Category Archives: politics

The Transhumanist Wager

Some weeks ago, I saw a review of Zoltan Istvan’s book “The transhumanist wager.” It was a rave review and I was interested in the topic, so I got curious. Shortly after, Istvan himself contacted me and offered me a copy of the book, asking me if I’d like to review it. I accepted.

I have finally finished the book and am ready to give my verdict. However, I will also use the occasion to reflect on some of the philosophical matters touched upon in the book, which I believe will be of more interest to my readers than the book itself.

As you probably have guessed, “The Transhumanism Wager” is about transhumanism. More particularly, it is about the struggle between transhumanism, religion and (in the author’s opinion) our outdated morality. If you don’t know what transhumanism is, I’ll summarize the idea here: transhumanism is the belief that humans should strive to improve themselves and their bodies, using technology to better the human race and transcend its biological limitations, such as (but not limited to) death and aging.

Biocomplexity spiral

Biocomplexity spiral (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I consider myself a transhumanist or, at least, I am not opposed to many of their tenets. As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t want to die, mainly because I like living. If I was given the chance to go on living, I’d probably take it. If I could make myself smarter and stronger and faster and able to fly, I’d probably do it. I don’t hold my current form in such high esteem that I wouldn’t want to change it.

That said, I found the book to be lacking as a defense of transhumanism, precisely because it goes too far with it. The debate about transhumanism is presented as having two sides: in one, there are the smart and capable scientists that want to build a transhumanist world. On the other, there are the religious zealots, which hold the human body as sacred and do not want it to be changed. These religious zealots, on top of that, are portrayed in an extremely sinister light, which does not do justice to a great fraction of religious people out there.

The reason I don’t like this is that, by minimizing the opponent’s case, the arguments for transhumanism sound weaker. I would have liked to see several factions, each with good reasons for rejecting what the transhumanists had to offer. This way, I would have actually enjoyed reading all the (extremely long) philosophical discussions and speeches, which in this case were just too obvious to merit any further consideration. By only taking into account the religious arguments against it, Istvan made the transhumanist philosophy look naïve. That does not do the transhuman movement any favors.

There is something else that made me uneasy: in the book, transhumanism is equated with being in favor of social inequality and opposed to universal health care, for example. In the words of the author, “your freebies are over.” He actually goes out of his way to say, through the main character, things like: “if you offer no value, you will be eliminated” or “only people who can demonstrate their productivity will be allowed to reproduce.” I have two problems with this: first, I think these represent the author’s extreme right-wing views and have nothing to do with transhumanism itself, so mixing those two actually misrepresents the philosophy. Second, if what he was trying to do was convince people that transhumanism is not so bad, that’s a heck of a way to start: advocating eugenics and the state-approved killing of unproductive individuals.

Cover of the first issue of h+ Magazine, a web...

Cover of h+ Magazine, a web-based quarterly publication that focuses on transhumanism. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, it was precisely this brutal ideology that made me want to keep reading the book. I found it at odds with my own beliefs but quite fascinating in its own right. Even though the tone of the writing seemed quite juvenile (I was actually convinced the author was in his early twenties until I found his webpage) the novel was easy to read. I was even excited at some points, especially when he delved into some subjects that have been touched upon in this blog and that I won’t reveal in case someone wants to give this book a go.

Istvan’s main point seems to be this: we are in a race against time to achieve immortality. We should devote every single resource available to this task. Any individual who does not contribute should be left to his or her own devices: we are in the middle of a battle against death and we cannot afford to waste any resources. Not doing anything is actually murderous, if you think about the amount of people who are being condemned to dying and who could be living forever. There is also another point that ties in with the former and which has Nietzschean resonances: every human strives to become the most powerful self they can. This is undeniable human nature. Moral rules are for the weak: for the transhumanist (his kind of transhumanist) there is only one imperative: become as powerful as you can, as fast as you can, through any means available. The first step for this is, of course, not dying.

The author has a utilitarian view of humans that would have horrified Kant: he sees them as means to achieve power and immortality, nothing else. The analogy he uses is comparing himself to a machine that tries to achieve a certain objective in the most rational way possible. Humans are just pieces in the game, variables to be considered. Nothing more.

Istvan’s idea seems to be that in such a Darwinian society, creativity would thrive and technology would advance by leaps and bounds. I am not so sure. Furthermore, I’m also not sure whether I would like to live in such society, even if it did advance that fast. There are plenty of examples of non-egalitarian societies and none of them seem like a great place to live. Believing that only talent (and not the ability to drink socially and suck up to people, for example) is enough to gather riches is naïve at best.

