Zuboff, S. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. The Fight for the Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books, New York, 2019. 692 pp.

During recent decades the ‘myth of progress’ lost credibility and it’s not hard to see why. Many expectations of human improvement that were supposed to flow from new knowledge, advances in human organisation and successive waves of technical innovation have proved hollow or ambiguous. That’s not to say that there have been no such improvements. But taking these as evidence of overall human improvement requires a kind of mental gymnastics undertaken only by the courageous or the hopelessly misguided. Read more…

Urry, J. What is the Future?

What is the Future? John Urry, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2016, 226 pp.

Futures studies has long been a paradoxical enterprise that has often made it vulnerable to misunderstanding and misuse. From time to time, however, a work appears that freshly reinterprets the current ‘state of play’ for wider audiences, thereby helping promoting wider understanding and greater traction. H.G. Wells, Alvin Toffler and Bertrand de Jouvenel all achieved something like this in their own time and place. Now John Urry has provided us with a further welcome example. Read more…

Gidley, M. The Future: A Very Short Introduction

The Future: A Very Short Introduction, Jennifer M. Gidley, Oxford University Press, 2017, 164 pp.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a brief period when new modes of futures engagement emerged within several mainly Western societies. They helped to support various initiatives, projects and a rich literature that opened out alternative views of social trajectories, of dreams and goals that could be explored. Within a very few years, however, many of these were extinguished, set aside and forgotten. Of the many reasons for this the most central is arguably the way that the rich and powerful were able to ensure that their own very particular vision of the future took precedence above all others. The rise of neoliberalism, as it came to be called, launched new world-spanning organisations, installed a powerful new code of behaviour, imposed a range of widely accepted economic prescriptions, and insisted on a rigorously exclusive set of values that quickly became dominant. Many promising initiatives disappeared.

Half a century later, however, it’s evident that the neoliberal future is not merely unsustainable it now represents a classic ‘failed future.’ In other words, the key trends that define neoliberalism – growing inequality, conflict, resource depletion, a sixth extinction, emerging waves of high-tech devoted to ambiguous or openly dangerous ends and finally, the slow but steady increase of global temperatures – show that neoliberalism became its very own nemesis. Moving from the global to a societal scale what other evidence is there for such a view? We only need to recall what happened to various future-oriented organisations such as the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, the Office of Technology Assessment in the USA and the Commission for the Future in Australia, each of which was undermined by right-wing politicians committed to ‘smaller government.’ Nor should we forget the continuing up-hill battle to establish futures in education as a core component within school and university systems. Anyone who has been involved in such efforts will have seen the same process repeated again and again. In each case the results clearly demonstrate highly positive outcomes. Yet even now, as global upheavals creep ever closer, such programs remain vulnerable and rare.

During these decades academia has been a passive and largely unwilling partner. Yet organisations like the World Future Society, the World Futures Studies Federation and, more recently, the Association of Professional Futurists, along with a broad and very diverse field of practitioners continued to work and evolve their field of enquiry and practice. At all times a small, but widely distributed, number of scholars and practitioners have moved things forward regardless of obstructions. The two authors whose books are reviewed here are both members of that select group who have worked for the further development and application of futures studies. It’s not an easy path and, thus far, the rewards have been few and far between.

It should also be noted that books about ‘the future’ clearly present writers with major challenges since the subject appears intangible, existing only as subtle traces within human minds. The future, by definition, cannot be experienced directly, but only though images, thoughts, feelings and the multiple ways these are subsequently expressed in the outer world. It begins, therefore, as an essentially interior phenomenon. Hence studying ‘the future’ cannot be divorced from how human beings think, perceive and act. Viewed in these terms it’s regrettable that in our time forward thinking is most commonly associated with entertainment and high-tech innovation.

Thankfully Gidley avoids all such traps with ease. In fact one of the strengths of her deceptively small-scale book is how it begins with Jean Gebser’s account of ‘structures of consciousness’ over centuries and ends with a concise account of the ‘grand global challenges’ facing our species. As such it is neither a demanding review of esoteric concepts nor an idle stroll through popular territory. It is something else entirely – a thoroughly researched and beautifully expressed invitation to look deeper at this fascinating field of enquiry. The first words of the introduction give some hint of what is to follow: ‘the future we face today is one that threatens our very existence as a species.’ In a novel such an opening would qualify as an effective ‘narrative hook.’ But the reader does not have long to wait before a hint of resolution appears. Turning the page reveals the view that ‘as a species we have never been more conscious, more globally connected, more capable of radical positive change than we are today.’ So there it is – at the very least the future can be seen as a domain of threat and of promise. What anyone makes of it depends on how humans operate, how they choose to care (or not) and what, exactly, they’re motivated to do about a world spinning out of control.

The theme of chapter one is ‘three thousand years of futures’ which is an inspired choice as it grounds the book in lived historical experience. So one could hardly argue that the work lacked context. It also provides the beginning of a language for making futures accessible in part through the varying structures of consciousness noted above. The following chapter – futures multiplied – draws on a variety of sources to show how during the 1960s futures enquiry moved steadily away from empirical and extrapolative concerns toward more pluralistic approaches consistent with developments in the social sciences. This provides far greater meaning and explanatory power to notions of alternatives in general and alternative futures in particular. Futures enquiry became more democratic and global.

It’s very much to the credit of the author that chapter three on the ‘evolving scholarship of futures studies’ covers a lot of ground without sacrificing a certain necessary degree of depth. The main device employed is to show the evolution of the field from ‘critical -‘ to ‘cultural -‘ to ‘participatory -‘ and then finally to ‘integral futures.’ This is entirely appropriate as it both reflects more recent developments to futures per se as well as some of the ‘layers’ or approaches within futures work. That accomplished the book turns to what is ironically termed ‘crystal balls, flying cars and robots.’ Such ‘pop futures’ icons are firmly put in their place and a refreshingly brief but effective critique advanced of the ‘transhumanist’ fallacy – i.e., that humans could one day merge with their machines. To this reviewer the author is on firm ground when insisting that the lethal combination of arrogance and hubris is nothing if not dehumanising. Similarly she adds that ‘from the perspective of psychology of intelligence the term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron.’ A quote from McLuhan that must have passed me unnoticed some years ago had real impact – namely that ‘every media extension of man is an amputation.’ Play that as you will, but it is one of those rare insights worth reflecting on since it challenges the narrow and vastly over-confident views of those high tech innovators who unthinkingly saturate human life and culture with devices that do exactly that.

The next theme is the conflict or tension between ‘technotopian’ and ‘human-centred futures’ and here you can sense that the author is on the home straight, so to speak. It’s a brief chapter but it clearly draws on the author’s own philosophical commitments and her impressive body of work. It touches on one of the great ‘secrets’ or truths of advanced futures enquiry – when performed well it leads decisively away from ego and despair toward genuinely positive and empowering outlooks. For example: ‘when all of this research is taken together it indicates that we humans are already becoming capable of far greater powers of mind, emotion, body and spirit than previously imagined.’ This liberating view sets the scene for the final chapter which summarises both the great global challenges of our time and the equally broad range of global future alternatives that represent a collective ‘tool kit’ of possible responses. It was also heartening to see in the conclusion a clear recognition that some of the most recent developments in futures enquiry are, in the author’s view, up to the task of dealing with climate change since the latter qualifies as among the most critically challenging and urgent issues facing us. It is well researched, concise and lucidly written. This excellent book also contains a useful guide to further reading and websites as well as a handy index.

Harari, Y. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus, Yuval Harari, Harvil Secker, London, 2015, 428 pp.

When a new work of note is published early reviews appear in quality publications, followed by a longer ‘tail’ of reports elsewhere. Before long many such works fade into obscurity, becoming accessible mainly to students and scholars. In this case an early review favourably compared Homo Deus to the works of Lewis Mumford. Which caught my attention. Four-and-a-half decades ago as young teacher in Bermuda I was perplexed as to why this tiny sub-tropical paradise would allow itself to be transformed into a teeming, stressful mid-ocean metropolis. How could this be explained? Mumford’s panoramic view of human history, his grasp of how we became human in the first place and his rigorous dissection of oppressive power structures that he called ‘megamachines’ provided food for thought and a variety of starting points for enquiry (Mumford, 1971).

