Aengus Anderson: Well, we’ve been gone for like over half a year. 

Micah Saul: Yeah… Oops. 

Anderson: Sometimes life inter­venes. We’ve…or I’ve made nois­es about this on Twitter and Facebook if you fol­low us there. The project isn’t entire­ly dead, we’ve got ten episodes left in the can which still need to be edit­ed. We’ll prob­a­bly keep doing this at kind of a snail’s pace in future years. But, you know, the big wave of con­ver­sa­tion production…kinda stopped.

Saul: You know, that’s not to say that we’ve died. Certainly all sorts of things have hap­pened in life that caused this, you know. You bought a house. I got engaged. But this as a project is not some­thing that we ever saw hav­ing a con­crete end. But—

Anderson: Right.

Saul: —we’re reach­ing the point where I think it…it changes, it slows down. But we want to keep it going. 

Anderson: Totally. And the only way to pick up the orig­i­nal pass would be to get like, mas­sive fund­ing from some­where. And we cer­tain­ly gave that a valiant effort, and we may apply for a cou­ple more grants, but it’s just a whole lot of work, you know. At this point I’m work­ing a full-time job so, that cer­tain­ly cut back in my edit­ing time. 

Saul: That said, we have start­ed some inter­est­ing things back up. 

Anderson: And this episode is kind of one of those things. It’s not going to be like any oth­er episode in the project. It’s a pan­el we did at South by Southwest. 

Saul: We are as shocked as you are. We pitched this…I’m not going to say as a joke. Because we did want to give this talk. 

Anderson: Right.

Saul: But we pitched it ful­ly expect­ing it to nev­er get accept­ed. For those that don’t know, South by Southwest is a big con­fer­ence that hap­pens in Austin every year. It’s got three com­po­nents: music, film, and inter­ac­tive. The inter­ac­tive com­po­nent is… Well, it’s a mutu­al mas­tur­ba­tion ses­sion for the tech industry. 

Anderson: That’s pret­ty well put. 

Saul: And so, of course we decid­ed we were going to pitch a talk at this con­fer­ence called A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing: The Myth of Disruption,” in which we took what we’ve learned from The Conversation and applied it direct­ly at the tech indus­try, in the heart of the beast.

Anderson: This is some­thing that grew direct­ly out of The Conversation, right, and a bunch of episodes in which we’ve talked about dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of progress. And often the feel­ing that we’ve had, and not to gen­er­al­ize too much but… The folks who have a real­ly intense tech back­ground? don’t always have a human­i­ties back­ground? And that makes talk­ing to peo­ple in a lot of oth­er areas dif­fi­cult. There’s just not the lan­guage there. And so when you’d get into a ques­tion of progress, it felt like a lot of our more tech thinkers had a pret­ty big buttoned-up idea of progress that was­n’t in con­ver­sa­tion with any­one else, where it felt like a lot of the oth­er ideas of progress we heard did talk to each other. 

Saul: Right. So we pitched this talk way back in July of 2013, of last year. And we found out in September that we got accept­ed, sur­pris­ing both of us.

Anderson: Kind of hor­ri­fy­ing.

Saul: Actually hor­ri­fy­ing us.

Anderson: Because then when we had to get stuff togeth­er. And that’s what you’re about to hear.

Saul: We should pref­ace this by say­ing two weeks pri­or to the talk? after we’d been work­ing on it for a while, we found out that sched­uled at the exact same time was Edward Snowden’s first pub­lic appear­ance since the leaks first came out.

Anderson: And that basi­cal­ly guar­an­teed that we would have an audi­ence of zero. We did some­what bet­ter than that; we had an audi­ence of about forty. And after ten min­utes of speak­ing we had an audi­ence of about twen­ty.

Saul: Which…I don’t know. I was pret­ty proud of. 

Anderson: And we still don’t know… I mean, did every­one want to go see Snowden? Did they find us shock­ing­ly bor­ing? Or were they from a tech back­ground and did­n’t like the idea that we were essen­tial­ly sug­gest­ing that the progress that’s implic­it in every­thing the tech indus­try does is actu­al­ly an extreme­ly nar­row def­i­n­i­tion of progress and actu­al­ly we don’t think it’s a very good one. That would be a pret­ty good rea­son to not want to lis­ten to us.

Saul: We’re not real­ly sure the answer to that. We leave that as an exer­cise to the lis­ten­er. And so with that, we would like to introduce…us!

Aengus Anderson: Shall we?

Micah Saul: Mm hm.

Anderson: Alright. 

Saul: Why the hell are you here? Don’t you know Edward Snowden’s talk­ing right now? [laugh­ter]

Anderson: We’re glad that you are, though.

Saul: Yeah. You may have noticed the lights are out, and the screens are off. It’s because we’re radio peo­ple. So…we’re we’re doing some­thing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than I think most peo­ple do here. So feel free to like, treat this as a radio show and close your eyes if you want to. That way you don’t have to look at us.

Anderson: Yeah. It’s a lot eas­i­er that way. And because we draw a lot of what we’re going to be talk­ing about today from a series of radio projects, one of which has been going for the past two years. And so we’re kind of used to work­ing in the the­ater of the mind we thought the truest way to do that would just be through voice. So it’ll sort of nerdy, sort of cere­bral, sort of sci­ence, sort of human­i­ties. Should be fun. Want to [crosstalk] intro­duce your­self first? 

Saul: So we should just jump in, yeah. I’m Micah Saul. I’m an ontol­o­gist in tech, in San Francisco. But I’ve also been work­ing with Aengus on this radio show which I think he will give a much more in-depth descrip­tion of.

Anderson: Yeah. And I’m Aengus Anderson. I’m trained as a his­to­ri­an but I’ve been work­ing media for a long time and doing radio more recent­ly. Past five years I’ve spent kind of on and off trav­el in the US and talk­ing to lots of dif­fer­ent peo­ple about the past, the present, the future, record­ing stuff that’s sort of jour­nal­ism, sort of oral history. 

And the project that we’ve been work­ing on for the past two years is called The Conversation. And in a nut­shell it’s a big sprawl­ing project, but I was dri­ving all over the US and talk­ing to real­ly inter­est­ing thinkers in a lot of dif­fer­ent fields. From peo­ple who come from faith tra­di­tions, to NASA sci­en­tists, to envi­ron­men­tal peo­ple, and basi­cal­ly ask­ing them to talk about what sort of futures they want­ed and why. And that always of course turns into a phi­los­o­phy con­ver­sa­tion. And when I would start telling them about each other—which is anoth­er premise of the project; what hap­pens when you tell these peo­ple about each oth­er’s ideas?—you get some real­ly inter­est­ing back and forth. But you need a com­mon lan­guage for that, and that lan­guage is philosophy. 

And I think when we both start­ed work­ing on the project, our philo­soph­i­cal vocab­u­lary is very small. And we learned to… I don’t know, we start­ed grap­pling with a lot of new con­cepts, which sort of dove­tailed right into what we’re going to be talk­ing about today. Things that have to do with what is progress? What is the good? Stuff like that. So, want to just jump right in?

Saul: Sure. So, raise your hand if you think all of the world’s prob­lems are solved and you know, there’s real­ly noth­ing bad going on, every­thing’s kin­da good. Yeah.

Anderson: I was expect­ing to see a least one per­son being belligerent.

Saul: So, as the show advanced, we real­ized that there are a lot of peo­ple real­ly real­ly wor­ried about the future, and they’re wor­ried about big, big things. We’re talk­ing things like inequal­i­ty. We’re talk­ing things like over­con­sump­tion of resources and envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse. Social col­lapse. Community break­down. General feel­ings of pow­er­less­ness against mas­sive systems.

Anderson: It’s a cheery a bunch of peo­ple that we spoke to. 