Istvan seems to have some understanding of science, though every time he speaks about physics (“you have to harness the power of quantum”) or mixes it with philosophy (when speaking about “quantum Zen”) I cringe a little. At one point he mentions a “photon generator,” which made me laugh out loud. I have several at home: they’re called “lamps.”

All in all, I found “The Transhumanist Wager” a fun read, though slightly embarrassing at times and lacking in serious philosophical discussion (in the sense that it lacked competing, coherent points of view). If you are a fan of transhumanism and the most brutal brand of capitalism, you might enjoy it. Even if you’re not, it’s still fun to read.

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Should We Ban Imports from Countries that Violate Human Rights?

As jobs continue to disappear in the industrialized world, many blame technology. They are partially right. However, there is another culprit: delocalization. Most of our products are now manufactured in developing countries, where human resources are substantially cheaper. This allows us to have greater purchasing power, since we can acquire goods that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, were they made at home. That’s the story they tell us, anyway.

However, all this talk of cheap products being beneficial for the working class is deluded at best and an outright, deliberate lie at worst. The working class is disappearing precisely because of this: all of those jobs have left and been turned into precarious, nefarious ones in countries that would allow this. The people who relied on these jobs have gone on to unemployment or a lower-quality, lower-pay position. How do I know it is lower pay? The answer is straightforward: as jobs get outsourced to developing countries, there is less demand for workers, whereas offer stays the same. Hence, less pay. Also, the data shows I’m right (see below).MiddleClassGraphs_web_21

So yes, we can afford an iPhone, but not because it is made in China. If it wasn’t made in China but in the US and every single manufacturing job that’s been outsourced had stayed in the US, you would be paying more for your phone, but you’d have a considerably higher salary. Don’t be fooled: outsourcing only has one beneficiary. I’ll give you a clue:  it is not the working class.

There’s something baffling about the whole outsourcing conundrum. If I have a company in, say, Spain, and I offer salaries under the minimum wage, with no social security, I will go to jail. The reason I’ll go to jail is what I’ll be doing is against the law; it’s against the law because it’s considered immoral. However, I can start a subsidiary of my company in China and do exactly that, but to Chinese people. In fact, I can be even more brutal and, if I’m lucky and have friends within the Party, get away with polluting, exploiting and pretty much whatever tickles my fancy. Why do the laws of my country allow me to do this? Beats me. I thought human beings were the same everywhere; apparently, I was wrong. Spanish people don’t want to be exploited? Never mind! I’ll go to China and find someone who does.

The fact that a Spanish company (or a Chinese company that exports to the West) can do this puts companies who do the right thing at a disadvantage. Now, before we go into why good companies are at a disadvantage, let’s focus on what I mean when I say “the right thing.” To me, it is a combination of:

  1. Offering decent wages.
  2. Having reasonable working hours.
  3. Providing social security coverage and/or insurance.
  4. Not abusing their workers verbally or physically.
  5. Other common-sensical stuff I’m sure I don’t need to add here, like maternity leaves, etc.

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China ...

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now to why good companies are at a disadvantage. Let’s see: if I have a company that makes some product and wants to compete with the rest, I have a choice. I can either act immorally (exploiting workers in developing countries with working conditions that would be inadmissible in the West) and have a competitive edge; I can also act morally and lose it, since my products will be more expensive than those of the competition.

But careful! This does not happen because companies are evil: this happens because our laws are made in such a way that they pretty much enforce this behavior.

(Of course, let’s not be naïve. If we have the laws we have, it’s because they’ve been lobbied for by companies. So probably they didn’t have a drive to not be evil in the first place. Like Eric Schmidt said when confronted with his Google’s questionable tax-evasion practices: “we are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” Apparently, for Schmidt “capitalism” means not paying the taxes that allow roads, hospitals and schools to be built.)

English: Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of G...

Way to go, Eric. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This situation was, until now, quite beneficial for Western companies. Only now they’re starting to realize it may not have been such a great idea. The Chinese, apparently, weren’t content with being exploited: they started creating their own businesses, using every single tactic from their Western counterparts and harboring the good will of their government, which enables them compete in even more favorable circumstances. This has resulted in the almost complete control of the telecommunication infrastructure market by Huawei, for example, which has strong ties to the Chinese government. Suddenly, Western companies are losing the edge.

This situation could be easily averted, though. It would be as simple as banning imports from countries which do not respect human rights or, at least, taxing them severely, so that employing people in sub-human conditions would stop being a good business decision. This way, manufacturing would go back to the West and jobs would be recovered. At this time of economic uncertainty, they’re sorely needed.

