Friday, May 02, 2008

This piece which I wrote in Oct 2004 expands on some of the themes of the previous 2001 piece:

High-tech futurists suggest that "the singularity" -- an exponential acceleration of technological change that leaves humans unable to comprehend, reflect or respond -- could occur within the next few decades. One authoritative website on the subject describes the singularity as follows:
The ever-increasing rate technological change in our local environment is expected to undergo a permanent and irreversible developmental 'phase change,' or technological 'singularity,' becoming human-surpassing and, from our perspective, effectively instantaneous in the rate and significance of its self-improvement. It has been postulated by some that events after this point must also be 'future-incomprehensible' to existing humanity...

This trend, as Shakespeare would say, should give us pause.

What happens -- to consciousness, to democracy, to our
chances of survival -- when the speed of change exceeds
our ability to comprehend?

Ecologist David Orr, in a remarkable essay called simply "Speed", explores what "appropriate velocity" is:
Water moving too quickly through a landscape does not recharge underground aquifers. The results are floods in wet weather and droughts in the summer. Money moving too quickly through an economy does not recharge the local wellsprings of prosperity, whatever else it does for that great scam called the global economy. The result is an economy polarized between those few who do well in a high velocity economy and those left behind. Information moving too quickly to become knowledge and grow into wisdom does not recharge moral aquifers on which families, communities, and entire nations depend. The result is moral atrophy and public confusion. The common thread between all three is velocity. And they are tied together in a complex system of cause and effect that we have mostly overlooked.

There is an appropriate velocity for water set by geology, soils, vegetation, and ecological relationships in a given landscape. There is an appropriate velocity for money that corresponds to long-term needs of whole communities rooted in particular places and the necessity of preserving ecological capital. There is an appropriate velocity for information, set by the assimilative capacity of the mind and by the collective learning rate of communities and entire societies. Having exceeded the speed limits, we are vulnerable to ecological degradation, economic arrangements that are unjust and unsustainable, and, in the face of great and complex problems, to befuddlement that comes with information overload.

The collective befuddlement of the citizenry defaults into decision-making by elites, many of whom are as poorly informed and unreflective as the public at large. In fact, as the article below makes clear, some elites have signed on fully to their own brand of the singularity, and are steaming "full speed ahead" to transform our lives in very questionable ways without consulting us, noticing reality or thinking about the consequences. They act simply because they have the power to do so.

Given the fact that the rapidly increasing collective power of humans is being placed in the hands of fewer and fewer people (whether billionaires, bombers, researchers or terrorists), it behooves us to reflect on the consequences of that power as we move towards the day when infinite power finally rests in the hands of a very few people answerable to nobody. Technology guru Bill Joy predicted one variation of this in his controversial article "Why the future doesn't need us". We face a different variety in our current political situation.

May we speak up EFFECTIVELY AND SOON for high-quality, informed collective reflection -- and for INSTITUTIONALIZING it into our democratic systems (as with citizen deliberative councils). As a nation and as a species, we need to reflect collectively on what's happening to us and act collectively with insight, on behalf of life, before it the rush of events leaves us unable to do either.

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