Why Washington Needs the Future

If we are to have one, we had better start talking about it; quadrant 2 in DC; an ode to Bill Joy

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, Washington, DC

If the New Yorker is the world’s best magazine, the Economist can’t lie far behind – smart, wry, transatlantic cousins. And – unlike much else we read today – elegantly written. I fell for the Economist in high school; they had a special deal for teens and it hooked me more than 40 years ago. It’s less stuffy now, more intuitive. I’ve just been reading the latest. A big article on Google. And a special supplement on China (more about that later). Two giants out there shaping things, and us. Focus on the Future.

It’s now 10 years since Bill Joy, co-founder of the late Sun Microsystems and esteemed technology guru, penned his jeremiad, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” – in, of all hallowed places, Wired magazine. A clarion call to reflect hard and deep, it took on board the Gestalt of both techno-optimists (a glorious digitized post-mortal future awaits us) and techno-pessimists (we are likely to destroy ourselves by accident or cyborg ourselves by design into a machine future). Either way, he argued, Homo sap seems doomed; surplus to future requirements.

These extremes have tended to dominate debate, insofar as we have had any. Joy’s extended op-ed led to surprisingly little; it joined the lore of the conversation among the cognoscenti, not least for its approving use of that equally well-known, though less read, text, the manifesto of the Unabomber. But no-one took up the challenge. Even Joy failed to produce the rumored book-length statement of his own case.

But the gauntlet had been thrown down. Can we manage a future in which galloping Gordon Moore’s Law keeps driving us up that apocalyptic curve without our ending up either bumping into Ray Kurzweil living on the hard drive next door, or being grey gooed with Prince Charles – in a final resolution of the problem of global population that reduces it rapidly to nil? Is there some way species Homo can be sufficiently sapiens to mature in sync with century 21 – and sail between the Scylla of the Matrix and the Charybdis of a bowl of reheated primeval soup? Or, perhaps (to throw in a third dystopia) a casserole of Soylent Green?

These options have dominated what conversation we have had, for the plain reason that territory lying between the poles has remained terra incognita. And in Washington, the most consequent city on the planet, there has been almost nothing at all in the way of grown-up conversation. Mainstream opinion left and right is occupied elsewhere, with issues of the much more immediate future (plus, to be fair, without any enthusiasm, the long-term old business of the deficit). Which is sadly ironic, since leadership always entails the casting of long-term vision; though leadership is not a quality defining our times.

We know some of the many reasons. It’s partly the calendar of democracy, with its premium on the short term and, in tandem, the privileging of issues of disagreement. Net effect is to leave the outriders free to proclaim their visions of glory and gloom, and (note this, investors and tech execs and enthusiasts for a techno-future; note it well) in the process slowly but surely to brand emerging technologies in gaudy colors of risk. Do note that I’m not saying Joy was fundamentally wrong, or that the sugary optimism of Kurzweil and the gooey pessimism of Prince Charles are to be discounted. To the contrary, counted is what they need to be. As we address tomorrow’s questions, the roundtable crucially needs their voices as we work for a positive sum outcome. But it needs the voices of others too. Others who are silent on the greatest issues of our tomorrow. Ten years on, Joy’s deeply provocative challenge remains unanswered. Whether he is right, partly right, or completely wrong-headed, America does not know. It is this conversation, with its many ancillaries, entailments, and cognates, that should be at the heart of our national life. It is a thousand pities that a Delphic oracle (forgive the pun, if you got it) from one of the leaders of the digital revolution was relegated to the status of marginalia; yet another curiosity from the west coast. And another thousand that insistent pleas for a pro-innovation policy culture are seen as a nagging annoyance. It may not help that they tend to focus on tax breaks and visas, though this is Washington where unless there’s a bottom line in the next 12 months, it’s hard to keep anyone’s attention. But that’s all part of the problem, isn’t it? And it’s a problem we need to fix. Hey, this is America; maybe we can even fix strategic problems. With ourselves.

I know that we are distracted from the long term by pressing and vital things. By war and terror. By health. Unemployment. But the bread and butter of politics will always claim all of our time unless we ensure that does not happen. Remember Stephen Covey, the pop time-management icon, and his Quadrant 2? The important but non-urgent. Management 101, for strategic individuals and organization – and nations. Smart people always know better; but they don’t always act better. The urgent consumes all available effort and attention. It will surely be the death of us if we can’t turn this around.

I’m also aware that there are plenty of people in Washington focused on the long term, not least the impacts of technology. One center of gravity lies in the security community, though even their discussions that are not secret don’t bleed into the mainstream. Another: back in the early 2000s, the National Science Foundation convened a series of conferences on technological convergence (the so-called NBIC process), and raised revolutionary potential impacts. It suffered from (picking up my point above) too much transhumanist and general techno-optimist flavoring, but it opened a vast and urgent agenda. Partly for that reason, it had little discernible impact on the broad policy community; though the Europeans pricked up their ears and concluded that the United States had taken a transhumanist turn (long story; I found myself trying to explain to the relevant EU advisory group that NBIC was just a bunch of smart people holding conferences, and that for good reasons and bad there was no command interest in their efforts; the EU had commissioned a “high-level expert group” to head off what it saw as a nascent U.S. policy push into transhumanism). Another: I was interested to participate around the same time in Project Horizon, an inter-agency futures scanning effort led by the State Department (and Booz Allen), looking 20 years ahead. It was an impressive process involving enormous efforts and some very senior federal (and a smattering of non-federal) players. But (as I duly pointed out, when I had opportunity) while it engaged in smart horizon-scanning in a series of heavyweight scenarios, not one of them took enough note of likely tech developments. Not one. Now: NBIC meets Project Horizon would have been fun.

Or to bring us depressingly up-to-date: the Wikileaks debacle has more than demonstrated that the dramatic asymmetries that seem destined to characterize 21st-century life are beyond the imagination of thinkers, doers, and leaders whose preoccupation with the past and its current entailments and the threats and opportunities hosted by next week leaves us naked in the face of exponential change.

We need to retake our bearings: the vast rising giant which is China, run by engineers and unconstrained by election cycles and donors and approps and the Washington Post and the Tea Party and Moveon.org and all the rest; the cornucopeia of materials that NBIC generated; the strategic nous of Project Horizon; Bill Joy’s savvy and nuanced jeremiad. America as a nation at its most effective and best has always been defined by the future as much as the past. Its continued economic success and global leadership depend on nothing less, as we seek to be chief global competitor and lead global citizen in century 21. Decade #2 is now upon us.

For those who are interested:

NBIC: http://www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/Report/NBIC_report.pdf

Joy: http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

Project Horizon: http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/state/state_dept_2025.pdf

This commentary may be forwarded/re-posted if unedited and with acknowledgement.W

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