What You See Ain’t What You Get

Donald Hoffman’s book The Case Against Reality is nicely summed up by the subtitle: Why evolution hid the truth from our eyes.

That is, he argues that the world that we see (and the one we hear, smell, touch and taste) everyday is a kind of illusion. And not just a minor illusion but a major, systemic one. The kind of illusion you get in The Matrix, except far, far stranger.

In the movie The Matrix, after all, the Machines have built a virtual reality in which to house humanity’s minds while their bodies are used as batteries (yeah, what always sounds lame to me, too). But the virtual reality is basically identical to the reality of humanity’s past.

The world that we experience is much weirder, according to Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist, because it is not a simulation of reality but, rather, a façade that bears little if any resemblance to the underlying reality of our universe.

Fitness Stomps Truth into Extinction

Here’s Hoffman’s argument in a nutshell: we have all been shaped by evolution to reproduce rather than see the truth of things.

That is, we were designed by nature to only sense what we need to sense in order to survive long enough to produce offspring. If nature needs to lie to us to get the job done, that’s just fine by nature.

“Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness,” sums up the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker.

Hoffman takes that basic observation further by producing the Fitness-Beats-Truth Theorem, or FBT. Consider the following fable to understand his theorem better.

Frankie and Terry Wash Up on Evolution Island

Once upon a time, where were a couple of geckos happily sunning themselves on a log on the tropical beach. Suddenly, a huge rogue wave enveloped the beach and floated the poor geckos out to sea. Things looked grim for our heroes, whom we’ll call Fit Frankie and Truthful Terry.

But then the log floated up on what seemed to be an island, an exceedingly weird island where nothing was familiar. In fact, the whole place looked gray and black. I don’t mean that the trees, bugs, bushes and rocks were gray and black. I mean that there were no recognizable land formations at all. Just gray blobs and white blobs.

This freaked out both of our gecko sojourners but, hey, they were alive even if they had slipped into some bizarre gray-and-black pocket universe that we’ll call Evolution Island.

Aside from the colors, though, there was another strange thing about the island: it turns out there was something essential to life hidden amid the gray and black regions. Think of this essence as the “elixir of life.” If the geckos got enough of it, they could live on. If they didn’t get enough–or in fact got too much–they could die. (Note: this is kind of like oxygen is to us: not enough, we suffocate; too much, we get oxygen poisoning and kick the bucket.)

Sounds stressful, right? How were they supposed to know where the elixir was? And how could they know when they were getting too much or not enough of it?

Although they were both in a tough situation, it turns out that one of our gecko heroes had what sounds like an advantage. Truthful Terry saw things as they really were: that is, Terry saw gray when there was less elixir and black where there was more. Lucky Terry.

Fit Frankie, however, didn’t see Evolution Island as it really was. Instead, Frankie’s eyes somehow saw the black and gray shades differently. Frankie literally “saw” fitness (which Hoffman refers to as “fitness points”).

Here’s how it worked: in the places where Frankie could get just the right amount of elixir (that is, not too much, not too little), Frankie saw black. In the other places, Frankie saw gray.

Just to be clear here, what Frankie saw was an illusion. Terry saw the true world, while Frankie saw a kind of fiction.

But here’s the thing: it was a very useful fiction.

Frankie’s Descendants Take Over Evolution Island

In short order, Fit Frankie realized she was felt a lot better hanging out in the black zones and so consistently gravitated toward those parts of Evolution Island. Truthful Terry, on the other hand, saw the true colors of the island but had a harder time thriving, constantly trying to find the right balance between the gray and black zones so as to get just the right amounts of elixir. Terry saw truth while Frankie saw “fitness points.”

Over time, Fit Frankie thrived and had many children (being one of those parthenogenetic species of geckos). Truthful Terry, however, figured out how to survive but just barely, being sometimes sick from too much or too little elixir. Although she could see the world as it really was, she had few offspring, and the few that she had just couldn’t compete with the many offspring of Fit Frankie.

So, it turned out that seeing only the truth was actually a curse for Terry, whereas seeing a useful lie was a blessing for Frankie. Frankie’s “fitness vision” beat out Terry’s “truth vision,” and today Frankie’s offspring thrive on Evolution Island whereas Terry’s offspring went extinct many generations ago.

on Winning the Evolutionary Game

This fable, as you might have guessed, was inspired by an evolutionary game created by Hoffman and his colleagues. Game theory, of course, is a branch of applied mathematics that provides tools for analyzing situations in which players make decisions that are interdependent. The goal of game theory is to better understand the outcomes of different interactions among the “players.” (Frankie and Terry were the players in the example above.)

Evolutionary game theory is one application of game theory that is used to model evolving populations in biology. Wikipedia reports, “It defines a framework of contests, strategies, and analytics into which Darwinian competition can be modelled. It originated in 1973 with John Maynard Smith and George R. Price’s formalization of contests, analyzed as strategies, and the mathematical criteria that can be used to predict the results of competing strategies.”

Hoffman and his colleagues created multiple evolutionary games in order to test their Fitness-Beats-Truth Theorem. They also created a separate but complementary mathematical model. Both initiatives produced the same result: life favors fitness over truth. That is, creatures that view the world in terms of “fitness points” inevitably trounce creatures that see the world as it truly is. Useful lies beat plain truth every time.

The moral of the story?

The world we see around us is not based on a true representation of reality but is, rather, a useful lie that allowed our ancestors to stay alive long enough to reproduce. In short, you and I, dear readers, are the offspring who have inherited our own version of Evolution Island. Viva la illusion!

Nature Is a Big Fat Liar, Just Like Your Smartphone

Your computers lie to you. Intentionally. For good reason.

Let’s say you want to write a document on a computer. You almost certainly start with some sort of computer icon. In my laptop, I have that Microsoft Word icon with that big blue W in it. I click that to open the application. On my smartphone, I tend to use Google docs instead, clicking on little white circle with a blue rectangle on it.

In either case, I “click on” the icon and it opens up a bigger rectangular document into which I can type words.

It’s useful, right? Absolutely. But it’s also a kind of fictional overlay. Hoffman explains:

The blue icon does not deliberately misrepresent the true nature of the file. Representing that nature is not its aim. Its job, instead, is to hide that nature–to spare you tiresome details on transistors, voltages, magnetic fields, logic gates, binary codes, and gigabytes of software. If you had to inspect that complexity, and forge your email out of bits and bytes, you might opt instead for snail mail.

Evolution does the same thing for us, posits Hoffman. It provides us with a kind overlay that helps us survive and reproduce. He calls it the interface theory of perception, or ITP.

