Post Summit-Series (posts here and here), I'm having these fascinating long-distance conversations with young American entrepreneurs and activists, who are trying to wrestle with the ethics of what they're calling "radical innovation" - the step-change invention (from cuneform writing to Craig Venter hiding a URL and quotes from James Joyce in the DNA of a synthetic cell; from the wheel to the superefficient solar panel) that changes civilization inescapably. (All this in the context of futurist Ray Kurzweil who spoke at the conference in Washington, anticipating what he called a 'Singularity' of technological advance that redefines basic questions of life, society and sentience).
What I bring to the party, from my own play theorising, is captured in this lightly edited (and anonymised) part of our exchanges below. The discussants are seeking to establish some kind of brand/marketing idea for radical innovation - how, in an eco-anxious and fearful age, there can be a better story about technological transformation that steers between the extremes of Luddism and boosterism. (And if anyone's wondering what this has to do with recent fevered discussions about 'poverty porn', it's this: instead of documentaries that sneer at people who have lost the psychic battle with consumer culture, it might be interesting to concentrate on that generation of 'makers' who want to build their social future as easily as they can make a website or hack a mobile phone).
Here's my 50 cents:
Pat Kane / Playing the Future
If the question was "what is the language that can make people comfortable with radical innovation as a permanent feature of our long-term future?", I would have said that you have to first engage in a bit of a battle about human nature. If it is "natural" for humans to innovate, to transform their conditions, to use their abstracting powers to shape nature - ie, if it is natural for us to be unnatural - then we need a language in which the "nature of being unnatural" makes sense, seems descriptive of who we are. Rather than (as some environmentalists would have it) that we're some kind of maladaptation, far too unstable and destructive a presence in our biota, which 'The Earth' as an overall evolved system will decide - is deciding - to get rid of.
For me, that language for the last ten years has been the language of play. And at the moment, I think it's become one of the few keywords of real resonance and authority in recent years. Play is where we 'take reality lightly', where we take joy in crossing boundaries and limits - but it's also where we complex mammals develop and learn, neotenically through our entire lives. By being 'unnatural' in play, we express and develop our true nature.
There are a number of deep ideas trends that have been supporting this new centrality of play - for one, the advance of complex adaptive systems thinking through all areas of business, governance and even pop culture (Wired etc), which knows that healthy systems have 'play' in them, and are populated by dynamic 'players', rather than cogs in machines. This blends over into the advanced sciences of human nature - eg positive psychology and neuroscience - both of which have encouraged us to look at early child development, and the plasticity of the brain through that, as crucially shaped by our play experiences. When we see education systems throughout the world making major policy changes to extend kindergarten experiences to 6 and 7, delaying the moment of formal education, they're doing so under the pressure of mind-science that's telling them how important the play moment is to the development of their future productive citizens.
So it's not the only theme you could deploy, but I certainly think that putting "the right to play" front and centre of any movement about radical innovation - not just for kids' development, but for adults too - would be one way to "naturalise" our "unnatural" response to the challenges we collectively face.
Play is often misunderstood as either triviality or extremism (though of course its phenomena can be both). Play is properly understood as risky behaviour where the consequences are not fatal - because we (or our authorities, whether governments or lionnesses on a savannah) have secured enough safety, distance from scarcity and tolerance for messiness for our explorations to be educative, developmental. So seeing radical innovation for the long term as a play zone, also implies a level of safety-guaranteeing governance. (It's worth noting that the amount of bioethics that Venter went through to get to his synthentic life molecule showed that he wasn't interested in 'playing God', but in 'playing civilisation' - taking the risk of creating an a-life, but having it buffered and filtered through stable public institutions).
In valuing radical innovation, people need to be assured that this isn't going to be some kind of terrifying, extropic SF scenario - this is what's good about Kurzweil's calmly rising exponentials as images of change; they at least look swooping, elegant, rather than the jagged, unsettling lines of stock-market activity. We need a way to think about how we build the institutions, and their consensuses of value and ethics, that can help us direct radical innovation as a contribution to our growth, health and development, than a dangerous unravelling of all of those. I'd suggest that what you'd be trying to do here is to build a robust and sustainable 'ground of play'.
There are many old hippie coots still active at the moment - Stuart Brand, Kevin Kelly, Brian Eno, Danny Hillis, the whole Edge crew - for whom the establishment of a 'ground of play' would be intuitive. (In fact, one way to look at uber-old-hippie Steve Jobs's almost paternalistic total-designing of his information appliances is that he's establishing exactly that 'ground of play' for the info-sphere - creative interactivity and expressivity, but in an environment free from predation and disaster. And there, we might get into a discussion about different parenting styles...) But in any case, I think we have the news in from the mind and systems sciences to justify the importance of that ground in a powerful way.