Saul: And this seems to be uni­ver­sal. I mean, many many peo­ple are hav­ing these con­cerns. But, you know, we all work in tech, right. That’s what we do. We look at the big prob­lems and we solve them—that’s what dis­rup­tion’s all about. So let’s talk a lit­tle bit about how, if it has, how tech has addressed those big prob­lems. Or has it? 

Anderson: Right. And I think some­thing that you get into when you start look­ing at okay, we’ve got this laun­dry list of prob­lems that a lot of peo­ple can agree on, and you start look­ing at okay well, here’s sort of the sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy indus­try and their approach to solv­ing these prob­lems. And there’s an implic­it def­i­n­i­tion of progress that comes out of that. 

But before we go any fur­ther there’s some­thing that like, if you’re some­one who’s kind of a soci­ol­o­gy nerd or a human­i­ties per­son you’d break sci­ence and tech the indus­tries, which are social cre­ations, from sci­ence the abstract prac­tice and tech­nol­o­gy the stuff, right. So, when we’re talk­ing about sci­ence and tech here we’re talk­ing about them as mod­ern social insti­tu­tions that are embed­ded with­in kind of a cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ic sys­tem. So, we’re talk­ing about prac­tice and cus­toms and things like that. 

Saul: We’re not talk­ing about empiri­cism. We’re not talk­ing about the sci­en­tif­ic method.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: We’re talk­ing about how those things are used in mod­ern society.

Anderson: Embodied in research labs, embod­ied in universities…in all sorts of things like that. And so as we start­ed get­ting into this and we’re going well god, what are these…you know, we’re cer­tain­ly dri­ving towards some­thing, but what are the unspo­ken ways we would define progress? And what do we even… What’s the word for this type of progress that’s emerg­ing from the sci­ence and tech indus­tries? Because we’ve run into a lot of dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of progress, and so we need­ed a name. And we’re like okay, mod­ernist progress,” it’s an ugly name, but in a way that’s what we’re going to be work­ing with today. That’s what we think is the implic­it progress that comes out of the sci­ence and tech industries. 

And let’s actu­al­ly just break that down into its kind of con­stituent parts, things that we think you could trace out of— If you were like a philoso­pher look­ing at mod­ernist progress.

Saul: Yeah, what are the sort of core tenets of this philosophy. 

So num­ber one, we think it’s phys­i­cal­ist. So that is, the world is just stuff. It’s mat­ter. It’s mat­ter we can touch, it’s some­thing we can look at. And any spir­i­tu­al or moral or philo­soph­i­cal ideas don’t real­ly have any true exis­tence or true being out­side of…outside of soci­ety or out­side of your own head, right. They don’t have any real onto­log­i­cal existence.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: Which of course leaves a lot of room for rel­a­tivism. If all of that is just per­son­al pref­er­ence or social pref­er­ence or social con­struc­tions, then…well it’s real­ly easy to say there is no moral good to any of them.

Anderson: Right. And I think what’s inter­est­ing is that if that’s kind of your first build­ing block of mod­ernist progress, the sec­ond one total­ly con­tra­dicts that. But this is what’s nice about an implic­it system—it does­n’t have to be like, coher­ent, right. 

And the sec­ond thing that we were talk­ing about or think­ing about was sci­en­tism. And sci­en­tism’s one of these words that we bumped into after a series of inter­views and were like, What the hell do we call this thing that our speak­ers keep refer­ring to?” And it’s like oh, you just go and find the appro­pri­ate word sci­en­tism.” It’s real­ly dif­fer­ent than sci­ence. Being a sci­en­tis­tic thinker is very dif­fer­ent than being a sci­en­tif­ic thinker. And sci­entism is essen­tial­ly a faith in sci­ence as an end, right. Science isn’t the thing get­ting you some­where, sci­ence is the goal.

And that’s an ara­tional goal, which is anoth­er one of these words that we just keep stum­bling across, you know. Having sci­ence as kind of the endgame of progress…whatever that is—more knowl­edge, more something…it’s not some­thing that you can ratio­nal­ly say that’s good or that’s not. It is in essence—it’s a faith state­ment. That more knowl­edge is a good. And there’s no way to get that from reason. 

And there are oth­er com­po­nents I think that come with sci­en­tism. Kind of the notion that over­com­ing human lim­its is a good. That extend­ing kind of our abil­i­ty to con­trol and manip­u­late the world is a good. So that’s anoth­er com­po­nent of mod­ernist progress.

Saul: Along the same lines, increas­ing com­plex­i­ty of sys­tems but sim­pli­fy­ing the­o­ries? Also part of sci­en­tism. And all of these are in some ways relat­ed to growth, which is I think anoth­er sort of core tenet of mod­ernist progress in that it’s fun­da­men­tal­ly growth-based. Because it’s phys­i­cal­ist and because it’s sci­en­tis­tic. Because it’s phys­i­cal we can mea­sure every­thing. Because we can mea­sure, we can con­stant­ly seek to improve it. And improve­ment here tends to mean increas­ing, right. Increasing pow­er, increas­ing knowl­edge, increas­ing etc.

Also, because every­thing is phys­i­cal and so what we’re doing is as we’re grow­ing we’re get­ting more stuff, slow­ing that growth down seems real­ly freakin’ scary.

Anderson: Right, it’s like anal­o­gous to death, in a way.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: So yeah, you’ve got a growth bias in the sort of mod­ernist progress. You also have, I think, an assump­tion that sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy don’t have a use bias one way or the oth­er. That they’re kind of moral­ly neu­tral things and that cul­ture comes and applies its bias­es to it after­wards. That a tech isn’t biased in one way towards a cer­tain type of use or anoth­er type of use.

Saul: Right. And along with those bias­es there’s also the idea that it’s priv­i­leged. That the mak­ers and does of sci­ence— And again, every time we use sci­ence” here we real­ly do mean sci­ence indus­try not…science. But sci­ence can make priv­i­leged claims that are unas­sail­able by non-scientists, either because they don’t have the under­stand­ing, or they don’t have the train­ing, or they’re just not…you know, they’re not a mem­ber of that priest class of scientism.

Anderson: Right. And what’s inter­est­ing is there’s sort of a jump you have to make there from the lay per­son not being able to under­stand sort of the inner work­ings of sci­ence or of a tech­nol­o­gy, and then it being assumed from there that they can­not under­stand the impli­ca­tions of it. And I think that’s some­thing that’s often kind of fuzzed over, in a way.

And so, if we kind of break down mod­ernist progress like this, what’s inter­est­ing is that, why is this implic­it? Why isn’t this some­thing that we talk about kind of in the open more often? And some­thing that we’ve sort of run into is that you know, we talk to a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple who have oth­er ideas of progress, and those typ­i­cal­ly come from philo­soph­i­cal com­mu­ni­ties, faith com­mu­ni­ties, things like that. And they’re real­ly in the open about how their asser­tions of what is good, they’re ara­tional, you know. Maybe they come from some angst-ridden philoso­pher sit­ting on a block of stone, maybe they come from some rag­ing prophet, but there’s no cloak of empiri­cism. There’s no cloak of sci­ence to give them legit­i­ma­cy. They’re philo­soph­i­cal state­ments, or the­o­log­i­cal statements. 

And what’s inter­est­ing about mod­ernist progress is that unlike these oth­er things, it can kind of…cloak—it can make itself seem nor­mal, because it draws on the legit­i­ma­cy of sci­en­tif­ic research, right. So, you can have empir­i­cal research which yields actu­al data about the world, which is knowl­edge, and it can take that and it can go, Here’s what is.” And then it makes this quick jump to, Here’s what ought to be.” And David Hume in the 18th cen­tu­ry was like, No, that’s a fal­la­cy. You can’t do that. You can’t go from is to ought.” But we do it all the time. And you see it with a whole lot of different—kind of how sci­ence is often applied in the pub­lic space.

