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Intimations of Immortality: Are We Ready for Extreme Longevity, or Do We Even Deserve It?


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Although this is a rather belated nusing about a panel topic in this year’s AussieCon IV in Melbourne, I think the topic is sturdy enough to stand the test of time (Q.E.D.).

Let’s start with William Wordsworth:

A single Field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

The panel at AussieCon IV was “Implications of Immortality”, and the panel description was:

Immortality is a common element in science fiction and fantasy, but what would it actually be like?
What would you need to do and think about if you were immortal? How would society need to change if we were all immortal?
In a world where we are no longer faced with an end to our lives, how would human society change?

In general, I was rather disappointed by this panel (audio transcript here, courtesy of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence), as it mostly repeated SF and fantasy’s clichés about immortality, and didn’t really reach any interesting, new (let alone ground-breaking) conclusions.

So, with this panel, and a number of internet articles about immortality — Annalee Newitz on io9 (Four Arguments against Immortality), Jason Stoddard (Four Arguments FOR Immortality), BBC’s recent Do You Really Want to Live Forever?, an interview on I Look Forward To about the possibility of immortality or extreme longevity with Aubrey de Grey and David Brin (When Will Life Expectancy Reach 200 Years?), Edward Cheever’s In Defense of Immortality — in mind, I’m going to try to deconstruct a number of faulty assumption about extreme longevity.

You may have noticed that I’m not calling it ‘immortality’ anymore. Well, I think immortality is in the same class as Utopia, infinity and perfection: a great destination to travel to, but one that can never be reached. Yet we should try, nevertheless. While immortality is an unreachable ideal, the effort of reaching it will bring huge progress and immense advantages. So let’s be a tad more realistic and call it the quest for longevity, or extreme longevity.

Problem is, a lot of people think we shouldn’t be on this quest anyway, because of several misconceptions. Let’s go through them:

(1): Humans are not ‘wired’ for immortality or extreme longevity.

As (panel member) Will McIntosh said (I’m paraphrasing here): “the human psyche is not wired for immortality: in almost every thing we do lies the shadow of our oncoming demise.” However, this assumes that humans will not change. I think humans will change. Actually, humans are already changing, and have been changing throughout history.

The problem with a lot of thinking in science fiction is that it often takes one — and only one — idea and tries to imagine its impact on humans and/or society while assuming that the latter (humans and society) do not change, or only minimally through that one single idea. In reality, though, society is an immensely complex web of connections that all influence each other.

Therefore, as such, both humans and society have changed over the years, also (among many other things) in regards to life expectancy. Life expectancy has increased (and is still increasing), and we have learned to live with that. Less than two centuries ago we would become, on average, 37 years old. Our ‘productive’ life span was 20 to 25 years. Now we get, on average, 77 years old, with a ‘productive’ life span of over 40 years.

Indeed: right now we have more ‘productive’ years than we actually lived 200 years ago. And if someone had said, back in 1810, that humans aren’t wired to live 80 years, most people would have agreed.

Well, immortality won’t happen overnight: it will take time to develop much longer lifespans, followed by extreme longevity. Time enough for humans to change, and to adapt successfully to a much longer life. People have been changing all the time — albeit at a much higher rate in the past 100 years — and have been able to cope. Why shouldn’t we be able to do so in the future?

Imagine someone in 1810 saying that in 200 years people would travel around the world regularly, that we would live twice as long, and that we would be able to talk to people at the other side of the globe through a device that weighs less than a book. Now imagine depriving your 8-year-old kid from her/his gameboy, cell phone, or internet connection.

I’ve been discussing this with (Guest of Honour) Kim Stanley Robinson at the bar right after the panel, and he thought that such thinking — humans will remain the same while the world around them changes — is ‘a failure of the imagination’. I agree: by the time extreme longevity is possible, we will have developed the right mindset for it.

However — as Annalee Newitz proposed on io9 — we may change so much that we’re no longer human. Well, try to define ‘being human’ first. Then compare that 21st Century definition with that of a 19th Century one: there will be quite a number of differences. As mentioned, humans change, and the yardstick that ‘defines’ humanity changes, as well.

Of course, Annalee voiced the fear that we might become emotionless monsters as we develop extreme longevity. I disagree: there have been monsterous humans throughout history, Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot just a recent addition to a long, long list that stretches back to the dawn of human memory. Yet we have always overcome these monsters: why shouldn’t we be able to do that in the future?

I’ll even go a step further: it makes much more sense to be a ruthless dictator and burn all your bridges behind you if your lifespan is short. Conversely, if you realise that you have several centuries to go, it makes little sense to rampage an ecology that you need to support your much longer life.  Even beter, as longer lifespans (or even extreme longevity) spread throughout the world population (and it will: see point 3 of this post), then it is in everybody’s best interest to weed out those so hell-bent on power that they are willing to destroy a very long term infrastructure (like say, Gaia) for it.

(Not to mention the non-starter ‘Whatever body you’re in, there you are‘. Sorry: last time I looked all of us are constrained to one, and one body only. I personally will highly appreciate it if it lasts much, much longer.)

(2): Immortality is boring: I will be stuck with the same dead-end job/uninteresting life/pointless existence forever.

As mentioned, immortality is an idealised concept: it is an endpoint that we might approach asymptotically, hence it will not happen overnight. Still, quite a few people (some of which were in the audience of the panel) seem to think so. One even literally mentioned that ‘immortality would be a kind of eternal hell as she would be stuck with the same dead-end job forever’.

In the grander scheme of things, holding a steady job throughout one’s carreer may already be a passing fad in times to come. Yes, in times of yore one — before the 20th Century almost always a man — acquired (either through education, experience, inheritance or a combination thereof) a job or profession and stuck to it for the rest of one’s productive life. Exceptions acknowleged, of course, but those were few and far in between.

But nowadays, things are different, completely different, just check out this video: “Shift Happens: Bringing Education into the 21st Century

A few price quotes:

—1 out of 4 workers today is working for a company they have been employed by for less than one year

—More than 1 out of 2 are working for a company they have worked for for less than five years

…the top 10 in demand jobs for 2010 did not exist in 2004

—We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist…

…using technologies that haven’t been invented…

…in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet

Basically, the amount of jobs that you can hold for your complete productive life is shrinking: a ‘job-for-life’ is increasingly becoming a feature of the past.

