I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that
man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the
last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last
worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening,
that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his
puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this.
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.
He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an
inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable
of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.The poet’s, the
writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to
help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the
courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and
pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.The
poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one
of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
—William Faulkner, Nobel Prize
acceptance speech, December 10, 1950
Today La Mesilla (the name means “the little tableland”) is fewer than
30 miles north of the border between Mexico and the United States. But
the boundaries move a lot in these parts. In 1598—9 years before the
Cavaliers landed in Virginia and 22 years before the Pilgrims arrived at
Plymouth Rock—the conquistador Don Juan de Oñate here led some of
the first permanent European settlers into what would become the
United States. For more than two centuries, Spain brought to this region
the cross and the sword. The Pueblo Indians responded with mixed emotions.
The Apaches and later the Comanches responded with great violence.
In 1821, when it achieved independence, this empire became
Mexico. Two and a half decades later, Americans, pursuing their Manifest
Destiny, declared war and in 1848 began the process of turning the northern
half of Mexico into all or some of California, Nevada, Arizona, New
Mexico, Colorado and Utah. Because of a surveyor’s mistake, however, a
band of territory including La Mesilla wound up still in dispute, claimed
by both Old Mexico and the United States. The Yankees didn’t resolve
that border issue in their favor until just before the Civil War. Then came
the Rebels, who grabbed La Mesilla in 1861 and claimed a vast dominion
as part of the Confederacy. It took a year for the Union to reclaim it.
(New Mexico became the 47th state only in 1912.)
After the borders got straightened out, you’d think things would have
settled down in La Mesilla—or just Mesilla, as it is more familiarly
known. But no. The area west of the Pecos was now called the New
Mexico Territory, and it was as wild and lawless as ever the West was.
People from as far as Chihuahua and Tucson came to Mesilla to attend
bullfights, cockfights and dances called bailes, and visit the town’s bars,
pool halls and even a bowling alley. It was not uncommon for differences
to be settled in the streets with gunfights. The children of Mesilla practiced
the quick draw with their little wooden pistols, mimicking their
teenage hero, William Henry McCarty, alias Kid Antrim, alias William
H. Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, who was said to have killed more men
than he had years of age. At the jail and courthouse on the southeast corner
of the plaza, The Kid was tried and sentenced to hang in 1881 for the
killing of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady.When The Kid escaped
after being transported to the northern part of the Territory to hang,
Sheriff Pat Garrett tracked him down and shot him dead at the age of 19,
20 or 21—estimates vary, as his birth date is a surmise.
In the ensuing century, since the railroad and the Interstate passed it by,
Mesilla has seen little change, some chroniclers claim. But that’s not right.
Granted, a lot of the residents are direct descendants of the rugged original
settlers—Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo. (Mesilla’s still the kind
of place where people make distinctions between being “Spanish” and
being “Mexican.” It’s an ancient issue of Hispanic authenticity that hinges
on how many centuries ago your ancestors got here, as well as who is
browner than whom.)
One of the foremost connoisseurs today of whether Mesilla is closer to
the ancient world or the universe of curving change is Jaron Lanier.
Lanier, who was born in 1960, has vivid memories of how much Mesilla
resembled a frontier when he was growing up there.
Jaron Zepel Lanier today is one of the world’s more startling combinations
of philosopher, creative artist and computer scientist. Learned journals
have published his articles on the philosophy of consciousness and
information—like how you might tell whether an intelligent entity is a
zombie or whether there is actually somebody home inside. He says his
book, Technology and the Future of the Human Soul, will be finished someday,
despite epic procrastination. He is a professional “new classical”
recording artist who writes chamber and orchestral compositions, including
a triple concerto commissioned by the National Endowment for the
Arts and the American Composers Forum. In his Berkeley, California,
home he maintains some 1,300 musical instruments, many of them exotic,
all of them playable and all of which he can play. They include a glass
harmonica invented by Benjamin Franklin, consisting of a series of rotating
glass cylinders that produces haunting harmonies when played with a
finger wetted in vinegar. Then there is the world’s biggest fully chromatic
modern flute, 16 feet tall, and the full-size pipe organ. He believes his to
be the largest and most varied collection actively played by one person in
the world. Paintings and drawings by Lanier have been exhibited in museums
and galleries in the United States and Europe.
He is best known, however, for inventing “virtual reality” as a shared experience,
and naming it. In his early 20s Lanier founded VPL Research—
yes, in a garage in California. It was the first company to provide research
labs around the world with the then-almost-magical virtual-reality paraphernalia.
When he was 24, his groundbreaking work made the cover of
Scientific American. Few recent innovations have had such consequences. It
is difficult to buy an automobile or fly in an airplane today that wasn’t designed
in virtual reality. The petroleum to fuel them was probably found
with Lanier’s inventions. City planning, building design, surgery and scientific
visualization—especially of molecules important to the creation of
new drugs and the understanding of proteins and genes—are being rede-
fined by virtual-reality imaging. So is the training of police, firefighters,
emergency response teams and the military.
In the early 21st century, Lanier was the chief scientist of Advanced
Network and Services, the engineering office of Internet2—a coalition of
180 American research universities sharing an experimental next-generation
network so powerful that when they fired it up, lights dimmed all over
campus, or so the story goes. He led the National Tele-Immersion Initiative.
It aimed to create alternative worlds in which people at distant sites
work together in a shared, simulated environment that makes them feel as
if they were in the same room.
“Our social contract with our own tools has brought us to a point
where we have to decide fairly soon what it is we humans ought to become,
because we are on the brink of having the power of creating any
experience we desire,” writes Howard Rheingold, an analyst of technology’s
impact on society. Virtual reality “represents a kind of new contract
between humans and computers, an arrangement that could grant us
great power, and perhaps change us irrevocably in the process.”
Lanier is sufficiently renowned that on the rare occasions when he visits
his hometown, people in Mesilla recognize him on the street. That’s
not so difficult, as he is quite a sight. Lanier has grown up to be a vast bear
of a man. A panda bear, actually, is what comes to mind as he pads around
in his sandals. His eyes are blue. His skin is so pale as to verge on the albino.
His hair naturally falls into sandy brown dreadlocks. They hang
below his waist. As he talks, they constantly fly about. No one ever mistakes
Lanier for somebody else. Lanier today is far and away the most famous
son of Mesilla, New Mexico.
Lanier still isn’t entirely sure why his father and mother, Ellery and Lillian,
an intellectual and an artist, respectively, chose to move from New York City
to Mesilla shortly after the birth of their only child. As recently as Lanier’s
Vietnam-era childhood, few of Mesilla’s streets were paved. There was no
television—no signal reached that far. Buildings made out of adobe—walls
of dried mud as much as two and a half feet thick—were still common.
“The houses were always in a state of being dissolved” during the rare but
torrential desert rains, he recalls. “Every single thing was in a constant state
of melting back into the elements. It was a constant struggle to rebuild. It
was this odd world of constant decay. Strange world. A lot of death play.”
When Lanier was growing up, Doña Ana County, in which Mesilla is
located, was the second poorest in the United States. “There were diseases
that just shouldn’t still have existed in America. There were deformities,”
he says. Cruelty and violence were a part of life. Lanier especially
remembers one of his classmates drowning in the school swimming pool.
Lanier’s recollection of the incident is that it was common knowledge
that his classmates had murdered the child and “he deserved it because he
was unpopular and I was next.”
Lanier’s father was a writer for fiction magazines, his mother a concert
pianist who also was the family’s primary breadwinner. They managed because
of her pioneering remote stock trading, buying and selling on Wall
Street by phone from the yucca-punctuated desert. “I lived down that
ditch,” he remarks today, pointing to an irrigation canal. Mesilla is now
showing signs of wealth he does not remember from his childhood. People
are using metal for fencing, not just woven twigs. The park now has grass.
Lanier had a singular upbringing, which shapes him and his views
about the future of human nature. “My childhood is divided into two
pieces—when my mom was alive and after she died. When she was alive
it was a childhood that was kind of structured in a nice house kept nicely.”
Then she died, suddenly, in a horrible automobile accident. Lanier was
nine. “The year after my mom died I just spent in a hospital trying to
die.” He suffered a succession of diseases. “I have a lost year there,” he
says. He recalls little of man’s first landing on the moon that year.
Meanwhile, “my father made some disastrous financial decisions. We
ended up utterly impoverished. We moved to this cheap piece of land and
we lived in tents.” Trying to recoup, Lanier’s father—always something of a
bohemian—decided to erect a homemade home. Astoundingly, he let his
strange, brilliant, motherless child design it. The result was spectacularly,
predictably unpredictable. “I designed this crazy building,” Lanier recalls.
Lanier had read a book by the creator of The Whole Earth Catalog lauding
the charms of geodesic domes. Many years later he would meet the
author, Stewart Brand. “The first time I ever met Stewart I said, ‘You
know, I grew up in a dome,’ and his first words to me were, ‘Did it
leak?’ ” Lanier, sputtering, replied, “Of course it leaked; what were you
thinking?” A rant ensued concerning malpractice. Nonetheless, it was
quite a structure. “This house wasn’t made only of domes. It had some
fantastic crystal forms and weird spires and towers and jutting parts. I
mean, it was a really strange house.” Much of it has since fallen down.
