GhandchiقندچيKurzweil, Harry Potter & Futurist Party

Sam Ghandchi                                                                                      

http://www.ghandchi.com/479-KurzweilFuturism-plus.htm

 

For years, I have been wondering why the Futurist movement has not been able to form a Futurist Party anywhere in the world, especially in the U.S. where the activists of this movement have been doing organized work as futurists for over 40 years. 

 

Recently I was in a meeting with a number of fellow members of the World Future Society (WFS) where we were discussing the planning for the 2008 convention of WFS. I was one of the youngest in the crowd and I am 55! Why can’t WFS attract more young people, and why after 40 years, it still has the financial woes of a startup association?

 

Edward Cornish, founder of WFS, has a long answer for these questions but his main point is that a futurist agenda is like saving millions of children from a catastrophe like war, and one cannot do fund-raising for children who have not become homeless or devastated by a war that was never fought, thanks to the action of futurists.  In other words, the success of futurism, in its current framework, is also the root of its challenges.  Moreover, Mr. Cornish makes another interesting observation when talking of association’s resources or lack of, saying that Soviet Union with all its might is gone but WFS is still around after 40 years. 

 

I think for the model that WFS has chosen over the years, Edward Cornish in his various articles and books, has provided the best answers for these questions as far as WFS is concerned, and these are not the issues that I intend to discuss in this article.  What I would like to note about our meeting is that our discussions definitely showed me that our association, as always acknowledged by WFS, is surely a clearinghouse for various ideas about the future.  In other words, in contrast to what a futurist party would be, WFS is not and was not intended to be an association of people with the goal of creating any specific future. 

 

Nonetheless, during these 40 years, nothing would have stopped those involved with building a clearinghouse of various futurist ideas, namely the World Future Society, from forming a futurist party in parallel to the WFS.  Of course, I mean only those among the participants who also believed in an association of people with the goal of creating a specific future, which were not that few!

 

In fact, it is interesting to note that WFS in its history, although did not have anybody calling specifically for a futurist party, but it has had some leaders who believed in taking a positive future and organizing around those objectives, but surprisingly their perspective never materialized in any real organization.

 

It is somehow odd because parallel developments have happened frequently in history, when educational organizations developed alongside political parties at the inception of new philosophical thoughts, and the two activities even helped each other reciprocally in the early days of many schools of thought.

 

***

 

I have been a member of World Future Society for over 20 years.  Actually 22 years ago (in 1985), I published my major paper about futurism entitled Intelligent Tools and also opened the first futuristic bookstore by the name of Nova Bookstore, in Sunnyvale of California.  Of course the World Future Society’s own bookstore existed before Nova, but that was a mail order catalog. 

 

I promoted futurism and WFS at my bookstore, in my related lecture series, and in my newsletter Mundus Novus in those years.  WFS could not help me in any way except for providing me with their own publications on consignment.  In fact, they told me about their limitations from day one.

 

When I opened Nova Bookstore, Jeff Cornish, son of Edward Cornish who handled distribution of The Futurist magazine and other WFS publications at the time, told me that my project can be very difficult financially and even be a tough burden on me personally.  I concurred but noted it was something I was personally interested to do and I continued the project for four years until 1989.  My goal was to clear my own thoughts about the future and futurism and to find people of the same interest. Once that was achieved, I closed the store, because as a business, it barely made a living for me. 

 

Nova Bookstore’s experience made me very much acquainted not just with the WFS, as a clearing-house of futurist ideas, and not only with different shades of futuristic thinking, but I even became well-informed about the New Age Movement which was very strong in those days in California. This is why I could very well understand the critique of New Age movement written by Michael Marien and found his Sandbox analogy very fitting about that movement.

 

I still did not see why a futurist party has not been formed in the U.S., although thanks to all these endeavors, by 2004, I published my own understanding of futurist movement with a focus on Iran, in my book The Futurist Iran, Futurism versus Terrorism. 