For example, only in recent history have humans discovered the whole spectrum electromagnetic radiation, aka light. It turns out we can see only a tiny portion of the spectrum–about 0.0035%–the range we now call visible light. We evolved to be able to see only the range that best helped us survive, and even then we didn’t see electromagnetic radiation itself.

Instead, we see colors, which probably don’t even exist outside of our human perceptions. Colors are part of nature’s hack for helping us survive. We can see when fruit is ripe, for example, via this color hack. So this interface element was laid over our perceptions to allow us to gain the calories and nutrients we need to thrive and procreate.

Hoffman sums up as follows:

The [Fitness-Beats-Truth] Theorem tells us that winning genes do not code for perceiving truth. [Interface theory of perception] tells us that they code instead for an interface that hides the truth about objective reality and provides us with icons-physical objects with colors, textures, shapes, motions, and smells-that allow us to manipulate that unseen reality in just the ways we need to survive and reproduce. Physical objects in spacetime are simply our icons in our desktop.

How Deep Does the Interface Go?

Nobody knows how deep the interface goes. Hoffman concludes that we don’t need to see much if any of the truth underlying nature in order to thrive. In fact, it’s better if we don’t.

If there is an objective reality, and if my senses were shaped by natural selection, then the FBT Theorem says the chance that my perceptions are veridical–that they preserve some structure of objective reality–is less than my chance to win the lottery. This chance goes to zero as the world and my perceptions grow more complex–even if my perceptual systems are highly plastic and can change quickly as needed.

So, basically he’s saying we truth-seekers are generally screwed. Luckily for us, however, there is a caveat. That is, logic and mathematics are somehow part of our underlying reality. The universe, whatever it truly is, may throw up a phony interface all around us, but logic and mathematics do provide us clues about the underlying truth.

Why? Because even if we see that the apple is red, suggesting to us we should eat it, we still need to be able to know that taking two bites out of it is better than just taking one (or example). We don’t need to be great at mathematics, but we need enough basic logic to survive.

At least that’s his story.

Even so, Hoffman’s view is so radical that he thinks even spacetime is an illusory part of our interface. He loves to say (I’ve listened to a number of podcasts in which he’s interviewed) as well as write that “spacetime is doomed.” What he means is that our conceptual frameworks of space and time as we’ve known them since the age of Einstein have no underlying reality but are just the “interface” we use to negotiate reality.

To support his contention, Hoffman quotes theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: “Almost all of us believe that spacetime doesn’t exist, that spacetime is doomed, and has to be replaced by some more primitive building blocks.”

Just to be clear, Hoffman does not deny that there is some “objective” reality that underlies our own, only that we do not have access to it. All we can do is use our reasoning, such as it is, to postulate about what that reality actually looks like.

That Way Lies Madness

When I listen to Hoffman on podcasts, his interviewers almost always express their concern that Hoffman’s argument potentially send us all down the path toward nihilism. That is, if everything we experience is just an illusionary interface, then how can we ever learn the truth of existence? And, if we can’t, then aren’t our lives meaningless?

Hoffman rejects that interpretation, saying that we can use our tools of scientific inquiry, mathematics and reasoning to learn more about “objective” reality, whatever that is. But I’m left wondering whether he’s adopting this stance because he fully believes it or because all his colleagues and the public at large would otherwise reject his theories out of hand.

After all, if spacetime is doomed, then why aren’t logic and reason? Logic is predicated on cause and effect, which are themselves contingent on the flow of time.

I imagine that, in the privacy of his own thoughts, Hoffman worries about this as well. On the other hand, so what if it’s true? Human beings as a whole are unlikely to ever embrace nihilism. We love our patterns and the sense that we know things. And, even without that evidence, we’ve shown ourselves perfectly willing to embrace faith: that is, belief without underlying proofs.

In the end, I worry less about people losing hope in their ability to understand some underlying reality than in their ability to embrace a faith that they then wish to impose on everyone around them. The latter leads to tyranny, intolerant ideology, zealotry and theocracy. For now, at least, those versions of faith seem by far the greater danger to us all.

Featured image is a Necker cube, which creates a kind of optical illusion in which the sides flip when you stare at it a while. From BenFrantzDale - Own work. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necker_cube

Reversing the Decline of Enrollment in U.S. Higher Education


As futurist and educator Bryan Alexander has reported, enrollment in U.S. institution of higher education has been in decline for a while now.

People responding to this trend tend to fall into a few predictable categories, in my experience:

  • the yawners who couldn’t care less
  • the indignant who knee-jerkedly respond with anecdotes such as “my buddy so-and-so has no degree, started a business and is doing splendidly”
  • the anti-elitists who, for some reason, use the conversation to start advocating for more vocational education and trade jobs (even though there have also been declines in the enrollment in community colleges, which provide a lot of vocational training in the U.S.)
  • the graduates who claim they learned little of practical use in college
  • the people who bemoan the rising costs of higher education in the U.S., indicating the costs aren’t worth the returns
  • and, finally, the people who see the declines as worrisome, even ominous

Although I tend to fall into this last category, I understand the various criticisms of higher education. I graduated with a liberal arts degree that, my father said after graduation, would get me a cup of coffee if I also happened to be carrying around a nickel (these days, of course, I’d need about $3 bucks).

He had a point. I wasn’t exactly in high demand in the job market upon graduation. My professors told me I should go to graduate school and become, of course, a professor. Maybe I should have, but at the time I had ideas about not wanting to be a prisoner of the Ivory Tower. Also, the idea that I’d become a liberal arts prof convincing kids to get degrees in liberal arts had a bit of a Ponzi scheme feel to it.

So, I’ve carved out my own path in the world. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve done okay. In this, of course, I’m far from alone.

Higher Education Still Pays

There’s no doubt that post-secondary educations can be expensive these days. In fact, the average total cost of attending a public school for in-state students is $27,330 per year, and attending a private university can sock you for $55,800 per year.

Ouch! That’s a lot of debt to take on if you’re going it alone.

Still, college continues to pay dividends for most people. The median salary for workers with high school diplomas is $38,792 compared to $64,896 for those with a bachelor’s degree. And college graduates are less likely to be unemployed.

Then there are the many intangible benefits that are seldom discussed, things such as an improved understanding of the world, a greater appreciation for well-reasoned arguments, a stronger disposition to read, less gullibility in area of conspiracy theories, and an enriching love of the arts, literature and science.

I’m not saying this is true for all college graduates, and I know non-graduates who are wiser and more erudite than I’ll ever be. Still, on average, there are lot of unquantifiable benefits associated with a post-secondary degree.

College Grads Also Improve the Larger Society

But college pays at more than just the individual level. It offers high rates of return for society in general.

