The Speculist: Plateaus of Completeness


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Plateaus of Completeness

Some interesting comments from reader Nato Welch in the discussion thread of the most recent FastForward Radio:

Take by way of example California's recent law prohibiting employers from requiring their employees to take RFID implants. If jobs are scarce, and competition among workers necessitates taking on modifications in order to compete effectively, then a form of distributed //duress// (Dale's term) accomplishes an effective circumvention of self-determination even where direct coercion may not.

So our commitment to morphological liberty, if it is to be practical, demands a bit more than simply enjoining direct forms of coercion, but also the creation and maintenance of societies where relinquishment of technological interventions is not only permitted, but actually practicable; not only allowed, but accommodated.

Excellent point. What Nato is describing as "morphological liberty" begins with non-coercion; it can't end there. But where does market pressure end and out-and-out coercion begin? This is a tricky question.

Let's step back from human augmentation and look at some more mundane forms of technological adoption. On a recent Frontier Airlines flight, I was surprised to hear the flight attendant announce that Frontier Airlines "no longer accepts cash." Anyone wanting to use the DirecTV service or purchase a cocktail now has to use a credit card. Okay, granted, credit card "technology" is so ingrained in modern commerce -- especially travel-related commerce -- that the expectation that passengers on a commercial flight would have access to it seems pretty reasonable. The number of passengers who purchase their tickets via cash or check (is that even possible any more?) is no doubt vanishingly rare.

But they are there. And now, any customers who reject the idea of payment via plastic are out of luck making purchases on an airplane, even though these are face-to-face transactions which have traditionally been conducted via cash. Are those who reject payment via plastic being coerced to adopt a method of payment they don't want? Arguably, they are.

Another example: last year I helped my daughter register for college. She attends a state university here in Colorado. We completed a good deal of the registration process via her online account with the school. I also use this account to track and pay her tuition bill. As far as I know, there is no outright requirement that every student have access to a computer -- although Internet access is a given; it's piped right into the dormitories, where all first-year students are required to reside -- but the assumption is made many times over, in terms of how the university communicates with the students, how classwork is assigned, how a student accesses the library and other resources, and so on.

Would it be fair to say that students at the University of Northern Colorado are being coerced into adopting computer technology? For the vast majority, no. Many of them have been playing computer games since before they could speak in complete sentences. But students who wish not to adopt computer technology are put in a very difficult position. Arguably, they are being coerced.

When we talk about accommodating the non-adoption of technology, the classic example offered up is the Amish. On Sunday's show, Stephen reiterated the point that no one is going to force human augmentation on the Amish. This seems a reasonable projection, seeing as how we have not forced credit cards or the Internet or air travel or state university education on them. But without forcing them to adopt these things, have we as a society used some subtle (or perhaps less-than-subtle) forms of coercion on the Amish? Possibly. But if we have, a number of them have shown themselves to be resistant to it.

But there is a distinct catch with the Amish example. The Amish have rejected virtually all aspects of the industrialized world. There is a clean break. They accept technological development from the plow to the wheel to the axle to the bridle. Tractors? No thanks. They fasten their clothing with hooks and eyes. Buttons, zippers, and velcro are all vain and therefore verboten. (There are odd and growing exceptions to these restrictions, but maybe they are just evidence of coercion at work.)


I Bet They Take Cash

The Amish have carved out a well-defined plateau of technological completeness, rejecting any new development beyond that point. It's easy to recognize and therefore fairly easy to accommodate. But once an individual or community starts up the slope of technological development beginning with the industrial revolution, we are much less accommodating to technological rejection. If somebody is okay with having a telephone and electricity in their home, then surely they have no problem with radio, TV, Internet, and so on. This is not to suggest that any specific point of technological rejection is wrong -- there could be any number of reasons to accept radio but not television, or coax but not wi-fi -- but the assumption we have made as a society is that if you're all right with any one example of industrial or post-industrial technology, you need to either make your peace with the rest of it or work out your own accommodation.

Don't like paying with plastic? Fine. Enjoy the complimentary ginger ale and skip the pay-TV service. Don't like computers? Not our problem. Go to the public library and try to piece together a do-it-yourself higher education. But good luck finding any books without using the computer; I think card catalogs are pretty much gone, now.