Architectural follies, of course, hardly began to resolve the central issue
of a preteen’s life, even if “you couldn’t really build a dome without some
“The degree to which I was a social failure is impossible to even state,”
he says. “It was just extreme beyond . . .” Lanier trails off. It was beyond
not having friends. People surrounding him were utterly “mean-spirited,
hostile and threatening. If I’d been in any normal place, some kind of serious
intervention would have happened. The Spanish and the Mexicans
despised each other, the Indians were darkly depressed and just swallowed
by hopelessness, and the white culture was redneck—extremely intolerant,
boorish, violent and uneducated. They were warring camps. It was
just a terribly mean-spirited environment that I happened to be in. I figured
out how to connect to people socially much later in life than most
people do. In the technical academic world you meet a lot of awkward
young men in the math department or whatever. People are always saying,
‘Oh, we have a real weirdo this semester,’ and there will be some
hairy creature in some little dingy basement room who is sort of suckling
on a computer.”
He laughs. “I mean, they don’t even know the meaning of awkward
young technical guy. They don’t even know the beginning of the meaning.
But I got it eventually. It was just very hard. I remember I would go into
a little convenience store and my goal would be to buy something without
creating a scene.Without embarrassing myself. I had to practice that.”
In this world, any connections were magical. One night when he was
11, the phone system went crazy. Suddenly, “all the phone lines were
connected together, so if you picked it up there were hundreds of people.
It was kids, and they were all talking to each other. There were all these
floating voices. It was just this one night, and what was cool about it, for
me, it was like the thing on the Internet where no one knows you’re a
dog. That was an amazing moment for me.”
When he was 14, he found refuge in a summer program for highschoolers
at New Mexico State University in nearby Las Cruces. There,
“I think I went through developmental stages that people usually go
through pre-puberty—in terms of learning how to have conversations
and stuff. I started to learn how to talk to people.”
By today’s standards, New Mexico State—home of the Aggies, reflecting
its rural heritage—was a glorified community college. But because of New
Mexico’s role in nuclear weapons development it harbored a few math,
physics and engineering faculty members with world-class minds. The
Manhattan Project scientists had been hidden in Los Alamos up by Santa Fe.
The White Sands Missile Range is nearby, as is the Trinity site at Alamogordo,
where the world’s first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945.
Thus, a neighbor was Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto. His backyard
bristled with telescopes, which he let the young Lanier use. Tombaugh
was in charge of designing optical missile trackers at White Sands.
At the end of that summer, Lanier decided okay, I am simply not leaving.
He had not graduated from high school, but he was more than clever
enough to obfuscate the paperwork. “I just stayed in college instead of
going back to high school, and that actually started to work.”
The most astonishing thing about New Mexico State was that, thanks
to the federal government’s interest in nukes, it had a computer facility
that Lanier describes as “kick-ass.” Some of the pioneers of graphical representation came out of there. This was a very big deal. Graphical repre-
sentation is what the trash can image on your desktop is all about. It’s
at the heart of the point-and-click system that you take for granted in
Windows. It’s also the foundation of all the games that today pull in more
money than do Hollywood box office receipts. As a result of his experience
there, Lanier wound up as a programmer in Silicon Valley, joining
what commentator Jon Katz calls “an inconspicuous movement, attracting
millions of intelligent, technologically aware, community-oriented,
self-described outsiders, mesmerized by finding themselves in a club that
will not only take them in, but puts them in charge.”
Today Lanier lives very near the crest of the Berkeley Hills in a stunning
place adventurously created with the help of “an avant-garde seismic
engineer.” It has a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The
down payment came from his cashing out of a recent start-up company.
Still without a diploma of any kind, Lanier almost absentmindedly collects
faculty appointments that keep him on the transcontinental jets he
professes to loathe. These postings include the engineering school of
Dartmouth, the business school of the University of Pennsylvania, the
arts school of New York University, and the computer science department
of Columbia. The Micronesian island chain of Palau has issued a
postage stamp honoring him. In his spare time he is fundamentally rethinking
the historical underpinnings of all computers. He believes the
way they work now is whacked. There has got to be a better way.
When faced by the prospect of a sudden transformation of human nature,
Ray Kurzweil, Bill Joy and Jaron Lanier each responds from the
deep recesses of his soul. Kurzweil worships the power of ideas to resolve
all problems; Joy in his lonely fashion engages death; Lanier attributes all
his subsequent work to finding “the connection I lost.”
The thinking of Kurzweil, Joy and Lanier describes a triangle. Lanier’s
is not some middle vision between that of Kurzweil and Joy. He is off
in an entirely other territory that pokes and prods their technological determinism.
Lanier agrees with Kurzweil that it is not tremendously likely
that you can stop radical evolution by willing it gone. He agrees with Joy
that The Curve could lead to mortal dangers. Yet Lanier would not relinquish
transcendence even were that possible. Indeed, he views the
prospect of exploring all the ways humans could expand their connections
as the greatest adventure on which the species has ever embarked. Lanier’s
critical difference is that he does not see The Curve yielding some inevitable,
preordained result, as in the fashion of the Heaven and Hell Scenarios.
“If it turns out Bill or Ray are right, I’ll be disappointed mostly
because it’s such a profoundly dull and unheroic outcome,” he says. “It’s
such a gizmo outcome. There is no depth to it at all.”
Lanier believes it is well within the power of the species to transcend
to something far beyond the current understanding of human nature. He
just views as sterile the prospect of uploading some portion of our brains
into computers. Instead, he pictures a rich and tasty brew of opportunities.
He can see a vast array of transcendences. He imagines humans making
intelligent decisions, exercising creative control. If you were graphing
Lanier’s idea, it would not be represented by smooth curves, either up or
down, as in the first two scenarios. It would doubtless have fits and starts,
hiccups and coughs, reverses and loops—not unlike the history we humans
always have known. It would be messy and chaotic, like humans
themselves. Technology would not be in control. It would not be on rails,
inexorably deciding human affairs. At the same time, the outcome would
definitely involve radical change.
I call visions like this The Prevail Scenario.
UNCERTAINTY SUFFUSES The Prevail Scenario. For Lanier, that’s not a bug.
It’s a feature. “The univers doesn’t provide us a way to have absolute truth,”
he says. “I am not fanatical about my ideas. I’m perfectly happy to see where
there are holes in them. This idea is something I believe—in the sense that I
act on it. But let me tell you the trap I want to avoid falling into.” He judges
Kurzweil and Joy to be “severe exaggerators and overstaters. Their reasoning
is similar to that of a paranoid person in that they find only the little bits that
fit into their worldview and build this cage in which they imprison themselves.
I’m not willing to be a fanatic and demand that people see that every bit of data
supports my view. I want to be given the latitude to present my own thing more
softly. I actually perceive it with less of a sense of certainty and bullheadedness. It’s just my best guess.”
His key point about The Prevail Scenario: “I will argue for perceiving a
gradual ramp of increased bridging of the interpersonal gap. I believe that
that’s demonstrable. I do not perceive it as being an exponential increase. I
do not perceive it as something where there is an economy of scale and it’s
compounding itself and it’s heading towards some asymptotic point. I am
not saying it’s accelerating.” The Prevail Scenario, he’s saying, is measured
by its impact on human society. He is specifically arguing that even if technology
is on a curve, its impact is not. This is why he is skeptical about the
idea of a Singularity—technology increasing so quickly as to create an imminent
and cataclysmic upheaval in human affairs.
In his version of The Prevail Scenario, Lanier is talking about transcendence
through an “infinite game.” “The future that I’m trying to find
is one where people are in the center and there’s this ever-expanding
game of connecting people that creates a game into the future.”
James P. Carse, the emeritus director of religious studies and professor of
the history of literature at NYU, in 1986 published a book called Finite and
Infinite Games. In it, Carse describes the familiar contests of everyday life—
games played in business and politics, in the bedroom and on the battle-
field. Finite games have winners and losers, a beginning and an end. Finite
players try to control the game, predict everything that will happen, and set
the bottom line in advance. They are serious and determined about getting
that outcome. They try to fix the future based on the past.
Players of infinite games, by contrast, enjoy being surprised. Continuously
running into something one didn’t know will ensure that the game
will go on forever. The meaning of the past changes depending on what
happens in the future. “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning,
an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play,” Carse says.
Infinite games never end, for they are unscripted and unpredictable.
Carse sees them as more rewarding, and Lanier vibrates to this chord. Finite
players play within the rules. Infinite players play with the rules. “Life,
liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is an infinite game, Lanier believes.
Infinite games are the real transcendence games. They allow you to transcend
your boundaries. They allow you to transcend who you are.
On several levels, Lanier questions what he sees as the finite-game
premises of the Heaven and Hell Scenarios. He doesn’t doubt that there
are exponential processes at work, including Moore’s Law and all the rest.
But he wonders if they are immutable, and questions the nature of their
social impact. After all, by definition you can only measure closed environments
with fixed boundaries. A lot of life isn’t like that, Lanier points out.
Sure, the price of chips is plummeting. But is that making us smarter?
How would it be possible to measure the system known as the U.S.
Constitution? Lanier asks. To prevail from horse-drawn days to the present,
it has to be a miraculously sophisticated document. Yet we have no units to
measure that sophistication, he points out. The Constitution is not a computer
operating system but a human operating system. That’s the difference
between a closed system and an open one. The great irony is that if we can
measure something, it can’t be all that complex. How can we measure creativity?