Higher earnings mean a richer society overall, as long as wealth isn’t too highly concentrated in the hands of a few. (I won’t delve in arcana of Gini coefficients here). And, better educations tend to result in higher productivity, lower crime rates, more volunteer work and better health.

More college graduates also mean that any given state is more likely to enjoy economic success. And, of course, more college graduates ultimately mean a higher GDP per capita in the whole of the U.S., which a lot of people associate with higher overall living standards in global comparisons.

So What Do We Do?

Although I’m sure there are various reasons for the decline in enrollment in post-secondary degrees in the U.S., my guess is the primary one is rising costs. People do not wish to–or feel they can afford to–take on crippling amounts of student debt just as they’re starting out in life.

Indeed, a study by the National Center of Education Statistics found that high schoolers are much more likely to go to college if they believe their families can afford it.

How to respond to this problem has become a hot political topic. In fact, the Biden administration originally had a plan to make community college tuition-free for two years, although the proposal was ultimately stripped from the federal Build Back Better bill.

There are, of course, various states that provide free college tuition to some students based on income and merit, and there are some with very few eligibility requirements. In addition, there are 17 tuition-free colleges in the U.S.

But there’s nothing at the kind of scale we need. So, here is the beginning of an idea. Let’s provide a government-financed free online university program that is fully accredited and has no eligibility requirements. This can almost certainly be done in a way that is far less expensive than other initiatives aimed at making higher education affordable.

The program doesn’t need to touch the rest of the messy education system in the United States. Public and private universities can go on being their current dysfunctional selves while we create this one great national project that vastly opens up the educational space without driving anyone into debt.

There are probably lots of ways this could be managed. The program could, for example, contract with many of the best professors in the world to create its online courses. Or, someone could curate the best existing online courses from other universities and incorporate them into a national curriculum. Or, there could be some mix of both systems with some others added in. For example, there could be vetted, open-source elements, as there are with open-source software.

The ultimate goal, however, would be the same: at relatively little taxpayer expense, use massive economies of scale to provide a very good free higher education to all interested U.S. students.

Eventually, it might even incorporate stipends to give students at least some of the financial support they need to spend time getting their degrees.

Aren’t There Already Online Degrees?

Yes, there are already accredited degrees that can be gotten online. However, these are currently a hard-to-navigate hodgepodge where the costs are high for specific university programs (ranging anywhere from $300 to 1,000+ per credit).

In addition, there is, to my knowledge, already one free, accredited online university: The University of the People. I don’t know much about that institution. Maybe there are, however, lessons or even courses that a national program could leverage.

Ultimately, though, this national university would need to be prominently supported and well branded by the government so that it is not viewed as some sort of inferior offering.

(And, yes, there will be those who swear by traditional, residential programs as far superior educational experiences. Maybe they are. But they are also far more expensive and so less realistic to make free to the public. We need to be both practical AND ambitious here.)

The Problems

Getting It to Happen

There are two primary problems I see, and probably many more I don’t. The first is at the creation and implementation phases. As happens in our healthcare system, private and even public entities would cry foul, saying the government is competing with the marketplace. This criticism from moneyed interests might be joined by many professors and university staff members, worried that their livelihoods are being threatened.

In America, at least, these dynamics tend to be the death knell for bold, innovative and potentially impactful initiatives. For the most part, the U.S. doesn’t know how to do such things anymore.

But something like this should happen for the sake our country and its citizens, providing good educations at low costs for people who can’t afford to go into hock for the rest of their lives. Such a program might completely turn around the trend toward declining university educations, and it would bring a massive productivity and financial boost to the nation.

Ensuring It’s Not Used as a Political Tool

Even if we could implement it, however, it could be crippled by politicians and bureaucracies. This is the danger of any national program. Those who constantly warn about the evils of “socialism” (look, we already have mixed economy, and that’s not going to change) have a point in this case.

Some politicians will no doubt bloviate against any perceived “liberal” ideas or “rightwing” viewpoints and so want to micromanage professors, courseware and and curricula. The last thing anyone needs is education micromanaged by amoral or misguided politicians, whom we already have acting at the state levels.

So, this program won’t be worth implementing unless there can be firewall protecting it against political fools and demagogues. In this, I think we might learn from entities such as the Federal Reserve. Although an instrument of the U.S. government, the Fed is independent because its policy decisions do not have to be approved by the President or by anyone else in the executive or legislative branches. Moreover, it does not receive funding appropriated by Congress, and the terms of the members of the board of governors span multiple presidential and congressional terms.

A national online university initiative could not directly imitate the Fed system, of course. These are two very different entities. But we might borrow some ideas in order to protect the system against unwarranted political interference.

In the End

Of course, this may not happen no matter how much it should. Today, America seems chronically handicapped by special interests, demagoguery, fundamentalism and myopic, fact-impervious voting blocs.

But perhaps the pendulum is still capable to swinging back someday, spurring a renaissance of integrity, visionary thinking and can-do-ism. Maybe someday we’ll again see growth in the proportion of Americans getting good educations. I may be jaded in these excruciating political times, but even in me hope springs eternal.

Featured image: The University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1088, is often regarded as the world's oldest university in continuous operation This is a photo of a monument which is part of cultural heritage of Italy. This monument participates in the contest Wiki Loves Monuments Italia 2020. 

A Mayor, a CEO and a Doctor Walk into a Bar

So, a mayor, a CEO and a doctor walk into a bar.

The CEO orders up a bottle of the most expensive wine, saying he’s celebrating the 10th anniversary of his company’s founding and the 5th straight year of double digit growth.

“You know, most companies don’t even live for 10 years,” he says, rolling up the sleeves on his Gucci shirt. “Like they say on Vulcan, live long and prosper, baby!”

“I’ll drink to that,” says his doctor friend. “One of my patients hit the 100-year mark today, no doubt due to some brilliant physicking.”

“Nice job, but those aren’t really milestones for mayors. This city’s just three hundred years old, hardly out of diapers. I’ll buy the wine when it hits its adolescence in another 700 years or so.”

The CEO and the doctor laugh but then go quiet.

“You know, Mayor,” says the CEO finally, “you make me feel like a mayfly. You sure know how to suck the joy out of being a corporate animal.”

“Sorry,” says the mayor. “No offense intended. Businesses serve a purpose. They provide some services for a while and then die out. At least the vast majority of them do.”

“Like blood cells in a body,” says the doctor.

“Jeez,” says the CEO. “Now you’ve got me drinking for other reasons.”

“If you ever want to learn about the art of managing for the long haul, let me know,” quips the mayor. “We’ve got some internships opening up.”

“Shut up, Mayor,” says the CEO.