Therefore, in order to keep making a living people already need to keep educating themselves, constantly. I know what I’m talking about: I train people in my company’s product, and I need to stay updated. I teach and I learn, all the time.

Some people see this as a bad thing: such people like to keep on doing the same things, ad nauseam until their pension. This, though, is increasingly not an option anymore.

I see this as an interesting, and potentially good development: now people (must) keep developing themselves, learning new things, broadening their horizons, expanding both the depth and the breadth of their knowledge.

Isn’t this an exhilarating convergence? As life expectancy grows, life is becoming more interesting, as well. Maybe we are already on the right track to leading longer and more fullfilling lives by being able to change constantly?

Now before some of you — like Athena Andreadis (see point 2) — start to argue that the memory and learning capacity of a human brain is limited, let me make a bet (for a drink, or a symbolic amount like one Euro): I bet that before people live so long that their brain capacity is insufficient to store, work or even understand all the knowledge they build up in their extended lifetime, that there will be not one, but a variety of competing options to extend that brain capacity. For example, check out Andy Clark’s article “Out of Our Brains” in the New York Times (via Futurismic).

(3): Only the superrich will have immortality, and will keep it ‘locked away’ from the rest of the world.

Or point 4 (“We’ll have to deal with the immortality divide“) of Annalee Newitz’s io9 post.

This argument assumes that:

  • there is an immediate development that changes life expectancy immensely;
  • that this — nearly instantaneous — development is so expensive that only the superrich can afford it;
  • that the superrich elite will be able to keep this development completely to themselves;

Personally, I suspect it’s extremely unlikely that a ‘silver bullet’ for highly increased longevity (let alone extreme longevity and forget about immortality) will be developed overnight. It’s hugely more likely that longevity will increase in leaps and bounds, with all kinds of dead alleys, red herrings and fool’s gold (to deftly mix metaphors) along the way. The way almost all scientific research does. The way longevity has been increasing already.

So while I do expect that there will be new treatments that lengthen lifespan, I do, very strongly, suspect that these will not stay with the ultra-healthy among us for long.

Consider: there are about a thousand billionaires in the world right now. There are about 10 million millionaires. By 2030, about two billion new people may join the world middle class (via Goldman Sachs: opens PDF file): adding this to the 1.5 billion middle class people as of 2010, this will total 3.5 billion middle class incomes.

So a big pharmaceutical company would keep its product exclusive to the happy thousand? Even after it has earned back its development costs? And will ignore the 10 million plus other, rich customers? And once the treatment has been proven to work for over a million people, they will not eventually want to sell it to almost 4 billion more customers? That’s not how capitalism works, last time I looked.

Then there is the case of the ghost having escaped the bottle: in science, once something has been proven to be possible, it can be replicated. If an experiment can’t be verifiably repeated, it’s not true science. So if it’s possible (extreme longevity, even immortality) then competing scientists will know that, and they will redouble their efforts to reproduce the same result.

Once a certain development’s time has come, it shows up everywhere. Tesla’s and Marconi’s dispute about who invented radio first is one example. The rise of aviation (once the Wright brothers delivered proof of concept) is another. There are countless more. And these technologies, once new, are now available to almost everybody: radio (is become obsolete by the internet, another technology initially developed for the hapy few — the Pentagon or CERN— available to all), avaition, the utmost majority of modern medicine. Once the cat is out of the bag…

Competition, the desire to sell it to as much markets as possible, the fact that it can be done all will make sure that it eventually becomes available to all. Inevitably.

(4): (a) Biological immortality or biological extreme longevity is impossible; and (b): mind uploading is a pipe dream.

Check out this interview with Aubrey de Grey and David Brin: When Will Life Expectancy Reach 200 Years?

The above gentlemen are talking about a life expectancy of 200 years. While that may sound already unrealistic to some, and a bit unambitious to others (what is 200 years in the face of extreme longevity?), there is a tipping point. As Ronald Bailey explains in his Liberation Biology:

“Researcher reported in the April 2002 issue of Science that life expectancy has been increasing at about two and a half year per decade for the past 160 years. Demographers such as Olshansky, they note, have been consistently wrong in predicting an upper limit to this trend. In 1928, for example, demographer Louis Dublin predicted that average life expectancy in the United States would never exceed 64.75 years. Today it is 77.6 years.”

“At this rate of improvement, the authors of the Science report conclude that “record [average] life expectancy will reach about 100 in six decades”.”

It gets better:

De Grey offers a scenario in which efforts to achieve radical life extension reach “actuarial escape velocit (AEV)”. Recall that for the last 160 years, average life expectancy has increased by two-and-a-half year per decade. What if increases in life expectancy rose at a rate of ten years or more per decade? “The escape velocity cusp is closer than you might guess,” claims de Grey. “Since we are already so long lived, even a thirty percent increase in healthy life span will give the first beneficiaries of rejuvenation therapies another twenty years—an eternity in science—to benefit from second generation therapies that could give another thirty percent, and so on ad infinitum”

Yes, the same Aubrey De Grey interviewed above. The above quote can be found online on PLoS Biology: ‘Escape Velocity: Why the Prospect of Extreme Human Life Extension Matters Now‘.

Extreme longevity in this century? Maybe even in our lifetime?

As noted above, David Brin disagrees, as I’m sure many of you do. “There are way too many obstacles,” I hear you say, “there is no low-hanging fruit.” Further cue to David Brin:

All advances to date have involved allowing ever-greater percentages of humanity to hit the “wall” at age 100, and maybe coast a few years beyond. Getting beyond that will require either;
1) THOROUGH nanotechnology, applied down at the INTRA-cellular level, or
2) genetic recoding to enhance repair capabilities in new ways (good news for our great grandchildren, maybe), or
3) gradual replacement of failing parts and systems with prosthetics, or
4) uploading.

