Aengus Anderson: So, we’re break­ing back in, which is always a sad thing to inflict on the lis­ten­ers. Sorry folks.

Micah Saul: We apol­o­gize, but actu­al­ly we think this one’s going to be pret­ty good.

Anderson: A lot of things have been devel­op­ing in the project since we’ve last checked in. And it also feels like we’re at a point where the project has reached enough of a stage of matu­ri­ty where we can real­ly plot some big themes in the project. So that’s kind of what we want to do now, espe­cial­ly if you’re a new lis­ten­er and you’re jump­ing in pret­ty recent­ly. So we can kind of syn­the­size some infor­ma­tion for you as maybe you go back and lis­ten to some ear­li­er conversations.

Saul: Exactly. We feel that this is a good point to sort of take stock, do sort of a quick pré­cis, if you will, of where we’ve got­ten so far. Because I think we’ve got some real­ly inter­est­ing places we weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly expect­ing to get. And we’re see­ing some inter­est­ing poles between dif­fer­ent large groups of thinkers that we weren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly expecting.

Anderson: And our own ideas have been evolv­ing this whole time. So, let’s jump right into it, shall we?

Saul: Sounds good. In many ways it seems the biggest rift between groups of thinkers in the project so far is their stance on tech­nol­o­gy. We have a large group of tech opti­mists. People like Max More, Ariel Waldman, Robert Zubrin. And then we have those that are a lit­tle more skep­ti­cal of tech. Jan Lundberg, Carolyn Raffensperger

Anderson: Johns Zerzan.

Saul: Of course, John Zerzan. 

Anderson: So, peo­ple who are sort of skep­ti­cal of tech maybe through the uses, and peo­ple who are skep­ti­cal of tech as an enterprise.

Saul: Right. I think going into the project, we real­ly expect­ed the main rift to be bio­cen­trism and anthro­pocen­trism. And it’s inter­est­ing there’s some over­lap between that polar­i­ty and this polar­i­ty. But it’s not quite as neat as you’d expect it to be.

Anderson: We cer­tain­ly see it with peo­ple like Max More and Robert Zubrin, who are strong anthro­pocen­trists and strong tech opti­mists. But there are def­i­nite­ly a lot of edge cas­es even in that world. I mean, I think you could make an argu­ment that in many ways Wes Jackson is a tech opti­mist.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: He’s very nuanced in his think­ing about tech­nol­o­gy. But he’s a bio­cen­trist. Or the same way with Carolyn Raffensperger, you know, who for spir­i­tu­al rea­sons is a bio­cen­trist but is also still very inter­est­ed in tech­no­log­i­cal development.

Saul: There’ve been some sur­pris­es there for us.

Anderson: In our minds, of course, the ques­tion that’s always sort of play­ing out is, how do you have peo­ple talk to each oth­er? Do peo­ple talk to each oth­er? What are the issues that stop con­ver­sa­tion dead? And bio­cen­trists, anthropocentrists…often they do seem to be very at log­ger­heads. You know, you can find com­mon caus­es. I mean, there are a lot of ways that anthro­pocen­trists can fol­low goals that seem com­mon with bio­cen­trists because it is tru­ly in the self-interest of man to have a bios­phere. But they’re not always things you can square. And I think that’s the same with… Maybe less so with the tech peo­ple than with the bio­cen­trists and anthro­pocen­trists, though.

Saul: I think so. I think it’s…biocentrism anthro­pocen­trism are so relat­ed to that ara­tional notion of good or val­ue, where the tech opti­mist and tech skep­tics… Your rela­tion with tech, with a cou­ple excep­tions, does­n’t real­ly seem quite as ingrained and deep-seated of a belief. Obviously, the excep­tions I’m think­ing of are Robert Zubrin, who would argue that tech­nol­o­gy is what makes us human. Zerzan, who would argue that tech­nol­o­gy is what’s mak­ing us not human.