 

Two years ago, in 2005, I wrote an article entitled "Futurism, Sandbox,  and Political Potency" where I discussed Michael Marien's 1983 article "The Transformation as Sandbox Syndrome."  I basically noted that futurists themselves had been trapped in the same sandbox that he had criticized, when he reviewed New Age movement 25 years ago.  Unfortunately Michael Marien did not provide any replies to the issues I raised in my aforementioned article.

 

Nonetheless, I should note that I found Marien's critique of the New Age movement very apt and authoritative.  I especially appreciate this work of his because in the past I had also written similar critiques not only of the New Age movement  but also of a similar Sufi movement in Iran, which calls itself futurist, but basically resembles the New Age movement in the West.

 

After this work I continued delving more into the reason futurists stayed in a sandbox.  It seemed like although in one way or another futurists of 20th Century saw a new post-industrial society forming in front of our eyes, yet none offered a vision of any successful working *model* where human beings might, could, or would live being in charge in the upcoming new society, rather than being a victim of it!

 

I mean there were Space Trek and a lot of similar magnificent imaginative works that popped up every day in mid 20th Century but neither those who promoted them nor those opposing, thought of such works as a future world models of an upcoming society where humans would be in charge of their life.  In other words, even the most optimistic models were showing more the plight of human beings as victims of their own success, than to be more in charge of their lives.  Thus although those imaginative works promised unbelievable technological advancements for 21st Century, yet none would promise happy life on Earth, let alone elsewhere in the universe.

 

***

 

In the last two years, Ray Kurzweil has published some new scholarly works which deal with issues that are in reality the roots and foundations of futurism, when discussing his Singularity theory in light of the leading edge science and technology, drawing on his multidisciplinary encyclopedic knowledge of many fields of science.  And recently I read an interesting critique by Joseph Coates about Ray Kurzweil's book Singularity is Near

 

Before getting into the details of what I found in his works and what I want to note about Coates’ critique, I should note that the mention of Harry Potter by Kurzweil in his book, has not been noticed much by the astute reviewers, whereas in my view, it is very important to keep that in mind, as one reviews Kurzweil’s scientific discussions.  Why?

 

Harry Potter is a successful book and movie among the young generation in our times.  Contrary to the science fiction works of the 20th Century, this work of fantasy, not being a science fiction, hardly has anything about the latest technologies, but shows children who are in charge of their life by having supernatural powers they discover in themselves, not even limited to shape-shifting inner capabilities of Harry Potter and others in the movie. 

 

I think Harry Potter exemplifies the kind of imagination that is desired among the youth, which contrary to the imaginative works of the 20th Century is a lot less analytic, and hardly cares about what the extrapolation of current scientific and technological reality can offer, rather it is an imaginative alternative reflecting what the youth desires, regardless of what the extrapolation of existing trends may offer, and maybe achievable by a rupture of current trends.

 

How are Kurzweil and Harry Potter related?

 

Let me first note that some other new thinkers in light of the recent advancements have been rethinking our whole understanding of the world and this is not just limited to physicists like Stephen Hawking.  For example, the prominent quantum computer pioneer Seth Lloyd in his Programming the Universe, offers a new computational model for understanding the universe.  Such new approaches may help to see what Kurzweil is referring to as Singularity, can be affirmed from the perspective of different fields. 

 

Kurzweil is looking at a great rupture of human civilization in the proximity of our time period, and not just extrapolating the existing trends limited to some change of simple technological advancement like invention of airplane or an economic change like the industrial revolution, rather a very fundamental rupture similar to big bang or tool-making of the Homo Sapien Sapiens, and all that in a close proximity of our life time, only within 20 years, i.e. an event referred to by Kurzweil as *singularity*. 

 

In other words, humans or superhumans will have no need to be at the mercy of the shackles that hitherto have kept humanity away from total freedom, which for the first time will set humanity to be the master of its own destiny rather than the slaves of its preconditions.  Kurzweil does not like to use the terms like transhuman or superhuman and thinks human has meant differently in different epochs and it is still the human in the post-Singularity world, although with new capabilities beyond its biological limitations and in new conditions available thanks to technologies resulting from computer processors passing the processing power of human brain.