Saul: Right. So, I think it’s… When you remove that sort of sense of legit­i­ma­cy from mod­ernist progress that it tries to gain from empiri­cism, you start to see that this def­i­n­i­tion of progress real­ly does just draw… It’s no dif­fer­ent than any oth­er. It comes from ara­tional beliefs, unques­tioned beliefs. 

But if you fail to see that… If you fail to see that the empiri­cism does not grant legit­i­ma­cy to the beliefs, then it’s very easy for that just to become…normal. Which is I think what it is in the indus­try but also just in gen­er­al these days. This—

Anderson: Right. It can super­sede oth­er belief sys­tems, right. Because it’s nor­mal, it’s assumed phys­i­cal­ism, these oth­er tenets of growth, they’re good. And you can pile things like philoso­phies and reli­gions on top of that. But you can kind of nev­er get beneath that until you rec­og­nize that it is a sys­tem like them.

And of course, the ques­tion is why should we care about this? And what we kept run­ning into again and again is like, a lot of dif­fer­ent thinkers who would say, Well you know, mod­ernist progress isn’t doing the best job of answer­ing our ques­tions. It’s steer­ing the log­ic of our civ­i­liza­tion in a cer­tain direc­tion that may not be the best direc­tion, and may not be as pub­licly debat­ed as we would like.” 

And there are ample exam­ples of this sort of thing. I mean, if we want to go to the past you can look at social Darwinism in the 20s being a very strange appli­ca­tion of evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry, but. And it made the is/ought jump, right. You can say, Well here’s the evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry applied to biol­o­gy,” and then kind of go, Well, then soci­eties ought to look like this to mir­ror evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry,” and you end up with some real­ly creepy social poli­cies. And while you can look back at social Darwinism in the 20s and go ha ha, that was then, what did they know…we still do things like that.

Saul: Right. More recent­ly, I think the bell curve is an exam­ple. I’m sure many peo­ple many peo­ple here have at some point in their edu­ca­tion dealt with that. And if you actu­al­ly look at the sci­ence behind it, it’s… There’s sci­en­tif­ic claims, and then there’s this insane jump to how we should act because of that.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: There are plen­ty of oth­er mod­ern exam­ples. Neither of us were at the pre­vi­ous talk, but I was read­ing the descrip­tion and… You know, light green envi­ron­men­tal­ism” is this new phrase that’s been thrown around recently,

Anderson: Right.

Saul: …which is the idea of tech­no­log­i­cal progress being able to reverse the man-made envi­ron­men­tal col­lapse that we’re causing.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: And…you know, there’s a big ques­tion there. Is that actu­al­ly prac­ti­ca­ble? And is that more based on tech utopi­anism and mag­i­cal thought than actu­al real science.

Anderson: Right, and if you real­ly want­ed to have that con­ver­sa­tion you prob­a­bly have to break down mod­ernist progress and have it out in the open.

And anoth­er thing which seems pret­ty apro­pos of Edward Snowden speak­ing right now is that with say, dig­i­tal rights or sur­veil­lance you have you know…if you’re fol­low­ing kind of the path of mod­ernist progress, you could say that well, we’re going gung-ho into devel­op­ing a lot of tech­nolo­gies that make sur­veil­lance real­ly easy. And we’re putting the devel­op­ment of those tech­nolo­gies way ahead of any con­ver­sa­tion about why we’d want them or what they’re for, right, because we are priv­i­leg­ing devel­op­ment, just the fur­ther­ing of cre­ation, over the ideas of oth­er progress, which might be pri­va­cy. I mean, that could be anoth­er ara­tional def­i­n­i­tion of progress.

Saul: So, I think that’s a per­fect place to jump into what we— What we real­ized as we were going through the project is I think these beliefs are some­thing that both of us…had, in some way or another. 

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: Because they are so nor­mal. And it was real­ly inter­est­ing to talk to peo­ple and hear peo­ple talk about oth­er ideas of progress that are just com­plete­ly removed from these ideas of progress, from growth, scientistic-based progress.

Anderson: Yeah, and we got a bunch of these and they came from peo­ple across the coun­try. And I mean, a bunch of them are going to sound real­ly com­mon­sen­si­cal, but when you won­der if that is an end rather than just sort of an acces­so­ry goal, it becomes a real­ly kind of chal­leng­ing thing. So the idea of say, equal­i­ty as a dif­fer­ent mea­sure of progress. If that’s what you’re work­ing towards, if tech­nol­o­gy and sci­ence need to push you towards equal­i­ty, that’s real­ly dif­fer­ent than push­ing towards more sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge. Environmental qual­i­ty, you know. We talked to a bunch of dif­fer­ent thinkers who all came from dif­fer­ent approach­es, and some would argue that like well, the envi­ron­ment, the exis­tence of the nat­ur­al world has an innate val­ue that’s non-rational, and that pre­serv­ing that is a form of progress, right. That should be an end, they would argue.

Saul: And that could be pre­serv­ing it for the sake of all oth­er life because all life has some intrin­sic val­ue. Or it could be pre­serv­ing that for pure­ly self­ish rea­sons. Because it has some val­ue to us as humans. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly an anthro­pocen­tric ver­sus bio­cen­tric divide, it’s the idea that it could be good for either.

You know, anoth­er really—going even far­ther down the intrin­sic val­ue of all things world—there is… We talked to one guy who… Well, he’s a neo­prim­i­tivist. He’s self-described as a Luddite. But he, you know, his idea of progress is real­ly inter­est­ing to us, which is that unmedi­at­ed human inter­ac­tion and inter­per­son­al expe­ri­ence is incred­i­bly impor­tant. And any progress that isn’t mov­ing towards that, he’s not inter­est­ed in talk­ing about. 

Anderson: And kind of actu­al­ly con­nect­ing in with that, there was a woman I spoke to in Seattle who works with the Happiness Initiative. They’re essen­tial­ly bring­ing Bhutan’s idea of Gross Domestic Happiness to the US and apply­ing it in Seattle. And she put forth an idea of progress which is still mea­sured, but it’s some­thing that essen­tial­ly looks at like free time, qual­i­ty of life, access to space. A lot of the unmedi­at­ed inter­per­son­al stuff. Community you know, is some­thing that a lot of peo­ple talk about in terms of progress. Like can you real­ly talk about progress as a soci­ety if you end up hav­ing to move to dif­fer­ent cities all the time for jobs and that dis­rupt your com­mu­ni­ty net­work every time? Is that com­mu­ni­ty net­work a thing that we should be con­sid­er­ing part of progress? [crosstalk] And then of course— 

Saul: And then of course.

Anderson: Oh yeah, go for it.

Saul: Then of course there’s an ele­phant in the room of course in that anoth­er core phi­los­o­phy that I would sug­gest the major­i­ty of the world is a part of are faith tra­di­tions, right. And faith tra­di­tions have a very dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of progress.

Anderson: Right. A lot of def­i­n­i­tions of progress.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Which we don’t need to get into, but it’s pret­ty self-evident that often­times those def­i­n­i­tions of progress would ques­tion why are we design­ing our civ­i­liza­tion one way or another. 

Saul: And the thing about all of those ideas of progress is that they are in fact philoso­phies. They are all try­ing to answer the big ques­tions. Questions of what, and why, and how, and who are we, and what are we doing here, and why should we be doing it. And usu­al­ly, they answer those ques­tions explicitly. 

And as we thought about it we real­ized that all of those ideas of progress can answer those ques­tions with­out the help of sci­ence or tech.

Anderson: Right. They almost live in sep­a­rate universes.

