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The shared human enterprise is multidimensional. Its various dimensions don’t exist in mutual isolation. Each dimension implicates all others. Human efforts and developments within the various dimensions need to articulate with human efforts and developments in all others. Politics can’t be considered without considering economics, and economics can’t be considered without considering technological developments. None can be considered without considering the production and dissemination of ideas and values and understandings and techniques (and the emotional reactions to them), in short, of human cognitions (including emotions).

The evolution of our social institutional and technological landscape is the overarching theme of human history. Wealth is produced and distributed, ideas created and disseminated, wars sparked and fought, buildings designed and built, political forms and processes developed, all due to and through and as an expression and producer of our ever changing social institutional and technological context.

Technological developments pose both opportunities and challenges. They provide new ways, new tools with which, to produce wealth and address problems. But they also create new problems of their own.

The Economist magazine recently provided a glimpse into the immediate future, by exploring some cutting-edge technologies of the present (see http://www.economist.com/node/21552901). Perhaps the most striking aspect of the package of new technologies changing the face of manufacturing is the 3-D printer:

3-D printing is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of “digital manufacturing,” which in turn is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of what can be called an “information technological revolution.” We all are aware of it, but we don’t always incorporate that awareness into our more generalized understandings and strategies. The fact is that the rapid developments in information technologies (i.e., the set of technological innovations that includes computers, the internet, and mobile communications devices that now are hand-held communications and information processing instruments) is transforming our world, and will continue to do so, in dazzlingly dramatic ways.

The impact of this IT Revolution isn’t just that everyone has or soon will have an i-phone, hooked into a global network of thought and information access. It is also that the more generalized processes of conceptualization, communication, creation, development, production and distribution of cognitive material and all of its products is undergoing a major paradigm shift that has deep structural implications that will ripple and reverberate throughout the social institutional and technological landscape in acceleratingly transformative ways.

We’ve seen the first salvos of the political implications in “The Arab Spring” and other geopolitical events and transformations in recent years, with autocratic governmental control of information flows (and thus of populations in general) being eroded by the IT Revolution. We’ve seen it in our own political system, with political organizing and fund-raising and networking enhanced by new tools which favor those who most rapidly become most adept at their utilization (see, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). We’ve seen it in science and scholarship, starting with the development of “Chaos Theory” in the early days of modern computers, and growing from there into an accelerating transformation of our understanding of the nature of the world of which we are a part (including the evolutionary ecology of the social institutional and technological landscape itself; see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Now we are seeing it in how we create, produce, and distribute the material manifestations of human existence, the machines and commodities and, in general, the “stuff” of our lives.

What does this all mean for those of us who are most consciously engaged in the human enterprise, who are committed to working with others similarly committed to do the best we can in service to humanity? It means we need to start thinking in new ways, ready to utilize new tools. We need to develop new paradigms that incorporate all of this massive information, these massive changes in the processes that comprise our shared existence, this threshold through which we are passing, and address the future not just as an economic challenge narrowly conceived (as some do), and not just as a technological challenge narrowly conceived (as others do), and not just as a political challenge narrowly conceived (as still others do), and not just as a scientific or scholarly challenge narrowly conceived (as still others more do), but as an integrated challenge incorporating all of these together.

One of the lagging components of the paradigm shift we are undergoing (perhaps always the lagging component in all historical paradigm shifts) is the intentional or organic integration of its various parts for maximum human benefit (see, for instance, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve, for a discussion of the need to better integrate and articulate the products of our scholarship across disciplines). This is where the crucial challenge lies: How do we gather together these various threads of thought and innovation, and synthesize and channel them most effectively for human benefit?

One of the common threads emerging from the IT Revolution is coherent decentralization. Our ability to publish, network, and organize (social media and the blogosphere), to be vigilant (see Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), to raise funds (see Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”), and political and economic collaboration in general (see Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed). But it’s not just augmented multi-lateral communications in play, but simultaneously augmented information processing (e.g., the data analysis function of computer technology), and now, the direct translation of information into its physical manifestations (i.e., production and construction). 3-D printers enable anyone anywhere to manipulate the design of an object digitally, integrating mass production and custom design into a single technology, and to manufacture that object remotely, for anyone else anywhere else, on demand.