 

Actually among the authors of 18th and 19th Century, I can remember Karl Marx, who in Grundrisse, describes his final goal of communist society, following what he envisioned as a transition period of socialism where people would be paid according to their work, he depicted a society with *abundance* in distant future, where the individual would receive according to needs but gives to the world by doing what s/he enjoys, one day fishing, another day doing something else.

 

In other words, for Marx, communist abundance was the distant future whereas the transitional society called socialism, with its main task of dividing the scarce resources, was the immediate reality.

 

In Marx’s imagination of the distant future, still the human was limited by his/her biological and Earthbound limitations, whereas for the new 21st Century scientific thinkers like Kurzweil, and for those in love with the fantasy creations like Harry Potter, even such predicaments will be surpassed, and will no longer limit the human freedom in the post-Singularity society.

 

Thus it is not just abundance of basic needs, e.g. all our needs to be satisfied like air, which is abundant on Earth, and nowhere one is charged for Oxygen, at least not yet, rather for Kurzweil, there is more than abundance of basic needs and he talks even of the end of *death* as we know it, which is a fundamental limitation where humans see the limits of their ability to be in control, even for the most wealthy and powerful, a basic obstacle for humans to feel the power of being in charge, rather than being at the mercy of their preconditions.

 

I think this feeling of power in the face of all calamities in the forthcoming world, is what separates Kurzweil from even the most optimistic futurists of the 20th Century.  This is why I think his vision of the future is very important to study, especially for those interested to form a futurist party.

 

***

 

I have previously discussed Kurzweil's impressive book, in my article entitled “Singularity and Us.  Here I would like to look at Kurzweil's analysis in light of Joseph Coates' critique of it, while trying to answer the main question of this article as to what the peril and valor of the futurist movement has been, that it is still around in the form of associations acting as a clearing house or a think tank, although we still do not have a futurist party formed anywhere.

 

My experience is with Iran and Iranians.  Basically Islamic fundamentalism won because people were disappointed with the prospects of both solutions of the industrial world, namely capitalism and socialism, and Islamists showed a way beyond those unattractive solutions, well by going back to the pre-industrial world, but still rejecting the solutions of industrial world that were no longer attractive.  This is in a nutshell, the story of 1979 in Iran and later elsewhere in the Middle East where socialists and liberals, with their solutions of the industrial age, lost the power to the Islamists.

 

Now we futurists have criticized industrial paths very well and our critique worked well in the experience of the fall of Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.  We were right that the world is going beyond the industrial model, when looking at the Silicon Valleys of the world and Kurzweil’s exponential model of evolution is an excellent description of the upheaval. 

 

I do not care for Joseph Coates' criticisms when he calls Kurzweil’s work as a secular religion, because he is used to some analytical trend extrapolations as futurism and singularity theory surely is not and cannot be one like that.  Nevertheless, one thing that Coates mentions, namely the need for an alternative answer to the economic issue of making a living for all the people as we move towards Singularity, is a valid critique.  In other words, just talking about abundance in the post-Singularity society, will not answer the dilemma of income for the people in the transitional phase, even though for Kurzweil the post-Singularity society is *near*.

 

I mean Joseph Coates is right when he says an economic model is not something for just some of the success stories of the Silicon Valley.  Rather we are talking about 6 billion people on Earth, who will be moving from the state of *today* to the world of post-Singularity society.

 

Marx and Marxists were right that they tried to come up with a model for the transitional society.  Of course, it is true that they thought their Communist Ideal was a very *distant* future, and that was more of the reason for them to spend so much time to define the model for a transitional society.  But we also cannot ignore the issue of transitional society .

 

I applaud the socialists for proposing a model for transitional society, although I also would say that socialists are to blame that they did not think futuristically that their solution of state economy as the model for the transitional socialist society would bring dictatorship of those in charge of the state, who would end up to act as proxy of the state property and behave as owners of the nations. 

