DS: This DSI is
with a man whose profession is a first for this series of interviews. He is what
might best be termed an ethical futurist. For those in the know, such a term may
bring up ideas of Malthusian doomsayers or Alvin Toffler-like economic
predictions, or even Marshall McLuhanism. Jamais Cascio, however, is none of
these things, and he runs a popular blog called Open
The Future. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. There’s so much good
stuff to plumb that much will have to be left out. Naturally, I want to delve
into your opinions on a plenum of subjects- the futuristic, the philosophic, the
ethical, the religious, the political and that pop cultural. But, for those
readers to whom your name is unfamiliar, could you please give a précis for the
uninitiated, on who Jamais Cascio is: what you do, what your aims in your career
are, major achievements, and your general philosophy, etc.
JC: I am an easily-distracted generalist.
Oh, you want more? How about “eschatologist-for-hire?”
I’ve been working in the field of “foresight strategy” (as it’s known in the business world) for over 15 years, helping (generally) large organizations – companies, governments, NGOs – think through the longer-term implications of present-day choices. In 2003, I co-founded Worldchanging.com, which was for awhile the top enviro blog. Our focus was on solutions rather than moaning about problems, and had a strong future-focus. I left WC in 2006, and have been on my own (professionally) ever since.
Much of my work these days is with the Institute for the Future, where I am a “Research Fellow” (part of their constellation of non-staff thinkers they pull into projects). I am primarily involved with their ongoing “Ten-Year Forecast” program. They like having me as an outsider-with-connections, and I like being able to pick and choose the projects I work on.
Aside from consulting work, I do quite a bit of writing on technology and other topics (most notably, I have had a couple of pieces in the Atlantic Monthly in recent years), and do ridiculous amounts of public speaking around the world.
I wasn’t joking about being an easily-distracted generalist. My interests are fairly diverse, and always evolving. Part of what I bring to my work is a real love of finding the odd and sometimes hidden connections between seemingly disparate forces. That requires a constant effort to dig up new signals.
As an example of the range of ideas I play with, the three topics most likely to show up in a Google search on my name are technological augmentation of human capabilities (including brain enhancement and “augmented reality” technologies), the political implications of geoengineering (a proposed response to global warming that would modify climate systems on a planetary scale), and the carbon footprint of cheeseburgers.
DS: What exactly
is a futurist? And, would you accept the term I gave you, as an ‘ethical
futurist’? If not, how would you define your career or profession?
JC: In very broad strokes, a futurist tries to create a plausible narrative about events yet to come. The process and the meaning of futurism has evolved considerably over the years, however. In the past, futurism was synonymous with making predictions, making exacting claims about what will happen. But – as we all know – we can’t consistently and accurately predict the future; in a complex universe, the future is inherently uncertain.
Up until the 1980s, this was just the way things were. Futurists would make bold predictions, most of which would never come true. The better ones would talk in terms of probabilities, or would try to add a layer of quantitative analysis to their work, but still: not a lot of accuracy, even with accuracy as the intended goal.
A new perspective started to take hold in the 1980s, that of “scenario thinking.” With scenario thinking, the intent isn’t to craft a single accurate vision of the future, but to assemble a set of internally-consistent narratives describing different plausible futures, based on clearly-defined critical uncertainties. Scenario strategists would explicitly disclaim any attempt at prediction; the goal wasn’t to tell you what will happen, but to challenge you to ask yourself what you would do if something like one of these scenarios happened.
The analogy that gets used quite often – and it’s a reasonably good one – is that of a wind tunnel. In engineering, a wind tunnel is used to test prototype designs, so that flaws can be detected early. In scenario-based planning, scenarios are used to test prototype strategies. Company/government/group A has strategy X – how well would that strategy fare in these 4 different possible (plausible) worlds?
That’s still the underlying idea for many of today’s futurists. I’ve been trying to push past that, though, in my work.
The analogy that I like to use is that of a vaccination. In biology, our immune systems generate antibodies only after contact with a pathogen. We use vaccinations – weakened pathogens – to kick-start our immune systems, so that our bodies can be prepared for possible infections ahead of time. What I try to do with my futures work is to be that vaccination, to help the body of an organization (or society) to become sensitive to different possible developments, so that they can start preparing now.
I’m not going to tell you what will happen. I’m going to talk about what might happen, what are the possible implications of what’s happening now, and what kinds of surprising results may emerge from the intersection of superficially unrelated choices, all so that you can be better prepared for the otherwise unexpected.
From there, you can see the connection to “ethical futurism” – the intent isn’t just on building a better business strategy, but building a better, more resilient, world.
And lastly, I actually dislike the term “futurist.” The origin is suspect (the Futurist art movement had a disquietingly close association with Fascism), and there have been too many charlatans and self-promoters who have happily adopted the label. I actually like “prognosopher,” but I haven’t found many folks who agree with me. “Futurologist,” the European label for what I do, is also less problematic.
DS: To quote from
you, here is a set of guidelines you came up with. Let’s review each
It means that the first duty of an ethical futurist is to act
in the interests of the stakeholders yet to come — those who would suffer harm
in the future from choices made in the present. This harm could come (in my
view) in the form of fewer options or possibilities for development, less
ecological diversity and environmental stability, and greater risks to the
health and well-being of people and other species on the planet. Futurists, as
those people who have chosen to become navigators for society — responsible
for watching the path ahead — have a particular responsibility for safeguard
that path, and to ensure that the people making strategic choices about actions
and policies have the opportunity to do so wisely.
this, I would argue for the following set of ethical guidelines:
An ethical futurist has a responsibility not to let the desires of a client (or audience, or collaborator) for a particular outcome blind him or her to the consequences of that goal, and will always informs the client of both the risks and rewards.
This seems to be the sort of thing that might simply be
stated, ‘Keep your palms closed,’ i.e.- disdain graft and bribery. But, even
in daily existence, we see how corruptible human beings are. As example, I have
always thought the problem with law enforcement is that it is done by human
beings. To be crooked, as example, a cop does not have to be on the payroll of a
mobster or drug dealer, he may simply go about writing his monthly quota of
tickets, regardless of the guilt or innocence of those ticketed, merely to
please his superiors. In other words, corruption is not necessarily pure
blackened evil, but a touch of gray, here and there. If a corporation dangles
enough green in your face, what is to prevent you from becoming a corporate
shill, even if you may not realize it?
JC: A guilty conscience and meddling peers.
And that’s true for just about any profession, really. You need to be constantly evaluating your own actions to measure them against your values, and you need colleagues who are willing to call you on your actions. If one or the other is missing, it becomes easier to slip into unethical behavior; if both are missing, of course, it’s party time.
There may be a point in the future where there are AI-type technologies that can serve as a putatively objective conscience (“time to upgrade to Jiminy Cricket 2.1”), but I wouldn’t count on it happening any time soon. In the meantime, we’re left to the same social mechanisms that we’ve had to rely on from the beginning.
Still quoting you:
An ethical futurist has the responsibility to understand, as fully as possible, the range of issues and systems connected to the question under consideration, to avoid missing critical potential consequences.
One would assume human error would not be regarded as
‘unethical’ in this scenario, right? But this also ties back to the first
posit. If one is corruptible, then does not that make ‘error’, even if
unconscious, more likely?
JC: Yep. And that is where the meddling peers come in. It’s not just that they would have an external perspective on one’s behavior, they’ll also be able to bring in knowledge and ideas that one might not have yet grasped.
Human error isn’t unethical; a refusal to admit to an error, or an unwillingness to learn from that error, arguably is. A motto that I’ve seen here and there that resonates here is “always make new mistakes.”