Oh, I am willing to be proved wrong, but all of these seem much harder than the zealots think.
a) The intra-cellular world is the next frontier. It now seems huge, complex, involving massive amounts of computing. Will you flood the INSIDES of cells with nanomachines? Good luck.
b) We haven’t a clue how to do #2.
c) #3 will happen in phases. But when the brain fades… well,… see #a
c) re #4 — see #a

(Emphasis mine.)

The Aubrey De Grey/David Brin interview was posted on November 25, 2010. Three days later, this news came out: “Harvard Scientists Reverse the Ageing Process in Mice“. Price quote:

The Harvard group focused on a process called telomere shortening. Most cells in the body contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, which carry our DNA. At the ends of each chromosome is a protective cap called a telomere. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres are snipped shorter, until eventually they stop working and the cell dies or goes into a suspended state called “senescence”. The process is behind much of the wear and tear associated with ageing.

At Harvard, they bred genetically manipulated mice that lacked an enzyme called telomerase that stops telomeres getting shorter. Without the enzyme, the mice aged prematurely and suffered ailments, including a poor sense of smell, smaller brain size, infertility and damaged intestines and spleens. But when DePinho gave the mice injections to reactivate the enzyme, it repaired the damaged tissues and reversed the signs of ageing.

This sounds very much like ‘genetic recoding to enhance repair capabilities in new ways’. And yes, it is only applicable to mice (“Repeating the trick with humans will be more difficult”), and developing a method that works for humans might still be a long way off. Yet, we have gone from “We haven’t a clue how to do #2″ to “We have found a method that works in mice”.

So while extreme longevity is probably not around the corner, I believe that it is possible. At the very least we can expect that our life span will continue to increase in the future, as it has done for the past 160 years. Very probably with more than 2-and-a-half year per decade. I strongly suspect that auctuarial escape velocity will not be a matter of if, but of when.

And then extreme longevity is a fact of life.

Finally, as to (b): mind uploading is a pipe dream;

I don’t know.

On the one side, the human brain is an immensely complex organ, of which we still understand very little (even though our knowledge is increasing). It’s also very unclear if a mind based so intimately in a biological body can be ‘transported’ or ‘copied’ to a non-biological mainframe, without considerable losses in either functionality or memory or both.

On the other side, if Moore’s Law holds (and it’s not showing any signs of slacking up yet), then by the time mind uploading is possible — even when it happens only a few decades from now — then there will be a hell of a lot of computing power available to upload into.

Apart from that, if uploading becomes possible, there is still the problem that, in all likeliness, it will be copying your mind into a different substrate, leaving the original behind to die. That’s why I prefer developments of extending lifespan of our biological bodies: it seems the better bet.

Picture credits:


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Good News from around the Globe, Local Version

Here are a few things that struck me in my own country (The Netherlands).

This so-called ‘Beer Boat’ is fully electrical driven (both the propeller and the crane) with green current and reduces the county’s CO2 emissions with 16.5 tonnes per year in comparison with trucks. It not only transports beer, but also clothing, books and construction materials.

Actually, it is the second one in Utrecht, a city that tries to limit truck driving in its inner city because the fragility of its ancinet bridges and wharves. The first one is a diesel boat, but it was so fully booked they needed a second one. A much better one (it’s almost completely silent), everyone agrees.

(Friday April 9 I am meeting my Dutch SF companions in Utrecht: the beer should taste extra good…;-)

  • In the recent DUS (FNV BondgenotenMagazine: the newspaper of the Union of which I am a member) there was an interview with Pieter Hilhorst, the Dutch national ombudsman: a self-procliamed ‘tireless softie’ who is against cynism.

To quote:

I hate cynicism, but I am not an old-fashioned leftie. The old-fashioned left still think a better society can be created through anonymous solidarity with rigid rules. But we get stuck in those rules. We should rebuild solidarity from the bottom up: help each other at the small scale level, using self-organising powers: not ‘save yourself’, but ‘save each other’.

We need more people like him.

  • Hyves for energy is the vision of the future (via de Volkskrant): experimental cogeneration (or Combined Heat and Power or CHP) plants are being installed in Dutch households. Experimental because of the scale: right now CHP plants are of industrial size, this is one of the first times where the principle is scaled down to that of a household central heating boiler. A so-called micro-cogenerator boiler (microwarmtekrachtketel’) that — according to KEMA, the manufacturer — increases the energy efficiency from 98 to 125% (this obviously hinges on how one defines ‘efficieincy’, but in other words, part of the boiler’s waste heat is transformed in electricity through a small Stirling engine).

Problem is that such installations are quite expensive, and their economic feasibility hinges on the electricity company’s willingness to pay for power delivered back into the net. Hence an experimental set-up, with some households using the micro-cogenerator boiler, some using a heat pump that extracts energy from the air, some have solar panels and all are connected to windmills through a smart grid. Also the use of ‘smart’ appliances like washing machines and dishwashers that will automatically switch on when the renewable energy is cheaper than that of the grid.

“There will be communities that share and exchange energy,” says Pier Nabuurs of KEMA, “a bit like Hyves for energy.” (NOTE: Hyves is the Dutch version of Facebook.)

  • Groenlinks, the Dutch green party, presented its programme for the June 9 national elections yesterday. I particularly like their slogan: ‘Zin in de toekomst’, or: ‘Looking forward to the future’.

Yes, I cannot empasise enough that there are a huge amount of people who are actively trying to build a better future, and are looking forward to it. SF community, take note.

  • Apropos biodiversity and its uses: let worms clean the sewage sludge. Scientist Tim Hendrickx of Wageningen University says the Lumbriculus variegatus can clean up to 70% of the Dutch sewage sludge. Biocrafted Ouroboros, anyone (hats off to Rajan Khanna)? [Rajan's tweet was up on @outshine on June 10, and the worms article on June 13. Coincidence? I think not...;-)]
  • A company in Barneveld called Paperfoam is the only one in the world that fabricates packaging material fully from potato starch: ‘a real iPhone is packed in starch‘. 100% biodegradable, and the CO2 emission from manufacturing one paperfoam CD or DVD case is one tenth of that of a plastic one. While all the research is done in Holland, the company has license holders in Denmarl, Malaysia and the US.

