Nikola Danaylov: Humanity needs a new story
Renowned futurist Nik Danaylov joins me to discuss the pressing need for a new human story - one relevant in a time of profound technological impact, that unites rather than divides humanity. As I said, I had chills running up and down my spine.
Today I had chills running up and down my spine.
Not because of the abomination of Ukraine and the hourly reminder of all that is evil - and of yes too, of greatness – but rather, that I get to talk about the thing that started me on my journey. From a pretty conventional, late middle aged, privileged, centre right white male, to one who believes in the existential need for transformation and an Age of Wonder for all. And who has been seemingly focused only on the threat to democracy from actors foreign and domestic.
Fittingly, it started with my personal transformation. Coming off of a pretty devastating business failure at the age of 55 (what I like to refer to as my teachable decade), I had decided that I was going to become an executive coach and help the CEO’s of small to medium sized businesses tap into their inner innovator. That, evidently was my superpower. Not the coaching bit (at which I was nondescript), but the innovator bit, at which I was pretty good if I do say so myself.
Having committed myself to coaching and mentoring business leaders, I decided to create a personal business website in which, among other things, I shared interesting factoids related to science and technology – the field or sector that interested me most. The intent was to associate myself with all those cool and interesting factoids. The catastrophic business failure aside, I had spent my life in and around what most would call the technology space, and I considered myself pretty much at the top of the game – certainly compared to my peer group and to my friends and family.
As certain about that as I was so many things, I set about putting an hour or two aside each day to read about science and technology. I must point out that I did so as a Wired, Scientific American and Popular Science consumer of information – not as someone who actually invented micro-chips or wrote code. And then a funny thing happened. I started to read about advances in materials science, energy, transportation, food, national security, health, education and space and so much more. And, something like 5,000 articles and a thousand hours later I came to an epiphany.
I had known jack shit about what was going on in the world of science and technology. What I was reading about was science fiction, a world of advances almost beyond comprehension – from autonomous vehicles, robotics, quantum computing to AI, and again, so much more. Where I was ending a career that assumed we lived in an age of scarcity, I realized that I was one of the humans lucky enough to be alive to witness the stealth emergence of a new age of abundance, where science and technology were this close to addressing virtually all of human want and need. And I was alive to see it!
Ray Kurzweil. If you don’t know his name, you should. He – and a handful of kindred thought leaders - proved to be the catalysts of my intellectual, emotional and philosophical ‘landing’ as it were. As a key agent of my transformation, and the consequent fact that his theories are foundational to my beliefs and mission vis a vis this podcast series, it’s worth spending a few minutes to introduce he and his work.
Ray Kurzweil first was seen on Fred Allen’s ‘I’ve Got A Secret‘ TV show in 1965, when at the age of 17, he built a computer that convincingly authored classical music. Within a decade or so he was the inventor/driver/catalyst of the optical character recognition (OCR) and voice recognition suite of technologies – and the inventor of the first music synthesizer able to mimic grand pianos and other instruments. By the 1980’s Kurzweil was one of America’s most successful inventors/entrepreneurs, and the accolades have since only accelerated. He was then and remains today one of the world’s most controversial futurists.
I suspect and intend that through the life of these podcasts, we will often return to the detail of Kurzweil’s work. However, for our purposes today there are 3 points worth illuminating. The first is that Kurzweil conceived of the Law of Accelerating Returns, a POV that stated that as technological capability doubled every X time increment, its cost halved – and that critically, the time increments kept halving in exponential fashion, from 100 years to fifty, to 25, to 12.5 and so on. As he is wont to say, if you take 30 linear steps you get 30 steps, if you take 30 exponential steps (2,4,8,16…) you get to a billion. There is a tremendous amount of substance (and controversy) to consider in this ‘law’ but the bottom line is that information processing speed, bandwidth and storage capacity, all of which have been significant inhibitors over the first three decades of the Internet, are in the process of becoming – for all practical purposes – free and unlimited.
With staggering consequence.
To illustrate, the cost of processing a gigaflop (one billion calculations per second) of data cost (in inflation-adjusted dollars) $150 billion in 1961 vs. $0.02 in 2020 (yes – that’s 2 cents). Likewise, over the last 30 years the speed of our most powerful computers has increased from 125 gigaflops per second as recently as 1993 (125 billion) to 450 petaflops (450 x a thousand X a trillion). More to the point, the doubling/having is accelerating, meaning that the application of information processing is expanding into every facet of our life – from ubiquitous instant facial recognition to the Internet of Things. Indeed, Kurzweil argued in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, that by 2015 we would have a computer that would surpass the ‘brainpower’ of a single mouse, and that by 2023 it will surpass that of a single human, and that by 2045, that of ALL humans of ALL time. Its noteworthy that a computer that could match the processing power of a mouse brain was introduced in 2018 – just three years behind the time predicted by Kurzweil.
Here’s where it gets ‘odd’. For when a computer has the capacity to access all human knowledge of all time, Kurzweil argues that transcendence will occur – that is the machine will become sentient and self-aware, and arguably, much more than the sum of our human parts. This point in time is known as ‘The’ Singularity – the pivot point where Man becomes something much more than Man – very, very, VERY quickly (remember that exponential trillion times a trillion kind of gains?), with the not-unimportant consequence that humans will achieve immortality. Needless to say, there is fierce debate about the likelihood of such an event or its timing (or of course the ‘rightness’ of it). But curiously, I have not found a pervasive view that argues much against the ‘fact’ of change up to the event. Certainly, amongst the digerati there are those that argue passionately that X won’t happen until Y, but the delta is very rarely materially different from Kurzweil’s prognosis.