Saul: Right. And you know, we came up with the idea that under­stand­ing quan­tum mechan­ics will nev­er tell you why to treat anoth­er per­son with dig­ni­ty. Which… So if tech and sci­ence aren’t required for those ideas of progress, and aren’t required to answer those big ques­tions, can they answer those big questions?

Anderson: Right. And are we assum­ing that they can? And I think some­thing that is kind of intrigu­ing here is that… I mean, essen­tial­ly to answer a ques­tion like that you have to real­ly size up the val­ue of the sci­ence and tech­no­log­i­cal enter­prise as a whole, right. Because we can point to dif­fer­ent things. We can say well, the print­ing press mas­sive­ly expands lit­er­a­cy. That seems like that’s an unequiv­o­cal good, right, But you still end up with you know, czarist Russia in the 19th cen­tu­ry being large­ly illit­er­ate and hav­ing print­ing press­es. Or you know…

Saul: Having this. Having the Internet in my pock­et means I can access all of the world’s knowl­edge like [snaps fin­gers] this.

Anderson: Which seems like…

Saul: Which seems like a good.

Anderson: A good thing, right. 

Saul: But then you look at North Korea, or Iran, or even China. Where they also have this in their pock­et, and they can’t access all the world’s infor­ma­tion. They can access only a very small part of it.

Anderson: Right. And so I think you end up with sort of this… We often com­mit this tele­o­log­i­cal prob­lem where we say well, things are pret­ty good for us now… (And they are.) And we have all this amaz­ing technology—it must have led us to this point. It must inevitably get things here, to where we are. But I think when you start talk­ing to a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple about the future, and espe­cial­ly when you start look­ing at oth­er his­tor­i­cal exam­ples, you see that often these tech­no­log­i­cal advances can take you to a whole hell of a lot of dif­fer­ent places. And they aren’t always good. 

So try­ing to size up the enter­prise as a whole is a real­ly dif­fi­cult thing. And often it seems like it’s hard to put a val­ue on it. Like maybe it just— You can’t say it’s good or it’s bad, right. And that when you start talk­ing about progress maybe that’s just a sep­a­rate con­ver­sa­tion. So you have to almost set tech­nol­o­gy aside and say like, let’s not try to eval­u­ate this as a pos­i­tive or negative.

Saul: Right. So if we do that. If we set aside the val­ue of mod­ernist progress and the results of it, we start to see that maybe we need to real­ly fix those prob­lems that we were talk­ing about up at the start. That we need to dis­rupt things a hell of a lot big­ger than just oth­er tech­no­log­i­cal indus­tries and oth­er indus­tries that are embed­ded in our sys­tem as it stands.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: In order to real­ly solve those ques­tions, we need to look— We need to dis­rupt the ara­tional ide­olo­gies which under­pin the sci­ence and tech indus­try. And in order to do that we have to dis­rupt the economy.

Anderson: Right, and it then becomes also a polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion. You have to dis­rupt pol­i­tics. So rather than nec­es­sar­i­ly say­ing this phone is going to dis­rupt things in a way that lib­er­al­izes the world or makes democ­ra­cy blos­som or some­thing like that, you have to say well, you know, this phone could be used in a hell of a lot of dif­fer­ent ways. Maybe rather than fix­ing on the phone as the end, what we need to do is we need to say, Uhh, we don’t like the lack of rep­re­sen­ta­tion here. Let’s have that be the goal and let’s see if maybe we can use the phone as the tool.” But ulti­mate­ly we’re not real­ly car­ing that much about the phone. We’re car­ing about the end.

Saul: Right. You know, there’s nev­er going to be an app that pre­vents misog­y­nists from treat­ing women like crap. The exis­tence of web sites is not going to help with bul­ly­ing of LGBT stu­dents in our schools.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: An app is not going to make you val­ue the exis­tence of the life of the ani­mals outside.

Anderson: Right, and it cer­tain­ly isn’t going to like, give you a hug when you need it, right. So those are all things that would come from oth­er def­i­n­i­tions. Like the com­mu­ni­ty is there to do some of that oth­er stuff, which is a total­ly dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of progress. So I think prob­a­bly what is emerg­ing at this point is that we don’t— This isn’t like an anti-science or anti-technology pre­sen­ta­tion at all, but it is say­ing that we think progress is a hell of a lot big­ger than a con­ver­sa­tion about sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, and dis­rup­tion is real­ly a con­ver­sa­tion that needs to be about the eco­nom­ic sphere, about the polit­i­cal sphere, and maybe about the prac­tice of sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy and how it relates to those oth­er spheres. 

Saul: So I think what would be inter­est­ing is… Because this is an idea of you know, the future belong­ing to everybody—not just the futur­ists but to human­i­ties and indi­vid­u­als, I think we’re gonna flip the nor­mal South by Southwest thing on its head and try and turn the rest of this hour into a con­ver­sa­tion. Like we’ve now had a con­ver­sa­tion, raised a lot of ideas… We hope. Do any of you have any­thing to say about this, want to talk about this? There’s mics up front. Anybody?

Anderson: Jump on in. See, we’re used to doing these long-format con­ver­sa­tions with peo­ple and when you’re sit­ting up at the head of a pan­el it’s like not con­ducive to actu­al­ly you know, unmedi­at­ed inter­per­son­al interaction. 

Saul: We were actu­al­ly hop­ing they were going to be a lot less peo­ple so we could just cir­cle up the chairs and talk. 

Audience 1: As long as your gen­er­al life phi­los­o­phy is rel­a­tivis­tic, you have no man­date to actu­al­ly do any­thing. Because if every­thing is rel­a­tivis­tic, nei­ther one is bet­ter than anoth­er. And so there is… You can’t say there is a good or a bad, there’s only a different.

Micah Saul: Sure.

Audience 1: And with­out good or bad you have no man­date to change. So how do you deal with that?

Aengus Anderson: I think that’s where you need a big soci­ety. I mean, I think this is where democ­ra­cy real­ly excels as a sys­tem. Because unfortunately—like I mean, if you look at his­to­ry there have been so many def­i­n­i­tions of good and bad and usu­al­ly they’re just set­tled by who wins the war. And we often try to set­tle that through con­ver­sa­tion, kind of know­ing that we’re going to have a bunch of def­i­n­i­tions and that ulti­mate­ly unless God shows up and says like, Hey guys, This is how you do it,” you know, or some­one comes up with a nice the­o­rem to say this is what’s good and this is bad” and you can empir­i­cal­ly prove it, we’re always going to have to have that sort of con­ver­sa­tion to kind of fig­ure out like, what do we col­lec­tive­ly think. You know, what kind of the com­mon denom­i­na­tor of good that we can set­tle on?

Audience 1: Your point is well-made. I’m not sug­gest­ing that that… I mean, empir­i­cal­ly that is cor­rect. But the dom­i­nant phi­los­o­phy of our age is essen­tial­ly rel­a­tivis­tic. And as long as it is rel­a­tivis­tic, there is no man­date for change. Because if one option is as good as anoth­er… You know, with­out a moral val­ue, and say­ing this is good, this is bad, there is no ener­gy. There is no impe­tus. There’s no rea­son to to select one val­ue sys­tem over another.

Anderson: Absolutely. And I think what’s inter­est­ing is of course that we all do…we feel impelled to select those val­ue sys­tems in our own lives, and oth­er peo­ple are select­ing them all the time. And so it’s just kind of in the process of out of all of those selec­tions, it seems like that con­ver­sa­tion emerges and we do start to change even if there isn’t like you know, on a big­ger pic­ture, there’s no com­pelling need to change, right. Like, we’re going to change because we almost…we have two with­in our­selves, and oth­er peo­ple have to, and those things don’t square.

Audience 1: But if you go to nine out of ten uni­ver­si­ties and go to the phi­los­o­phy depart­ment, what you get is a rel­a­tivis­tic mes­sage. Partly for polit­i­cal rea­sons in the sense if you make any out­right asser­tion, you open your­self up to attack.