So say goodbey to your plastic (one hopes, looking at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch).

That’s the second time that environmental awareness is combined with good drinks! Coincidence? I think not!

And thankfully innovation and forward thinking are alive and well, also in Holland.

UPDATE (hot off the press): Suriname, which used to be a Dutch colony, is doing very fine. An interview with Andre Telting, the director of Suriname’s central bank.

In the year 2000, as the country’s bank director, he inherited a total financial chaos. But he — and his fellow countrymen — turned it around.

Recently, at the IMF meeting in Istanbul, Suriname was receiving compliments. They were one of the very few nations that showed growth through the credit crisis. The country improved its debt position and strengthened its monetary reserves (reducing the country’s debt from over 500 million euors in 2000 to 210 million euros now).

On top of that, while he’s resigning (after ten intense years, and he’s 74 years old now) he’s optimistic that the Surinam people will not elect a corrupt government again. To quote:

“As regards criminality in this region we are an oasis of peace. Suriname is a safe country for foreigners. The average Surinamer is healthy and well-educated. Yes, I am positive about this country. But we have to prepare our people to several new developments, like the oil inning industry which can be a large source of income for Suriname.”

Which puts the cliché that ‘Third World’ countries can’t take care of themselves in a different perspective.

Tentative Steps Forward: West Africa, North Australia, San Francisco, Brazil, the World

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder why—in the SF blogosphere —a post about whether SF should or should not die effortlessly draws more eyeballs than near-future SF stories that demonstrate its relevance. Partly, I suspect, because stories do not contain links to other articles. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that articles with a negative undertone get more attention than stories with a positive message. Or maybe I’m just comparing apples to pears.

Therefore an article about positive developments in the world (I’ve already posted plenty of those). Here’s one development that particularly caught my attention, because it is a solution that addresses several problems at the same time:

→In West Africa, native fruits have a big future:

(from New Scientist, November 7, 2009. Yes, it’s six weeks old, and I’m catching up on my NS reading. But this is an item that will remain relevant for—at least—several decades, showing that near-future, optimistic SF does not need to have a one or two-year expiration date.)

For those not subscribing to New Scientist, the article is online.

To quote:

“Domesticating wild fruit like bush mango has changed our lives.”

“It is a peasant revolution taking place in the fields of Africa’s smallholders.”

In short, African farming smallholders are switching to local wild fruits, making both more food and more money, and creating more biodiversity and environmental sustainability in the process.

The advantages combine to make a sum larger than the separate parts:

  • fruit trees exist in a large variety (over 300 different ones in Cameroon alone);
  • fruit trees are much better resistant against droughts than mass crops like cassava, maize and wheat;
  • in the domestication programme, local knowledge and science—after some initial mistrust, which was overcome by the good results—are combined;
  • all low-tech, no fancy equipment needed;
  • fruit trees generate income year-round (not just three months like, for example, cacao);
  • they thrive in a diversity situation (many different tree crops on one land), creating a habitat for wildlife and environmental sustainability;
  • people not only get better food, but with the extra income they buy school fees for their children, decent healthcare, and improved housing;

Let’s call it ‘win/win squared’!

Obviously, there is still a very long way to go, and there will be large obstacles to overcome—especially worries about a level playing field against big agriculture: check out some of the comments in the comment section—but this is nevertheless a tentative step forward, not only in Africa, but it’s happening in North Australia, as well (see also some of the comments in the comment section of the article).

A similar interesting development is the rise of urban beekeeping as honeybee numbers have been falling to catastrophic levels, with the counter-intuitive result that people in cities are helping to keep honeybees alive, both genetically and increasingly in larger numbers. Many thanks to Cameo Wood—who runs Her Majesty’s Secret Beekeeper in the Mission District—for informing me about this when she showed Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and me around in San Francisco, courtesy of Borderlands Books.

These are just two examples of how important changes can arise from small origins, and not necessarily need to come from big technological shifts.

By way of contrast, two examples of implementing change directly on the larger scale (keeping in mind that the previous examples are already adding up in sheer numbers):

  • Growing biofuel without razing the rainforest (also via New Scientist): an interview with plant scientist Marcus Buckeridge;
  • The  2009 Human Development Report: common migration misconceptions are challenged (“Migration can be a force for good, contributing significantly to human development,” says United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark.)

To restate (as I’ve done over and over on this site): good things and optimistic developments are happening on this planet: they’re just underreported, underrated and—I suspect—underestimated. Let’s keep looking forward, and work on a better future.

Should SF Die?

(Cross-posted to my personal blog and the DayBreak Magazine site for those who prefer a more Spartan layout.)

There’s been a lot of musing about the fate of science fiction, lately. To be clear, I’ll be discussing *written SF* here (predominantly), not SF in movies, comics, video games or other media. To summarise (and this is far from complete, but I hope it touches upon the main points):

My viewpoint is that SF is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that lack of relevance can be attributed to developments and trends already mentioned in the points above, and SF’s unwillingness to really engage with the here-and-now. That doesn’t mean that SF needs to die (actually, a slow marginalisation into an increasingly neglected and despised niche-cum-ghetto is probably a fate worse than death), but it does mean that SF needs to change, and that it needs to become much more inclusive of the alien (and I mean alien in ‘humans-can-be-aliens-to-each-other’ sense) and proactive, meaning it should not just shout ‘FIRE! FIRE!’ (and do almost nothing but), but both man the fire trucks *and* think of ways to prevent more fires.

That’s the short version: allow me to expand on it below the cut. Read the rest of this entry »

Sealife Game

Yesterday I visited my brother and his wife and his two kids (my nephews). They had been to the Sinterklaas party at my brother’s office, and had gotten a present. This was a DVD board game called “Sealife“.  So we played it.

I was amazed: not only does it teach kids a lot about life in the sea (particularly in a coral reef), it also raises awareness of how pollution, overfishing and climate change affect, well, sea life (and that of a coral reef in particular). I was also amazed that my oldest nephew Boris (6: he’ll turn 7 on December 4) got so many questions right, and has already a fairly good understanding of concepts like pollution and eco-tourism.