Human nature is the ultimate example of the immeasurable.
That’s why Lanier is far more bent by nerds trying to mold human na-
ture to their closed-system computers than he is concerned about human
enhancement. Right now he thinks computers are making us stupider.
How can you say that? I protest. If you call up an airline reservation
number, you get an amazingly sophisticated machine that can understand
what you’re saying and respond in meaningful ways.
“The very nature of oppression has always been to force people to live
within the confines of some idea about what a person is,” he replies.
“That is true whether you’re talking about some ancient religious oppressive
regime, or a communist regime, or a fascist regime, or one of the big
bad industrial-age companies” that reduced people to cogs in their organizational
machine. “Or for that matter Freud. There are a lot of people
who have this idea about what a human is and expect other people to live
within the confines of that theory.”
He views the belief that a human is like a computer as the current repression.
“In the computer-human loop, the human is the more flexible
portion. So whenever you change a piece of computer technology, the
chances are that the human users will actually be changing more than the
technology itself changed.” You quickly learn that there are only certain
questions that the airline reservation bot can handle, and only certain
words, and you dumb down your activity to deal with its limitations. If
you treat a computer like a person, thinking that there might be any real
intelligence there, you make yourself stupid.
“I don’t think it is particularly dangerous yet. But that’s the start of a potential trend that I think could be a big problem.” You start by learning how
to con your allegedly smart word program. You have to. Otherwise it will
automatically fix things from right to wrong, and you won’t get what you
really meant to type. Then you organize all your finances so that they’ll look
good to a pathetically simplistic credit-rating computer. When you have
machines evaluating people, as in school testing, you have to learn what the
machine wants and play its little game in order to establish that you are a satisfactory human being. Keep this up—accepting the notion that we can
trust machines to do some of our thinking for us—and you depart from reality,
Lanier believes. We model ourselves after our technologies, becoming
some sort of anti-Pinocchios. Human spunk begins to evaporate.
“To train ourselves to adapt to a low-grade form in order to get some
machine to work is a little bit like asking people to reduce their vocabulary
so that language will work better overall,” Lanier says. “Or asking
people not to play any new musical chords because all the musical instruments
are designed for the existing chords or something like that. It shuts
down the game.”
Lanier’s critical concern is connectedness between human beings, not
transistors. Suppose that someday bots run convenience stores and drycleaning
emporia, replacing immigrants. Will a bot ever get to know you
well enough to, one spring day, along with your shirts, give you garden
seeds for Thai eggplant and melon?
If vapidity is where The Curve is taking us, Lanier wants no part of it.
Enhancement, by contrast, doesn’t worry him particularly. “If somebody
put some brain chip in their head and it’s supposed to enhance their
memory but instead it makes them weird in some way, as long as they are
still part of the game of society in connecting with people, they would
probably just be an interesting and eccentric person, as long as they are
not homicidal or something like that. I’m not saying there aren’t any potential
problems. But to me that can be part of an adventure. That doesn’t
intrinsically scare me as much as a society that voluntarily endures a slow
suicide through nerdification, in which they blanch out their own lives of
any flavor or meaning. That scares me more.”
Lanier is dismissive of what he describes as “the religion of the elite
technologists,” from Moravec to Minsky, in the halls of “true believers” at
Stanford, MIT and Carnegie Mellon. They believe in a key anticipated
outcome of The Heaven Scenario: “That computers are becoming autonomous
and a successor species.”
“My feeling about spiritual questions is that there is a tightrope that I
try to stay on, not always successfully. If you fall to the right side, you become
an excessive reductionist. You pretend to know more than you do
and you become overly rational. If you fall to the left side, you become
superstitious and you believe that there are magic tricks of meaning. Staying
right on that line is where you’re a skeptic but also acknowledge the
degree of mystery in our lives. If you can adhere to that, I think that’s
where truth lies. Sometimes it’s lonely and frustrating. For a lot of these
questions, I think ‘I don’t know’ is the most dignified and profound answer.
A profound ‘I don’t know’ is the result of a lot of work.”
Lanier wants to stay open to the possibility that “the world we manipulate
here isn’t all there is. The world accessible by technologies isn’t all
there is. I don’t want to become a superstitious fool and believe I can say
anything about this other world. That’s very important. I don’t want to
start saying, ‘Oh, there are these angels here.’ The idea of God as an entity
that talks and stuff doesn’t quite fit for me. It’s also not something I’m
gonna dismiss.” He makes a small joke by pretending to be the systems
administrator of all creation: “We have limited privileges in this area.”
To describe his version of transcendence in a Prevail Scenario without
falling off his tightrope, Lanier likes to talk about octopi. Actually, he also
likes to talk about the psychology of early childhood, as well as the day
that aliens visit the earth and perceive human nature for the first time. But
these to him are all stories about the same thing—a steadily increasing
ramp to transcendence that leads to deeper and better ways of bridging
the interpersonal gap.
Lanier’s Prevail Scenario is the search for a complex, evolving, inventive
transcendence. Because it is an infinite game, it never goes into a Singularity,
as in the Heaven and Hell Scenarios. Because it’s fundamentally
imaginative, it doesn’t have any such simple measurement. It just expands
forever. Human connectedness is “a much more profound kind of ramp,”
Lanier believes. “The thing about a Singularity hypothesis is that it’s profoundly
He begins his tale by saying, “We have a certain bag of tricks that was
bequeathed to us by our evolutionary past. In many ways we are very
lucky in terms of what evolution gave to us. I love the opposable thumb,
for instance. It’s great. Lots of great things. Don’t want to complain. Feel
grateful for all of it. But there are a couple of ways in which we are unlucky.
The business of being sacks of skin separated by air is one of them.
“Let me start with the Martians, if I could. So one day the Martians are
on their own super version of Star Trek out exploring the universe and
they come to Earth and they are going to send a report back home. I
think this is what the Martians would say:
“ ‘You know, this place is kind of touching, but mostly it’s just sad. You
know these earthlings—they call themselves people. They are—you’re not
going to believe this, and you might be grossed out, but here’s what they are
like. They’re separated from each other in these sacks of skin. There are
often many feet of air between them when they are communicating. Just atmosphere.
Yet they are conscious, they form relationships, they think, they
long for one another. But they aren’t connected. They can’t do mind melds
like us. So what do they do—okay, here comes the gross part. Just hold on to
your stomach and try not to get too grossed out. So there is an orifice and it’s
an orifice that they eat with and they breathe with it and they can make
these weird sounds out of this same orifice. Now I told you not to get sick,
okay? Space exploration is a tough game, and you just have to deal with it,
okay? If you can’t deal with it, get interested in something else.
“ ‘Then they have these other orifices, called ears, where sounds go in,
and they have this code system and they communicate that way. It’s awkward
and it’s weird and it’s disgusting, but it’s what they have. I mean, we
can only sort of feel for them.’ ”
End report to the Commandress of the Fleet.
“This is how I think we would seem to aliens. I’m presuming these
particular aliens have some form of connection where they’re entering
each other’s dreams and so forth. They have much fuller contact between
minds. So that sets the tone for this idea about the ramp that I care
about—the connectivity ramp.
“You can imagine the ramp starting long ago with the advent of spoken
language. You can see it continuing with the advent of reading and
writing. You can see it continuing further with the rise of art forms and
things like drama.”
Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humanoids could talk, even with
relatively primitive brains. This means spoken language and the brain coevolved.
They became increasingly complex together. Relatively recently,
however, when reading and writing were invented, the brains that
were around were the same as ours. “If you had a time machine, you
could pluck a baby from back then and raise it now and they’d be the
same people,” Lanier says.
“So what happened? The only explanation is that the very design of
reading or writing was opportunistic. It took advantage of an innate potential
in the brain. It was wired in such a way that, given time, one could
discover a type of written language that could work in it. So we found
that language. I think in a similar way this process can continue. I think
actually we’re seeing one right now with kids and computers.”
He’s talking about us transcending by going through something as significant
as learning to write—the beginning of civilization, and hence cultural
evolution. The biggest thing in 10,000 years. He moves on to another story.
“So this is the one about kids. If kids are little enough, they have trouble
distinguishing between the inside and the outside of themselves. They
have trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy. Obviously at some point
that becomes less so or they don’t grow up. For the vast majority of kids,
the recognition that the outside and the inside are different really sucks,
big time. The reason is that if the whole world is the same thing as fantasy,
then you’re sort of in this God-like state where you just have to
imagine something and it’s real. Suppose there was this 200-foot-tall giraffe
made of sapphires that could talk like a Power Ranger. It puffs into
existence. If you don’t know the difference, it’s like it’s real.
“Now, when you start to realize that there is reality, all of a sudden you
enter a different world. It’s not so much that it’s impossible to do things,
but you’re just very weak. Everything is really hard. Could you work your
whole life and corner the market on sapphires and get city council approval
to build this big thing and all that? I mean, yeah, maybe. But it’s
just like this huge pain in the butt.”
Here’s one of Lanier’s punch lines:
“But there is an interesting thing. The reason you enter reality even
though it is a pain in the butt is that it is someplace where you are not alone.
It’s a place where Mom is real and other people are real and food is real.
There are benefits to reality.A very significant one is, you are not alone.”
