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Narratives, Values & Progress – Anders Sandberg

Anders Sandberg discusses ideas & values and where we get them from, mindsets for progress, and that we are living in a unique era of technological change but also, importantly we are aware that we are living in an era of great change. Is there a direction in ethics? Is morality real? If so, how do we find it? What will our descendants think of our morals today – will they be weird to future generations?

One of the interesting things about our current world is that we are aware that a lot of ideas about morality are things going on in our culture and in our heads – and are not just the laws of nature – that’s very useful. Some people of course think that there is some ideal or best moral system – and maybe there is – but we’re not very good at finding it. It might turn out that in the long run if there is some kind of ultimate sensible moral – we’re going to find it – but that might take a very long time and might take brains much more powerful than ours – it might turn out that all sufficiently advanced alien civilizations eventually figure out the right thing to do – and do it. But it could also turn out actually when we meet real advanced aliens they’re going to be as confused about philosophy as we are – that’s one of the interesting things to find out about the universe.Anders Sandberg

Points covered:
– Technologies of the Future
– Efficient sustainability, in-vitro meat
– Living in an era of awareness of change
– Values have changed over time
– Will our morals be weird to future generations?
– Where is ethics going?
– Does moral relativism adequately explain reductions in violence?
– Is there an ideal ‘best moral system’? and if so, how do we find it?

Transcript

I grew up reading C.S. Lewis and his Narnia Stories. And at that time I didn’t get what was going on – I think it was when finally I was reading one, I then started thinking ‘this seems like an allegory’ and then sort of realizing ‘a christian allegory’ and then I felt ‘oh dear!’. I had to of course read all of them. In the end I was quite cross at Lewis for trying to foist that kind of stuff on children. He of course was unashamed – he was arguing in his letters ‘of course, if you are a christian you should make christian stories and try to tell them’ – but then of course he hides everything – so instead of having Jesus he turns him into a lion and so on.
But there’s an interesting problem in general of course ‘where do we get our ideas from?’. I grew up in boring Sweden in the 70’s so I had to read a lot of science fiction in order to get excited. That science fiction story reading made me interested in the technology & science and made it real – but it also gave me a sort of libertarian outlook accidentally. I realised that well, maybe our current rules for society are arbitrary – we could change them into something better. And aliens are people too, as well as robots. So in the end that kind of education also set me on my path.
So in general what we read as children effects us in sometimes very subtle ways – I was reading one book about technologies of the future by a German researcher – today of course it is very laughably 60ish – very much thinking about cybernetics and the big technologies, fusion reactions and rockets – but it also got me thinking about ‘we can change the world completely’ – there is no reason to think that it works out that only 700 billion people can live on earth – we rebuild it to house trillions – it wouldn’t be a particularly nice world, it would be nightmarish by our current standards – but it would actually be possible to do. It’s rather that we have a choice of saying ‘maybe we want to keep our world rather small scale with just a few billion people on it’. Other would say ‘we can’t event sustain a few billion people on the planet – we’re wearing out the biosphere’ – but again it’s based on a certain assumption about how the biosphere functions – we can produce the food more efficiently than we currently do. If we went back to the primitive hunter gatherers we would need several hundred earths to sustain us all simply hunter gatherers need enormous areas of land in order to get enough prey to hunt down in order to survive. Agriculture is much more effective – and we can go far beyond that – things like hydroponics and in-vitro meat might actually in the future mean that we would say it’s absolutely disgusting, or rather weird to culture farmland or eat animals! ‘Why would you actually eat animals? Well only disgusting people back in the stone-age did that’. In that stone age they were using silicone of course.
Dividing history into ages is very fraught because when you declare that ‘this is the atomic age’ you make certain assumptions – so the atomic age didn’t turn out so well because people lost their faith in their friend the atom – the space age didn’t turn out to be a space age because people found better ways of using the money – in a sense we went out into space prematurely before there was a good business case for it. The computer age on the other hand – well now computers are so everywhere that we could just as well call it the air age – it’s everywhere. Similarly the internet – that’s just the latest innovation – probably as people in the future look back we’re going to call it something completely different – just like we want to divide history into things like the Medieval age, or the Renaissance, which are not always more than just labels. What I think is unique about our era in history is that we’re very aware that we are living in a changing world; that is not going to be the same in 100 years, that is going to be utterly utterly different from what it was 100 years back. So many historical eras people have been thinking ‘oh we’re on the cusp of greatness or a great disaster’. But we actually have objective good reasons for thinking things cannot remain as they were. There are too many people, too many brains, too much technology – and a lot of these technologies are very dangerous and very transformative – so if we can get through this without too much damage to ourselves and the planet, I think we are going to have a very interesting future. But it’s also probably going to be a future that is somewhat alien from what we can foresee.
If we took an ancient roman and put him into the modern society he would absolutely shocked – not just by our technology, but by our values. We are very clear that compassion is a good virtue, and he would say the opposite and say ‘compassion is for old ladies’ – and of course a medieval knight would say ‘you have no honor in the 21st century’ and we’d say ‘oh yes, honor killings and all that – that’s bad, yeah actually a lot of those medieval honorable ideals they’re actually immoral by our standards’. So we should probably take that our moral standards are going to be regarded by the future as equally weird and immoral – and this is of course a rather chilling thought because our personal information is going to be available in the future to our descendants or even ourselves as older people with different values – a lot of advanced technologies we are worrying about are going to be wielded by our children, or by an older version of ourselves in ways we might not approve – but they’re going to say ‘yes but we’ve actually figured out the ethics now’.
The problem of course of where ethics is ever going is a really interesting question in itself – so people say oh yes, it’s just relative, it’s just societies making up rules to live by – but I do think we learned a few things – the reduction in violence over historical eras shows that we are getting something right. I don’t think that our relatives could just say that ‘violence is arbitrarily sometimes good and sometimes bad’ – I think it’s very clearly a bad thing. So I think we are making moral progress in some sense – we are figuring out better ways of thinking about morality. One of the interesting things about our current world is that we are aware that a lot of ideas about morality are things going on in our culture and in our heads – and are not just the laws of nature – that’s very useful. Some people of course think that there is some ideal or best moral system – and maybe there is – but we’re not very good at finding it. It might turn out that in the long run if there is some kind of ultimate sensible moral – we’re going to find it – but that might take a very long time and might take brains much more powerful than ours – it might turn out that all sufficiently advanced alien civilizations eventually figure out the right thing to do – and do it. But it could also turn out actually when we meet real advanced aliens they’re going to be as confused about philosophy as we are – that’s one of the interesting things to find out about the universe.