The second point worth noting is who Kurzweil works for (or perhaps more accurately, with). As of 2012 Kurzweil became Google’s Director of Engineering. It seems a misnomer because he really seems to be the Director of Singularity for the most powerful company in the world. It is evident that Kurzweil has at minimum been a catalyst for Google’s acquisitions – evidence that Google expects to take a commanding lead in such areas as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and healthcare (focus on ‘longevity’ – remember the immortality thing?) to name a few. This is not a conspiracy theory. Many very smart and well-intentioned people have placed a very big bet on Kurzweil’s vision of the future. There is even Singularity University, a Kurzweil initiative co-founded with Peter Diamandis, billionaire inventor/entrepreneur in his own right (and founder of the Xprize), and supported by Google, Genentech, Autodesk, Nokia and CISCO, with its campus located on NASA’s Ames Research campus in Silicon Valley.
The question I asked myself was – what did they know/suspect/intend that I didn’t? I concluded that a view of the future was forming and made real that is quite literally not understood or appreciated by the great, vast majority of the rest of us. A community was coalescing that see’s the next 10-20 years as being the evolutionary pivot point for life as we know it – a period that will thereafter see the course of evolution set possibly forever.
For the most part, this powerfully hopeful vision for the future captured me whole and set me on my path to what I came to call the New Age of Wonder. The problem of course, is that the emergent techno-reality he described of the last 20 years was also scaring the shit out of at least 40% of the world’s population – who decided that the past was a better place to look for inspiration and guidance. Even though they had never heard of Ray Kurzweil.
If nothing else, the last several years have taught us that there is a great divide between those excited by the future, and those who fear it. As I have often noted, the similarities between the radicalized white nationalist and the radicalized western ISIS fighter are greater rather than fewer. It’s clear that a void exists that was one time, for better of or worse, filled by religion, gender, class and race – providing the guardrails or constraints - depending on your position that provided for a reasonably stable society. But it’s clear that that void exists.
We are fortunate today to be joined by one who can help us better understand, and even define this void – and what is needed to fill it.
His name is futurist Nikola Danaylov, described as the Larry King of the Singularity. His 2017 book, Conversations with the Future: 21 Visions for the 21st Century was a best seller. Likewise his Singularity.FM podcast was the first, and remains the most popular and widely recognized interview series in the niche, exploring technological singularity, transhumanism, exponential technology and the future of humanity.
It is this latter theme – and his big idea - that we will be exploring today.
So Nick, what is your big idea?
Well, my big idea is that we need to rewrite the human story. Because I claim that our story is what determines our future. So that's it.
Okay, we're done then. That's quite the thesis. So expand on that.
Well, Kenneth Burke, the literary critic, once said that stories are an equipment for living. Because stories tell us who we are, where we're coming from, where we're going, what are we supposed to be doing? What are we not supposed to be doing? What is right, what is wrong? Or is proper or is improper? And how are we to live our life. And so, every time when we meet a new problem, we seek guidance into our stories. So let me give a famous example. One of the smartest people in the world of his day, Oppenheimer, he was the man behind Trinity, and the Manhattan Project. And when the bomb went off, the test bomb went off in the desert, he could not use science even though he was one of the best, most educated, best educated scientists in the world, but he could not use science in order to explain, contextualize, and put in perspective, the phenomenon that has just occurred. And the best thing that he could do was go to the Bhagavad Gita, and quote, Lord Krishna in saying, “I am become death, the creator and destroyer, destroyer of worlds”. So, in other words, he used science to create, allegedly the most powerful tool or weapon in the history of human civilization, at least up until that point, but he couldn't understand even the very meaning of what he had created, unless, or until he had used an ancient story, to put in perspective and contextualize that tool.
You see, stories, as I said, give us a meaning. And they inform what we should do and what we shouldn't do. They're like a GPS, like a navigation system. They're like our North Star. And so, I believe that in the history of human civilization, we have had several major stories so far, and at least a couple of times, the human story was rewritten. Let me give you several examples. Originally, and it's a bit arbitrary, where we want to cut it or slice it, but we were hunter gatherers. And that was the story. The story was many tribes, small communities spread around very large geographical areas, with little bit of connection in between, and in some cases, none whatsoever. Each community, or each tribe had their own story, their own myth that guided their life and informed how they should live and what they should do. And then eventually, there was a shift in that narrative, and we had the agrarian revolution. And you see, in the agrarian revolution, we stopped being hunter gatherers. But we settled down and started raising crops. And that necessitated a complete reinvention. Because we reimagined and reinvented the story, the human story that necessitated the complete reinvention of our culture, of our politics, of our economics, of our religion, even. So originally, for example, we were pantheistic and we had many gods, and eventually we became monotheistic, the same with political structures. Originally, we were decentralized, and there was some very loose, decentralized political structure. But with the agrarian revolution, we started having highly central centralized hierarchies, with the king at the pinnacle of that hierarchy. And then we had this mythological story that had many dimensions religious, political, and social that told us about God and how the king was the representative of God on earth. Because he had the divine right to rule.