One of the central implications of our current technological trajectory is that the demand for human labor will be increasingly a demand for highly trained, technically proficient, information-intensive labor. Humans will be more and more relegated to doing the tasks for which humans have –and will long have– a unique comparative advantage over any devices we can invent, and that is in our highest levels of cognitive functioning, in our imaginations and creativity, in our unique human consciousness. Increasingly, developing that consciousness as something more than a set of mechanical skills that can be sold on the labor market will not only be what feeds our souls, but also what imbues us with what will increasingly be the only asset for which there will be a future demand on that same labor market: Brilliant, imaginative, inventive, creative minds.

There will never be a shortage of opportunities for minds thus developed, but there will increasingly be a shortage of opportunities for everyone else. In a society and world where we haven’t yet met the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of the past century, meeting the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of this imminent and in many ways already present future poses an urgent, imperative challenge to us as a society.

This is nothing less than a revolution in the speed and agility of our technologically augmented collective consciousness, and in the speed and agility of our ability to translate that consciousness into action and objects, into wealth and welfare, into opportunity and the accelerating realization of human potential. But it also poses daunting challenges, challenges in how we prepare people to contribute to and participate in this production of wealth, and how we cope with the inequities and inhumanities that will result to the extent of our failure to do so.

There is so much dazzling new cognitive material currently flourishing in our shared cognitive landscape, a garden of possibilities bearing rich new fruits to be picked. But it is through their constant cross-fertilization, through the interweaving of their various vines, that the richest and most abundant fruits will be produced. The future is hanging low on the boughs of human consciousness, of imagination and innovation. We need to stop waiting for its fruits to fall on us of their own accord, and reach up and grap them with conscious intent and design, because, by doing so, we increase their value and quantity. When it comes to human consciousness and all of its products, it is through the act and intentionality of harvesting it that we most effectively cultivate it.

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The one constant is change, but the speed and utility of change is not constant at all. Organizations emerge for the purpose of fomenting change, yet, as a general rule, they soon ossify in the same kinds of unimaginative patterns as the institutions they are seeking to affect. Significant change through the medium of established organizations and institutions is generally catalyzed by either those who are raised to positions of influence despite their failure to satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications, or those who act in ways not predicted by the fact that they satisfy conventional check lists of appropriate qualifications.

Human actions fall within a space one axis of which is defined by courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence at one extreme, and conventional choices striving for mediocrity or maintaining the status quo at the other. That axis alone does not describe the quality or efficacy of individual actions: Courageous and imaginative choices striving for excellence that are made in service to an odious ideology, or that are in some other way misinformed, may well do more harm than good, whereas conventional choices striving for mediocrity may make valuable marginal contributions to human welfare. But, while caution, analytical sophistication, foresightedness and respect for uncertainty, and subtlety of insight and strategy are necessary variables to render courageous and creative innovation a positive rather than negative force, the absence of courageous and creative innovation guarantees suboptimal outcomes.

Several recent experiences have raised this to the fore of my mind: A program director position for an educational reform foundation that I applied for, and would have done a truly exceptional job in, that I failed to get because an unimaginative vice president was looking for candidates that satisfied the more superficial and easily acquired criteria for the job rather than the more profound and harder to duplicate criteria of greater importance; other nonprofit positions filled by decision makers similarly focused on superficial and less salient criteria; an alternative school led by a robust and idealistic principal who may prove to be an exception to this “rule;” a widespread insistence, across the ideological spectrum, to cling to conventional modes of thought and conventional strategies and conceptualizations of political activism, rather than to reach down a bit deeper and attempt to foment truly fundamental change instead.

