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Countering futurist arrogance
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nasu_dengaku
I recently attended the BIL conference, a free version of TED in which most of the speakers are from the audience. Given the crowdsourced nature of the speaker selection process, the quality of the talks is very good, which speaks to the quality of the attendees.

One interesting conversation came up that hit at something I find wrong with the futurist community. I was having a conversation with two very intelligent people that ended up with the two of them claiming that “average” people are basically too dumb or narrow-minded to understand futurist concepts like the Singularity. I said something to the effect of “most people aren’t as dumb as you think they are”.

Most futurists (including myself) are atheists, and a lot of them tend to look down on people who have strong religious beliefs. The argument usually goes along the lines of “if someone literally believes the world was created in seven days, and Eve was created from Adam’s rib, how smart can they be”?

The funny thing is that these strange creatures with their strange, clearly unscientific beliefs are still capable of incredible feats. They can successfully run large organizations.  They can build things like these:



How can someone with such gaping holes in their logic still expertly handle all the logistical decisions required to construct a cathedral or run a megachurch? Clearly they are actually very capable, probably more capable at certain things than most futurists. Most futurists are actually quite unexceptional when it comes to organizational skills.

I think what’s actually going on is that every personality type has a blind spot where logic simply doesn’t apply. The religious fundamentalists’ blind spot (IMHO) is their religious fundamentalism. The futurists’ blind spot is, on average, their arrogant belief that ideas are everything and that they are so much smarter than everyone else that it’s not worth trying to explain these ideas to the general public. There is of course a lot of individual variation on this, and a few futurists have successfully shared their ideas in the mainstream media, but these people feel like exceptions.

I think we, as futurists, can do better. I’ve taken it upon myself to spend more time introducing futurist topics to random strangers in an accessible way. My conversation about computer vision with a random woman in line at the Long Beach airport went quite well.

I'd also like to point out that there are plenty of people who are somewhat to very religious who *don't* take the Bible completely literally. And that there are plenty of scientists who are religious. None of these things are mutually exclusive.

I think it's good that you're trying to open up more dialogue. No one except other writers ever talks to me about futurism, and I wish they would.

Thanks!

It's true that there are a lot of different shades of religious belief.

I do have trouble reconciling the worldviews required to be very religious and also be a scientist in the modern world, but perhaps I should just seek such people out and talk to them. :-)

I LOVE this post. It's true of my experience (though not of all futurists).
What I've found most disturbing about the "looking down at others" experience I have with many futurists is that futurists frequently also claim to want a better world on behalf of humanity - but when combined with a general disdain for humanity, it's a painful contradiction...and for me, speaks to a lack of compassion for truly understanding multiple perspectives and the worldviews of others that DO have something to teach.

That said, the perils of fundamentalism are also pretty dire - stemming from a like inability of compassion and to see the perspectives of others.

Thanks!

I had never realized the contradiction you mentioned directly in regards to the futurist community, but it's often quite true. The contradiction is also embodied in a lot of quasi-fascist "leaders of the people" around the world, and that's not a good group to be lumped in with. :-)

The desire to get out of this sort of bubble thinking is part of why I'm glad I went around the world for half a year.

And as an aside...La Familia Sagrada really is one of the most stunning architectural things I've ever seen... :) Though I had moments when I wondered if pods would burst open and bring forth alien babies...

Yes... I loved it too. One of my favorite design details is how the windows in the pods are placed at exactly the right angles to project little squares of light onto the ground when they are lit from within at night.

You're right, I'm always amazed at how little metaphysical beliefs end up mattering when it comes to getting most practical stuff done.

I too get annoyed by the attitude that some people in the futurist community (and geek community in general) have about general stupidity. And I've surprised myself by successfully explaining parts of things to people here and there where I thought ahead of time that there's no way they would understand any of it. For example, when people ask what my tattoo of DNA morphing into a circuit diagram is about.

Keep fighting the good fight!

Awesome.

Does putting transhumanist tattoos into your body make you a meta-transhumanist?

I would consider my futurist in a general sense.

But I'm more of a do-er than a talker, because I realised that it's very easy to talk about the future and much more effort to help actually bring it about it.

I must admit I'm guilty of considering people stupid, which is exacerbated by always having to help people in school and work environments. One day I'd like to be an environment where there are people I can ask on how to do things.

However, I've introduced concepts like longevity to friends and they've found it interesting, and it's always good practice to get used to countering the common objections to such things. They also sometimes bring up alternative views which are valuable for seeing futurism from the outside.

I must admit I'm guilty of considering people stupid, which is exacerbated by always having to help people in school and work environments. One day I'd like to be an environment where there are people I can ask on how to do things.

That's easy to fix. Go pick up a new skill, like wakeboarding, acting, or marketing. :-)

I wouldn't venture to call myself a futurist (I'm actually quite vehemently a nowist), mainly due to the reasons you list here. I work in enough technology areas to outpace most futurists, but I try not to be an asshole to anyone, either them or people with no technical experience. Just doesn't get anyone anywhere.

"... spend more time introducing futurist topics to random strangers in an accessible way." is an awesome endeavor though. It's really what I've been trying to do with my various projects, and the results have been wonderful thus far. Not only that, there's few points where most far future topics become knowledge saturated (i.e. the amount of people who still don't know what teledildonics is), so there's always new people to talk to and perspectives to get.

"The funny thing is that these strange creatures with their strange, clearly unscientific beliefs are still capable of incredible feats. They can successfully run large organizations."

Not funny, just logical.

Person In Charge: "Do this."
Person who believes in authority: "Yes, Sir."

vs.

Person In Charge: "Do this."
Individualist: "Why?"


... and, BTW, the quality of a conversation with a random women can usefully be measured by many metrics. Technical content is not amongh them.