What would be reasonable conditions for lifting the ban/taxes and establishing a free market zone? Equal labor laws. It makes sense to have toll-free circulation of goods between countries with the same standard of living which treat their workers similarly. It doesn’t make sense to give the countries which do the wrong thing an unfair advantage. The recent attack against social welfare in Europe can be seen as the logical consequence of this: if countries like China do better, precisely because their workers are less protected, it seems logical to follow their steps in order to grow as fast as the Asian giant.

But this is a terrible idea: it aims to level the playing field to the lowest possible conditions. Shouldn’t be doing the opposite? Shouldn’t we be leveling the playing field so that all workers, Chinese included, had better conditions? Aren’t we going backwards? Who, exactly, benefits from this? I would argue not even the Chinese do. If China was not allowed to export to Europe unless it had better labor laws (and human rights, since we’re at it) the pressure on the government to make some changes would be huge, especially with the growing middle class and the amount of companies which depend on exports to the West in order to survive. This law would not only benefit workers in the West, but workers everywhere, by forcing their countries to treat them right or be left out of the free market zone.

Someone may question the economic viability of this. I would reply that this is not an economic argument: this is a moral argument. Companies should not be allowed to treat their workers unfairly. If they do, they shouldn’t be allowed to sell their goods, regardless of the benefits this may have for the economy. The economy, let’s not forget, is the people. And if the people cannot lead a dignified life, then the stock market can rise as high as it wants to. It won’t make a lick of a difference.

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You Are Not as Poor as You Think

Today I’d like to speak about a new kind of wealth that the Internet has brought us. It is something we take for granted, maybe because it’s so ingrained in our lives that we barely even notice it.

Here I want to draw a distinction between wealth as the amount of money an individual has and wealth seen as the amount of services/goods an individual can purchase. While it is true that monetary wealth (at least for everyone but the top 10%) has decreased for almost anyone living in developed countries in the last 10 years, we have also seen an unparalleled increase in the amount of goods we have access to, thanks to a drop in the costs of cultural products.

As a side note, the rest of this article is not an endorsement of our current state of affairs: I am as irked as anyone else (probably more) by the constant loss of purchasing power of the middle class. I just want to add a drop of optimism to the otherwise pretty bleak landscape. Also, note that when I say “free” below I am not taking into account we still need to pay for an Internet connection and an Internet-capable device. I hope you’ll forgive that omission. So here we go.

Internet!

Internet! (Photo credit: LarsZi)

Seventy years ago, when you wanted entertainment you had to pay for it. Yes, you could play a game of checkers with a friend for free, but if you wanted to enjoy a novel or a movie, you had to go and give someone money. It made sense: someone had put a lot of time and effort in making them. It was only fair they got something in return.

When the radio, first, and then the TV appeared, things changed. You could be entertained for free, provided you bought your device and were willing to listen to a number of ads. The idea that content could be enjoyed without paying is quite revolutionary and, in fact, impregnates almost everything we do online today. You can actually see Google and Facebook as giant TV stations, where, again, you’re allowed to enjoy certain content in exchange for your willingness to view ads.

The amount of entertainment we can enjoy for free has grown exponentially in the last few years. For example, we can now stream virtually any song ever made either for free or for the ludicrous price of one third of the cost of a CD (yes, those shiny round things) every month. It’s like having every single record ever made in your house. Similarly, we now have access to pretty much every single book ever written (as long as that was more than 70 years ago) without having to pay a single cent for them. If you calculate the cost of having such a library, you’ll quickly see the increase in purchasing power.

Something else you may remember having in your parents’ house is an Encyclopedia. My parents still have one at their home, but I can’t recall the last time they opened it. Today, anyone with a laptop can have access to information that’s more detailed and up-to-date than any provided in a physical Encyclopedia. Free access to information is something we’ve gotten so used to it’s almost hard to remember how things were before that. I would say this is a great step towards equality: it gives everyone the opportunity and the means to learn. What people do with this opportunity is up to them, of course.

Kicking Television

Kicking Television (Photo credit: dhammza)

So music and books are now free or almost. How about movies? People still go to the cinema, but it’s getting rarer. I won’t get into piracy because that’s not technically “free” but stealing, though admittedly a much less harmful type of stealing than, say, robbing a convenience store. Having done both I know what I’m talking about. But services like Hulu and Netflix have made it possible to watch almost any TV show at any time we want, for very little or nothing. In this aspect, though, there hasn’t been much change from the TV days, except for the fact that we can now choose when we want to watch things instead of having to wait until the channel decides to broadcast it.