“Garçon, a round of seltzer water over here,” calls the doctor. “We’ve got to settle our friend’s case of sour grapes.”

Featured image from A.Savin (WikiCommons) - Own work View from Lycabettus in Athens (Attica, Greece)

Scenarios for a Pesky and Unpredictable Energy Future

Writing scenarios about energy is about as hip as writing science fiction about time travel or Moon colonies. Energy scenarios are, after all,  the original business scenarios. They are the vanilla of ice creams, the beige of home decorating, the Honda Accord of automobiles.

Scenarios actually began, for the most part, in the energy industry because, in a crazy and shifting world, that industry has always needed to take a long-term view and make long-term investments. That’s why so many people in that industry give off a vibe that is weirdly geeky as well as stodgy and superior. It must be the cross-breeding of engineers and geologists, gutsy wildcatters, fat-cat corporate diplomats, egg-headed forecasters and corrupt marketers.

Perhaps I picked up the energy bug from the study of scenarios in general and some exposure to energy companies. At any rate, I have been thinking and reading about such scenarios for years, and today they are inextricably linked to climate change. So, here are some my recent thoughts all nicely wrapped up in four scenarios.

Year 2032 Climate Change Scenarios

Scenario One: So Far, So Good

Assumptions: lots of green energy as well as geoengineering

By 2032, intelligent geoengineering is no longer controversial. In truth, rightly or wrongly, it has gotten some of the credit for keeping the world cooler than some had predicted it would be.

Some of the credit has gone to the United Nations, which formed the first coalitions of countries that negotiated a sulfate aerosol program that started off very modestly and then grew moderately more ambitious as various nations became comfortable with the technologies.

“We had to find a global approach to geoengineering,” said the Secretary-General of the United Nations. “Unilateral approaches could have caused international conflicts and dangerous unilateral actions.”

Another form of geoengineering, direct carbon capture, has been driven not by the UN but by a large group of nonprofits allied with private investors. After a number of major technological breakthroughs, experts now project that that within 20 years, they will be able to absorb over 30% of the carbon that has been dumped into the atmosphere over the last 100 years.

Then there are the global reforesting efforts, which are sometimes viewed as a “natural” type of geoengineering. There are multiple companies, some of them non-profits, using large squads of drones to conduct fast and effective reforesting.

The trend emerged in 2022 when AirSeed Technologies started using artificial intelligence to find areas in need of trees and fired seed pods from the sky with drones. Even at the time, the drones were reportedly able to plant over 40,000 seed pods per day, far faster and cheaper than via other methods of reforesting. Today, the number has moved past a half million per day.

An ambitious project has emerged as the reforestation companies have started to run out of promising acreage to plant. The new plan is to partner with new desalination enterprises in northern Africa in order to reforest swaths of the Sahara. This is an extension of project begun in 2007 when the African Union decided to build a “Great Green Wall” in hopes of restoring 100 million hectares of land between Senegal in the west and Djibouti in the east. The idea was to create a 15-kilometer-wide and 8,000-kilometer-long mosaic of trees, vegetation, grasslands and plants.

In every case of geoengineering, critics has emerged to warn of dire consequences. The sulfate aerosol program, they warn, may yet have an unpredictable impact since no one can accurately model climate patterns. The carbon capture programs are still unproven, and the reforestation efforts could do more harm that could.

One climatologist states, “If reforestation results in more vast, uncontrolled forest fires, as seems likely, then the process will only serve to add carbon to the air as oppose to remove it, making global warming worse.”

So far, however, these controlled geoengineering initiatives along with the fast spread of green energy sources seems to be working on level.

“So far, so good,” says the the UN Secretary-General. “Yes, some of these initiatives may not pan out. Yes, there are some potential dangers, but it’s best if we engage in these programs in controlled, internationally ordered way when possible.”

To which one critic has said, “Oh, sure, making huge mistakes via unwieldy global bureaucracies is always better. Sure it is.”

Scenario Two: Exponential Green

Assumptions: lots of green energy and little geoengineering

By the year 2020, solar photovoltaics were down to just 5.7 cents per kWh and were seen as less costly than fossil fuels. And, by 2025, the energy storage problem was well on its way to being solved via a combination of new types of batteries, efficiently converted hydrogen, and fuel cells. Investing in other fuel sources started to look like a bad investment, which meant the lower costs came even more quickly thanks to new investments.

But today, in the year 2032, it’s not all about the photovoltaics. Wind energy has also become very inexpensive, and smaller, more modular nuclear plants have made nuclear energy more price competitive. In addition, several small and still experimental nuclear fusion plants have come online.

Most new homes in the U.S. are sold with solar panels and a collection of fuel cells for storing any energy that doesn’t go directly to the electric grid. In addition, most windows are installed with clear carbon nanotube films that can reflect and collect solar energy, depending on the needs of the home.  There’s also a big business in retrofitting older homes.

This means that a growing number of energy consumers have become energy producers or energy neutral, a situation that has continued to annoy energy utilities, especially after several decades of slowing energy usage among home owners in the U.S.

There have also been advances in wireless energy delivery. The most prevalent technologies are based on lasers and magnetically coupled resonance, allowing a wide range of wireless devices to run in households without the need for wires and plugs. But the largest benefits stem from applications that allow neighborhood homes to share solar energy via ad hoc, computer-controlled and wireless grids.

Renewable energy is now estimated to make up 65% of all energy generated in the world. “We expect to the U.S. to hit 95% renewable energy by 2040,” said one utilities CEO. “It represents an amazing achievement. While humanity hasn’t exactly ‘solved’ its energy problems, it feels like we’re on the road to a sustainable future. As an industry, we’re now looking at other markets where we can be equally successful, especially the transfer of high-bandwidth information via utility infrastructures.”

The world hasn’t solved global warming but most experts are optimistic that humanity will be able to cope without the necessity of risky geoengineering projects.

  Scenario Three: Desperate Times

Assumptions: little green energy and lots of geoengineering

Global warming has hit humanity harder than most of the experts predicted. Back in 2022, Nature reported, “The negative impacts of climate change are mounting much faster than scientists predicted less than a decade ago.” It drew this conclusion from Climate Change 2022: ImpactsAdaptation and Vulnerability, a dire but well documented report from the United Nations climate panel.

What occurred in India and Pakistan shortly thereafter only underscored the point. In May 2022, nearly an eighth of the people on the planet found themselves struggling to endure a relentless heat wave. India had just gone through the hottest April in 122 years, which followed the hottest March on record. Pakistan didn’t get off much easier, encountering its hottest April in 61 years. In Jacobabad, Pakistan, temperatures rose above 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

During the heat wave, there was so much demand on the electrical grid that there were power outages for two-thirds of Indian households. Meanwhile in Pakistan, outages were cutting off power when people needed cooling the most, and many families lost running water without electricity.

