"Having friends who are extopians and transhumanists, and having been one of them myself, I know several responses that they would give to what you just said. One of them is the idea that the benefits of this grand technology will not be limited to the wealthy few. That these will be widespread benefits throughout humanity and people can decide for themselves how they would like to project themselves into the future, either with children or just by not dying. And for some people who would like to do both, some accommodation would have to be reached because there are resource limits and other physical limits that would have to be respected."
"My thought on it is this: The benefits of technology are not evenly distributed now. The wealth creation that technology enables, the benefits of that are not equally distributed. So I see no reason based on what human behavior [is] so far to think that these described benefits would be evenly distributed."
"And for somebody who, you know, they have...they've made good money in the tech world. And they have secured for themselves about the best life that this world has to offer in terms of material comfort, and the opportunity to have a variety of interesting experiences and encounters with other people, and travel to see various lands. And they look at that situation and the thing that they would change is not the distribution of benefits now. But they would change the fact that the people who have the absolute best distribution of of those benefits now will eventually die. Like that's the problem with the world. Not that there's poverty, not that there is injustice, not that there is political repression, but that the people how have the absolute most right now, eventually will grow old and die. And that's a tragedy. And that's a tragedy that should be everyone's highest priority is to find a cure to that problem."C-Realm 445: Pocket Utopias 15:50 - 18:00
The next exchange comes from an exchange between Christopher Ryan and Andrew Gurevich on Tangentially Speaking:
Andrew Gurevich: "The thing I want to ask you about is the discussion you guys were having. It seems like in the futurist community there’s like these two visions. There’s the utopian and the dystopian. And the one goes along the lines of the stuff Duncan [Trussell] ‘s taking about that its great; we’re all going to be cyborgs soon. Or another version of that is this is that guy who’s doing the resource-based economy, structure of society, the dude that has the thing at the end of Zeitgeist, that little utopian society that they’re trying to build...You know what I’m talking about?"
Christopher Ryan: "No."
AG: "I’ve got to find that guy’s name for you. Like he’s created this vision of a resource-based economy that can create this social utopia, He’s trying to build one of them. [the person he’s referring to is Jacques Fresco – CH] And so there’s these visions of whatever’s coming that have this sort of utopian transformation. Were finally going to innovate ourselves out of these problems."
"And then there’s the other view that says were f*cked, everything’s going to collapse. Right? And you guys were kind of having that discussion. And it seems like he was more on the side of where we’re going to be innovating our way into some pretty interesting places here, and then the other side of that is that technology is what’s causing a lot of these difficulties. And so, how do you, what do you think about these two…I mean have you run into that? You’ve been to a lot of these futurist conferences…"
CR: "I’ve never been to a futurist conference."
AG: "Oh. You go to Paleo conferences, but that’s a whole different thing."
CR: "I’ve spent a lot of time with Joe [Rogan] and Duncan [Trussell] though, which is like a futurist conference sometimes."
"No, I mean, that’s the thing. When I’m hanging out with those two I’m the bummer. I’m the turd in the punchbowl. Cause I think they’re full of shit on that point. I say that with utmost respect and affection. [crosstalk]. Yeah, no, I mean Duncan’s all excited about his Oculus Rift, and I think it’s a silly waste of time and money. You know, I saw a thing the other day on Twitter, there’s some scientists excited because they think they found a planet finally that may be habitable. And my first response was, ‘great, let’s go f*ck that one up too!’"
AG: "Or send McConaughey is what we should do first of all..."
CR: "But I don’t see any evidence that we’re getting our shit together. So why…the trajectory’s gone the opposite direction. There’s more and more carbon in the air, there’s more and more plastic in the ocean, half the world’s dying of starvation, the other half’s diabetic. Like where do these people see hope in that that I don’t know."
"I was talking to a guy today, a guy who’s just written a book about secularism and we got into this question of progress. I was sort of bumming him out a little bit [I believe that's this episode]. And I said to him, 'look, man, you’re asking me these questions and I’m answering them. But I also know that you’ve got two young kids…' I don’t like talking to people who’ve got kids about how I think the future’s really f*cked because I envy them their optimism. And I don’t really want to squelch that. But if you’re asking me, my honest opinion, my honest opinion is the trajectory of human society is definitely, demonstrably negative. We are self-deluded. We are led by lunatics and idiots. And, well, when you’re led by lunatics and idiots you’re not going in the right direction. We’re not. The whole things is set up…the trajectory of the Leviathan is leading us away from where we want to be, which is egalitarianism, which is a non-consumerist model of happiness, the good life."
AG: "Conspicuous consumption."