And so eventually, in the 17th and 18th century, we had the enlightenment, and the industrial revolution. And so that was probably the last time when the human story was written and rewritten again. And if you actually pay attention, every time we change the narrative, we have a revolution. Because what happens is, first, we change our story. And then it permeates through, throughout every dimension of our civilization, politics, economics, culture, everything gets permeated by it and structured around it. And so, for the last 300 years, the most dominant story was perhaps, after the Industrial Revolution was capitalism. And capitalism gave birth to some other sub stories, things such as democracy, money, or paper money, especially the collapse of the previous story, which was monarchism. And so, in the case of after the Industrial Revolution, the king became a ceremonial figurehead at best if, if the king didn't get beheaded completely. And the other part is that God also got beheaded along with the king. That's why Dostoyevsky said that, we have killed God. And people like Stuart Brand, originally, it was Nietzsche, actually, but eventually, Stuart Brand, and others said, “we are now as powerful as gods, so we might as well start behaving as such”.
And so, there is this kind of a narrative of the human story throughout the ages. And it comes from theological origins, but also scientific, evolutionary biology origins. But both of those are interestingly converging, and nearly identical, by the way, right? So, the human story in general, has four major points. And the first time is this transcendence of our animalistic origins. So, it's the story of progress. Now, in the theological sense, that is God created us in His own image, and then all the world became our garden, which is to say, the world is ours for the taking, to do with it, whatever we please.
Now, in biological terms, we are allegedly the pinnacle of evolution, even though that's a misperception in mis conceptualization of Darwin. But the most popular understanding is that because we are the most intelligent species on our planet, we are the pinnacle of evolution. And so, there is this transcendence were in the theological or in the evolutionary biological sense, where we transcended our ape ancestors to become humans to become homo sapiens, which means ‘wise man’. And of course, because we are the storyteller, we named ourselves that wise man. We couldn't give ourselves any other. Because the storyteller is God within that story. They're the most powerful creature within the realm of the story. So that's the first step of the human story. It's the story of progress and transcendence.
The second step is the story of supremacy and centrality of humanity. You see, we are special because first we are in the image of God. And second, if we don't embrace religion, we are special because we are intelligent, but the implication of whether it's because we are divine, and we have a soul therefore, or because we are the most intelligent, the implication is one in the same.
And that leads us to point three, and that's the story of our separation from nature. We are different. We are not like the rest of God's creation. And we're not like the rest of nature because we are intelligent, we are the most intelligent.
And then the final part of the human story is us becoming gods. And you can have that in the theological sense, where many religions believe in the second coming of a messiah, or the resurrection of the dead, and then Judgment Day and all of those things. Or in the other versions of proto scientific versions of that narrative, we have the version of transhumanism, which is another kind of a step, a logical consequence of humanism. Transhumanism says that we are going to become Gods physically. And we're going to do that by embracing science and technology. And we're going to do that by either overcoming our biological limitations such as mortality, for example, whether through genetic engineering, or whether through a merger with machines and through human enhancement, etc. But the bottom line is, in both cases, we are becoming gods.
So that's the human narrative that permeates since the very first written records that we have in the history of humanity, starting with, let's say, the story of Gilgamesh, all the way to this day, where we've been seeking that kind of immortality, which would make us equal to or de facto gods. Now, I say that that story, that human story that he has brought us thus far, has served its purpose. And it has allowed us to send, satellites and to create the International Space Station and to send us to the moon, to Venus and to Mars and beyond. But now, our greatest strength, which has been our story so far, is also our greatest weakness, because our current story is falling apart. Why? Because as I said, stories are a GPS for living, it helps us orient ourselves in it informs our decisions. But right now, it is getting harder and harder to make sense of the world. Everything around us, all of our institutions, political, social, economic, cultural, are either challenged or already starting to rupture. And the reason for that is because the current problems that our civilization is facing, cannot fit within the story that has brought us here today. And therefore, we cannot make sense of what's happening in the world today with our current stories, we are like Oppenheimer at Trinity. He got there with science, but he couldn't use science to name the phenomenon of the atomic bomb. So, we are here today, the 21st century, we're facing a number of challenges like climate change, climate change, nuclear proliferation, war, artificial intelligence, genetics, robotics, nanotech, synthetic biology, 3d printing, ocean acidification, species extinction, plastic and other toxic pollution, you name it, the list is endless. And our story that he has brought us thus far, is first failing to account for these. Second, it's failing to motivate us to come together and resolve those. And finally, it's, it's really failing to even explain how or why we can deal with those.
You've done an excellent job answering about three or four questions that I was looking forward to asking. I'm curious, and you gave a clue a moment ago, but I'll ask the question nontheless. And I'm interested in your origin story of this thesis. I came to know you from afar as a well known futurist, somebody that most of the videos and articles I read of yours, were talking about artificial intelligence or regenerative agriculture, autonomous vehicles. And it seems to me you've really elevated the issue or the discussion in your mind. When you're when you're talking about, or considering, what what's the story that humanity needs in in the mid 21st century. Can you talk quickly about the about that path?
Sure, yeah. You see it was around 2005 or so doing a master's degree thesis in international relations, and my focus was in on armed conflict. It's a very, very depressing topic. And you can only read so many books and watch so many documentaries about people killing each other on large scale, without it getting to you and getting depressed, at least that's my case.
And I have almost identical same stories.
