Being Good Enough


Environmentalist Bill McKibben, a visiting scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College, is the author of The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience about global warming. Published in 1989, it is now available in 20 languages. His most recent book, Enough, critiques human genetic engineering, nanotechnology and other rapidly advancing technologies.  It was his belief, posited at the Singularity Summit at Stanford that we need to decide that we live, most of us in the West, long enough. “In societies where most of us need storage lockers more than we need nanotech miracle boxes, we need to declare that we have enough stuff. Enough intelligence. Enough capability. Enough.”

The following transcript of Bill McKibben’s Singularity Summit at Stanford presentation has not been approved by the speaker.  Video and audio are also available.

Being Good Enough

It’s a real pleasure to be joining you all today, albeit from afar.  I wish I was there with you in person.  I was actually born at Stanford hospital while my father was working at SRI in the early 1960′s, and it would be a great pleasure to meet those of you whose books and articles I have read with real interest and appreciation.  I have met Ray Kurzweil, and I want to thank him in particular for the spirit of non-dogmatic openness with which he approaches this topic, exemplified in this case by his eagerness to have me express my doubts about the question at hand.  I’m afraid those doubts will dominate my talk.

I’m appearing to you more or less from the future thanks to Dave Kennedy and the handy crew here at  Teleportec.  You will find me somewhat the voice of the past, or perhaps a different idea of the future.  My doubts are not technical.  I’m more than willing to grant, at least for the sake of argument, that something like what Ray and others have been calling the Singularity, or an intelligence explosion, or whatever term you use, may in fact be in the offering—a moment when some other intelligence outstrips that which we now call human, and when, as a result, everything changes.  Human life would be, in Ray’s words, “irreversibly transformed, and with it the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives—from our business models, to the cycle of human life, including death itself.”

Now, to desire such a future is relatively easy for us.  The default assumption in our lives as modern Americans is that more is better: more stuff, more power, more intelligence, more years, more dimensions.  When I say “default assumption,” that is just what I mean.  In fact, we have come to call this assumption, and the set of traits that underlie it–curiosity, greed, technical prowess, competitiveness—we have come to call them “human nature.”  This hyper-individualism is most fully developed in our own culture, and in recent times has produced a political ideology that bridles at any attempt to restrain it in the name of community.

I was thinking as I was preparing this talk about I wrote a number of years ago, called The Age of Missing Information.  It was an odd experiment that I recorded in this book.  I went and found the largest cable television system in the world, which at the time was in Fairfax, Virginia, and had a hundred channels.  I got people there to tape for me everything that came across those hundred channels for 24 hours.  So I had 2400 hours worth of videotape—a kind of day-in-the-life of the information age, pre-internet.  I took it back with me to the woods where I live, and I went to Sears and bought a recliner, and I settled in and watched, trying to figure out what the world would look like to you if this was your main porthole on it, as for many it is.

The book is filled with a lot of different ideas and insights, but the central one, and I think the message that flows out of that cable, and every other instrument of our consumer society, is that you, sitting there on the couch, are the most important thing in the world.  You are the heaviest object in the known universe—everything should orbit around you.  That’s a powerful idea. It’s worth remembering, however, that there have been and continue to be different conceptions of who we are and who we can be.  A certain strain of powerful thinking that we sometimes call “spiritual” traces back at least as far as the Buddha, for instance, and argues instead that as we manage to make ourselves smaller we become more fully who we are.

Most human beings, in most times and places, have almost certainly defined themselves in connection to the community, the divine, the natural world—some amalgam of those three.  It is not only spiritual traditions that lead us in that direction.  To me, the most remarkable emergent science of the last century was neither atomic physics nor computerized mathematics.  It was the insights of ecology, with its developing notion of balance and of niche.

Now, adjudicating a dispute between these two positions—this hyper-individualism and community—is, of course, difficult.  Too much depends upon the assumptions and even the mood in which you begin.  Let me register, by way of example, a couple of small examples—reasons to think that more is not always better.  Advocates of various forms of transhumanism or other improvements will routinely point to human memory as one of our most obvious defects.  Indeed, Eliezer said a few things about it a minute ago.

Marvin Minsky, for one, explaining why he did not “much like how people are now,” pointed out that we can only learn about two bits per second.  Even a century’s worth of learning at that pace would leave us with only three billion bits of data, or less than what we can store today on a regular five inch compact disc. By now, doubtless, we can store that much on a disc the size of a housefly’s thorax.  Perhaps, as Ray has written, we will soon have knowledge-loading downports in the electronic version of our synapses, so there will be no need to read a book, the computer will just squirt the contents into your head.