I wanted to find out for myself if the book lived up to this exacting comparison. So I read a review copy during an intense week before Christmas, leaving the following weeks to mull over implications. The more I worked my way into the text, the more concerned I became. If Harari’s thesis were to be taken seriously then the bulk of humanity was on the verge of becoming redundant. Moreover, an extreme high-tech Dystopia was only just around the corner. Over time, my views shifted and re-formed around two broad responses. First, that it’d be a mistake to dismiss what he is saying merely because it is deeply unattractive. His central point – that our collective futures are indeed under more extreme existential threat than is commonly appreciated – is certainly valid. Second, however, there are many aspects of his account that are, depending on your point of view, plain wrong, incoherent or contradictory. It took me some time to understand what I’d read. Yet, the more I reflected on it, the more it became clear where vital material had been overlooked, ignored or misunderstood en route to a deeply threatening conclusion. As a result the book’s initial narrative power steadily drained away. I concluded that Homo Deus is best regarded as an ill-grounded provocation. Any lasting value it has arises from the way that it can help shake us out of any remaining complacency about what the near-term future may hold for Homo sapiens.

Overview

Homo Deus begins with a 70-page introductory, stand-alone, chapter called The New Human Agenda in which the author argues that the age-old scourges of humanity – famine, war and pestilence – while not fully vanquished, are all in decline. Consequently, since ‘history does not tolerate a vacuum’ we should expect ‘new projects’ to emerge. One of these will be to ‘protect humankind and the planet from the dangers inherent in our own power.’ He acknowledges that ‘growth destabilises the planet in myriad ways (since) humans always crave more’ (Harari, 2015, p, 20). Oddly enough, however, little more is said about these crucial topics as the book proceeds. A great deal more is said about other projects among which are ‘up-grading’ certain people, eliminating death and pursuing the right to happiness. In summary he states that ‘we can be quite certain that humans will make a bid for divinity because humans have many reasons to desire such an upgrade and many ways to achieve it’ (Harari, 2015, p, 48). The book is full of confident assertions like this.

The author then asks if we can ‘hit the brakes’ but offers two reasons for answering in the negative. One is, in effect, that no one can find them (i.e. fully understand the system); the other is that the economy would not tolerate any real slowdown and would likely collapse. Already, therefore, in the very first chapter, significant gaps or blind spots emerge. They include lack of insight into systems views of the world and little or no awareness of ‘solutions in waiting’ such as ‘steady state’ responses to ‘growthist’ economic thinking. These two of many key areas of action, choice and design where others have found significant human agency, social capability and innovative potential. What impressed me briefly as the chapter proceeded is the author’s recognition of the paradox of knowledge (essentially, the more you know the less useful this becomes because it makes the future more unstable, not less). Some equally significant caveats are provided that readers should keep fully in mind. One is that ‘all the predictions in Homo Deus are no more than an attempt to discuss present day dilemmas, and an invitation to change the future’ Similarly, ‘the future described here is merely the future of the past…The real future might be completely different’ (Harari, 2015, p, 64, 66). Amen to that.

The thematic progression of the book is well signposted by the section titles:

Part 1 Homo Sapiens Conquers the World;

Part 2 Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World; and,

Part 3 Homo Sapiens Loses Control.

In the two chapters of Part 1 Harari presents his idiosyncratic – not to say hugely reductive – version of what may be understood by the Anthropocene (or era of human effects) and the significance of (or rather the lack of) what he calls ‘the human spark.’ His account of the Anthropocene has it beginning centuries ago during the Agricultural Revolution when humanity transformed its relations with animals and the environment. He then takes one of the immense – and I would argue, unjustifiable – leaps that characterise this book by insisting on the primacy of algorithms, suggesting that, far from being a modern phenomenon, organisms and emotions, for example, can also be described as algorithms. He regards these as ‘the most important concept in our world,’ and as ‘a methodological series of steps that can be used to make calculations, resolve problems and reach decisions…(adding that)…it’s not a particular calculation but merely a method followed when making the calculation.’ (Harari, 2015, p, 83).

Viewed positively one must admit that this is an original and possibly courageous stance for a work destined for a wide and informed readership. Yet, at the same time, the language and line of argument make it clear that reductionist thinking stalks nearly every line. So why take it seriously? Well, it takes the rest of the book to work this out. The following chapter on ‘the human spark’ certainly adds fuel to the fire, so to speak, as the author continues by arguing not only that humans lack a soul (uncontroversial these days) but also that there is no evidence of any other ‘spark’ or characteristic that would define them in relation to the rest of the natural world. Again, he treads a fine line in asserting that, while scientists have no grasp at all of the puzzle of consciousness, it can be described as ‘an emergent property of the complex brain system’ and yet at the same time as mere ‘mental pollution.’ (Harari, 2015, p, 116-7). In this view he proposes that humans are intrinsically not that different from other animals such as dogs and rats. The rather obvious fact that the latter are not well known for composing operas or creating literature is simply ignored. Presumably they are merely algorithmic epiphenomena of little import. For him what does distinguish humans as a group is apparently their ability to connect to many others via language. The latter, in this view, is primarily a transactional medium that enables large groupings to get things done.

Somewhat puzzlingly at first Harari goes on to discuss what he calls the ‘web of meaning’ which he is at pains to define as neither subjective or objective but an intersubjective domain. Yet again, and in contrast to most other scholars, this is not seen as an incredibly rich medium for depth understanding and the co-creation of inter-generational symbolic meaning. Rather, it is seen as providing the grounds of shared illusions and mere stories about values, laws, ethics, money and so on. In this view ‘the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell each other’ (Harari, 2015, p, 145). Moreover ‘humans think they make history but history actually revolves around the web of fictional stories’ (Harari, 2015, p, 155). What he calls ‘thinking historically’ is what gives power to the web of stories and, in this view, it will end up modifying human DNA over time. The author also suggests that ‘the power of human cooperative networks rests on a delicate balance between truth and fiction’ (Harari, 2015, p, 170). Yet the thrust of the argument stresses the latter at the expense of the former.

A subsequent chapter seeks to show how science and religion, the ‘odd couple’, benefit each other. For example science ‘needs’ religion to help create and maintain human institutions. In this view the primary interest of religion is to create order, while that of science is to achieve power. This lays the foundation for what he calls the ‘covenant of modernity’ which requires that ‘humans agree to give up meaning in return for power.’ Yet, at the very same time, he is aware that this generates ‘enormous temptation coupled with a colossal threat’ (Harari, 2015, p, 199-201). The alliance between scientific progress and economic growth has made capitalism the new religion. But its unlimited dynamism also presages ecological collapse. So the power of science is a double-edged sword that both facilitates and undermines civilisation. Moreover, ‘the very power of science may increase the danger because it makes the rich complacent.’ Similarly, ‘greed comes easily to humans but capitalism has sanctified a voracious and chaotic system’ Harari (2015, p, 209-15). It’s in this context that the author repeats his earlier assertion that no one can understand what is happening or where we are going. The irony of writing those words in a book sub-titled ‘a brief history of tomorrow’ clearly escapes the author.

A dilemma of a different sort arises when Harari declares that ‘as of 2016 there is no serious alternative to the Liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and the free market’ (Harari, 2015, p, 267). Clearly there has to be since we’ve already been told (albeit very briefly) that the latter is running riot across the planet with devastating results. But the author then takes aim at Humanism itself which he sees as underpinning both science and capitalism. In his view the ‘Humanist Revolution’ initiated a ‘great reversal.’ Whereas previously the cosmos was seen as the dominant power, now subjective human experience, feelings and needs have taken centre stage. Unfortunately, however, humanism then split into several competing schisms all of which are ripe to be ‘dissolved from within’ by the power and reach of new and emerging technologies. This is where the account becomes irredeemably Dystopian. We learn that ‘in the twenty-first century those who ride the train of progress will acquire divine abilities of creation and destruction, while those left behind will face extinction.’ Unfortunately, ‘traditional religions offer no real alternative’ in part because they have ‘nothing to say about genetic engineering.’ Then ‘attempting to realise the Humanist dream will undermine its very foundations by unleashing new post-human technologies’ (Harari, 2015, p, 273, 277). In other words this is yet another version of the highly controversial, not to say provocative, Singularity thesis (Wikipedia, 2017).