DS: Still quoting you:
An ethical futurist has the responsibility to acknowledge and
make her or his client (audience, collaborators) cognizant of the uncertainty of
forecasts, and to explain why some outcomes and consequences are more or less
likely than others.
I would refer you to the great documentary, The
Fog Of War, by Errol Morris, wherein former Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara rues his roles in World War Two and Vietnam, and issues warnings for
the future, based upon the inability of humans to calculate all the possible
risks and outcomes of a war once it is engaged. Have you ever seen that film?
Any thoughts? And what of its posits in relation to this claim? As example, An
Inconvenient Truth, the filmed lecture on the environment with former
Vice-President Al Gore, seems to do more harm than good. It veers off into
Malthusian scare tactics that, simply put, we know won’t and cannot happen-
ala, the earth won’t become Venus, in a few centuries. For example, his claims
about the release of greenhouse gases from melting tundra, while true, are
scientifically overstated. There have been eras in the planet’s history where
carbon and methane have been way higher than anything that could happen in the
worst scenarios envisioned, and life survived. I’m not saying that we should
continue our reckless ways, and I am very pro-Green, and think President Obama
needs to get more serious about environmentalism, but this is clearly an example
of unethical futurism via overstated propaganda, and the effect will be The
Boy Who Cried Wolf. Do you agree, and what is your view of clear agitprop
folk like Gore or Michael Moore? Do you think that they do more harm than good
when they shade the truth, even if one might argue they do so for a ‘greater
JC: I haven’t seen the Morris documentary, but part of the problem that McNamara describes arises in part from expecting to have accurate predictions of results. Dropping the single point prediction approach, and moving towards a scenario approach where strategies are developed to respond or adapt to a variety of outcomes, is far more useful.
Unfortunately, that perspective still persists. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was once quoted as saying that “It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work,” in response to Congressional questions about the Iraq War. That’s absolutely the 180° wrong perspective.
As for the messaging, I have mixed feelings. People don’t tend to respond to scare tactics in the ways we wish (except when they do – that unpredictability of response is part of the problem). Yet there’s this concept of the “Overton Window,” a political theory that says that pushing unacceptably extreme arguments into public discourse normalizes less-radical (but once also considered extreme) viewpoints. In the US, the hardcore right wing has gotten quite good at Overton-style messaging. The left and the environmental movement has yet to take advantage of this approach other than accidentally.
But I do want to push back, a bit, on your characterization of the “scare tactics” in An Inconvenient Truth. You say:
There have been eras in the planet’s history where carbon and methane
have been way higher than anything that could happen in the worst scenarios
envisioned, and life survived.
And that’s absolutely right – but the concern here isn’t for life on Earth in general, the concern is for the continued viability of a global civilization of 7 billion+ people. Life on Earth has come back from far greater insults than global warming (dinosaur-killing asteroid, anyone?), but it takes millennia and results in a radically different planet. And while environmentalists get caricatured (and often embrace being thought of) as “tree-huggers,” the vast majority want to keep the planet healthy to keep human civilization healthy. They simply recognize that a healthy civilization requires a healthy planet.
Wow! That’s an amazingly dense quote from Rice. On the plus side, it
does explain why the last Bush Administration failed so often, as if by plan. I
get the degree of difference you make re: civilization sustainability vis-à-vis
life in general, still, I think there is a more middle ground that is correct,
between the Leftist global warming doomsayers and the Rightist ostriches with
their heads in the sand.
Still quoting you:
An ethical futurist has the responsibility to offer unbiased
analysis, based on an honest appraisal of sources, with as much transparency of
process as possible.
I’ve already pointed out two possible bias sources-
corruption and self-delusion. What are some others that you have faced or that
will be faced by others? And, what sorts of forces can work against the goal of
JC: Let’s see, other sources of bias:
• Cultural values: most basically, when forecasts run against normative preferences, can a futurist honestly give those forecasts as much emphasis as forecasts that align with preferences?
• Political values: a parallel to the previous one, can a futurist offer forecasts that run against political preferences without skewing the forecast outcomes?
• Expectations based on past experiences: we rely on past experience as a guide to expected outcomes, but a futurist can’t let that guide turn into shorthand – that is, we shouldn’t just assume that the past results will continue.
• Language: the language that we use shapes what we think about the narratives we create. Just think about the previous question – how we think about the risks associated with high levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases changes when we change the language from “life” to “human civilization.” It’s not just that these are two different subjects; the language we use alters our reactions.
• Time: simply put, do we have enough time to think through implications, etc., or will time constraints lead us to rely on shortcuts and familiar tropes?
Opacity isn’t a source of bias per se, but is an enabler of bias. Without outside eyes checking on our forecasts, it’s easier to let bias slip through.
DS: Still quoting you:
An ethical futurist has the responsibility to recognize the difference between short-term results and long-term processes, and to always keep an eye on the more distant possibilities.
This puts me in mind of future scenarios about terraforming
other planets for human need. Let me ask you, since we likely both agree that
the human future will not and should not be confined to this small blue speck of
ours. What are your views on such things as terraforming? Putting aside Avatar-like
worlds about other planets, which may be many centuries away, there will likely
be, in the next one to three centuries, long term exploration of Mars, and the
moons of the gas giants. What is the ethical thing to do if we discover natal
life in other parts of the solar system? If we find that the Jovian moon Europa
has valuable resources, are we ethically obliged to leave it unspoiled, even if
the only Europans are single celled type organisms? Or even if they have reached
a comparable level of jellyfish or early fish? Does the human desire for cosmic
expansion and exploration trump their ‘rights’ (which are, of course, legal
man-made fictions) to just be? My point is that, in a sense, to
me, all life is a way of the cosmos knowing and understanding itself. If so, and
you can agree with that, then does not the addition of means to enable human
conscious understanding of the cosmos seem the greater good than simple
creatures merely existing in their ignorance?
JC: From an “understanding of the cosmos” perspective, limiting our impacts on extraterrestrial life would be absolutely critical simply to be able to have a clear diversity of data sources about life. Right now, we have a single example of life in the universe – here on Earth. Damaging or destroying comparative ecosystems (not just the organisms, but the context in which they live) would be an incalculable crime.
Conversely, it’s entirely possible to explore without destroying what you’re exploring. That’s something that we’ve learned in recent decades, primarily in undersea and Antarctic research.
One guideline I try to use in this kind of situation is reversibility. How readily could a decision be reversed? Terraforming Mars after discovering evidence of life would irreversibly disrupt that evidence. Building a research colony (as with Antarctica) would be less disruptive, and more reversible.
As for questions of expansion or “valuable resources” on Europa (or similar locations), there are larger issues that could render these concerns moot. Terraforming would take centuries at best, for example, and what we’d require for habitation off of Earth is very likely to change as our ability to augment and transform our own bodies advances (that is, it might be faster and easier to alter humans to make them able to live on an un-altered Mars). With resources, pretty much anything inorganic we might want from Mars or Europa could be acquired more easily from asteroids; the only unique resources we might want from places like that would be the native biology – and that would argue strongly for minimal disruption to the novel ecosystems.
An excellent point, Jamais, re: the fact that we may more easily transform our
bodies to fit certain environments than to terraform them. Brings to mind the
excellent book, Man After Man, by Scottish geologist and
speculative anthropologist Dougal Dixon, wherein he posits a future where
mankind’s ability to control his biological destiny trumps all else. I’ll
return to this later.
Still quoting you:
Futurists perform a quirky, but necessary, task in modern society: we function as the long-range scanners for a species evolved to pay close attention to short-range horizons. Some neurophysiologists argue that this comes from the simple act of throwing an object to hit a moving target. Chimpanzees and bonobos, even with DNA 98% identical to our own, are simply unable to do so, while most humans can (at least with a bit of experience). It turns out that the same cognitive structures that let us understand where a moving target will be may also help us recognize the broader relationship between action and result — or, more simply, how “if” becomes “then.”