Now one can wonder if this is a subtle form of indoctrination (even if the ‘eco-friendly’ question were few and far between: most were trivia questions about life in the sea itself), or a good education counter-balance. Yes, I’m saying counter-balance because my nephews have a gameboy where the play nintendo games, too. So they’re also playing games where they hit, smash or otherwise destroy opponents in order to attain a certain goal and get to the next level. The phrase: “I still have 8 lives” is a common one. So they’re exposed to ‘violent’ games, as well.

Which made me wonder: which game has more influence on their thinking and (emotional/intellectual) development? I don’t really know, and have to make a wild guess. I think it hinges on two important factors: education and sense of reality.

1. Education.

With which I mean education at large, not just the education they get at school. Kids receive a continuous education from the environment: their parents, their family, their friends, their school. But also TV and the internet are a growing part of that environment. In Holland we have this thing called ‘jeugdjournaal‘ (‘youth journal’, or better: news for young kids), where important news items are told in a way young kids can understand, mixed with news of particular interest for kids (and it’s got a website, and can be friended on Hyves — the Dutch version of FaceBook — and followed on Twitter: they don’t miss a beat). It’s great, and I know it’s watched and followed by a large number of adults, as well.

Then there are these educational games they do at school: when I showed my mother, my brother, his wife and my two nephews around in the Training Centre where I work, my oldest nephew immediately understood how to use a smartboard, got on the internet, and played ‘het poepspel‘ (the poop game): a game where kinds need to fits pipes between a house and the sewer before the resident of the house is finished on the toilet. If they fail the whole screen is literally full of shit (young kids love that), and if they succeed the grey water is succesfully transported to the sewer. It succesfully combines a young kid’s fascination with poop into a game that shows why we have sewers. I certainly wish we had such a game in my youth.

2. Sense of Reality.

I suspect that there is a qualitative difference in how those kids see and experience a DVD board game such as Sealife or a nintendo game on a gameboy. I think they know that when they’re playing on a gameboy and their avatars jump to immense heights, perform impossible feats, and die 8 times to live again, then they realise, deep inside, that it’s not real.

On the other hand, when they see footage from Jacques Cousteau of coral reefs where these reefs are bleaching, blackened by disease or otherwise suffering, then they realise that this is real.

So I do think there is hope: it is our duty, as the older generation, to educate our kids so that they will become smarter than us (and I mean ‘kids’ and ‘generation’ in the broadest sense). One of my fondest wishes is than when my nephews become adults, they do things better and smarter than me. Then we — as the ‘older’ generation — have succeeded.

Another question is that of, for lack of a better word, indoctrination. By implicitly pointing out the things that threaten sea life in general (climate change, pollution, overfishing), is Sealife brainwashing kids? Maybe, but personally I think it’s a good counterbalance against the senseless violence in many computer games or TV series: those indoctrinate, as well.

I think the kids will be alright, if we teach them well.

Kindred Spirits, part 9

In all the kerfuffle I haven’t failed to notice Terry Bison’s interview with Kim Stanley Robinson (regular visitors know I’ve quoted the man several times on this site already). Io9 summarised it as “Dystopian Fiction Is For Slackers“, and while I mostly agree — while acknowledging that there are great dystopias, I think the form itself has become too much of an easy writing mode and a cliché — I think it oversimplifies matters.

As Kim Stanley Robinson said on the New Scientist website earlier this year, science fiction tends to see the pessimism/optimism duality too much as an either/or phenomenon, while in real life things are much more complex: they’re a mix of upbeat and downbeat, with indifference, incomprehensibility and interconnectedness thrown in for good measure, and also strongly subjective; that is dependent on and coloured by one’s personal experience, mindset and perspective.

And indeed, while he calls it ‘utopia’, what he means is not a full-on, happy clappy Pollyanna:

So, the writing of utopia comes down to figuring out ways of talking about just these issues in an interesting way; how tenuous it would be, how fragile, how much a tightrope walk and a work in progress.

This, BTW, describes the majority of the stories in both the Shine anthology and DayBreak Magazine. One clear example that you can already read is David D. Levine’s “horrorhouse“, that perfectly demonstrates ‘how tenuous, fragile’ such a ‘utopia’ (I prefer to call it a ‘better future’, meaning there’s always room for improvement, with ‘utopia’ as the ideal that can never quite be reached) is: both a ‘tightrope walk’ and always a ‘work in progress’.

Finally, I take note that if people thought that I overstated my case with the “Why I Can’t Write a Near-Future, Optimistic SF Story: the Excuses” piece (which keeps consistently getting several dozens of hits each day), well, Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t exactly pull his punches, either:

The political attacks are interesting to parse. “Utopia would be boring because there would be no conflicts, history would stop, there would be no great art, no drama, no magnificence.” This is always said by white people with a full belly. My feeling is that if they were hungry and sick and living in a cardboard shack they would be more willing to give utopia a try.

Amen to that.

(Or, as I said: “And indeed, that’s what most dystopias are: a comfort zone for unambitious writers”.)

While some do see the opportunities in utopias (and watch this space come March 19, 2010), others immediately feel the need to defend dystopias. As if these, like climate change, need defending.

Anyway, one small blessing has already occurred: new e-zine Bull Spec — whose first short is by Terry Bisson, indeed who did the ‘utopia’ interview: coincidence? — already changed their guidelines to include utopias on the theme:

“utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.”

(Which is a straight quote from the Galileo Dreams interview.) So one more market — keep track: such markets are thin on the ground — where to send an optimistic story (when they re-open on February 1 next year).

Apropos David D. Levine’s “horrorhouse“, another interesting ‘coincidence’: a few days ago New Scientist put an article called “How reputation could save the Earth“, where the influence of maintaining a good reputation is wielded to extract good (eco-friendly) behaviour:

If information about each of our environmental footprints was made public, concern for maintaining a good reputation could impact behaviour. Would you want your neighbours, friends, or colleagues to think of you as a free rider, harming the environment while benefiting from the restraint of others?

