Re: Transhuman Beach Party (Was: Present dangers to transhumanism)

Alex Future Bokov (
Wed, 8 Sep 1999 13:18:57 -0400 (EDT)


On Sun, 5 Sep 1999 wrote:

> Seriously, when I'm acting as a mentor (the frequency of which seems to be in
> direct disproportion to the amount of hair I have left), I often tell young
> people to think about surfing as a fruitful metaphor for how to approach a
> career: To be a good surfer, it seems you need three things: (1) to know how
> to surf; (2) a surfboard and (3) a wave. In the regime of career planning,
> this means you need to have (1) basic people and basic business and/or
> technical skills and knowledge; (2) some realistic business or technical plan
> or opportunity and (3) the social context in which (1) and (2) are
> sufficiently useful to a sufficient number of people that you'll get paid to
> do what you'd like to do. I usually use this metaphor to counsel patient
> preparation and the amassing of skills, along with watchfulness for good
> opportunities and over-all trends, often saying that good surfers sometimes
> just park their boards on the beach and have a beer when there aren't any
> good waves, but stay ready in case they see a Big One starting to rise.
> But the notion of "the Singularity" (strong or weak, fast or slow, swell or
> Spike) gives a new meaning to this metaphor. In the surfing image, we're
> talking about the Mother of All Waves. Surfing that wave may be the only
> possible way to survive it. I think of this list as a kind of beach party,
> where we're all looking out and waiting for the cry "Surf's up!"

We talk a lot about surviving and flourishing through a singularity, and fears of humanity being destroyed by out of control nanotech or AI. What I don't see being discussed is the other, equally horrifying demise scenario: stagnation. I don't blame you; it's a dull, depressing, unpleasant subject to discuss. Which makes it all the more necessary to do so.

What if instead of being overrun by grey goo or malevolent SI, we simply get trapped in a local minimum? For example, what if reactionary ideologies continue to make inroads into mainstream society? There are more Greens, socialists, and religious fundies than Extropians and Transhumanists, and they're not sitting around getting drunk on the beach, that's for sure. For that matter, inertia alone might take us in the wrong direction without any effort from the adversaries.

Perhaps a local minimum won't last forever, but:

  1. Even a temporary minimum may be enough to extinguish humanity permanently through natural or human-influenced catastrophe that cannot be dealt with at current levels of technology.
  2. Julian Simon's debunking of the limits to growth theory is predicated on continual technological progress (correct me if I'm wrong here, I'm no economist). If political or cultural factors interfere with progress, we're back to that nasty old Malthusian nightmare. If we get started down that slope, we might not be able to *afford* to go back.
  3. Let's say I'm being pessimistic and a typical local minimum only lasts as long as, say, the Dark Ages or even the Soviet Union. Guess what? Humanity will eventually recover, but YOU as an individual won't. We have 30-50 years of normal lifespan left on the average. Do you think you'll get taken out of that DeWar and uploaded if Luddites are allowed to run civilization into the ground?

Eliezer is right, and I'd go one further: we will not only be screwed if we don't actively prepare for the wave, we'll be screwed even worse if the wave never happens. We have to make it happen, and step one is stealing public support from the Luddites. They don't know that they are our enemies yet, and that is to our advantage, but we forfeit this advantage when we put on our rose colored glasses and underestimate them, like we've been doing so far.

In closing, the Greens keep talking about how fragile the environment is. Well, I say a prosperous and rapidly advancing civilization might be the thing that's truly fragile, and there's nobody out there trying to defend it. Maybe that's our job.

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