December 26, 2009

On Singer and radical life extension

Russell Blackford is a guest blogger for Sentient Developments.


The current (December 2009) issue of The Journal of Medical Ethics contains my paper: "Moral pluralism versus the total view: why Singer is wrong about radical life extension." There, I critique an early 1990s paper by Peter Singer, which argues that we should not proceed to develop a hypothetical life-extension drug, based on a scenario where developing the drug would fail to achieve the greatest sum of universal happiness over time. I respond that this is the wrong test. If we ask, more simply, which policy would be more benevolent, we reach a different conclusion from Singer's: even given his questionable scenario, development of the drug should go ahead. A more pluralistic account of the nature of morality than used by Singer reaches a benevolent recommendation on life-extension technology.

My paper is intended not merely to offer a better solution to the conundrums raised in Singer's original piece, but also to suggest a methodology of much wider value in applied moral philosophy.

The scenario

Singer's argument employs an imaginary scenario in which life extension would not increase, and would actually reduce, the universal sum of happiness or welfare (henceforth, I will refer simply to "happiness") over time. Singer describes a scenario in which an anti-ageing, or life-extension, pill would more-or-less double human lifespans, but the level of happiness enjoyed in the second half of a typical individual's life would be lowered to some (relatively small) extent. He also stipulates that it would be necessary to ensure that fewer people came into existence over time if the life-extending pill were developed and used. Given this scenario, he thinks, we should not go ahead with developmental work on the hypothetical life-extension pill.

More specifically, Singer imagines a scenario in which those who take the drug experience no effect during their early decades of life. However, when they reach middle age, the drug retards further ageing so dramatically as to extend an average life span from about 75 years to about 150 years. During her additional years of life, an individual's health will not be restored to youthful levels, but it will be good enough for a very worthwhile quality of life (similar to the health of people in their sixties or seventies today). An individual may find that life has lost some of its experienced "freshness", and the combination of this (should it happen) with somewhat reduced health will make her additional years less happy than her first 70 or 80 years of life - but not greatly so.

Mark Walker has questioned this scenario elsewhere, suggesting that it is unrealistic to assume that the first 70 or 80 years would typically be happier than the second for those with what he calls "superlongevity". My own approach is more fundamental, as I conclude that Singer gives the wrong recommendation even if we accept all of his stipulated facts.

A further stipulation made by Singer is that resource limitations will require population controls, whether or not the drug becomes generally available, but they will need to be more severe if the pill is developed. Fortunately, Singer tells us, the pill will allow for an increase in average child-bearing age and a lower fertility rate. Nothing in his analysis depends on the exact ingredients of a population policy; rather, his essential point is that it will be necessary to devise an appropriate policy to ensure that only half as many people are born if the life-extension drug is available. I.e., he has in mind a scenario in which the total number of people who will be born and live out their lives over a large number of years will be half what it would have been without the drug. (The fairly simple calculations involved are discussed in my article; suffice to say that Singer is more or less right here, if we adopt all his basic assumptions.)

It is easy to demonstrate that, if we adopt all these assumptions - which Singer evidently regards as constituting a plausible scenario - the total sum of happiness, over a set period of time, is greater in a society without the life-extension pill than a society with the life extension pill. Moreover, the average society-wide happiness at any given moment is higher in the society without the life-extension pill. On the other hand, typical individuals of the future will have better lives in the society with the life-extension pill than in the society without it. This may seem paradoxical, but it is actually quite easy to demonstrate that it is true so long as we make some plausible assumptions. In that case, should we go ahead with developing the drug or not?

Recommendations: Singer's ... and mine

Singer argues that should not develop the drug; I disagree. But here the argument gets complex, and I cannot, in a relatively brief blog post, do justice to the complex issues that I needed a 7000-word article to tease out properly. I agree with Singer that we should take into account the interests of future generations, not just the interests of people who are alive now, but what follows from this?

It appears that Singer wants to maximise what we could call total future happiness-years (I hope the meaning of this is transparent: in any event, it involves multiplying the number of future people by the average number of years they live, and then by their average level of happiness across an entire life). He wants to do this at all costs, even if the people who come into existence have worse lives than the smaller number of longer-lived of people who would have come into existence under a different policy. I find that very implausible. Although Singer offers thought experiments to support his approach to the question, I find them unconvincing (my article explains why in some detail).

We should, I suggest, adopt the more benevolent policy, and we should not think of benevolence as a matter of maximising total happiness-years. In a situation such as the one that concerns us, the choice of the pro-pill and anti-pill versions of Singer's life-extension scenario, we should not try to maximise the overall number of happiness-years. We should try to produce the most fortunate lives.

Moral theories

It may be that utilitarians, such as Peter Singer, are inevitably pushed toward "total-view" thinking - which attempts to maximise the total amount of happiness in the universe - rather than toward a view that we should ensure the best possible lives for those people who will come to exist in the future. As a result utilitarians can, again paradoxically given the sympathies that underly their moral theory, make policy recommendations that are not the most benevolent available.

Unfortunately, all utilitarian theories developed to date contain paradoxes or involve counterintuitive implications. If, however, we take a more pluralistic approach to the sources of our morality, such difficulties vanish. I expect that a considerable diversity of values underpins our actual moral thinking. We care, for example, about the reduction of suffering, about the lives of others going well, and about people being able to live with a certain spontaneity. We value wilderness, art and culture, the quest for knowledge, the existence of complex, creative cultures … and many other things. To at least some extent, we value all these for themselves, not solely because of their further utilitarian effects.

We do not value the largest possible sum of happiness over time ... which can, in principle, be gained by multiplying the number of sentient beings (so long as they have lives that are at least worth living). What we value, rather, is that whatever actual lives come into being should go well. Other things being equal, we value the outcomes that would be chosen, among those possible, by a benevolent decision-maker, not by a decision-maker committed to total-view utilitarianism. As shown by the way Singer has set up his life-extension scenario, these two kinds of outcomes can diverge.


It is clear to me that I should vote to go ahead and develop the life-extension pill - and so, after reflection, should you, and so should Singer. No plausible values are violated by this action; quite the opposite. Far from feeling guilt or regret at having adversely affected another person, or having destroyed or damaged anything precious, an individual who votes to develop the life-extension pill has every reason to feel virtuous. She will have helped to create a world in which lives go better than (more and different) lives would otherwise have.

I am, however, conscious that some readers will find this very truncated version of the argument unconvincing. That may, of course, be because I am wrong! However, it may also be because the issues become quite complicated, and that I really do need the considerably greater length of the full article in The Journal of Medical Ethics to explain them properly. If you have library access, I suggest you look up the original article and the other works cited there.