Anderson: That’s a great sum­ma­ry of those two. 

Saul: So I thought it was also inter­est­ing with­in the tech opti­mist side, speak­ing of human and not human, there is a rift even with­in that group of how they be look at tech­no­log­i­cal change, and how they look at whether or not it should have lim­its. So, we’ve got peo­ple like Max More and… I think we can say com­ing up in the future we’re going to be talk­ing with some more real­ly inter­est­ing posthu­man­ists who believe that basi­cal­ly tech and sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tion should have no lim­its. You just sort of…go forth. And then there are peo­ple like Robert Zubrin who are real­ly uncom­fort­able with whether or not that can lead to us los­ing what makes us human. Which I thought was inter­est­ing con­sid­er­ing his belief that we are fun­da­men­tal­ly tech­no­log­i­cal animals.

Anderson: Yeah. Because we start­ed this project inter­est­ed in fun­da­men­tal­ly new ideas, right. And I think Robert Zubrin’s ideas about tech­nol­o­gy are not fun­da­men­tal­ly new. It is not the Star Trek future where we go into space as what we are with tech­nol­o­gy around us. What’s fun­da­men­tal­ly new is the idea that’s threat­en­ing his idea. It’s the tech­nol­o­gy that is being pushed by tran­shu­man­ists, which is what changes us so deeply that we can’t pre­dict what we’ll be. Human has no more mean­ing, in their uni­verse. And that is a fun­da­men­tal­ly new idea.

Saul: Yeah, absolute­ly. What oth­er big themes should we bring up here?

Anderson: You want to jump into teleology?

Saul: Yeah, let’s do it.

Anderson: Or his­tor­i­cal pro­gres­sivism? This is anoth­er one where we’ve been try­ing to fig­ure out the right word for this. And we’ve talked about this peri­od­i­cal­ly, but my aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground is in his­to­ry. And some­thing that’s always inter­est­ing for his­to­ri­ans to look at with accounts of the past is of course, how does it explain how we’ve got­ten to where we are. And the idea of tele­ol­o­gy is so fas­ci­nat­ing, which is tak­ing the point we’re at now, look­ing to the past, and cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive or an expla­na­tion that leads you direct­ly to where you are. It’s a com­plete self-fulfilling nar­ra­tive. Which is, for his­to­ri­ans, real­ly bad practice. 

We’ve seen a lot of thinkers who use tele­o­log­i­cal expla­na­tions, and a fair num­ber of thinkers who reject them. Probably few­er who reject them, though. Because I think tele­ol­o­gy and the idea of pro­gress­ing some­where, which is again dif­fer­ent but relat­ed, that’s a real­ly tempt­ing way to tell a story.

Saul: And I think what’s inter­est­ing is it’s com­mon across all of the oth­er poles. It does­n’t mat­ter what your beliefs are. You can eas­i­ly use tele­o­log­i­cal think­ing to explain your beliefs.

Anderson: Yes. For exam­ple, in terms of our more bio­cen­trist thinkers, David Korten, there’s an imme­di­ate sense of progress that he works with. And the expla­na­tion he gives us is one that is in many ways sort of tele­o­log­i­cal. The idea that the ecos­phere as con­scious­ness is a thing that is grow­ing to sort of real­ize itself, right? But when you take that atti­tude, you look to the past, you say, Well, sci­ence has got­ten us to this point where we can now rec­og­nize the supra­or­gan­ism that we’re a part of.”

Saul: Which is inter­est­ing because it’s actu­al­ly, and I don’t think we noticed it at the time when we were talk­ing about Zubrin, but Zubrin says some­thing very similar.

Anderson: Right.

Saul: We are the bios­phere’s way of spread­ing itself through­out the universe.”

Anderson: Right.

Saul: Wes Jackson also says some­thing very sim­i­lar. We are nature’s way of look­ing at itself.” 

