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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
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    Accelerating the Future into Being
    This article, co-authored by Rene and Megan May, will be published in the Counter Culture issue of Volume Magazine, August 2010.

    As two of the founding members of SpaceCollective.org, a forward-looking think tank concerned with how exponential changes in technology are shaping our future selves, we are often reminded how much our inquiry owes to the US Defense Department's Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

    In spite of its connection to the US military, DARPA exemplifies the essence of America's much heralded knack for innovation, unapologetically anticipating failure as one of the inevitable outcomes of looking farther forward than most — according to DARPA, if you don’t have failures, you’re not far enough out.

    In order to “accelerate the future into being,” DARPA foots the bill for some of the most ambitious engineering projects known to man, including reverse engineering the brain, while opportunistically embracing whatever unpredictable results their esoteric projects may yield.

    Thus far, the results of their envelope pushing, scattershot approach have been impressive. They have successfully funded breakthroughs like global positioning satellites, the cell phone, speech recognition software, the graphical user interface, the Unix operating system, super-capacitors, advanced fuel cells, a multitude of air, land, and sea robots, and more. Even the US Space Agency, NASA, was a spin-off from DARPA (called ARPA at the time).




    Ironically, while DARPA’s formal ambition is to create a superhuman soldier, most of the agency’s projects don’t end up on the battlefield, but rather proceed to transform the civilian world we live in, and ultimately our overall sense of who and what we are. In his book Radical Evolution, which extensively documents DARPA’s ambitions to enhance humanity, Joel Garreau makes the fundamental hypothesis that today we are riding a curve of exponential change that is unprecedented in human history, and will transform no less than human nature. Garreau defines our historical moment as follows:

    “We've tried Socratic reasoning and Buddhist enlightenment and Christian sanctification and Cartesian logic and the New Soviet Man. Our successes have ranged from mixed to limited at best. Nonetheless, we are pressing forward, attempting again to improve not just our worlds but our very selves. Who knows? Maybe this time we'll get it right.”

    In the mid ‘60s, Darpa took a giant step in that direction by funding a project that promised to “augment human intellect,” through computers.




    At the time, there was no field of computer science, there were no computer science departments in universities, and certainly no computer networks. There was, however, an engineer named Douglas Engelbart, who was convinced that computers had a purpose beyond number crunching.

    Engelbart's vision was shared by the head of DARPA's research department, J.C.R. Licklider, who articulated the idea that a “man-machine symbiosis” would produce a new entity that would “think “as no human brain has ever thought before." It was Licklider who would convince DARPA to fund Engelbart's Augmenting Human Intellect project. 

    Engelbart’s research would culminate in an epic demonstration of the first computer mouse, the graphical user interface, hypertext, and networked computers to a crowd of awestruck engineers who initially balked at Engelbart’s DARPA-supported schemes. And soon enough, his center at Stanford would become the first node of the Internet – giving rise to a technology that we never knew we needed but which has since become ubiquitous.




    As it happens, the instigators of the world transforming technological paradigm shifts that are the subject of this article, are engineers whose primary focus is on how things might work without being overly preoccupied with the precise outcome of their tinkering. Indeed, neither Engelbart nor Licklider could have possibly predicted the explosive impact their joint venture would have a few decades down the line.

    As has been extensively documented by Kevin Kelly, in just the first 2000 days after the web was born, we had already contributed 3 billion web pages, demonstrating an unanticipated eagerness to share. In the process, we’ve taken the liberty to freely share billions of dollars worth of copyrighted material, increasingly cut out the middleman from our commercial transactions, and forced many institutions that represented the dominant culture to reinvent themselves or perish. It’s safe to say then, that in today’s world the engineers who materialize these technologies are the instigators, if not the leaders of a revolution, often operating without manifestoes, business plans, or even support from the scientific community, which, according to Joel Garreau, "can take years if not decades to catch up with adequate explanations for some of the technological developments DARPA and others are pushing through. It is the final triumph of Edison over Einstein."

    In the last ten years, a younger generation of triumphant engineers have stepped to the plate to build upon Engelbart’s augmentation metaphor. Foremost among them are the founders of Google Inc, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who set out to “expand people’s minds” with an ever-refined search algorithm that has since become one of the key operating principles of the web.

    From their humble PhD project at Stanford, they’ve gone on to index all the world’s information and managed to create one of the most successful companies in the world, based almost entirely on the popularity of its revolutionary search technology, which has since prompted Google to venture into many unforeseen directions. Despite its founders’ initial reluctance to turn their project into a platform for advertising, one of these ventures is Google’s world famous Adsense technology, which leverages their powerful index of related information to generate context-specific ads alongside search queries and other Google services.