anders-sandberg-will-our-morals-be-weird-to-future-generations

Points covered:
– Technologies of the Future
– Efficient sustainability, in-vitro meat
– Living in an era of awareness of change
– Values have changed over time
– Will our morals be weird to future generations?
– Where is ethics going?
– Does moral relativism adequately explain reductions in violence?
– Is there an ideal ‘best moral system’? and if so, how do we find it?

Star Wars on Trial – A Feudalistic Fantasia Pushing an Elitist Anti-Democratic Agenda

The Star Wars movie series has been the mainstay of imaginative fiction for children and adults since the mid 70s – many saw it as the gold standard of science fiction. When I was a child I used to collect all sorts of Star Wars paraphernalia – figures of some of the characters, tie & x-wing fighters, and cards that came with bubble gum.  Meeting David Brin at a science fiction conference in Los Angeles in 2012 (see resulting interview), and coming across a book he co-edited Star Wars on Trial rooted in an infamous Salon article made me think twice about some of the messages that the Star Wars franchise has so far conveyed.  I thought it was a good time to ask David Brin his thoughts on the topic – here is the resulting interview.
– foreword by Adam Ford.

Interview with David Brin

Adam Ford: What did Yoda mean when he said “Do or do not. There is no try.”?

David Brin: That was just some faux-eastern-mystical gobbledygook that George Lucas insisted upon, amid the otherwise excellent screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, penned by Leigh Brackett and Laurence Kasden… the one time that George Lucas showed real wisdom and hired experts to do what he clearly cannot.  Write.

In fact though, can you name one thing that evil green oven mitt — Yoda — ever says that is verifiably right and wise and the truth?  A less “wise” character would be hard to find and no character across all of storytelling history wrought as much death as this nasty creature.