That’s an interesting speculation. But, if so, why are so
many people, even acting in the short term, so ill equipped to deal with
life’s exigencies? As example, even on a monthly basis- by no means a long
term period, most people cannot balance their checkbooks because a) they cannot
do simple addition and subtraction, and b) they lack the personal willpower to
live within their means.
JC: Capacity doesn’t equal use. That is, while all humans have the genetic ability to throw at a moving target, very few of us can do so terribly well. Most of us can do so in a fairly limited way. It’s not because we don’t have the capacity, it’s because we haven’t had the opportunity to develop our skills to their fullest – and that’s in a world where sports are a typical part of childhood.
We don’t have anything close to a “sports program” in school to train up foresight. It’s not part of our culture, although it should be. Primary education would be a good place to start teaching people how to do simple acts of looking ahead (such as budgets, etc.).
DS: That’s an
excellent point, about capacity and the need to develop it. It reminds me of the
absurd claims made by Creationists, who try to point to the human eye as so
complex and perfect that there is no way it could evolve. Yet, the truth is that
it has evolved independently, in myriad forms, dozens of times, with clear
transitional phases. The point being that the claim of ocular perfection is so
ridiculous to begin with because anyone with myopia, or many other failings,
could easily dismiss that ‘perfection’ claim. How many folks have 20/20
vision? So, there’s always a gap between what is possible and what is
realized, and it’s a good point to bring up.
I mentioned the terraforming of other planets, but in 2009 you wrote a
book called Hacking The Earth. I have not read the book, but is
not climatological and geological engineering of the earth a form of
terraforming? And, does this bestow upon us a greater or lesser ethos than doing
it to a non-natal planet? I.e.- we are the intellectually dominant species on
our planet, so we may have a greater claim to it than other species, but is that
an absolute right? And what if we screw things up worse, as the law of
unintended consequences comes into play? Would we not be better in not
aggravating the situation and letting the planet ‘heal’ itself?
JC: Actually, the very first things I ever wrote about geoengineering, back at Worldchanging in 2004, referred to the process as “terraforming the Earth” – trying to make the Earth Earth-like again.
It’s unfortunate that you didn’t have a chance to skim through Hacking the Earth, because the questions you ask about rights, responsibilities, and unintended consequences are precisely the issues I focus on. In short, the motivation for geoengineering comes down to a desire to avoid disaster. Desperate people do desperate things, as I noted when I spoke on this subject to the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. Asking whether we have the right to do it gets lost in the noise of people calling out for someone to help them.
Given that we haven’t been acting swiftly enough to avoid negative impacts from climate disruption, and especially given that the climate is a “long lag” system where cause and effect can be years apart (e.g., we could stop putting any carbon into the atmosphere right this very second and still see another 30+ years of warming due to effects like ocean thermal inertia), we’re very likely to face a point in the next decade or two where our choice is between the clearly disastrous and the unimaginably risky.
The science and technology around geoengineering still needs much research, but it’s likely to be a relatively straightforward scientific process. The big problems with it will come from the political disputes over control, legal disputes over liability for side-effects, and the simple question of how do you know when to stop.
We could let the planet heal itself, and given enough time it will, no matter what we do. As I noted earlier, the question isn’t about the planet, the question is about the viability of human civilization on the planet.
aside climate issues, what are your views on reproductive issues, and things
like organic farming? As to the former, I think religion has to be put aside and
good sense take hold. People love to fuck, simply put. One can be a prude and
dislike that, etc., but the consequences of that propensity are increased
populations, especially in poor nations, and the spread of disease. Should not
reproductive health issues be accorded a higher priority? And a population boom
almost always seems to bring the productivity of food into play. But, organic
farming has its limits, and, as I work in the grocery business, much of it is a
scam. As example, even if one assumes that a dairy farmer is doing his best to
be ‘all natural’ in his feed and grain and methods, the fact is that much of
the environment outside his confines, will also be polluted with things- from
groundwater to stuff in the air. This renders most ‘organic’ labels as
nothing but a marketing ploy, and a bad one, at that, because
organics are so ridiculously expensive vis-à-vis standardly produced
JC: Reproductive issues: the single best thing we can do to improve global development is to educate and make birth control available to young women. There are mountains of evidence that education of women, especially when coupled with birth control, is one of the fastest ways to drive major economic and political development.
Regarding food: I would question quite a bit of your analysis there, but I think it’s enough to say that our present day agricultural and food distribution system is worse than unsustainable, and will see radical transformation in the decades to come. Some of that will be technology-driven – for example, the use of “cultured meat” (real meat derived from a cell culture rather than cut from an animal), and careful use of crops engineered to adapt to varying climates. Some of it will come from a re-evaluation of large-scale megafarming, with a move towards more of a “permaculture” process.
I can’t speak to your experience in the grocery industry, but in my own experience working with the Institute for the Future’s Global Food Outlook program, the situation around the validity of the “organic” label, and its utility as an indicator of more sustainable practices, is much more complex than you suggest. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it’s not simply a marketing ploy.
DS: In a recent
Posthumanism Is Boring Me you write:
Posthumanity, from this perspective, will always be just over
the horizon. Always in The Future. When the systems and augmentations we now
consider to be posthuman hit the real world, they will have become simply human
That's because augmentation - the development of systems and
technologies to allow us to do and to be more than what our natural biology
would allow - is intrinsic to what it means to be human. Thrown weapons expanded
the range of our strength; control of fire allowed us to see in the dark;
written words expanded the duration of our memories. If these all sound utterly
primitive and unworthy of comment, try to imagine what it would have been like
to be without them - and to find yourself competing against others equipped with
them. The last hundred thousand years has been the slow history of the process
It's faster now, and more visible, and, yes, more powerful in
its results. But it's very human. When we read the other entries in the
Posthuman Week series we see disruption, but that's an artifact of perspective.
"Posthuman" technologies are disruptive and frightening (or tempting)
precisely because they're not here, and remain off in the distance. They're
alien and inhuman technologies. But as they become more plausible, as they
become more real, they will lose that luster.
For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.
This touches upon a semantic peeve I have, especially with naturalists
and other scientists. That is when they refer to things as natural vs.
man-made. On a logical plane, anything that I or you, or mankind
at large, do IS, and HAS TO BE natural. It’s a false dichotomy. The correct
terminology would be man-made and non-man-made. How
often do you encounter such seemingly trivial things which are, in actuality,
things that are important, because, if one cannot even correctly define issues
and problems, how can one expect to correctly resolve them?
JC: See my earlier response around language. Language matters, and – as you suggest – people can use the same terms in very different ways, leading to very different analysis and conclusions.
My choice regarding the specific issue you cite is to refer to “natural” versus “constructed” – where natural means (as most people seem to reflexively accept) evolved or emerged from geophysical or ecosystem processes without any intelligent intervention. Constructed, conversely, demands intelligent intervention. Note that this would include things like beaver dams and eagle nests: constructed, not emergent. The utility of the distinction is that the various forces driving change can affect each in quite different ways. That’s useful to recognize, especially when the underlying conceit of one’s profession is change.
DS: In another
recent post you wrote of meeting Michio Kaku, the noted physicist. In an asides,
you mentioned the Fermi Paradox, and discussing it with him, yet, clearly, this
is an example of a logical fallacy. The so-called paradox really is not one
(just as Olber’s Paradox is not one) because the things it claims are simply
not so, To paraphrase, the paradox is:
Given the age of the universe, many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations should exist. But, since we have no firm evidence of extraterrestrial visitation there is an inconsistency.