The most profound lesson of human history is the robustness of social change, the degree to which that which is taken for granted as a permanent feature of our consciousness and our social institutional landscape is truly ephemeral, and can and does change far more rapidly and dramatically than those living in their own time and place are wont to realize. It is true, of course (as discussed in The Variable Malleability of Reality) that some things are easier to change than others; that smart strategies identify what aspects of our current reality are more malleable in order to massage our encompassing social (and natural) systems in ways which move us in desired directions. But it is also true (as discussed inThe Algorithms of Complexity) that that layered complexity, in which deeper levels are generally less malleable than more superficial ones,  provides frequent opportunities for rapid, dramatic change, when some of the underlying “algorithms” are actually fairly malleable. The art and science of participating in history in socially responsible and “ambitious” ways involves recognizing and reconciling these two aspects of the challenge at hand.

It’s time for a new social movement that confronts this challenge head-on, and does so with a commitment to doing so as rationally and imaginatively and compassionately as possible. I’ve outlined one general proposal for organizing such a movement in A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill and in the other essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts. (In the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts can be found essays exploring the nature of our social institutional and technological landscape, to better inform such efforts; and in some other boxes can be found specific applications and aspects of this analysis.)

The proposal has three components: 1) Non-partisan community organizations whose members agree to commit only to reason and universal goodwill, to listening to competing views, and to seeking the policies which best serve humanity; 2) A data base or internet portal making access to all arguments that are framed as analyses applying reason to evidence in service to human welfare, and that provide documentation for all factual evidence relied on, upon which such community organizations can draw for their discussions and debates; and 3) Something I call “meta-messaging” (see Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives): The emotionally and cognitively effective dissemination of the narrative that this is a good and worthy project, that it is good for individuals and good for society to view our shared existence as a shared existence with shared challenges and shared opportunities, that, as I like to put it, it’s better to be Ebenezer Scrooge after his adventure with Marley and the Three Spirits than before.

Such a movement depends on suspending substantive debates until they can be contextualized in the framework being advocated, because to do so would be to lose what cross-cutting appeal such a movement might have. While there are many who would never join such a movement, and never join the community organizations that are a part of it, there are many who would, including many who identify themselves as “conservatives” or “independents.”

This is not, and cannot be, a movement to overturn Citizens United, or a movement to increase public spending on social services and education, or a movement to achieve preconceived substantive goals of any kind, because to allow it to become so would be to defeat its purpose: To find and develop the one common ground all people who wish to be reasonable people of goodwill can agree on, and that is that we all strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that we don’t know all of the answers, wise enough to engage in a public discourse devoted to doing the best we can, and disciplined enough to develop new procedures and new institutions that help us to work together as reasonable people of goodwill confronting the challenges of a complex and subtle world.

What we need more fundamentally and more critically than to achieve any of the individual, ideologically saturated substantive goals that divide us is to rediscover and develop our common ground, the underlying values and aspirations that most of us share, and the procedurally and attitudinally focused framework that we can create to pursue them more constructively and cooperatively. There are many people in America who are sick of the divisive, angry, excessively intransigent political rhetoric which dominates our public forums and airwaves, who would flock to a movement that steps back from that and tries, instead, to establish another kind of public discourse, another kind of political participation. This is a movement to bring them in, and move us forward.

That means letting go of the rituals of warring false certainties, and coming together instead around a common acknowledgement of shared uncertainty and fallibility. It’s time for all who are willing to make that leap of daring idealism, of courageous commitment to doing better, of believing in our humanity, to do so. We can continue to reproduce the unimaginative and unproductive ritual of over-confident warring false certainties, or to work together to create something new and vibrant and potentially revolutionary. As always, we each get to choose how daring and imaginative and conscious, and therefore how effective, our commitment to progress really is.

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There is much about the Tea Party mentality that is similar to anti-progress attitudes of the past, such as the fear that any improvement in the production or distribution of wealth comes at the expense of those who are invested in the status quo, and that the local and immediate interests of those who are inconvenienced or made worse off in the short run should trump the global and long-term interests of the many who would benefit from advancements in the production and distribution of wealth.