In a sense the foregoing is all prologue for Part Three: Homo Sapiens Loses Control. Harari quickly disposes of notions of ‘freedom’ which he regards as ‘an empty term with no discernable meaning.’ A rhetorical question follows – ‘If humans are free, how could natural selection have shaped them?’ (Harari, 2015, p, 282-3). Yet this assertion is problematic since evolutionary structures and processes are widely understood to have provided the biological foundations that give rise to ’emergent qualities’ over time – ‘degrees of freedom’ is arguably one of these. But his account lacks any notion of how ontological developments arise over time and create new realities. He continues in a similar vein by arguing that there is ‘no inner self,’ merely a kind of interior tug-of-war between different impulses that are given a false presence by what he calls the ‘narrating self.’ This ‘tries to impose order on chaos … by spinning a never-ending story’ (Harari, 2015, p, 305). Such statements are, however, little more than etiolated fictions themselves. Having sought to reduce humans to this rather pathetic and diminished status he is then ready to argue that, broadly speaking, they will soon become redundant. He anticipates what he calls a ‘great decoupling’ as ‘intelligence’ separates from ‘consciousness’ (which, we recall, remains undefined and elusive throughout). Moreover, intelligence is seen as ‘mandatory’ while consciousness is merely optional and therefore dispensable. Here is how he depicts this tectonic shift.

  1. Humans will lose their economic and military usefulness, hence the economic and political system will stop attaching much value to them.
  2. The system will still find value in humans collectively but not in unique individuals.
  3. The system will still find value in some unique individuals, but these will be a new elite of upgraded superhumans rather than the mass of the population (Harari, 2015, p, 307).

Consequently ‘humans will no longer be autonomous entities directed by the stories their narrating self invents. Instead they will be part of a huge global network’ (Harari, 2015, p, 338). With this new world in prospect the ‘most interesting place’ is nothing other than Silicon Valley! Which must surely qualify as one of the most egregious fallacies of the entire work. To see the latter as merely ‘interesting’ he fails to evaluate its ‘story,’ its ‘fictions’ or, indeed, its highly controversial consequences, some of which are profoundly regressive (Zuboff, 2015). This is another significant oversight. Nevertheless he continues by speculating that two new religions could emerge within this environment – ‘techno-humanism’ and ‘dataism’ – neither of which are good news for humans. The most obvious explanation is that the author has become so caught up in his own story / fiction / fantasy that he fails to grasp the implications of what he is saying. Having simplified and flattened so much of human and cultural value it’s easy for him to produce quite facile statements such as ‘technical progress … doesn’t want to listen to our inner voices. It wants to control them.’ In this unequal contest ‘technical progress’ acquires 100% agency, humans, little or none. Again in relation to humans, “Inner voices’ and ‘authentic wishes’ are ‘nothing more than the product of biological imbalances and neurological diseases’ Harari (2015, p, 364).

There’s more on ‘dataism’ and the inability of democratic structures to cope with ‘big data’ or compete with complex systems under the control of remote AIs, yet only the briefest mention of the need to evaluate the core features of a new high-tech metasystem that bows to the god of ‘control’. Similarly, the book ends with a barely credible whimper when on the penultimate page we read that ‘this book traces the origins of our present-day conditioning in order to loosen its grip and enable us to think in far more imaginative ways about the future’ Harari (2015, p, 396). Yet the author has reified his own particular story and overlooked countless other plotlines and resources that suggest quite different pathways into the future (Alexander & McLeod, 2014).

Dystopian futures are not inevitable

Homo Deus is likely to be welcomed by those who eagerly anticipate the ‘Singularity’ and its empire of machines. It may be useful to those who are prepared to work though it insofar as it outlines an extreme, but plausible pathway to Dystopian futures where homo sapiens becomes redundant. This is, of course, a well-trodden path for those immersed in futures and science fiction. Those who find such futures unacceptable will draw on other cultural resources, other ways of knowing and being, other options that are omitted in this particular narrative. Foremost among the latter is a depth appreciation of ‘the social.’ It’s startling to note that there’s virtually no sociological insight anywhere in this work. Indeed, it is framed within what Habermas called the ‘technical interest’ which, in a sense, opens the door to machines but closes it to humans. Homo Deus therefore contains no awareness of, no space for, what Habermas meant by the ‘communicative interest,’ let alone the ’emancipatory interest’, both of which are essential for adjudicating the very issues raised here (Habermas, 1971). For a different view we could also turn to Ulrich Beck’s work on what he called ‘world risk society’ about which he had the following to say: ‘Risk society is not an option which could be chosen or rejected in the course of political debate. It arises through the automatic operation of autonomous modernisation processes which are blind and deaf to consequences and dangers’ (Beck, 2000, p. 73). Put this way it’s obvious that the issues raised here require sturdy human and social responses rather than passive, superficial acquiescence. Unfortunately such considered responses are more difficult to achieve now than two or three decades ago. At that time ‘technology assessment’ meant something in part because that very capability was embodied in purpose-built institutions created to brief decision makers on emerging issues. Yet, with the neo-Liberal ascendancy’s ideological preference for ‘market-led’ solutions, many of these valuable entities became ‘collateral damage’ and were abandoned.

Equally, for Harari ‘wisdom’ is just another pointless story, another variety of ‘mental pollution’ that he’ll set aside in favour of the new wave of technical marvels. Yet he overlooks the fact that this very act would qualify as just as great an historical reversal as anything else proposed here. Wisdom is obviously many things to many different people but it can be seen as the insights passed down to us over many generations that we ignore at our peril. To look at the lives and work of outstanding historical figures is to discover not only rich worlds of meaning and significance but pathways beyond the post-modern trap (Alexander & McLeod, 2014). As noted above Hariri makes brief mention of the dangers of modernity but the work moves inexorably toward Dystopia of a very specific kind. Yet if AIs were to take over and re-create the world in their own image then biological existence per se may be terminally compromised.

Then, just as ‘the social’ is crammed into a ‘flatland’ view so are the hidden depths within people. The review copy lacked an Index so it was not possible to check to see if the term ‘worldview’ was used anywhere. If it was then I missed it. What’s clear, however, is that in overlooking ‘depth’ issues in one domain after another Harari has a ‘thin’ and reductive view of reality. I do not mean to malign the author when I say that some aspects of this text – especially its lack of empathy – reminded me of trying to communicate with an autistic individual. So I conclude that the work should be treated with care. It’s unclear if the publisher appreciates or understands the book’s subversive message. The review copy came with a front cover emblazoned in large red type: What made us Sapiens will make us gods. Yet, as I have shown, the book does nothing of the sort. What the author does suggest is that a few exceptionally rich, highly privileged and shamelessly augmented humans could emerge with undreamed of powers including, perhaps, something approaching immortality. But it’s also brutally clear that, in this account, most of ‘us’ are destined for extinction.

The last and perhaps most egregious omission is that while the author purports to be helping us to understand the present, the better to guide our way into the future, he appears entirely ignorant of the ways that people have already undertaken that work for well over a century. Is it therefore reasonable to argue that there are ‘no brakes’, that no one understands the global system? While no one understands it in its entirety, reliable knowledge has been generated over recent years providing clear and unambiguous guidance about the basic rules for administering planet Earth. Works such as Steffen’s Global Change and the Earth System, and its later elaborations, should be required reading for all those who think that Silicon Valley is the place to watch (Steffen, 2004). Nor should the collective work of the futures field and its members be summarily ignored. Their absence from this book suggests that the author is unaware that this is indeed well travelled ground where many others have walked before him. Hence many more positive ways forward are simply overlooked.

At the end of the day Hariri’s book falls far short of the standards set by Mumford and others. Its story contains some useful provocations but they are likely to fade more quickly than those with a richer grasp of humanity, civilisation, and the shifting conditions of our turbulent path ahead.

References

Alexander, S. and McLeod, A, eds., (2014), Simple living in history. Pioneers of the deep future. Melbourne: Simplicity Institute.

Beck, U. (1999) World risk society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Habermas, J (1971) Knowledge and human interests. London: Heinemann. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_and_Human_Interests

Harari, J. (2015) Homo deus – a brief history of tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker.

Mumford, L. (1971) The pentagon of power. London: Secker & Warburg. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_the_Machine

Steffen, W. ed. (2004) Global change and the earth system. Berlin: Springer.

Wikipedia (2017) Technological singularity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity

Zuboff, S. (2015) Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilisation. Journal of Information Technology 30, 75-89.

Richard A. Slaughter

In Press, Futures, Elsevier, UK, 2017

 

 

Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. The Collapse of Western Civilisation – A View From the Future

The Collapse of Western Civilisation, Columbia Press, NY, 2014

In their previous work Merchants of Doubt (2010) Oreskes and Conway provided a factual, cogent and, in the end, damning analysis of how, beginning in the US, corporate interests successfully took on the scientific community, undermined their work and impeded humanity’s best chances of avoiding severe climate change. Indeed, the results of these disastrous interventions can be seen all around us in the many varieties of denialism and avoidance that continue to muddy the waters to this day.