And so even though I've had this long-term fascination with war, and conflict, and how and why we kill each other, at such large scale, when we're pretty much the same, more or less, I was looking for a master's degree thesis, that's a little bit different. That's not on World War One or World War Two. And so 2006 or so were the first drone strikes that were starting in Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, I wrote a thesis called Hacking destiny, critical security at the intersection of machine human intelligence. And then I argued that the drone strikes that we're witnessing originally in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and then everywhere, are not the clash of civilizations, as Samuel Huntington claimed, but actually, the first time in the history of our civilization when increasingly automated machines are making increasingly automated decisions as per whether a human being would live or die. And I said, that's a fundamental watershed moment. And it has enormous implications for us as a species, and it could potentially, in the long run, undermine our security as a species.
At that time, as part of my work on my thesis, I read Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity Is Near. And Charlie Stross is short story called Lobsters, which then became his novel Accelerando. And they're both the same book - one is the nonfiction version, and the other is the fiction version of this accelerating change that we're already living in. Ray Kurzweil calls it the Law of Accelerating Returns. And so those two blew my mind. And I was like, wow, everything we thought we knew even the very meaning of what it means to be human is up for grabs, everything is going to change. And the reason for that is that, because the problems we're going to face, were going to far outpace our current story, to contextualize and frame, and therefore resolve, those problems. And so, I thought originally that the story of transhumanism could be the story that could be the answer to our problems. After looking into it for about 10 years I decided against it for several reasons. First is that Transhumanism is really a type of humanism, it's pretty much indistinguishable, you cannot draw a hard line between trans human and human really. It's why it's a very poor term because we've always been what people call transhumanist, really human have always used...
Can you explain the concept of transhumanism?
..well, transhumanism generally is the idea that science and technology will help us overcome our biological limitations. So, things such as, for example, our mortality, things such as the limits to our intelligence, our cognitive biases, our physical strength, and other such abilities, whether physical or cognitive. And ultimately, the ultimate stages, we are going to become gods, which is to say, immortal, all knowing, omnipotent, and maybe ever present if we merge our brains with, if we get to mind uploads, we merge our brains with the cloud and so on and so on.
Which is the destiny that people like Kurzweil and others,
Dr. Ray Kurzweil in his book has this a very teleological story, and the ultimate stages are giant computroniums or Matrioshka Brains. And right now, we're living in a universe of ‘dumb dust,’ most things around us are stupid now, but we are already starting to have smartwatches smartphones, smart cars, smart homes, smart this and that. And so eventually we're going to have smart dust. And for Ray Kurzweil, we're going to have a smart universe where right the universe First wakes up, there is no dumb matter anymore, every particle, would be smart matter. And so, this is a very teleological, very theological even view of the universe. And I got to the conclusion that whether you take that in the Ray Kurzweilian story, framework, or whether you take it in the humanist or transhumanist, traditional framework, this is what brought most of the problems that we are facing today. And so just like, we had to retell a new story around the 17th century, so that we can have the Industrial Revolution in the scientific revolution and all the consequent changes, we now need a new story that would inform and guide us through this 21st century, which would be a very tricky century, given the depth and the spectrum of challenges we're facing today. And so, in short, we need to rewrite the human story.
I just have chills running up and down my spine. Your point of view, or perspective is something that just resonates so completely with me, and actually interesting to see that it came from the same place, that evolution of how you create a world where war is impossible, taking you on the journey that it has...
Not only with respect to war, though, because one of the reasons that made me open up my eyes to the importance of story was the following. Look at many of the problems that we have, the science is clear. They're undebatable, whether it's climate change, whether it's ocean acidification, whether it's toxic and plastic pollution, whether it's soil erosion, the science is very clear, the evidence is there. But we as a species, or as a civilization, generally globally, are failing to embrace that and to take the proper action. We know the science, but we're not taking action.
So, what's the problem, then? Well, the problem is that when you have a story, the story always comes first, by the way, and then you have evidence. So, you take that and so called evidence, and you evaluate whether it's good or bad, whether it's truthful or false, whether it's useful or not, within your story. So, you can have two people looking at the same exact evidence, but because they're looking at it through two different stories, they're going to end up with two different conclusions, and two different types of actions or failing to take action in the same exact context. And so, I concluded that, we cannot give people more and more evidence, because clearly, they don't care about how much evidence we have. What we need to do is one of two things. Either change their story, because that would mean that, as I said in the beginning, stories are a tool for living or an equipment for living, so with that new tool with that new context, they can look at the same old evidence, but they will now reach a different conclusion and therefore take different kinds of action than before. So that's one way of action. Or the other is, you have to figure out a way how to help people see your evidence as something that makes sense within their story. And both of those are very tricky and very challenging, by the way, because people live and die for stories...
...as we are seeing today...
...exactly. All wars, by the way, are first and foremost story wars. And that's the most important war, the story war, because the story war sets up who is the villain and who is the hero. The story war sets up the objectives, the story wars, sets up, what is permitted and what is not permitted. The story war sets up the framework within which we have the possible resolutions. That's with respect to all of our problems.
That's fascinating. We're seeing all around us now, and you and I are doing this, as we're both trying not to watch the news from Ukraine. But these story wars are rampant and actually amplified by bad actors right now, but it strikes me that generally there are the people that that can't let go of the old stories, and there does seem to be a population of people looking for a new story, to use your vernacular. I hear you, when you say you can't talk about facts, you have to change the story. But there is a competition right now, between those who believe or are drawn to the past versus those drawn to the future. Can you talk a bit about that?
