Between two worlds

April 24, 2015

“Between two worlds” is the title of an exhibition of the works of David Lynch, currently showing in my hometown, Brisbane. But I shall also use it to title this brief reflection on Maria Konovalenko’s post on “Fighting Death”. (One of Maria’s favorite bands, Nickelback, plays in Brisbane soon, too.)

What Maria says is sensible – and the fact that it is not regarded as sensible, tells you that there is psychological resistance in humanity; and ‘diagnosing’ the cause of this, might be regarded as important work in itself. But instead I want to take Maria’s view for granted, and look outward from it, at what it says about the human condition.

We, humanity, have risen from an abyss, wrote F.M. Esfandiary (who I have suggested is Maria’s precursor). He meant, I suppose, that we came from Darwin’s world of natural selection, evolution through variation and death, and its outgrowth as human history and culture, the world of killing and gods where these conscious animals called humans found themselves.

That is the abyss, the terrible world that produced us and contains us. And we have risen from it, to the extent that we resist that order of things, first through humaneness, love, justice, knowledge, everything that ameliorates; and now, potentially, through an overthrowing even of the aging process, thanks to hard-won knowledge of natural cause and effect, and of how to intervene in it.

(I have imputed a lot of extra detail in interpreting F.M.’s remark, but I am sure he would agree with it all.)

So that is where we are. It might be regarded as a strange miracle just to have this possibility of escape from the abyss, when its quadrillions of former residents did not. But let us look further ahead… The capacity to rejuvenate the human body is not coming about because there is a single ontological switch waiting to be flipped, from world with aging to world without. It is coming as a side effect of a broader knowledge and power, which opens a riotous Pandora’s box of new material and biological forms.

This radical explosion of possibility includes many outcomes just as unfriendly to human aspiration, as that natural abyss from which we came. The movement to create Friendly artificial intelligence is a movement to tackle this challenge, by way of the values and goals of the superhuman intelligences one might expect to be the hegemons of a posthuman world (a movement which Maria knows and supports and gives prominence in her ideals).

So once again, we are between two worlds. In David Lynch, there is the world of daily life, and there is an unseen world that intervenes mysteriously, meaningfully, and supernaturally in the mundane. It could be that the title of the Lynch exhibition refers, or also refers, to some other polarity, like that between happiness and horror…

But either way, there is also an existential polarity in the world according to transhumanism. We come from the abyss, we fight to transform the world, but this transformation itself creates the problem of posthuman conditions that could be hostile to us, or just alien to us. We exist suspended between the abyss and the unknown.

One traditional template for interpreting this state of affairs is tragedy: that sense that human effort is simply doomed, that decision to be heroic even in the face of doom. The human condition in the abyss has always been tragic – our whole past is sad, wrote Esfandiary in 1970 – and transhumanism is simply our final tragedy, the attempt to escape the abyss. In it, all the themes already known to human experience find renewed expression: love, joy, pain, sadness, and more.

Such is the life of those humans who would face the challenges of transhumanity. But there is another dimension to the situation too, that other sense of being between two worlds: the uncanny. It is simply strange to even be in this situation, to be the product of billions of years of traveling through the galaxy, to be briefly alive at the time of the great attempted escape from the abyss.

One may deal with this strangeness in different ways. One may simply submit to this worldview that life has handed to you, and tell yourself to accept it (“think like reality “). One may look for reasons why this is normality: perhaps some “great filter” philosophy, and hypothesis about cosmic demographics, which says that the majority of sentient beings live in such circumstances. One may even have doubts about the correctness of this picture of reality, and look for another.

I have no conclusion. These are words written in the dark on a handheld device, words soon to be added to this blog for the edification of search engines. There are things unsaid. There is transition.

Carbon dioxide approaching 400 parts per million

May 1, 2013

It went up by 5 parts per million in just two years.

Science and future politics

January 19, 2013

Recently I got into a discussion with a young blogger, “Emily”. It started out as a debate about whether string theory is science; but it turned out that she also had strong views about the need for scientists to assert themselves in politics and public life. The discussion was happening here, but I’m having trouble posting my comments, so the next round goes here instead.

Read the rest of this entry »

A climate politics prophecy

October 30, 2012

The biggest Atlantic storm on record, shutting down the northeast USA on the eve of a presidential election, offers a good occasion to revisit the original theme of this blog. Before the financial crisis of 2008, if this had happened, the headlines would be screaming about this event as a taste of the future, and everyone would be asking what to do. But the global recession destroyed the new climate politics that had developed after Al Gore’s film, and the whole issue has returned to the realm of invisible ineffectual diplomacy inhabited by other lost causes, like global nuclear disarmament.

The American Right of the 1990s led the opposition to the first attempt to make a global system of emissions reduction – the Kyoto protocol – and as a result they have ensured that the long-term geopolitics of climate will simply be about geoengineering, rather than about finetuning a global system of carbon credits.

