if some capacities are techno-facilitated others are frustrated, others are unchanged, costs, risks, demands, benefits are as diverse as their stakeholders. Cheerleading is not helpful.

We may disagree but I'm not actually the Dean Martin impersonator you think I am.

That's highly disappointing -- I was thinking that might be the most fertile ground for the beginning of friendly negotiations.

PS: Re-post anything you like, just let me know so I can participate in any conversation that might emerge. I don't suppose it's a paying gig... (I keed! I keed!)

Patrick Tucker said...

This may be the key term on which our dispute turns. I say it is not enough simply to assert that people are powerful, and then pretend that anybody exposing the ways in which under-educated, under-documented, under-served, under-fed, over-exploited people lack the actual agency of those differently situated is insulting them or simply lacking in can-do spirit is profoundly wrongheaded. Rather than simply assuming that will be different in "the future" I think we need to struggle to ensure those outcomes (refer to the "hope" question, above), and I fear these struggles tend not to be "fun" -- tho' they have their entertaining moments.

We aren't in disagreement about this. I think your projecting attitudes onto me that you perhaps find common in others but that I haven't expressed.

The thing I liked about Abundance is that it takes the central premise of Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and flushes it out with engaging, real world examples from the present. This is something I found lacking in Shirky's most recent work. So I don't think Diamandis disagrees with you on this fairly obvious point either.

Although you assert you are not beholden to the falsifications of "the future as destination" do you not discern the way in which you figuratively depend on precisely this conceit when you speak of painting a picture of the future that presumably exerts some wholesome force?

The future, like Truth, contains multitudes. Yes, I utilize the future as a destination in a rhetorical way, though I know it isn't. My bad. But the future--strictly defined as a mental construct--most certainly does exert force.

That's highly disappointing -- I was thinking that might be the most fertile ground for the beginning of friendly negotiations.

I don't believe you. Regardless of our respective feelings toward the Rat Pack, you employ Dean Martin in this instance as an ad hominem attack to set me up as an object of ridicule.

PS: I don't suppose it's a paying gig... (I keed! I keed!)

Sorry. No money it. I'm trying to assimilate your critical gaze in order to render it benign. I keed!

Dale Carrico said...

I will take your word for it when you declare us to be in agreement where we don't necessarily seem to be, and simply point out that, practically speaking, actual commitments are reflected in actual emphases rather than in concessions one retreats to under scrutiny (as true for me as for you, certainly).

What you chose to highlight from the piece and then defend against criticism neglected to mention that majorities now live without the agency enabled by formal status, education, support even though they likely have the capacity in principle to collaborate in the solution of the problems we share and from which they tend disproportionately to suffer, and it is historical social and political struggle -- not the indifferent accumulation of or abstract access to the technology toy pile -- that will change that for the better now and in the next now and the next. Futurology has these reductive and determinist and instrumentalizing tendencies and if you do not share them you will have to consciously and explicitly struggle against them, else be seen to endorse them.

Further, "The Future" does not exist to "contain" anything, it is the present that contains multitudes, and it is the contention of these multitudes (the plurality of stakeholder vantages, situations, aspirations) that constitutes the openness in the present I designate as its futurity. In my view, constructions, projections, imaginations of "the future" function precisely to foreclose open futurity and substitute for it a destination that tends to be a funhouse mirror of some parochial inhabitation of the present, amplifying its values, fears, desires. That's one of the reasons I harp so much on the figuration of "the future" in discourses. As you say, this is rhetorical, but take it from a rhetorician, these discursive energies circumscribe the possible and the important in deeply significant ways. And so rhetoric, figures, frame do indeed exert force -- the key question, then, forces indicative of what? enabling of what? in whose service?

In closing, a truly critical gaze is always already benign, or at any rate a needful thing. Also, I won't compare you to Dean Martin anymore, danke shoen.

streamfortyseven said...

Some of those nine billion hungry problem solvers may engage in an exercise first posited in Jean Raspail's "Camp of the Saints"... A fleet of container ships would serve nicely for the task at hand - but the containers would be full of people, not manufactured goods from the Third World. Excess population comes to the Land of Plenty. They show up here in their millions and tens of millions - it wouldn't take much to establish a beachhead and overwhelm the existing population, especially since uninspected containers get piled two and three high on 100-car long trains. Quite an invasion force that would make. And that's a possible - even probable - solution to the problem. Of course, the solution on this end is to sink the container ships 100 miles offshore and sink the containers with machinegun fire, but that would be one hell of a choice, wouldn't it?

Dale Carrico said...

Were you jacking off as you wrote that?

streamfortyseven said...

No. And I'm not joking, either. At some point in the game, the fossil-fueled surplus commodities produced by American ag are going to cease, and the countries that get them are going to be far beyond their carrying capacity. But the countries which get the surplus food will know where it comes from... So look up Camp of the Saints.

Dale Carrico said...

Yes, I'm well aware of and do take seriously energy and resource descent arguments. I also know that the so-called Green Revolution in agriculture was a matter of imposing non-resilient monoculture, costly petro-dependent automation, mostly terrain-indifferent in ways that catastrophically exacerbate topsoil erosion, vast irrigation systems depleting aquifers, and high-energy input intensive petrochemical fertilizers-insecticides yielding ever-lower outputs on what were family farms: in short, yet another false futurological miracle, this time the creation of unsustainable Big Ag but who cares because it's momentarily profitable to incumbent elites.

You probably don't know this coming up me unawares online, but I teach classes in the varieties environmentalist politics and subcultures and discourses to undergraduates in the Bay Area, both at SFAI and at UC Berkeley.

All that said, I do discern in some men who are drawn to this area of concern a distressing almost disasterbatory thrill at contemplating collapse and post-collapse narratives in which they figure as the manly (at last!) protagonist licensed to shoot his gun in the midst of an apocalyptic technicolor carnage.

The crises of industrially farmed topsoil depletion, depleting and salinating aquifers, carbon pollution, and overpopulation demand relocalization and organicization of much of our agricultural system, invite the expansion of permacultural companion planting, integrated plant management, and public investment in the replacement of urban food deserts with organic local farmers markets, and require the planetary empowerment of women and girls and provision of universal access to healthcare and including family planning. These are all very good and important efforts to get involved in. I don't think the bloodsoaked end-game preoccupation is much help to anybody, least of all you yourself. I do mean that kindly.