Anderson: Mm hm.

Audience 1: Very straight­for­ward. It’s much eas­i­er to say, Whatever you believe is fine, I’m just here to facil­i­tate.” And for obvi­ous rea­sons, this is pub­lic edu­ca­tion so you have feed­back from the com­mu­ni­ty and so forth and so on. But nev­er­the­less, as long as the dom­i­nant mes­sage of our age is rel­a­tivis­tic… And I’m not sug­gest­ing… Yeah, I’m not here to tell you what to believe or any­thing like that, right. It’s just that as long as you have this over­all mes­sage that it’s all the same, or all of val­ue, there is no incen­tive to change. Because one is not bet­ter than another.

Anderson: Right. And that’s some­thing that you know, as we’ve had these con­ver­sa­tions with dif­fer­ent thinkers all over the place, a lot of them need to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between rel­a­tivism and, often they talk about moral real­ism. And so it’s tough, right? Because you want to be as open-minded as you can, and you want to say okay, well there are all these dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing about the world and believ­ing things. And that you don’t want to say, I’m right,“you know. You’ve got that down but you also want to say, Some of these def­i­nite­ly feel wrong.” And that’s kind of— I mean, there’s no real way to log­i­cal­ly have both of those. 

And that’s where peo­ple talk about— I’m think­ing specif­i­cal­ly of a Rutgers law pro­fes­sor named Gary Francione. He’s a real­ly inter­est­ing guy, and he’s writ­ten a lot of books about veg­an­ism. And he was talk­ing about like, how do you get between moral rel­a­tivism and also the sense that there are things that are wrong in the world? And he was talk­ing about moral real­ism, which is some­thing that I have…trou­ble with, because it’s still kind of an asser­tion that some things are good and most def­i­n­i­tions of progress will kind of come togeth­er on that. 

For instance, not killing…generally a good thing. He would say okay, we can put that in the realm of moral real­ism, where you can have a lot of dif­fer­ent tra­di­tions that accept that, but also say that like, you know, killing is gen­er­al­ly bad. It’s sort of like a… I mean, it’s just an elab­o­rate dance to get around some thorny stuff that’s hard to resolve, I think. 

Audience 2: Thanks. As some­one from the Amish com­mu­ni­ty who’s spend­ing more and more time in the tech scene, I’m won­der­ing where you guys see there being space for dis­plac­ing this idea of progress, and where these oth­er kinds of visions of progress and sto­ries of progress can actu­al­ly live. And I think my own strug­gle has been about rather than hid­ing out and being in a com­mu­ni­ty with a very dif­fer­ent kind of progress, how can you bring that kind of moral agen­da into our sys­tems and into our technologies?

And so who have you spo­ken to that’s real­ly try­ing to fig­ure out ways of actu­al­ly hack­ing our ideas of progress from the inside with­out just opt­ing out or going into an Amish com­mu­ni­ty or more min­i­mal­ist off-the-grid lifestyle or things like that?

Anderson: That’s a good ques­tion. You want to jump in on that one? I was think­ing like the first thing that came to mind for me… Because it seems like a lot of the peo­ple who’ve give us real­ly rad­i­cal def­i­n­i­tions of progress that like, sur­prised us? were opt­ing out, you know. In a way that does­n’t feel like it’s as con­struc­tive as maybe it could be.

But I’m think­ing of Wes Jackson here. Wes Jackson’s interesting. 

Saul: Yeah. 

Anderson: He’s a sci­en­tist and he had a real­ly dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of progress.

Saul: Right. So Wes Jackson is a…he’s a researcher down at The Land Institute? In Kansas, or—

Anderson: Yes. Salina, Kansas.

Saul: Up from here. And he’s work­ing on— I mean, he’s a sci­en­tist. He is a biol­o­gist, and he is hack­ing genomes left and right. But his vision of progress was very inter­est­ing. And he… In fact, we got some of the best quotes about slow­ing down growth from him than we did from any­body else, which was sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing he’s very much a part of the tech and sci­ence industries. 

Anderson: But he sees them as vehi­cles to a dif­fer­ent type of progress, which is… You know, he’s one of these guys, he’s more in the envi­ron­men­tal camp of thinkers, so he looks at agri­cul­ture, which is his inter­est. And he goes okay, well we’ve got this real­ly bizarre mass agri­cul­ture sys­tem, and is there any way that we could cre­ate like, basi­cal­ly a prairie-like ecosys­tem, so some­thing that has a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent crops, that’s peren­ni­al, and could you have that be food-producing in a real­ly mean­ing­ful way? That maybe isn’t quite as good as indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture but is close. 

So he’s sort of rein­vent­ing the agri­cul­tur­al wheel, in a way, because he sees this cri­sis of food and water and growth. And for him, he’s using a lot of real­ly inter­est­ing research to get there. So he’s some­thing like, he could be cre­at­ing a real mod­el that peo­ple might use. That has sci­en­tif­ic legit­i­ma­cy. But also like, sug­gest very explic­it­ly a dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tion of progress at the end, which isn’t boom­ing growth for its own sake. It’s sus­tain­abil­i­ty with­in a very com­pli­cat­ed ecos­phere. Which she feels is like, gen­er­al­ly too com­pli­cat­ed for us to ful­ly get our heads around. You know, all the ins and outs of how the ecos­phere works.

Saul: I think to more direct­ly answer the ques­tion of how do you…within sci­ence and tech, how do you dis­rupt that idea of progress? And the way you do that is, I think you need to find some oth­er idea of progress. You need to have some oth­er sense of the good which is not based on sci­ence and tech. You need to actu­al­ly remem­ber that these are tools and not an end unto themselves.

Anderson: And also not to be a Luddite while you’re at it, right?

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Because I’m think­ing of the prim­i­tivist we spoke to who’s got some real­ly inter­est­ing ideas of progress that I think are valu­able, but he’s so rabid­ly anti-science and tech­nol­o­gy that there’s no way to take him seriously.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: Even though…I mean he’s an incred­i­bly smart thinker. But he just— He does­n’t— He nev­er makes the case that his phi­los­o­phy could be incor­po­rat­ed into any­thing; it’s just not pragmatic. 

Other ques­tions? Nonsense? You can throw things at us. 

Audience 3: I’d be curi­ous to hear more of your thoughts on dis­rup­tion with­in finan­cial ser­vices. As this being one of the under­pin­nings cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. Is there room for anarcho-capitalist phi­los­o­phy with­in this socially- and government-regulated sphere? How much dis­rup­tion is tru­ly pos­si­ble under these circumstances?

Anderson: That’s a good ques­tion. Man, that’s some­thing that we talked about a lot in this project, and we got a lot of dif­fer­ent answers from dif­fer­ent thinkers. The guy who comes to mind right now as you ask that is a guy named John Fullerton for me, and he was the head of JP Morgan in the mid-90s. And he real­ly turned his back on the finan­cial sec­tor, at least in the tra­di­tion­al sense, and start­ed this weird lit­tle group which is like a think tank in Connecticut now which is try­ing to think of oth­er ways where we can… It’s very prag­mat­ic so he’s try­ing to think of oth­er ways that we can incor­po­rate stuff like that into a sys­tem that already exists like this. He’s not some dream­er who’s going, We need a dif­fer­ent type of eco­nom­ic sys­tem.” He’s like, Okay how can we bring some of those ideas into a func­tion­al thing?”

And man, he’s a down­er to talk to. He is a real down­er to talk to. But he makes some real­ly inter­est­ing points, and I think with him you know… I think the first kind of axiom that he starts from is that you can’t have an eco­nom­ic con­ver­sa­tion with­out hav­ing an envi­ron­men­tal con­ver­sa­tion at this point. Because they’re both so interwoven. 