Perhaps such a system would have collapsed for some other reason, such as the rise of the BRICs, but let’s attribute cause and effect correctly: it was the resistance from the Right, within the American political system, to globalist regulation and liberal statism, which prevented an effective American-led climate protocol from ever coming into existence. The recession of the late 2000s simply delivered the death blow to an already ineffective system.

So the future is going to be about sulfate aerosols and nanotechnological carbon capture. Sure, there will be countries with carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, and alternative sources of energy like renewables and nuclear power will continue to get plenty of attention. Weather catastrophes will of course keep happening and keep getting bigger, and who should pay for damage past, present, and future will be an increasingly acrimonious issue in international relations.

But the attempt to regulate the overall human impact on planetary climate through political economy has failed. It may take a few more years for that to sink in, but when it does, that will be the day that geoengineering openly becomes the central issue of climate politics, because it will be the only alternative to “adaptation” left. The politics of geoengineering will look new, because it is about centralized high-impact adjustments of climate that can be carried out by any entrepreneurial technological power, and it may be part of a general politics of advanced technology that the human race will have to develop, in order to deal with other issues.

That is my intuitive diagnosis and prognosis of the situation. I welcome comment, correction, and improvement, in order to bring it closer to reality.

How to write science fiction

May 24, 2012

This message is brought to you by the vagaries of packet-switching communication. It started life as a comment on the blog of Charlie Stross, an eminent science-fiction writer from Scotland, but network problems gave me enough time to think of posting it here instead.

Charlie wrote:

“to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of […] SF.”

That is the core opportunity right there. I have elided the words “cyberpunk dystopian”, because that’s just one sensibility, and many sensibilities coexist on the planet, as Dirk Bruere (comment #83) points out.

But the proof that there’s still work to be done in SF, is that, even before we consider all the other options for literature, you can always make literature just out of representing reality well. And representing contemporary reality accurately is already enough to produce SF.

And then think five years, ten years, fifty years ahead. The future will happen, just as “today” and “this year” in your own life are happening, when once they were imaginary unknowns. Most people who talk about the future and write about the future may just be using it as a stage on which to project their hopes and fears, but that doesn’t mean that the real future, that will one day arrive, is itself just the product of overheated imagination.

The principle that simply depicting the present accurately and well is enough to generate SF, applies even more to the real future. I don’t care how boring or depressing the future you think might really be coming looks to you; if it’s described well, it can still make for worthy literature. I certainly don’t believe that SF has already depicted all the basic possibilities about the future that ought to be taken seriously. On the contrary, the present moment is absolutely full of novel developments that have not been properly assimilated and analyzed and their consequences deduced. An intelligent worldly person, who sits down and thinks about the present and its implications for the future, without hope or fear or other egocentric distortions, should be capable of having new insights and new ideas which, in the hands of someone who can write, would make for good literature.

For a futurist living in a society of future shock, there’s always something to be found by totally starting over, dumping every idea about the future you ever had before this moment as just a fact about your own past psychology, and looking out on the world afresh.

And this is only what’s possible even if you confine yourself to representational realism. If we consider the various ways in which literature may consciously stray from adherence to reality or likely-reality – for the sake of entertainment, edification, symbolism, exploration… – the possibilities of the present moment are even greater.

Here, however, there is a special trap. Let me group together all the disparate genres that aren’t just 100% factual transcription of how you think things are going to be, or could be, as “non-realist”. Because non-realism is not completely tethered to the evolving reality of the world, it doesn’t face the same imperative to keep changing that realism does. Non-realist SF, therefore, faces a particular species of risk – that it will just recycle yesterday’s non-realisms. This is where awareness of the reality surrounding previous non-realism can help: the historical and cultural context, the lives and psychologies of the authors. Understanding how non-reality has its roots in reality is the best prescription for doing it yourself and doing it differently.

And this advice is relevant even for those who might aspire to write realist SF. After all, we don’t actually know the future, and even the steeliest attempt to discipline one’s imaginings in the light of past historical experience, is still basically an act of imagination, not of knowledge. So even the realists ought to spend some time understanding the historical context of their realist precursors.

I learnt a lot of this from Bruce Sterling, by the way.

I’ll say one more thing about historical context. People in the “West” or the “developed world” know by now that they are living cheek by jowl in a world with other peoples who have other histories. Their histories are part of our historical context, now. So the idealized version of this quest for historical knowledge, in preparation for writing good new SF of a sort that has never been written before, would not just involve reviewing the precursors and cultural context of western SF. It would involve some sort of survey of all those other cultures which maybe didn’t produce Amazing Stories and OMNI magazine, but who in the real world are now making rockets and robots and genetics labs anyway. That’s just reality, now, and there must be at least as much conceptual mileage to be obtained by investigating how, in reality, that situation came to pass, as there is to be obtained by reflecting on the wisdom and folly of those who produced the western SF canon, old and new.