CR: "You know we never get there. It’s so obvious that were running on a wheel. And I think what interesting about this particular historical moment, I may be wrong, but I think there’s sort of a critical mass of people who recognize that this is not going to work. You’ve been saying a cure for cancer is right around the corner since Nixon. And I don’t remember how many tens of billions of dollars have gone into that since."
AG: "And more people are getting cancer."
CR: "And the treatment is essentially the same as it was in 1975, right? …So yeah, I just don’t see it. World War One was the war to end all wars, and here we are with our Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning president blowing people up all over the world with no legal justification at all."
AG: "You’re bumming me out man..."
1:09 [discussion of the philosopher Slavoj Žižek]
AG: "...Every one and a while he [Slavoj Žižek] says something that I really think is great. And he was taking about our understanding of nature. And he says ecology is another ideology and as such it has some limitations. And we have this idea that nature is this perfect, pristine, self-contained system that we have now somehow messed up. And that's a secular version of the fall. And that nature is not the wonderful, balanced, pristine system, nature is actually a series of profound catastrophes. You know, Our number one fuel source, oil, um, the oil reserves in the ground got there if you think about it for a second as the results of profound catastrophe. Land formation itself [is] the result of volcanic eruptions. If you think about the Big Bang or just the universe itself, it's a place of infinite catastrophe, of things exploding and smashing into each other, and collapsing into themselves."
"And so, humans’ adaptability the thing that, is our sort of response to that. That it's the kind of absurd hubris of humanity in the face of all that to still find a way through it and forward. And so... right when I start to get too pessimistic, I swing back over to the optimist's side because I think we've always found a way. And at some point we won't and then we'll just go extinct like many of the species we've run off the planet."
CR: "Well, there’s several things that come up with me when you talk about that. One is his characterization of nature as a series of catastrophes. Yeah there are catastrophes, you know. But if you’ve got to go back to the Big Bang in your sequence, that a pretty big canvas. Earth, okay, the last major catastrophe on the earth I think was probably the...happened in Sumatra as a matter of fact, the Toba eruption 70,000 years ago. That wiped out most humans in fact, probably down to about 4000 breeding pairs … the whole DNA bottleneck at 70,000 years ago is due to the Toba eruption. But 70,000 years is a long time ago. So the ones who survived had it pretty good because they were essentially on an unoccupied planet and our species can eat just about anything."
"So, you know, that vision of nature as this essentially tragic realm to me is, well, that’s one of the things that I'm really grappling with in this book, because that’s Hobbes, that’s Dawkins, that Pinker, that's an appeal to authority to protect you from the dangers of nature."
AG: "Only society can protect you. As a communist you would say only the collective can do it. And then the authoritarian view is saying only America can do it…"
CR: "Only Jesus can do it, only the U.S. military can do it, yeah. So part of the sale is to say, you know, to oversell the present. 'Hey this is great, we’ve almost got cancer [cured], you’re going to live forever! Oculus Rift, you’re going to able to fuck Salma Hayek! Everything’s amazing, just around the corner, hold on just a little more!' Right? We’ve been hearing that forever. It used to be salvation came after you died, now its salvation's coming ... just around the corner, we're almost there, its morning in America, here we go!"
"And then the other side is …'and the alternatives are terrifying.' Because the alternative is nasty, brutish, and short. The alternative is, you know, 'Nature, the bloody struggle for survival!' Every BBC special you see...I remember seeing this thing, it opens up, there's a seal frolicking in wave. And then you hear Attenborough or whoever it is, saying, 'yes, but soon enough, the evil...' And you see the shadow in the wave...It's a Great White Shark. It's coming up and it hits this seal, and the seal goes up in the air, and then they slow it down. And they actually say in the narration, 'we've slowed this down forty times so you can see...,' and you see the terror in this little seal's face, and the shark's teeth get unsheathed, and it's like waiting for a seal to fall, and then it's crunching, and the tail's flapping, and it's like, 'oh that's so bad!' 'And that's the 'bloody struggle for survival,' according to Richard Attenborough."
"So I'm watching this and I'm thinking, 'wait a minute. How old do these things live?' So I look up the harbor seal. They live to be thirty, alright? I've seen a lot of seals, you've seen a lot of seals. What are they doing? They're lying around on a hot rock most of the time. Or they're frolicking in the water eating fresh fish. They don't look very stressed to me, right?"
"So here's this seal. Let's say he's not old, let's say he's twenty-five, okay? He's like my age - older, middle-aged seal. And he meets his maker. Alright, first of all, that death, without the slo-mo... "
AG: Took about four seconds...Tangentially Speaking: 103 - Andy Gurevich's Third Visit: 100:00
CR: Or less. Secondly, it's well demonstrated that when an animal is attacked by a predator, endorphins are released. So not only is it a very swift death, it's a painless death. So look at that animal's life. Twenty five years...