They’ve followed up with a work of fiction that’s ostensibly a history of the near term future. It’s written from within the Second Republic of China three centuries after the great collapse and consequent great migration of 2073-93. Working in a fictive mode, the authors explain, provides them with greater latitude to outline vast changes without resorting detailed time lines. It’s a short book – less than 100 pages – and yet sufficient to characterise the process of decline and fall as it occurred in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

They outline some of the characteristics of ‘the penumbral age’ (or ‘age of darkening prospects’) that led to this dismal result. These include:

  • The undermining of science and its practitioners.
  • The ‘false hope’ of a ‘bridge to the future’ though, e.g., shale gas;
  • The role of positivism (serving to atomise knowledge, not integrate it).
  • The power of market fundamentalism and neoliberalism.
  • The denial of market failure and its global consequences.

The multiple impacts and long-term implications of neoliberalism are clearly one of the key themes and the authors put forward some cogent comments. First: ‘that the crucial “neo-” component … (is) the idea that free market systems were the only economic systems that did not threaten individual liberty.’ Second, that ‘neoliberal thinking led to a refusal to admit the most important limit of capitalism (was) market failure.’ And finally what they call the ‘ultimate paradox’ was that: ‘neoliberalism, meant to ensure individual freedom above all, led eventually to a situation that necessitated large-scale government intervention’ (pp. 42-8). Which explains why the history originates from within 23rd century China, not the long diminished remnants of the USA that was.

Included in the book are three maps showing expected sea level rises plausibly expected to occur by 2300 from a baseline in 2000. One is of ‘the nation formerly known as the Netherlands,’ another is of Bangladesh reduced to a fragment of its earlier territory. Finally the greater New York area is shown reduced to narrow slivers of higher land. Naturally images of this kind will be dismissed as alarmist by those still in a state of denial. Within this history, however, the collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet occurs by the end of the present century. It is the ‘final straw’ leading to mass migration and a complete upheaval of the international order.

Clearly this diminutive book is intended as a coda to ‘Merchants.’ In some ways one could say that it’s an ‘easy read’ in that it can be read in an hour or two, leaves theory aside and sticks to the main issues. What some may find less amenable is that it’s also a very explicit and timely warning. It asks those of us in the here-and-now to take stock of our situation, get out of our comfort zones and take back a sense of involvement in the present and responsibility for the future. It’s entirely possible of course that the warning, like many others, will fall upon deaf ears. In which case it’s intriguing to consider how future historians might view this book. Here is a history to avoid so far as that remains possible. The Collapse of Western Civilisation is a fine example of a Dystopian vision intended to shock, to motivate, to inspire.

Let us hope that it does exactly that before we are caught up in a real world collapse that sweeps away most, if not all, of our remaining options.

 

 

Kelly, K. The Inevitable

 The Inevitable, Viking, New York, April 2016

Is Resistance Futile?

“When emergent AI arrives, it will be hidden by its ubiquity”- Kevin Kelly

The 1980’s were the heyday of the appropriate technology movement, represented by the advent of the Whole Earth Catalog followed by a number of other publications. The movement was about technology as if people mattered. Kevin Kelly, as editor and contributor to the larger movement was in the center. Times have changed and Kelly’s work as editor of Wired Magazine seems like a conversion to a world now driven by technology. In fact the extended title states, “Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future”.

The volume, heavy on emergent technology, seems to be like “Wired” without the advertisements. While the volume is a documentation of the evolving technology, it reads more like a religious tract, the writings of the forerunner of emergent artificial intelligence, AI. In fact, it projects the coming of the Singularity and strong AI, though defaulting to the softer version. It is as if Kelly has positioned himself as the equivalent of the “Bab” who prophesizes the arrival of a new faith. The message is the same, a “Wired” and interconnected global community, in conjunction with emergent AI can but lead to a positive planetary outcome.

The 12 chapters are a 12-step program: Becoming, Cognifying, Flowing, Screening, Accessing, Sharing, Filtering, Remixing, Interacting, Tracking, Questioning and Beginning. To Kelly, AI, artificial intelligence, and the Internet are not nouns, but verbs. They are growing changing and thus are also changing individuals and societies. The mantra is that stability is safe, but boring; change is unsettling but incrementally creating.

“My intent in this book is to uncover the roots of digital change so that we can embrace them.” Kevin Kelly

Once seen, we can work with their nature, rather than struggle against it.” Or one might recall the series, Star Trek, “ We are the Borg. Resistance is Futile. We will assimilate you”. Kelly believes that the 12-step program will continue for the next 3 decades. He suggests that we, as individuals and society need to address and embrace the emergent technology, more as hope. Further on he admits its technology that controls. It reads like a Strangelove scenario, “How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.” Like the Wired version of the Whole Earth Catalog, the volume is densely packed with a cornucopia of emergent and emerging technical temptation. Only, one can’t just hotlink to the appropriate website and just click to purchase. As Kelly notes, in the “technium” everything is becoming, thus we are caught in a loop of constant attention, the need acquire, to maintain and continually upgrade.

As we know, information is “free” on the web, at least in exchange for your profile or paying to partially opt out of advertisements. Of course that does not stop technology from knowing what you searched for and get an ad placement on your search regardless of topic. Every “click” sends new recommendations. As Kelly notes, he had an epiphany that underpins the volume. The book is a religious text, a guide to understand and to be studied. This prepublication text lacked an index and footnotes did not have page referrals, but it is almost a piece of sacred literature. What is noticeable is that is born and exists largely within the bubble of Silicon Valley and assumes that all, including the global population will be brought under the technical robe of the emergent AI/Internet. In fact, the book points out that this “Intelligence” will not be born in a piece of technology, but rather will exists within the Internet along with the connected minds of humans. There is much here that relates to Card’s writings and his character, Jane, in his Ender series. It diametric to Stephenson’s “primer” in “The Diamond Age” which is definitely appropriate technology in the spirit of “The Whole Earth Catalog”.

This ubiquitous consciousness or “intelligence”, according to Kelly, will be imbedded in such sophisticated “technology” as music and as trivial as in one’s laundry telling a smart machine how to wash it, piece-by-piece. Much of this is near enough to be visible to those who track technology, including the lay consumer. The Internet is always on, vying for attention, in part by pushing the “new”. While one may not pay, indirectly there is a cost often covered by those who want one’s attention. Kelly does note that there are services for which people may be willing to pay:

  1. Immediacy- for some individuals, the sooner one knows or knows before others is worth the cost. On the other hand, much that is “immediate” can be so much persiflage, therefore:
  2. Personalization may be important where a news feed is tailored to a specific individual or organization. Custom database searching which can include news feeds may be worth a price, or
  3. Interpretation- As Kelly notes, software can be free, like Linux, but support can be expensive.

Kelly’s list is extended, but he does not discuss the addictiveness of the AI driven Internet. In spite of the numerous “filters” and supports to start to tame the data flow, the net intends to command even more of our non-storable and non-tradable commodity, time. There have been numerous experiments to have individuals shut off their networking technology. Like drug addictions, it has been problematic. Kelly’s solution is to “accept”, go deeper and upping the dosage. Clever humans will figure out how to alleviate the pain as the web tightens around them until the human/AI/Internet form the equivalent of Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere.

In the section, Questioning, Kelly notes his awakening to the fact that Wikipedia, the crowd sourced Internet encyclopedia is able to not only exist but to function and expand, in the hands of “community”. He takes this as a sign of the new social networking that will create, across the “Noosphere”, a global community awakening. Again, Kelly has forgotten his roots in the “Whole Earth” community. Like Cypher in The Matrix, he has chosen the “Blue Pill” and the life under the Silicon Valley bubble.

Kelly has not even considered taking the “Red Pill” to see what the world is like outside that West Coast bubble. For example, the Water Temples of Bali that are an intricate social structure that regulate the irrigated rice fields, the Subaks, has existed over 1000 years only to be disrupted by well meaning Green Revolution technocrats. The Halwalas, the complex money exchange/transfer systems are trust systems across many cultures, and the Silk Road and other ancient trading systems all represent collaborative cultures with long histories.

In many ways, this book, “The Inevitable”, this “sacred writing” to be mined for understanding of the “Coming “ of AI in either a strong or weak flavor, is the best argument as to the society’s default to a technological solution to overcome the problems of today. It is the strongest argument for balance in our education and social systems between the sciences and humanities.