Anderson: Which is kind of remark­able because there are some very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on how to live, but a com­mon struc­tur­al theme for cre­at­ing a nar­ra­tive. So let’s throw out some non-teleological thinkers, so peo­ple have a sense of the oppo­site perspective.

Saul: Yeah, exact­ly. How you you do nar­ra­tive with­out that sense.

Anderson: Right, which is a real challenge.

Saul: I think…Morton.

Anderson: He’s prob­a­bly the poster boy for it.

Saul: Unsurprisingly. But with Morton you def­i­nite­ly get the idea that we’re not pro­gress­ing towards any­thing. There is not a clear, direct line to be drawn and that every­thing is just rela­tion­ships and every­thing is just change.

Anderson: You can’t even know what’s out there. You could­n’t know what was going on if there was any­thing going on, and there prob­a­bly isn’t any­thing going on. You just exist. And you adapt in dif­fer­ent direc­tions, depend­ing on the needs and the cir­cum­stances, and that’s that. His choic­es of the words spooky” and eerie” and dis­qui­et­ing” and weird…” You know, he uses all of those words reg­u­lar­ly. In a way that’s apt for us as a peo­ple who are used to nar­ra­tives that seem very lin­ear, that progress for­wards, that maybe do indulge in teleology.

Saul: Yeah. I think that’s one of the rea­sons that…well, that you and I found Morton so inter­est­ing, and I think oth­er peo­ple have as well. Because he’s not just chal­leng­ing our world­view, he’s chal­leng­ing how we tell stories.

Anderson: Yes.

Saul: And that’s some­thing that so deeply ingrained that when you do things dif­fer­ent­ly, it feels…it feels…weird.

Anderson: Absolutely. It’s fun­ny, you know, to have had that con­ver­sa­tion with David Korten about chang­ing the nar­ra­tive. And he goes beneath a lot of the ways we see the world, and he breaks it down into a cou­ple of real­ly big nar­ra­tives, right. And Timothy Morton goes one lev­el beneath that, and breaks down nar­rative.

Saul: Right. As you would expect from… Well, he’s he’s def­i­nite­ly of the post­mod­ern or post-postmodern schools of philosophy.

Anderson: Which of course is inter­est­ing and you know, what do you do with some­one like Timothy Morton’s oblit­er­a­tion of our sort of nar­ra­tive struc­ture? Like, if you’re liv­ing in a world in which you are con­scious of this gigan­tic mesh, and you are also con­scious of your inabil­i­ty to know what’s going on, how do you turn that into some sort of use­ful action? Morton is inter­est­ing because he is at once very post­mod­ern, but at once also very con­cerned that post­mod­ern thought is far too detached and is not deal­ing with the cri­sis of the now.

And I think that’s some­thing else that we should prob­a­bly begin to wind this con­ver­sa­tion down with, is how dif­fer­ent peo­ple have talked about con­ver­sa­tions in the project. We men­tioned a lit­tle bit in the end of last episode with Carolyn Raffensperger, the idea that the con­ver­sa­tion is not between the dif­fer­ent thinkers we are talk­ing to, but it is between them and well, you, the folks who are lis­ten­ing to this. So there’s a con­ver­sa­tion mod­el in which peo­ple are basi­cal­ly lob­by­ing for the undecided. 

Other peo­ple, like Cameron, are push­ing for an idea of we need to force peo­ple to think they need to have the Conversation. There are oth­er peo­ple who think the Conversation is hap­pen­ing, and they are hav­ing is. And there are still oth­er peo­ple, per­haps Joseph Tainter would be a good exam­ple, who think that y’know, con­ver­sa­tion might be the best shot we have, but it’s hon­est­ly kind of irrel­e­vant and the fix is in.

Saul: His clos­ing com­ments remain to me the most dis­turb­ing sen­tence we’ve had so far in this project. 

Anderson: You mean try to go have this con­ver­sa­tion at Walmart and see how far you get,” essen­tial­ly? I’m paraphrasing.