“There is no try”?  Bull!  Trying is how human beings learn. You have a stab at something.  You look at the resulting mess.  You send brain signals reinforcing the actions that had good results and gradually repressing those that failed. It is how we improve and become people who are capable of gymnastic gold medals, or astronauting through space, or writing dialogue that actually makes sense.

 

AF: You mention that George Lucas “has spent the last 20 years relentlessly pissing in modernity’s face, preaching Romantic claptrap about how demigods and mystic warriors are better than democracy.”

DB: JRR Tolkien had a grievance against modernity, but he came by it honestly, at the Battle of the Somme, watching the flower of his generation mowed down by modern implements of death.  He saw what coal dust did to the buildings and lungs of London Town.  The Lord of the Rings rails against modernity — painting it as a tool of Mordor — while extolling the elfish demigods and mystic chosen-one warriors of Numenor.  And it’s great stuff!  We are on opposite sides of this argument.  But Tolkien is very good and makes his case in a gorgeous story.

In contrast, George Lucas was given everything by modernity… health and fun and riches and all the tools he needed for his dream – to direct movies — to come true.  Modernity provides the brilliant artists whom he hires by the bushel-load.  When he rails against modernity – along with democracy and science and the hopeful possibilities of the common woman or man – he is simply being an ingrate.

 

AF: You mentioned in an article at Salon.com that the message George Lucas puts across in Star Wars is : “True leaders are born. It’s genetic. The right to rule is inherited. Justified human emotions can turn a good person evil.”

DB: That’s romanticism, in a nutshell. But it went beyond forbearance with the apotheosis of Darth Vader.  The notion that a killer of billions should be forgiven because he saves the life of his own son? Or that Luke was ever in any danger of becoming “evil” just because he got a little angry?  Oh my.

“I never cared for the whole Nietzschian Ubermensch thing: the notion — pervading a great many myths and legends — that a good yarn has to be about demigods who are bigger, badder and better than normal folk by several orders of magnitude…. wherever you witness slanlike superbeings deciding the fate of billions without ever pausing to consider their wishes.”David Brin - Salon.com

 

 

AF: Would George Lucas, or anyone for that matter, be a good benign dictator – (by good I mean successfully benign)?  If so, how do you pick a correct one?
DB: We all daydream about what laws we would command, if we got to be king.  I am no exception.  Moreover I admit there have sometimes been good kings.  Only look at what happened when their sons took charge.  It took a special kind of maturity for George Washington and his band of geniuses to say: “Let us limit our own power. Instead, we’ll ask the people to argue and negotiate with each other.”

The result is noisy, messy, frustrating… and so vastly better and more just and more productive than the preceding 6000 boring years of brutal, nasty feudalism.  We are in a revolution.  It is ongoing.  And science fiction is the one form of literature that says: “look, we can spot mistakes!  We can criticize and maybe cooperate.  Look at how far we’ve come.  Maybe – just maybe – we can go farther.”

 

AF: You mention “Romanticism is an enemy meme. I think it is deeply contrary to the Enlightenment, and deeply harmful.”  – while I like some of the beautiful portrayals, narratives in some art, Rousseau writes wonderfully  – it’s the implementation that in the real world that bothers me.
DB: Romanticism can be spectacularly beautiful! As I said, it was the core mythic system across most cultures.  But its dark side is promoting endlessly the form of governance that filled those cultures.  Feudalism — kings and the priests who pushed kingliness as the best thing.

We are revolutionaries, no less than Washington and Franklin! We can find a way to have the adventure and fun of fantasy without the relentlessly and tediously repeated lessons: that only annointed ones can rule… and that everything must stay the same.

 

AF: What do you see are the main differences between Fantasy and Scifi? Why are people attracted one more than the other?
DB: Fantasy is the Mother Genre. Until about 1700, nearly all literature and storytelling, in nearly all cultures, contained elements of the fantastic — demigod heroes who confronted monsters or whole armies, for example. Only with Thackery and Defoe and Balzac and so on did we start to get a very recent fixation on the narrow “here and now.” Both fantasy and science fiction break out of the myopic constraint, positing that things might be different than they are, elsewhere and elsewhen… or else right before our eyes.

The difference between these two cousin genres is not – fundamentally – about science and machines versus magic and dragons. Tales like Star Wars seem to revolve around techno wonders like starships and lasers, but the plots and characters and assumptions that weave through that fictional universe are all those of a fantasy tale.