Who was it who said that ‘life is change, seeking for stability’? I think it was a famous psychologist. So, that captures the paradox of the human predicament. You see, on the one hand, we live in an environment and our universe is one of ever present change. So, if there is one thing that's constant in our universe, it's change. It's always been there, chances are, as far as we can see, it always will be there. On the other hand, we're yearning for stability. Because that's how we're wired. Biologically, that's how we evolved, we evolved to seek stability. And so, we're constantly fighting this battle both within, and without ourselves. So that's a very normal sort of human desire, to hang on to whatever we think, is something that we know whatever is something that used to work. The problem with that is that it could be suicidal. Why? Because you can have a solution to a problem - life is basically a solution to an environmental problem.
The human species, every species on the whole biological spectrum is one solution of the problem of life within a certain evolutionary biological niche. Let me try and translate this into, I don't know if your audience is more business oriented, or what kind of people they are, but will give a couple of examples to make it more understandable. So, think about it this way. Kodak had a solution to the problem of photography. It was the best film in the market for 100 years. You see, my wife's family is from Rochester, New York. It used to be called Kodak city. So, for 100 years, they had the best solution to a problem in the market. And it worked. Undisputedly. One day, however, it stopped working, because we had a revolution, and that was the movement from analog to digital photography. The revolution of digital photography annihilated the demand for analog film. But because Kodak had so much evidence hanging on 200 years worth of experience that what they did was right, and it worked. And it was very profitable. And it was this a self-enforcing self-reinforcing mechanism. They were unable to adapt to the change in the environment. We can see that over and over again. Think about it in the world of computers, right? IBM was best positioned to benefit from the personal computer revolution, but they missed it. And that's why Apple and Microsoft became giants. Apple and Microsoft were best positioned to benefit from the search engine revolution, but they were hanging too tight to their own kind of a product and an answer to a problem. That's why we had Google and LinkedIn, who became giants. Google was best positioned to benefit from the social media revolution, but they missed it. That's why we had YouTube and Netflix, who became giants, right? And then the German and Japanese car manufacturers were best positioned to benefit from the electric car revolution, but nearly missed it. Now we see that Tesla has emerged as the leader. Every time we have a revolution, it's like a meteorite strike. And the dinosaurs, no matter how big and how strong they are, they die out. They either adapt to the change in that environment, or they die out. And it doesn't matter. Kodak was a $28 billion company with 100,000 employees in 1998. It doesn't matter, you're obsolete, you're dinosaur, you're dead.
It is not that we have a choice really, it is not like change or no change, of people's narrative that you're telling us people have this yearning to go back to the Golden Age. First, we can't ever go back to the Golden Age. Secondly, if you study history, history tells you that the Golden Age was not really a golden age, it was very unpleasant time, much shorter lifespan, lots of violence, lots of unpredictability. And so we tend to romanticize and idealize that past, but it was never really a golden age. We can't go there, first, because change only goes one way, not backwards. And second, even if we could go there, it's not even worth it. But it's got this natural urge. Right now we're facing the situation of radical change again, and it's not a question of change or not change. It's a question of change A, change B, change C or change D? Do I have change imposed on me by doing nothing? Or do I try and steer the change that's coming my way to the best, most beneficial direction that all of us can benefit within and hopefully save our civilization from collapse?
Exactly. I couldn't agree more. One of the interesting things too, with both Kodak and IBM, the irony is that the early patents that were filed by both were the first ones to look at personal computers, and in the case of Kodak, digital cameras, and yet still, as you point out, missed,
Kodak invented digital photography in 1975. They had the first patents. But it did not pay them to embrace digital photography, because they had a business model relying on paper and chemicals. And that was the problem. It didn't serve them, and there is always a price to be paid for change. There is always a price, if we're not willing to pay the price, we pay the consequences.
I describe the future, the one where we as a species, benefit from technological development in a just and equitable fashion, a sustainable one, sounds very much like the future that you ascribe to. If that's an Age of Wonder, and the story, the human story today is not sufficient to help realize that, what is the story and how do we get there?
Okay, so first, I want to bring one extra dimension, perhaps. And that's the dimension of ethics, and the nature or the essence of the challenges that we're facing today. So, I wouldn't say that we're living in the Age of Wonder necessarily.
Okay. But anyway, here's what I mean by another dimension, and recontextualizing the current problems. So, think about it this way. I would suggest to you that there is no such thing as climate change, soil erosion, species extinction, ocean acidification, artificial intelligence, nuclear proliferation, blockchain challenges as separate challenges and global pandemics and so on. I would suggest to you they're not a separate issue. I would suggest to you they're all exactly the same problem that emerges over and over again, in all these different realms. The question then is, what is the problem? Well, the problem is the fact that our technological and scientific prowess has now far surpassed our wisdom and our ability to control it and utilize it in a safe and non-suicidal manner. That is the nature of the problem we're facing. There is a gap between our power which has grown exponentially in the last 100 or 300 years. since the Industrial Revolution, and our wisdom to control that power, which has not kept pace with the growth in our power, and what that means is that we are not facing a technological problem. Right? Look at specifics here, look at climate change. We know the science, the science is very clear, we have many, if not most of the technologies and science necessary or required to start making a difference today to have already started making a difference 10 years ago, but we're not doing it.