Throughout human history, in varying balances, there have been those who cling to a familiar past and those who reach for an improved future. The progress made despite the former has included a shift in balance in favor of the latter. Whereas traditional societies anchored themselves in ossified rituals and beliefs, modern societies have increasingly embraced the possibility of progress. But, as many have noted, modernity is “a candle in the darkness” (Carl Sagan’s phrase to describe science, still today), flickering in the midst of howling hordes of gods and demons, superstitions and arbitrary certainties, that continue to hold us back.

Early in the industrial revolution, British artisans protested mechanized production by destroying the power looms that were displacing them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite). There are two important things to note about  this: 1) Progress does indeed cause dislocations, and, unless we take pains to address it, localized losses amidst generalized gains; and 2) to the extent that these victims of progress, whether their victimization is real or imagined, succeed in obstructing progress, we all lose in the long run, for the improved techniques that were obstructed would have created far greater wealth and opportunity in the long run than the archaic techniques that were preserved.

The Tea Partiers are modern Luddites, taking mallets to social institutional rather than technological innovation. As I discussed in several previous posts (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix), both technological and social institutional innovation are part of cultural evolution, the reproduction, mutation, and selection according to differential reproductive success of “memes” (i.e., ideas). And as I’ve also discussed in several previous posts (“Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, and Small Government Idolatry), the political fundamentalism of the Tea Party is akin to the religious fundamentalism from which it mutated, and to the Inquisition which is the historical model of such fundamentalism, clinging to archaic orthodoxies that do not stand up to rational scrutiny (see Real Fiscal Conservativism for an economic analysis of this vis-a-vis the Tea Party), and fighting against the heresies of progress.

We are simply embroiled in one of the on-going battles of human history, constantly reincarnated, and constantly obstructing our ability to do better. It is incumbent upon us to open as many eyes as possible to this fact, and leave those who prefer to be champions of avoidable human suffering to become increasingly marginalized and reviled, while those who prefer to be champions of human welfare and true spiritual growth can join all other reasonable people of goodwill in the shared enterprise of forging a progressive path into the future.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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This is a very specific, almost arbitrary, example of the systemic nature of the reality in which we live, and an illustration of the coherence of systems across levels and disciplines. The relevance, for me (other than exercising the sense of wonder that I believe should be driving us), is to draw attention once again to the ways in which we can better understand the context within which we live, both “human” and “natural” (it’s all natural, really), and, by doing so, can be better equipped to interact with that context wisely and productively. It stands in opposition to the movement advocating self-governance by shallow platitude, and in support of the movement that insists we are conscious entities, forever summoned to cope with the challenges and opportunities of a complex and subtle world.

The October 11 issue of Time Magazine has an article in it about Blockbuster’s “failure at failing” (i.e., its failure to manage its demise in shareholders’ best interests), which made me think of what an excellent example audio-visual entertainment is of the parallels between economics and evolutionary ecology, with the distinction (among others) of far more cross-over synthesis  involved in the flow of innovations (like “breeding” of genetically dissimilar species to produce dramatically different ones). It is a story of dominant successors displacing eclipsed predecessors, combining with other dominant successors from other distinct lines of evolutionary descendance

Like a whole new species emerging from the combination of photographs (flipped in rapid succession) and, eventually, phonographs, first silent movies and then talkies spread like Eucalyptus trees in California. Movies shown at movie theaters became a dominant form of entertainment. Breaking this down a little, silent movies were the Neanderthals to the Homo Sapiens Sapiens of talkies, a dominant sub-species either displacing or interbreeding with the “inferior” one, driving it into extinction.