Powerful wizards and kings and chosen-one heroes are the figures who matter. Normal people only get to choose which ubermensch mutant-superman demigod they’ll carry a spear for.

Not once does a single democratic institution actually function, or even do anything much, at all.

The inherent notion underlying fantasy is romanticism. Feudalism is the natural social order. A hero may fight for one prince over another, but there will be wizards and kings and nothing about that will ever change. In this respect, Star Wars is very similar (though much lower in quality) to the romantic fantasies of Tolkien.
The fundamental premise of good science fiction is inherently different. Things may change — even basic things like the kind of government or how children are raised or what gender roles might be like. A hero isn’t someone who puts the nicer prince on the throne, but someone who empowers ten million kids to lift their gaze and say: “this might all be different.”
AF: What are your hopes for the next three episodes?
DB: That JJ Abrams and his peers actually read Star Wars on Trial. Even if you are a defender of Lucas’s saga, you’d surely want to see the final trilogy avoid earlier mistakes, delivering what we got in The Empire Strikes Back — entertainment and thrills that are also thoughtful and thought provoking and that encourage us to feel that we all might be heroes in a civilization that deserves the name.

Star Wars on Trial: The Force Awakens Edition: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time

Star Wars on TrialStar Wars on Trial on Amazon!
“Order in the Court!

Star Wars: the most significant, powerful myth of the twenty-first century or morally bankrupt military fantasy?

Six films. Countless books. $20 billion in revenue. No one can question the financial value or cultural impact of the Star Wars film franchise. But has the impact been for the good?

In Star Wars on Trial’s courtroom—Droid Judge presiding—Star Wars stands accused of elitist politics and sexism, religious and ethical lapses, the destruction of literary science fiction and science fiction film, and numerous plot holes and logical gaps.

Supported by a witness list of bestselling science fiction authors, David Brin (for the prosecution) and Matthew Woodring Stover (for the defense) debate these charges and more before delivering their closing statements.

The verdict? That’s up to you.

The release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the perfect time to look back at George Lucas’ crimes, and new forewords by Brin and Stover discuss the newest generation of Star Wars films and what JJ Abrams must do to live up to—or redeem—the franchise.”

 

 

Resources:

[1] http://www.davidbrin.com/starwarsontrial.html

[2] http://www.davidbrin.com/starwars1.html

[3] https://www.quora.com/What-did-Yoda-mean-when-he-said-Do-or-do-not-There-is-no-try

[4] http://www.wired.com/2012/08/geeks-guide-david-brin/all/

 

 

 

Biography of David Brin

Brin at an Association of Computing Machinery conference in 2005

David Brin is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant and world-known author. His novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages.

His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and near-future trends such as the World Wide Web. His 2012 novel Existence extends this type of daring, near future extrapolation by exploring bio-engineering, intelligence and how to maintain an open-creative civilization.

A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was loosely based on The Postman.

Brin serves on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense and homeland security, astronomy and space exploration, SETI and nanotechnology, future/prediction and philanthropy. He has served since 2010 on the council of external advisers for NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC), which supports the most inventive and potentially ground-breaking new endeavors.

Read more here

 

Utopias in Fiction and Future – Cory Doctorow

Interview with Cory Doctorow on Utopias by Adam Ford
00:11 Kim Stanley Robinson is absolutely my favorite utopian because he depicts in his utopias not worlds where all problems have been solved, but worlds in which the collective and action problem – of how we get along while we solve problems – has been in large part solved. He writes worlds in not where there has been no disaster, but in which disaster has been attended by kindness, conscientiousness and a sense of shared human destiny as opposed to greed and fear and a sense of individual destiny – that kind of Mad Max future where the only way to survive is at the expense of everyone else. And that to me is the genuinely optimistic prediction – because we live in a dynamic universe right? Whatever works today will no longer work tomorrow because something will have changed by tomorrow – and so the important thing isn’t whether all the circumstances are good – the important thing is what happens when the circumstances are poor – it’s not how well the system works, it’s what happens when it fails that distinguishes a utopia from a dystopia.

