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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Saul: …which is the idea of technological progress being able to reverse the man-made environmental collapse that we’re causing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 findtheconversation.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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anderson: Or, twelve.
Anderson: Whatever time zone we’re in.
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.
This episode at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.