The Internet has also seen the birth of other cultural products that didn’t use to exist before. I’m talking about blogs, as well as the short opinions, photos and videos people share on Facebook. This is also entertainment, even though of a different nature from books. It comes in small, digestible pieces that can be easily shared; their authorship becomes diluted as they spread through the net and the source of the original meme (in the first sense of the word) is lost. Most of this content is created by people that expect nothing in return, except for a little appreciation, endorsement or debate. This is maybe the most revolutionary part: a new batch of creators is appearing which just wants to be heard, to be understood. Some want to help people; some want to become famous; some want to change the world. They pour their sweat into the Internet for the enrichment of humankind, but they don’t make a job out of it. This has never happened before and it has a socialist, almost anarchist ring to it. However, it is not orchestrated generosity; it is not state-driven collaboration, but the spontaneous effect of the need to reach out, to make connections, to fulfill an urge.

I think I’ve said enough: in fact, after I publish this, I’m going to go on Youtube and watch one of the tens of videos on how to make couscous which have been uploaded by an army of kind souls wanting to share something they do well. Then I will cook my couscous and let my wife believe that I am just such an amazing cook. And, when I do that, I will be enjoying a little more of this content I take for granted but which has changed my life in thousands of small but significant ways.

Many of my readers contribute to this huge collaborative project that is the Internet; this immense database of all human knowledge, hopes and feelings; this huge repository which, should it be the only thing left of us, will perfectly summarize who us humans were. To all of you who add your grain of sand to the mountain, be it on WordPress, Facebook, Youtube or wherever you do, giving your time and effort without getting a single cent for it: thank you. Heck, we don’t get paid. We could all use a little appreciation.

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Is Perpetual Economic Growth Possible?

Perpetual growth has become one of the mantras of our society. We have to keep growing: otherwise, there is a “crisis.” People lose their job; poverty spreads. Havoc breaks out until we start growing again.

Some people have argued this is not sustainable: if we keep growing indefinitely, sooner or later we will use up more resources than the Earth can replenish and we will destroy the planet. I wish to argue the opposite: namely, that perpetual economic growth is possible without destroying our planet. So let’s get started.

It is a well-known fact that an economy has to grow by at least 2% in order to keep employment rates stable. If an economy grows below that mark, jobs are destroyed. This is a direct consequence of technology: efficiency grows, and so does production, without having to hire more people. If our factory produces the same as last year with improved technology, it means this technology has been used to replace people who used to have jobs. Only if we increase production is there room for the same amount of workers.

That paints a grim picture: continuous growth is impossible because resources are finite; growth of less than 2% leads to unemployment. We have the perfect scenario for a crash of epic proportions.

Gross domestic product growth in the advanced ...

Gross domestic product growth in the advanced economies, accumulated for the periods 1990 – 1999 and 1990 – 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, this time technology comes to the rescue. Yes: the same technology that forces to grow by 2% or lose jobs will get us out of our predicament.

They key word here is virtualization. What I mean by this is most of our goods have been virtualized: they are not things anymore, but chunks of information. Where is that piece of furniture you kept for your CDs? Gone, I presume, along with the now-unnecessary CDs. Your home libraries will go the same way soon, if they haven’t already: they’ve been replaced by a tiny device and an Internet connection. Those products don’t have to be made anymore, in the sense that they don’t have to be produced as things. Yes, the music has to be recorded, but that’s it. All you’re using up is energy. You’re not using up stuff.

The tendency towards virtualization will, eventually, encompass most of what we know. Without getting into science-fiction scenarios where even we are virtualized, living as uploads in a virtual environment which takes less and less energy to run, we can already see some of the coming trends now. Ubiquitous 3D printers, for example, will allow us to download designs for all kinds of everyday items. We could be making our own car at home (I’m not joking: a 3D-printed car was invented recently, which doesn’t break since it doesn’t rust) and paying only for the design. We could even travel from home, using a combination of virtual reality and drones. And yes, drones are not science fiction anymore: there’s thousands of aficionados making them in their garage as we speak. Another virtualization is, for example, sex: as virtual reality becomes better, simulated sex will become the norm and prostitution will – hopefully – become obsolete.

The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment at EVL,...

The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment at EVL, University of Illinois at Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All this virtualization leads to the use of less and less material, while producing the same amount of monetary gains. That is, what counts as ownership or wealth is being transformed gradually into the existence of certain streams of data associated with your digital persona. A person who owns a million downloads from iTunes, for example, is a millionaire (at 1$ per song) but, at the same time, has nothing physical to show for it.

So virtual goods are cheap to produce but still have a relatively high monetary value. And virtual goods are easy to make: you just need some creativity and a computer. All that “manufacturing” counts as wealth. The more people learn to use new technologies, the more they produce something with them, the more wealth a nation has. Since there is no limit to the amount of data we can store (there  is, but it gets updated every year) this growth does not have to stop.