Otherwise, I can only promise that I will return to similar issues in future writings, perhaps here, but certainly in my own blog over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

December 25, 2009

After proud knowledge

Russell Blackford is a guest blogger for Sentient Developments. This post is cross-posted at Sentient Developments and Metamagician and the Hellfire Club.

I'm currently reading a book that has been sitting on my shelves, unbroached as far as I can recall, for too many years: The Proud Knowledge: Poetry, Insight and the Self, 1620-1920, by John Holloway (London: Routledge, 1977).

The Proud Knowledge has certain annoying features. One is a generally disdainful or arrogant attitude on the part of the author. He dismisses Robert Southey's then-enormously popular but now-almost-unread narrative poems, The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer, as "ridiculous works" (p. 94) and almost valueless, despite their influence on the likes of Keats and Shelley. Well - perhaps so. I can't say otherwise, since I, like most people these days, have never read them. Perhaps they really are dreadful. But Holloway rather loses my sympathy when he faintly praises Southey's occasional descriptive passages of merit, facility for prosody, and varied style (pp. 102-103), then adds:

But in the main, those two poems more or less fulfilled for their time the function fulfilled in recent times by films in gorgeous technicolour of the Orient, and by science fiction and possibly by a novel like The Lord of the Rings. Scenery, romantic affairs, fantastic travel, cosmic warfare, other grandiose but trifling thrills, make their stock in trade. (p. 103)

Despite its haughty tone, this passage actually makes The Curse of Kehama and Thelaba the Destroyer sound pretty interesting! Maybe their popularity, including with Keats and Shelley, wasn't just an aberration of literary taste. As I read Holloway's description, I start to wonder whether Southey's narratives really are as bad as is commonly assumed - whether they might not, in fact, be pretty good and just waiting to be rediscovered (perhaps by Hollywood screenwriters). Southey was, of course, rendered a ridiculous figure by Byron's satirical attacks (as was Thomas Shadwell by Dryden's at an earlier time). He is best known as a radical-turned-conservative and a literary dunce ... but surely anything worth being compared to science fiction and The Lord of the Rings must at least have suspense and entertainment value.

Nearly as annoying is Holloway's assumption that anyone reading his scholarly work must be fluent not only in English but also French, Latin, and ancient Greek. His pages are peppered with quotations in these languages - without translations. Now, anybody who has read widely in the history of ideas is likely to have picked up some useful Greek and Latin words and phrases, while my French is at least good enough for me to cope easily with many of the shorter quotations. But I am not inclined to struggle, my Babelfish in hand, with solid blocks of literary French whose full significance might well elude a sophisticated native of Paris. I realise that Holloway's attitude was still common in the 1970s among British literary academics, so the book is a product of its time, but it's nonetheless annoying to be told, in effect, that you are not wanted as a reader unless your fluency in foreign languages matches the author's. If Holloway finds it so easy, why not provide his own translations and potentially expand his readership?

All that said, the book is worth a reading. Holloway is dealing with the solitary quest for deep knowledge, undertaken by so many of the English poets from the sixteenth century through to the time of the high Modernists (and perhaps beyond). He offers the insight, obvious once pointed out, that this was simply not a theme in English poetry before the modern period. Instead, the lyric meditations of Donne and his predecessors tended to fall back on a body of generally-available cultural wisdom, associated with Christian doctrine. By Milton's time, this is becoming problematic (even though Milton does attempt to justify the ways of God to Man), and by the time of the Romantics we see great poets such as Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley embarking on their own far-flung intellectual quests. Even when the wisdom they bring back resembles conventional religious reassurances, it is hard won through individual experience and insight - often involving epiphanic moments. Objects and events are now observed with a new intensity, by poets attempting to understand them for themselves, rather than being analogised to aspects of the traditional, commonly-available wisdom. The Romantic poets achieve, or affect to achieve, a special knowledge unavailable to more prosaic or city-bound souls - or in some cases they come to see the proud, solitary quest as essentially destructive, as chasing a will-o'-the-wisp that leads only to despair or desolation.

In literary terms, of course, much has been gained by our culture - namely the mighty works of the Romantics and those who followed (among them, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Hardy, Yeats, and Eliot).

At one point, early in his book, Holloway lucidly expresses what was lost - if "loss" is the best way to describe the subversion of false certainties. Discussing Henry Vaughan's "Cock-Crowing", he observes:

In these facts about the task undertaken by the poem, I see signs of two great convictions which have lain at the heart of civilization over long periods in the past, but do so no longer. The first is, that man [sic] was the primary entity in the cosmos, and that the other orders of creation were secondary entities of which the significance was in the end derivative. The second, that the great and essential truths which map out the human situation do not await discovery, or even constant re-discovery, but have been established long ago, and once for all. The poet's task is therefore to present truth rather than explore it; and the quality of attention which he brings to his experience reflects that guiding fact. (p. 57)

Exactly right. By the time of the Metaphysical poets, these convictions are coming under pressure, but even John Donne (so it seems to me, and evidently to Holloway) is always quick to grasp the traditional, culturally-available knowledge, however much he may rely upon new forms of learning for his ingenious figures of speech. Writing during the Enlightenment, the great Augustans seem to me (though Holloway might not agree with this formulation, since he pretty much skips from Milton to Blake) almost reactionary figures, attempting to hold on to old certainties and values, despite the drift of the times. In any event, the traditional, culturally-available knowledge is losing its prestige throughout the Enlightenment and appears to require defence, restatement, qualification, and some kind of harmonisation with the down-to-earth knowledge of the politically ascendant bourgeoisie.

But of course, it is the Romantics who first valorise the enterprise of poetry as a lonely quest for unique insights: insights possibly reaffirming the traditional dogma, in some ways - or to some extent - but quite possibly antithetical to it. Even in moments when they opposed the moods of their times, the Romantics were products of a breakdown in the long-accepted synthesis of ideas in Christian Europe - as, of course, are we. What's more, there is no going back; and why would we want to, when the new era has produced extraordinary beauties of its own? Without the breakdown of the traditional wisdom - most prominent, perhaps, in the seventeenth century - we would have nothing remotely like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley (or Mary Shelley!), Keats, Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, Hardy, Yeats, or poor, nostalgic T.S. Eliot - much less Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, or Ted Hughes ... or even Milton, Dryden, and Pope. This is even before we step beyond the canon of English poetry, into other cultures, other literary domains (such as the science fiction that Holloway evidently scorns), or other artforms.