Then, by improving and adapting the technology of broadcasting signals encoded with sound (radio) to this form of entertainment, incorporating moving images as well, a new ecological niche was formed, one that would prove to be immensely robust: Television, in one’s own home (again, television being the dominant successor to radio, with the synthesis of audio-visual entertainment with broadcast technology being its genesis). The various species (audio recordings, radio, movies, and television) have found different ecological niches ever since, sometimes competing at one another’s expense, sometimes contributing to one another’s reproductive success. Silent movies were the only species from these various braided lines of development to go (virtually) completely extinct.

Within the television industry, various micro-ecologies evolved, with three major networks in the United States swallowing up and revitalizing local stations, forming a very robust symbiosis. Different content formats were tried and evolved: Talk shows, variety shows, news broadcasts (all off-spring of radio predecessors in form). Sit-coms, courtroom dramas, cop shows, and other archetypical forms, emerged and evolved, and occasionally blended into new forms (Ally McBeal and Boston Legal  each blending comedy and courtroom drama, for instance).

Meanwhile, movies evolved as well, with special effects, and various genres, and various motifs developing and cross-breeding and displacing predecessors in a variety of ways. And some cross-breeding occurred between movies and television (and novels), with mini-series briefly enjoying a heyday (though short-lived due to the expense of production, a species-killer, at least in television, at least thus-far).

Enter video cassettes, a technology cross-pollinator of movies and TV. Now movies produced for cinemas could be watched at home on television sets. This seemed to threaten the survival of the movie industry for awhile, reducing box office revenues dramatically, until the movie industry adapted, and found that home rentals and sales could be every bit as lucrative.

Then the separate evolutionary thread that produced the computer revolution cross-fertilized with these, as with virtually all other evolutionary threads, producing compact disks, and, eventually, streaming video (as well as downloadable songs and i-pods, and downloadable movies).

Blockbuster was an innovative business piggybacking on the invention of video cassettes, which made more sense to rent than to buy. It was a niche waiting to be filled. But like ostentatious displays such as huge antlers on elk or bright plumage on peacocks, signalling to potential mates a surplus of male prowess, few qualities contribute more to reproductive success of products sold in the modern market than increased convenience. So, with the invention of the compact disk (and more manageable postage rates associated with smaller size), Netflix swept in to occupy that niche, ultimately spelling doom for the far larger and richer Blockbuster.

Netflix itself had to adapt to streaming or downloaded video via computer, or it would have been displaced by dominant successors just as it had displaced Blockbuster (which failed to adapt in time, though it might now). In fact, Netflix faces stiff competition from others eager to fill the streaming and downloadable video niche, including Amazon and Apple. And a separate niche exists for supermarket and store based CD rental vending machines, in which Redbox enjoys an early dominance.

I’ve traced above just one set of strands of a far vaster and more complicated net, with, for instance, the evolution of audio recording devices (phonographs to reel-to-reel tape to cassettes to digital, with the various forms of vinyl recordings evolving alongside of magnetic tapes); different filming and projecting technologies and types (as well as production styles); television sets (from small black-and-white to slightly larger, then color, then much larger, then projection, then plasma screen); different television signal delivery technologies (local over-air broadcast, cable, satellite, digital, which catalyzed a proliferation of channels and networks); and, of course, evolving computer hardware and software intertwined with all the others.

Any aspect of the “anthrosphere” (human social institutions, technologies, products and constructions, and cultural motifs) can similarly be zeroed in on as one aspect of the evolutionary process discussed in “The Politics of Consciousness ,” and “Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future.” We can trace building construction, or aviation, or land transportation, or clothing, or medicine, or money, or markets, or warfare, or farming, or mining, or law, or political forms, or religion, or any other aspect of the human-produced sphere of our existence, in exactly the same way as audio-visual entertainment, and then trace the linkages and cross-fertilization’s among them. By understanding the anthrosphere in these terms, and contextualizing those human systems within the similar biological evolutionary ecological systems (the “biosphere”) that they mimic and echo, all within the framework of other natural systems (e.g., the hydrosphere, atmosphere, and lithosphere), we have a single, coherent paradigm within which to understand the entire global system, applying complex dynamical systems analysis adapted to the particular forms of analysis evolved to address various subsystems, focusing on different aspects in different ways, zooming in more tightly or panning out more broadly, but not arbitrarily divorcing any one branch from the others with which it is ultimately interconnected.