Now, given that we know of only one planet with life, much less an
advanced civilization (on the cusp of interplanetary and interstellar travel),
we have zero evidence that life exists elsewhere, much less that it is advanced.
Plus, despite things like the Drake Equation, which is a flight of fancy, we
have absolutely no way of knowing if most cultures would have any deep interest
in exploration, much less of our insignificant solar system. To truly be a
paradox, there must be firmly established facts in conflict. The so-called Fermi
Paradox is based on no facts whatsoever, merely idle speculation. Thus, I am
back to the earlier points about human fallibility. If one cannot see that the
so-called Fermi Paradox is not technically a paradox, then is not faith placed
in science misplaced, for it seems scientists are just as faith-based as
JC: The “paradox” label is, here, useful branding (a “marketing ploy,” even), not an attempt to hew to precise language. (Just as the “Overton Window” doesn’t describe an actual pane of glass in a wall, no?) I’d be happy to refer to “Fermi’s Observed Apparent Inconsistency,” if you’d prefer.
As for the idea itself, one of the key insights of modern science is “uniformitarianism,” the notion that the laws of the universe operate consistently and uniformly, and that – very broadly conceived – the “past is the key to the present.” It holds that explanations of the physical world of the present that rely on widely-observed, ongoing phenomena and processes are more likely to be true than explanations of the physical world that rely on exceptional events. Obviously there are examples of seemingly exceptional events changing things, but even these (such as the asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago) can turn out to be actually part of more subtle, slower ongoing patterns.
Fermi’s observation (and the Drake equation, etc.) are based on the observation that the various forces driving the emergence of life on Earth, and the appearance of intelligent life, don’t appear to be exceptional, and certainly not unique. So while there has been no direct observation of extraterrestrial life, the lack of life off of Earth would be a far more difficult-to-explain result than the existence of life.
This doesn’t require life to be on every planet, or even commonplace. But for Earth to be the only world in the galaxy without life would be a staggeringly unlikely outcome given what we know about how the universe operates, and would require explanation.
Advanced tool-making intelligence is clearly a rarer thing, but even so, the processes that contributed to the emergence of human civilization don’t appear to be unique to Earth.
So remember that there are literally hundreds of billions of stars in the galaxy, and (as we’re now observing) a significant plurality, probably a majority, have planets. If the forces leading to life and intelligence aren’t exceptional, then it’s more likely than not that there would be extraterrestrial intelligence elsewhere in the galaxy.
You ask if most of these supposed
alien cultures would have any deep interest in exploration. That’s a good
question, but most doesn’t equal all. If there are currently (just pulling a
number out of the air) 100 space-capable cultures in the galaxy, and only 10 are
interested in exploration, that small percentage would actually still have a big
A billion years is a long time, and the galaxy has been around for 10
billion or so; Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion. If we assume that a
technological civilization would take roughly as long to appear on Planet X as
it has on Earth (uniformitarianism), there could well have been space capable
civilizations in the galaxy when the Earth itself was forming. Moreover, it
turns out that for an interstellar-capable civilization to colonize every star
in the galaxy would take less than a billion years, given moderate rates of
speed (let alone the faster-than-light travel you posit elsewhere in the
interview) and moderate rates of building new ships.
These are all just speculations, but they’re speculations grounded in the concept of uniformitarianism. If things work as we have observed, then we should see a certain kind of result. That we don’t seem to see that result – that the Earth hasn’t already been colonized by a 7 billion year old civilization – is an inconsistency. This leads to the question of why don’t we see evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations? And that’s a question without a satisfying answer at the moment.
DS: On a side
note, Kaku is also a leading proponent of string theory, and much of cosmology
and cosmogony is a hodge-podge of ad hoc theories about things like strings,
super-strings, dark matter, dark energy, etc.- all of which are unproven. Do you
believe that the theory predicated on this patchwork, the Big Bang Theory, is
destined to be replaced by another theory before this century is out? It seems
to me that, like many proponents of earlier bad theories, instead of making a
theory match the observations, the proponents of the Big Bang are trying to make
the unobserved observations match the theory. This is bad science, no?
JC: To be gentle, your understanding of cosmology is incomplete.
Big Bang theory pre-dated string theory, dark matter, etc. There are actually numerous observations, from cosmic background temperature to universal expansion to the rates of change of subatomic particles that all back up the Big Bang theory.
Science is the process of trying to understand why things are as they are, and theories are explanations of observed reality. Sometimes trying to understand the universe means replacing good theories with better theories that resolve the questions the previous theory resolved, as well as questions that the previous theory couldn’t. Big Bang theory actually resolved questions about the observed state of the universe better than previous theories. Any theory that replaces Big Bang would have to deal with everything that Big Bang explained better than Big Bang.
That said, current Big Bang theory is not complete. Concepts like “dark energy” and “dark matter” are theoretical scaffolds used to resolve inconsistencies within our current model of the universe (inconsistencies, such as why galaxies with insufficient observed mass to hold together don’t spin apart, that would need to be resolved regardless of the underlying core model). The names are theatrical, but that doesn’t mean that the observations that they describe aren’t real. (In short: dark matter=mass beyond the observed amounts required for the observed results; dark energy=energy that is causing the universe to expand faster than otherwise consistent-with-observation models would allow.)
String theory and super-strings (another name for one kind of string theory) are part of an attempt to reconcile well-understood theories of gravity and sub-atomic (quantum) particles, both of which count as the most-thoroughly-tested in scientific history – but which lead to inconsistent conclusions. (Now there’s a paradox!) String theory has nothing to do with the Big Bang theory, at least directly.
DS: I know that
string theory and the Big Bang are not connected- I just brought it up as an
exemplar of the sort of posits that have no basis in evidence, upon which the
Big Bang and other theoretical models of reality can be based upon. But almost
all of what you wrote seems to justify my initial posit of skepticism. Many
multiple universe theories, plus Brane Theory, and others, seem to explain all
that the Big Bang, with the added benefit of explaining dark matter (in multiple
universe models this is the effect of mass in other universes acting within
ours, as example).
In this video
you speak of the power of cell phones in a political sense. This video was made
at the birth of YouTube, in early 2006. You speak of things which have come to
pass- see the assorted revolutions on the Asian continent, from former Soviet
states to Iran. What other things spoken of here have come to pass, and what
things, even just a few years later, seem silly now?
JC: My first taste of making a useful forecast came in grad school, studying international politics. In one exam, I answered a question (in ~1991) about the then country of Yugoslavia with a fairly gloomy assessment of the likelihood that it would remain intact. The professor, a specialist in the region, completely disagreed, and marked me down on that question. There was a kind of grim satisfaction in being right – although being wrong may well have been less brutal for the people of the former Yugoslavia.
As for silly… well, I’d rather say “excessively cynical.” Prior to both the 2006 and 2008 elections in the United States, I posted items on how easily elections and the political process could be disrupted through the use of social media, and made confident assertions that we’d see something along those lines. Much to my surprise, as rowdy as those elections may have been, they were nearly as bad as I had expected.
DS: What are
some of the other big and/or visionary ideas you have, and which have you seen
accomplished, or in the process of accomplishing?
JC: Hmm. Not many, largely because the time scales I usually work on don’t lend themselves to near-term appearance of the forecasts. The handful that I have had – that we’d see international political disputes over climate/geoengineering, that mobile phones would become a tool of political change, that reliance on cloud computing systems would lead to catastrophic failures – all feel a bit too much like “predicting the present.”
The fairly superficial forecast I hope to see happen in the next decade or so is the emergence of Augmented Reality Fashion, where the look of clothing extends beyond the visual to the digital.
The more substantial forecast I’d like to see is the emergence of truly 21st century economic models, beyond the 19th century zombies of industrial capitalism and communism.