 

In fact, still very sincere socialist labor leaders of industrial age mentality in Iran, are in effect aligned with some factions of Islamic Republic who oppose privatization in Iran, and they still think this failed approach is the solution for a fair society.

 

State economy was the basis of all socialist proposals from the start of Communist Manifesto and beyond.  And capitalists thinkers like Adam Smith also had their own model of invisible hand, for better or worse, to take care of everything.  Well, enough about Industrial Age and its solutions, we all know about them. What are we proposing?

 

***

 

What is the solution of futurists?  In other words, people’s economic well being is still based on their wages from work, or is based on their income from property ownership such as stock dividend, or from government assistance such as welfare and unemployment benefits based on recognizing some needs.  

 

And we know not only work is becoming more and more knowledge-work than simply hours of exerting mechanical labor power, but property is also becoming more and more Intellectual Property which I have discussed when discussing wealth in the future and frankly the current tax laws hardly touch this new form of property, and finally the government welfare hardly has been successful to alleviate the woes of the people even in the most advanced societies but lack of universal healthcare in countries like the United States is replacing troublesome socialist solution with pure misery.

 

Futurists, so far, have offered two economic models for transition to the post-Singularity society.  The first model is James Albus's National Mutual Fund, which has shown some success in its limited applications in some countries.  The other is some model of alternative income as I have discussed before and hardly any advanced country is considering such a solution at this time.

 

The first solution is tackling the problem by dealing with *ownership* during the transitional society and the other is doing it by dealing with the issue of *income*.  I think both these solutions are hardly scratching the surface of the problem we face for offering a fair alternative for the transitional society.  I believe, I have offered an excellent description of the problem, not the solution, is my following paper:

 

http://www.ghandchi.com/238-SocialJustice.htm

 

In other words, the solutions I have noted above, not only are not enough, I should be the first one to admit, are a long way from a comprehensive solution for the transitional society.

 

I really think that unless futurists can offer a robust solution for the transition phase, as we move towards the post-Singularity society, the prospects for any Futurist Party to challenge old parties of the Industrial Age will be very limited.

 

Actually in countries like Iran where political parties of the Industrial Age hardly exist, there is the need and desire for going straight for a 21St Century political party, to compete with Islamists, legally or clandestinely.  But the problem is that unless we have a good socio-political answer to these economic issues of the transition phase, futurists are not going to be as effective as one can hope for.

 

I think Joseph Coates is right when he raises economic issues of the transitional phase of society in his critique of Kurzweil’s explication.

 

Nonetheless I disagree with most other consternations raised about Kurzweil’s monumental work.  In fact I should note the kind of approach most futurists have chosen in the last 40 years, which resembles more the anxieties of ivory tower journalists rather than creators of a new world, is responsible for the lack of deserving growth of modern futurism, which should have been at least an order of magnitude more than what we have seen in the last 40 years.

 

I should add that even if we do not find an all-encompassing model for a fair transition society, one thing that Kurzweil’s analysis tells us is that we are better off to pioneer the post-Singularity society, because regardless of how we live during the transition phase, we will have the advantage of living in a new world of abundance once we pass the point of Singularity rather than being stuck in the old world of scarcity, a singularity which is near and not far.

 

Looking at how air is used on Earth and comparing it with how air is used by astronauts in moon travel or at the International Space Station (ISS), provides a good picture of the difference of a world of abundance and that of scarcity.  I believe this is enough reason to strive to form a futurist party, although the work on working models for the fair distribution of wealth in the transitional society, whether before or after the founding,  should remain at the top of our priorities in any futurist party.

 

Hoping for formation of a futurist party,

 

Sam Ghandchi, Publisher/Editor
IRANSCOPE
http://www.iranscope.com
June 27, 2007

 

Related Works:

http://www.ghandchi.com/348-HezbeAyandehnegarEng.htm

http://www.ghandchi.com/500-FuturistIranEng.htm

 

Text in Persian

http://www.ghandchi.com/479-KurzweilFuturism.htm


 

 

 

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