It’s easy, in a Midas-like mood, to yearn for perfect recall.  But be careful in this, as in many things, for what you wish for.  Isn’t one of the most remarkable features of the human memory precisely its ability to forget?  Take the even more prosaic example of human physical performance.  It will in all likelihood prove possible to make us faster and stronger than we are at the moment (genetically, pharmacologically) by melding us with machinery.  We will then by some measure be better than we are now… but to what end, exactly?

I’m an athlete, albeit a slow one.  I run marathons and race on cross country skis.  A couple of years ago I qualified for the Boston Marathon, and there was no danger that I would win it, of course.  Of the 20,000 people who started that race, at best ten of us had any real hope of triumph.  And yet, it somehow was not meaningless.  Indeed, half the people who crossed the line with me, an hour behind the victor, were in tears… and only partly because they were in pain.  More importantly, it had been a very dramatic example of that most human of activities—finding out about yourself.  What your limits were, how you dealt with them, what it felt like to be you.

To imagine the scene a few generations hence, when our same runners had been improved in utero so that their hemoglobin could carry four times the oxygen, or machined in some way so as to give them super speed, is to imagine the poverty of more.  Yes, people will get to the finish line faster, but if getting there fast is the point, you had might as well take a motorcycle, or cross a person with a motorcycle, for that matter.  The real point of the enterprise, self-discovery, would be fatally undermined.  You would be discovering not yourself but your equipment.

For a rough analog, those of you in the Bay Area can conjure up this summer’s spectacle of Barry Bonds breaking  baseball’s historic records.  If it fills you with pleasure to watch his joyless pursuit, then the Singularity should be great fun for you.  If not, it might be worth thinking more deeply.  If the meaning of something as ephemeral as “sport” can be fatally damaged by improvement, then what of love, of art, of fate, of the central and profound human experiences?  What of life itself?

One thing that came clear to me as I wrote this book Enough, and as I read and talked with many enthusiasts of the coming technological climax, was the degree to which this word was driven by a loathing of death.  At some level this surprised me.  Many scientists have long prided themselves on a willed immunity to the superstition known as religion that so many weaker souls embraced in the cold shadow of our own eventual demise.  Clearly scientists, some anyway, turn out to be as mortal as anyone, at least in their fear of mortality.  Here is Michael West, the CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, which produced the first cloned embryos and grew them to the six cell stage.  “All I think about all day long every day is human mortality and our own aging,” he said.  Indeed, he talks about admiring a t-shirt he had seen with a picture of Einstein and the words “If he was so goddam smart, why is he dead?”

Damien Broderick, writing in his book The Spike: “We’re stuck at the moment with death’s pain, loss, and grief, but in the longest term of the history of intelligent life in the universe it will surely be the case that the routine and inevitable death of conscious beings was a temporary error, quickly corrected.”  Or Max More:”Involuntary aging and death is a rotten design feature for our species.  It really is vital that we understand the causes of aging and how to intervene to stop it.”  And hence the crusade, not to extend the average human life toward the edge of our genetic possibility, which is about 115 years, but to surge past the Hayflick limit and achieve some form of immortality.

Far be it for me to dismiss this deepest of human dreams.  I would like simply to raise a few doubts, less about the practicalities, though “president for life” would certainly take on a new meaning, than about the most basic questions of meaning.  For all our terms as mortals, we have been mortal—a creature that knows it will die.  Consciousness is in many ways is the software for coming to terms with that knowledge, and without it consciousness would have little to rub up against.

Absent mortality, no time.  All moments would be equal.  The deep, sad, lovely, immensely human wisdom of Ecclesiastes would vanish.  If for everything there is an endless season, then there is also no right season, and none of the profound daily joyful heroism of bringing up a child in the full knowledge that she will supplant you.  There might be some being called a child in this endless future with whom you had some tangential biological or financial connection, but you would never pass on your life.  Your child would be just one more figure in a sea of figures, owing you little, owing nothing in return.

The immortalists imagine that if one bite of the apple gave us consciousness, another bite or two, or really cramming the whole thing in our mouth at once, might take away the pain that came with consciousness.  However, it is at least as likely that the next bite will erase human meaning instead.  Meaning in pain and meaning in transience are inextricably intertwined.  Immortality would not be more, it would be utterly different.

Here is Michael West again, answering a reporter’s question about whether immortality would not lead to overpopulation.  “Perhaps it would,” he said, “but why put the burden on people now living, people enjoying the process of breathing, people loving and being loved?  The answer is clearly to limit new entrance to the human race, not to promote the death of those enjoying the gift of life today.”  Now, now, me, today.  Forget about the future, this is an attempt to stop time.  You may be able, with some combination of these new technologies to live forever, but I have doubts about enjoying the gift of life eternally.  The joy of it, the meaning of it, will melt away like ice cream on an August afternoon.  I would suggest that living be enough for us, not living forever.