DS: Clearly, your background suggests that you were likely, from early on, interested in the sciences. I grew up reading science books, almanacs, and encyclopediae as a child, and this stirred a love of mine for science, as well as its history. In the 1960s there was a popular series of children’s science books called The How And Why Wonder books. Did such works influence you? If not, what did?
JC: Encyclopedias, to be sure. Science books, whenever I could get my hands on them. I’m cursed with omnivorous curiosity.
DS: Let’s start at the beginning, and explore your childhood and background. Where were you born, and when?
Southern California, in 1966.
television, film, or pop culture a big influence on your life, or were you
squirreled away reading science books? Or was sci fi your thing?
JC: Some TV – although (as you likely recall) back in the day there weren’t too many TV channels to choose from. Science and science fiction books. Fantasy books (e.g., Tolkien). Nothing surprising.
DS: Did you have any heroes in any particular field? Or were you attracted to the discipline of ideas?
JC: I’ve never been one for heroes. Nobody seemed a good fit. Or, rather, I never really aligned with any particular person or heroic narrative.
DS: What were
some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who
graced your existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’
The ones that come to mind are all either too commonplace (the explosion of
Challenger, e.g.) or too personal.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Who were your childhood heroes and
why? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?
JC: Paleontologist. Astronomer. I’m told that when I was 2 or 3, I wanted to be a “rocket ship,” but I think we can see where I was going there.
High school in two different places in Southern California, one a fairly low-income community, one a fairly high-income community. Didn’t really fit in at either one.
College, I went to UC Santa Cruz. Grad school, UC Berkeley. I’ve lived in California my whole life.
What sort of child were you- a
loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy,
a nerd, or a rebel?
Loner, good grades, geek. A bit of a hippie (in an era well past the height of
the 1960s culture). The loner and hippie aspects changed when I got to college;
I’m still a geek.
Any siblings? What paths in life have
JC: Yes. Varied – parents, teachers, performers. Nothing as weird as mine.
DS: Are you married? What does your wife do? And how did you meet? Is she involved in the same field(s)?
JC: Yes. We met in college, and she’s not involved in this field.
Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests
and careers? Are any of them writers?
JC: No kids.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
JC: I do have parents. Varied professions. Yes, they were always very encouraging and willing to let me explore ideas.
What was your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other
JC: The salient bit
here is that, up until my last couple of years of high school, I didn’t leave
near where I went to school, so never really built up an afterschool/summertime
social network. Otherwise, relatively happy home, parents still together, no
notable traumas while growing up.
DS: Do you
consider yourself a social or cultural critic, even if your main focus is
technology? Would you even label yourself an anthropologist of sorts?
JC: I don’t think that my main focus is technology, actually. And, yes, I would accept being called a social/cultural critic. I’d prefer that, in fact, to being considered a technology specialist.
As for labeling myself an anthropologist of sorts, I would think my BA in Anthropology would allow me to do so. :) [I also have a BA in History, and a MA in Political Science.]
(Interesting side-note: a plurality of the people working at the
Institute for the Future have backgrounds in Anthropology or related fields.)
DS: America has
an odd history of embracing and disdaining technology and science. I think the
best example of this comes from the past, with the American take on subjects
like eugenics and euthenics. What is your view of such, purely philosophically,
and also contextualized into history and actual practice? I think they are fine
as long as they are held to strictly scientific standards. The problem has
always been such things as what happened at Tuskegee, during a study of syphilis
in the mid-Twentieth Century, and other such misapplications. But the desire to
enhance the quality of human life- which both eugenics and euthenics have at
their core, is positive. No?
JC: A desire to enhance the quality of human life is positive. The belief that one’s own view of what “enhance the quality of human life” means is the sole legitimate view – a belief that drove much of early 20th century eugenics – is not. Euthenics has been somewhat less problematic, likely for reasons of “reversibility” – changing environments is easier to back out of than changing bodies.
Thing is, we can talk about enhancing human capacities without referring to it as “eugenics.” The term has baggage, and there’s little value in trying to say “I don’t mean that kind of eugenics.” Language has power, as we’ve established.
DS: What sorts of ethical issues come up with artificial intelligence? I have an unpublished manuscript that links the issue of human-robot/android love with the current issues over gay marriage rights. I feel that in fifty to a hundred years gay marriage will be widely accepted and even embraced by conservatives, who will then see such techno-issues as the new ‘great evils.’ Any thoughts?
JC: Yeah, that sounds about right. “Thou shalt not lay with a machine as with a man, for it is an abomination.”
There are numerous ethical issues around artificial intelligence. Some are more near-term than others.
For example, under what conditions would it ever be acceptable to let a machine decide whether or not to use weapons against people? The drones we use in war all have humans at the trigger, but it’s not at all inconceivable that we’d soon be able to let the drones decide whether or not to attack.
As artificial intelligence systems become more complex, more plausibly “self-aware,” at what point does it become unethical to shut them off?
There’s a famous scene in the movie The Empire Strikes Back, where C-3PO is going on about perhaps surrendering to the Empire, lamenting that nobody every listens to him, and Princess Leia reaches over and turns him off.
Funny scene, but think about it for a second: C-3PO is clearly self-aware, clearly a sentient individual – but he has no rights. His off switch is available to anyone. He’s a slave, in every way that matters, and suffers from discrimination even from the “good guys.”
It’s a movie, and the scene was played for laughs, not pity. But as we start to build things that develop identities of their own, the question of what kinds of rights they should have will become increasingly important.
DS: One of the reasons that I think eugenics has gotten to be so negatively connoted is that people feel someone will engineer a Master Race. I think this is silly. First, it assumes that the engineers would not fall prey to their own flaws and biases. Second, everyone would have their own idea of desirable qualities, thus there could never be a single standard for a Master Race. Third, ‘greatness’ is a random thing. When people have tried to make available the sperm or eggs of Nobel Laureates or Mensans, the kids turn out to be rather average. This gibes with the fact that almost all great people, such as Picasso, Newton, Einstein, and most famously-Thomas Jefferson, have never had any forebears nor descendents come close to their achievements. And the few famed people who’ve had success run in their families- the Adamses, the Darwins, the Barrymores, have never really had greats in their clans, or- as in the Darwin case, Erasmus was not in a league with his grandson Charles. I call this fact The Infinity Spike, meaning that the idea that a Master Race could be engineered- at least intellectually, is folly. Perhaps physical characteristics, but the chances of two Mensans or Nobel Laureates producing another Michelangelo or Kurosawa are only negligibly greater than such a person coming from a plumber and a teacher. Perhaps a three or four out of fifty million chance versus a one and a half to two chance. In short, greatness spikes toward infinity out of nowhere- there is no predictable bell curve nor progression toward excellence. What are your thoughts on this posit? And do you think this makes fears over eugenics, at least when properly applied, silly?
JC: You said it – eugenic engineers would have their own flaws an biases. And different groups would have different views of what perfection would mean. But you can’t leave out that different groups have different levels of power to impose their definitions of perfection.
The fears over eugenics come from fears over the abuse of power. And we have seen, time and again, century after century, that such fears are well-placed.
I have come to the conclusion that 99.99% of people are mere placeholders-
i.e.- they are the genetic go-betweens connecting the great people who push
human life, society, and culture forward. Think of all the people who claim to
want to sacrifice for their children, but for what? So that their children can
sacrifice for their children who can repeat the process ad nauseam? No, whether
they realize it or not, they are doing it in the hopes of being part of a
lineage that will affect something deeper.
Do you feel that perhaps, subconsciously, some people aim for ignorance
to avoid the rather depressing facts of life I’ve just posited- i.e.-
ignorance of the average man’s worthlessness is, indeed, bliss?
