Understanding the Future: The Decoupling of Philosphy and Politics from Technological Futurism

Note:  This is a repost from Medium regarding my response to a very interesting article by Riva-Melissa Tez entitled “The Future Does Not Care About Your Startup“, Linked [here].

There is never enough time to read what needs to be read in the world. On my twitter feed I saw a reference to a 2014 article by Riva-Melissa Tez, that gave me the impetus to write this article.  I don’t by any means intend to criticize her work but to use it as a springboard to answer some of the questions that she poses in her article and provide a larger context to her position.  I think her work is brilliant and that she is one of the thinkers out there on these kinds of subjects, something that we need more of in this world.

Riva opens up with..

Throughout a philosophy degree, you’re confronted with the idea of having the responsibility to build society from scratch, re-creating social, financial, educational and political systems. The intrinsically complicated and archaic web of systems that supports our current data set of history reminds me on a daily basis of the impossibility of such a liberty. And yet over a hundred years later, somehow we’re still holding onto models arranged in the early 20th century when our world looked very different. We base economic models on the same principles we dreamed up to handle a radically changing world a century ago. Some of us fear it will take a global catastrophe before any real changes will begin. It is the general consensus among existential-risk researchers that a worldwide disaster in the next hundred years will create new super-governing bodies.

I would contend that those matriculating through a philosophy degree are ill equipped for such a task. There is also an underpinning assertion and assumption that evolutionary growth, based upon our industrial system beginnings cannot lead to a sustainable future. Next there is the assumption that models that underpin our current system are somehow intrinsically wrong due to their age. Finally, the final assertion is that the consensus of existential-risk researchers regarding worldwide disaster is a proto-fait accompli.

Philosophy and its value is only one component of a larger picture that must be painted of our future. I would assert that it was when the philosophy community rejected technological approaches to the future in the 1960’s and 70’s that a unresolvable situation arose that continues to this day and that it is this system that is complex and archaic. The rejection of technological optimism and technology in philosophy has crippled the thought process and limited the scope of solutions that come from the vast majority in academia and the political worldviews.

Philosophy and political science departments are generally co-sited at Universities and thus the philosophical constructs of the late 1960’s in America and Europe that rejected technological solutions (read the books, “Limits to Growth”, “Silent Spring”, “The Population Bomb”) extended itself to to the political science departments. This influenced a generation of philosophy departments, political thinkers, and office holders.

Albert Gore Jr. has been at the forefront of this rejection of technology, even while he is feted about by the scions of the technological world and sits on the board of high tech companies. Here is what he said about technology in his book “Earth in the Balance”.

We have also fallen victim to a kind of technological hubris, which tempts us to believe that our new powers may be unlimited. We dare to imagine that we will find technological solutions for every technologically induced problem. It is as if civilization stands in awe of its own technological prowess, entranced by the wondrous and unfamiliar power it never dreamed would be accessible to mortal man. In a modern version of the Greek myth, our hubris tempts us to appropriate for ourselves — not from the gods but from science and technology — awesome powers and to demand from nature godlike privileges to indulge our Olympian appetite for more. (Page 207)

Gore’s position is but an echo of the book “Limits to Growth” and its rejection of technological solutions and even the input of technological futurists. Ironically this rejection was derived from a set of computer models, that supposedly modeled the world system and provided the appeal to authority for their position. From the Book:

We have felt it necessary to dwell so long on an analysis of technology here because we have found that technological optimism is the most common and the most dangerous reaction to our findings from the world model. Technology can relieve the symptoms of a problem without affecting the underlying causes. Faith in technology as the ultimate solution to all problems can thus divert our attention from the most fundamental problem — the problem of growth in a finite system — and prevent us from taking effective actions to solve it.

Thus I will assert that in philosophy and political science departments, it was the rejection of technological optimism a generation ago that rendered any successful reimagining of our current system impossible to achieve as our system today is intrinsically linked to technology and indeed must be as the population of our world today and in the forseeable future is too high to not be bound by the solution set that only technology can bring. Indeed the rest of Riva’s missive invokes technology and the word technium, which posits that technology itself is a thing, an entity to be fed and grow.