A fascinating first day at the Summit Series in Washington. I have to say it was a somewhat minatory beginning. The SuperShuttle bus takes you on a long drive from Dulles Airport to Pennsylvania Avenue; and on the way to the classically-architected government buildings, poking up through the forest, you pass the tombstone office blocks of the military-industrial complex, ushering you into the seat of American power. (For the record, by increasing order of proximity to the White House, it goes Gruman Northrop, Oracle, Unisys, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin).
Which means that when you arrive at the MT Marriott, the scenes of loose and happy youthful revelry are quite a relief. Summit Series began as a 90-strong charity fund-raising ski-trip put together by a young events organiser called Elliot Bisnow: with Mercedes Benz, Microsoft and Blackberry as main sponsors, the entertainment-industrial complex is driving the bacchanal.
New York Times described the first two Summit Series as “MTV meets Davos”. And as you can see from my little iPhone captured mood-video above, there's a distinct anthropological behaviour to be described there. So far, it's tribes of handsome young beta-males (I'd say gender split was 80% masculine, and all aiming to match the Platonic idea of Jake Gyllenhal on the cover of the complementary GQ), gripping their beers in tricked-out bars and velcroing themselves to passer-bys, who bear equally sandwich-board-like conference passes. The encounter ritual involves about five minutes of elevator-pitching on their commercial or social enterprise, then a click of our MingleSticks to exchange contact information by infrared (intended to replace the bizcard, but only if you fill in the template: I'm sticking to wood-pulp-and-ink for now), and then falling back into the melee.
Is this the kind of hellish networking nightmare I'm usually dialling a helicopter to be lifted out of? No, not really. To be fair to the organisers, they've set out a list of very communitarian guidelines for behaviour here – “go on a learning safari, be cool, make lifelong friends, embrace Summit Series”. The excited hubbub of the evening reminds me forcefully that the Millenial generation, for all their technologically-enabled distance from, and discrimination about, the old demands of the work ethic, still need collective experiences to affirm their freelance status, their post-organisational lightness of being. There is a pleasing openness to most of the participants here – an implicit sense that everybody here is to some degree in process, rather than commandingly authoritative. I actually like it (even though, as my play-self struggles with my residual Catholic-Calvinism, I can't always respond equally).
The social enterprise mantra of “doing well by doing good” is absolutely presumed here. As you'll get from a sample of the video above, the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons switched unconcernedly between R'n'B-inflected corporate ambition (“yeah I got a Maybach, I'm selling my financial services company, I build brands”), hard-core spiritual inquiry (he works with David Lynch to promote Transcendental Meditation), and a range of education-oriented good works in the ghettos of America and Africa.
On an education panel, the soul singer and social entrepreneur John Legend [bit blurry in the vid, but you can hear him] came over to me as what we would recognise in the UK as an educational conservative – keen to “root out bad teachers”, as if educational attainment was only about poor pedagogy (Micheal Gove may be on the line to you soon, John). As a spectacle of African-American enterprise leadership in the age of Obama, Simmons and Legend were indeed something to see. They were a challenge to this surrender-monkey European social-democrat, though I suspect entirely consonant with the new UK centre-right government, with its enthusiasm for social enterprise over the state.
But there's one other thought in my mind I'm struggling with as I get ready for the second day (my panel is at 12.00pm, EST). The outrageously leftist but critically useful Slavonian philosopher Slavoj Zizek once wrote an article in 2006, observing the Davos circus at its peak. In it he called the emancipatory pronouncements of the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros (and no doubt, tonight's Bill Clinton) as a kind of “liberal communism”. Zizek sums up their mantra:
1. You shall give everything away free (free access, no copyright); just charge for the additional services, which will make you rich.
2. You shall change the world, not just sell things.
3. You shall be sharing, aware of social responsibility.
4. You shall be creative: focus on design, new technologies and science.
5. You shall tell all: have no secrets, endorse and practise the cult of transparency and the free flow of information; all humanity should collaborate and interact.
6. You shall not work: have no fixed 9 to 5 job, but engage in smart, dynamic, flexible communication.
7. You shall return to school: engage in permanent education.
8. You shall act as an enzyme: work not only for the market, but trigger new forms of social collaboration.
9.You shall die poor: return your wealth to those who need it, since you have more than you can ever spend
10.You shall be the state: companies should be in partnership with the state.