“The question is, ’said Humpty Dumpty’, which is to be master-that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll

Perhaps “resistance is futile”

Note: This review is by Tom Abeles, Sagacity, Inc., Minneapolis, MN

tabeles@gmail.com The editor is grateful for his permission to publish it here.

 

 

 

Morozov, E. To Save Everything Click Here

To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London, 2013, 413 pp. + xv

It’s probably fair to say that most people are increasingly bedazzled by the rapid appearance of new electronic devices, apps, social media and the dizzying array of options that they offer. Yet under the conditions imposed by globalised, corporatised late capitalism few opportunities arise that enable us to sit back, think and evaluate the implications (Bakan, 2003). Technology assessment of any kind (whether government sponsored or otherwise) has been markedly absent now for a couple of decades. This is no accident. The Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that once advised Congress on such matters is only one of many such organisations that were eliminated during the ascendancy of Chicago school market-fled economics (Blair, 2013). In retrospect this looks like an increasingly costly mistake since societies are now being re-shaped by forces that few understand and for which notions of ‘control’ have become problematic.

Most who comment in the media, the press and in books about the IT revolution do so in fairly straightforward ways. After reading a number of them it occurred to me that they amount to what I’m going to call a ‘first wave’ of critique. That is, they deal with fairly obvious topics and employ quite straightforward thinking and analysis. For example, few of them relate IT and its many extensions to other existing frameworks of knowledge and meaning making in any depth. Nor do they access wider and deeper narratives that bring into focus the wider threats to our over-extended and over-heated civilisation. Evgeny Morozov is still a relatively new voice in this conversation and yet he qualifies as perhaps the beginning of ‘second wave’ efforts. His two books The Net Delusion (Morozov, 2011) and To Save Everything Click Here (Morozov, 2013) set new critical standards, break new ground and bring into play an impressive range of cultural and linguistic resources. In this brief overview I concentrate on the second and most recent of these.

What immediately sets Morozov apart from most other observers is that, rather than pick off this or that particular target, he ‘interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cybertheorists.’ Thus, according to a Guardian reviewer he finds that ‘often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields’ (Poole, 2013). Morozov is critical not only of the means employed by the Internet oligarchs and Silicon Valley but also of their ends. The premise of To Save Everything… is that:

Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude, and perfection – and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity and imperfection – will be prohibitively expensive in the long run. (Moreover) this high cost remains hidden from public view and will remain so as long as we, in our mindless pursuit of this silicon Eden, fail to radically question our infatuation with a set of technologies that are often lumped together under the deceptive label of ‘the internet’ (Morozov, 2013, p. xiii).

‘Radical questioning’ is the method employed and the author has a formidable grasp of what it takes to do so methodically and authoritatively. It’s not the purpose of this article to reproduce his arguments in any detail as they need to be read and reflected upon in the original. Rather, it is useful to summarise some of the language and conceptualisations employed as these are arguably significant enabling resources in their own right.

The main themes of Morozov’s work address a number of neglected topics including:

  • Questioning the means and the ends (or purposes) of Silicon Valley’s quest.
  • Rejecting what he calls ‘Internet centricism’ along with the ‘modern day Talorism’ that it promotes.
  • Opposing the rise of pervasive ‘information reductionism’ in many areas of life, culture, economic activity and so on.
  • Questioning the fact that many apparently innovative procedures that are being promoted provide pseudo ‘solutions’ to problems that may not exist. He calls this ‘solutionism.’
  • Questioning the tendency of IT to reduce the viability of many socially grounded functions and activities – for example, causing entire professions and types of work (both repetitive and creative) redundant.
  • Asserting the value of some of the human and social capacities that are undermined by IT. These include ambivalence, the capacity to make mistakes, the need for deliberative spaces and so on.

Morozov supports Taylor, whose book The People’s Platform (Taylor, 2014) reminds us that the dynamic that has shaped, and is continuing to drive the Internet’s rapid growth and over-reach, derives from the never-ending search for profits rather than any concern whatever for human rights. In this view rights are everywhere being extinguished by profit. The underlying dynamic appears in many different guises. It shows up in the supposed ‘neutrality’ of algorithms that, while ubiquitous, are hidden and inaccessible so far as most people and organisations are concerned. It shows up in the vastly expanding realm of ‘apps’ that have hidden costs in terms of privacy, dependency and the promotion of questionable notions such as that of the ‘quantifiable self.’ (That is, a ‘self’ that can be tracked, measured, located, directed and ‘enhanced’ in real time.) Also involved here is an old problem – the ‘quantification fetish’ – the idea that more data is always better, always ‘objective’.

What this amounts to is a vast series of collective pressures on how people understand their world and how they operate within it. Already there is a costly ‘narrowing of vision’ and the a decline in the ‘narrative imagination.’ Morozov quotes Clay Johnson that ‘much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance’ (Morozov, 2013, p. 282). Having done so he also critiques this view for portraying citizens as being too passive and hence unable to ‘dabble in complex matters of media reform and government policy’. Instead Morozov prefers Lippmann’s formulation of ‘multiple publics.’ These are seen as being ‘fluid, dynamic, and potentially fragile entities that don’t just discover issues of concern out ‘in nature’ but negotiate how such issues are to be defined and articulated; issues create publics as much as publics create issues’ (op. cit., p. 284-7)

Morozov’s work confirms what some have suspected for some time – namely that that the apparent ‘success’ of Silicon Valley, its entrepreneurs and, of course, the Internet oligarchs, has arisen out of a deeply flawed – and we can now say with confidence, dangerous – foundation. That ‘success’ for example depends on:

  • Profoundly inadequate understandings of human identity and life;
  • Thin and unhelpful notions of how private and public realms arise, exist and remain viable;
  • Equally thin and unhelpful views of core concepts such as ‘communication’ and ‘progress.’
  • An overwhelming tendency to elevate ‘technology’ to a much higher ontological status than it deserves or can support.
  • A profound ignorance of how the drivers of this process are heading down pathways that have already proven to be dangerous and diminishing of the human enterprise.

One of the ‘strands’ of this multi-themed critique is the tendency of Internet promoters to forget that the kind of ‘theory-free’ approaches to knowledge, action and social life that they’ve unconsciously adopted has a long and chequered history. It also reflects the tendency that’s powerfully inscribed in American culture of setting theory and reflection aside in favour of action and innovation. This is certainly one of the most credible drivers of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) meltdown. The fact is that those driving the ‘Internet explosion’ are ‘venerating a God of their own creation and live in denial’ of that fact (op. cit., p. 357).

While Morozov supports some of the suggestions put forward by observers such as Taylor and Glenny (Glenny, 2011) he also takes the argument a considerable distance beyond them. A key part of his agenda is to seek a broad-based oppositional movement that calls into question both the methods and the purposes of Silicon Valley. Part of this is the conscious design and use of products that he calls ‘transformational.’ That is, products that, instead of hiding and obscuring relationships, dependencies, costs and the like, reveal them as a condition of use. An example would be an electronic device that provides tangible feedback about the sources, types and costs of the energy being used. Some of these examples are reminiscent of Tony Fry’s attempts to counter what he calls ‘de-futuring’ by re-directing the evolution of the design professions (Fry, 2009). Such ‘post-Internet’ initiatives will encourage people to ‘trace how these technologies are produced, what voices and ideologies are silenced in their production and dissemination, and how the marketing literature surrounding these technologies taps into the zeitgeist to make them look inevitable’ (Morozov, 2013, p. 356).

A further characteristic of this approach, it is suggested, is that ‘it deflates the shallow and historically illiterate accounts that dominate so much of our technology debate and opens them to much more varied, rich and historically important experiences’ (op. cit., p. 357). Finally, Morozov is at pains to remind us that ‘technology is not the enemy,’ rather, ‘our enemy is the romantic and revolutionary problem solver who lives within’ (p. 358). This neatly turns the discussion back onto the broader underlying question of the constitution of human identity, needs, wants etc. This ‘take away’ message is strikingly similar to the one I set out in the Biggest Wake-Up Call in History (Slaughter, 2010). It is that we appear to be walking en masse into a world that is being created (or, more accurately, undermined) by remote individuals and organisations that have, by and large, lost any authentic connection with, or concern for, either our shared humanity or the natural world that sustains us.