So can we create and maintain "societies where relinquishment of technological interventions is not only permitted, but actually practicable; not only allowed, but accommodated?" Apparently we are willing or able to do so only where sharp lines of demarcation exist. If you reject the continuum of industrial and post-industrial technological development, you reject the whole thing. And if you accept it, you accept the whole thing.

Which leads me to another reader comment, this one coming from reader Julian Morrison in the comment thread for a post I wrote entitled What Changes? What Remains the Same?

I know what I'd predict: a lot of broken conceptual boundaries that people had lazily assumed were features of the universe. Life blends into machine, computer into mind, information into matter. The concept of species all but goes away; humanity itself becomes a continuum. Gender smears out and becomes very subjective. Your personality might be dispersed over several bodies or share one. Real individual uniqueness (which we nowadays would call "freakish") becomes the rule and not the exception.

I predict that the continuum Julian is describing will be the next clearly defined area of rejection or acceptance. Human augmentation / redefinition will be the new plateau of technological completeness. Ray Kurzweil describes a world in which people who have opted not to undergo augmentation -- or at least not significant levels thereof -- are a distinct, recognized, and respected minority called MOSHes: Mostly Original Substrate Humans. MOSHes will be the new Amish -- those who have decided not to start up the slope of human augmentation.

So will we be able to preserve and accommodate the MOSH lifestyle in the same way we have the Amish? It's difficult to make predictions about how economics will work in a world in which human augmentation has become commonplace. Nato's example of a law preventing employers from requiring RFID implants has less to do with human modification than it does with recognized boundaries of individual liberty and a right to privacy. What happens when modifications that don't necessarily raise those issues come into play?

For example, suppose that synthetic blood with nanotech corpuscles were to become available in the next few decades. By making much more efficient use of oxygen, it has been suggested that this kind of blood replacement could provide athletes with an incredible performance boost -- running at sprinting speeds for a half hour or more, staying underwater for two hours, etc. But let's put aside the implications for sports. Imagine the implications of this technological development for, say, commercial fishing.

My guess is that the commercial fishing industry would adopt this technology whole-heartedly. The fishermen significantly reduce their risk of death from drowning or hypothermia and -- as a non-trivial bonus -- the job becomes a lot less physically taxing (which would probably reduce other risks, as well.) Management would like it because of the efficiency gains they would achieve with these "boosted" fishermen, the reduced risk of liability for killed or injured fishermen, and -- presumably -- the reduced need to source and train new staff to replace those who have been killed or injured.

This is all assuming that nano-blood has been tested, approved, has few negative side-effects, and is readily available for something approaching a reasonable price. If so, it's great news to everyone except those fishermen who don't want to adopt the new technology. Would they be coerced into taking on an unwanted augmentation or risk losing their job to an augmented replacement?

With the facts in play as described here, I would have to say yes. As with the RFID chips, a law could be passed requiring fishing companies to hire non-augmented fishermen, but there is ultimately a public policy issue of safety around putting such a requirement in place. Not only is the non-augmented fisherman at greater risk of death to drowning or hypothermia, his shipmates would have a harder job to do -- picking up his non-augmented slack -- and would arguably be at greater risk themselves.

This kind of scenario would play out in hundreds of different occupations, with hundreds of different augmentations disrupting standard definitions of expected performance levels and allowable levels of risk. One factor that might mitigate this disruption -- if "mitigate" is the right word -- would be the wholesale automation of many of these occupations. An augmented human might provide better performance and less risk than a non-augmented human, but a machine could easily out-perform and under-risk either. If automation of labor outpaces human augmentation (which has certainly been the case to date), then both augmented and non-augmented humanity are faced with a potential crisis of livelihood. If human augmentation begins to outpace automation, then it will be non-augmented humanity that faces this crisis first, followed by augmented humanity later.