And I remem­ber he kind of— Oh god, he left us with this awful choice, which is some­thing that I think [Saul: Oh God.] keeps him up at night, too. Which was essen­tial­ly that like, if you want to achieve sus­tain­abil­i­ty, you’ve got to rein in an eco­nom­ic sys­tem like ours in such a way that it will actually—it could col­lapse, because it is pred­i­cat­ed upon growth. So, you can have sus­tain­abil­i­ty and col­lapse the eco­nom­ic sys­tem. And he’s like, Well that’s…that’s a bad answer. So what hap­pens if you just let the eco­nom­ic sys­tem go? Well, you have anoth­er sus­tain­abil­i­ty prob­lem because it keeps grow­ing, and when it has a resource cri­sis then the eco­nom­ic sys­tem collapses.” 

And so, he was try­ing to fig­ure out like okay, how do you take this giant ship that’s basi­cal­ly got a huge amount of momen­tum on it, and start tin­ker­ing with it in a way that doesn’t…you know, I mean we depend on this for the dis­tri­b­u­tion of all of our goods, whether that be finan­cial or more tan­gi­ble stuff. And I think what I liked about him, it’s like here’s this incred­i­bly smart guy and we’re sit­ting down talk­ing, he’s like, I don’t know.” And I mean, I don’t think that we’ve come to any…epiphanies about this either. I think what we’ve come to appre­ci­ate more is sort of the mas­sive com­plex­i­ty of the eco­nom­ic envi­ron­men­tal sys­tem. And that once you start tin­ker­ing with it, once you start dis­rupt­ing it, you real­ly don’t have any guar­an­tee of things get­ting bet­ter. Like, we’ve built the house of cards very tall, and I think that’s why you know, even though this project has prob­a­bly left us both think­ing about real­ly dif­fer­ent ideas of progress, it’s also made us a lot more care­ful about what we would sug­gest dis­rupt­ing, you know. 

Saul: Because…you know, I think that— This is sort of off-topic from this con­ver­sa­tion, but the biggest take­away I had from this project, which is actu­al­ly still ongo­ing, is real­ly start­ing to rethink the idea of com­plex­i­ty as being a good thing. And you know, we’ve talked to thinker after thinker about com­plex­i­ty and how inter­con­nect­ed every­thing is that, you know, in some ways these sys­tems we’ve built are too large for humans to com­pre­hend any­more. They’ve moved beyond our brain. There was actu­al­ly a philoso­pher who was at Davis but is now…? Where is he?

a He’s at Rice, actually.

Saul: He’s at Rice now. And he was actu­al­ly here on Friday, I believe, named Timothy Morton, that we talked to a lot about com­plex­i­ty and the idea of these…he calls them hyper­ob­jects, which are often man­made sys­tems that are so large that…they can­not be com­pre­hend­ed anymore.

Anderson: Right, and they essen­tial­ly have kind of emer­gent prop­er­ties of behav­ior. Like the economy.

Saul: Like the econ­o­my. Like glob­al warm­ing was anoth­er exam­ple he gave. And his book Hyperobjects just came out; it’s sup­posed to be awesome. 

Anderson: So that’s prob­a­bly a real­ly poor answer to your ques­tion, of essen­tial­ly say­ing like, we have no idea

Saul: No idea.

Anderson: —how you could actu­al­ly begin to dis­rupt the finan­cial sys­tem with­out mak­ing a big mess. But I think that’s as can­did as we can be, we just don’t know. 

Saul: I think the impor­tant part is that peo­ple actu­al­ly are talk­ing about it. you know. 

Audience 4: Hi. I was just won­der­ing if you’ve across the writ­ings of Daniel Quinn, and whether or not… Like, he kind of referred to this notion progress in our cul­ture as kind of rid­ing a bicy­cle over a cliff. You can ped­al faster, you can ped­al in dif­fer­ent ways, but you’re still going to fall. And I’m just kind of curi­ous to [speak­er either trails off or ques­tion is cut]

Anderson: I believe he’s in my gigan­tic spread­sheet of names of peo­ple I real­ly want to talk to. And this has been some­thing that’s been grow­ing over a cou­ple of years. And I don’t know as much about him specif­i­cal­ly, but cer­tain­ly that anal­o­gy has come up in oth­er peo­ple, and I know peo­ple we’ve inter­viewed have ref­er­enced him. And if this project keeps going on, I will try to get to him. And then hope­ful­ly we’ll post an inter­view for you. 

Audience 5: So you’ve talked about progress as being very linear.

Anderson: Mm hm.

Saul: Mm hm.

Audience 5: Right? But if you break it down to real­ly sim­ple terms and you think about nature, right? The deer are born, it’s a good year. The grass grows, so they eat a lot of the grass. Or they overeat the grass and then they all starve next year and they get thinned out. It’s kind of cycli­cal. And if you look at human his­to­ry, sim­i­lar things, right? They grow up. They get big. They even­tu­al­ly die. Why are you think­ing lin­ear and not cyclical?

Saul: I think that’s…a huge, huge ques­tion and real­ly impor­tant ques­tion, and thank you. I think we were talk­ing progress today as being lin­ear because we were talk­ing about mod­ernist progress, which is lin­ear. But we have talked to cer­tain­ly plen­ty of peo­ple who say that the idea of progress itself is just false.

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: That change is what happens.

Anderson: Yeah, and I don’t think I would want to be on record as say­ing that I thought progress was linear.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: But def­i­nite­ly that I mean, I think you bring up a great point in that what we’re working—or what a lot of these folks who are talk­ing about dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of progress—are work­ing against is the idea that it is a lin­ear thing. And cer­tain­ly, you know myself being a his­to­ri­an, a lot of what you’re work­ing with is over­turn­ing the work of ear­li­er his­to­ri­ans who chart­ed lin­ear progress, typ­i­cal­ly through like a chronol­o­gy of great white guys. And then you’re revis­ing it and you’re going okay, well actu­al­ly here are all these oth­er ways we could mea­sure progress, and it’s this real­ly uneven thing, and it’s… I mean, if you were to think of it as like a stock tick­er, it’s a total­ly dif­fer­ent tick­er based on what def­i­n­i­tion of progress you plug in, right. And that is based on the his­to­ri­an and what they value. 

So I think that our ideas of progress have prob­a­bly got­ten a hell of a lot more flex­i­ble as we’ve done this project. And I think it has to be, right? Because every­one of these, like if you’re look­ing at ecol­o­gy you could say, you know… Or the health of the ecos­phere, you could say human progress has just been going downhill. I mean, if you were a prim­i­tivist you would prob­a­bly argue that. And you could cer­tain­ly make some inter­est­ing cycli­cal argu­ments about progress. God, that makes me think of Joseph Tainter

Saul: Oh…

Anderson: This is prob­a­bly the most depress­ing con­ver­sa­tion we had in this project of depress­ing conversations—not all of them, but um…

Saul: We actu­al­ly almost called this project The Cassandra Project, just because we knew how how much of a down­er some of it was going to be. So Joseph painter is a…he’s a historian? 

Anderson: An anthro­pol­o­gist at Utah State in Logan. And he’s writ­ten like, the author­i­ta­tive book on the col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tions. It’s like a thou­sand pages long. And it is both his­tor­i­cal and anthropological.

Saul: And it is scary to talk to him. Because he… He’s one of those guys that just says, No no, no. The sys­tem will col­lapse and I give it… Well, in the next seventy-five years there are five or six that could bring it down it.” 