In this view, the fundamental dilemma of childhood—the fundamental
choice between two unpalatable alternatives—is this: “You can stay inside
your fantasy world and be God-like. But you are terribly lonely. You are
also vulnerable in important ways. Or you can enter the real world, where
the transition to weakness is not just slight—it’s huge. It’s going from Lord
of the Universe to this pathetic little pink thing that wets itself. There is no
bigger gap in status. In order to enter the real world, kids have to lose the
largest amount of status that it is possible to lose. They hate it, hate it, hate
it. If they can accept that, there is one other little nasty pill to come along,
which is mortality. You got those two, you have made it to adulthood. It
takes a really long time to get there. I feel like lately in America it takes 40
years to get there. You can think of the connectivity ramp I was talking
about as a way of trying to soften the blow of becoming an adult.”
The world people are entering today with their computer games is a
transcendent step up this connectivity ramp, Lanier believes. “I would
argue that when kids respond to online gaming and generate this extraordinary
enthusiasm and adeptness at computers—as if out of nowhere—
this is what they are really responding to. It’s a third way that avoids the
dilemma of childhood. If you’re in a virtual world with other people,
they’re real. The virtual world between you and them exists in the same
way that the real world exists between you and them. But if you do some
weird thing in it, like make a giant sapphire giraffe or whatever, it’s real for
the other people. So you get the connection and you get rid of the solipsism”
—the proposition that nothing exists or is real except one’s own self.
“But you keep the imaginativeness. You keep your level of power. You
can go in and make the world you imagine but without losing the other
people. The virtual world is the first place that’s ever been like that—that it
gives both things. Games surpassed movies back when games had no production
values—when they were just bleeps and bloops. Pac-Man—even
Pong. I think this is the explanation. This is what people are really looking
for. They sense that there is a kind of reality that has the flexibility of imagination and the potential, at least, for lack of solipsism. I think that’s the explanation for kids and computers. Virtual reality is the strongest case.”
It’s the first major bump up the connectivity ramp in millennia, Lanier
feels. It’s “some sort of important transcendence involving computers.”
“Here is I guess a reasonable place to bring up the cephalopods.”
It is? Isn’t that kind of a neck-snapping transition?
“It’s a very gentle one—you’ll see. So cephalopods are our tentacled
friends in the sea. They are the fanciest of mollusks. The well-known
cephalopods include the octopus and the squid, and there is another
one that is similar to each of those called the cuttlefish. That’s a favorite
“They are the most alien creatures of intelligence on this planet. Of
the creatures that display intelligence as a survival mechanism, most of the
ones that we study are actually not that different from us.” Dolphins have
different flippers than we do, but they’re mammals and vertebrates, like
us, like the great apes. They’re cousins.
“Cephalopods survive by their wits. Evolution made the trade-off
where they lost their body armor and they became soft and vulnerable.
Their energy went into being smart instead. They have fantastic eyes and
fantastic brains and it all evolved along a separate track, independently. So
it’s the closest thing to an alien we have to compare ourselves against.We’re
tremendously lucky to have them on this planet. They give us the best tool
we have to gain some insight into what we might be and what we might
become. They are the control experiment, the only one we have so far.
“There are a few species that exhibit an incredible behavior that really
gives you a picture of a different path toward communication and connection.
If you’ve ever snorkeled and you look at an octopus or a squid in the
wild, you might notice that a lot of species can change colors. The way that
works is that there are cells in the cephalopods’ skin called chromatophores.
A chromatophore is a cell with a pigment in it with a particular color and
the cell can expand or contract when it’s excited. If it expands all the red
ones at once, the animal will turn red in the skin. So that’s how the trick
works. There are a few species—and I’ll mention the giant cuttlefish and
I’ll mention the mimic octopus—where there are individual nerve pathways
to each chromatophore. So they have a big map display.
“For instance, in the giant cuttlefish they have an extra lobe in their
brain which is a chromatophore lobe. A thought in that brain lobe is immediately
projected as animation on the surface of their body. So when
you watch them, they can animate their skin—a moving animation. They
are comparable in many ways to current laptop screens in their capabilities,
except it’s their whole skin.
“Now one of the things you might be wondering is, ‘Why haven’t I
heard of this?’ The reason you haven’t heard of this is that the full range of
their capabilities was only documented by camera after computer morphing
became popular. When people see it they assume it’s a computer
graphic. So it’s never really had the impact it would have, had they been
filmed earlier. If they had been filmed earlier, they would have been the
most famous animals for years. I show people, and they simply don’t believe
it’s real. They can change shape. They are morphers. But they can
also display things on their skin. Complex patterns. Their camouflage is
so good—I have some footage and you will just not believe a computer
didn’t make it. You can go up to them and it just looks like whatever is
there. There will be this thing like a little bit of a rock and a little bit of a
plant. It just turns into an octopus and it zips away. You can also watch
one settle down and just turn into things. It’s amazing. It’s wonderful.
“If you watch how a cuttlefish hunts, it goes up to its prey—now remember
the cuttlefish, like a person, has a soft body that is vulnerable. So
it has to use its wits to hunt. What does it do? It goes up to a giant crab,
which it wants to eat. You can see the crab sense that there is a predator.
So the crab snaps into this defensive posture, anticipating a fight. The cuttle-
fish isn’t impressed. The cuttlefish turns on a psychedelic light show. It
starts morphing and putting up patterns and it really looks a lot like a ’60s
concert stage light show or something.”
You’re making this up.
“I’m not making this up! In fact, I’m probably understating it. You can
see the crab look at the cuttlefish and the crab just goes, ‘Uhhhhh . . .’ ”
The crab is completely confused. The crab is looking at this psychedelic
light show, and just as this crab is at its maximum state of confusion the
cuttlefish pounces and goes for the equivalent of the jugular. The cuttle-
fish has a beak, and it just goes in for a kill point on the crab, and the crab
doesn’t know what hits it.
“So it’s using art to hunt. But the most interesting behavior is that they
animate at each other to communicate. If you look at two of them together,
one will make a pattern and then the other one will make a pattern
and then they make these patterns and they synchronize and they are
animating at each other. There is a cuttlefish animation pattern dictionary
in the works. It has over 90 entries now at Woods Hole.”
What are some of the things they say?
“Well, the usual stuff. ‘Where is the food?’ ‘Want to mate?’ ‘Did you
hear about Fred? Boy, was he fucked up last night.’ ” Lanier laughs.
“They have fantastic nervous systems, and the reason they are not running
the planet—because I think in quite a few ways they are better set up
than we were to evolve. The thing that we have that they don’t, is that they
don’t have childhood. They raise themselves. They are born out of the egg
and they live on instinct. If they had childhood and they nurtured their
young, then they would have eventually developed culture. Then they
would have taken off, started up their own ramps, and I think we’d all be living
in the zoos that they are in. They don’t have culture. They don’t have
nurture. They only have nature. If they learn new patterns, they don’t pass it
on to their young. They start over again with each life. So that’s given us the
room to get where we’ve gotten. Otherwise we would have been screwed.
“If you can imagine a version of the cuttlefish with childhoods and
they grow up being nurtured and having play and having culture and all
this, that would be another path to getting to the same place that I think
human children long to get to. They would be born with the ability to
turn into what they would want.”
That is where Lanier sees The Prevail Scenario intersecting with the
power of The Curve in a creative way. In his Prevail Scenario, we use
technologies to share means of connecting that in the past were beyond
our wildest imagination—like that of the cuttlefish. We use the GRIN
technologies—genetics, robotics, information and nano technologies—
to devise new realities that are equally inventive. In this way we forge
multiple ways of creating success, of rising to transcendence.
THERE ARE UNLIMITED VERSIONS of The Prevail Scenario. Lanier’s is merely one of the better-articulated. They all, however start with these principles:
• Humans have an uncanny history of muddling through—of forging
unlikely paths to improbable futures in defiance of historical
forces that seem certain and inevitable.
• The wellspring of this muddling through, of this prevailing, is the
ability of ordinary people facing overwhelming odds to rise to the
occasion because it is the right thing—for example, the British
“nation of shopkeepers” that defied the Third Reich.
To these, Lanier starts by adding one more proposition:
• Even if technology is advancing along an exponential curve, that
doesn’t mean humans cannot creatively shape the impact on human
nature and society in largely unpredictable ways.
Thus, Prevail is an odd combination of the marvelously ordinary and
the utterly unprecedented. It is so common and so rare—so old and so
new—that the history of The Prevail Scenario is less well defined than
that of the Heaven or Hell Scenario.
When he complains that he finds the Heaven and Hell Scenarios “unheroic,”
for example, Lanier implies that he sees something brave, noble
and epic in Prevail. Indeed, “there is good reason that hero stories are our
favorite story form. They have survival value,” notes the scenarist Brian
Mulconry. “When we step out against all logic to save the world, we save
Yet many hero myths are not Prevail myths. Jason and the Argonauts,
Ulysses, and even the Alamo are not stories about ordinary people. From
Hercules to Davy Crockett, their protagonists had already transcended to
the glorious, to the larger than life, even before they stepped up to their
Exodus is closer to Prevail. It is a tale of people so abundantly ordinary
that even Yahweh can’t take it. At one point he sends an angel to lead
them, saying, “Go on to the land where milk and honey flow. I shall not
go with you myself—you are a headstrong people—or I might exterminate
you on the way.” They certainly discovered the non-obvious path.