Another advantage of virtual goods is that they’re getting cheaper to store and run. The continuous evolution of computers makes the energy expenditure per bit decrease every year, which allows to produce more and more data (wealth) without an increase in energy use. Again, we see how growth can continue indefinitely without running out of resources.

Most successful companies nowadays lead in virtual goods. Google, for example, sells virtual space for placing virtual ads, using all the data it gathers from its product (us); Facebook does pretty much the same. Only Apple deals mainly in physical goods, though it may be argued that what Apple really sells is intangible design.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Now, I am aware that this virtualization is far from having completely happened. Furthermore, we need devices to run all those products and those devices have to be manufactured. However, as bandwidth increases, we’ll be able to make do with less and less powerful devices, since most processing will be done on the server side. When this happens, hardware updates will happen in the company side, whereas users will just have to pay for software updates, again another virtual product. Also, I must add that we don’t need to stop producing: we can keep producing, as long as we do so in a sustainable way. What I claim is that we can keep producing in a sustainable way, while growing indefinitely, thanks to virtualization.

Finally, this new age of virtualization has seen the rise of a new kind of good that may be enjoyed for free. This has never happened before. We live in a world where a substantial fraction of the population contributes, without any monetary gain, to the well-being of the rest by providing content – writing, music, art – that can be enjoyed by others, free of charge. Whereas before people had to pay to read, people can now go online and start perusing blogs, one after another. It’s quite remarkable, really. And one of the reasons we may still have some hope for the future.

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Why the New Pope Sounds Like a Really Nice Guy

Why should you care about the new Pope? You may ask. After all, if you’re reading this, you’re probably an atheist or an agnostic. Or maybe you’re a theist or a pagan or who knows what. Maybe you believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The Pope is the leader of an organization that has nothing to do with you. Leave him to the Catholics, then. They can rejoice or pull their hair out. It is not your problem.

But it is, isn’t it?

Think about it: maybe you’ve been cursed with empathy. Maybe you watch the news and see people dying in a remote country and you feel a pang of sadness. In this case, you’ll probably feel bad when you learn that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people have died of AIDS in Africa. You will feel even worse when you realize those deaths could’ve been avoided without spending a single cent. No: all that would’ve been necessary would have been a Catholic church which didn’t demonize condoms.

Alas, the Catholic church demonized condoms and hence is guilty of – indirect, admittedly – mass murder.

Gilliam-esque

Gilliam-esque (Photo credit: enigmabadger)

You may also live in a country where the Catholic church has an important presence. If they behave in your country just as they do in mine, priests will normally tell their flock who to vote. The parties they usually choose are right-winged and usually don’t have the people’s best interests in mind. In the case of my country, for example, the church first supported a 40-year dictatorship (in which women were second-class citizens, being a Catholic was compulsory and gay people were tortured and killed) and now they support a party which is, funnily enough, constituted the children and grandchildren of the dictatorship’s ministers.

The Catholic church wants to save you, even if you don’t want to be saved. This means they will try to influence government to pass laws that will force the citizens of the state to abide by Catholic morality. Are you gay and tempted to live in sin? Don’t worry! We will make a law to forbid it and thus let you avoid eternal damnation. We will do our best to outlaw abortion, even if not having one kills you, like it happened quite recently in Ireland. You may be dead, but at least you’ll be in heaven. And you have us to thank for it. You’re welcome.

So you should care about what the Pope thinks. You should because what he thinks will probably affect your life, whether you care or not.

So what does the new Pope think?

I must admit I was hopeful for a while. He named himself “Francis” after St. Francis of Assisi, who was known for his work with the poor. He ditched his mansion in Argentina for an apartment. He cooks his own food. He takes the bus. He is outspoken about inequality and calls out to politicians to stop this blatant injustice. Wow.

I mean, Wow.

Derivative Work. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Po...

Our friend Benedict XVI, before he quit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But then I read more. Apparently, he is, like our friend Benedict XVI, part of the most conservative faction of the church. He is opposed to women priests (though, in this respect, I really could not care less). He is opposed to gay rights and had quite an argument with the Argentinean government because of it. He is opposed to birth control. Oh, and he has not been so outspoken against the military dictatorship that seized power in Argentina in 1976. I guess murdering, torturing and staging a coup are not as bad as using a condom.

And so, again, we have a Pope which will indirectly keep causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in Africa, while lobbying to keep a significant portion of the population from achieving equal rights.

What a nice guy, I say.

Maybe there’s hope this time.

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Experimental Democracy?

We learn things by doing experiments. We make predictions, we try things out and see how it goes. We haven’t always done this and progress has suffered for it. The discovery of the scientific method is probably the most important finding in the history of humankind.