Anderson: Yeah. And like whether or not you agree with him, he’s got this real­ly— Like, because he’s been, I mean he’s spent his entire career doing this stuff so he’s kind of self-selected a lot of real­ly depress­ing evi­dence? But at the same time he builds a real­ly good case for sort of cycli­cal progress. Which, you know, when you’re sit­ting there talk­ing to him it’s sort of like hard to muster anoth­er argu­ment because he’s so effec­tive and it’s hard to real­ly cross-examine him. Which is a fun inter­view to do. But you know I mean, he gives you a real­ly good argu­ment that you’ve sort of got this undu­lat­ing wave of history. 

And I mean, he would­n’t say it’s progress per se. He would say it’s com­plex­i­ty. So you get increas­es in social com­plex­i­ty, increas­es in tech­ni­cal com­plex­i­ty, and then usually…I mean, he talks about—

Saul: You’ve worked up enough of an ener­gy debt—

Anderson: That’s it.

Saul: —basi­cal­ly is what he talks about. And once that ener­gy debt comes due, then you have col­lapse. And then you start to build up again. But you nev­er ful­ly pay off the debt, and you always start from around the mid­dle of where you were before. And so com­plex­i­ty is always build­ing and so the debt is get­ting even high­er and higher.

Anderson: Right. And maybe you could call that some sort of cumu­la­tive progress that he sees? But I don’t think he sees it as a good or a bad thing. He’s a real­ly inter­est­ing thinker, def­i­nite­ly, for giv­ing you a lot of dif­fer­ent ideas of progress. Especially ones that can coex­ist. The idea of like, well maybe it’s cycli­cal, maybe it’s a lit­tle bit lin­ear. Maybe it’s all just depress­ing for him. I don’t know.

Audience 6: I just have a process ques­tion, and that is you men­tioned your chart of peo­ple you want to speak with. How have you… You know, what is your uni­verse of peo­ple? Is there a cri­te­ria of who you’re talk­ing with? Is there a dis­ci­pline, what dis­ci­pline? Geography, are you talk­ing to inter­na­tion­al peo­ple? How you’re look­ing at the voic­es that’re lead­ing to where you are. And, your endgame. What’re you doing with all this infor­ma­tion? Will you be writ­ing a book?

Anderson: Well I can answer the last part first. That one’s easy. Every con­ver­sa­tion that we’ve had is online. It’s at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com, and these are real­ly… You know, often they’re drawn from incred­i­bly long con­ver­sa­tions I had with peo­ple. I’ve talked to one woman, a real­ly amaz­ing embed­ded artist with the city of Chicago, and we talked for sev­en and a half hours and I cut that down to a forty-five minute episode. So most of the episodes are a lit­tle under an hour in length. So that’s kind of where all this has gone. That’s the easy part to answer.

Saul: In terms of the selec­tion cri­te­ria, or even just how we came up with names in the first place, I mean… So, we’ve been work­ing on this now for I think two years as of like…now-ish?

Anderson: Yeah.

Saul: And it start­ed with the idea that we want­ed to come up with peo­ple from every pos­si­ble realm we could, right. So from the arts, from human­i­ties, from sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy. People that are known, peo­ple that are com­plete­ly unknown…

Anderson: Skewing more towards the unknown.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: And I think that part of that is because we were look­ing for peo­ple who were real­ly on the fringes of thought. And exper­i­ment, and things like that. And peo­ple you might…I don’t know—ideally doing like, local pilot projects. And it proved to be very hard to find those. We found a lot of them, but it was hard­er work than find­ing nation­al peo­ple who were kind of pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al fig­ures who write books and [crosstalk] stuff like that.

Saul: Public intel­lec­tu­als like, they already have their soap­box, you know. They already have TED. They have Southby.

Anderson: Yeah. 

Saul: They have the book­store. So we want­ed to try and find peo­ple that did­n’t have those same avenues.

Anderson: Right. Like get the right urban farmer in Detroit. Get you know, a real­ly odd­ball like a…oh, the Grindhouse Wetware guy you know, in Pittsburgh, who’s doing like, [crosstalk] try­ing to become a cyborg. 

Saul: Body hacking.

Anderson: Yeah. And so lots of stuff like that, try­ing to find those local people.

Saul: And then geo­graph­i­cal­ly, yes, it has all been United States at this point. Mainly because Aengus has dri­ven every­where for it.

Anderson: Right. Because actu­al­ly anoth­er thing that we want­ed to make sure of, espe­cial­ly because I was doing the inter­views, is I want­ed to do them all face to face. I felt that was truer to the con­cept of the project and also I hate inter­view­ing peo­ple on the phone. You just get bet­ter con­ver­sa­tions when you’re in per­son. And they can be a lot longer, and they can be a lot more spon­ta­neous. So that’s kind of kept us from doing any­thing inter­na­tion­al. And then just our fund­ing struc­ture, which…is basi­cal­ly nonex­is­tent, has made inter­na­tion­al work difficult. 

But it would be awe­some to do that, and we… Our lis­ten­er base has been real­ly broad. And so we keep get­ting real­ly amaz­ing rec­om­men­da­tions from peo­ple over­seas going like, Oh. You know, are you going to be in Tel Aviv? You real­ly need to talk to this guy.” And we would love to do that. Because of what’s real­ly inter­est­ing is when you do a project like this, you start find­ing these big cur­rents in sort of what peo­ple are think­ing about. And I feel like we’ve got them for the US. And then for­eign lis­ten­ers write in and I’m like oh my god, we have no idea what peo­ple are think­ing and talk­ing about else­where. You know, we are so damn shel­tered. So, it would be cool to do more of that.

Audience 7: Hey guys.

Anderson: Howdy.

Audience 7: Just won­der­ing if you can talk a lit­tle bit about human rights in this con­text. Because to me, I read the UN Declaration of Human Rights a few months ago for the first time. I was just real­ly struck by how kind of inarguably…good it is? and you were talk­ing about the per­fect good. And it’s also the clos­est, it seems, like we have as a plan­et to defin­ing progress in a good way, and it sort of ought to be. You know, things like you have the right to work and con­tribute val­ue to soci­ety. And if you aren’t giv­en that you have the right to have your basic needs tak­en care of in the con­text of unem­ploy­ment. And there’s all these oth­er you know, just basic assump­tions about what peo­ple should have. But if you look at some­thing like that in the con­text of the polit­i­cal debate over deny­ing unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, you know, Congress is actu­al­ly vio­lat­ing a human right that peo­ple might not think about all the time. And so just, I feel like we have this list of what­ev­er it is, twen­ty, thir­ty items that are things that we should strive for, and how do we just get to this basic under­stand­ing of all peo­ple should have all the human rights that we agreed on.

Anderson: I mean, that’s kind of an inter­est­ing one because once you start talk­ing about rights…oh boy does that get thorny. Because that’s like… I mean, there’s like… You could— That’s some­thing that philoso­phers get tan­gled up about all the time. Like, what should be a right, and what should you— You know, I think we have a real trend, an intel­lec­tu­al trend, towards say­ing let’s keep things as… This isn’t in prac­tice, but we like the idea of strip­ping things down as much as pos­si­ble and hav­ing as flex­i­ble a sys­tem as you can have. 

Which does­n’t always mean guar­an­tee­ing rights, right. Because a lot of that I think comes down to the way peo­ple think about…and stop me if you think I’m nuts here, but like per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, or fair­ness. A lot of the rights con­ver­sa­tion always gets into the idea of like, is a right an enti­tle­ment? And, you know… Ah, the fair­ness thing is the assump­tion that like, well some peo­ple are just not going to do anything—it isn’t their right to have that. And so it’s amaz­ing how stuff that seems so self-evident can actu­al­ly be dis­put­ed in ways that often also seem philo­soph­i­cal­ly persuasive.