Six hundred thousand families, their flocks and herds in immense droves,
kvetching and wailing all the way, spend forty years getting to Canaan despite
considerable odds for a much earlier arrival. The Sinai is not that
big a desert. From the Nile Delta, if instead of following a pillar of fire
you just walk toward the rising sun, the Promised Land is on your left,
hard to miss. An Israeli tank can make the trip in a day. The length of that
journey did bind the people, however, scouring the memory of slavery
from those who would found Jerusalem—a critical element of their prevailing.
Huckleberry Finn may be the archetypal Prevail hero when, in the
pivotal moment of “his” novel, he considers struggling no longer against
the great forces of civilization and religion arrayed against him. He thinks
about how society would shame him if it “would get all around that
Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom”:
That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he
don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can
hide, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I
studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me,
and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling.
And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain
hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know
my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in
heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t
ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One
that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such
miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped
in my tracks I was so scared.Well, I tried the best I could to kinder
soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked,
and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept
saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and
if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as
I’d bee n acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”
Huck decides right then and there to abandon a life of sin, avoid eternal
damnation and for once in his life do the right thing by society’s
lights. He decides to squeal, to write a letter to Jim’s owner telling her
how to recapture her slave.
Then he gets to thinking about human nature:
I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever
felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do
it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—
thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I
come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And
got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before
me, all the time: in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes
moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking,
and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike
no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see
him standing my watch on top of his’n, ’stead of calling me, so I
could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come
back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp,
up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always
call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for
me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I
saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was
so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the
world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look
around, and see that paper.
It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was
a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things,
and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and
then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I
let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I
shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up
wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and
the other warn’t. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal
Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I
would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I
might as well go the whole hog.
A classic example of The Prevail Scenario is the arguably most perfect
film Hollywood ever made, Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart as Rick is ensconced
in a cozy world of thieves, swindlers, gamblers, drunks, parasites,
refugees, soldiers of fortune, genially corrupt French police and terrifying
Nazis. Rick’s cynicism is his pride; he sticks his neck out for nobody.
His only interest is in seeing his Café Américain flourish. And then, of
course, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Ilsa (Ingrid
Bergman) walks into his. The rest of the film concerns him betraying his
own cauterized heart in service of a higher purpose. As Rick says, “It’s
still a story without an ending.”
Interestingly, the most phenomenally successful film series of the recent
era—the Star Wars, Harry Potter,Matrix and Lord of the Rings movies—
are all exemplars of the Prevail myth, from Han Solo’s grudging heroism
to little people with furry feet vanquishing the combined forces of Darkness.
If the ageless way humans process information is by telling stories,
what does our hunger for that story say?
All scenarios are to some degree faith-based. They rest upon assumptions
that cannot be proven. In fact, that is one of the key points of scenario
exercises—discovering what people’s hidden assumptions are, in
order to hold them up to the light. In a scenario exercise, should you hear
someone say, “Oh, that can’t happen,” that’s a surefire sign of an embedded
and probably unexamined assumption.
This is not to say embedded assumptions are necessarily wrong. It is
simply useful to know what they are, why we believe them to be valid,
what the early warning signs would be if messy reality started to challenge
them, and what we would do about it if our most cherished assumptions
turned out to be flawed.
In both the Heaven and Hell Scenarios, the embedded assumption is
that human destiny can be projected reliably if you apply enough logic,
rationality and empiricism to the project.
In The Prevail Scenario, by contrast, the embedded assumption is that
even if a smooth curve does describe the future of technology, it is not
likely to describe the real world of human fortune. The analogy is to the
utter failure of the straight-line projections of Malthusians, who believed
industrial development would lead to starvation, when in fact the problem
turned out to be obesity.
The Prevail Scenario is essentially driven by a faith in human cussedness.
It is based on a hunch that you can count on humans to throw The
Curve a curve. It is an instinct that human change will bounce strangely
in the course of being translated from technological change. It is also a
belief that transcendence is unlikely to be part of any simple scheme. Prevail
does not, however, assign a path to how this outcome will be
achieved. The mean-spirited may say it expects a very large miracle. The
more sympathetic may say it expects many millions of small miracles.
It is dangerously wrong to assign probabilities to scenarios and ignore
those that strike you as unlikely. History shows that the low-probability,
high-impact scenarios are the ones that really shock—Pearl Harbor, for
example. It would be unfortunate if, as you lay dying, surrounded by millions
of others, your last thought was, I wish I’d paid more attention to Bill
Joy. It would be unnerving if you woke up one day to find your world
unhinged due to the rise of greater-than-human intelligence, and your
first thought was, Didn’t Ray Kurzweil say something about this?
Prevail’s trick is that it embraces uncertainty. Even in the face of unprecedented
threats, it displays a faith that the ragged human convoy of
divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor
will wend its way to glory. It puts a shocking premium on Faulkner’s
hope that man will prevail “because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion
and sacrifice and endurance.” It assumes that even as change picks
up speed, giving us less and less time to react, we will still be able to rely
on the impulse that Churchill described when he said, “Americans can
always be counted on to do the right thing—after they have exhausted all
To focus his version of Prevail, Lanier adds a fourth proposition:
• The key measure of Prevail’s success is an increasing intensity of
links between humans, not transistors. If some sort of transcendence
is achieved beyond today’s understanding of human nature, it will
not be through some individual becoming superman. In Lanier’s
Prevail Scenario, transcendence is social, not solitary. The measure is
the extent to which many transform together.
In Lanier’s version of Prevail, the idea of progress is progressing. Lanier
points out that, historically, there have been two measures of the march of
human progress. One is technological and economic advance, starting
with fire and the wheel and marking points on The Curve up through
the steam engine and beyond.
The second ramp is moral improvement. It starts with the Ten Commandments
and proceeds through the jury convicting Martha Stewart on
all counts. Some find our moral improvement difficult to perceive, pointing
to the variety and abundance of 20th century atrocities. It’s hard to
argue with these people. They may be right. But Lanier thinks those who
deny the existence of a moral incline are not in touch with the enthusiasm
humans once brought to raping, pillaging and burning. Genghis
Khan’s Mongols killed nearly as many people as did all of World War II,
back when 50 million dead was a significant portion of the entire human
race. Their achievement—making the streets of Beijing “greasy with the
fat of the slain,” for example—is still a marvel given their severely limited
technologies of fire and the sword.
Lanier has issues with both of these ramps. Note that Lanier uses the
word ramp because he does not necessarily believe either is on an exponential
Curve. The technological incline is a flawed measure of progress
on many levels, Lanier says, most particularly because it suggests that the
meaning of humanity can be reduced to zeros and ones. The moral ramp
is a problem because, taken to its logical outcome, it requires more energy
than humans have, and also can lead to holy wars. So his version of Prevail
rests on the proposition that a third ramp exists and that it is the important
one. That is the ramp of increased connection between people.
Many of the flaws Lanier sees in using technology as a measure of
progress begin with his experience as a software scientist. Lanier seriously
questions whether information technology will work well enough anytime
soon to produce either Heaven or Hell. He completely believes that
the moment nanobots are poised to eat humanity, for example, they will
be felled by a Windows crash. “I’m serious about that—no joke,” he says.
“Legacy code and bugs all get worse when code gets giant. If code is at all
similar in the coming century to what it is now, super-smart nanobots
will run for nanoseconds between crashes. The fact that software doesn’t
follow Moore’s Law is the most important factor in the future of technology.”
DARPA has similar concerns. It is fundamentally rethinking how
computers work. As Col. Tim Gibson, a program manager for DARPA’s
Advanced Technology Office, put it, “You go to Wal-Mart and buy a
telephone for less than $10 and you expect it to work. We don’t expect
computers to work; we expect them to have a problem. If a commander
expects a system to have a problem, then how could he rely upon it?” In
fact, Lanier sees full global employment as the main virtue of increasingly
crappy giant software. The only solution will be “the planet of the help
desks.” Everybody on earth will have to be employed taking phone calls
giving advice on how to make the stuff work.
There are a host of reminders of the limits of technological prognostication.
In 1950, in the article “Miracles You’ll See in the Next 50 Years,”
Popular Mechanics claimed that in the year 2000, eight-room houses with
all the furnishings, completely “synthetic in the best chemical sense of
the term,” would cost $5,000. To clean it, the housewife would simply
hose everything down. Food “out of the reach of any Roman emperor”
would be made from sawdust and wood pulp. Discarded rayon underwear
would be made into candy. Spreading oil on the ocean and igniting it would
divert hurricanes. The flu and the common cold would be easily cured.
The rooftop family helicopter would accomplish voyages of over 20 miles,
including much commuting. For short trips, the answer would be one’s
teardrop-shaped, alcohol-burning car. Popular Mechanics didn’t get it all
wrong, of course. They noted that the telegraph companies were hitting
hard times in the year 2000, because of the fax machine.
Nonetheless, there are some distinct categories into which bad predictions
• The enterprise turned out to be a lot more complicated than it sounded.
This is why we don’t have robotic maids, or electricity from
nuclear fusion, or an explanation for what causes cancer.
• The cost/benefit ratio never worked out. This is why we don’t have
vacation hotels in orbit.
• The future was overtaken by new technologies. This is why automotive
standard equipment does not include CB radios.
• Bad experience inoculated us against the plan . This is why there are so few new nuclear fission power plants.