However, we don’t apply it to government. No: in government, we are still using a system that was devised, in its modern form, 300 years ago. We haven’t changed much. Yes, maybe some minor, cosmetic aspects here and there. But, by and large, we live in the same democracy that arose from the French revolution in the 18th century.

However, some people want to change that. Not by eliminating democracy or staging a coup. No, this people want to use the scientific method to build alternative societies, to watch them thrive or sink and to choose the objectively most successful ones in an idea that closely mirrors scientific progress our natural selection. How?

One option is seasteading. Proponents of it suggest building floating cities in international waters so they wouldn’t be subject to national governments. These cities would have their own set of rules, taxes, etc. Maybe some of them could implement Internet democracy: people instantly changing their vote online. Some others could test the theory that less tax for the rich means more jobs. Others could experiment with their patent system. You name it. Then, governments would look at the results of those societies and copy what worked. Or what worked for the upper class, as they always do. Another possibility is that some of those societies would grow so successful they would out-compete our modern state-nations and render them obsolete.

This video explains the idea better than I could. It is at least worth considering.

Another possibility are charter cities. This project is a little less ambitious, since it involves very little in experimental democracy. The set of rules that can be tweaked concern other, more mundane aspects such as regulations on energy, broadband, etc. The idea of charter cities is to follow the model of Hong Kong: a place which is managed by an association of different countries, where rules different from its mother country are put in place. If the experiment is successful, people flock to the charter city and the government has a good a

rgument to put in place similar reforms for the whole state.

Watch this video for a more complete take on charter cities.

The ideas of seasteading and charter cities, though, are not innocent. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, has heavily invested in BlueSeed, a start-up that seeks to avoid restrictive USA immigration laws by placing a floating city – a ship – off the coast of California. Peter Thiel is a known libertarian: someone who believes the state gets in the way of the people and that everything should be privately owned. It is likely, then, that the first examples of seasteading will not be examples of new forms of democracy, but an excuse to avoid taxes, creating their own, privately owned micro-nations, safe from the uncomfortable scrutiny of the state.

I believe it is a matter of time before these social experiments start to crop up on the planet. Whether they end up being a laboratory for utopian societies or a slightly ingenious way to avoid giving your fair share to society, though, remains to be seen.

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America Is at War Already

This week I’ve been reading about the new cyber-war between America and China. And, to my surprise, I feel most analysts are completely missing the point. Cyber-war will not become a part of war: cyber-war is war. Right now, China is waging war against America. Plain, good old war. It’s just that America hasn’t realized yet.

In order to explain this properly, first we need to reflect on what war is and why it is fought. Once we understand this properly, we will be able to put cyber-war in its proper context and fully understand what it means and why it’s important.

What do countries fight for? Resources, obviously. A resource can be defined as anything that can produce wealth. Wars used to be fought for territory. Even though the desire to expand one’s domain may seem logical, in fact territory was an asset: in an economy based on agriculture, land was crucial for producing goods.

Now agriculture is not such a lucrative business, so wars are not fought for land any more. It is rare to see a country invade another one. Wars are now fought for other physical resources, such as oil. It makes sense: an oil well produces vastly more wealth than a field of potatoes. Logic then dictates a nation will want to acquire those assets for itself.

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: View over World W...

Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center: View over World War Two aviation wing, including Japanese planes and B-29 Enola Gay (Photo credit: Chris Devers)

We can then define war as the (intended) forceful acquisition of some nation’s assets by another nation. The success of the military enterprise will be determined by the ratio between the resources spent and the resources acquired, converted into currency.

However, we live in an age where the sources of wealth have become increasingly vaporous. Facebook owns no land (or very little). Its source of wealth is very different. However, it is one of the most valuable companies in the world. We are living in an age where physical resources – oil, coal, land – are starting to be out-performed by informational ones. Google is an idea, a piece of software. An abstraction. But it is worth more than almost any other company in the planet. Apple sells design, another abstraction. These are the new resources: things you cannot touch. Things you cannot put a fence around. Things you cannot acquire by invading a country with tanks. And yet, they are the most powerful revenue generators of our era.

And you can steal them. You don’t need any – conventional – weapons, nor a massive spending in the military. There need not be any casualties. All you need is a few computers and well-trained hackers. Again, it makes sense. What produces the most wealth? Information. What is the most valuable resource in the current state of affairs? Information. What is worth waging a war for? Information.

National emblem of the People's Republic of China

National emblem of the People’s Republic of China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the Chinese are not waging war – yes, it is a war, in the sense that it is a forceful appropriation of another country’s resources – as a means of getting leverage. They are not waging war in order to put pressure on the US regarding other issues such as Taiwan. They are waging war because they understand what war means. They understand that America has some valuable resources that China needs. China needs them because it is unable to produce them by itself. And it is taking them, because America still does not understand that it doesn’t need to protect its territory anymore, because its territory does not generate wealth. America needs to protect its assets, and those are just information. Nothing more.