What comes next remains to be seen. Holloway seems to apprehend the impending close of our era of quests for "proud knowledge" - and he may even be correct, though the arguments need to be made out and examined. Most certainly, however, we cannot return, like contrite runaway children, to a time when ideas of human exceptionalism and received wisdom were unchallenged. "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" as Eliot asked. However we answer, we can only go forward, and there's no good reason that I can see to do so in a chastened or bleak spirit. We have learned much, and we can continue with a fitting optimism.

December 22, 2009

Avatar: The good, the bad and ugly

Great science fiction films are few and far between, so it was with great anticipation that I went to see Avatar on opening night.

I had been looking forward to this film since 2006 when James Cameron began working on the script. My expectations were significantly heightened after learning that Cameron, the director of Aliens, the first two Terminator movies and Titantic, was drawing inspiration from Japan -- namely through such directors as Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) and Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away).

I was particularly interested to see if Cameron could pull of the Miyazaki. As fans of his films know, there's nothing quite like a Miyazaki picture; they are as delightful, provocative and as imaginative as they come. Not since the early days of Disney have animated films been so good. Miyazaki weaves a magical touch that has eluded Hollywood since their Golden Age (think Pinocchio and Snow White).

After watching Avatar, I can honestly say that Cameron gave it a good shot. The Pandoran jungle was as atmospheric and alive as anything that Miyazaki has ever produced. The 3D element added an immersive and visceral component that was particularly powerful; there were times when I truly felt lost in the jungle alongside Jake and Neytiri. The bioluminescent forest was truly jaw dropping.

Further, the tastefulness and care with which Cameron added the CG elements is unparalleled (with a tip of the hat to Lord of the Rings). This is the kind of film that George Lucas could watch but not have the slightest clue as to why Cameron's CG works and his does not. Cameron, unlike Lucas, has learned to weave the fabric of all on-screen elements into context such that nothing is superfluous and everything adds to the entire composition and story. Where Lucas works to bash viewers over the head with a 'look what I can do!' approach to movie making, Cameron has taken a more thoughtful and artistic course.

Take, for example, the floating seeds that land on Jake when he first meets Neytiri. I was genuinely moved by the delicacy and beauty of each tiny seedling as it floated through the air. Moreover, my feelings were heightened after learning about the sacred status of the seeds and the implication to the story. This is exactly the kind of aesthetic moment I imagined when I thought about the potential for CGI back when it was first introduced so many years ago.

Spoilers follow.

In addition to the visual elements borrowed from Japan, Cameron also dipped heavily into one of Miyazaki's most famous films, Princess Mononoke. Indeed, one could say that he borrowed perhaps a bit too greedily. Rarely does imitation of this sort lead to anything deeper or superior than what was provided by the original.

Specifically, both films feature a majestic and beautiful forest teeming with a life that's intimately interconnected with itself and an ethereal spiritual realm. And both feature a nature that is under threat. The balance of the natural worlds are in jeopardy from greedy miners who are consuming its resources at an alarming rate. The miners are in turn threatened by an outsider who, after learning the ways of the forest, has come to protect and preserve it at all costs. Ultimately, the creatures of the natural world are forced to band together and deal directly with the parasitic elements. Even the character of Neytiri is a close parallel to San; both are deeply connected to the natural world, borderline feral and ride on the backs of wolves.

Interestingly, Princess Mononoke was Japan's top grossing movie until Cameron's Titanic usurped it from that position in 1999. This certainly looks like a case where if you can beat them, you should still join them.

Princess Mononoke wasn't the only story co-opted by Cameron; aside from the Miyazaki touches (both graphically and narratively), Avatar closely resembles another classic story, Frank Herbert's Dune. In fact, Avatar is essentially Dune -- Cameron simply replaced the desert planet with a jungle and removed all the depth, complexity and profundity that made Dune the classic science fiction story that it is.

Again, the comparisons: A young man arrives on a strange and inhospitable planet occupied by hostile natives -- natives who are perfectly adapted to the planet and live in harmony with it. The young man's civilization is there to exploit the planet for a precious resource and at the expense of the planet's ecological balance. Our hero, awkward at first, learns the ways of the locals and eventually 'goes native.' He finds a girlfriend among his new clan and is accepted and revered by the natives on account of signs that point to his unique purpose and status. The hero-messiah then starts to exceed the abilities of his new comrades -- there's even a test of manhood involving the taming and riding of a dangerous animal. In the end, the hero leads a charge against the outsiders by banding together natural resources and the local population. They eventually win and drive the outsiders out.

Now, while this certainly describes the general plot of both stories, Herbert's universe is filled with intelligent and provocative commentary that touches upon such themes as ecology, evolution, commerce, politics, religion, technological advancement and even social Darwinism. The best that can be said of Cameron's adaptation is that he got the environmental message across. But where Herbert's discourse on the environment was treated with subtly and complexity (including the issue of terraforming), Cameron chose to bang his audience over the head with a blatantly overt, simplistic and ridiculously biased sledge hammer.

In Avatar, Cameron rekindled the tired and cliched "noble savage" myth and set it in space. It was an effort that seemingly attempted to romanticize Stone Age culture and promote a Gaianist agenda. The film was anti-technology, anti-corporatist, anti-progress, and dare I say anti-human.

Gaianism in space? Really, Cameron? That was the best story you could come up with on a $237,000,000 budget?

Okay, some credit where credit is due. Given that the story is, whether I liked it or not, a Gaianist treatise, I did appreciate how Cameron achieved the sense of interconnectedness between the characters and Pandora. The ability of the Na'vi to link with other animals in a symbiotic fusion was very cool, as was the ability to upload conscious thought through the very fabric of the planet (a nice interplay on the high-tech/lo-tech theme knowing that the humans were also dabbling in mind transfer). I also liked how the humans could not breath the air of the planet, a strong hint that they truly had no business being on Pandora. The natives, on the other hand, were at complete peace with their environment.

So, overall some very mixed feelings about Avatar. The graphical and aesthetic achievements were certainly impressive, and for that it's a must-see film. And for those with a pronounced environmentalist bent, you will likely swoon over this movie. But if you're looking for a story with depth, complex characters and some challenging commentary, you're going to have to look elsewhere. And in this sense, the movie is a significant let down. One that I'll gladly watch over and over again.