That means that the failure, therefore is not in the science and in the technology, but the failure is within us. It's an ethical failure. It's a moral failure. That's why all the work that I have done in the last 15 years, has been based on the thesis that technology is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Because technology is how we do things. But it is not why we do things. And it is not what we should be doing. Technology is merely a tool, it's a means to an end. But it is not the end itself. And therefore, if you mess up your why, and the why comes from us, you can have the best possible how the best possible technology, but if you mess up your way, you're going to end up doing more damage than good. And that's why my call has been originally a return to the why. The why, because the why informs if or when or how, what kind of technology we're going to use towards what kind of purpose and the why is derived out of our story. Right, and our current human story has basically given us a blank check. Right, we are as powerful as gods. So, we might as well start behaving as such - Stuart Brand. Or we're the pinnacle of evolution, because we're the smartest species on the planet. Or we're in the image of God, and the world is just our garden, and therefore ours for the taking. It doesn't matter whether you take the humanistic, the theological, the evolutionary, biological, or the individualistic market capitalist story, they're all the same story in a different guise. And that story has brought us far, it's been useful in many ways. But the problem is now our greatest asset is becoming our greatest weakness because it's pushing us towards a civilizational suicide. Right, so we can no longer have this blank check. We can no longer use exponential growth in a limited material resources system, like our planet, right? Sooner or later exponential curve within a limited resource environment, you have population collapse.
And that's what we're trying to avoid. And to avoid that, first, we have to wake up to that fact. And second, we have to seek guidance, to where we want to go and why we want to go there. And all of those things are derived from our story.
So the civilizational collapse or suicide, degradation, erosion, whatever we want to call it. I believe we're in the midst of that, I believe it's imminent. What are your thoughts? Do we have 100 years to sort this out? Or is this something you believe we need to address?
So, I don't think the future is written in stone. And in fact, the book that I'm working on right now starts with a quote, which is one of my favorite quotes from Cory Doctorow. And it reshifts the focus away from futurism, if you will, and I'm supposed to be a futurist. But this is how I became a storyteller or why, and this is the quote from Cory Doctorow. He says, quote, “I make no claim to predicting the future. I make up stories. Stories are better than predictions. Predictions tell us that the future is inevitable. Stories tell us that the future is up for grabs”. So basically, when you're asking me to give you a timeline, you're making me make a prediction. Instead, what I think is more useful to do is to tell a variety of stories, which is why my previous book is called Conversations with the Future: 21 Visions for the 21st Century and covers all possibilities from, complete extinction, giga war, AI, giga war on a global proportion, or nuclear war, all the way to Utopia, if you will. Some versions of transhumanism may end up with sort of utopia where, we live in the Age of Abundance, and there is no scarcity and we live forever, and everything is materializing for us the moment we desire it, etc. And all the other possibilities in between those two ends of the spectrum of future possibilities.
My desire is for us to create our own story, to be the author of our own story, both as individuals, but also collectively as companies, in organizations, as nations, and especially at the planetary level as civilization and as a species. And then choose that future and create it. Because the future is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the image of the future, influences the present a lot more than the present influences the future. Why? Because the image of the future inspires us, or motivates us, or demotivates us to act or not to act. Right? So, let's say we have two people, one says, “oh, forget it, there is no hope, we're all doomed, those politicians and these people lacked leadership, nothing's ever going to change, so I'm just going to watch Netflix and drink beer, and there's nothing I can do about it anyway, it's out of my hands”?
...a real nihilism
So you have this image of the future, and then it demotivates you, in depresses you. Or you can have another image of the future, which says, it's possible, what we do makes a difference, and most importantly, that image of the future can inspire you to actually create it. For example, the engineers who watched Star Trek episodes, created the first generation of the Motorola Razor phones. So you had first the image, that kind of thing, which then created itself into the present?
Certainly, the great science fiction writers are the ones that describe the future that I imagine, and I say that unapologetically. I understand that you're reluctant to accept a timeframe, but I do determine a sense of urgency in your message. Is there a particular group of individuals that are the ones that need to change their behavior? Or, is it something where we all need to change our behavior?
Gandhi said, if you want to change the world, start with yourself. You cannot expect other people to change unless you're willing to lead by example. Leadership is all about, whether in military sense, being at the front, whether in corporate sense, leading by example, whether in philosophical sense, living your message, you cannot have a dichotomy or hypocrisy between what you do and what you say. And so that's why it is up to all of us. And we all have a stake in our world. And we all have a stake in the future. Now, the level though, that makes the most difference is the systemic level. We play two kinds of roles, one at the individual, and one as aggregate at the systemic level. But the system within which we operate in is a story. Capitalism is a story. It's a story about how a civilization could and should be run, what are the benefits, the cost, and what is right and what is wrong, and who gets what rewards and who gets what punishment? And capitalism has taken us this far. But now capitalism is falling apart. It is literally unable to address the current challenges that are not working.
Some people were way too optimistic. Just 25 years ago when I was still a student in Political Science, we were reading Francis Fukuyama and ‘the end of history’ argument. The 20th century was the clash of three stories, fascism, communism and capitalism. Those are three stories about how our civilization or humanity in general should organize itself. Fascism went away first with World War Two, communism collapsed in 1989, and then capitalism emerged victorious. And for Francis Fukuyama, that was the end of history, because not only was capitalism the best story that we have ever told, but for him, it was the best story that we could ever tell. So, from then on, all we could do is little tweaks, but it's all going to be the same more or less, that's the pinnacle for him.