Compare this to the EcoBadge in David’s story, which was published 17 days before the New Scientist article, demonstrating that near-future SF can both be trend-setting and not age immediately.

Kindred Spirits, part 7

Via a Shine contributor (I’m not saying who. I’m not giving the ToC just yet. There will be a competition about this) I was attended to GreenPunk. I see their blog started last August 19, so it’s still early days. FWIW, my first impressions:

  • Their manifesto (or ‘statement of purpose’) is a bit too formal (and occasional over-the-top: see point C) for my taste. Caveat: I’m not a fan of manifestos. When Jason Stoddard wrote a manifesto about optimistic SF, I immediately asked him to change it to an open forum; that is, open to questioning and change. Where everybody can contribute and discuss, and is clearly and openly invited to do so. Hence the Optimistic SF Open Platform on the top of this very site.
  • I agree with several of the commenters on the io9 topic about GreenPunk: why punk? I’m so tired of -punk added to a movement. Worked with cyberpunk. Got repetitive with steampunk. Got boring with clockpunk. Got completely superfluous with every whateverpunk after that.
  • A flog to make sure the horse stays dead: the original punk movement got tired of itself by the early eighties already. Punk is dead, it’s become a product, and proclaiming your movement as ‘GreenPunk’ is about as realistic as the mohawk of the guy pictured below:GreenPunk
  • (Yes, you can buy it — for $7.89 to look cool at the next Halloween)
  • Finally — this punkhorse resurrects more often than vampires and zombies combined, unfortunately — punk is what beginning musicians produce because they can’t really play their instruments. The moment they do acquire a certain level of musicianship they start to play different music like gothic rock, hardcore and maybe eventually even metal.

Anyway, as mentioned, it’s still very early days for GreenPunk (they’re live less than a month), so time will tell if they are here to stay and produce something interesting (says the guy whose Shine blog is still a month away from its first anniversary. Life on the web is short and fast…;-). As long as they don’t go the way of the SFFEthics-that-became-the-SFFEnthusiasts, whose blog hasn’t posted anything since June 30 (says the guy who hardly posted anything last August. My excuses are a total solar eclipse in China, a WorldCon in Canada, a hacker conference in my home country, preparing for an important new project on the day job and the fact that I had to deliver the Shine MS on August 31. To say that I was extremely busy in August is an understatement: it was totally insane).

BSFA‘s Matrix Online (good to see that it’s running again after a short hiatus) has — among many other things — posted an article about Shine by Sissy Pantelis. Check it out, and thanks, Sissy!

To follow up on the “Blueprint for a Better World” post: New Scientist has posted 8 SF stories — edited by Kim Stanlay Robinson — online, calling them sci-fi: the fiction of now.

Sci-Fi SpecialIt’s typical: while I was busy writing up my piece about how the Shine anthology is coming together for SF Signal, I also thought about these 8 flash fiction pieces. I can’t help but think that most of these stories go against the spirit of what New Scientist is trying to do with the “Blueprint for a Better World” series: only Ian McDonald’s “A Little School” is somewhat, very cautiously optimistic, but the rest varies from pessimistic satires to outright apocalyptic (Geoff Ryman’s “2019: The Reality?”, Nicolla Groffith’s “Acid Rain“, Paul McAuley’s “Penance” and Stephen Baxter’s “Kelvin 2.0“). As mentioned, even the satirical pieces (Ian Watson’s “A Virtual Population Crisis“, Justina Robson’s “One Shot” and Ken McLeod’s “Reflective Surfaces” [what's in a name...;-)]) are downbeat in tone.

While I agree that it, more or less, indeed represents a proportional cut-through of the state of current written SF (overwhelmingly downbeat), I can’t help but think that it goes against the spirit of the “Blueprint for a Better World” series.

Which is, I suspect — as I am still catching up with everything, so just read today — summed up New Scientist‘s own editorial of the August 22 issue, which I would love to quote ad verbatim, but will have to refrain, and take out the tastiest morsels:

Positive thinking for a cooler world

[...] Show people this video and they will find little motivation not to carry on generating trah and burning oil like there’s no tomorrow. But tell them about the steps their peers are taking to make things better, and they may just follow suit. [...]

[...] Over at the Earth Day Network site, it gets worse. There you can find how many Earths it would take to support your lifestyle if everyone on Earth lived the same way. It’s hard to find any positive messages: a vegan who doesn’t own a car, never flies, takes public transport to work and shares a tiny appartment in a US city would still be told their lifestyle requires 3.3 Earths. It is hard to see what this is going to achieve, other than disillusioning people who are already doing their bit and telling everyone else that it isn’t worth the bother [...]

(Emphasis mine.) This almost exactly echoes the points I made on the “Why I Can’t Write a Near-Future, Optimistic SF Story: the Excuses”  post, especially the Sixth Excuse:

Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going around in SF today, we should be well on our way to paradise, as we’re being told ad nauseam what not to do. Imagining things going wrong is easy; imagining things improving is hard. It’s easier to destroy than create. I’m sick and tired of writers demonstrating five thousand different ways of destroying a house: I long for the rare few that show me how to repair it, or build a better one.

Oh well: New Scientist tries to lead by example. Will SF follow suit? Let a thousand Shines rise…

Blueprint for a Better World

Which is literally what New Scientist is saying in their weekly newletter to me (and I’m a longtime subscriber), here.

Blueprint for a better worldI know I’ve said this before (a lot of times, maybe to the point of ad nauseam), but I’m afraid it needs to be repeated, especially for a lot of thick-headed people in SF: people around the world want more than just the next doomsday scenario telling them what happens of we carry on doing the *stupid* things: what they really want (and need) is a pointer to solutions.

I really need to refrain from quoting the whole piece (“Blueprint for a Better World“) verbatim. But it’s what I’ve been saying on this very blog from the get-go. Like:

We live in an imperfect world. Poverty, disease, lack of education, environmental destruction – the problems are all too obvious. Many people don’t have clean water, let alone enough food, and the unsustainable lifestyle of the wealthy few is storing up catastrophic climate change.