There are many topics that cannot be pursued further in a review. But they do, however, bring to mind a world in which these very concerns figure large. That is, the culture of the Kesh richly evoked by Ursula le Guin in Always Coming Home (le Guin, 1986). Here the uses of high technology are certainly acknowledged but they are also known to be dangerous. The solution adopted by the Kesh is that they are partitioned off into specific locations where they can be used as needed but their influence is kept in check. Rather than pursue technical power wherever its owners and inherent tendencies may lead, the Kesh decided to bring ritual and meaning into the heart of their culture. We would do well to remember this example and to draw inspiration from it. Although embodied in fiction it carries a vital message to our own time and culture. As the full costs of ‘wild globalisation,’ universal advertising and ‘growth at all costs’, become ever clearer the human future is looking more problematic with each passing year.

References

Bakan, J. (2003), The Corporation, Random House, London. http://www.joelbakan.com/thecorporationbook.htm

Blair, P, D. (2013), Congress’s Own Think Tank: Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995), New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Glenny, M. (2011), Dark Market, Bodley Head, London.

Le Guin, U. (1986), Always Coming Home, Gollancz, London.

Morozov, E. (2011), The Net Delusion, Penguin, London.

Morozov, E. (2013), To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London.

Slaughter, R. (2010) The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Foresight International, Brisbane. http://richardslaughter.com.au/?page_id=232

Taylor, A. (2014), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London.

 

 

Alexander, S. & McLeod, A. (Eds.) Simple Living in History – Pioneers of the Deep Future

Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future Alexander, S. & McLeod, A. (eds.), Simplicity Institute, Melbourne, 2014, 244pp + xxiv

It is well known that context plays an important role in so many situations. In this case two external factors profoundly affected how I approached this work and the impacts it had upon me. One was that I’d just finished a brilliant expose of high speed trading on the US stock market. It showed beyond any shadow of doubt what one can expect when extraordinary technical capacities are linked with egoism and greed (Lewis, 2015). In so doing it helped to undermine any residual notion I may have had that the US can be seen as the proud defender of freedom and prosperity – quite the contrary. The fact that these practices flourished there in the ways they did sends a clear message to the rest of the world about a nation steeped in a profound existential crisis largely of its own making.

The second influence came from a prior decision to write something about what I am calling ‘rogue signs.’ These are high-tech billboards that have recently sprung up in a number of places including the part of Brisbane in which I live. Some are out in the open while others are located within a grandly renovated shopping centre that I think of as ‘marketing central.’ Taking a close look at these gaudy, crass and in-your-face installations raises many questions for me about what is going on, who is driving these developments and what they may mean in terms of the wider social context.

So with this background I undertook to read all 27 sections of the Simple Living anthology. To be honest I was not particularly taken with the early sections on Buddha, Diogenes, Aristotle and the like – possibly because they were a little distant and the world has changed greatly in the interim. My interest perked up, however, as I moved into more recent times via the Quakers, the Amish and Henry Thoreau. It was in the latter section that I came across these words: ‘very little is needed to live well and be free, provided life is approached with the right attitude.’ What struck me about this was that the sentiment expressed by Thoreau coincides almost exactly with that expressed by Seneca many centuries earlier, namely that ‘life is quite long enough if you only know how to use it’ (Costa, 1997, p. xxii).

If an idea that contains so much wisdom can be expressed so simply and, equally, span the centuries over so much of recorded human history, then its credibility is not in doubt. It became clear that what the book expresses is nothing less than a collective view of what discriminating people have considered important over the long haul. Or, to put it differently, each person or group are, in their own fashion, expressing a view about what really constitutes ‘the good life.’ It will come as no surprise, therefore, that placing these contributions in a historical sequence establishes a perspective that stands in direct opposition to the present-day consumerist view.

The editors make this explicit in their introduction. In their view ‘consumerism…has no future.’ It is as simple – and complicated – as that. The current ‘treadmill of consumerism’ may well be the ‘Grand Narrative of our times.’ They add that ‘we know, of course, that something is wrong with this narrative…but we live in a corporate world that conspires to keep knowledge of … alternatives from us.’ What else, I thought, are the marble corridors and invasive signage of shopping centres than a vast and diverse attempt to do exactly that? And how aware of this vast mind game are those who flock through these gaudy halls in search of fulfilment? The editors are clear about how, in general, we can respond. They suggest that:

We should explore alternatives… not simply because we will soon be ecologically compelled to live differently, but because we are human and deserve the opportunity to flourish within sustainable bounds. This does not, however, mean regressing to something prior to consumerism; rather, it means drawing on the wisdom of the ages to advance beyond consumerism (p. xiii, emphasis in original).

What also appealed to me about this book is that each short précis is very clear and well written. Indeed, if one had never encountered those represented here, these brief overviews would provide an excellent starting point for further reading. While most sections deal with individuals, some deal with collectives. I was interested to read, for example, about places such as Ditchling Village. While I was familiar with some of Eric Gills fine artwork I knew nothing about the social background within which it was created. Similarly, I enjoyed the piece on John Ruskin in part because his alleged marital failings have been accorded greater prominence lately than his substantive life achievements that are outlined here.

Ivan Illich stood out for me for a couple of reasons. First, he was one of the most significant people I almost met. (While travelling in Mexico I sat outside his office in Cuernevaca but ran out of time to see him.) Second, because I’d read much of his work that revealed the underlying character of the high-tech commercial culture that was taking shape in the 70s and 80s. It was good to be reminded of some of these contributions. Moreover, they spoke directly to the commercial overkill mentioned above.

If I were to nominate one individual that needed to be included it would have to be E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful and similar works. He is mentioned here and there but really deserved his own piece. (I later discovered that he would indeed be included in a projected second volume.) That said, it has to be acknowledged that deciding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is really an impossible task. What can be said with confidence is that this book provides a series of valuable vignettes of people, projects and enterprises that stand in direct contrast to those that are currently dominant.

After spending so long with the high-speed traders and the marketing geniuses of the shopping mall I did not realise how hungry I’d become for some signs of spiritual nourishment. Well, here it was – in bite-sized chunks to be sure – but no less valuable for that. Thus I’ve no hesitation in recommending this book very highly indeed. It is welcome in a world falling headlong into a consumerist nightmare from which we will have great difficultly extracting ourselves.

It’s good to know that men and women throughout history have known and shown with their lives that there are other values to adopt, other well travelled but currently little known, paths to follow.

References

Costa, C. (trans., ed.) Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, Penguin, London, 1997, 2005.

Lewis, M. Flash Boys, Penguin, London, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ogilvy, J. Creating Better Futures

Creating Better Futures. Scenario Planning as a Tool for a Better Tomorrow, James A. Ogilvy, Oxford University Press, 2002, 238pp + xvi

I should begin this review with a couple of admissions. First, I met Jay Ogilvy several years ago on a GBN sponsored trip to Australia and found him charming and accessible. Second, I reprinted a 1992 paper of his that I still consider to be among the best ever written about some of the underpinnings of intelligent futures work. 1 I therefore came to this book with keen anticipation expecting to find a mature and sophisticated expression of futures work from a leading practitioner. Unfortunately, however, the book does not live up to these hopes and I will attempt to explain why.

The aim at the outset is clear: ‘this book is about what it takes to build better futures’ (p. 1). Or again ‘this book can change your life because its subject is the tools we have at hand for changing the systems that affect our lives’ (p. 3). It also aims to stimulate ‘fresh thinking … (based on) … new assumptions’ (p. 5). These aims are genuine. They are supported by an impressive grasp of many sophisticated subjects including: philosophy, social theory, post-modernism and hermeneutics. Ogilvy’s comments about the nature of language, the semiotics of culture and even the difficulties Americans have with ‘ways of knowing’ are exemplary. Let’s be clear about this: Ogilvy is nothing if not well grounded in areas that are still dismissed as esoteric by some futures practitioners. So there is much interesting and relevant comment about the nature of language, paradigms, values, the social construction of reality and so on. These are, in fact, the core strengths of the book. Yet as I deepened my engagement with the work I became increasingly concerned.

To begin with Ogilvy makes fair use of two of Habermas’‘fundamental social interests’, ie, those dubbed ‘technical’ and ‘practical’. He even suggests that ‘Habermas and his forefathers are the closest thing we have to an honourable ancestry for scenario planning’ (p. 97). Why, then, does he omit the third – and certainly the most significant – knowledge interest, the ‘emancipatory interest’? The latter concerns the process of human self-constitution, and the need (as Habermas very clearly sees it) for emancipation from oppression. For some reason this key human interest appears to be in conflict with the writer’s purpose – so it is simply dropped. This is a serious mistake because the clarification and defence of the emancipatory interest is perennial. It is central to Habermas’ account and I cannot see how it can be other than a sine qua non of any liveable future.