Digressing for a moment to her contention that our current system is the product of the early 20th century, I would contend that our current models that underpin her argument are rather based on the dichotomy of the support of little “t” technology while rejecting any big “T” technological solutions in our current philosophical and political thought process.

It is difficult for the modern student to understand the impact and influence of the anti-technology movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s on our current senior generation of philosophy and political science thought process. I was a child at the time, but for us it was the abandonment of the Apollo program to the Moon that was the beginning of this trend. It was later amplified in the anti-nuclear movement of my teenage years in the late 1970’s.

A popular bumpersticker of that era was Split Wood, Not Atoms. While this was hip at the time, that mindset resulted from this resulted in the shuttering of plans to build another 98 nuclear power plants at the time. If just those had been built, then the United States would have avoided another billion tons a year of CO2 emissions for 40 years, enough to meet all of the current targets for CO2 reduction. Thus are the unintended consequences of a mindset that became dominant a generation ago that impacts us today, as is evidenced by the bankruptcy just last week of the Westinghouse nuclear construction company. Thus it is not the economic models and constructs of the early 20th century that are intrinsically complicated and archaic, but the ones that were created in the 1970’s.

This then segues to her last launching point, which is ..It is the general consensus among existential-risk researchers that a worldwide disaster… This is also right out of both the Limits to Growth of the 1970’s and Earth in the Balance from the early 90’s. From “Limits to Growth”

The hopes of the technological optimists center on the ability of technology to remove or extend the limits to growth of population and capital. We have shown that in the world model the application of technology to apparent problems of resource depletion or pollution or food shortage has no impact on the essential problem, which is exponential growth in a finite and complex system. Our attempts to use even the most optimistic estimates of the benefits of technology in the model did not prevent the ultimate decline of population and industry, and in fact did not in any case postpone the collapse beyond the year 2100.

There is an intrinsic limitation that is embedded in Riva’s and the “Limits to Growth” proposition, which is that there is no way to avoid a worldwide disaster because of exponential growth in a finite and complex system.

Space, the Black Swan

First of all Riva later in her missive states something absolutely correct, which is that there is no glory in heroic preventative measures. I have seen that directly when we built a company that would provide mobile solar power and satellite internet communications in disaster zones. We had great success as a technology and were told by Fire and police chiefs of major cities that our hardware would save tens of thousands of lives in a disaster but that city leaders who write the checks were too stupid and short sighted to buy them. This extends to the macrocosm as well as our political leaders at the national level cancelled the Apollo program at its apex as we were just beginning to understand the Moon and plan for the expansion of humanity into the solar system.

I think that Riva is on to something as she discusses the details of how the venture capital community, which has almost exclusively invested in what she terms “low innovation” (or little “t” technologies) areas are seeing lower returns on capital and that we need to totally disregard the current financial model (also developed in the 1970’s) in the investment world and go for higher risk higher payoff investments. Peter Thiel also goes into this in his book “From Zero to One” that dates from after Riva’s missive. Also, 2017 reveals a very interesting new trend..

Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are investing large sums of capital in space. Indeed the landscape has changed significantly since Riva’s 2014 missive on the subject. Elon talks about Mars as the second outpost (humanity’s backup) of humanity and Jeff Bezos is spending very large sums of money building his own human spaceflight infrastructure. We in the space advocacy community have been pushing this for decades now and it is finally coming to fruition.

In the 1970’s there was an alternative thought pattern to the dominant one today, and it was espoused by Wherner Von Braun after leaving NASA where he founded what was then called the National Space Institute (Now the National Space Society). Gerard K O’Neill founded the Space Studies Institute at about the same time based on work he did at NASA Ames in the mid 1970’s regarding building cities in space. There is a great convergence between Rivia’s missive and our own approach centered at NASA Ames, where the alternative to the current complex and archaic (to use Riva’s words) system to one that is expansive and includes the economic development of the solar system.  Here is a picture of Gerry from that era.

Gerard K. O’Neill

The Limits to Growth was much more of a Limit of Imagination when it was written and Von Braun and O’Neill were the small still voice of the counterweight to that mindset. Indeed my friend Peter Dimandis, co-founder of Singularity that Riva lauds, as am I, what we call Gerry’s kids, who as teenagers saw the logic and the magic of Gerry’s vision and were around when Neil and Buzz first walked on the Moon.