JC: I entirely reject the “great man” theory of history.
DS: On my list
of most influential books in my life, I would include Alex Haley’s The
Autobiography Of Malcolm X; Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass;
Loren Eiseley’s autobiography All
The Strange Hours; Leonard Shlain’s Art And Physics,
and the Betty Smith’s novel A
Tree Grows In Brooklyn. What books would you put on such a list as
JC: Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Sons; Kim Stanley Robinson: Red/Green/Blue Mars (trilogy); Warren Ellis and Darrick Roberts: Transmetropolitan; Lee Smolin: The Life of the Cosmos; Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States.
DS: What are
your views on religion? Do you
believe in gods or not? Are you an atheist or agnostic? What links do you see
between philosophy and religion? Is myth merely expired religion, and religion
myth alive? Do you see religion spawning from the same human wellspring as art?
I typically characterize myself as a “nontheist.” I don’t believe in the
existence of deities, but also recognize that (philosophically) proving a
negative is impossible.
Atheism has become its own doctrine, while agnosticism says “I don’t
know.” My response is more along the lines of “I don’t care.”
Of course, given that statistically speaking we’re most likely living
in a simulation, if we define a god as a being that created the universe and
lives outside of it, then whichever future teenager is running SimHistory is
Religion is myth institutionalized.
Since God concepts are obviated by simply asking ‘Who made God?’,
because the answer could always be, ‘He
always was;’ which is the
same answer one can ask re: ‘What
made the cosmos?’; thereby
making God a superfluity, why does such a belief persist?
arises from the human need for explanation, the human capacity for pattern
recognition (even when, as with shapes in clouds, no real patterns exist), human
social urges, and the evolution of increasingly sophisticated methods of
you ever read Pascal Boyer’s Religion
Explained? A pal of mine recommended the book to me, but it was not
well written and its ideas were dubious. Basically, Boyer’s explanation boils
down to the fear and the bush analogy. If there are two people,
and there is a mysterious rustling behind the bush, the person who is fearful
and immediately runs away is likely to pass on more of his genes to the next
generation because, while the brave person may be braver, if there was a
saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, the brave person is dead, and bravery is
weeded out. Similarly, religious people and beliefs dominate because fear is
good for spreading one’s genes, and beliefs in the supernatural are
fear-based. While fear is no doubt a part of religion- i.e.- the fear of death,
Boyer’s is too simplistic an approach. Thoughts on the idea, and on
JC: Seems to me that the person who figures out that saber-toothed tigers like to hide behind bushes and avoids them entirely wins here.
Religion is a way of answering the “why” questions in a random universe. Science is another. Where science and religion differ is that religion then says “…and this is what you should do,” while science just says “keep asking why.”
DS: Are there any major areas of science or technology that you think have been wrongheaded, since the earliest times they were proposed? What are they and why?
JC: Eugenics, perhaps. Singularitarianism. Both arise from a belief in the ability of technology to change people without recognizing that people also change technology.
Do you belong to any political party, and what are your views on such current
politicized matters as euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell
research? Was your department ever affected by the anti-science crusading of the
last President Bush’s administration?
JC: Will Rogers: “I belong to no organized party. I’m a Democrat.”
My views on these various subjects would get me called “hard left” in the United States, and “bourgeois moderate” in Europe. But because of the structure of the American political system, voting for minor parties that hew closer to my actual views would be nothing more than masturbation – it feels good, but can make a mess.
Bush’s actions regarding science didn’t affect me directly, other than how they affected all Americans.
DS: Do you have a professional bete noir? Who is he or she, and what is the source of your dispute?
JC: The people I have a problem with don’t have a problem with me, and the people who have a problem with me don’t really bother me. So, no.
DS: One of the things previously mentioned was the difficulty humans have in grasping long term concepts. But we also, as a species, have difficulty with all huge things. As example, sci fi like Star Trek minimizes the enormous task that interstellar travel represents. A light year is far larger a concept than anything on earth, yet sci fi renders a trip to a new world just a few hours travel. I think faster than light travel will one day come, but we are nowhere near it now. Similarly, most people have difficulty with the Huttonian idea of Deep Time- hence why Bishop Ussher’s idea of creation occurring in 4004 BC appealed to so many for so long. Do you believe concepts of Deep Time are similar, in their inability to properly be comprehended, as are concepts of stellar distances, where people bandy about terms like light years, as if they were merely a few miles? What do you think is behind this human tendency to blur such big concepts? Furthermore, why does this tendency to blur what one does not comprehend devolve down into the prosaic aspects of ordinary lives? Is it just human sloth, psychologically speaking?
JC: Sloth? No. But the urge to “blur what one does not comprehend” is in the same general realm as the crafting of religion: we don’t like to simply not understand things, so we create ways to turn the ineffable into the readily comprehensible. Sometimes, this is done by talking about Apollo’s Chariot pulling the Sun across the sky; sometimes, this is done by talking about light years as if they were miles.
The FTL that appears in Star Trek and the like is in many ways a way of acknowledging that the distances involved are vast, but that standard narrative forms make things like time dilation of near-light-speed travel difficult to include.
DS: I believe like I think you do, that humans need concrete goals to accomplish something. Some years ago, I wrote this essay, called The Day, wherein I posited that faster than light travel will come in to being only once a new earth-like world is discovered, and that within a century of discovery we will develop that technology, because the lure of pelf is too strong. This would be an example of using a bad trait, greed, for a good purpose. Do you ever think in those terms- i.e.- exploiting negative tendencies in human nature to reap beneficial unintended consequences? If not, do you think that this might be a tack that is worth pursuing, both personally, in your career, and as a wider template for science? I ask because so much nay-saying goes on, yet lemonade can and has been made from life’s lemons since the dawn of history.
JC: I certainly do recognize that behaviors with near-term negative results can have unexpected benefits down the road, just as near-term positive actions can have surprisingly negative long-term consequences. Human behavior is complex, and has complex interactions with a dynamic universe.
DS: Let me digress to a typical negative human trait- one of the hallmarks of both modern Political Correctness and Postmodernism, the idea that all is subjective. I argue this is manifest folly, and that anyone even arguing such a point cannot believe it, for if they truly did, there would be no rationale to argue the point. Agree or not?
I believe that there is an objective reality, but all human experiences of that
reality are subjective. We interpret reality, through culture, through
neurology, through language. Science is an attempt to break through
subjectivity, but it’s imperfect – however, one way that science differs
from (say) religion in this regard is that science recognizes that it’s
imperfect, and seeks ways to improve.
But even at the basic level of our experience of reality, there’s a
subjective, interpretive element.
As a simple example: the view of reality that we see with our eyes is
actually a construct of our brains piecing together snapshots gathered by our
eyes as they saccade all over the place, filling in gaps with past snapshots and
rewriting our memories to keep it all
If you’ve ever had the experience of looking at a clock with a second hand and that second hand seems to stall briefly before clicking to the next second, it’s because of that phenomenon. Your brain rewrote your memory of what you saw to make it consistent.
DS: I agree with your distinction that there is objective reality and that humans are subjective. I would disagree that no humans can be objective about all things, though. That’s a thing that simply cannot be sustained. Dangle a 5 lb. dumbbell over your right foot. Then let go. I think you will be perceiving objective reality with full clarity.