Assuming the latter scenario, one possible way to avert the crisis would be the establishment of a MOSH sub-economy. If MOSH fishermen can't serve on a crew with augmented fishermen, surely they would be able to band together and form their own crews. Their level of productivity would make it difficult to compete in the open market, but this might be addressed either through government subsidies or by the establishment of a specialty market. People might decide to "buy MOSH" the way they have in the past opted to "buy American" or the way many currently choose to "buy organic." MOSHes would probably be inclined to be as exclusively MOSH in their purchasing behavior as possible. Meanwhile, augmented humans might see purchasing a certain amount of MOSH goods as a socially responsible thing to do -- like recycling or buying organic.

With these or similar accommodations in place, non-augmented humanity would -- like the Amish -- be able to survive and even thrive on their chosen plateau of rejection while the rest of humanity works its way up to the next plateau.


Is it the case that AI technologies are so far advanced in comparison to augmented human technologies that AI will win the race to the Singularity?

Right now, human intelligence is much closer to greater-than-human intelligence than machine intelligence. We have a head start -- we're already at the human level! But human intelligence develops very slowly compared to machine intelligence. So we may augment ourselves to a level of greater-than-human intelligence, but ultimately the smart money is on the silicon substrate. If the Singularity occurs amongst modified humans, one of the first things they are likely to do (making an audacious post-singularity prediction from here in the past) is to figure out a way to transfer their intelligence into the silicon world, which works much, mush faster.

Wow. I'm glad to have provoked such a complex examination of these issues, and the very difficult ambiguities therein.

I want to emphasize that the use of the word duress, in addition, rather than merely in place of, coercion (or consent) is the thing to think about.

I also take issue with framing the acceptance or rejection of techniques as taking place along a linear measure, whereupon exist "plateaus" on which people build their technology platforms.

The terrain on which people make technology decisions has, ultimately, little to do with this. The Amish, as the example, don't really make their decisions of what to eschew based upon some date in history. Neither do questions of accommodating the disability, a case in which considerable regulation has been considered prudent. As an example, consider that some Amish farmers are [[ growing genetically engineered crops]].

I once considered starting a blog detailing expiring patents, as they expired, for the purpose of supporting a movement dedicated to rejecting patented technology. In a similar way that Free Software advocates commit themselves to not using proprietary software, some might have a similar predilection to avoiding patented hardware or software (or, more absurdly, business methods). What results is a kind of moving target of technology relinquishment, consistently 28 years behind the cutting edge (at least as far as patented tech goes).

Avoiding coercion and duress is a far more complex issue than a chronological framing would suggest.

Avoiding coercion and duress is a far more complex issue than a chronological framing would suggest.

Well, dates don't have much of anything to do with it, and of course any talk of lines and slopes and plateaus is metaphorical. I wouldn't suggest that the Amish got together back in the late 1700's an said, "Uh-oh. Industrial Revolution coming. Count us out!"

But having said that, we do have people today pretty much saying "Uh-oh. Human Augmentation coming. Count us out!"

My point is that there is a pretty clean break between the Amish world and the Industrial / Post-Industrial world and that our economy and society are more tolerant of technology rejection along that clean break line than within the cluster of technology developments that came after.

I once considered starting a blog detailing expiring patents, as they expired, for the purpose of supporting a movement dedicated to rejecting patented technology. In a similar way that Free Software advocates commit themselves to not using proprietary software, some might have a similar predilection to avoiding patented hardware or software (or, more absurdly, business methods).

And here you describe a sub-economy not completely unlike the "buy organic" movement that exists today or the "buy MOSH" movement that I suggested might one day exist. As I pointed out, any sort of relinquishment is possible -- along the clean break lines or right in the middle of the cluster -- but I don't expect our economy to accommodate squeamishness about wi-fi vs. coax (or non-patented vs. patented technology) the same way it will accommodate the Amish or those who wish not to be augmented.

I don't understand the lingo here. It doesn't strike me that you have to be "complete". Just good enough which may be rather exacting or it might not. It just seems to be standard networks of people. If you want to belong, you need to communicate and to some extent conform with the rest of the network.

Karl --

The original title was "plateaus of rejection." I'm not sure; maybe that made more sense. The idea is people reach a point where they don't want any more technological growth on top of what they're currently comfortable with. I would say that "completeness" is the way the Amish view the world; the term may be less applicable to those who have no use for human augmentation.

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