In 2006 I was invited to write a chapter in a book published by the National Defense University on the subject of the “Economic Development of the Solar System: The Heart of a 21st-Century Spacepower Theory” (Chapter 8). In that missive I coined a defintion of the mindset that also applies to the Limits to Growth paradigm.

The definition of geocentric within the context of a discussion of spacepower theory is as “a mindset and public policy that sees spacepower and its application as focused primarily on actions, actors, and influences on earthly powers, the earth itself, and its nearby orbital environs.”

The geocentric mindset is a key assumption undergirding the last 40 years of spacepower theory. This assumption became a foundational principle during the administration of President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. This was not always the case. In the 1950s, the Dwight Eisenhower administration supported a military presence on the Moon in the form of an outpost as the ultimate high ground, beyond the reach of ballistic missiles, as a deterrent to a Soviet first strike nuclear capability.

Thus to those of us in the science and engineering community who have been expositing on space for the last 35 years, we can confidently assert that the time has come for the general philosophy and political science realms to reach beyond the narrow anti-technology confines of their current approaches and that in the technical and Venture Capital communities that we extend our reach further in our discussions and investments toward space and its endless possibilities.

The geocentric mindset that dominates the academic philosophical and political science worlds can also be explained by the domination of only one branch of political and philosophical thought. This is why Riva never heard discussions regarding space resources and the economic development of the solar system in her philosophy classes.

This is actually happening in places like Luxembourg where the government there is actively supporting the acquisition of space resources. This is going on with Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and others out there who have been toiling away at this issue. There is a plentidude of great ideas in this realm, who’s real risk is lower than the risk of many of the low innovation ideas that attract so much capital but at only very modest returns.

Riva’s missive was written in 2014 and it would be interesting to see how her mind has changed in the three years since. It is interesting that many other new technologies are coming to the fore like artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and additive manufacturing. For many this is creating the fear of a jobless world. For those of us who are technological futurists we see a world where these technologies enable the next great leap in our civilization where we can implement the economic development of the solar system, provide resources for the 9 billion plus people who will be on the Earth in 33 years, and build a prosperous world, without the crash that the technological pessimists fear. Indeed it is this fear that has held us back and created the secular stagnation that many economists talk about, but who like the philosophers that Riva started her missive with, have no idea what to do about. These things can be done, and they can be done while, and indeed must be, preserved the most radical idea in human history. Individual liberty and freedom.


7 thoughts on “Understanding the Future: The Decoupling of Philosphy and Politics from Technological Futurism

  1. Kudos, Dennis. You make points that seem obvious to those with an engineering background, but are not even on the radar of those with a classical education. Some of those stagnant philosophers would do well to read a little Heinlein.

    1. I do find it interesting that there are so many assumptions built into philosophy and politics today that harken back no more than a generation, and not to the roots of our industrial age.

      Today most philosophy and politics is based on fear. Just as the stock market operates on the principle of fear and greed, civilization operates on the principle of fear and faith. The Vietnam war and the turmoil of the 1960’s resulted in a decisive shift to fear in the political/philosophical mindscape, and we are yet to transcend that. Riva is at least asking the right questions and I do like to see the younger generation do that. It is incumbent upon us who lived through this transition, and remember what it was like before, to provide that context.

  2. While I wholeheartedly agree with the body of this blog post, the title is somewhat misleading. We cannot decouple philosophy and politics in the sense that they are the driving force of ideas which shape the future and technology. However, we can attempt to either disconnect from “academic” exercises or rather meld them with practical applications of strong motivating ideas.

    Just like ages of exploration in the past, the culture and civilization we bring with us in our exploration of space will have a profound effect on the challenges and successes that future generations will face. This includes battles of ideas over things like human roles in the establishment/preservation of ecosystems, legal governing bodies in an expanding frontier, and militarization of offworld facilities.

    Additionally, I would posit that while it’s incredibly difficult to rewrite any entrenched social order, getting that degree of separation from the parent body does allow you to experiment. Democracy took hold in the Americas and then spread like wildfire in Europe. Breaking into the space frontier grants this opportunity again.

    1. Maybe I was not as clear as I should have been. To me you cannot understand the future if you decouple philosophy/politics from technology and technological futurism.