(see also Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix for more on this general theme).

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No sooner do I write and post an essay on the literally evolutionary nature of modern information technologies (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=577), then I come across an article in The Economist zeroing in on one aspect of exactly what I’m talking about (http://www.economist.com/node/17091709?story_id=17091709).

In my novel (http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=126), a wizard ruminates that “the genius of the many is a captive giant, whose freedom is the ends and the means of all other things.” Wikinomics is about another large step in the liberation of that captive giant, by reducing the transaction costs involved in massive decentralized network communications. Ronald Coase famously said that in the absence of transaction costs, we would bargain our way to maximum utility. Some have interpreted Coase’s Theorem to be more about the formidable obstacle posed by transaction costs than the efficacy of bargaining our way to paradise. But, in either case, the internet has dramatically reduced the size of that obstacle.

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I almost titled this post “Knowledge AND Power,” as a play on my previous post a week or so ago titled “Knowledge is Power,” but decided to be less cute and more descriptively precise. Denverpost.com published today an article on a Boulder company’s contribution to smart grid technology (http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_16199737). “Power Tagging,” the name of both the technology and the company, involves embedding “a digital signal deep in the flow of electrons that can be read through the noise.” The larger implication is the gradual evolution of more efficient energy delivery systems, by, for instance, incorporating real-time cybernetic feedback loops that allow energy delivery to adjust to conditions, much as a thermostat turns on and off the heat or air conditioning in a home. But the implications of a smart grid, and particularly of this new technology, are that the more information flows with the energy itself, the more efficiently the demands on the system (e.g., producing exactly the right amount of energy to balance the grid in real-time, a physical requirement of energy production and distribution) can be met.

More generally, information and energy are the intertwined life-blood of human and natural systems. The biosphere on Earth is fueled, ultimately, by the sun (starting with photosynthesis, at the start of the food chain), and evolves through the reproduction, occasional mutation, and competition for reproductive success of packets of information (genes). Human systems are embedded in, and echo, this pattern (as I discuss in my post “The Politics of Consciousness”: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=187). In our earliest form, on the African savanna, our fuel came from that solar-powered food-chain and, eventually, the combustion of some of its products (i.e., fire). Our early development involved ways in which to utilize that energy source (feeding domesticated animals, and using fire in the preparation of food and tools, for instance). Much of human history thereafter can be understood in terms of the evolution of energy sources and the technologies for utilizing them (from levers and pulleys to nuclear reactors and solar panels).

Parallel to, and informing, this evolution of energy sources and technologies, is our own cultural evolution involving the innovation, diffusion, and synthesis of ideas. But just as our own evolutionary process is an echo of Nature’s, we in turn have created a technological echo of our own, by creating information technologies which vastly accelerate the reproduction, mutation, competition, and evolution of human cognitive information. And now, we are increasingly taking steps which will allow that information to operate independently of us, just as a thermostat does, with technological systems reacting to information that no human being need ever be aware of.

The potentials for increased efficiency and efficacy in how we address the challenges and opportunities which face us are enormous. Despite the hyperbole that has sometimes surrounded the Computer Revolution, few recognize just how dramatic a threshold we have entered in just the past few decades. From a historical perspective, it may come to eclipse the Industrial Revolution in importance, just as the Industrial Revolution in many ways eclipsed the Renaissance and Enlightenment which were preludes to it.