Cory Doctorow - Utopias in Fiction and Future01:21 So you take Stan Robinson and a book like 2312 – that’s a book that has futures that are every bit as grim as ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy – but the reason that Stan’s book is a utopia and McCarthy’s book is a dystopia is that McCarthy visits upon the human race the slander that when the lights go out people go over to their neighbours house and kill them and eat them – literally in the case of McCarthy – and Robinson aspires to a future that when the lights go out people go over to their neighbours housea and see how they can help – you know – that when the power fails people open their freezers and barbecue everything inside them – because it’s going to thore out anyways – and share it with their neighbours.

02:06 And you know, books like ‘Paradise Made in Hell’ by Rebecca Solnit document systematically how in times of disaster we have a narrative – especially those of us at a distance – that is both racialized and tinged with class anxiety about poor people acting in a barbaric way and visiting upon the rich, you know, a kind of vengeance for inequality – but that when you actually look upon the ground, that apart from elites who are gripped in a panic of their own making about this coming vengeance – this sense, I guess, of a kind of retributive guilt, you know, they having lived so high off the hog for so many years in the midst of people with nothing, that surely vengeance must be soon. But actual normal people just kind of help each other out – and that where you see horrific violence, it is almost always the fault of an anticipatory pre-emptive violence against everyday people on the grounds that they must be on the verge of breaking loose into barbarism – the pre-emptive shooting of looters, that sort of thing.

03:26 Looting in times of existential disaster is really just liberating of supplies. And literally in the case of Hurricane Katrina CNN aired footage of white people breaking into chemist shops and taking medicine, water and food – and describing it as ‘commandeering’ – and black people doing the same things and describing it as ‘looting’. So that elite panic is one of the most horrific narratives we have, and is itself a source of unimaginable suffering in times of crisis. And so utopianism is not just important as a way of thinking about the human race but as countervailing force to that narrative as a way of keeping people from assuming that their neighbours are going to come over and eat them so going over and preemptively shooting their neighbours before it happens.

It’s not how well the system works, it’s what happens when it fails that distinguishes a Utopia from a DystopiaCory Doctorow

– Thanks to Andrew Dun who helped film
Cory Doctorow wrote an interesting review that is very relevant to this interview: ‘Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312: a novel that hints at what we might someday have (and lose)

Biography

Cory Efram Doctorow is a Canadian-British blogger, journalist, and science fiction author who serves as co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing. He is an activist in favour of liberalising copyright laws and a proponent of the Creative Commons organization, using some of their licenses for his books. Some common themes of his work include digital rights management, file sharing, and post-scarcity economics.

Doctorow began selling fiction when he was 17 years old and sold several stories followed by publication of his story “Craphound” in 1998.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Doctorow’s first novel, was published in January 2003, and was the first novel released under one of the Creative Commons licences, allowing readers to circulate the electronic edition as long as they neither made money from it nor used it to create derived works. The electronic edition was released simultaneously with the print edition. In March 2003, it was re-released with a different Creative Commons licence that allowed derivative works such as fan fiction, but still prohibited commercial usage. It was nominated for a Nebula Award, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel in 2004. A semi-sequel short story named Truncat was published on Salon.com in August 2003.

Doctorow’s other novels have been released with Creative Commons licences that allow derived works and prohibit commercial usage, and he has used the model of making digital versions available, without charge, at the same time that print versions are published.

His Sunburst Award-winning short story collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More was also published in 2004: “0wnz0red” from this collection was nominated for the 2004 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

Doctorow released the bestselling novel Little Brother in 2008 with a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike licence. It was nominated for a 2009 Hugo Award, and won the 2009 Prometheus Award, Sunburst Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

His novel Makers was released in October 2009, and was serialized for free on the Tor Books website.

Doctorow released another young adult novel, For The Win, in May 2010. The novel is available free on the author’s website as a Creative Commons download, and is also published in traditional paper format by Tor Books. The book concerns massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

Doctorow’s short story collection “With a Little Help” was released in printed format on May 3, 2011. It is a project to demonstrate the profitability of Doctorow’s method of releasing his books in print and subsequently for free under Creative Commons.

In September 2012, Doctorow released The Rapture of the Nerds, a novel written in collaboration with Charles Stross. In February 2013, Doctorow released Homeland, the sequel to his novel Little Brother.

Doctorow’s young adult novel, Pirate Cinema, was released in October 2012, and won the 2013 Prometheus Award.

Science, Technology & the Future