      Its not just Rivia’s generation, but indeed the senior generation today that has attempted to decouple technology from politics and philosophy and to even see technology as evil. This is one of the opening statements in the book “Limits to Growth”

      “Their overriding conviction that the major problems facing mankind are of such complexity and are so interrelated that traditional institutions and policies are no longer able to cope with them, nor even to come to grips with their content.”

      To me this is a false conviction bred from a lack of understanding of technology and a limited viewpoint of what is possible… Al Gore’s entire book is but an expansion of this proposition. This proposition has infected and dominates at least one political party in this country. The Paris Accords on climate is a manifestation of this as well as it excludes the big “T” technologies such as nuclear fission with Thorium and fusion from the solution set and instead focuses on little “t” solutions such as wind and solar. That is right out of the 1970’s environmental movement mindset.

      I have shown in my book and other blog posts where not one single prediction from that group and that book have come true. Neither have the predictions of Paul R. Ehrlich who was the mentor to our previous government chief scientist John Holdren.

      Here is another statement from the book, “Beyond the Limits” by Meadows, one of the authors of “Limits to Growth”

      The human world is beyond its limits. The present way of doing things is unsustainable. The future, to be viable at all, must be one of drawing back, easing down, healing. Poverty cannot be ended by indefinite material growth; it will have to be addressed while the material human economy contracts. Like everyone else, we didn’t want to come to these conclusions.

      To we who are technological futurists and space development advocates, this statement is simply poppycock. It is wrong, and based upon a lack of understanding of technology and even the extent of natural resources both on the Earth and in the solar system. One of my mentors, Dr. David Webb was on the board of directors of the group that funded the MIT study that became the basis of the book “Limits to Growth”. When the book report was delivered (the Club of Rome report) he asked them “What about Space”? As a preface this was DURING the Apollo lunar landing missions. The response of the these academics and business people who did the study was that they saw no way that space could have any impact on humanity in time to make any difference. Dr. Webb then dedicated his life to educating people about space and its value. I would argue that Singularity University would not exist today without Dr. Webb as he was a mentor as well to Peter Diamandis.

      Here is their final money quote..

      “Even with the most effective technologies and the greatest economic resilience we can believe possible, if those are the only changes, the model generates scenarios of collapse.”

      They are simply wrong, and the technological advancements, even those with little “t” as well as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos and other of us large “T” developments is showing that not only is it possible, the economic development of the solar system, its resources, and the further technological advances that spring from this effort, will truly put the “Limits to Growth” where it belongs, which is the dustbin of history of philosophical and political ideas.

      From Al Gore in Earth in the Balance

      “It is important, however, to remember that there is a great danger in seeing technology alone as the answer to the environmental crisis. In fact, the idea that new technology is the solution to all our problems is a central part of the faulty way of thinking that created the crisis in the first place.”

      This thought process dominates academia and our political institutions, especially on the left.

      Doubt me? Here is a quote from the Rio 20 project, which is a United Nations document.

      “Humanity is at a crossroads. Social, economic and environmental crises that have played out in recent years offer a unique opportunity for a step change in the way humanity does business. Although the concept of the ‘green economy’ was introduced to address today’s challenges, its continued dependence on traditional – and questionable – trickle-down economic growth theory has rendered it inadequate. A fast-growing population, rapidly diminishing resources and planetary boundaries are forcing humanity to find innovative ways to use resources more efficiently, to work within the limits of the Earth’s natural capital, and to make fundamental changes to our economic systems. This policy brief sets out the guidelines for the social and technological transformations needed for a new economic system, as well as the new ways in which we will need to measure and monitor this system.”

      It is incumbent upon us as technological futurists to counter this false and failing fear based philosophical construct and bring to the fore one that, though of some risk, has the potential to absolutely take us to the next level of civilization, to a multi-planet one with access to and ability to utilize the resources not just of a single planet, but our entire solar system. Our little mud ball is just one part of a much larger and richer ecosystem that is ready for development today.

      1. Okay, I’m with you now. I’m not generally in the company of academics, so I’m not as familiar with this re-working of Malthusian Theory.

        Maybe I’m slightly paradoxical in my approach. There is certainly some credence to the overarching notion that technology is a “means”, not an “end”. To that point, technology or science shouldn’t be put on a pedastal and worshipped with religious dogma. However, it also shouldn’t be ignored or villified…as it is an incredibly useful and enabling tool.