December 15, 2009

Link dump: 2009.12.15

From the four corners of the web:
  • When robots have feelings their rights will need protection, too | Peter Singer and Agata Sagan
    If, as seems likely, we develop super-intelligent machines, their rights will need protection, too
  • "The Most Important Number in the World" | Ronald Bailey
    "The most important number in the world," Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldive Islands, told an audience of hundreds of climate activists in downtown Copenhagen, "is 350." Why 350? That's the threshold for parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that will cause dangerous anthropogenic interference with the world's climate.
  • Asteroid Deflection as a Public Good | Marginal Revolution
    In Modern Principles we use asteroid deflection as our example of a public good. Aside from memorability, the example has two virtues as a teaching tool. First, asteroid deflection is a true public good for all of humanity which raises free riding issues on a worldwide scale. Second, asteroid deflection is an example of a public good that is currently provided neither by the market nor by government. Thus the example underlines the fact that public goods are defined by their characteristics--nonexcludability and nonrivalry--and not by whether they are publicly provided, a point of confusion for many students.
  • 21st-Century Babies - Building a Baby, With Few Ground Rules |
    Surrogacy is largely without regulation, creating an emerging commercial market for babies that raises vexing ethical questions.
  • A Cold War Over Warming | Open the Future
    There is, I believe, a non-zero chance that an extended period of climate instability could induce a state that believes itself to be better able to adapt to global warming to slow its efforts to decarbonize in order to gain a lead over its more vulnerable rivals.

December 13, 2009

The best of Sentient Developments: 2009

Here are my favorite Sentient Developments articles from the past year:

The best of the guests

A hearty thank you goes out to all the guest bloggers who contributed to Sentient Developments in 2009. Here are my favorite of their articles from the past year:

December 6, 2009

The Harmonic Convergence of Science, Sight, & Sound

Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month.

I had the pleasure of listening to Joann Kuchera-Morin from Allosphere at the BioPolitics/H+ conference this weekend and just had to share it -- it elevates the art and science of communication to a new dimension (including the six dimensions now recognized in quantum physics):

You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.

December 5, 2009

Link dump: 2009.12.05

From the four corners of the web:

November 29, 2009

The art of Tomas Saraceno


Link dump for 2009.11.29

From the four corners of the web:

  • 25 Everyday Technologies That Came from NASA
    Though associated mainly with aerospace innovations, NASA holds a significant influence over daily life as well. Many people do not realize that everything from toys to sunglasses and even horseshoes have benefitted from technologies originally intended for astronauts, shuttle flights, and other elements of space exploration. While some inventions stem directly from NASA and its collaborations, others simply involve vast improvements to existing designs. The following list contains a combination of technologies that went straight from NASA to consumers as well as ones that went on to streamline articles that were already available.
  • Bionic supermen of sport | CTV Olympics
    Athletes with disabilities can now be transformed with the addition of high-tech prostheses which can actually outdo the human equivalents
  • Man trapped in a 23-year 'coma' was conscious entire time
    Doctors in Belgium have freed a hospital patient from a 23-year nightmare after discovering the man had been misdiagnosed with a coma.
  • Meat without animals? Science says yes! | Current
    Winston Churchill once predicted that it would be possible to grow chicken breasts and wings more efficiently without having to keep an actual chicken. And in fact scientists have since figured out how to grow tiny nuggets of lab meat and say it will one day be possible to produce steaks in vats, sans any livestock.
  • November 26, 2009

    I am my own grandpa (or grandma)?

    Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month.

    Can nanotechnology be sustainable? At the site,, under the section Green Futures, Peter Madden argues that nanotechnology can contribute to sustainability. But the article doesn't sit well with me -- why? Not because I'm a technophobe -- I love technology (except when it doesn't work, then I hate it).

    It bugs me because I can't tell what he means by sustainability.

    Who or what is being sustained? Humanity? Our Environment? The Earth? The Nanobots? Self-sustaining technology?

    And who controls or decides what be will be sustained?

    Don't get me wrong -- I do think there is such a thing as Green Nanotechnology; in fact Springer has just started a Journal of Green Nanotechnology.

    I just don't like to see sustainability used as a feel-good buzzword.
    Several key principles have emerged to guide sustainability efforts, including intergenerational equity, integrating environmental, social and economic sectors when developing sustainability policies, and preventing irreversible long-term damage to ecosystems and human health.

    The article does have one good point, though: In the end, it is how we decide to apply nanotechnology that will determine its true sustainability impact.

    You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.

    November 25, 2009

    How Americans spent themselves into ruin... but saved the world

    David Brin is a Sentient Developments guest blogger.

    In the 1/1/24 edition of the Silicon Valley newspaper and online journal Metroactive, I have an editorial describing how the American consumer came to propel the export-driven development of Japan, Korea, Malaysia, China and now India. That process, spanning more than six decades, is almost always portrayed -- especially in Asia -- as having come about as a result of eastern cleverness, in catering to the insatiable material appetites of decadent westerners. But there is a far more interesting, complex, and even inspiring explanation for how the greatest wealth transfer of all time -- which has lifted several billion people out of poverty -- actually came about. I reveal how George Marshall and the United States chose, in 1946, to behave differently from any other "pax" empire, and thereby changed the world.

    I'll now repost that essay here, in expanded form.

    If your politics operate on reflex - from either left or right - you are likely to find something here that will offend. But please, dear fellow believers in tomorrow, bear in mind that I'm an internationalist who opposed jingo-chauvinists, all his life.

    And yet, I feel it is long past time that someone spoke up in defense of Pax Americana.

    The Far-Right's Caricature Version of Pax Americana

    Sure, that phrase (PA) fell into disrepute during the era of the mad neocons, whose misrule left the United States far worse off by every clear metric of national health. During their time in near-total power, steering the American ship of state, fellows like Richard Cheney, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and their ilk made a point of proclaiming imperial triumphalism - exoling an America invested with sacred, perfect and permanent rights of planet-wide dominance, based upon inherent qualities that were said to be unaffected by any objective-reality considerations, like budgets or geography; like world opinion or the end of the Cold War; like science or technology; like rationality or morality or the physical well-being of our troops.

    Indeed, the only factor that they felt might undermine America’s manifestly-destined and eternal preeminence could be a failure of will, should the wimpy liberals ever have their way. But if led with a firm-jawed determination to bull past all obstacles, the American pax could linger indefinitely, with all the privileges of governing world affairs and few of the responsibilities or cares.

    Sure, it has been proper to oppose the policies of such deeply delusional men -- policies which unambiguously and uniformly brought ruin to the very things they claimed to hold dear. Capitalism, freedom, fiscal and national health, as well as U.S. influence in the world all plummeted under their rule. (These metrics all skyrocketed under Bill Clinton, whose endeavor in the Balkans was inarguably one of Pax Americana's finest hours.)

    But The Left Goes Too Far The Other Way

    And yet, something is very wrong with the unselective manner in which some folks on the other side have allowed those neocon nincompoops to define the argument. It is an unfortunate habit of the left to assume that any appreciation of the American contribution to human civilization must be inherently fascistic. This reflexive self-loathing has given (unnecessarily) a huge weapon to the right, in their ongoing treason-campaign called "Culture War," allowing them to retain millions of supporters who might otherwise have abandoned them.