And most important:
• Inventors fundamentally misunderstood human behavior . This is why we
have so few paperless offices.
“We should start from the point of view that it is best to make the assumption
that we know less than we think we do about reality,” Lanier
says. “It’s hard to know for sure—it’s a guess—but probably there’s a lot
more to reality than we think. If you think a human is just like a naturally
occurring technology that’s almost understood—. If you think that a
human is something that you just have to figure out a few little things
about, but basically, the underlying theory about it is coming together
and all you have to do is trace those genes and proteomics and a little bit
of stuff about how neural networks work and in about another 20 or 30
years, basically, you’ll have it nailed—. If you believe that that would be a
complete description of what a human is—. There is this danger that you
might have missed something and you have reduced what a human is.”
Needless to say, his peers pillory Lanier for his heresy. He is the one
guilty of linear thinking, they believe. In the near future we will not so
much write software, laborious line by laborious line, as grow it—reverse
engineering the techniques we find in nature and adapting them to our
software needs. “If we are still plunking around with software in 2012 or
2015, that would be a really bad sign for people who expect a real-soonnow
Singularity,” says Vernor Vinge. If, however, you start seeing large networks
reliably coordinating difficult tasks such as air traffic control by learning
from their experience, or parallel processors behaving like biological cells,
The Curve will be on track to change society, he says. Kurzweil is hurt that
anyone would compare his elaborate methodology to harebrained rabbitout-
of-the-hat predictions from the past. He scoffs at the notion that software
is not improving. He points out that his company’s voice-recognition
software in 1985 cost $5,000 for a 1,000-word vocabulary. By the turn of
the century it cost $50 for 100,000 words, and the newer software was
much more accurate and easier to use. He acknowledges that software is
not advancing as fast as hardware, but he estimates its value doubles every
six years—still an exponential increase. He also accuses Lanier of “engi-
neer’s pessimism.” That suggests Lanier is simply ld plot all these on a graph and see an exponential rate of expansion
of the ‘circle of empathy,’ ” Lanier says.
This empathy notion is that people draw a mental circle around themselves.
Inside the circle is everyone we care about and for whom we have
deep compassion and understanding. Outside are the ones for whom we
don’t. “Most people, when they’re young and idealistic, tend to want to
draw the circle pretty large,” Lanier observes. “Indeed, it would be lovely
to draw it really, really large, to be able to live life in such a way that one
caused no harm at all.” The problem is, if you draw the circle too large,
you starve. If you try to kill no living creature, what about those bacteria?
If you say, “Okay, not bacteria, but I’ll try not to kill insects,” well, what
about those bugs you might find in your flour? The point is that you have
to set some limits. Otherwise, universal empathy “takes so much energy
that you can’t do very much else,” he says. There is also, of course, the
opposite hazard of drawing the circle so small that you cut off people
who are important to making you who you are.
Lanier ultimately finds the circle of empathy troublesome as a measure
of The Prevail Scenario. For one thing, the technological elite is trying to
co-opt it. Those who worship the idea that computers are becoming suf-
ficiently smart to be a successor species to humans would have you believe
that soon we will be morally obligated to bring silicon beings inside
our circle of empathy. Lanier thinks that is perilous hogwash. He thinks it
cheapens the standing of humans inside that circle.
He also thinks that focusing on a process of increased morality is dangerously
narcissistic. That’s “the tragedy of religion and the tragedy of
most utopias,” he says. “If your utopia is based on everybody adhering to
some ideal of what is good, then what you’re saying is, ‘I know what is
good, and all of you will love the same goodness that I love.’ So it’s really
ultimately about you.” Others will be good your way or be tied to a stake
surrounded by kindling.
This is how Lanier gets to his ultimate measure of the success of The
Prevail Scenario. It is the third ramp of progress—the ramp of increased
interpersonal connections. That ramp, historically, starts with the invention
of language and then moves to writing, drama, literature, printing,
film, the telephone, radio, television, the Internet and so forth. What you
are measuring is an increase in the quantity, quality, variety and complexity
of ways in which humans can connect to each other. Not ways in
which they become identical, but ways that they become closer. It’s the
increased solution to the problem the Martians felt sad about when they
encountered those sacks of skin surrounded by air.
The connectedness ramp is not measured by inventions. The test is interesting
group behavior. Lanier doesn’t care, for example, that millions
of people are now participating together in online games. These he
mostly finds tedious. Progress is in the emergence of interesting human
societies. “This is where I see the action right now,” he says.
For example, at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where a certain
royal hottie studied art history in the early 21st century, Prince William
couldn’t even go out for drinks with friends without being tracked electronically
by a pack of wired women. “A quite sophisticated text messaging network
has sprung up,” an “insider” told the Scottish Daily Record. “If William
is spotted anywhere in the town then messages are sent out” on his admirers’
cell phones. “It starts off quite small. The first messages are then forwarded
to more girls and so on. It just has a snowball effect. Informing 100 girls of
his movements takes just seconds.” At one bar, the prince had to be moved
to a safe location when more than a hundred “lusty ladies,” so alerted, suddenly
mobbed the place like cats responding to the sound of a can opener.
This is the sort of interesting growth in human social connection Lanier
has in mind. It’s called “swarming,” a behavior that is transforming social,
work, military and even political lives worldwide, especially among the
young. It is the unintended consequence of people, cell phones in hand,
learning that they can coordinate instantly and leaderlessly.
“It’s the search for peak experience, something that’s really going to be
special,” says Adam Eidinger, a Washington political organizer. “It happened
to me just last week. There was a concert.” His cell rang, and the call
was from Bernardo, “one of the biggest swarmer cell-phone people I know.
‘Where are you? There are all these people here!’ And he wasn’t just calling
us. He called 25 people. Pretty soon everybody he knew was sitting on the
grass, and none of them knew they were going to be there that morning.”
This is the precise opposite of a 1962-style American Graffiti world.
Then you had to go to a place—the strip, the malt shop—to find out what
was going on. In the early 21st century, you found out by cell phone what
was going on, and then you went to the place where it was happening.
Swarming is a classic example of how once-isolated individuals discover
a new way to organize order out of chaos. It is a tick on The Curve
of the connectivity ramp. The whole point is to bring people together for
face-to-face contact. Swarming is also leading to such wondrous social
developments as “time-softening,” “cell dancing,” “life skittering,” “posse
pinging,” “drunk dialing” and “smart mobs.”
Howard Rheingold is an apostle of swarming. A colorful character
who tastefully paints his black dress shoes with moons, stars, planets and
flames, Rheingold has for a generation examined society’s unintended
and imaginative uses of new technology.
He helped pioneer virtual communities (a phrase he invented and
wrote a book about) before most people had even heard of e-mail or seen
a cell phone. He began this work so far in the dim and murky past—
1988—that pundits then saw as preposterous the idea of human relationships
being created simply by typing into the ether. This was before
flesh-met entered the lexicon of the early adopters, as in: “Oh yeah, we
know each other real well—although I don’t think we’ve ever flesh-met.”
As a cell phone increasingly becomes something that a teenager gets
with her driver’s license and it shrinks from a tool you carried to a fashion
item you wear, Rheingold sees a profound shift in society. “They amplify
human talents for cooperation,” he says.
This is by no means all fun and games. The gear is used by “some of its
earliest adopters to support democracy and by others to coordinate ter-
rorist attacks,” says Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs:The Next Social Revolution.
Smart mobs are a serious realignment of human affairs, in which
leaders may determine an overall goal, but participants at the lowest possible
level—who are constantly innovating—create the actual execution
on the fly. They respond to changing situations without requesting or requiring
permission. In some cases, even the goal is determined collaboratively
and nonhierarchically. It is the warp-speed embodiment of the
French revolutionary’s maxim “There go the people; I must follow them,
for I am their leader.”
The key to why mobiles are an uptick in the ramp of human connectivity
is that they move communications out to wherever and whenever
humans roam. Especially as e-mail is piped to your mobile, one sees behavior
like that in the Philippines in 2000 and 2001. There, former president
Joseph Estrada, accused of massive corruption, was driven out of
power by smart mobs who—alerted by their cell phones—swarmed to
demonstrations, gathering in no time. “It’s like pizza delivery,” said Alex
Magno, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines.
“You can get a rally in 30 minutes—delivered to you.”
Cell phones driving political change is part of a ramp of political connectivity
with mythically Prevail overtones. These include fax machines
enabling Tiananmen Square, photocopiers fueling the Polish Solidarity
uprising, cassette recordings firing the Iranian revolution and shortwave
radios aiding the French Resistance. The difference with cell phones was
the amazing speed with which people could swarm. It created not only a
new kind of protest but also a new kind of protester. “It’s a great way to
get people who are in offices involved,” Christina Bautisto, who works in
Manila’s financial district, said of her fellow professionals. “They don’t
have to spend all day protesting. They just get a message telling them
when it’s starting, and then they take the elevator down to the street.
They can be seen, scream a little and then go back to work.” In Washington,
mobile-mediated swarms are regular highlights of the World Bank
and International Monetary Fund protests. “I don’t want to give away all
our tricks,” says Eidinger, the political activist. “But wireless plays a huge
role.” That includes everything from little “Family Pack” communicators
from Radio Shack on up to sophisticated channel-skipping radios that are
not easily monitored, all of which are used by “flying squads” to respond
quickly to unanticipated opportunities. Cell phones are in constant use
by lawyers seeking court orders designed to complicate the lives of the
authorities as the protest is still evolving.