AG: And it's probably never even thought about death until it was actually starting to happen.
CR: Exactly, right. Although we can't get away from that. We are human, so we'll always think about it. But I mean you look at the deal that seal got. Twenty-five years, good years, hanging out with his buddies, eating good food, getting laid a lot, you know, in good shape, healthy, happy, whatever; and a four-second, probably painless, probably high out of his brain, death; versus what we have. I'll take what that seal's having.
AG: It's not a bad deal at all when you put it that way.
CR: Yeah, so it's all about framing, you know. So anyway...
And this is from the Tangentially Speaking with Dr. John Gowdy:
Christopher Ryan (host) [31:00]: The general egalitarianism or band-level hunter-gatherer society is...as far as I know there is no evidence that that's not accurate and yet there is this view that people who ascribe to this view of hunter-gatherers and therefore of most of our history as a species, our prehistory as a species, are silly romantics.
John Gowdy (guest): Yeah, I mean it just goes against the grain of progress and so on. Agriculture was this big breakthrough that made civilization possible and all that. You know, life was miserable before that.
CR: Right, so do you think it's essentially a political argument?
JG: Yeah, I think it's even more subconscious than that. It's sort of what Sahlins called cosmologies that we believe in. You know, the notion of progress, the notion of a harmonious universe and so on. Sahlins traces it back like economics, actually back to Garden of Eden, you know, we had this idealized system that took care of itself. And then Man interfered with God's will. Substitute the Market for God's will and you have modern political economy.
CR: Okay. I think that's going to be the quote that will open the podcast. That's very profound. You throw it off in an offhand manner but essentially what you're saying is that, if I understand you correctly, is the sort of Neoconservative faith in the market is not science, it's mythology or even a religious impulse.
JG: Yeah, Marshall Sahlins has a really nice phrase if I remember correctly, but something like 'The genesis of economics was the economics of Genesis.'
CR: Very nice. And that also explains why its so difficult to...why the same arguments never seem to go away, because evidence doesn't matter.
JG: Right, exactly. It's so ingrained in the way people like us are brought up to look at the world. Of course other cultures have very different viewpoints...
John Gowdy [38:58]: "Its bothered me for a long time that people really miss the incredible break that agriculture was; a break with the past. People lived a hunter-gatherers--depending on what you call human you know Homo erectus staring two million years ago, Homo sapiens probably a couple of hundred thousand years--so it's really in the last five percent in the life of our species that we really had agriculture. And it was just like night and day. The population, say twelve, fifteen thousand years ago was probably something like four million, human population in the planet, and it just spiked up to something like 600 million within a couple thousand years."
"We argue in the paper that this is when economic society really became economic. As hunter-gatherers, people lived off flows from nature. And if they overhunted animals it came right back to bite them, or overharvested plants. It wasn't that they were more moral than we are, but just that the way they made a living dictated sustainability. And then they had all these rules, as you mentioned, that kept the society egalitarian. A guy [named] Christopher Bohm has written a lot about this, the egalitarian aspect."
"But the real breakthrough with agriculture, and we share this with ants and termites, is actively controlling the production of our own food. So you start doing that and ...I mean populations expanded without agriculture as the species moved into a new area and so on. Humans moved into the New World and took over and expanded. But when you start controlling your own food supply, producing your own food, that's just, that's a new thing, and it was very rare to occur. According to E.O. Wilson it only happened ten to twelve times in the history of all species. But those species, they evolved into a lot more species and they dominate the planet. The total weight of humans is something like ten times the weight of all other vertebrates combined. And likewise social insects, they're about two percent of species now, but they comprise about 75 percent of the earth's biomass."
Christopher Ryan: Yeah, I saw in your paper there was a great moment that if you add up the biomass of humans and the biomass of ants they end up being the same.
JG: Yeah, that's a back of the envelope calculation E.O. Wilson makes.
CR: So I never thought of anthills in terms of economics before.
JG: Yeah, we argue that once animals started actively producing food then these economic laws sort of kick in. The advantages of division of labor. The advantages of larger size. Economies of scale, and so on. And also tapping in to stocks...with agriculture humans were able to tap into the stock of fertile soil for example, and existing water supply and so on. And gradually soil fertility was lost as they drew that down. Then, of course, more recently the stocks of fossil fuels. It gave a huge evolutionary advantage to these species. And again I'm not a biologist, but getting into the ant literature, I mean the parallels are just astonishing.
CR: Yeah, even to the point where, as you say quite explicitly, as with ants individual quality of life declines as social complexity increases.
CR: Would you say individual quality of life has declined in humans as well since the advent of agriculture?