    By abrogating the natural human phenomenon of patriotic pride, these fools on the left have allowed guys like Sean Hannity to claim love-of-country as a sole monopoly of the right! If they get away with pushing simplistic “greatest nation ever” rants and portraying themselves as the implicit opposite of homeland-hating liberals, that gift comes gratis from the left.

    Moreover, there is another reason for liberals to re-examine this reflex and to find good -- and even great -- things to proclaim about America. Because, without any doubt, America deserves it. Yes, self-criticism is a useful tonic, and there definitely were crimes committed, during our time on top. Nevertheless, the net effects of Pax Americana have been generally positive, compared against every single previous era in human history.

    This can be proved, with just a single example -- one that was as decisive as it is ironic, and that has spanned an entire lifespan.

    The Miracle of 1946

    Mr. Wu Jianmin is a professor at China Foreign Affairs University and Chairman of the Shanghai Centre of International Studies. A smart fellow whose observations about the world well-merit close attention. Specifically, in a recent edition of the online journal The Globalist, Wu Jianmin's brief appraisal of "A Chinese Perspective on a Changing World" was insightful and much appreciated.

    However I feel a need to quibble with one of his statements, which reflected a widespread assumption held all over the world:

    "After the Second World War, things started to change. Japan was the first to rise in Asia. We Asians are grateful to Japan for inventing this export-oriented development model, which helped initiate the process of Asia’s rise."

    In fact, with due respect for their industriousness, ingenuity and determination, the Japanese invented no such thing. The initiators of export-driven world development were two military and diplomatic leaders of Pax American at its very peak: George Marshall, who was Secretary of State under President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, during his time as military governor of Japan, in the ravaged aftermath of the Second World War.

    While Marshall crafted a historically unprecedented, receptively open trade policy called “counter-mercantilism” (I’ll explain in a minute), MacArthur vigorously pushed the creation of Japanese export-oriented industries, establishing the model of what was to come. Instead of doing what all other victorious conquerors had done – looting the defeated enemy -- the clearly stated intention was for the United States to lift up their prostrate foe, first with direct aid. And then, over the longer term, with trade.

    (One might well add a third American hero, W. Edwards Deming, whose teachings about industrial process -- especially the importance of high standards of quality control -- were profoundly influential in Japan, helping transform Japanese products from stereotypes of shoddiness into icons of manufacturing excellence.)

    Look, lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not downplaying the importance of Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian efforts to uplift themselves through the hard work of hundreds of millions who labored in sweatshops making toys and clothes for U.S. consumers. Without any doubt, those workers... (like the generations who built America, before 1950, in the sooty factories of Detroit and Pittsburgh)... and their innovative managers, were far more heroic and directly responsible for the last six decades of world development than American consumers, pushing overflowing carts through WalMart.

    Nevertheless, those consumers —plus the trade policies that made the WalMart Tsunami possible, plus a fantastically generous and nearly unrestricted flow of intellectual capital from west to east — all played crucial roles in this process that lifted billions of people out of grinding, hopeless poverty. Moreover, it now seems long past time to realize how unique all of this was, in the sad litany of human civilization.

    The Thing About Empires

    Let's step back a little. First off, if you scan across recorded history, you'll find that most people who lived in agricultural societies endured either of two kinds of global situations. There were periods of imperium and periods of chaos. A lot of the empires were brutal, stultifying and awful, but at least cities didn't burn that often, while the empire maintained order. Families got to raise their kids and work hard and engage in trade. Even if you belonged to an oppressed subject people, your odds of survival, and bettering yourself, were better under the rule of an imperial "pax."

    That doesn't mean the empires were wise! Often, they behaved in smug, childish, and tyrannical ways that, while conforming to ornery human nature, also laid seeds for their own destruction. Today, I want to focus on one of these bad habits, in particular.

    The annals of five continents show that, whenever a nation became overwhelmingly strong, it tended to forge mercantilist-style trade networks that favored home industries and capital inflows, at the expense of those living in in satrapies and dependent areas.

    The Romans did this, insisting that rivers of gold and silver stream into the imperial city. So did the Hellenists, Persians, Moghuls... and so did every Chinese imperial dynasty. This kind of behavior, by Pax Brittanica, was one of the chief complaints against Britain by both John Hancock and Mohandas Ganhdi.

    Adam Smith called mercantilism a foul habit, that was based in human nature. A natural outcome of empire, it over the long run almost inevitably contributed to self-destruction. But alas, everybody did it, when they could. Except just once.

    The Exception to the Rule of Imperial Mercantilism

    In fact, there has been only one top-nation that ever avoided the addiction to imperial mercantilism, and that was the United States of America. Upon finding itself the overwhelmingly dominant power, at the end of World War II, the U.S. had ample opportunity to impose its own vision upon the system of international trade. And it did. Only, at this crucial moment, something special happened.

    At the behest of Marshall and his advisors. America became the first pax-power in history to deliberately establish counter-mercantilist commerce flows. A trade regime that favored the manufactures of many foreign/poor countries over those in the homeland. Nations crippled by war, or by millennia of mismanagement, were allowed to maintain high tariffs, keeping out American manufactures, while sending shiploads from their own factories to the U.S., almost duty free.

    Moreover, despite the ongoing political tussle of two political parties and sometimes noisy aggravation over ever-mounting deficits, each administration since Marshall's time kept fealty with this compact -- to such a degree that the world's peoples by now simply take it for granted.
    Forgetting all of history and ignoring the self-destructive behavior of other empires, we all have tended to assume that counter-mercantilist trade flows are somehow a natural state of affairs! But they aren't. They are an invention, as unique and new and as American as the airplane, or the photocopier, or rock n' roll.

    Why Did This Happen?

    Now, of course, more than pure altruism may have been involved in the decision to create counter-mercantilism. The Democratic Party, under Truman, and Republican moderates, such as President Dwight Eisenhower, held fresh and painful memories of the Hawley-Smoot tariffs, instituted under Herbert Hoover and the Republican Congress of 1930, which triggered a trade war that deepened the Great Depression. Both Truman and Ike saw trade as wholesome for world prosperity -- and as a tonic to unite world peoples against Soviet expansionism.

    (Indeed, as another example of his farsighted ability to plan ahead for decades, Marshall also designed the ultimately victorious policy of patient containment of the USSR until, after many decades, that mad fever broke, for which he deserves at least as much credit as Ronald Reagan.)