A second concern (and one that Ogilvy was certainly warned about) is that the book’s central focus is limited to what he calls ‘scenario planning’. The view put forward here is that such planning is the one best route toward ‘better futures’. This singular focus suggests very clearly that no other futures methods are relevant. In other words, the author overlooks methodological developments that have occurred in the field over more than a decade. 2 It is an outrageous claim. Hence, while at first sight the book appears intellectually broad, so far as Futures Studies are concerned it is culturally and methodologically insular. I will return to this point below.

Late on in the book there is a deeply ironic reference to the fact that ‘navigating the future turns out to be a team sport’ (p. 175). What Ogilvy is referring to here is the use of teams in building effective scenarios. What he is paradigmatically unaware of (which is doubly ironic in this case) is that this fact does not only apply to the ‘teams’ that assemble for corporate scenario projects. Professional collegiality among those working in the wider field is vital for its further development. But Ogilvy and his colleagues at GBN, all of whom benefited enormously from shared futures resources, are openly dismissive. Over an extended period they opted to cut themselves off from a field that they considered inferior and that, in their view, had little of value to offer them. He then writes of the ‘spirit of generosity’ at GBN that reflects a merely internal norm (p. 179). The rejection is made quite explicit in at least two places where the author accuses ‘futurists’ of ‘bad faith’ (p. 116, p. 154) though no specific names or sources are mentioned to support this view. Yet at the same time he also refers to what he calls ‘the slimness of our academic portfolio’ (p. 115, emphasis added). There is clearly some confusion here since this usage of the term ‘our’ is in direct conflict with the whole focus and approach of the book. Moreover the portfolio of symbolic and methodological resources is by no means as slim as he appears to believe. 3

As noted, Olgivy’s 1992 essay on ‘Futures Studies and the Human Sciences – the Case for Normative Scenarios’ was, in my view, a model of clarity and usefulness. But rather than building forward from this impressive work he appears to have withdrawn from constructive engagement with other futures workers in favour of the insular comfort of GBN. The slide is reflected in a critical difference in the opening sentence from the 1992 paper and the one given here. In the version I reprinted in New Thinking for a New Millennium the piece began with these words: ‘simply to be a human being is to be a futurist of sorts’. 4 Yet here the sentence has been altered to read ‘simply to be a human being is to be a planner of sorts’ (p. 115, emphasis added). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, while the field has progressed from planning to Futures Studies, and from there to applied foresight (etc), this talented practitioner has moved in the other direction, regressing back to planning!

Another serious omission occurs in a section on ‘the shift of worldviews in psychology’ (pp. 87-91). Bear in mind here that a key point of the section is ‘the shift in emphasis from things to relationships’ (p. 89). Here there are appreciative references to Neitzsche (and his ‘lyric nihilism’) Descartes, Jung, Hillman, Klein et al – but no reference at all to Ken Wilber who has contributed more than most – and clearly more than Ogilvy either knows or, more likely, will admit – to this very discussion. 5 Ogilvy and Wilber have known each other for many years. But Wilber is ‘othered’ in this book because Ogilvy disagrees with him about certain fundamental assumptions. It is, however, merely weak to disagree by ‘othering’ and ignoring. It would have been far better to engage and, if necessary, rebut, argue, develop some sort of dialectic with the Wilberian perspective as many other equally talented people have done. But that is not attempted and the book loses credibility as a result. Like it or not, advanced practitioners cannot afford to ignore the human and futures implications of Wilber’s work, especially if they are in the business of re-assessing worldview commitments.

The title of the book, we recall, is Creating Better Futures, and I certainly believe that this is indeed what Ogilvy had in mind. Moreover, as I’ve tried to indicate, he has a great deal to offer, both as a theorist and as a practitioner. He is articulate and writes with great skill and enviable clarity. But there is one final feature of this book that renders it incapable of ever approaching its declared goal – the subject throughout is the USA. Despite his evident breadth of knowledge, his wide travel and impressive range of sources the book remains trapped within an American frame. As such it literally cannot encompass other alternatives to the continued expansion of the market, nor acknowledge the varied expressions of American power that support and maintain it. Indeed, the greatest silence in this work is the way it fails to question America’s hegemonic interests and the military, economic, cultural and technical imperatives through which they are expressed. Instead these awkward facts are set aside in favour of an anodyne, uncritical account, based on simplistic historical analogies, of the alleged shift from ‘politics’ to ‘the market’. In other words Ogilvy’s approach serves to obscure, not clarify, key shifts in the post-modern world that require depth understanding and critique. For someone so steeped in Marx and philosophy it seems odd that Ogilvy has chosen to ignore a significant body of work dealing with the problematics of post-modernity and market-led ideologies, in favour of surface-level advocacy. 7

These oversights are highlighted in the final section of the book where the usefulness of ‘scenario planning’ for ‘education’ and ‘health care’ are discussed. In both cases the focus is exclusively American and therefore of strictly limited value anywhere else. Despite good intentions the result is a reimposition of the standard Western hegemonic view and the ‘othering’ of the bulk of humanity, along with all its diversity and rich patterns of possibility for the future. Despite sketching in aspects of a more fluid, transactional and ‘relational’ worldview, Ogilvy cannot see that he is failing to apply his own philosophy.

The final irony is that the concluding section is called ‘Earth Might be Fair’. Here, yet again, we see the unconscious transference from one specific cultural context to the global one. But there is nothing global at all about the path Ogilvy has chosen to tread and which this book so clearly tracks. I cannot avoid the conclusion that one of the very best minds to grace the Futures field has, in effect, quit the scene and watered down its earlier impressive work to fit a diminished frame of reference. This is a great pity. The author has forgotten that Futures work advances through open and collegial processes of dialogue, critique and innovation across organisational and cultural boundaries. As a symbolic and applied domain of enquiry it has far more to offer than a single over-exposed, over-hyped and commercialised method enacted within a dominant cultural frame. 8 The field has moved on enormously in recent years and I regret to see one so able producing a book that speaks so clearly not of collective progress toward a ‘better world’, but of market ideology and professional isolationism. As such this book falls a long way short of the mature expression that we have a right to expect. Moreover, it works against the interests of the field as a whole.

Creating Better Futures stands as a warning to all practitioners that there is no substitute for staying open and engaged at all times, however deep our philosophical foundations – or differences – may be.

References

  1. Ogilvy, J. Futures Studies and the Human Sciences: The Case for Normative Scenarios, Futures Research Quarterly, 8, 2, Summer 1992, pp 5-65. Reprinted in Slaughter, R. (ed) New Thinking for a New Millennium, Routledge, London, 1996, pp 26-83.
  2. For a recent example see Inayatullah, S. Questioning the Future, Tamkang University, Taiwan, 2002.
  3. See the Integral Futures web site: http://integralfutures.com/wordpress/
  4. Ogilvy, J. 1996, op cit p 26.
  5. See Wilber, K. Integral Psychology, Shambhala, Colorado, 2000.
  6. Two sources that profoundly question the ‘shift to the market’ are Beck, U. World Risk Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999. Also Bauman, Z. Society Under Siege, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2002.
  7. Slaughter, R. From Forecasting and Scenarios to Social Construction: Changing Methodological Paradigms in Futures Studies, Foresight 4, 3, 2002, pp 26-31.

Australian Foresight Institute, 10th October 2002, Melbourne.