Can we do anything about it? You bet we can. Technology is a double-edged sword, but science and reason have made our lives immeasurably better overall – and only through science and reason can we hope to make a real difference in the future. So here and over the next three weeks, New Scientist will explore diverse ideas for making the world a better place, and the evidence backing them.

Almost exactly as in some stories in Shine, [in part 1 this week] “we look at some radical ideas for transforming society and changing the way countries are run”.

[Next week in part 2] “We’ll report on what you as an individual can do to make a difference.” I can point to a few other stories in Shine.

[In part 3]  “We’ll explore what many see as the fundamental problem: overpopulation.” Kill me, shoot me and throw me to the wolves, but please check out The Elephant in the Room: a Foreshadowing (from December 1, last year) first.

[In part 4] “We’ll ponder the profound and long-lasting changes we are making to our home planet.” Again, I can point to several Shine stories.

Yes, I’ve delivered the final MS (manuscript) to Solaris Books. The people at Solaris are now very busy with the owner transition I mentioned in the previous post. So while I’m awaiting more info from them (release date, for one), I am confident that they will publish Shine (as per contract, and—more importantly—per intent). Apologies for the lack of replies in the past week, as I am working on several other things, which will become clear as they happen.

And no apologies as I need to ram home the really important thing: the majority of SF, and the majority of written SF in particular, sees no need in portraying a future ‘where people might actually like to live in’ (as Gardner Dozois has it in the July 2009 Locus). On the other hand, the most popular weekly scientific journal in the world DEDICATES FOUR ISSUES TO DEPICT “A BLUEPRINT FOR A BETTER WORLD”.

20090912Now who is out of touch here?

I’m very, very happy with what New Scientist is doing right now. I would be completely ecstatic if Shine would appear right after that, but it seems it’ll be early 2010. Compared by how fast written SF moves, though, it’ll still be bleeding edge.

Crazy Story Ideas, part 4A: Ageing in the EU

I mentioned that overpopulation is the elephant in the room. I mentioned I would be getting back to this point.

Elephant in the Room-Banksy_2

So here’s the comeback, initiated both by an article in a recent New Scientist issue where Sir David Attenborough spells it out, and last week’s “Planetary Boundaries and the New Generation Gap” article on Worldchanging.

Attenborough summarises the biggest problem (and why he’s a patron of the Optimum Population Trust):

There are nearly three times as many people on the planet as when Attenborough started making television programmes in the 1950s – a fact that has convinced him that if we don’t find a solution to our population problems, nature will. “Other horrible factors will come along and fix it, like mass starvation.”

World Changing talks about the huge complexity of the intertwined problems, at length, as well. However, they think we can solve our main problems:

There are plenty of reasons for despair and cynicism these days. But it’s really important not to underestimate the power of the politics of optimism, the power of actually having better ideas and answers. They are especially powerful when the people opposing us have nothing whatever to offer besides a white-knuckled grasp on a broken status quo. Their only weapons are fear, uncertainty and doubt. It’s time we counter with optimism, vision and examples. We need to counter with a future that works.

(Emphasis mine.)

We need to deal with overpopulation, and we need to deal with it in a humane way. So I am not going to accept stories where most of the world’s people are killed off in order to save the rest, or save the planet (even if we published a story like that in Interzone, “Blue Glass Pebbles” back in #205 of August 2006).

Blue Glass Pebbles

No easy way out (in a storytelling sense): thus no fabricated virusses decomating humanity, no pandemics reducing the population. Population growth needs to be curbed.

If current trends continue, we will reach a peak population of about 9 billion people in 2050, before the population will finally start to shrink. As World Changing already mentioned: “one of our biggest goals ought to be seeing to it by every ethical means possible that the wave of population growth crests sooner rather than later.”

One important way of doing that is by empowering women. Another way of curbing population growth is by increasing wealth worldwide. Because there are already countries where the population is shrinking, right here on the continent where I live: Italy, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and even the UK. Admittedly the population of these countries is still increasing, but this is through immigration. But reproduction rates in these countries have fallen below the ‘replacement rate’, that is, more people die – one hopes from ‘natural’ causes – than are born (or sub-replacement fertility levels).

Fertility_rate_world_map

This has the following effects:

  1. the median age of the population will rise (not only because of a decreased birth rate, but also because of increased longevity);
  2. the age distribution of the population will change drastically;
  3. hence, the old economic model of continuous growth will need to change to a ‘zero growth’ model;
  4. Also, a change – hopefully gradual – from a society that mines limited resources to a society that works at a (close to) 100% recycling rate;

Politically conservative forces (who, if they were really about conservation, should be championing green policies like mad) will baulk at the prospect of a shrinking population, mired as they are in the old ways of thinking: the economy should *always* grow, the young should take care of the old, so we need more young people than old ones. Now this is where SF – supposedly the literature of change – comes in: we need to imagine a society with a shrinking population that works. And the place that is at the forefront of that particular dynamic is the European Union.

So why not imagine a story about ageing in the EU.

(Actually, people outside SF are already thinking in that direction. I particulary remember a special ‘future’ issue of Dutch magazine Intermediair – which is basically a carreer-oriented magazine for the well-educated – of about a year ago that predominantly dealt with the effects of an ageing population. It’s not online, AFAIK.)

For one, showing that an ageing society with a sub-replacement fertility rate works sets a good example to the developing world. Quite simply because it would be extremely hypocritical of the West to ask of the developing world to reduce their fertility levels if we weren’t doing it ourselves, and it would hugely help this all-important cause if we can show them that such a society is a happy one.

Thus, the EU not only needs to deal with an ageing population and its subsequent demographics, but make it a shining example, as well.

First thing is to ditch with the contemporary cultural notion that young = cool and old = uncool. It’s bullshit: young and old are just different stages in a human life. Both have their pros and cons, and while the pros of youth have been widely overexposed, it’s time to set the spotlight on the pros of maturity.