JG: Yeah, I mean its hard for us to judge. I mean, most of the people listening to your show are probably academics and avid readers, I mean we have it really good. I would be long dead by now if i were born as a hunter-gatherer in the Pleistocene. So it's hard to judge.
CR: [46:40]...You made another point. You say it's hard for us to judge, which is certainly true. Many of us who were born with any sort of disease or medical issue that needed immediate attention; we wouldn't be alive in a hunter-gatherer society. And yet there are ways to make a sort of objective comparison. One of them that I find interesting is when hunter-gatherers have had the opportunity to join civilization they've almost always refused...
...You were talking about morality and you were careful to make the point that hunter-gatherers aren't more moral, you know, the whole 'noble savage' thing isn't an accurate way to look at hunter gatherers. And yet isn't it interesting that...and I completely agree with you, that the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers and many of the other qualities that we admire about the way they live, are simply the most practical way to live in that ecological circumstance. You're not going to survive if you're selfish. You're only going to survive if you share because no matter how good a hunter you are, you're not going to get something every day.
JG: [54:08] We argue that hunter-gatherers were actually a lot more autonomous in the sense that, if you were born into a hunter-gatherer society, you had to know everything you needed to know to make a living. I mean, you know the seasons of the animals and the plants and so on. So you weren't dependent on specific others as you are in this society. That's actually something that Adam smith pointed out, I think that's in the paper.
CR: You quote him showing how, in the brute societies, everyone could do everything but there was no specialization. And the fact that everyone can do everything--everyone knows how to build a shelter, everyone knows where the berries and the roots are and how to snare an animal--also means that no one can exercise coercive power over anyone else because you can't cut them off from what they need.
JG: Right, yeah. I have a quote here by Marx actually, he says the vitality of primitive communities was incomparably greater then that of capitalist societies.
CR: Interesting. The one thing I kept thinking about last night as I was reading your paper, and I think it's brilliant to look at these different levels of organization in almost a fractal sense where civilizations are organisms, they're living organisms just as much as a termite hill is a living organism. And we talk about ourselves as individuals, but one of the things I'm getting into as I'm doing this research that I'm working on right now is the microbiome. So over 80 percent of our body mass, if you take out the water, is composed of organisms that don't have our DNA. So even thinking of the individual as an individual is a stretch. Like people who say, 'well, it's kind of silly to think of society as an organism.' Well, no more silly than to think of yourself as an organism. So you can go up or down the scale.
So what I was thinking about is the human superorganism and the leafcutter ant colony...I guess what I'm trying to get at is, is this natural?
JG: It may be natural, but that doesn't mean that it's good. Ants and termites have been around fifty million years with agriculture, humans ten-thousand at most. We argue in the paper it's really beginning to strip away some of the things that makes [sic] us human.
CR: Or is this what makes us human? Is this capacity to congeal into some higher scale organism part of what makes us human, and maybe the most important?
JG: Well it may be changing. We make the point in the paper that there's a difference between coordination and cooperation. A lot of the comments; I mean, isn't it wonderful--you look at a car it was made in ten or fifty different countries or whatever--that means people are cooperating, and we're becoming more international. You know it really doesn't. You drive a car, you don't know where the parts come from, it's a mechanical thing.
In biology the term they use is...superorganism...control without hierarchy. So we write in the paper when state societies began to develop, whole groups were selected that had certain characteristics that enabled them to produce and protect their food supply. And so we have these rules now, we have to act in a certain way, we just don't see them.
And if you look at it sort of politically, it turns everything on its head...but if you look at Libertarianism, sort of the Objectivism of someone like Ayn Rand, I mean, I argue it's really the philosophy of an ant colony. You're supposed to sacrifice yourself to this superorganism that's the market and you're only judged by what you produce, which is an economic theory. Milton Friedman sort of says that.
CR: So that's a real mind-blower, because you're saying that Ayn Rand, who's sort of the emblematic philosopher of selfishness, is actually advocating, even though she probably didn't know it, is actually advocating self-sacrifice for the collective. She would hate to hear you say that.
CR [1:04] Do you consider economics to be a science?
JG: Not exactly. Not really. I think it's...I mean it can be. Some people apply the scientific method to economic phenomena. But in general its based on something called welfare economics or Walrasian economics, sort of this mathematical superstructure that's a justification for market economies. There's something called the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics. It says something like a perfect competitive market will lead to Pareto optimality. I mean it's a little more complicated then that because they recognize that price signals may be wrong, and so the wrong signals are sent to consumers and so markets are not always perfect and so there's a role for the government in correcting externalities and so on. But in general, the mathematics of that theory is a way of making scientific Adam Smith's notion of the invisible hand.