November 15, 2008

Convergence08: Hughes and LaTorra on Digital Serfs and Cyborg Buddha

Connections being drawn:

Speculations about work, leisure, income and automation (very topical given Marshal Brain's recent talk at Singularity Summit). Future issues include ongoing technological and cultural globalization, along with the impact of robotics and expert systems and the potential for structural unemployment.

We have to plan for radical economic dislocation and take this scenario seriously. We need to have a renegotiation about leisure and work.

Couple of ways to deal with this:
  1. We could go on permanent vacation -- but many of us have defined our lives according to our labor. Hughes says this is a recent phenomenon.
  2. Redistribution of unemployment -- e.g. change career paths, distribute work, etc.
Another proposal is a basic income guarantee, ensuring that every citizen has a certain kind of income. A proto version of this has been established in Brazil. Establishing a social safety net.

The cyborg Buddha part of this: to ensure that the life of leisure will lead people to a life of social and psychological flourishing, rather than the opposite. We will have a great wealth of time (an unprecedented opportunity), the question is what to do with it. Society should encourage people to use this time to work on individual growth.

Future technologies will allow people to descend into a dystopian horror. The challenge will be to convince people not to choose this path. The pending range of bliss states is not enlightenment. What we're living in now is a kind of virtual reality, it's not the truth -- and we need to see things the way they really are. Bliss states are a part of this virtual reality.

LaTorra argued that modern demands for material goods have prevented many from pursuing a more spiritual path. If economic pressure were off, people would be given the opportunity to spend more time and be less fearful of following the Buddhist path.

The Cyborg Buddha project is about laying the groundwork and helping people along the right path. Of importance is to help people deal with new technologies.

Blissing out: no growth, no stasis, no inner personal or spiritual life. It's a trap.

Today we have the opportunity to create a society in which people can pursue a more rigorous spiritual life, including more time to meditate.

Future society will allow more people to use this leisure time and not be dependent on others.

Neurotechnologies will also dissipate our sense of an autonomous, single self -- a notion that jives very well with Buddhist beliefs.

Is it unBuddhist to want to live forever, a form of attachment? Hughes says it's okay to have the opinion that you want to keep on living.


Cliff said...

I'm not sure I understand this part:
Blissing out: no growth, no stasis, no inner personal or spiritual life. It's a trap.

Is that saying that inner personal and spiritual lives are a trap? Or that blissing out is a trap, and having no inner life is a characteristic of that?

George said...

Sorry for the vagueness. Buddhists argue that blissing out, while tempting, is a trap. Sure, samsara (suffering) may be eliminated, but such a condition does not lead to enlightenment. In one sense, it's a kind of death, where a person no longer has a rich and meaningful inner life.

Okay, now that's the argument. What I didn't record in my post was the discussion that this spawned, including meaning of life issues, existentialism, and whether or not the hedonistic imperative can be reconciled with Buddhism.

I don't think this case is closed, and it's something I want to explore a bit more in the future -- and potentially at next year's Buddha Dharma 2.0 conference in Boulder.

dharmicmel said...

who, may I ask, is actually blissing out, as it were, and are they doing it all the time?

George said...

There are a number of ways to 'bliss out' today, including various forms of escapism and drugs. But we were speaking more from the perspective of future technological possibilities -- like being hooked up to a pleasure machine of some sort. It introduced a number of difficult ethical and existential issues.

dharmicmel said...

would this be anything like an "orgasmatron?;" how soon will they be developed?

George said...

Yeah, that's the general idea; my guess is sometime within the next 20 years or so. I don't think it'll be particular difficult to max out the human pleasure centers and keep it cranked. We're already getting some side-effects and control devices like this from deep brain stimulation patients.

Cliff said...

Okay, that's about what I figured, but I wanted to be sure I understood, since this ties into transhumanist and Buddhist ideas and values.

I've thought about this before - as technology progresses, will we need to examine what, if any, value suffering adds to human life?

For instance - cancer. Currently, cancer treatments are an ordeal, with no guarantee of success. IIRC, about 25% of the populace will have cancer of one sort or another, so finding a cure is a priority.
But do the people that have to deal with cancer gain something? Is there some value to recognizing that they will die (whether from cancer or from some other cause), and to undergoing arduous rounds of surgery, chemo and radiation therapy?
(I'd say, from personal experience, that there is.)

It's not a problem yet, since there's so much suffering to go around. But I think eventually we'll have to take a look at if complete comfort is the best for humanity.

dharmicmel said...

some would say that if there is anything, any specific thing at all, no matter what, then in some way it is a valid part of the human experience
I guess that depends a lot on what you go through
I know someone who went through some very serious times with cancer; after all of that, she says that she learned many things; she also said she wouldn't wish the experience on anyone
seems like she suffered -- she did, I know, and it made me suffer to see her suffering, though not nearly the ordeal that she went through; yet, she does not want anyone else to suffer what she went through; she applauds any efforts made to overcome cancer
the whole thing about having to suffer seems to suggest to me many things, most of which, that it is time to evolve beyond suffering, and I see transhumanism as a means to an end here
saying that, I realize I don't see everything, and all of the unknown possiblities; it just seems to me that we are moving ahead on all fronts; speaking of which, I heard something recently about a vaccine being developed that will cure skin cancer; clinical trials are expected to begin next year
so, those who develop things to ease or end suffering, especially disease, suggest that what they have learned is to overcome suffering
there is the thinking that samsara is a process, one in which we move from one world to another, always creating in perpetua; seems very similar to the ongoing evolution and accelerated change involved in transhumanism
I think we can learn from many different things; there are suffereings of all kinds; mine has been war, and what I perceive of as man's inhumanity to man; having been in a combat zone, I can only say that like torture, I don't think any human should ever have to experience these things, and I think these things should be overcome; then there is the psychoemotional sufferings, such as man's inhumanity to man, which seem impossible to me, and they too need to be overcome, meaning, in my view, completely edited out of the human experience
I think we can evolve to a higher state of development and eventually, we will be able to overcome things like suffering; it is only my opinion, but it seems posthumanism is going to, at least try, to edit out a lot of things, including involuntary suffering
I'm all for it

Doc G said...

Why does Bliss trump the Eightfold Path and the middle way for Cyber Buddhists?

Dr. G.