It may not look like the Chinese are carrying out an act of aggression against the US. After all, they haven’t conquered a part of Alaska and started extracting oil. But what they are doing is exactly the same. In fact, the value-generating capacity of Alaska pales in comparison with the value-generating capacity of the resources being stolen by the Chinese.

I contend that countries will realize the reality of this new scenario sooner or later. Whoever is late to the fray will lose everything. The early comers will reap immense rewards. China, for example, is benefitting from the fact that cyber-war is still not viewed as actual war. They are getting all the rewards of a raid without any of the risks. After all, it’s just hacking, right? A teenager can do it. There’s no need to retaliate.

How much longer will America need to realize the threat? President Obama has already banged his fist on the table and vouched to stop this. But, to do so, it is essential that he view this attacks for what they are:

America is at war with China. It just hasn’t realized yet.

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5 Conspiracy Theories that Will Make You Smile

Sometimes when I’m bored or I have no idea what to write in a blog entry, I browse Wikipedia looking for random stuff. Today I ran into a list of conspiracy theories and I thought it was too good to not share it here. Here’s a list of the ones I found amusing enough to comment on.

Book/Pamphlet cover (1920), giving publishing ...

Book/Pamphlet cover (1920), giving publishing details (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. New World Order. There are several versions of the New World Order conspiracy theory: all of them involve some sort of secret organization. Classical culprits are the Freemasons, the Illuminati and the Jews, all of which are accused of conspiring – there’s not conspiracy theory without some good-old conspiring – to bring about a global government controlled by them. My favorite option, though, are aliens: according to some, they already rule the planet and most politicians and public figures are either working for them or are actual aliens in disguise.
  2. The Madrid bombings. This is one of my favorites, as it hits quite close to home. While the whole international press was blaming the attacks on Islamic terrorists, the Spanish government decided to place the blame on Basque terrorist group ETA, which quickly denied any involvement. The cover-up was done for political purposes and led to the governing party losing the elections: the Spanish public didn’t take too well to being lied to about something as serious as a terrorist attack. The PP – the party in power back then – decided to keep at it and spent the next 8 years claiming there was a conspiracy between judges, politicians, police and victims to attribute the attack to Islamists. Such pure-hearted people won the elections again a year ago and in one year managed to get knee-deep into such a number of corruption cases they have experienced the fastest loss of popularity in the history of Spanish democracy.

    Machiavelli

    Machiavelli (Photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel)

  3. Tupac Shakurs death. He predicted his own death in a song, saying he would be shot and murdered. Soon after, he was. His fans took this to mean he had faked his own death, since his stage name was “Machiavelli” and, as everyone knows, Machiavelli advised people to fake their deaths. Or didn’t.
  4. The Clinton Body Count. Shortly after Bill Clinton became president, a list started circulating online containing names of supposed associates of his who had died in “mysterious circumstances.” Of course, presidents have a huge number of “associates” and many of them have dangerous jobs, so it is not surprising some of them ended up dead. Similar lists have circulated about George Bush Jr. and Barack Obama.

    Bill Clinton

    Bill Clinton (Photo credit: Lazy Susan 23)

  5. The Montauk project. According to several writers such as Preston Nichols, the Montauk project was a super-secret US research project that involved trying to control the minds of different subjects through magnetic fields. It was the continuation of the Philadelphia project, which reportedly tried to render a whole US Navy ship invisible using “electromagnetic shielding,” with far from encouraging results.
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How Much Is a Life?

We grow up being told that human life is precious. Priceless. It is the one gift we cannot give away. That is why, in some countries, murderers are put to death.

But I want to deny this and state that lives actually have a value that you can calculate. More precisely, they have a value of which you can give an upper estimate. In the following lines I will do precisely that.

I will use the numbers for Spain, since it is a country I know well, but I am sure similar calculations could be done with, say, the United States.

In Spain, 3 people commit suicide every day because of reasons directly related to the economic crisis. That amounts to around 1,000 people per year. I am not counting other deaths, such as people who do not get medical coverage anymore because of budget cuts and die because they cannot afford treatment. I am also not counting those who die while on massive waiting lists for surgery or for consultations, brought by again by budget cuts which in turn were caused by the economic crisis.