This was just the beginning. By the mid-2020s, India and Pakistan were regularly besieged by murderous heats waves and droughts. That’s when the two nations, which had long been enemies, joined forces to implement the most ambitious and controversial geoengineering project in human history.

Starting in 2026, they began using high altitude jets so spread sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere with the goal of reflecting away sunlight. Of course, this resulted in a planetary effect that was greeted by outrage in some nations, gratitude in others. Russia almost immediately engaged in nuclear saber rattling, with its president warning, “This is an attack on Russia itself, threatening to make our winters longer, our growing seasons shorter and our storms more destructive. We will not stand idly by as rogue nations assault our food supplies and starve our citizens.”

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan as well as many other nations argued that climate change was the result of trends brought about by Western nations that had no right to inflict existential harm on their countries.

In the U.S., many took the side of India and Pakistan. One Kansas farmer stated, “We’re just glad somebody’s trying something. The droughts have been brutal the last few years, and the cost of irrigation is through the roof. It’s not just us farmers, either. It drives up the cost of food for everyone. Throwing some dust high up in the sky to cool things off a little seems like the commonsense thing to do to me.”

Not everyone agreed. Some climatologists warned that India and Pakistan were not being patient enough and might well overshoot the mark, wreaking even greater havoc on the global environment. “This could end in the kind of wild swings in global temperatures that do far more harm than good,” one warned.

Scenario Four: Hot, Hotter, Hottest

Assumptions: Little green energy and little geoengineering

In the year 2032, green energy has hit the flatter part of S-curve in a major way. The energy storage technologies never quite worked out, so countries have stuck with tried-and-true natural gas even while slowly building nuclear plans hindered by cost overruns. Engineers have done a pretty good job of making automobiles more fuel efficient, not just through better batteries but the more efficient engineering of all the other components, especially the not-yet-dead combustion engine. Most cars, after all, still run at least partly on petroleum.

Fully 55% of all energy production is still based on fossil fuels (only about 5 percentage points of improvement from 2021). But with China and India and growing parts of the African continent still ramping up their economies and energy usage, there’s even more trepidation about global warming. The scientific news has dismal in the shadow of massive and deadly heatwaves, droughts, forest and bush fires, super storms and ever more cases of daytime flooding in coastal cities. Many have given up hope, saying we’re already past a point of no return for high rates of global warming.

This problem has set the stage for a carbon tax that is expected to be implemented by all G25 countries in 2033 (though some U.S. politicians are still promising to withdraw from the pact if elected) . The funds will be mostly allocated to three areas: 1) increasing the reliability of renewable technologies to the point where natural-gas-using peaker plants are no longer needed , 2) greater energy conservation regulations in all forms of engineering, and 3) smaller, cheaper and safer nuclear plants.

“Look,” says one energy guru, “we’ve made progress over the last 20 years in terms of bringing down the costs of renewables, but they haven’t grown at the exponential rate some predicted. Still, global warming has finally gotten bad enough – and the technology good enough – for us to make a global push. We predict that if the political coalition holds, then by 2050 we can get things down to just 35% fossil fuels and the rest nuclear and renewables. Is it as good as we hoped? No. Are we going to suffer from even worse global warming? Yes. But half a loaf is better than none.”

Given the slow pace of progress, more and more nations are developing geoengineering strategies, but little has been implemented. Large-scale geoengineering initiatives remain controversial and are still being debated in the United Nations and elsewhere.

Concluding Comments

Which of these scenarios is most likely? I don’t know. The one I’d like to see most is “Exponential Green” but it’s hard to say how quickly green energy will grow and, even assuming exponential growth for now, when the trend will slow down and hit the S-curve.

We may need to add geoengineering to the mix in order to avoid disaster, but geoengineering comes with its own risks. Thing can and often do go wrong. Engineering solutions can result in unforeseen problems. If we do need to engage in geoengineering at a large scale, I hope it’ll look more like “So Far, So Good” rather than “Desperate Times.”

The best we can do, I think, is help bring the most positive of the scenarios to fruition. Even if they don’t work out, we will have spent more days in hope than despair. There’s something to be said for active optimism.

Featured image from 林 慕尧 / Chris Lim from East Coast (东海岸), Singapore (新加坡) - Windmills in China?{D70 series}


On U.S. Misleadership

Generally speaking, it’s not our fellow Americans who are the problem. It’s the leaders — or, rather, the misleaders — desperately trying to keep Americans in a state of outrage and divisiveness for the purpose of ratings, money and power.

When they actually sit down and talk, Americans realize that they have most things in common. When they allow themselves to be immersed in their tribal echo chambers, however, they get the impression that the “others” are nothing like them.

We need to abandon our echo chambers and give up our outrage. The echo chambers are, I believe, typically run by bad people who don’t give a damn about us. The misleaders only want our fury, the path to their power.

Featured image: Filter Bubble Graphic by Evbestie. An echo chamber is "an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own." This echo chamber (yellow circle) is closed and insulated from rebuttal (8 arrows).

On Cortada’s Red Wolves

Back in the Before Times, I went to an event and exhibition of  Xavier Cortada’s works at Creative Pinellas. Cortada is a Florida-based artist whose work often to focuses on the environment. I was one of a group of people reading from their works of environmentally focused fiction: in my case, part of a chapter from my novel The Tollkeeper.

During that event, they explained a contest in which writers were invited to compose a poem based on Cortada’s works. I took several pictures of his pieces to see if anything sparked my poetic impulses.

I don’t compose a lot of poetry, but I did write two pieces that I brought along to the contest on the appointed day. Then I learned that the poems were supposed to be written during this second event, not before it. I clearly hadn’t read the fine print. I briefly considered presenting one of my poems as having been written the day of the event, but that wouldn’t be fair. Both poems had taken me well over an hour, and an hour or so as the time we were allotted to write in situ.

So, I composed in incomplete poem during the event, one that had no chance of winning. But I still had these other two poems sitting on my proverbial shelf. Then a few years later I came across an unusual online magazine called Apocalypse Confidential. Reading though it, I thought the tone fit with my two Cortada-inspired poems and so submitted the one I thought was strongest.

To my surprise (I’m always surprised when someone accepts something of mine), they agreed to publish it. So below is a link to it for anyone who is interested in a strange (definitely) and darkly humorous (I’m hoping) ekphrastic poem.

“ON CORTADA’S RED WOLVES”

Featured image: Head shot of artist Xavier Cortada taken in 2007: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xavier_Cortada_2007_artist_headshot.jpg

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Will Exponential Growth Get Us to Our Solar Shangri-La?