The U.S. military has been one of the earliest institutions to both fear
and see the possibilities in swarming. John Arquilla co-authored Swarming
and the Future of Conflict for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He
sees swarming—“a deliberately structured, coordinated, strategic way to
strike from all directions”—as spearheading a revolution in military affairs.
“In future campaigns,”Arquilla says, leaders might benefit by simply
“drawing up a list of targets, fixed and mobile, and attaching point values
to them. Then units in the field, in the air and at sea could simply pick
whatever hadn’t yet been taken. The commander would review periodic
progress, adjust point values if needed from time to time, and basically
stay the hell out of the way of the swarm.”
Despite these sober implications, in the early 21st century social
swarms were easily the most interesting examples of the ramp of connection.
Social swarming involves sharing your breath with others in real
time. It means pulsing to the rhythm of life with your posse. It means a
nonstop emotional connection to your clan.
It’s Saturday night in Washington, and between the art-show openings
of twilight and the after-hours clubs near dawn, the tribe that swarms
touches down at Gazuza. Single, in their twenties and thirties, and wired,
the members of the hive flit into the stylish Dupont Circle club as they
hear that at this instant, the action is here. Bill Luza, 35, an architectural
designer dressed all in white, is old enough to regale the crowd with tales
of days so ancient that his first cell phone was the size of a loaf of bread. It
came with its own shoulder bag. Today, of course, to be young is to be
cognitively welded to a mobile. “You always want it near you,” somebody
says. “You take the phone out of your purse and leave your purse behind.
You take your phone even when you don’t take your purse or your keys.
It’s like a little person.” Luza raises his head from a call. “That one was
from Argentina,” he remarks casually.
All right, Mr. Lanier, you say your measure is interesting group behavior?
The swarmers laugh when “cell dancing” comes up. This is the choreography
of two people who are vaguely in the same area but can’t find
each other. “It’s a locator service,” says Anna Boyarsky, 21, an intern at
National Geographic. “My younger brother was in town.We were going to
meet up for lunch. ‘I’m at M and something,’ he said.” She had him start
walking down the street, calling out landmarks. Suddenly, she crowed, “I
see you, I’m at the other corner.”
“Drunk dialing” brings blushes of recognition. “Saying things that you
shouldn’t be saying because the cell phone’s in your pocket and you’re
drunk,” someone acknowledges knowingly. “Stupid things,” says Angie
Hacker, an intern with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “My
best friend at home, she broke up with this guy she went out with for two
years. She calls him and like, ‘I know you’re not over me. I know you feel
that way. You’re just going out with that other girl because she’s around.’
And then she hung up.”
“Ohhhhhh. I have a friend,” says Corinne Fralick, 21, an intern at the
Center for Policy Research on Women. “Every weekend, one o’clock in
the morning, she calls me. She’s totally trashed, and in California—threehour
time difference—to tell me how much she loves me, how much fun
she’s having, how much fun I’m having. Talking about everything. ‘The
boy I kissed earlier.’ No point to the conversation. The cell phone companies
must love it.”
More seriously, everyone acknowledges that being constantly in touch
with the rest of the swarm is changing their sense of time, place, obligations
and presence—indeed, the texture of their lives. Which would be
The very fabric of their time has softened. Remember arranging to
meet at a specific time, like 8, at a specific location? Forget it. The new
hallmark of squishy lives involves vaguely agreeing to meet after work and
then hashing out the details on the fly. A time-softened meeting starts
with a call that says, “I’m 15 minutes away.” It’s no longer unforgivable to
be late, as long as you’re in contact. “If you didn’t have the cell phone,
you’d make more of an effort to be on time,” says Kaine Kornegay, 21, an
intern in the Senate. “It’s more socially acceptable to be late, because
you’ve given notice that you would be.”
“With that, the problem is resolved because the information was transmitted,
although not his physical body,” chimes in Ky Nguyen, 30, a freelance
writer. “There’s a level-of-service agreement. You expect people
with cell phones to be available all the time. If they don’t call back
quickly, that’s interpreted as a snub, and it causes anger. It would not be
the same calling a land line because you might be out, so taking a day to
get back could seem perfectly reasonable. You get mad at each other
when those expectations vary from actuality. Sometimes it’s because of a
failure to perform on the part of a person. But at others, it’s just a failure
to communicate the level of expectation—what one person is expected
to provide versus what another person expects to receive.”
The expectations for connectedness can be astonishingly high. In an
earlier conversation, Shirleece Roberts, 21, a senior at Rutgers who likes
to use text messaging, had said of her swarm, “Everything is based around
the cell phone. Where we’re going to meet. Where we’re going.
Whether we’re lost. Where we’re at. How to get there. Everything.”
Roberts is constantly pinging her posse. “When I get off work, going to
the gym, I tell them, ‘Meet me there.’ If I’m going to the store or to the
movies or out to eat, I’ll tell them. If we’re at parties or clubs and get split
up, we’ll send a message that says ‘Meet me outside.’ You talk to all your
friends, all day, every day. Before you come to work, when you get off
work, during work, before going to bed. See what we’re doing. Going to
sleep or going out.” The last thing Roberts does at the end of the day is
send a text message that says, “Good night.”
There can be a dark side to all this. Swarmers run the risk of skittering
like water bugs on the surface of life. By being quickly and constantly connected,
they can avoid deep contact in time-consuming and meaningful
ways. “If I’ve shown up and not found the love of my life, not had a loveat-
first-sight experience,” at one location, says Bernardo Issel, a writer,
“then I have the opportunity to find out if there are other events going on
where that might happen. You’re flitting from one place to another. You’re
more likely to pursue superficial engagements rather than deep pursuits. It
contributes to this certain MTV approach to life where you engage in
something for a few minutes and then there’s a commercial.” Boyarsky
agrees, though she adds, “You have to have a grip on reality. Unless you
know what is real—what is a real friendship and relationship—neither can
have an effect on you. If you know what is real, then you know that the
cell phone is not a real relationship. It’s a connection, but not a person. It
allows you to connect to other people, but it’s not them, and not you.
“It’s a sign of commitment when you turn off the phone,” Boyarsky
says. “When somebody turns off their cell phone for you, it’s true love.”
Lanier has a word he uses to describe this kind of intensity: flavor. “To
my mind flavor is simply the word for whatever it is that defines the circle
of empathy that I don’t know how to describe scientifically or technologically
but that I think I can see. It’s some kind of meaning beyond the
thing itself.” To him flavor captures whatever it is about the human enterprise
that is ineffable and marvelous.
This is why Lanier is not at all panicked by the prospect of an increasingly
enhanced humanity. As long as it narrows the gaps between people
and has flavor, he is content. In fact, he can’t wait for the ramp of connectivity
to give him the communication powers of his beloved cuttlefish.
Sure, he says, some people will use their enhancements to advance their
flavorless conformist careers, with everybody looking the same because
they’ve all got the same tall, blond ideals. But that’s going to get real boring,
not to mention that genetically engineered lawyers are going to be a
variation on The Hell Scenario.
At some point, a device will appear that will be to biological enhancement
what the Kurzweil 250 synthesizer was to music. It will finally put
the powers of creation in the hands of people with some real imagination.
When that day occurs, Lanier would like wings, please. Wings that
have the presentation capabilities of the skin of his beloved cuttlefish, to
be precise. He would like wings he could unfurl on which he might display
whatever he imagined. He would have not just words for things as he
tried to connect to others, but pictures—moving pictures, from his artistically
original mind. He thinks it would be pretty hot on a date.
If I were a Natural, I ask, and I came across an Enhanced with cuttle-
fish display wings, would I be able to connect with such a creature?
“I actually think this is a yes,” he says. He admits that there may be a
little initial recoiling in horror, but by that decade, he figures, there will
be enough Enhanced with unusual attributes that good old-fashioned
human curiosity will take over. “Whether you can connect to this person
is the responsibility of both parties. I’d want to be somewhat surprised by
somebody who went to that much trouble, to have wings.”
For The Prevail Scenario to work, he believes, you will have to have a
world in which you have both differences between people and opportunities
for intense connectedness. The measure of success would be the
extent to which you could communicate more deeply and completely
with others in a flavorful way.
So Lanier thinks the answer to whether the Natural could have an
intense connection with such an Enhanced would be based entirely on
the content of her spirit and on what that person revealed of herself
on her wings.
“If somebody has display wings integrated into their body,” Lanier
says, “and all she can do is show Gilligan’s Island reruns, I mean, I don’t
want to know that person,” he says.
“That wouldn’t even be funny once.”
TRYING TO ARRANGE a journey to wherever Kurzweil, Joy and Lanier
might happen to be tomorrow is like playing pool on a tablewhere the balls
jump like bullfrogs. Of them all, Jaron Lanier is the hardest
to nail down. So when he abruptly announces that if I can get myself
to the Denver airport, he’ll pick me up for a road trip down the Front
Range on his way to visit his ailing dad in New Mexico, I hop to it.
Wrestling his way out of the snowy elevations, Lanier shows up at the
airport in a Ford Windstar, a minivan at the unfashionable end of the
mommy-mobile spectrum. It was the only vehicle he could find in Colorado,
he explains, for which the rental company wouldn’t charge extra for
him dumping it far, far away—doubtless because they were relieved to see it
depart. So there we soon are, tooling through the mountains and deserts
west of the 100th meridian with tape recorders, batteries, legal pads, pens,
laptops, shoulder packs and a backseat rapidly filling with snack food wrappers.