Published in Futures Vol 35, 2003, pp. 889-892.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. Merchants of Doubt

Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. London, Bloomsbury, 2010

As the scale of the disaster bearing down on humanity and its world becomes ever clearer, so people in many places – especially the poor and underprivileged – will soon be crying ‘how did it come to this?’ ‘who is responsible?’ and ‘what can we do?’ Yet such desperate calls may well come too late to avoid man-made catastrophes that include runaway global heating, the collapse of large parts of the once-natural world and the consequent rise of ever more lethal conflicts. [1]

In truth, this future was never inevitable. It had been anticipated many times over during the last couple of centuries, rising to a crescendo in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. But, on the whole, humanity averted its gaze. Even – one might say ‘especially’ – the well heeled simply did not want to know, really know, what was going on. They preferred the cornucopian fantasy world of endless indulgence to the real world of non-negotiable limits and associated responsibilities. They cared more about the secondary human economy than they did about the primary Earth economy on which it was founded. Understood as an abstract category ‘the future’ could be endlessly deferred – and for most people in most places it simply was. Homo sapiens, only part way along its long journey from pre-historic darkness to world-spanning master race, could not cope with the realities of the world it had itself created. Nor could it respond to the ever more urgent signals from the global system that all was not well. What E. O. Wilson called its ‘Paleolithic obstinacy’ along with ‘species exceptionalism’ would take it to the edge of disaster and very likely beyond. [2]

At this point it’s vital to be clear. These are characteristics that, in a profound sense, are owned by every single human being. Which means that all were and are complicit in whatever follows. That said, there are some who are more complicit than others and this impressive book by Oreskes and Conway makes it clear who some of the key players are. The point is not to demonise these people whom history will certainly condemn. No doubt had their own reasons for acting as they did. But to understand what happened and why clears away at least some of the obstacles that, as I’ll suggest below, still stand in the way of effective action.

The authors trace back the lines of responsibility for what might be called ‘structural denialism’ over several decades and through a number of well known and highly publicised issues. These include the hazards of smoking, the so-called ‘strategic defence initiative,’ acid rain, ozone depletion and culminating with the denial of global warming. Along the way careers were made and others ruined – some quite deliberately – along with a still unknown proportion of humankind’s best hopes for a viable future. Very large sums of money were poured into a number of purpose-built right wing organisations that ended up being far more subversive than anything the CIA or its clones could have imagined. For example one 2005 report documented how ‘in just a few years Exxon Mobile had channelled more than $8 million to forty different organisations that challenged the scientific evidence of global warming.’ [3]

The book details how, over an extended period, a tiny coterie of influential men were able to insinuate themselves into the very structures of US administrative power and influence and, from there, to cast darkness, doubt and at times, confusion, over well-established facts painstakingly gained through scientific enquiry. The book takes its title, in fact, from the classic admission that ‘doubt is our product.’ The rationale for creating doubt was to protect the profits of a small but powerful group of companies and an associated view of the world commonly known as the ideology of free market fundamentalism. The tobacco industry, for example, was ‘implacably hostile to regulation.’ The latter was ‘the road to Socialism – the very thing the Cold War was fought to defeat.’ [4]

The war on science, scientists, truth and reason was under way as early as the 1970s when concern over global warming began to emerge. The link between increasing CO2 and rising global temperatures was already clear to those who’d studied it. But, as the authors point out ‘what matters in science is not the same as what matters in politics.’ [5] So, to cut a longer story short, when the assessments of the National Academy of Sciences were produced in the early 1980s they were watered down and made more tentative and equivocal than justified by the then known facts. This occurred partly because some of the contributors were economists and had employed the familiar tactic of future discounting. Others suggested that there was ‘no need for alarm’ since ‘technology will ultimately be the answer to the problems of providing energy and protecting the environment.’ Not long afterward ‘an organised campaign of denial’ took place that ‘ensnared the entire climate science community.’ [6]

This pattern continued during the 1990s. For example, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered its first assessment on the state of climate science in 1990 it was immediately subjected to a ‘full frontal attack.’ The location of this attack was none other than the World Petroleum Congress in Buenos Aires that year! Here Bill Nierenberg insisted that ‘global temperatures would increase at most by 1 degree centigrade by the end of the twenty-first century.’ [7] The same combination of misrepresentation, denial and obfuscation continued with an organised attack on climate scientist Roger Revelle whose belief that temperatures could increase by as much as 3 degrees was deleted from a paper he was supposed to have co-written. This is the kind of detail that takes the reader to the heart of climate denialism and the diminished values and sense of responsibility that seem to operate there. How else to explain the production of a quarterly newsletter called the World Climate Review which purported to be something it was not? In fact was ‘funded at least in part by fossil fuel interests, and used … as a platform to attack mainstream climate science.’ [8]

The more details of this story that emerge the more the role of the mass media comes into prominence. According to these authors ‘the mass media became complicit.’ By 2004 ‘scientists had a consensus about the reality of global warming – and had since the 1990s. Yet throughout this time period, the mass media presented global warming and its causes as a major debate.’ (Emphasis added.) [9] Even today some of the largest media organisations remain equivocal about the huge challenges ahead. The defence of market fundamentalism relied on denying the public access to reliable information and substituting a series of fictions designed to protect particular interests. Yet in the long run everyone loses. As the authors note ‘by denying the scientific evidence – and contributing to a strategy of delay – these men helped to create the very situation they most dreaded.’ This includes recognising that ‘contemporary capitalism is profoundly flawed and that ‘long-term solutions must seek transformative change in (its) key features.’ [10] It is a conclusion echoed by other credible observers. [11]

The book concludes with a chapter on the nature of science. Here the authors point out that the strategy of creating unreasonable doubt worked because the pubic believed that science provides certainty. Where there’s a lack of certainty science can be made to appear faulty or incomplete. But the old positivist dream that science provides truth is wrong. ‘History shows us clearly that science does not provide certainty. It does not provide proof. It only provides the consensus of experts based on the organised accumulation and scrutiny of evidence.’ Science is, however, ‘a collective enterprise’ and, as such, it is based on trust. Importantly, however, the latter ‘needs to be circumscribed and focused. It needs to be very particular.’ The authors add that ‘blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all.’ But if we don’t trust those whose task it is to ‘sort out the tough questions about the natural world we live in’ then we will risk becoming paralysed. [12] And, despite the partly encouraging news to emerge from the UN climate conference in Durban, that’s not very far from where we are now.

Not long before writing this review I chanced upon an essay by Australian academic Robert Manne about the nation’s main national daily paper, The Australian. For some years I’ve struggled to understand how the latter could operate out of a right wing, market fundamentalist, strongly anti-environmental and, essentially, future-denying stance. [13] Then came Manne’s essay which is an empirically based in-depth analysis of how that paper deals with a number of issues, including global warming. One of the facts that surfaced is that, rather than taking a ‘fair and balanced’ view of climate change the paper’s ‘news items and opinion columns opposed action on climate change by a ratio of about four to one.’ [14] Then, in the following Quarterly Essay, a response to Manne’s essay identified denial as ‘the key to understanding’ the parent company of The Australian, i.e. Murdoch’s News International. [15] What these examples show is that the effects of a decades-long campaign of misinformation, evasion, character assassination and denial of science have had pervasive effects. Moreover they have spread around the world and are still operating many years later. This should surely concern everyone.

To conclude, Oreskes and Conway have provided us with an immensely valuable account of the specific and various ways that the virus of market fundamentalism incubated in the USA has exerted widespread effects both within and beyond that country. Effects that continue to threaten the future of every person living today and countless numbers who may live tomorrow. For a nation born in idealism it reveals some of the dysfunctional aspects of an over-commercialised culture that allowed some of the most venal human and mercantile values to grow and expand a very long way beyond what might be called a ‘reasonable’ place.

From an Integral point of view what the book challenges us to do is to conceive of a new project to review this, and other related material from an Integral perspective. That is, to look in some depth and detail at how factors within the individual and collective interiors both contributed to the situation we’re in and, hopefully, how a better understanding of each can help point the way beyond it.

Richard Slaughter, Foresight International, Brisbane, December 2011

Notes

[1] See Parenti, C. Tropic of Chaos, New York, Nation, 2011.

[2] Wilson, E.O. The Future of Life, London, Abacus, 2003, p 23.

[3] Oreskes, N. & Conway, E. Merchants of Doubt, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, p 246.

[4] Ibid p 162.

[5] Ibid p 172.

[6] Ibid p 182-3.

[7] Ibid p 189.

[8] Ibid p 203.

[9] Ibid p 215.

[10] Ibid p 255.

[11] Jackson, T. Prosperity Without Growth, London, Earthscan, 2011.

[12] Oreskes & Conway, op cit, p 268-73.

[13] I took particular exception to its large format glossy monthly Wish Magazine. The latter exists to suggest that everyone should aspire to a lifestyle characterised by extreme affluence – diamonds, fast cars and sleek motor yachts, exotic holiday destinations and the like. All of which serves to drive consumption by the already rich to levels that are both inequitable and unsustainable.

[14] Manne, R. Bad News. Murdoch’s Australian and the shaping of the nation, Quarterly Essay 43, 2011, Melbourne, Black Inc. p 51.

[15] Correspondence by Rosen, J. Quarterly Essay, 44, 2011, p 103-7.