There’s so much bad news these days that it can be hard to focus on the good stuff. The global trend toward clean energy is, however, one recent trend worth celebrating. So, being a bit of an energy nerd, I thought I’d delve into some of the details.

How’s Kurzweil’s Solar Prediction Faring?

Back in 2011, I read an article claiming that futurist, author and inventor Ray Kurzweil had predicted that solar power would be able to satisfy the entire world’s energy needs in 16 years (that is, by 2027) due to exponential growth in its usage. At the time, I was skeptical but interested. Kurzweil is well-known for his predictions of various future events based on the idea that some trends grow exponentially.

So, here it is 2022, just 5 years shy of the time when the world is supposed to be fully solar.” How are we doing? Well, that depends on your perspective.

In many respects, Kurzweil has proven to be correct. The growth in the amount of solar energy produced in the world has, in fact, been growing exponentially since the year 2000. By my reckoning, the number of terawatts produced by solar power has double every 2.375 years. Whereas solar produced just 1.08 terawatt hours (or TWh) of electricity in the year 2000, it produced 1,023.1 terawatt hours in 2021. That’s a remarkable run!

But even if it continues to double every two years over the next five years, solar will still produce roughly 8,000 TWh of power in 2027. Not bad. In fact, it’d be about a quarter of all the power humanity generated in 2021 (27,520 TWh). Still, we will not be powering the whole planet with solar by then.

How about if we add wind energy to the mix? Based on my own back-of-the-proverbial-envelope projections, the combination of solar and wind energy has been doubling every 3.5 years or so since 2000. Together, solar and wind produced 4,650.5 TWh in 2021. If that number doubles over the next four years (let’s say), it’ll represent 9,300 or so TWh in 2025. Again, pretty great, if not exactly powering the whole world.

The Global Growth of Solar and Wind Energy, 2000 to 2021

Created using data from Electricity production by source, World

If solar/wind were to continue to double every four years, then it would represent 18,600 TWh in 2030 and 37,200 TWh in 2034, which is considerably more energy than humanity produced in 2021. So, Kurzweil’s forecast may well come true, though a few years later than predicted.

Even if it does, however, it won’t be all solar and wind. Hydropower, for example, won’t be going away. Nor will all the nuclear plants be shuttered. But it’s quite possible that by 2034, the vast majority of electricity will be “green” if not completely renewable.

The Dad-gummed S-Curve

The problem, of course, is that sooner or later, solar and wind will hit the so-called S-curve. As the World Resources Institute notes, “Historically, technologies that are growing exponentially have a ‘top speed’ for growth — a maximum growth rate that is achieved, that lasts awhile and then slows down as it approaches 100% adoption. This pattern is known as an S-curve.”

S-curves are probably inevitable for these two forms of renewable energy. After all, it’s one thing to grow from 2 TWh to 4 in a couple of years. It’s quite another to grow from 20,000 TWh to 40,000 TWh in just two years. You’re essentially taking much of the previously installed solar power over a period of many years and then doubling it in just two!

Below is an example of a possible S-curve related to renewables, as shown in “Explaining the Exponential Growth of Renewable Energy.”

From World Resources Institute

When Will the S-Curve Flatten Out?

Nobody quite knows when the S-curve will flatten, slowing the growth of solar/wind power. There are too many variables that remain uncertain. But I think the most important variable is energy storage. If humanity can solve energy storage pretty quickly, then the S-curve will not flatten out for some time. If we can’t solve it, though, then it’ll flatten faster because the all-too-variable renewables will need to be use used in tandem with more reliable sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear.

Lightning in a Bottle

So, will today’s scientists and engineers be able to develop and implement enough robust, cheap and plentiful energy storage to allow renewables to meet their potential? After all, if we could efficiently store energy from the sun and wind so that is available when the wind’s not blowing nor the sun shining, then renewable will be reliable enough to power nearly everything.

So far, we haven’t come close to perfecting energy storage, but there has been considerable progress. Since 2019, there have been a rash of articles on how the combination of solar-plus-batteries has become the least expensive way of generating electricity. Science magazine reported that “Solar plus batteries is now cheaper than fossil power.” Forbes reported “New Solar + Battery Price Crushes Fossil Fuels, Buries Nuclear.”

But, as welcome as such headlines were, the stories themselves came with a catch. That is, the lithium-ion batteries in these projects can’t hold a charge for very long and the batteries themselves wear out. In fact, the batteries cited in the Forbes article could only provide electricity for four hours past the time when the sun stops shining. That’s clearly not long enough to make this model capable of getting us to 100% renewable energy.

Nonetheless, we are about to see a ton more of these solar-or-wind-plus-lithium-ion-battery power plants (aka, hybrid projects) come online over the next few years. By the end of 2020, there were 73 solar and 16 wind projects that, altogether, provided 2.5 gigawatts of power generation and .45 gigawatts of storage, Bigthink.com reports.

By the end 2021, about 223 gigawatts of proposed hybrid solar plants were in the works, along with 19 gigawatts of hybrid wind. That’s some pretty Kurzweilian growth there.

Salt, Gravity, Hydrogen and Other Storage Hopefuls

Lithium-ion batteries are the state-of-the-art right now, but plenty of other energy storage tech is in the wings. There is a ton of innovation in this area right now, with news stories popping up every day. Yesterday, for example, it was Scientific American reporting on molten salt batteries.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a Department of Energy national laboratory in Richland, Wash., are developing a battery that might solve this [long-term storage] problem. In a recent paper published in Cell Reports Physical Science, they demonstrated how freezing and thawing a molten salt solution creates a rechargeable battery that can store energy cheaply and efficiently for weeks or months at a time. Such a capability is crucial to shifting the U.S. grid away from fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases and toward renewable energy.

Then there are ideas such as using gravity to store energy, which is pretty much what hydropower already does. Now, however, they’re trying to make gravity work without water and favorable local geologies. For example, there’s the company Energy Vault, which has been celebrated in the media but is now being criticized as an unworkable idea by some analysts. It’s hard to know if anything will come of these gravity schemes.

Perhaps more promising is green hydrogen–that is, hydrogen fuel produced with renewables. The problem with using hydrogen for energy storage is that it’s not very efficient to turn renewable energy into hydrogen and then use hydrogen to power something else. S&P Global Market Intelligence reports:

The technology to convert power to hydrogen and back to power has a round-trip efficiency of 18%-46%, according to data that Flora presented from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and scientific journal Nature Energy. In comparison, two mature long-duration technologies, pumped-storage hydropower and compressed air energy storage, boast round-trip efficiencies of 70%-85% and 42%-67%, respectively. Flow batteries, a rechargeable fuel cell technology that is less mature, have a round-trip efficiency of 60%-80%.