Let us turn for a moment to the interesting and perhaps slightly less philosophically daunting question of those very real problems that the world faces and how we might solve them.  Let me raise, as an example, the question of climate change.  I choose it for two reasons.  One, it is the first civilization-scale challenge humans have yet faced.  Two, it is the issue I have spent most of my life working on.  In 1989 I wrote the first book for a general audience about climate change, The End of Nature.  I have stayed with the question since.  As all of you know, it represents a fantastically difficult problem: how to restrain the use of fossil fuels by 70% or more worldwide as soon as possible, even in the face of developing nations finally starting to develop, principally by burning coal.

Some of the answer to this yawning gap is technological.  New fuel sources, new technologies for carbon sequestration—these are the problems that conceivably some form of superintelligence might help us solve, so it is worth pointing out that even with our puny single compact disc brains we have managed to construct most of the technology we need, ranging from the bicycle to the solar panel.

The other half of the equation, though, is not technological but behavioral.  Let me give you an interesting statistic.  The average Western European uses half as much energy as the average American.  Half is a big number—not enough to solve global warming, but enough to get you a long ways there.  Many of you have visited Western Europe, so you know they possess no secret technology.  You know also that they are not living a deprived life.  Indeed, if we wanted to visit elegance and sophistication, we are more likely to board a plane for Paris than for Phoenix.  The technology they possess is the technology of community.  They have agreed to forgo a certain amount of consumption, for instance, and instead use the money to build cities attractive enough to exert a gravitational pull instead of spinning people off centrifugally into ever more distant suburbs.  They have agreed to put high taxes on energy, to spend that money on building superb mass transit, and they are willing to put up with the mild inconvenience of using it.

This kind of technology depends on the very resources of the human mind and heart typically scorned by the techno-libertarian enthusiasts—indeed, almost all of the manifestations of a more-is-better culture.  It helps show, in a sense, how tawdry that atmosphere can become, how it sells short the possibilities of the human.

Yes, as Max More stated in his address proposing amendments to the human constitution, we have limited senses, imperfect memories, and poor impulse control.  Yes, as Gregory Paul and Earl Cox pointed out in their book Beyond Humanity, even the erect bipedal posture of which we are so proud makes us so unstable that falling on flat ground can have devastating consequences.  Yes, as Nick Bostrom has predicted, it may be possible to engineer us so that we will have orgasms and aesthetic contemplative pleasures whose blissfulness vastly exceeds what any human has yet experienced… although, speak for yourself.

In fact, we already possess a singular and lovely ability, one unique to our species and one likely to be drowned in the oncoming Singularity which merges us with the machine and reengineers us for greater efficiency.  That unique gift is the ability to restrain ourselves—to decide not do something we are capable of doing, to set limits on our desires, to say “enough.”  This is, as I said at the start, an attribute that our spiritual traditions center on and that neither Copernicus nor Darwin has knocked askew.  This deep tradition reminds us that meaning counts more than ability, achievement, or its simulation.  Turning the other cheek is rather more impressive than building some titanium-dirded hydrolic powered jaw that will let us chew gravel.

In recent time we have begun to see again, and in very secular terms, how right that sense of the world may in fact be.  Scholars across a wide variety of disciplines have begun to ask in the last couple of decades a large question that academics have traditionally shied away from.  Namely, “Are we happy?” The answer seems to be:  “Not so much.” In this country, according to polls of annually surveyed Americans since the end of World War II, the number of our countrymen who will say they are very satisfied with their lives peaks in the mid 1950s and has declined slowly but steadily ever since.  Barely a quarter of us will now make such a claim.

This is odd, since in that same span of time our prosperity has almost trebled.  We have acquired huge new powers.  Jet travel has become routine, for instance.  Our houses have more than doubled in size, even as the number of people living in them has shrunk.  We have, for a vanishingly small cost, access to prodigious amounts of information.  Any semi-musical sound emitting by anyone on any continent can be downloaded instantly to that more or less permanently installed hard drive known as the iPod.

We are more enabled, empowered, more astride the world than anyone, anywhere at any time.  Why isn’t it working so well?  The Singulatarian answer to this dilemma is to say “yet more.”  “Crank up the molecular assembler.”  Once we can have everything we want the instant we want it, we will finally reach happiness, not to mention solve global warming.