    Nevertheless, if you still doubt that counter-mercantilism also had an altruistic component, remember this -- that the new, unprecedented trade regime was instituted by the author of the renowned Marshall Plan — both a name and an endeavor that still ring in human memory as synonymous with using power for generosity and good. Is it therefore plausible that Marshall -- along with Dean Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower -- might have known exactly what export-driven development would accomplish for the peoples of Europe, Asia, and so on?

    Cynics might doubt that anyone could ever look that far and that sagely ahead. But I am both an optimist and a science fiction author. I find it entirely plausible.

    Alas No One Seems to Notice

    Unfortunately, while recipients of the Marshall Plan's direct aid could clearly see beneficial results, right away, other parts of the program -- especially counter-mercantilist trade policy -- were slower in showing their effects, though they were far more vast and important, over the log run.

    What they amounted to was nothing less than the greatest unsung aid-and-uplift program in human history. A prodigious transfer of wealth and development from the United States to one zone after another, where cheap labor transformed, often within a single generation, into skilled and educated worker-citizens of a technologized nation. A program that consisted of Americans buying continental loads of things they did not really need. Things that they could easily done without and stopped buying, any time that they, or their leaders, chose to call a halt.

    (Oh, sure, the U.S would sometimes make a stink and nibble away at the edges of these unfair trade flows. But such efforts were never serious, intense, or undertaken with anything like full power or national will behind them. No plausible theory was ever raised, to explain that tepidness... until now.)

    Yes, yes. There are a few obvious cavils to this blithe picture. One might ask -- does anyone deserve "moral credit" for this huge and staggeringly successful "aid program"?

    Well, that is a good question. Perhaps not the American consumers, who made all this happen by embarking on a reckless holiday, acting like wastrels, saving nothing and spending themselves deep into debt. Certainly, even at best, this wealth transfer seems less ethically pure or pristinely generous than other, more direct forms of aid.

    Moreover, as the author of a book called Earth, I’d be remiss not to mention that all of this consumption-driven growth came about at considerable cost to our planet. For all our sakes, the process of ending human poverty and creating an all-encompassing global middle class needs to get a lot more efficient, as soon as possible. Call it another form a debt that had better be repaid, or else.

    Nevertheless, if credit is being given to the Japanese, "for inventing this export-oriented development model," then I think it is time for some historical perspective. Because the impression that one gets from many, especially in the East, is that the West must forever remain counter-mercantilist as if by some law of nature, and that the vigorously pro-mercantilist policies of the East are some kind of inherently perpetual birthright. Or else, these trade patterns are purely the result of asiatic cleverness, outwitting those decadent Americans in some kind of great game

    This view of the present situation may feel satisfying, but it is wholly inaccurate. Moreover, it could lead to serious error, in years to come... as it did across centuries past.

    What Might The Future Bring?

    Even if America is exhausted, worn out and a shadow of her former self, from having spent her way from world dominance into a chasm of debt, the U.S. does have something to show for it the last six decades.

    A world saved. A majority of human beings lifted out of poverty. That task, far more prodigious than defeating fascism and communism or going to the moon, ought to be viewed with a little respect. And I suspect it will be, by future generations.

    This should be contemplated, soberly, as other nations start to consider their time ahead as one of potential triumph. As they start to contemplate the possibility of becoming the next great pax or "central kingdom."

    If that happens -- (as I portray in a coming novel) -- will they emulate Marshall and Truman, by starting their bright era of world leadership with acts of thoughtful and truly farsighted wisdom? Perhaps even a little gratitude? Or at least by evading the mistakes that are written plain, across the pages of history, wherever countries briefly puffed and preened over their own importance, imagining that this must last forever?

    Is Anybody Still Reading

    Probably not. This unconventional assertion will meet vigorous resistance, no matter how clearly it is supported by the historical record. The reflex of America-bashing is too heavily ingrained, within the left and across much of the world, for anyone to actually read the ancient annals and realize that the United States is undoubtedly the least hated empire of all time. If its "pax" is drawing to a close, it will enter retirement with more earned goodwill than any other. Perhaps even enough to win forgiveness for the inevitable litany of imperial crimes.

    But no, even so, the habit is too strong. My attempt to bring perspective will be dismissed as arrogant, jingoist, hyper-patriotic American triumphalism. That is, if anybody is still reading, at all.

    Meanwhile, on the American right, we do have genuine triumphalists of the most shrill and stubborn type -- mostly moronic neocons -- who share my appreciation for Pax Americana... but for all the wrong reasons, and without even a scintilla of historical wisdom. Indeed, it is as if we are using the same phrase to stanf for entirely different things. If they are still reading, I can only point out that their era of misrule deeply harmed the very thing they claim to love.

    Alas, my aim does not fit into stereotypical agendas of either left or right. Instead, I am simply pointing out the necessary sequence of causation events that had to occur, in order for the International Miracle of export-driven development, of the last sixty years, to have taken place at all. Indeed, it is the fervent, tendentious and determined denial, that American policy played any role at all, that beggars the imagination.

    And so, at risk of belaboring the point, let me reiterate. If the U.S. had done the normal thing, the natural human thing, and imposed mercantilist trade patterns after WWII -- as every single previous "chung kuo" empire ever did before it -- then the U.S. would have no debt today. Our factories would be humming and the country would be swimming in gold...

    ...but the amount of hope and prosperity in the world would be far less, ruined by the same self-centered, short-sighted greed that eventually brought down empires in Babylon, Persia, Rome, China, Britain and so on.

    Also, by this point, every American youth would be serving in armies of occupation, and the entire world would by now be simmering and plotting for the downfall of the Evil Empire. That is the way the old pattern was written. But it is not how this "pax" was run. Instead, the greater part of the world was saved from poverty by the same force that rescued it from the fascistic imperialism and communism.

    Yes, America's era of uplifting the globe by propelling the world's export-driven growth must be over. Having performed this immense task, Americans cannot expect (if Wu Jianmin is any example) any credit or thanks.

    But that is okay. Nobody needs to be angry and we certainly do not have to be thanked. It simply is done. Other dire problems now stand waiting for this much richer world to address them. And meanwhile, the U.S. must rebuild.

    In other words, soon it will be time for someone else to start buying, for a change. The products, the services, and especially the ideas -- of which we will always have plenty.

    New ideas, for a new century, when efficient production and care for the planet will combine with far-sighted mindfulness of generations to come. Ideas that – just like George Marshall’s – the world will need and want.

    And just watch. America will be happy to sell.


    David Brin is a scientist, technology speaker, and author. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was based on The Postman. His fifteen novels, including New York Times Bestsellers and winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, have been translated into more than twenty languages. David appears frequently on History Channel shows such as The ARCHITECHS, The Universe and Life After People. Brin’s non-fiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. come visit

    November 19, 2009

    Deus Sex Machina

    [Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month] (cross-posted on the Women's Bioethics Blog)

    (Roughly translated from Latin as Sex God in the machine) We all know that technology can improve our lives (sometimes....well, at least when it's working properly), but who'd have thunk that nanotechnology could improve your sex life?