I'd guess that these principles would be taken up as a rallying manifesto by the vast majority of these participants (I quite like it myself). But Zizek, ever the demystifyer, thinks this is the most seductive and enveloping of smoke-screens. The emphasis on philanthropy means that you have to get it all before you give it away, thus keeping basic structures of general exploitation in place (meaning the outsourcing of manual labour, developed “us” “helping” under-developed “them”).
There is a dimension of this at Summit Series – seminars from frankly creepy people like David Rubenstein from The Carlyle Group, at least two session on “outsourcing your life”, and of course the great and troubling triangulator himself, Bill Clinton, speaking tonight. But what's interesting about this particular event, and what sets it apart from the grim, pinched determinations of a Davos-style elite, is that it also embraces a vision of human material abundance accessible to all, which any trad Communist – even Zizek – would surely approve of.
The technologist and futurist Ray Kurzweil did a keynote on the Singularity at last night's dinner (some of which is on the video below). Now no matter what you think of the solidity or reliability of Kurzweil's predictions about the inevitable and exponentially-explosive power of technological innovation – and there are dissenters – he undoubtedly draws our attention to that most human of faculties: our linguistic, rational powers of transformative invention. We are gripped in a great paradox, a version of which Jeremy Rifkin tries to point at in his new book The Empathic Civilisation. Exactly at the moment where environmental limitations may enforce upon us something which at best could be Tim Jackson's “Prosperity without Growth”, and at worst something much more brutal, we may be about to witness a convergence of biological, nanotechnological and computational powers that redraw the very boundaries of what we understand as “energy”, “materials”, “sustainability”,”health”, “nutrition”, even “consciousness”.
My conduit to this community, Jason Silva (who I'm just about to meet, I better hurry) urges us to remember the old Whole Earth mantra: “We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it”.
I've always agreed with that. My own struggle – which the phrase the Play Ethic sums up, and which I'm increasingly concerned with in my writing and research – is to reconcile our innate human powers of transformation and invention, our ability to “melt all that is solid into air” as Marx said, with the kind of robust collective structures that can ensure the good, inclusive society (see my previous post here).
So I'm going into the second day with an open mind, looking for clues (and fellow soulitarians!) with whom I can have these conversations. Any Summitteers who get this post from the internal tweets, I'd love to hear your responses, and seek me out if you'd like to talk at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now here's an adventure... I've been invited to speak on a panel, and hang about for three days, at an invitation-only event called the Summit Series in Washington DC. May 13-16th 2010 - here's my session, titled “Media for Change”.
It has a pretty high-powered cast-list. From the heights of the US power structures (Bill Clinton, Ted Turner, the MD of Carlyle Group David Rubenstein, a clutch of White House “innovation officers”), through scientists and gurus (from the edges - long-life techno-advocates Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey De Gray – to the founders of Craigslist and Second Life, as well as quite a few health and yoga masters), to a decent sprinkling of Tinseltown glamour (R'n'B titans John Legend and Russell Simmons, Peter Petrelli from Heroes, the MD of Variety, an Estee Lauder 'spokesmodel').
But the driving force of the event is the twenty-something organisers' belief that they are the “Millenial leaders” - a generation born in the 80's, but getting ready to take power (see this NYT article which captures their culture well , and their press page). Their agenda seems (from this event) to be a heady mix of social and tech- entrepreneurship, dreams of human life extension and techno-utopianism, and a lot of 'playing hard' - they have a 'Revelry' strand which involves hip DJs and jam bands, 'altruistic' dating casinos and paintballing.
My entry point is through the inimitable duo of Jason Silva and Max Lugavere, hot young anchors of Al Gore's Current TV network (and known in the US press as “Al's boys”) - both of whom are big fans of my ideas, and particularly Jason, who's something of an ardent transhumanist and futurist. Here's his Huff Post columns, and below is a teaser for his forthcoming documentary (in which I am planned to appear) called 'Turning Into Gods' (from the old Stuart Brand saw, "we are as gods and we might as well get good at it").
I'm going to write about this event in some form or other over the next few months, and will gather much material while I'm there (interviews, podcasts, etc), as well as blog from the event.
But I seems I am being caught up - from my Glasgow/London perch, sending out memes about the Play Ethic - in a new wave of Gen Y/Millenials-era public entrepreneurship in America. They are naturally globalist in outlook, completely native to the internet society, optimistic about growth (but in a green- and socially-centred way), and seek a new justification for their enterprise which gets beyond the Puritan work ethic (which is, I guess, why I've been invited). And (of course) they're inspired by Obama's victory, which has given them a new political horizon of successful activism.
On the eve of a UK election which has possibly registered a million extra younger voters, will we begin to see the same urge here for a generation to identify themselves as "millenials" quite so self-consciously?