There is something charming and sweet in this answer—the endless triumph of hope over experience. There is something sad in it as well.  As best the sociologists and economists can ascertain, the reason we are less happy than our statistics would predict is that we are starved for human contact, for community.  Starved, that is, for the chance to make ourselves a little smaller, a little less central to our lives.  If you think about it, that makes a certain sense of the statistics.  After all, it was the 1950′s when we isolated ourselves in the suburbs, with the first of the series of screens that now dominate our lives.  We are beginning to figure that out.

Just as a small example of what might be changing, the number of farmers’ markets has doubled and then again in the last decade.  It has sprung up in rich communities and in poor ones, partly because people have begun to realize the environmental benefits of local food networks (they can cut the energy intensity of your dinner, and hence its carbon emissions, by a factor of ten,) partly because people want better food that tastes like something, and partly because people want community.

A team of sociologists shadowing shoppers last year reported that those at farmers’ markets had ten times more conversations than shoppers at supermarkets. An order of magnitude less energy, an order of magnitude more community, and all with an innovation (the farmers’ market) that in technological ways of thinking is less efficient than the conventional model it replaces.  Just in case you are wondering, by the way, in Europe, where such institutions are somewhat more common, and where, as I have said, people lie a little differently along the spectrum between community and individuality, life satisfaction has not decreased in the same way that it has in this nation.  Food for thought.

As you can tell, I fear very much the further rationalization of our societies promised by these Singulatarian technologies.  I fear very much the further extension of our hyper-individualist model.  I hope very much that as democracies we can summon the will to draw on our better angels and draw the lines that might prevent their full enactment, just as in the last century we struggled to bring under workable control the possibilities represented by the smashing of the atom.  In some cases, I think it has become fairly clear where those lines should be drawn.  Germline genetic manipulation, I think, should be banned.  Extensions of more traditional medicines, represented by stem cell research or somatic gene therapy should be permitted, although closely monitored.  In other areas (nanotechnology, say) I don’t think we know just where a wise democracy would set the boundaries yet.

Now, I understand that the very idea of boundaries intensely irritates some people, perhaps some people in this room—the idea that individual enterprise and expression might someday bow to community judgment.  I know that for those who style themselves the Columbuses of these new voyages, such Flat-Earthism seems hopelessly irrational.  Still, given the stakes (and as I say, I think the stakes are nothing more and nothing less than the future of human meaning) it seems to me worth taking all of this as slowly as we can, putting some breaks on what Ray Kurzweil has described with such power as the pelmel rush toward some ultimate end point.

One way to think of this is: Is there some goal to our existence, some end point toward which we are heading?  If so, then perhaps it makes sense to speed up we will get there faster.  What is it that we need all this new computer power to do, all this extra intelligence to figure out?  I have tried to way the practical possibilities in cases like global warming, and I find them, as I say, dubious.  In any event, my reading of this movement’s literature leaves me thinking that practical applications are a small part of the excitement—that an eschatological fervor drives a lot of this work.

Let me give you a few quotes.  “It will allow us a deeper understanding of what truly we are,” says Rodney Brooks. “Our new biology,” adds Gregory Stock, “will allow us to pierce the veneer of inside things so that we may reach the naked soul of man.” In the words of J. Hughes, “re-engineered minds will permit us to think more profound and intense thoughts.  Forgive me for saying so, but these sound like sentiments shared in the parking lot on the way out of a Phish concert.

Look, environmentalists—and I am one—may overvalue the present and under-appreciate the glories of the techno-world to come, but I don’t get it. The great Princeton geneticist Lee Silver in the conclusion to his book Remaking Eden on the gen-rich future, describes the immortals that we will build with all our new technologies as as different from humans—and here he echoes Eliezer’s words—as humans are from the worms with tiny brains that first crawled along the earth’s surface. He cannot find the words to describe these celestial beings. “‘Intelligence,’” he says, “does not do justice to their cognitive abilities. ‘Knowledge’ cannot explain the depth of their understanding. ‘Power’ is not enough to describe the control they have over technologies that can be used to shape the universe in which they live.”

What do these sublime creatures do all the days of their endless lives? In his view, they dedicate their time to answering three questions. Where did the universe come from? Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the meaning of conscious existence? With all due respect, these strike me as profoundly uninteresting, at least concerned with the deep human questions. How are you feeling? Can I give you a hand with that? Do you think you could ever love me, too? It is there that I end my defense of the world we now inhabit and I thank you very much for your patience.


3 thoughts on “Being Good Enough

  1. This post concludes the series of transcriptions of all presentations taking place at the first two Singularity Summit events. They are intended for those who are interested in reading them.

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