        To me, it’s all about priorities.

        If the almighty dollar is the primary concern, then you get all the negative effects of “unfettered capitalism” (to quote the left).
        If the unadulterated ecological system is the primary concern, then you get all the negative effects of “limiting freedom” (to quote the right).
        If, however, life is the primary concern, then I think you can find some middle ground. It’s possible to responsibly extract resources without creating a wasteland. And it’s perfectly reasonable to value the life of a human in poverty over an endangered tree cricket. It’s the exponential growth mindset that says, “hey, why can’t we have it all?”

        One thing that I think we can take from this discussion is to not just counter and redirect these contractionary philosophies but also to genuinely listen to the concerns of those people trumpeting them. Those concerns are valid, but also they can be remedied. A good chart (http://diamandis.com/data) and a deeper narrative for historical context goes a long way.

        1. Agreed 100% on your first point. I don’t worship a hoe or a shovel because they help me plant a better garden. However, I would invest in improved farm equipment to produce more food per unit area.

          To your second point. To me another fallacy of the last 40-50 years is the role of government. Government works best in regulating the worst instincts of the capitalist system. Just like in a football game you need referees to make sure that the teams abide by the rules in order to have a more enjoyable game, government is absolutely needed to provide that role. However, in the last generation and in many instances since Franklin Roosevelt, government has wanted to be the referee, coach, team owner, and quarterback and get all the accolades from the cheerleaders when a score is made.

          I agree that the concerns are valid from the philosophy/political realm. However, those concerns have been elevated to the point to where they will brook no input and will demonize anyone that disagrees. A simple example is the claim that the only way to address climate change is through the adoption of solar and wind power, a little “t” solution. However, there are other viable options, such as Thorium nuclear power and nuclear fusion, big “T” solutions that should be brought to the table when looking at the proposition of a long term sustainable world. The time horizons of the little “t” advocates never go past 100 years. If we are able to bring these new technologies in terms of resources from space and plentiful energy from nuclear sources, we immediately gain a 500-1,000 year time horizon. That is worth debating, but that side of the argument is not even allowed at the table. Time to change that.

  3. “I would invest in improved farm equipment to produce more food per unit area.”

    The “improved farm equipment” in this case is an industrialized Moon.

    “If President Trump were to champion space-based solar energy as a means of delivering unlimited, renewable electricity from Earth orbit, it’s arguable that his administration could leave the U.S. and the world at large with a revolutionary new source of energy.”

    From: ‘Trump Should Make Space-Based Solar Power A National Priority’ By Bruce Dorminey
    At: https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucedorminey/2017/03/18/trump-should-make-space-based-solar-power-a-national-priority/

    Reaching geosynchronous orbit from the Moon is far easier than reaching it from the Earth’s surface and very large numbers of Lunar launches would cause zero pollution on our lovely Home Planet.

    Frequently launching large solar panels and related equipment from the Earth adds unneeded pollution to our atmosphere and is about as silly as hauling American made ice to Antarctica.

    Note that making massive amounts of solar panels on the Moon also does not contribute any pollution to our Earth’s environment.

    If we focus on tapping Lunar resources and the industrialization of the Moon to develop Space-Based Solar Power as the Home Planet’s Priority, we will be offering hard to refute proof of the inexhaustible resources of our Universe. Anti-technology philosophy would become widely viewed as irrelevant and foolish on our crowded planet.

    “Neo-Luddism is a leaderless movement of non-affiliated groups who resist modern technologies and dictate a return of some or all technologies to a more primitive level.[3] Neo-Luddites are characterized by one or more of the following practices: passively abandoning the use of technology, harming those who produce technology, advocating simple living, or sabotaging technology. The modern Neo-Luddite movement has connections with the anti-globalization movement, anarcho-primitivism, radical environmentalism, and Deep Ecology.[3]”

    From: Neo-Luddism Wikipedia
    At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neo-Luddism

    Space-Based Solar Power mixed in with a diversity of high technology energy sources on Earth is workable.

    Do we want workable win-win high technology solutions that promote economic growth or do we prefer Neo-Luddism and its economic stagnation and nasty wars over false perceptions of limited and dwindling natural resources?

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