Black Swans and Anarchotranshumanism

May 25, 2007

Among the many books I have piled up awaiting read is Naseem Taleb’s The Black Swan but I thought I’d offer a quick note after hearing him speak on a radio talk show yesterday. The main point of the book seems to be that we don’t take into account anomalous events enough when making plans for the future. Taleb seems to mostly be talking about the predictive modeling that is used for the making of public and economic policy but his point is one that’s been stressed by social psychologists in the past: namely that we have a tendency to assume a base continuity to our lives, that things will continue to be much as they have been in the past.

Why does this matter for us? Well I’ve already talked to one friend who opined that since black swans are going to happen it’s pointless to try and learn anything from past events and we should embrace a sort of fatalistic nihilism. I find this sort of sentiment to be rather stupid and I’m fairly certain it’s not the point Taleb is trying to make.

While there will undoubtedly be more black swans to come, the important thing isn’t necessarily trying to predict them but, rather, to be in place to influence the response to them. Look at the American Neo-Conservative movement as an example. Without a doubt September 11th was a black swan event. While it was something a small group had warned about, it wasn’t considered a terribly likely event so it caught us unawares. That small group that had warned about it was instantly awarded credibility and given prime spots shouting nonsense on teevee and within the administration.

So what you ask?

The so what is that we are potential black swans.

Many of the items on the transhumanist or anarchist agendas would probably be black swans if they were to happen. I know that sometimes we like to sit around in the echo chamber we’ve made for ourselves and treat things like the singularity, nano-fabrication, and a viable revolution as givens, but let’s not forget that most people think we’re crazy.

As these things start to happen, though, they’ll spark a frantic search for people that have thought about these sorts of thing before they happened. Breakthroughs in nano, bio, information or cogsci have the potential the throw the system for a loop (see for example Infomorph’s discussion of robots and revolution) and being in a place where we can talk about these things will help to further the agenda and lay the groundwork for the type of future society we’d like to see.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for anarchists to realize that the future does not involve living in goddamn caves and existing hand to mouth. Ranting about “I told you so” in regards to robotic labor causing industrial unrest isn’t going to get you attention when you foam at the mouth at the thought of an automatic vending machine being put in across the street. Simply put, primitivism lacks any credibility for making social predictions because its response to everything is exactly the same. Doom, gloom, and despair. There’s a credibility gap.

On the flip side, transhumanists are just as bad but for a different reason. Very few transhumanists give much thought to the social effects of new technologies. Even those that do seem to take the stance (a la Kurzweil) that progress is going to — by it’s very nature — be good for (trans)humanity and don’t seem to pay enough attention to potential negative outcomes of new tech.

These black swans are going to happen. It’s up to us to give due consideration to what might happen if they do and be able to respond to them in a measured and intelligible manner.

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