For one, as Bruce Sterling chimes in at Beyond the Beyond: an ageing population isn’t apt to support extremist movements. He surmises it’s “Not because we’re any smarter, but because we lack the brio”. Hm: I greatly disagree. My mother, now 72, is still very active and helps out handicapped people on a Red Cross boat. What I suspect is that this older demographic might indeed be a bit wiser – on average – and just won’t put up with it.

Also, as longevity increases I see a lot of active retirees in my direct environment. Like my mother, they do huge amounts of volunteer work. Actually, women – on average – live longer than men, so we’ll be seeing an increased amount of active, experienced and – dare I say – wiser women. Which is, I think, certainly not a bad thing: rather the contrary.

For another, what happened to the way of thinking that tried to turn a liability into an assett? For example, we need to do away with the ingrained notion that a healthy economy must grow, grow, grow forever. It should be abundantly clear by now that we live on a planet with limited resources, so the most logical answer to deal with those resources is a ‘zero-growth’ or ‘steady-state’ (the latter is from the early 70s: so it’s not a new idea) economy.

zero growth symbol

Thus, the EU with its ageing population needs to change over to a zero growth model anyway (and its economic growth was already relatively low, which did not hamper the quality of living in Europe: rather the contrary).

Also, while we’re at it, it’s also in the EU’s (and the world’s) best interest to, indeed, develop the developing countries. So the EU should take down its tariff walls first and foremost. Yes, this will adversely affect several EU industries and the agricultural sector. But both need to adapt to the new circumstances, and it better to do this sooner rather than later (as is demonstrated by the three big car industries in the US).

Also, the EU should invest heavily in placing huge solar cell plants (like those already made in Germany and Spain) in the Sahara: this benefits both Africa and Europe. It will help develop Africa, bringing wealth to it, and remember that wealthy societies tend towards sub-replacement fertility rates and that population growth is highest in Africa. It will increase green energy production (and oil independency) on both continents, and generate labour and economic activities as those plants are being built, and huge power cables are laid across the Meditarranean.

morocsol

I can see a forerunner role for Spain and Morocco in this: for one, Spain already knows how to make huge solar collectors; for another the distance between spain and Morrocco is the smallest (the Strait of Gibraltar is about 20 kilometres wide), and finally they can do a political/economical tit-for-tat: Spain releases its claim on the Western Sahara in exchange for a hundred year warranty of energy delivered at a premium price.

Then Italy and Greece can make similar energy connections to Libia and Egypt, France can use its old ties with Algeria for a similar energy synergetic connection.

In short: yes, there will be a peak population. This is the bottleneck the world needs to pass through. However, we can try to minimalise the effects of that bottleneck twofold:

  1. Work on making that population peak lower than 9 billion;
  2. Work on making that population peak happen sooner than 2050;

And at the same time accelerate the change-over to a sustainable, green economy which will not only help us pass through that bottleneck with minimal damage, but also pave the way for the new society behind it.

This is getting a bit long, so I’ll be doing the actual *story* idea in part 4B, which I hope to post before, or over the weekend.

UPDATE: (OK: part 2 is delayed. I’m busy.) Just in today via De Volkskrant: “Agreement about Solar Power from the Sahara“. Article in Dutch, but links to the Desert Industrial Initiative, and I see that ABB is involved, as well. Together with Siemens (mentioned in the paragraph below), these are two of the absolute top technological companies in the world (yes: I know this from direct experience in the day job). So this is *very* serious business, indeed!

But the gist of it: a consortium of mainly German companies — Siemens, RWE, Eon, Deutsche Bank, Münchener Rück (a re-insurance company) and Cevital (an Algerian food company), amongst others — want to supply 15% of Europe’s energy from solar power in the Sahara by 2050. Check out the awesome concept on this PDF file.

stage-conceptOK: so I predicted it would be Spanish, Italian, Greek or even French companies, but was wrong: it’s the Germans who want to go there first. Nevertheless, the idea is sound, and yet hardly anybody (to the best of my knowledge: do absolutely feel free to correct me) dares to use this — sorry to say — fairly straightforward prediction in their science fiction.

It’s not *that* hard, right? And in my very outspoken opinion most readers will *remember* a story for making a correct prediction about the principle (Europe receiving huge amounts of solar power from the Sahara, benefitting both Africa and Europe), and *forgive* the very same story for getting the details wrong (it’ll be German/Algerian companies instead of Spanish/Moroccon ones).

So, you SF writers out there: do you still dare?

Kindred Spirits, part 6

It’s either running or standing still with the observation of kindred spirits: for weeks I notice nothing, then I see three (UPDATE: nay, five) in a single day.

Here’s what caught my eye:

10. Contemporary literature not confronting issues of general urgency; dominant best-sellers are in former niche genres such as fantasies, romances and teen books.

I will now give a definitive answer despite my lack of expertise (yay Internet!)—Japanese SF is fresher and more enthusiastic than American SF.

and:

Japanese SF, especially the near-future material, is somewhat more interested in expressing hopes for international cooperation than is American SF.

  • Dresden Codak: a webcomic (infrequently updated) by Aaron Diaz stuffed to the brim with nerdy goodness like physics, philosophy, robot girls, impending singularities and more.  Hard to resist a heroine (Kimiko) who is — in a game called Dungeons and Discourse — an ’8th level positivist’ who casts ‘techno-utopianism’ — and whose mother — in part 21 of Hob — tells her the following:

(Mother) “Are you excited about going to America?”

(Young Kimiko) “No. Why do we have to leave?”

(Mother) “Oh, I think we just scared the wrong kind of people.”

(Young Kimiko) “Who?”

(Mother) “People who lack vision. They only see the obvious. They see the sun go down, but they don’t see it rise.”

  • The Don’t Look Back comic of Dicebox aside. Patrick Farley‘s on a (rock’n’)roll here with a dizzying crossover of 70s psychedelica & SF, space guitars with nothing but captains, freaks & uptights, prog & Prague, the green sun & choiciest choices. As infrequently updated as Dresden Codak, unfortunately, but at least as much fun. Unlike Hob, it hasn’t reached the end yet, and I’m eagerly awaiting more from this Apocalyptic Utopian.

Interesting times!

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