The events of the first two decades of the 21st century have put that thesis to shame, they have proven beyond any doubt, in my opinion, that we, with that story, we are unable to resolve or even begin addressing and resolving our challenges. And if we fail to do that, we could even literally go extinct as a civilization. And that's why our institutions are struggling so much and collapsing in some sense. And that's why we are so confused. That's why we cannot make sense of the world anymore. Because we make sense of the world with the stories that we have. That's how we do it, we take the evidence the world gives us and we put it in the context of the story we already have. And the most shocking thing is when you have irreconcilable differences between the two. Some people can decide to be in complete denial of reality, in that kind of a situation, or others, and I think that's the smart and because the first decision is basically a suicide, denying your reality is a suicide. Or the second is to decide to change and to rewrite the story, to write a new story, a better story.
How, how optimistic are you? Do you have children? I have a 31-year-old daughter and I have a new grandson. And certainly, I fear for their future. You talked about a nihilism. One of the things I'm intrigued with in talking to the young people I have over the last several years, is on one hand, just how incredible they are as individuals and the potential they have, but also, unfortunately a sense, if not nihilism, just a non-belief in the future. The future is not something that they see as holding promise, and so I wonder as we have to close this, how optimistic are you that the children in schools and classrooms today are going to be able to contribute to, and profit from, the new story you're talking about.
Not having a positive view of the future results from the fact that the story that we currently have in our heads about the future is a negative one. And that's why people are unmotivated to take action. So, if you want to take action, if you want to change that and help them be proactive, rather than passive, then you have to change that image of the future. And you change that image of the future with a new story. And you will know if your story is working or not, as per whether it is being embraced or not, because you can't go to tell people, oh, you're not embracing the story of the future. No. That means that particular story doesn't work, is not appealing to them. A good story is viral, people are helpless in the face of a good story. For example, when I read the technological singularity concept, and Accelerando, my mind was blown so much that I had to tell everyone that I met and started to blog in a podcast on the topic of the technological singularity because that is mind blowing. Yes, slowing my mind and I wanted to share it with everyone. That's how you measure whether the story works or not. It’s viral, right? The same with religion, by the way, which is another story. Many people most recently experienced that same phenomenon with blockchain and cryptocurrencies. So, you need to find a story that talks to those young people. And it is perfectly fair for them to not be interested in our story. That's why we need to rewrite the story, because the old story of, ‘I need a house which two garages and, vacations and this and that in a corporate career’ doesn't appeal to the new generations. And they're a lot less interested in the story of wealth, material wealth, they're motivated by stories of making a difference, and other things in life. And so, we need to tell a new story to motivate that new generation. That's how you create the revolution.
This is the wrong question to ask at the end. But you describe the personal narrative or story and the business and the national, and I think we're probably more interested in the global story. How do we build the aggregate story? What is the aggregate story? Where does it come from?
Well, that's a good question. There are several layers. First of all, we have to become aware of the importance of story so that we stop being slaves to it, right. That's the first step, you have to become aware of the story because we all have our stories. But we can choose to go beyond them and to change them, because as Viktor Frankl says, between input and response, there is that little space, and in that little space is where our freedom lies. And we can choose the story within which we examine the input and decide our output. That's how you can transcend your limitations or your environment like he did in Auschwitz. At the personal level, we have to start by taking responsibility for, and becoming authors of our own stories. That's at the personal level. At the global level, though, we need a story that's no longer just the human story, but that embraces all sentient life, because in the future we might have to contend to with AI's, with transhumans, with alien intelligences, or with animal uplift, which is to say, super intelligent animals and so on - there's going to be all kinds of crazy beings, of sentient beings.
Humanism is a form of racism. It's a form of speciesism, which is why it has given us the blank check to kill 72 billion animals annually and 1.2 trillion aquatic organisms annually, because we think we're special, but if the AI's embrace the same story, if the AI’s embrace AI’ism, then we're going to have a war, because they would say they're the pinnacle of evolution, just like we said. And if they behave as irresponsibly as we did, it will be war, and potentially our extermination. And so the way out of it is creating a global story, which has space both for AI’ism, and humanism, and animism and other sentient beings. That story cannot be written by a single sex, cannot be written by a single nation, or written probably by a single species, either. It has to be the story about the story, which sets up the rules of conflict resolution.
Think about it this way. When we go and play in the World Cup of soccer, all the nations of the world compete against each other with mutually exclusive interest in a direct situation of conflict and scarcity – there is only one World Cup - but we embrace the rules. And what are the rules? The rules are a story, a story that tells us how to play the game. And once we embrace those rules, we don't go on the soccer field, and shoot AK-47’s at each other, but all the conflict is directed towards the conflict resolution mechanisms that are already embedded within that game, within that story. And so, you have a situation of conflict, which is peacefully resolved. In the end, we're all better for it, because we enjoy the World Cup. There is only one winner, and Brazil is not going to be happy when Germany wins and so on, but we all legitimate and recognize the outcome and we're all better for it in the end because we've all agreed on the rules.
What we need today is a similar story at the global level, which creates the framework within which all the other sub stories can peacefully coexist. That's what I'm struggling to come up with, a narrative. Now, in the past this has been created by originally religion, this was the grand narrative, the meta narrative of humanity for thousands of years was religion. Then, in the 1700s, with the enlightenment, we had science, that was the new meta narrative. That story believed that, just like religion promised us, to save our souls and to become Gods, science promised heaven on earth, and to save us from ourselves. And now we're witnessing that science itself is not enough. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient, because you cannot have that war, or any war without the science today. And in fact, it could help us exterminate each other. And so, we need a new story that would legitimate and contextualize the proper usage of science, the limitations thereof, and the peaceful coexistence of mutually exclusive and conflicting points of view.