Oftentimes I have argued with other artists who use the ‘art is truth’ canard, or the ‘all art is subjective’ nonsense that, ‘Only bad artists claim all art is subjective.’ Logically, if all is subjective, then there’s no reason doing a damned thing in this life. Yet, just as a single drop of blood would de-purify, say, the Pacific Ocean- were it wholly purely water, so does one objective fact objectify a subjective universe, for anything then can be related or parallaxed to or against it. In writing, as example, clichés are greatly numerically repeated images or groups of words that are placed together in greatly numerically repeated situations. Thus, there is nothing subjective about a manifest cliché like ‘bleeding heart.’ Only if a writer somehow subverts that, out of the context of emotional sorrow, and perhaps uses that phrase in a poem or story about someone literally stabbed or shot in the heart, might that term be annealed or wholly subverted. Do you agree or not?
JC: There’s no reason to do a damned thing in this life, other than the reasons we create as individuals and as a civilization. Those are meaningful and important, even if subjective.
DS: If we realize that objectivity has limits- real, material, or philosophic, is not that as good as no limits because we’ve ‘accepted’ the field of play, so to speak? It’s just that the field has shrunk from infinite to not quite infinite.
Objectivity has limits inasmuch as human beings have limits in interpreting that
objective reality. Whether the existence of these limits is itself a reason to
give up on the world is, of course, a subjective response.
DS: I coined a
neologism- deliterate. It’s a term I came up with in opposition
to illiterate. By deliterate I mean the willful
choice to not read great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor
of reading blogs. To write in emailese rather than proper grammar. Basically, I
claim that deliteracy is far more a problem than illiteracy is. However, I do
believe in cycles, and think we are merely currently in a trough that is
destined to soar again. Comments?
Wouldn’t the construction of neologisms be as much as a form of deliteracy as
“emailese?” That is, the intentional use of non-standard language to impart
a meaning (idea or identity) that would be masked by the use of standard
language. I’m an unrepentant neologist myself, of course, so I find the term
DS: No, because the term ‘deliterate’ describes a phenomenon or thing that has not been noted before. There is a boon to its existence in allowing others to comprehend something unnamable before. Emailese, by contrast, does not. It is a dumbing down, a closing of possibilities, not a widening of them.
To what do you attribute the lack of introspection in modern society? Is American or Western culture simply as shallow as man of its detractors claim? In the arts, PC and Postmodernism have certainly aided in the ‘dumbing down’ of culture.
No, really. Socrates argued that the then-new technology of writing…
…will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it,
because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by
external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of
their own memory within them.
"You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise." [Plato, Phaedrus 274e-275b]
suggests, of course, that the current apparent lack of introspection is an
artifact of perspective. The problem of shallowness has been with us for a long
time, yet each generation seems to see the next as unusually bad. I’m not
inclined to see a universal “dumbing down” of culture.
What has happened is that the ability to communicate readily with more
than your immediate neighbors, when coupled with an industrial-capitalist
economic system, leads many of the most visible information channels to create
materials that appeal to as many people as possible, across regions and
cultures, which invariably involves some degree of avoiding nuance.
DS: Let me turn to some broader questions. I started these interviews because so many interviews, online and in print, are atrocious. They are merely vehicles designed to pimp a book or other product- film, CD, etc. One of the things I’ve tried to do with these interviews is avoid the canned sort of responses that most interviews- print or videotaped, indulge in, yet most people find comfort in hearing the expected. Why are the readers and the interviews so banal? Where have all the great interviewers like a Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, or Bill Buckley gone? Only Charlie Rose, on PBS, is left. Is conversation, which an interview is merely a rigorous form of, dying?
Evolving. The kind of interview you celebrate doesn’t appeal to a broad enough
slice of the public to get commercial funding, leaving only non-commercial
outlets. What you’ll find, though, is that even if general interviews are less
commonplace, specialized interviews and conversations are quite numerous – but
just not as easy to find, especially if you’re focusing on 20th
DS: I ask this question of almost all my interviewees, but let me see if you find any relevance to it. I believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic is applicable. When I interviewed Steven Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense, this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences, the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater leaps- such as James Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this? Are their current scientists or historians who might be considered visionaries in a hundred or more years? Who are they? Is there one discipline that lends itself more to creative or visionary thought? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?
As I said before, I entirely reject the “great man” theory of history. Your
so-called “visionaries” are the product of time, place, and history – they
didn’t arise de novo, without
context. Charles Darwin could do what he did not simply because he was
especially smart, but because he had a level of socioeconomic status, in a
culture that allowed for certain kinds of creativity, that enabled him to apply
that intelligence. A man of Darwin’s intelligence living in (say) Borneo at
the time, or a woman of Darwin’s intelligence in England of the time, or a
penniless Darwin, wouldn’t have been able to do what he did.
So to celebrate the Functionary, Creationary, and Visionary minds without
at least acknowledging the role of social context is a grave error.
DS: I think you are trying to gloss over an observation about individual minds with a political belief system. Studies of infants, in which they can recognize the differences in racial and sexual characteristics in human visages points to natal characteristics that go beyond cultural pollution. While it’s true that Darwin in the Stone Age, or as a slave, would not have made the discoveries he did has ZERO to do with the potential. If Van Gogh had lost both arms serving in war he’d’ve not done the paintings he did. But that would not have affected his intellect. The real difference is that Darwin, amongst millions of 19th Century European bourgeoisie, DID make his insights, and that, among millions of people alive in Holland, only Van Gogh painted as he did. Your emphasis is misplaced, in this context.
In a similar vein, I think even people who claim to be devoted to
knowledge often demur its real pursuit. I mentioned that I had interviewed
philosopher Daniel Dennett, yet
instead of answering queries he seemed to dodge many. It’s as if he had
blinders on, and was uncomfortable being forced to ‘think outside of the
box,’ his own self-created box. When I dared to ask him to expound on the
logical consequences of things he posited, he had only forced humor and canned
replies. So, if a guy like Dennett did not want to move outside his comfort
zone, what are the chances for the lay society at large?
JC: Don’t mistake Dennett’s unwillingness to expend more time and focus answering your interview questions for a general unwillingness to move outside his “comfort zone.” He may well have been unwilling to concede the basic assumptions of the question(s) you asked, and decided that in a non-interactive context, forced humor and canned replies were all he felt willing to offer. He may have felt that questions themselves held basic errors – such as your thoughts earlier about cosmology – that would make answering them impossible for him. Maybe he was just having a bad day.
Unless you’ve seen him dodge similar questions, I’m not sure you have enough data to reach a conclusion.
DS: Yes, I
actually spoke with the man on the phone, and having spoken with a number of
other philosophers who have had similar encounters with him, and having seen and
read transcripts of interviews and lectures, he is solely keen on ‘his’
areas. All else is irrelevant. In short, Dennett is famously dismissive of
anything that is not about his specialty, which is what makes his appearance on
a Millennium Panel so odd, in the first place.
An example of a question he dodged, yet which touches on the
aforementioned causality, was based upon my seeing him on a tv talk show at the
end of the last century. He was a panelist on a show about the most influential
folk of the last millennium. You recall how many lists were made, no doubt.