Saul: Yes, exact­ly. It was just the biggest smack­down of the the­sis of this project, which is some­thing that I absolute­ly want to believe matters.

Anderson: And that does tie in with our ear­li­er inter­sti­tial, the sec­ond sta­tus update we did, where we were talk­ing about elit­ism. And so here’s here’s anoth­er dis­turb­ing prospect. Say the Conversation does mat­ter. But also let’s say that Joseph Tainter is par­tial­ly right, and that in the Walmart the Conversation is nev­er going to be some­thing that hap­pens. Maybe the Conversation just hap­pens top-down. In a way then, Carolyn Raffensperger’s mod­el begins to look less like just lob­by­ing for peo­ple in a way that seems, I don’t know, like a depress­ing fight over scraps, and more opti­mistic in that well, it is grant­i­ng agency to a lot of peo­ple. Whereas maybe there’s anoth­er option in which the Conversation is this elite thing that is ulti­mate­ly imposed on Joseph Tainter’s folks in Walmart.

Saul: You know, that’s just one of many ques­tions I think we’ve been hav­ing recent­ly about the Conversation. And I think our ideas of what the Conversation is have cer­tain­ly shift­ed over the course of this project.

Anderson: If I was to put you on the spot right now, how have your ideas about the Conversation changed? Well, I think when we orig­i­nal­ly framed it, the idea was that in times of great change, great minds come togeth­er and have The Conversation. Out of that we get these new ideas.” I think actu­al­ly that is a fun­da­men­tal­ly elit­ist idea. The exam­ples we would give I feel fit into that mold, or at least the com­mon­ly held per­spec­tive of those exam­ples. I’m think­ing you know, the fram­ing of the found­ing doc­u­ments of the United States.

But then the ques­tion is, is that sort of popularly-held prospec­tive cor­rect? And do they maybe just rep­re­sent sort of the zeit­geist? Could you have the Constitution with­out a bunch of oth­er peo­ple, both elite, non-elite, known, not known, hav­ing these ideas of per­son­al lib­er­ty and the rela­tion­ship that the state should have with the indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens? If that was­n’t already hap­pen­ing, could the Constitution actu­al­ly have been drafted?

Anderson: And I’m hon­est­ly sur­prised that we haven’t run into more of a dis­cus­sion of that. And that’s some­thing that I think I want to bring up in some of our lat­er con­ver­sa­tions. What about all the peo­ple whose minds have to be opened to these new ideas? You can’t just have an elite con­ver­sa­tion and then an imposed ide­ol­o­gy. I mean, maybe you can, but… I think there are ample his­tor­i­cal exam­ples. Let’s say if you look at the French Revolution, you see an immense num­ber of reforms that are com­ing from the elite. And many of them seem…well, some of them seem mild­ly ratio­nal, whether they be cal­en­dar reforms or legal reforms. And yet a lot of that stuff does not stick beyond the rev­o­lu­tion. Because no one want­ed it.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: There does have to be a zeit­geist, and maybe that’s what gives the elites almost per­mis­sion to have the Conversation.

Saul: Something else we were talk­ing about is the ques­tion of when the Conversation hap­pens. Does the con­ver­sa­tion hap­pen before the change? Does the Conversation hap­pened dur­ing the change? Or have we invent­ed the idea of the Conversation to sort of jus­ti­fy the changes that happened?

Anderson: And a good his­tor­i­cal deter­min­ist would prob­a­bly say it’s the last one of those. The Conversation is the gar­nish that his­to­ri­ans put on a nar­ra­tive of the past, which changes for oth­er rea­sons. Maybe there’s an eco­nom­ic thing that changes ideas. Maybe there’s a tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment, or a famine. And minds change and it’s sort of this qui­et inchoate, unre­flec­tive, nat­ur­al move­ment. And then, the frip­pery of the con­ver­sa­tion about it just tossed on at the end.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: There’s some­thing sort of gross­ly dis­em­pow­er­ing about that, but there’s some­thing that’s also… I like how it dis­em­pow­ers elites.