A brief update

January 25, 2011

I started this blog to cheer up people worried about the climate. I wanted to argue, using a negative-feedback model, that humanity would inevitably fix things in time.

Now I would emphasize differently: No program of emissions reduction is capable of making a difference to the planet’s temperature trajectory before we arrive in the era of advanced nanotechnology, because that era is at most just a few decades away. Advanced nanotechnology will be capable of the enormous task of drawing down the half trillion tonnes of carbon that have been added to the atmosphere, but it will also be capable of destroying all life on Earth. Dealing with the enormous new powers arising from nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will be the real challenge to human survival, and this time I have no argument at all that we’ll make it.

So, the cheer has gone and this is what’s left. It’s a little sad for the people who have devoted their lives to stopping climate change. That process is real, already doing damage, slowly getting worse, and if it ran to its completion in a world like the present, I suspect we really would get the hundreds of millions of climate refugees discussed in the worst scenarios. But the world of the present will not stay that way, and technological change will overtake climate change as the decisive factor.

Right now, climate politics is in the doldrums. Copenhagen was an anticlimax, and the global financial malaise has made people suspicious of a scheme like cap-and-trade, and just more worried about personal factors like employment and retirement. But the floods and the fires will keep happening, so the topic won’t go away, and there is bound to be a political revival eventually. Perhaps next time a simple carbon tax will be favored, rather than the trading of emissions permits, and there may also be more emphasis on direct action by the state. My slightly sad prediction is that whatever is done won’t matter, because it can’t make a difference before the nanotechnology era arrives, and then the game truly changes.

Anyway, that’s what I’m off doing now – trying to be relevant for what really comes next.

Digression on life

May 2, 2010

There is a Chinese saying that you should be Buddhist in your youth, Confucian as an adult, and Taoist in your old age. I thought that was the saying; I got it from the final days of Robert Anton Wilson; but actually he said something a little different.

Now let me illustrate how this works for a blogger. Vichy Fournier is not a Buddhist, but she’s a fabulous example of wisdom in someone young. Her power is to see and to state abstract truths.

Curtis Yarvin illustrates the second stage so well, he even uses a Confucian alias. He is also concerned with ideas, but he’s always connecting them to current events.

And Bruce Sterling gets to be the exemplar of Tao. Sorry Bruce! He’s still pretty engaged with the world, but mostly aesthetically.

Even a wise person must start out with more knowledge than experience. Only when they have come to truly know the particulars of their time and place – a learning which may take decades to acquire – can they act powerfully on the world. And eventually, the endless transformations of the world will in any case overwhelm their will to shape it. At that time, if they have retained understanding, they can at least relate to life as a drama and a spectacle.

Or, you can ignore all that and just keep trying, because no-one really knows what comes next or what the limits are. For that path, see Celia Green.

Digression on transhumanism

April 19, 2010

Part one, part two, part three, part four.

After Copenhagen

December 23, 2009

The outcome of the UN climate conference in Copenhagen offers an occasion for reflection on the very big political and economic picture. We can see, first of all, that the geopolitical changes brought on by the 2008 world financial crisis are now at work in climate politics as well. The G-7, the old center of power, proved incapable of resolving the crisis simply because it did not include all the players, and so the G-20 came to prominence. Along with the G-7 countries, the G-20 also includes the “BRICs”, the “emerging economies”, the countries that are in surplus rather than in debt. And now we see those same countries, together with Obama’s USA, hastily putting together an Accord to keep negotiations going, after the traditional blocs of climate diplomacy failed to reach a compromise.

The five countries which drafted the accord may be grouped into USA and China, the two big powers in the world system right now, and India, Brazil, and South Africa, who for some years have had a trilateral dialogue going on under the acronym “IBSA”. Thus political relationships from the tough world of economic and strategic diplomacy have begun to make a difference in the previously self-contained world of climate negotiation, which has its own native blocs and alliances, like “the Umbrella Group” and “the G77/China bloc”. This shows the extent to which climate is a central issue, not a marginal one, in the ongoing reconfiguration of world power. This is so, not only because the impacts of climate change are expected to be immense, but because the national mitigation strategies leave almost no economic sector untouched. Energy, manufacturing, agriculture are all affected. Huge sums of money are involved. So like it or not, climate is now part of geopolitics, and geopolitics is now part of climate.

Open thread for climate science issues

September 10, 2009

On this blog I am generally going to assume a standard view regarding how carbon dioxide affects global temperature. Most of the discussion will be about other matters, like how much “climate change mitigation” is necessary and how it might best be achieved. However, there are a lot of people out there who disagree with the very starting point – that current trends would lead to catastrophic global warming if maintained. This page is the place for that discussion. I don’t have the time now to spell out anew how I view the science, but earlier comments here and here should convey my position.


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