Just as our own echo of natural evolution is a vastly accelerated process, so too the technological echo we have created promises a new quantum acceleration once again. Human history is an acceleration of natural history due to the increased rate of information-packet reproduction (as fast as we can communicate), mutation (as fast as we can modify), and selection (as fast as we can choose what to believe or what technology to utilize). The secondary evolutionary echo that may occur as a result of information technologies operating autonomously could be another quantum acceleration still, communicating, processing, modifying, and selecting information not only at the accelerated speed that modern computers can, but with the accelerating acceleration (i.e., increasing nth order rates of change) produced by the accumulating innovations themselves. We’ve already begun to experience the first whisper of this new acceleration, with the rapid communications and data processing capacities of modern computers, ushering in new wonders of comprehension and capacity at an accelerating rate. But that is still restrained by our own cognitive speed, still the bottleneck through which our computer-augmented data processing must pass. It is when the evolutionary process of self-replicating, mutating, adapting packets of information by-pass us completely that the new echo begins in earnest.

In a book about speculative future possibilities that I read decades ago (and can remember neither the title nor the author), one idea the author floated was the prospect of robotic combination space-faring/mining machines that could self-replicate with the materials that they mined from extraterrestrial bodies, bringing back virtually unlimited material resources to Earth. (Obviously, we would also need to invent self-replicated garbage collectors removing the equally prolific production of waste, else be even more deluged by garbage than we already are!) Now, imagine combining such machines with any variety of self-replicating and self-disposing/recycling machines to perform any variety of tasks. Finally, imagine their ability to process information about changing conditions or potential design improvements diagnosed from experience, and self-modify when reproducing in order to adapt to this information.

Such an accelerated process may well also accelerate our ability to safely and cleanly tap and utilize the universe’s abundant supply of energy sufficiently to meet any demands placed upon it. Both drivers of evolution, of progress, -information and energy- would be placed on autonomous growth curves, with problem-solving algorithms incorporated into them. It is even conceivable that self-replicated computerized machines could create not only their own off-spring, but their own novel inventions as well, new self-replicating computerized machines to accomplish new tasks newly identified.

Of course, the immediate future offers prospects more modest than these far-fetched possibilities, but dramatic prospects nonetheless, and prospects that will become increasingly dramatic with the passage of time. What it requires of us is a willingness to progress, an understanding that we have not yet arrived at our final condition, that our lot in life can indeed be dramatically improved, and that it is incumbent upon us to facilitate our advance toward an ever-more robust, sustainable, and fair social order to the best of our abilities.

But, as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and great potential for disastrous unintended consequences. This is true on several dimensions; technological, environmental, and social institutional. As some have noted, we may be on the brink of creating what is essential mechanical life-forms, and unleashing forces we will no longer be able to control. The most common and imminent concern involves nanotechnology: The creation of microscopic machines that can be used, for instance, to target diseases in the body, and can be programmed to reproduce and adapt to changing conditions by reprogramming themselves as they do so. Michael Crichton, in one of his typically scientifically-almost-plausible-but-extreme renditions of this concept, wrote the novel Prey, which depicted swarms of such nanites becoming very effective predators.

Clearly, more dramatically exploiting Nature, both on Earth and beyond, means more dramatically risking the destabilization of the complex systems which comprise us. We must always remain vigilent, and increasingly so, that our increasingly robust harvesting of Nature’s bounty is not done at the expense of the stability and sustainability of the systems which produce that bounty.

And the fear that informs conservatives, that the more we act with a concentrated will, the more we risk losing ourselves to the center of power thus created, takes on new dimensions as well in a future such as the one I have outlined. Vigilantly avoiding the possible pitfalls of falling prey to our own technological and institutional inventions is one more demand upon us, and one we must keep forever at the forefront of our contemplations. But the liberating possibilities of both a more effective and expansive social institutional context, and a more effective and expansive technological context, both  facilitating the provision of needs and wants and opportunities beyond all but our wildest dreams (just as the present is beyond all but the wildest dreams of those of generations and centuries and millenia past), freeing us to grow and celebrate life in ways more profound and subtle than merely meeting the demands of survival which were forever our first and most formidable shackles, is a dream not to be denied.

Despite the risks involved, I find the path we are on more exciting than frightening, one which, when combined with our inevitable increasing mimicry of nature in the production of more organic and organic-like technologies and social institutions, holds the promise for a very bright future indeed.

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