Saul: I feel like we’ve just sub­ject­ed our lis­ten­ers to phone con­ver­sa­tions you and I have when we’re not nec­es­sar­i­ly work­ing on the project, or in between episodes.

Anderson: And you’ve prob­a­bly spot­ted many of these themes. You prob­a­bly spot­ted a lot of themes that we did­n’t men­tion. You’ve prob­a­bly spot­ted a lot of themes we aren’t even aware of. And of course, there is always space on the web site to write to us about them. And it would be great if you did, because [laughs] you already know how seri­ous our blind spots are.

Saul: Exactly. And you also know… Well, maybe you don’t. I assume. I assume you know. You should also know that the inter­vie­wees aren’t talk­ing to each oth­er. They don’t lis­ten to the project. With a few excep­tions. And so in order for this to real­ly work as a con­ver­sa­tion, we real­ly need you to be a part of that.

Anderson: And actu­al­ly, as we’ve been talk­ing about our chang­ing thoughts, this has been, the thing that you just men­tioned with the inter­vie­wees maybe tun­ing into their own con­ver­sa­tions, prob­a­bly not tun­ing into the oth­er ones. (Again with a few very notable excep­tions.) One of the things we want­ed to learn with this project was, could we spark a con­ver­sa­tion? I mean, and this is the total naïve con­ceit, right, and we know that. But, we thought well what the hell, let’s give it a try. Maybe some of these peo­ple will be curi­ous about each oth­er. Maybe if in con­ver­sa­tion I bring up all of these oth­er peo­ple, the inter­vie­wees will go back and lis­ten to one or two of them. Maybe their curios­i­ty will be piqued. I don’t think that’s hap­pened. And if it has, they’ve nev­er men­tioned anything.

Saul: I think you are being a lit­tle too hard on the project, though. Because, as you said, there are a few notable excep­tions to that rule. And I think the fact that Lawrence Torcello is actu­al­ly listening…I think that’s a win. And I think that it does give me some hope that we are doing some­thing in terms of spark­ing a conversation. 

Anderson: And you know, we can say exact­ly the same thing about David Miller, who lis­tened as well.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: And Tim Cannon, who we’re going to be talk­ing to down the road with Grindhouse Wetware.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And those moments total­ly make it worth­while. I mean, this would be worth­while even if no one cared, because it’s a real­ly fun project to work on. But it is inter­est­ing, and I think dis­may­ing to some extent, to see how iso­lat­ed with­in their own com­mu­ni­ties a lot of these thinkers are.

You know, there’s a top­ic that bob­bing up here and there that I want to devote an entire con­ver­sa­tion to, which is the idea of there being sim­ply too much infor­ma­tion to nav­i­gate and com­pre­hend. And I think the peo­ple we are talk­ing to illus­trate that. Because they are engaged, and they are curi­ous. And I think real­ly they would like to know, but this is just one tiny lit­tle blip on the radar for them. It’s a con­ver­sa­tion that comes and goes, and they have lives that are very deep and rich and com­pli­cat­ed. And there just isn’t time. 

Saul: Which I think is a per­fect time to once again thank our lis­ten­ers for putting up with us. We know how busy every­body is, and we know… Well, I know for a fact I can’t do any­thing else when I’m lis­ten­ing to this, or I just miss the whole thing. So thank you for tak­ing the time out and actu­al­ly listening.

Anderson: And that maybe some of you share our sort of naïve hope that we can try to engage in this kind of conversation. 

Saul: Right. And I think on that note, we should stop tak­ing your time and let you get back to your far more impor­tant lives.

Anderson: And we’ll get back to our mas­sive­ly unim­por­tant ones.

You’re lis­ten­ing The Conversation and this is our third sta­tus update. It was record­ed September 6, 2012 in both San Francisco, California and Hartford, Connecticut. 

Saul: You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

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