Saul: Yeah, in some ways it’s… That’s anal­o­gous to try­ing to look at mod­ernist progress, right. Things that are just assumed to be true.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: And we assume that this is just…this is a giv­en. But def­i­nite­ly I think those ideas are a impor­tant idea of the good that a lot of peo­ple ascribe to (at least osten­si­bly). But, they are just— You know, they are anoth­er one of those ara­tional beliefs.

Anderson: Yeah, and what’s inter­est­ing is that some­times there actu­al­ly are per­sua­sive argu­ments against things that seem so com­mon­sen­si­cal. And yet was some­thing like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, I think about Francione again, the guy at Rutgers, and his idea you know— The case he was try­ing to make to me for moral real­ism. And I think that seems like one of those exam­ples where you could say, Now, this is a moral real­ist claim. Like, I’m not objec­tive­ly say­ing that this should be true… But, come on guys,” you know, which is essen­tial­ly what I think his form of real­ism is. Like, would you real­ly deny that like, food is a right? Like, would you feel okay say­ing, Well, this per­son did­n’t work hard enough, let them starve?” And I think for him that comes down to a real­ly vis­cer­al point; moral real­ism is a felt thing, and it can’t be argued about in the same way. 

Which is inter­est­ing, because if you’re a con­ver­sa­tion nerd like us then you’re like well, you just took it out of the realm of con­ver­sa­tion. And is that a type of fun­da­men­tal­ism? I don’t know. Yeah. 

Audience 8: By any ratio­nal stan­dards I mean, it seems that the hard sci­ences have grotesque­ly out­stripped the social sci­ences, in the sense that the social sci­ences are real­ly on the verge of being irrelevant.

Anderson: Mmm…

Audience 8: Certainly they’re treat­ed that way. Certainly if you have a degree in social sci­ences and you try and mon­e­tize that, there does­n’t seem to be a whole lot of demand for that.

Anderson: Tell me about it. [Anderson and Saul laugh.]

Audience 8: I don’t think I’m say­ing any­thing that any­body does­n’t know. You know, I mean, you have the prospect of some­body like, a bril­liant mind like Wernher von Braun devot­ing his ener­gies to the V‑2 mis­sile and bomb­ing London. Were you say okay, oh my god. You have this tremen­dous hard sci­ence devel­op­ment, and then you have no social sci­ence devel­op­ment, or it’s clear­ly stalled. 

I mean, we live in an era of cul­tur­al senil­i­ty, right. I mean, what is new in the arts? What is new in lit­er­a­ture? I mean, there is some new but if you look at the trans­for­ma­tion between 1900 and 1960 and com­pare that over the last thir­ty years… I mean, the kids in high school are lis­ten­ing to Led Zeppelin. I mean, I would­n’t lis­ten to stuff that was forty years old when I was in high school. 

So, do you notice, do you see that sense of stag­na­tion? And to what do you attribute that?.

Anderson: Are we allowed to talk about post­moder­ni­ty in here with­out get­ting beat­en up?

Saul: Go for it, I got your back.

Anderson: I mean… I don’t know if this is a direct link, but this is kind of what just jumps to mind when you say that, is that a lot of the thinkers in the project who I found most inter­est­ing and maybe that you found most inter­est­ing as well, talked about a big part of the cri­sis we have is one of feel­ing real­ly jad­ed, and real­ly iron­ic, and real­ly detached. And I think they would trace those sen­ti­ments prob­a­bly over the same time peri­od you’re talk­ing about. And they don’t always trace it back to a philo­soph­i­cal shift. Because we nev­er real­ly think well, phi­los­o­phy does­n’t make a damn bit of dif­fer­ence when it gets out of the cul­ture. But it does, right?

And what’s inter­est­ing about I think some of the rel­a­tivism, some of the dis­course stuff that comes out of like Foucault and oth­er post­mod­ern thinkers is that you kind of get to feel real­ly dis­em­pow­ered. You get to feel like ah, maybe I’m not that right, or maybe I can’t effect change. And so the real­ly inter­est­ing thinkers in this project are ones who like, take the good stuff from that sort of philo­soph­i­cal world and say, Okay, well we can ana­lyze pow­er in X, Y, and Z ways, and post­mod­ern thought gives us those tools.” But we’re not going to take it to the point where it cri­tiques itself and then just becomes this implo­sion of nihilism, right. 

And so we’ve had all these thinkers go like, Okay, we acknowl­edge that there are a lot of dis­cours­es, that a lot of things are rel­a­tive.” But, does that mean we’re just going to stop and go, Oh, every­thing’s rel­a­tive, let’s not try to make the world a bet­ter place. Oh, the deck is stacked against us,” which it is. We’re going to stop now? And so it’s kind of like, what do you do beyond that? 

And some­thing that I know peo­ple have been talk­ing more about in England (and this is where I wish this was an inter­na­tion­al project) is meta­mod­ernism, which is some­thing I do not ful­ly under­stand. But I think it’s someone…and I can’t remem­ber the guy’s name—it’s a spe­cif­ic thinker, who is try­ing to go beyond the irony, beyond the jad­ed sen­si­bil­i­ty, and beyond maybe the pes­simism that I think comes out of too much, or the over­ap­pli­ca­tion of post­mod­ern phi­los­o­phy and lets you get to a dif­fer­ent point. I think you see that in the arts as well. 

That may just be a total bull­shit answer. I don’t know, I hope not. 

Audience 9: …but I also think there’s a lot of… I mean, I think that from that inter­sec­tion, there’s a lot emerg­ing in arts and cul­ture right now, and even in the last maybe like three to five years. I think this is also a place where an inter­na­tion­al explo­ration would be real­ly inter­est­ing, because com­ing from the sort of…postcolo— Let me not say post­colo­nial world” because there’s not such thing. But from post-colonies, I think there’s a lot of real­ly inter­est­ing things that’re emerg­ing from that inter­sec­tion between you know, well…here’s the real­i­ty of devel­op­ment, post-development, post­colo­nial real­i­ty in a glob­al­ized soci­ety. And also here’s tech­nol­o­gy. Technology in the devel­op­ing world is being used in I think a lot more ways than it’s being used here. That’s also the con­text that I’m com­ing from. 

And also I think with­in that, the arts— The inter­sec­tion between post­colo­nial thought, tech­nol­o­gy, and art, and cul­ture right now is real­ly real­ly emerg­ing and incred­i­ble right now. Like, Volta in New York is going on right now, which is one of the largest art fes­ti­vals in the world. And there’s a huge devel­op­ing world pres­ence there, and I think it’s because there is this inter­sec­tion between… Getting back to this is what life is real­ly like when you’re try­ing to sur­vive. And this is how we’re using tech­nol­o­gy not because… For the idea of progress because we can, but because we have to. And we’re in a glob­al­ized world, and so I think that that con­text would total­ly change this con­ver­sa­tion, in a way.

Anderson: And that’s why we do this project, because I did­n’t know about that stuff in New York espe­cial­ly. So it’s like that would be…like, that will go on the giant spreadsheet. 

And we’re at eleven.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: Or, twelve.

Saul: Twelve.

Anderson: Whatever time zone we’re in. 

Saul: Uh…

Anderson: We’re done.

Saul: Thanks for tak­ing part in our experiment. 

Anderson: So that was our pan­el. It was record­ed on 10th of March, 2014. And we’ll be back here soon with Joan Blades, the cofounder of MoveOn​.org. But she won’t be talk­ing about MoveOn too much. We’ll be talk­ing about Living Room Conversations, a project that she’s work­ing on with the cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots that encour­ages peo­ple from dif­fer­ent walks of polit­i­cal life to talk to each oth­er. So it’s right up our alley, and that will be…god, our first prop­er episode in a very long time. And there are going to be some great ones com­ing up after that. So, we’ll try to pick the pace back up here.

Saul: Yep. We’ve missed you. We hope you’ve missed us. And we’ll be talk­ing soon.

Further Reference

This episode at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.