On the other hand, I’ve also read that engineers are working at developing processes with a much better conversion efficiency for hydrogen. Even if hydrogen does not turn out to be the most efficient way of storing energy, it could still win the energy storage game if the world produces so much cheap renewable power that a substantial level of inefficiency become acceptable.

Then there’s the really high-tech stuff that is not ready for primetime but may utterly change things when it is. For example, Swedish scientists have reportedly created “an energy system that makes it possible to capture and store solar energy for up to 18 years, releasing it as heat when needed.”

This kind of tech sounds almost magical. “This is a radically new way of generating electricity from solar energy. It means that we can use solar energy to produce electricity regardless of weather, time of day, season, or geographical location,” said research leader Kasper Moth-Poulsen, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenberg.

Now, If We Can Just Reinvent Ourselves

A world in which renewable energy quickly becomes our primary source of power feels inevitable at this stage…unless we screw it up via the worst impulses of our hominid natures. We’ll need, for example, to avoid destroying our infrastructures (not to mention ourselves) via nuclear war while electing responsible politicians who are not beholden to the fossil fuel lobbies and who are better at bringing people together than driving them apart. The world’s richer states will also need to help the poorer ones make the transition to green energies as quickly as possible. And, of course, the scientists and engineers will need to keep doing what they’ve done so well so far: reinventing the way humanity generates its energy.

In short, we’ve solved most of the engineering problems associated with clean energy, and we’re quickly making headway in the one area not yet solved: the storage and stable dissemination of renewable power. We can make it to a green energy global economy if we can just figure out how to listen a little more closely to the better angels of our nature.

Featured image from Lunkwill / derivative work: McSush - Exponential.png

Poetry, Programming and People Management

The human brain does ambiguity well. Most of us are strangely drawn to multiple meanings, surrealities and pattern recognition. We thrive on metaphors and similes, rejoice in symbols, dance to nonsense syllables and ad hoc syncopations. And paradoxes? We both hate and love them — paradoxically, of course.

This may be one of the reasons so many people become frustrated and even fearful when confronted by math and logic. Those disciplines feel so cold and hard-edged with their unitary meanings and wearisome concatenations of implacable reasoning.

It’s the same with computer coding. If you take an Introduction to Computer Science course, the professors often go out of their way to compare natural languages (a phrase which itself is an oxymoron) with computer languages.

Yao graph with number of ray k=8; from Wikimedia, by Rocchini

The gist is that while while both types of language share common and, indeed, essential properties such as syntax and semantics, they differ widely in that natural language can often be understood even when the speaker or writer fails to follow basic spelling or grammatical rules. In contrast, a computer program (much like a mathematical equation) will typically fail to work if even a single character is left out or misplaced. An absent bracket can be a fatal bug, a backwards greater-than symbol can cause an infinite loop, a poorly assigned variable can inadvertently turn  100 dollars into a dime.

A computer has no use for the artful ambiguities and multiple meanings of poetry. If you give the machine a couple of lines of verse such asanyone lived in a pretty how town (with up so floating many bells down)”,  it will — unless you carefully guide the words into the code as a string —  give you an error message.  (I know a lot of people who might respond the same way, of course.)  Yet, without the precisely imprecise wordplay of e e cummings, those lines of poetry would not be poetry at all.

So, what does any of this have to do with people management?

Just this: people management is sometimes poetry, sometimes programming, and it helps to know which is which. Before the rise of civilizations and cities, when virtually all people were hunting and gathering in smallish bands and clans, people management (in the forms it would have existed then) was all poetry.

Walden Pond; from Wikimedia, by QuarterCircleS

Sure, there were unwritten rules, harsh taboos, constant rumors and deadly serious superstitions. And a leader, to the degree there were leaders as we understand them today, could leverage those cultural components to influence his or her clansmen. But this was mostly a matter of nuance, persuasion, the formation of alliances, the wielding of knowledge and lore (when, that is, it wasn’t a matter of force and coercion). In the largest sense, it was art and song.

Today, good managers must still be attuned to the poetry of human attitudes and actions, able to sort through the ambiguities of rumor mills and hurt feelings and arrogant posturings. But now managers must also cope with or even rely on laws, regulations and rules.

Is there a “zero tolerance” clause in the company policy somewhere? Then even a terrific employee who gets caught using illegal drugs may need to go.  Are there complex legal regulations barring a worker from having financial holdings in a certain client company? Well, then, the employee must divest or hit the door. There are countless other examples of rules that are as hard-and-fast as rule-of-law societies can make them. Although these human rules will never be quite as rigorous as the requirements of programming languages, they are a kind of human programming; there are true and false statements,  barriers that can’t be broken, classifications that should never be breached.

This is why we have legal departments. It is also why uncertain managers call in the hired gun of the HR professional to take care of dismissals and drug tests and background checks.

We simultaneously hate  this programming of human behavior and depend on it. We can, for example, rely on the kind of code that states:

while worker performance >= level 3: { {

provide paycheck and health insurance }

else if: {

performance <= level 2:

leverage performance review proceedings

 }}

Okay, the coding in companies is much more complex than that. Still, the point is that we rely on it because it’s clean, logical and, best of all, spares us from having to make hard and potentially dangerous decisions on our own. In such settings, we are no longer “poets of people management,” the kind of managers who might have led a clan though a vast and dangerous prehistoric wilderness in millennia gone by.

This dependence on programming is a shame in many ways, one that harried managers should ponder from time to time.  I know we can’t utterly avoid modern programming — at least, not unless we retreat into the wildness, as metaphorically  isolated as Thoreau in his cabin by Walden Pond. Nor should we. The rule of law is essential to our modern societies, and formal policies are often forged to protect employees from arbitrary or biased decisions. Still, we might strive to be better poets, respecting employees as the people they are rather than viewing them as components of a well-programmed machine.

Featured image: The Parnassus (1511) by Raphael: famous poets recite alongside the nine Muses atop Mount Parnassus.

You’re More Than Just a Number: Now, You’re a Vector

Unless you’ve been hiding in a bunker for the last few years (and who’s to blame you if you were?), you know that data science, big data, and machine learning are all the rage.  And you know that the NSA has gotten scary good at surveilling the world via its data-parsing mojo.

These trends have overturned — or at least added a whole new wrinkle to — the concern so prevalent when I was a kid: that individuals in modern societies were becoming faceless numbers in an uncaring machine. Faceless number? These days,  a lot of people aspire to that. They leverage the likes of the search engine DuckDuckGo in the hope of reverting back to being just a blip of anonymous bits lost amid mighty currents of data.