    In yet one more 'tool' in the arsenal against dreaded erectile dysfunction, nanotechnology to the rescue! Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have developed a foam with nanoparticles encapsulating nitric oxide for the topical treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED). Why is topical better? Because ED medications such as sildenafil , vardenafil, and tadalafil have limitations -- they can cause systemic side effects such as headache, facial flushing, nasal congestion, upset stomach, and abnormal vision. Might this have implications for Female Arousal Disorder for which there remains little, if any, treatment? One can only hope....perhaps the announcement of the new 'female viagra' for pre-menopausal women can benefit from this new delivery system.

    On balance, though, Blue Cross Biomedical has developed a new foam condom for use by women, that looks like a vaginal inhaler. The Blue Cross Foam Condom uses a “formulated condom concentrate” comprised of nano silver particles as well as 'surfactant octyl phenoxy -RH4,tween-20, sapn-60,polyethylene glycol 400, deionized water'. Perhaps a male contraceptive can be advanced utilizing a nano-delivery system?

    My humble request to scientists and researchers:
    Equal time for both sexes, please!

    You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.

    John Hodgman pulls off Fermi Paradox schtick

    I totally love geek humor -- and this TED Talk by John Hodgman has plenty of it, including a bit about the Fermi Paradox and the ultimate question, "Where is everybody?"

    IBM's claim to have simulated a cat's brain grossly overstated

    Blue Gene
    This is not a brain.

    I'm a big fan of IBM's Brain and Mind Institute (BMI) and the Blue Brain project. Initiated in May 2005, the Blue Brain project is an attempt to to model the mammalian cerebral cortex with computers. The intention is not to re-create the actual physical structure of the brain, but to simulate it using arrays of supercomputers. Ultimately, the developers are hoping to create biologically realistic models of neurons. In fact, the results of the simulation will be experimentally tested against biological columns.

    But I take exception to the recent claim that IBM has created a simulation that is supposedly on par, in terms of complexity and scale, with an actual cat's brain. The media tends to sensationalize these sorts of achievements, and in this case, grossly overstate (and even misstate) the actual accomplishment.

    Contrary to what some people may believe, IBM has not created a virtual cat. There's no simulated cat somewhere pouncing around simulated fields chasing simulated mice inside a supercomputer. All IBM has done is replicate the power of a cat's cebebral coretex using a bunch of powerful computers. Nothing more -- there's no psychological or AI element involved whatsoever. They're merely creating a physical power structure and computational infrastructure that may someday run a properly engineered mind.

    But credit where credit is due.

    IBM has made incredible progress in the sophistication and detail level of human brain mapping. By reverse engineering the human brain, IBM hopes to bring about the era of "cognitive computing," -- a development that would bring about new ways for building computers which mimic natural brain structures.

    Essentially, IBM is hoping to simulate a neocortical column, which is the smallest functional unit of the neocortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for higher functions such as conscious thought. In humans, the neocortical column is 2mm tall, has a diameter of 0.5mm and contains 60,000 neurons. Project developers initially worked to replicate the neocortical column of a rat, which has only 10,000 neurons, and now they've achieved the same thing with the cat brain. Developers hope to model the human brain in about seven to eight years.

    To model these components the developers use a Blue Gene supercomputer that runs the MPI-based 'Neocortical Simulator' combined with 'NEURON' software. Blue Gene is a computer architecture project that has will spawn several next-generation supercomputers -- computers that will reach operating speeds in the petaflops range, and are currently reaching speeds over 280 sustained teraflops. Its 8,000 processors will crunch away at 23 trillion operations per second.

    I don't want to take away from IBM's accomplishment, but it's important to note that we are extremely far off in terms of our ability to emulate the true complexity of a mammalian brain. Creating an array of supercomputers that mimics the brute force of a biological brain and then claiming that it matches the 'complexity' and 'scale' of the real thing is pure hyperbole. True whole brain emulation (PDF) is still a far ways off.

    November 16, 2009

    Call 1-800-New-Organ, by 2020?

    [Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month]

    Growing a set of new teeth, or new kidneys, or new eyes, or whatever it is you need, is something we could do as soon as 2020, according to a report that was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services a few years ago. In a follow-up to George's previous post, I'll be following and reporting on issues in regenerative medicine, with a focus on nano-scale materials and technology. The NIH uses the term 'regenerative medicine' interchangeably with 'tissue engineering' and defines it as "a rapidly growing multidisciplinary field involving the life, physical and engineering sciences that seeks to develop functional cell, tissue, and organ substitutes to repair, replace or enhance biological function that has been lost due to congenital abnormalities, injury, disease, or aging.” And researchers are doing amazing things: Gizmodo has posted videos from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, about how lab grown tissues are benefiting patients now.

    Regenerative nanomedicine will, understandably, likely be embraced for all the promise it holds -- but there have been concerns expressed about the ethical, legal, and social implications, particularity the nano part. Nanotechnology has the potential to have the greatest impact in three areas: energy, medicine, and environmental remediation. Of these three areas, nanotechnology in medicine is the most likely to be accepted by the public, starting with therapeutic treatments and then moving over to enhancements. But it does raise some interesting questions, such as can nanomedicine be considered separate and apart other nanotechnologies? And what does 'nanotechnology' encompass anyway? Pinning down a usable definition of nanotechnology has been harder than anticipated.

    For a quick peek into some of the issues, you can check out the series of YouTube videos my colleague and I did at the Human Enhancement Conference in Kalamazoo earlier this year, which I'm hoping to post on Vimeo shortly. I'm also following Gizmodo's feature This Cyborg Life and am intrigued by the question, what is the enhancement that you would like to have the most? (and keep it decent, folks, comments are moderated here!) For the readers of Sentient Developments, I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours....

    You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.

    November 15, 2009

    Link dump for 2009.11.15

    From the four corners of the web:

    Linda MacDonald Glenn guest blogging in November and December

    I'm pleased to announce that bioethicist Linda MacDonald Glenn will be guest blogging at Sentient Developments over the next four weeks.

    Linda, who studied biomedical ethics at McGill University in Montreal, is a healthcare ethics educator, attorney-at-law and a consultant. She is an Assistant Professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute, Albany Medical Center, a Women’s Bioethics Project Scholar, a Fellow at the Institute for Emerging Technologies and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. Linda also completed a fellowship at the American Medical Association Institute for Ethics.