Person In Charge: "Do this."
Individualist: "Why?"


Good point. :-)

Besides my tangential excitement about Gaudi's fucking awesome cathedral I will be seeing in ONE WEEK (yes folks!!), I wanted to weigh in on the fact that elitism in any form is a blind spot.

I also often detect a snobbish bent behind people who bandy about the term "rationality". The subtle implication I always hear is that those folks have totally mastered their minds, unlike the rest of us.

I just wanna say, calm down everyone. Every belief system, no matter how silly or serious you take it is just a lens for viewing the world. Some are more useful for others. Some are more useful to you than others.

I LOVE the idea of the Singularity. Is how great power to inspire, it's uplifting, it could bring the world out of a Dark Age into another Enlightenment.

Just understand that belief systems arise based on ones individual context and input and most everyone holds onto theirs with great conviction.

Rationality=Christianity
Singularity=Eschaton

Hmmmm?

Yay Barcelona!


our exercise at last night's rationality meetup was to all talk about ways in which we are irrational. One of the motivations was, of course, to create a frame that our rationality is a work in progress.

Every belief system, no matter how silly or serious you take it is just a lens for viewing the world. Some are more useful for others. Some are more useful to you than others.

Some are better at describing reality - more accurate, more correct, and thus more useful.

While I agree that the futurists are wrong to assume that theism implies stupidity or incompetence, your line "every personality type has a blind spot where logic simply doesn’t apply" implies a sort of equality of blindness which I really don't agree with. Different people have different sizes of blind spots. Everyone is blind about lots of things, but on average I think theists are likely blind about more than atheists. After all, on the one data point we have, they have gotten the answer wrong.

Having blind spots is part of being human, but minimizing the number and degree of them is part of striving for rationality.

I didn't mean to imply an equality of blindness. I certainly feel that some worldviews are more blind than others, and I'm striving to limit blindness. That's why I'm pointing out the blind spots of futurists to futurists!

How do we let them know the rapture of the nerds is coming?

pingback_bot

2011-03-26 07:07 am (UTC)

User maradydd referenced to your post from How do we let them know the rapture of the nerds is coming? saying: [...] Matt Bell remarks [...]

Re: How do we let them know the rapture of the nerds is coming?

nasu_dengaku

2011-03-26 06:38 pm (UTC)

Well, you could have a pingback bot start leaving comments on their blogs. :-)

My comment got too long so I replied here.

Your observations are valid, but I do not agree with your assessment. As you say, everyone has blind spots. And I'm sure that you would agree that we are all unique how we focus andly our intelligence. But the answer does not lie with either of these.

I believe that the elitism you speak of is a group dynamic. And as far as I can tell, all groups can fall prey to that trapping. I see it among religious. I see it among the scientists and economists. I see it among the dancers and the gym rats. And I see it among the geeks. At times, I feel it in myself.

I would even go so far as to speculate that this is a social trait built over thousands of years: the “us versus them” part of the tribal mentality.

Unfortunately, we just don't mesh with most people and we all spend a very long time trying to find our tribes. So that when we do find our tribes, we focus to the point of excluding others.

I do think elitism is a common group dynamic, but it's one that's worth trying to overcome. I'm hoping self-proclaimed rationalist futurists will be more willing to try to overcome this bias if I point out that it is irrational.

I actually had an active discussion w/Vassar about this the other day. To pull my point out of context: the idea that you can discount any/everything of possible value that an otherwise awesome scientist puts out just because he happens to become a theist in his old age is totally insane to me. I know too many people with great ideas and brilliant accomplishments who happen to be blind in a certain area. Sometimes their blind-spot is even tied to the level of clearly focused brilliance in another area; for obvious prototyping, a brilliant engineer or science geek may have the *time*/energy to focus on mat/logic because it's already a strength, easier, less painful than acknowledging and developing social skills, understanding the emotional complexities of interaction... logic is cleaner, easier, but without an understanding of contextual significance and priorities within the greater matrix - incomplete logic is too simple, even useless or, when acted upon too brusquely, more painfully dangerous than admitting lack of omniscience.

Really, I'm not sure if it's just a futurist's blindspot persay, but the rationalizing elitist's easy blindspot. (I say this because not every person interested in emerging technologies would do the same thing.) Rational is one thing, but rationalISM often just seems like a supposedly individualist, though often bitter-loner or even strangely tribalist defense mechanism to me.

I also agree with Patri here - I think any personality can at least have the sense or integrity shore up their natural 'weaknesses'/blindspots to same base level of competency that ensures basic functionality. Just because one is a 'rational' type doesn't mean one always makes the error you mention; I know plenty of humbler, friendly rational types who do have the sense to acknowledge their own weaknesses and the strengths of others, the value of learning from others who may disagree with them.

Several years ago I started doing some ethnographic work on transhumanism and found the people involved *so annoying* that I could not possibly do fieldwork with them despite being quite transhumanist in many ways myself.

One thing I did discover, though, and wrote a bit on, is the ways in which so called atheist transhumanists actually mirror very conventional millenialist religious thinking. A number of them certainly embrace a lot of underpants gnomes type theories involving some pretty bad science (cryonics, anyone?). What I found was that there were a lot of leaps in faith going on, certainly a lot of myth and hero making in the community, but these people were utterly convinced of their rationality.

An ethnographer who had to flee from a tribe of natives who were *too annoying*? That's a first. :-)

On cryonics -- It did get a bad rap from some shady research back in the day (before my time), but there have been some better experiments lately. However, current cryonics research often isn't called "cryonics" because cryonics got such a bad rap. A lot of it is being funded by DARPA in order to save the lives of soldiers on the battlefield, chilling and stabilizing them until they can be taken to a medical facility.

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