Two desperadoes headed for the border, looking like we’ve just
ditched the middle-school soccer team. Oh yeah. Out of our way.We bad.
The high point of the trip, of course, is Lanier showing off Mesilla. Its
old Spanish plaza remains remarkably genuine. A wedding is going on at
the iglesia, the church at the north end of the square. It would not be out
of place a thousand miles south. Some businesses have begun to make a
pass at gentrification. There’s a bed-and-breakfast and a bookstore. The
ground floor of the old courthouse now features the Billy the Kid Gift
Shop. But even amid the predictable supply of badges in the shape of a sixpointed
star saying “Sheriff ” at the top and “New Mexico” at the bottom,
with a wide selection of boys’ and girls’ first names embossed in the middle,
one can find certain blooms of authenticity. Lanier spies a collection
of Indian flutes for sale. “Oh, I know the guy who makes those,” he says.
“Those are cedar flutes. They’re really good.” He picks one up and suddenly
the tourist trap is filled with amazing trills as he triple-tongues this
flute and flutters his fingers over the holes. Everything stops. All turn to
listen to the music Lanier is coaxing out of these humble instruments.
Leaving the plaza, we pass the Palacio Bar. Lanier has vivid childhood
memories of watching people carrying their shotguns into this bar. He
remembers the sound of gunfire. He’s never been inside, he muses.
“Great!” I say. “Let’s have a beer!”
Lanier looks and thinks the way he does completely without benefit of
drink or drugs. He is a lifelong teetotaler. His imagination is completely
fueled by his own onboard supply of neurochemicals—one of his more
remarkable achievements. So there we are, bellying up to the bar of the
Palacio, and Lanier orders a Diet Coke. I look at him in horror and
quickly order a Cuervo Gold and a draft, just to avoid trouble. The Palacio
is still pretty unadulterated. But it’s not the way Lanier imagined it. It’s
more of a family place now. Yet over the bar there’s a list of deadbeats
who have welshed on their tab, labeled “Bad Eggs.” On top of the thermostat
behind the bar there lies a sapper—one of those whippy metal
things with weights at either end covered with leather that cops used to
carry in their hip pockets, calling it “a persuader.” The bartender says he’s
never had to use it. But it remains prominently displayed.
Lanier may have no use for mind-bending substances, but he does take
a fine and studied interest in his home state’s regional cuisine. This is how
we end up peeling off the Interstate for breakfast at the town of Hatch.
Hatch, which is even less prepossessing than Mesilla, prides itself on
being the chili capital of New Mexico. No small boast. The universal solvents
of every meal in the state are green chili salsa and red chili salsa. A
local sternly lectures me for not recognizing the value of spreading chili
jam on one’s breakfast toast, and stirring it into one’s yogurt.
New Mexico’s chilis are intriguing. They’re not the Texas instant-hit,
blow-the-back-of-your-head-off kind. New Mexico’s chilis have layers
of flavor. They enter into a conversation with your food and your taste
buds in a complex way.
On our way out of town, after a vast platter of huevos and salsa at La
Palma Cafe, we espy this little cinder-block hole-in-the-wall place called
Flores Farms, on Hall Street, Hatch’s main drag. Out front hangs row
after row of ristras. These are fat decorative braids of dried chilis, some as
many as six feet long.We definitely need some of these, so we pull in, and
behind the counter is Felipe Mendoza. Mendoza has the sort of terrific,
sun-darkened, wizened Mexican-American visage over which the photographer
Ansel Adams, who roamed these parts, would have swooned.
We get into a very deep conversation about the various kinds of chilis he
has, when to roast them, how to crush them, the correct proportion of
cilantro to add and so forth. This fills the better part of an hour.Wandering
around the tiny shop, examining its wares in the course of all this, we
discover two big maps on the wall, one of the United States and one of
the world. On close examination both turn out to be riddled with pinholes.
When a customer comes in, Mendoza will give him a pushpin to
stick in the maps to show how far away from Hatch, New Mexico, he’s
from. At the end of the year the shopkeepers remove all the pushpins and
the process starts all over again.
This is only the fifth month of the year, but already the maps are full of
pushpins. Not only from Miami to Seattle, but including Russia, India,
Iraq and some little island off the coast of western Australia nearer to the
Antarctic than anything else. That’s the one that really impresses Mendoza.
Much later it occurs to me that Felipe Mendoza’s world is a metaphor
for Prevail. It is this intensely local yet vastly global arrangement that’s
very complex and very authentic whose pivot literally is flavor. Mendoza
is no poster child for going back to some static nature, Lanier observes.
Mendoza talks about all the varieties of chilis they are experimenting
with to see how far they can push their business. His livelihood depends
upon people coming to Hatch and saying Hatch is special. He is both a
man of the world and is grounded in that place. He is clearly somebody
who has the flavor of the valley. He is the essence of being connected
while relishing differences.
Lanier thinks it important that we carefully pick which ramp on which
to focus as we ride The Curve of exponential change. It is impossible to
tell humans to spurn further evolution.
Lanier has sympathy for those who ask why we can’t just be satisfied
with all we have. It’s hardly an irrational point of view, he says, but it is an
impractical one. That’s not our nature. “You can’t have a clever species
sitting around on the planet with nothing to do,” he says. “Trouble will
ensue. Something bad will happen. So it’s essential to have long-term
goals. These ramps are not just for fun. They’re actually for our survival
because of our nature. We want to choose our ramp wisely, and I think
the one I’ve outlined, I think it works.” He laughs. “I’m thinking of it as
a technologist, like designing a ramp for mankind. This is a good ramp.
It’s respectful of others. It doesn’t say, ‘I know the right way.’ It assumes
differences. It’s psychologically extremely challenging. And it is based on
a real measurable achievement—whether people have understood each
other—instead of some fantasy.”
Who knows whether Lanier’s version of Prevail will prevail. But
Hatch provides evidence that his scenario could be credible. For by the
side of the road, in a secluded part of New Mexico, there stands a small
monument, decorated with ristras, pointing the way to an infinite game
in which people are at the center, flavor is not blanched out and the goal
is connections as complex as those musicians like to make. It might be a
long shot. But if we can evolve in that direction, we might even manage
to find an ambitious and persistent way to expand the ineffable and the
marvelous and the resilient in the human spirit.
The Prevail Scenario
There are two key elements to any version of The Prevail
• Humans have an uncanny history of muddling through—of forging
unlikely paths to improbable futures in defiance of historical
forces that seem certain and inevitable.
• The wellspring of this muddling through, of this prevailing, is
the ability of ordinary people facing overwhelming odds to rise
to the occasion because it is the right thing—for example, the
British “nation of shopkeepers” that defied the Third Reich.
To these, Jaron Lanier shapes his version of The Prevail
Scenario by adding:
• Even if technology is advancing along an exponential curve, that
doesn’t mean humans cannot creatively shape the impact on
human nature and society in largely unpredictable ways.Technology
does not have to determine history.
• The key measure of Prevail’s success is an increasing intensity of
links between humans, not transistors. If some sort of transcendence
is achieved beyond today’s understanding of human nature,
it will not be through some individual becoming a superman. In
Lanier’s Prevail Scenario, transcendence is social, not solitary.The
measure is the extent to which many transform together.
• Few. The Prevail Scenario views uncertainty about the specifics
of the future of human nature as one of its more plausible features.
• Are The Curves of exponential change smoothly accelerating, or
are they susceptible to unexpected slowdowns, reversals or stops?
• Will The Curves of technological change produce a smooth
curve of change in human culture?
Big differences between The Prevail Scenario and both
the Heaven and Hell Scenarios:
• In Prevail, humans are pickingand choosing their futures in an effective
manner.They are actually succeeding in practical ways to
slow change that is seen as negative or accelerate change that is
seen as positive.This is not to be confused with mere rhetoric that
has little functional outcome. Nor is it to be confused with protests
that result in little actual change, or change that merely alters the
outcome by moving the relentless Curve from one part of the
globe to another—from North America to Asia, for example.
Early warning signs that we are entering The Prevail Scenario:
• Resistance to The Curves of change is actually having an effect
• Certain technologies that affect human development and
enhancement are globally seen as worth slowing down or
stopping, in the way that the use of nuclear weapons was
effectively prevented for the second half of the 20th century.
• Technologies that were seen as inevitable turn out to take much
longer to develop than anticipated. Predictions common in the
early 21st century begin to sound as silly as those of the middle
of the 20th century, such as the paperless office, hotels on Mars
and self-cleaning houses.
• Researchers voluntarily stop working on topics they view as too
• Researchers decline funding for certain topics that they view as
too fraught with human peril, putting their ethics ahead of their
promotions, tenure, graduate students and intellectual curiosity.
• Researchers decline funding from organizations they view as too
laden with problems, such as corporations and the military.
• Moore’s Law, which projects the swift repeated doubling of
computer power, is discovered no longer to be a reliable guide,
because it has hit fundamental physical limits.
• Computational power is no longer seen as achieving exponential
growth because of the inability of software to keep up the pace
• There is little correlation between any exponential change in
technology and the development of human society.