Anyway, I thought it a great way to dovetail with my interest in causality with
that of violence, mass murder, and despots, since I believe Genghis Khan was
overlooked on most lists. Thus, I asked this query:
That puts me in mind of another Charlie
Rose show you did, with Steven Pinker and others, at the turn of the
century, on the most influential people of last century. What I found a bit
galling was some of the sheer stupidity on that panel- most notably by the
President of the Carnegie Institute, Maxine Singer. She equated influence with
good morality- an asinine position, yet one which no one, not even you,
challenged. I similarly recalled Time magazine having a most important people of
the last millennium issue, and leaving off, to my mind, easily the most
influential person of the last thousand years, Genghis Khan. My reasoning is
that influence comes with time, so the most influential person simply could not
be in the last couple of hundred years. Then, there would have to be reach over
several spheres. Then, there would be the mind experiment of removing that
person and seeing if he or she was merely a part of historic forces, or one of
the Great Men of History. Khan fits all of these- even if he was the worst mass
killer in human history, up until the 20th Century. He was born early
on- the 12th Century, and he took a nomadic Gobi people, with a six
thousand year history of no territorial expansion, united the Mongol tribes with
the Turkic tribes, and built a nation larger in area than the old Soviet Union-
all within two decades- and sans guns or any advanced war materiel. His effect
on politics, the arts, religion (his was a secular state), and life was
profound. Remove him and the Mongols likely go on as nomads. Then there is no
check on Chinese expansionism. Khan forced the Chinese to abandon their junk
explorations across the Pacific and likely to the Americas. They hibernated
xenophobically as a world power for centuries. The Khanates carved out of his
empire, by his descendants, helped establish the Ottoman Empire, which acted as
a bulwark against Muslim expansionism into Europe. Without the Ottomans, Islam
may have displaced the Papacy, forcing its withdrawal to Scandinavia and a
reduced status as a regional Arctic cult. China may have expanded across the
Subcontinent, Oceania, and into the Andes and the western half of the Americas,
while Europe was Islamized. Moorish Spain and Imam Britain may have then settled
the Americas from the east. The Cold War of the last century may not have been
between Communism and Capitalism, but between Islam and Sino aggression. Yet,
none of that happened because one Mongol named Temujin preferred horseback
riding and conquest to life as a scavenger. To me, this omission shows the
profound lack of vision many so-called leaders and experts have in their
First, would you agree with my ranking of Genghis Khan as
numero uno in influence last eon, for despite his genocidal ruthlessness, he was
an organizational genius with a mind that wanted to know seemingly everything?
He was arguably also the most amazing figure in human history. If you disagree,
why? And why do you think he was so ignored on such lists? Was it simple
Eurocentrism? Or something more confounding?
Dennett flippantly replied: ‘I guess I just don’t know
enough about Genghis Khan to judge,’ which implied he a) had no clue
that his humor was lacking, b) the question was essentially not about the Mongol
warlord, c) did not care about giving a good interview nor digging a bit deeper
into his mind, or d) all of the above. So, let me first ask you if such lack of
intellectual engagement is a problem unique to Dennett, systemic in philosophy
and the sciences- which explains why even fewer people are interested in it than
poetry, or simply evidence of the greater intellectual apathy of the times?
Secondly, given the points I laid out in the above question, whom would you
place in the top spot on such a list, and what are your views of causality and
determinism, especially given their relevance to your work?
JC: I guess I just don’t know enough about Daniel Dennett to judge.
As for Genghis Khan, I disagree with the assumption – and it is purely an assumption, speculation without evidence – that absent the birth of Temujin there would have been no other individuals in that time, place, and context willing or able to act in ways that parallel what he did. Your “for the lack of a nail a war was lost” narrative is a just-so story, one that emphasizes contingency without recognizing that there’s no such thing as a single-causal outcome.
Then there are elements in the narrative that are simply false, such as the assertion that the Ottoman Empire acted as a bulwark against Muslim expansion into Europe… something that the Austrians, Hungarians, Poles, Venetians, Cypriots, and more would have been awfully surprised to hear. The Ottoman Empire spent several hundred years driving into Europe under the banner of Islam. That entire set of contingent elements in your story is entirely, categorically, wrong. Sorry.
DS: I think the
Khan narrative would be a just-so story were there any other
Mongols that had attempted to do what Temujin did, and failed. History shows
none did. None of Temujin’s rivals did what he did, and none of his generals
nor descendants were able to control what he left them. That argues VERY
strongly that Khan WAS one of history’s Great Men. Yes, there are plenty of
examples of the Tide of History theory- for every Edison there’s a Tesla, for
every Darwin a Wallace; but there are figures like Khan, or Alexander the Great,
or, later, Napoleon or Hitler, for which, if you remove them, history likely is
VERY different. I strike the middle ground, here. You clearly or on the Tide
As for the Ottomans, they were Islamic, but, like modern Turkey, a
weakened, almost secular Islam. They sought expansion for the same reason the
Mongols, Huns, Roman, Greeks, and later Nazis and Soviets did- resources. They
were actually VERY tolerant of differing religions, owing much to the Mongol
system of religious tolerance. So, while he is rightly feared and condemned as
the greatest mass murderer in history (pre-20th Century), the reality
is that Genghis Khan was also one of the most innovative and truly revolutionary
leaders and men in world history. He is one of, maybe, a couple dozen
irreplaceable Great Men in world history. The real radicals of the
day were in the Middle East, NOT the Ottomans, so to describe them as a bulwark
against Islam is quite accurate; especially when one factors in, to the
Ottomans, there was a real and far greater threat to them
from the Crusading European Christians, NOT the Islamic fundies of their time.
A few years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica.
On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my
co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant-
or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin
to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. What
do you think of Kuhn’s posit?
JC: I tend to agree with what early 20th century physicist Max Planck supposedly said: “Science advances funeral by funeral.” In order for new ideas to take hold, the institutional defenders of the old ideas need to be weakened – and typically, that means they have to grow old and die.
DS: On a fun note, have you ever read Scottish geologist Dougal Dixon’s work? I earlier mentioned that he has a series of books wherein he posits the future, such as After Man, and Man After Man, which speculates on future evolution upon the planet if man were to die out. Also, a number of post-apocalyptic films have been popular over the decades, from big Hollywood productions to documentaries for PBS. Have any of their scenarios intrigued you? Or is it just fun stuff?
JC: I find the Dixon stuff fascinating, because it forces us to ask uncomfortable questions. Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us from a couple of years ago is another one along those lines that I greatly enjoyed reading. “What happens if” is a core question for me.
Post-Apocalyptic films are a bit less interesting to me, because they’re nearly always meant as allegories, and even when they’re not, they rarely think through the consequences of the scenarios they posit. They don’t, or can’t, ask “what happens if.” That is sometimes a problem with the writing, but is more often a problem created by the structure of commercial narrative filmmaking. Two hours is not a lot of time.
That said, I actually think the post-apocalypse stories that would come after science fiction disaster movies could be pretty interesting. Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 – all had little going for them other than spectacle, but each left the world in a state that would be enormously fun and interesting to explore. At least for me. But I’m weird.
DS: Despite this current ignorant era, I am hopeful for humanity in the long run. Are you? If so, what things can you point to in human culture, at this moment, that you think, historically, will make future generations look back and point to these times as having been the point where humans matured as a species?
JC: I’m a short-term pessimist, long-term optimist. We face enormous difficulties, problems that will get worse in the next decade or two, but also have all of the resources we need to move beyond them.
I don’t think future generations will look back at this as the point where we “matured as a species,” though. Not due to anything particular to this era, but because the nature of human civilization is constant evolution and innovation, and it’s likely that each generation will come to see itself as insufficiently mature (but still better than earlier ones).
DS: At this
point in your life, have you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not,
what failures gnaw at you the most? Which of those failures do you think you can
JC: The one big
thing that I have yet to do is put together a full-size book articulating my
thinking about the world. Other than that, I’ve actually tried to avoid
setting precise goals – I’m too deeply enveloped by the uncertainty of the
future to feel like doing so would be fruitful. The kinds of things that I’d
like to do otherwise are more “wouldn’t be interesting if…” kinds of
things. Visit Antarctica, for example.
I’d love to read a book where you synthesize it all into an opus. What is in
store, in the next year or two, in terms of books and your work?
JC: Focusing on getting a book assembled, as above. Otherwise, my work is to remain sensitive to the distant early warnings of transformation, and to try to then articulate those warnings to others.
DS: Thanks for
doing this interview, Jamais Cascio, and let me allow you a closing statement,
on whatever you like.
JC: Think long, fail fast.
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