Spain

Spain (Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video)

But let’s call the economic crisis what it really is: the need to bail out banks which were making ridiculous amounts of money by gambling with property they shouldn’t have been gambling with. In Spain, actually, the banks that had to be bailed out were publicly run, which means their board consisted of politicians. That created a convergence of interests that fueled the real-estate bubble from which Spain is still recovering. So when we bailed out our banks we were really injecting back the money that a bunch of politicians and bankers had lost by recklessly speculating with public property. In other words, our public money has had to pay for their greed.

How much was their greed worth? Well, the total bailout was 146 billion euro.

A lower estimate for the death toll is 1,000 death per year in three years, meaning 3,000 deaths.

Then, a simple division yields around 50 million euro per death. Since nobody has gone to jail for this, I assume this is the amount you need to make in order to get away with murder.

So how much is a life? My estimate is 50 million euro, at most. If we take into account all the other collateral damages, it will probably be much less.

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The Future of Democracy

As Finland prepares to vote its first crowdfunded law proposal, the impact of technology on democracy is still barely felt in the rest of the developed countries. Objections about technical feasibility of reforms have long been overcome: what is, then, the reason for our 19th-century-style political system? Obviously, a complete lack of will from the political class. It makes sense: why give more power to the people? Democracy is based on the idea that the people of a country are the ones who should have the last say about its actions. That’s actually the meaning of the word. So nobody should question that the more people are allowed to get involved in the decision-making process, the stronger a democracy is. Right now our democracies allow us to choose the governing party every four years. Each party makes a series of promises which then are or are not fulfilled, depending on the honesty of who gets elected. If the parties do not fulfill their promises they don’t get expelled from government: the only opportunity for people to fire them is in the next election. That takes power away from the people and gives it to politicians and other individuals who are close to them, namely lobbyists and contributors to their campaigns. Politicians only have to harbor the approval of voters once every 4 years, whereas they need to please their campaign contributors every day they are in office. The result of this is power is taken away from the people and given to other entities whose interests do not normally fall in line with those of the party’s voters.

voting day in a small town

voting day in a small town. So 20th century. (Photo credit: Muffet)

So the statement that we live in a democracy is only partially true because people only have a relatively small share of the power. Living in a democracy is a fuzzy concept with a truth-value that approaches one the more decision-making power the people really have. It can be argued that the truth-value of the proposition “we live in a democracy” has been increasingly approaching zero over the last two decades. This less-than-desirable scenario could be easily remedied. The medicine is technology, specifically information technology. The complicated voting infrastructure could be easily substituted by an electronic one, thus drastically reducing the cost of asking people for their opinion. This would allow an infinity of micro-referendums about sensitive topics, without having to set up a huge amount of infrastructure. It would allow citizens to propose laws –something which is already being done – and vote them themselves, without having to rely on the congress to do so. Therefore, if a president decides to lead you to a war you don’t want to participate in, as was the case in Spain where 90% of the people were opposed to the Iraq invasion, the people would have the tools to make a decision for a government that does not represent them. That is democracy.

English: Women in Japan voting

Voting in Japan over 70 years ago. Does the technology look familiar? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It may be argued that having everybody vote for every minute matter is downright impractical and it would have the effect of making citizens uninterested in politics. To this, I have two answers: firstly, we wouldn’t have to turn every law into a referendum, but a substantial amount of them. Secondly, I fail to see how giving people more opportunities to participate will make them less involved in politics. Today’s view of politicians all over the world is that of a group of people who only cater to their own interests. It is hard to make people more uninterested than that. Also, the fact that not everybody participated in every referendum would not mean participation was low. For example, I am not an expert on agriculture so I would probably delegate if I was asked to vote for or against a law on it. I would however participate in anything involving technology or science. This way, the more informed citizens would be making the decisions and, this is important, with the consent of the rest. When I choose not to vote on a certain issue, I am actually exercising my power of decision: I am saying “I am not an expert and I will trust the outcome of what the experts vote on this.” It is empowering, not the opposite. I have the option of deciding. I choose not to. Right now, we don’t have the option to decide anything, except for the face of the person who will systematically lie to us during the next 4 years.

English: Electronic voting machine used in Bra...

English: Electronic voting machine used in Brazilian elections. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So why doesn’t this get done? Why don’t we already live in a democratic paradise where everyone has a voice? Plain and simply, because those who should change the law in order to give the people more, the politicians, couldn’t be more against it. Nobody relinquishes power voluntarily and our representatives are no exception. They will never vote to give more power to the people because, even though they theoretically represent us, their interests are not those of the majority. How can we get this new democracy to fly? In Spain there is already a party with a proposal along these lines in their program. A sound strategy would be to vote them. Other known strategies that seem to have a convincing effects are protesting, going on strike or simply rebelling against the oppressors, in this case a bunch of people who get elected into office by promising a number of things they later refuse to get done.

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