    Her research encompasses the legal, ethical, and social impact of emerging technologies, evolving notions of personhood and informed consent in public health research.

    Linda has advised governmental leaders and agencies and she has published numerous articles in professional journals. Some of her better-known articles include "Biotechnology at the Margins of Personhood: An Evolving Legal Paradigm" in the Journal of Ethics and Technology, "Ethical Issues in Transgenics and Genetic Engineering" at Actionbioscience, "Keeping An Open Mind: What Legal Safeguards are needed?” in the American Journal of Bioethics, and "When Pigs Fly? Legal and Ethical Issues in Transgenics and the Creation of Chimeras".

    She also is the Editor-in-Chief of the outstanding and progressive Women's Bioethics Blog.

    With Linda onboard for the next four weeks we can be guaranteed some interesting and provocative content; I'm very much looking forward to Linda's posts.

    November 11, 2009

    Let’s get metaphysical: How our ongoing existence could appear increasingly absurd

    So the Large Hadron Collider has been shut down yet again – this time on account of a bird dropping a piece of a bagel onto some sensitive outdoor machinery. The incident is not expected to keep the LHC out of commission for too much longer, but it represents yet another strange event that has kept the world’s most infamous particle accelerator out of service. In fact, the LHC has yet to function at full operational capacity since its completion over a year ago.

    What makes this all the more interesting is that the Hadron Collider has been dubbed by some observers as a doomsday device on account of its unprecedented size and power. A minority of scientists and philosophers believe that the collider could produce a tiny black hole or a strangelet that would convert Earth to a shrunken mass of strange matter.

    It's worth re-stating, however, that this is a fringe opinion. Several years ago, Max Tegmark and Nick Bostrom wrote a piece for Nature in which they concluded that a civilization destroys itself by a particle accelerator experiment once every billion years.

    Okay, admittedly, one in a billion seems excruciatingly improbable. But not impossible. And it's this 'shadow of doubt' that has got so many people in a tizzy -- especially when considering that this so-called doomsday machine keeps breaking down. Seems awfully convenient, doesn't it? Are we to believe that this is mere co-incidence? Or is there something more to what's going on?

    Now, I'm not talking about conspiracies or sabotage, here. Rather, a number of philosophers are making the case that something more metaphysical is going on.

    Take, for example, the quantum immortality theory, which argues that you as an observer cannot observe your non-existence, so you will keep on observing your ongoing existence -- no matter how absurd. Aside from a large grain of salt, you also have to buy into the Everett Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics for this to work. As the universe splinters into probability trees, there are new trajectories that are forced into existence by your ongoing presence; in an infinite universe all observations must be made, no matter how improbable.

    Now, at any given time we have to assume that we are living in the most probable of all possible habitable worlds. But that doesn't mean it's true -- it's just an assumption given the absence of sampling data. As quantum probability trees diverge, those that tread into more improbable spaces will begin to splinter with less and less frequency and diversity; there will be a limited number of escape routes given absurd and highly complex (but survivable) existence spaces.

    All this can lead to some rather bizarre conclusions -- including the thought experiment in which you attempt to obliterate yourself with an atom bomb, only to have some kind of force majeure get in the way that prevents you from acting on your suicide.

    It's important to remember that this only works for your ongoing existence. The rest of the world can burn around you; what matters is that you continue to observe the universe.

    Okay, back to Hadron. Let's assume for a moment that quantum immortality is in effect and that the LHC is in fact the apocalypt-o-matic. It can therefore be argued that, because we are all collectively put into peril by this thing, we will never get to observe it working properly. There will always be something that prevents the device from doing what it's supposed to be doing -- everything from mechanical failures through to birds dropping bagels on it.

    What's even more disturbing, however, is that these interventions could get increasingly absurd and improbable. It may eventually get to the point where we have to sit back and question the rationality of our existence. The world may get progressively screwed up and surreal in order for our personal existence to continue into the future.

    One could already make the case that our collective existence is already absurd on account of our possession of apocalyptic weapons, namely the nuclear bomb. We've already come alarmingly close to apocalypse, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the infamous Stanislav Petrov incident. Would it be unfair of me to suggest that we should probably have destroyed ourselves by now? I would argue that the most probable of Everett Many World Earths have destroyed themselves through nuclear armageddon, but we happen to observe a version of Earth that has not.

    This said, our ongoing existence does not seem ridiculously absurd. There are rational and believable reasons that account for our ongoing existence, namely self-preservation and a rigid safety-check system that has prevented a nuclear accident from happening.

    But will the same thing be said a few years from now if the Hadron Collider keeps shutting down? What will happen to our sense of reality if stranger and stranger things start to intervene?

    And what about the more distant future when we have even more apocalyptic devices, including molecular assembling nanotechnology and advanced biotechnologies (not to mention artificial superintelligence)? It's been said that we are unlikely to survive the 21st Century on account of these pending technologies. But given that there are some probability trees that require our ongoing existence, what kind of future modes will that entail? Will it make sense, or will the succession of improbably survivable events result in a completely surreal existence? Or will our ongoing presence seem rational in the face of a radically altered existence mode -- like totalitarian repression or the onset of an all-controlling artificial superintelligence?

    Hopefully I don't need to remind my readers that this is pure philosophical speculation. Metaphysics is often fun (or disturbing as in this case), but it is no substitute for science. I think we should think about these possibilities, but not to the point where it impacts on our daily life and sense of reality.

    But I'm sure we'll all want to keep a close eye on that rather interesting particle accelerator in Switzerland.

    November 5, 2009

    IEET's Biopolitics of Popular Culture Seminar

    The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is holding a seminar on the Biopolitics of Popular Culture at Eon Reality in Irvine California on December 4, 2009. This seminar will precede the Humanity+ Summit, December 5-6 at the same venue.

    The IEET has put together an impressive groups of speakers, a list that includes io9's Annalee Newitz, Jamais Cascio, film maker Matthew Patrick, Natasha Vita-More and science fiction writer Richard Kadrey.

    From the IEET website:

    Popular culture is full of tropes and cliches that shape our debates about emerging technologies. Our most transcendent expectations for technology come from pop culture, and the most common objections to emerging technologies come from science fiction and horror, from Frankenstein and Brave New World to Gattaca and the Terminator.

    Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?

    Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?

    During this day long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television.
    Other speakers include:
    • PJ Manney
    • Alex Lightman
    • Kristi Scott
    • J. Hughes
    • Mike Treder
    • Michael LaTorra
    • Jess Nevins
    • RJ Eskow
    • Brian Cross
    • Edward Miller
    • Michael Massuci
    • Jeannie Novak
    Learn more and register today.