Here’s my take on my conversation with Nik today.
He asserts that humanity needs a new story. How incredibly, sadly, frustratingly, infuriatingly, and wondrously true. Also, without detracting from the power of his proposal – obvious. Obvious as today, with up to 4,000 dead civilians in Maripul Ukraine, we hear that Russia is considering the use of chemical and biological weapons, and that it’s best friend and strategic partner, China is basically OK with that. Obviously we need a new story.
I found it interesting that Nik’s pathway to the profound need for global transformation started – like me - with the study of conflict. I recall attending an academic conference in the early 80’s as a graduate student studying conventional, that is non-nuclear warfighting. Many NATO military officers were in attendance. I found myself unexpectedly filling in for an absent panellist, in a discussion about the calculus of acceptable deaths in first strike, second strike and third strike nuclear warfighting scenarios. Assuming that the Soviets ‘just’ took out five of our largest cities in a first strike, with an estimated, say 6 million dead, what would we target with our counter strike – the same number of Russians or more? Assuming a counter-counter strike from the Soviets, how many deaths in what cities were we then prepared to lose? Not in weeks, months or years – but in hours?
As we debated whether the west could afford 25-50 million dead to defeat the red menace, I recall looking out the window on a beautiful Spring Day and concluded that while someone needed to think of such horrors, it wasn’t going to be me. Thus started my transformation, albeit a five decades long one.
It took me much longer than Nik to realize that our past – our cultures, laws, institutions etc. and the narratives - or stories - they represented, weren’t so much wrong, as they just were not working anymore, certainly not as our societies needed.
His examples of great businesses such as Kodak that missed strategic pivot points – often of their own making – only to collapse, to disappear, was particularly resonant. Despite the universal acceptance that change is a constant, he reminds us that the human tendency is to hang on for too long to what has worked in the past, and that not knowing when to let go - to evolve - can prove fatal. It is not too great a leap to suggest that so many of our sacred institutions, the very things we consider foundational are, as we speak, committing, to use his term - ‘suicide’. So much for our foundations.
For Nik, the elemental truth is that our species wisdom has not kept pace with the tools that we have devised, and that consequently, we can’t make sense of our world with the woefully outdated story we keep telling ourselves. It’s not technology at all that’s the issue, but rather our failure to render our technologies subservient to our ethical or moral compass.
I think his most important point is that ALL of our so-called existential challenges, from climate change, running through income inequality and social justice to today war and the threat of nuclear holocaust, are all products of a story that is simply no longer relevant.
The question of course is who authors the next story? The great religions, the dominant ideologies were all the product of a great many storytellers, contributing a sentence here, a paragraph there, over decades or centuries. Who are the new tellers to craft the new story we need in the exponentially short period of time that we have?
I do confess one thought that occurred to me about the telling of the story. I believe that it must be unapologetically from a one-world perspective. That there are two basic realities for us all, there is ‘I’ and the one round world that ‘we’ all stand on together. All of the lines that we create thereafter, are arbitrary and not fixed, from family, to our neighbours, our town, state or province, or country. From our language, our religion, from the political party we vote for. The new story I would suggest, must unite as many of the 7.53 billion ‘I’s of the world, with this globalist, or humanist or universalist – whatever you want to label it - POV. See, the story needs work!
Veteran listeners won’t be surprised why I had chills. Nik was saying better than I ever had, that a new story needed telling, and I believe I know how the story tellers can be assembled and the story written. That is, leveraging the work of Leaders Expedition, the non-profit project comprised of one thousand colleagues of mine from over 30 countries who spent four years and 20,000 hours of their time devising and testing the model needed to effect global transformation by 2035. I don’t know if Nik would agree or not, but I see the Tenets, the Core Values that we first devised as the ethical wrapper for the new story he describes, and the scaffolding for a civic movement we designed that we believe had the potential to systemically and globally scale to not only author that new story, but to then act on it.
Nik has challenged us to reflect of what that new story should be. I challenge you the listener to do more. Do you have the time, experience, connections and/or resources to commit yourself to a 10-year effort to craft and start acting on this new story? The story that will unite and save humanity?
I have argued that we must assume that we have just 10 years to manage our way through not only the issue presented today by Nik, but all of the pressing challenges facing us, from climate change to income inequality. And I have argued we have the tested roadmap to scale the solution – the civic movement – needed to prevail.
The BOOM! podcast and livestreams are meant to elevate, leverage and amplify that mission, by provoking actionable discussions, and challenging BoomXers’ especially to facilitating the solutions that result. To use their time, expertise, connections etc. to make possible a new age of wonder.
My mission here is to find the founding investors/donors who likewise see a world of wonder as possible and within our grasp and are willing to be the first to fund a civic movement with the scale, scope – and power – needed to prevail. The funders who would rather save earth as a pre-condition to going to the stars.
As you reflect on the state of our world today, see through the pessimism and concern that is absolutely warranted, and look through to that world of wonder, that can be, MUST be made real by 2035, and reflect what you are prepared to do about it. It’s not naive, it’s not a dream, it’s not a fantasy. It can be. It will be.
Checkout our site at Boombigideas.com and check out our Mission and Core Assumptions tabs at the top. If you’re interested, click on the LEx Archive to see more information on our work at Leaders Expedition.
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