Image from Wikipedia

Well, unless you’re willing to live off the grid — or get almost obsessively serious about using encryption tools such as PGP  — you’ll just have to dream your grand dreams of obscurity. Even if we somehow rein in the U.S. government, businesses will be doing their own “surveilling” for the foreseeable future.

But look on the bright side. From one perspective, there’s been progress. You’re not just a number these days, you’re a whole vector, or maybe even a matrix — with possible aspirations of becoming a data frame.

No, this isn’t an allusion to the disease vectors that have become such a hot topic during the pandemic. The statheads among you may recognize those classifications as belonging to the statistical programming language R, which vies with Python for the best data science language.

In R’s parlance, a vector is “a single entity consisting of a collection of things.” I love the sheer all-encompassing vagueness of that definition. After all, it could apply to me or you, our dogs or cats, or even our smartphones.

But, in R, a vector tends to be a grouping of numbers or other characters that can, if needed, be acted on en masse by the program. It’s a mighty handy tool. With just a couple of keystrokes, you can take one enormous string of numbers and work on them all simultaneously (for example, by multiplying them all by another string of numbers,  plugging them all into the same formula or turning them into a table). It’s just easier to breath life into the data this way. It’s what Mickey Mouse would have brandished if he were a statistician’s rather than a sorcerers’s apprentice in Fantasia.

Now imagine yourself as a vector or, at least, as being represented by a vector. Your age, height, weight, cholesterol numbers and recent blood work all become a vector, one your doctor can peruse and analyze with interest. Meanwhile, your purchasing habits, credit rating, income estimates, level of education and other factors are another vector that retail and financial organizations want to tap into. To those vectors could be added many more until they become one super-sized vector with your name on it.

Now, glom your vectors together with millions of other peoples’ vectors, and you’ve got one  huge, honking, semi-cohesive collection of potentially valuable information. With it, you and others can, like Pinky and the Brain, take over the world! Or at least sell a lot more toothpaste and trucks.

The bottom line is that we have three basic choices in this emerging Age of Vectors:

Ignore It: Most folks will opt for this one, being too busy or bored for the whole “big data” hoopla. Yes, they know folk are collecting tons of data about them, but who cares? As long as it doesn’t mess up their lives in some way (as in identity theft), then this is just a trend they can dismiss, worrying about it on a case-by-case basis when it directly affects their lives.

Fight the Power: If you don’t want to be vectorized —  or if you at least want to limit the degree to which you are — you can try every trick in the book to keep yourself off the radar of the many would-be private and public data-hunters who want to dig through your data-spoor in their quest to track your habits (either as an individual or as part of a larger herd).

Use the Vector, Luke: Some will gladly try to harness the power of the vector, both professionally and personally.  They’ll try to squeeze every ounce of utility out of recommendation engines, work assiduously to enhance their social media rankings,  try to leverage every data collection/presentation service out there to boost their credit ratings, get offered better jobs, or win hearts (or other stuff) on dating sites. They will certainly wield vectors at work for the purpose of prediction analytics. They may even turn the vector scalpel inward with the goal of “hacking themselves” into better people, like the Quantified Selfers who want to gain “self knowledge through numbers.”

That’s not to say that we can’t pick and choose some aspects of each of these three basic strategies. For instance, I’m just not cut out for the quantified-self game, being just too data-apathetic (let’s s a 7 on a scale of 10) to quantify my life. But, when it comes to analyzing other stuff, from labor data to survey findings to insects in my backyard, I’m all in, willing and ready to use the Force of the Vector. Now, I just have to figure out where I misplaced my statistical light saber…

Featured image from IkamusumeFan - Plot SVG using text editor.

The Extended Human

A nest or hive can best be considered a body built rather than grown. A shelter is animal technology, the animal extended. The extended human is the technium.

Kevin Kelly

I like the phrase “extended human” because these days so much of our lives is spent doing just that: extending. We extend toward one another via our increasingly pervasive networking technologies, of course, but also via our words, our art, our organizations and our sometimes frighteningly fervent tribes of like-minded people.

Without these extensions, there can be no reticula – or, at least, none that includes humanity. It’s as if we are all connected neurons, the tentacled creatures of our own dreams and nightmares.

Kevin Kelly, the author of What Technology Wants, uses the phrase extended human to mean the same thing as the technium, which he defines as the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” But I see the extended human as beginning not with our technologies but with the reticula within: our woven, language-loving, community-seeking minds. A human who is armed only with ideas and imagination still has an amazing ability to extend herself into the universe.

Connection Matrix of the Human Brain

Technological Kudzu

Still, it’s true that the technium vastly enhances our natural tendency toward extension. In fact, as Kelly points out (and all anthropologists know), our inclination toward tool usage predates our emergence as a species. Our evolutionary predecessors such as Homo erectus were tool users, suggesting this propensity is somehow encoded or, at least made more likely, by our DNA.

These days, our extensions are growing like so much technological kudzu. Think about the growth of Zoom and other video conferencing applications. These technologies have become among of the latest technological imperatives, along with basics such as electricity, plumbing and phones/cell phones.

But there’s something missing in all this. Extensions are powerful alright, but what, exactly, are we extending? That is, what is at the core of the extended human? It isn’t a technological issue but, rather, a philosophical, psychological, existential or even spiritual one.

How Far Is Too Far?

This is where things not only get tricky but downright divisive.  The Buddhist may argue that “nothing” is at the core, that most of what we want to extend is sheer ego and delusion. The Christian may argue that immortal souls are at the human core, souls which have the propensity for good or evil in the eyes of God. The Transhumanist may argue that the human body and brain are the core, both of which can be enhanced and extended in potentially unlimited ways.

Few would argue against the idea that humans should be an extended species. Even the lowest-tech Luddites rely on tools and technologies. What we will spend the next several decades arguing about are two related issues:

1) What is at the core of humanity? What should we value and preserve? What can we afford to leave behind in the name of progress and freedom?

2) How far should we extend ourselves? Should we set collective limits for fear that we’ll lose our essential humanity or cause our own extinction? If so, how can we reasonably set limits without magnifying the risks of tyranny or stagnation?

All sorts of other subjects will be incorporated into these two basic issues. For example, collective limits on technological advances become more likely if associated dangers – higher rates of unemployment, increased risks of terrorism, environmental crises, etc. –  loom larger over time. Although we will frame these issues in various ways, they will increasingly be at the center of our collective anxiety for years to come. It’s the price of being the most extended species in the reticulum.

Featured image by Sheila1988; Agricultural tools at show