    This customized approach has elevated advertising to a level that is infinitely more subtle than blanketing the world with TV commercials for McDonalds, while providing Google with the financial wherewithal to pursue its founders’ far-reaching vision to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.”

    This is a tried and true strategy; after all broadcast TV first provided us with an unprecedented window on the world thanks almost exclusively to revenue generated by commercials for shampoo and vacuum cleaners. The success of this trade-off would ultimately contribute to such world changing feats as ending the war in Vietnam by bringing the battlefield into our living room.

    In the ‘60s, Marshall McLuhan, the media philosopher who seems to have understood the engineer’s mind better than most, predicted that what had started with a TV in every home would eventually turn the world into a “Global Village.” But what he couldn’t have foreseen is that today Google is marrying television with the Internet, and is getting to know all the villagers on a first-name basis while - like an old-time switchboard operator running a local party line – the company’s Android operating system for smart phones will allow Google to keep close tabs on all its neighbors around the planet, wherever they are, swapping recipes and gossip or reporting on the current patronage of their local pub. In this increasingly symbiotic relationship with their customers, Google is becoming intimately aware of who we are, where we are and what we like, while optimizing our lives, by providing us with a constantly updated supply of mutually beneficial tools and services, like Gmail, Google Wave, Google Chrome, Google Voice, Google Checkout, Google Health — the list is getting longer by the day. And in every instance we voluntarily share more and more of our private lives with Google’s ever-growing data centers. Indeed, it may not be long before we're sharing even our most personal genomic details with the company; after all, Sergey Brin is not only an investor in the leading personal genomics company 23AndMe, but the company’s co-founder is his wife.


    Given the tremendous task of indexing and contextualizing the rapidly growing amounts of data Google acquires from one moment to the next, including their massive digitization of books, their controversial worldwide street view project, and so on, it seems only logical for Sergey Brin to anticipate that “artificial intelligence” will emerge within a few years. A prospect that did not escape George Dyson, when he visited the Googleplex several years ago and concluded that the company would soon find itself “at the precipice of astonishing changes in human communication...and ultimately, in our sense of who or what we are." And in the most remarkable about-face, rather than suffering from Big Brother paranoia, younger generations today appear to be in on the master plan, freely sharing everything with Google’s cloud computing infrastructure as if they agree by consensus that throwing caution to the wind may well be the necessary path by which the Internet will deliver the constant innovation they have come to expect.

    As we continue to develop our relationship with the machine, we may yet become the enhanced human beings envisioned by the early advocates of augmented intelligence. However, according to maverick inventor Ray Kurzweil, chances are that soon we may no longer be able to recognize the emerging entity as one of our own.




    In the best tradition of the calculated recklessness American innovators excel at, Kurzweil predicts that within decades machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, at which point all bets will be off, and we may find ourselves jumping into a DARPA-esque black hole from which a whole new existential paradigm will emerge.

    Google is certainly no stranger to the fact that technology can change faster than expected, and the company is throwing in its lot with Kurzweil by co-sponsoring his Singularity University. This initiative may spawn yet another generation of radical engineers, inspired by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge who first defined the Singularity as the inevitable moment when “computer /human interfaces become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent,” and go on to create exponentially more intelligent entities at accelerating speeds.

    While this may sound like a far-fetched concept only DARPA would fund, the Singularity theory is actually based on Intel founder Gordon Moore’s sober observation that the power of information-technology is doubling every eighteen months and will continue to do so. Moore’s law, of course, has become the core faith of the booming computing industry for the last few decades, and has recently inspired Intel to promise a complete merger between man and machine by 2050.

    When you add it all up, it looks like the next step in our DARPA-esque technological evolution may not be financed by the military, but by a major corporation like Google or Intel, at the risk of trading one potential liability for an even more debatable patron.

    After all, anyone who has read alarming books like counterculture stalwart Douglas Rushkoff’s “Life Inc” or watched the equally bleak documentary “The Corporation,” knows that these business entities are often viral, perhaps even "sociopathic," institutions, operating in the sole interest of quarterly results and shareholder value. So one can only wonder what will happen if Page and Brin's longstanding promise to do no “evil” is jeopardized by their unexpected failure to deliver the enviable profit margins the company has been boasting so far. If they were to arrive at such a juncture they might be forced to relinquish control or even be ousted by the company’s shareholders who — as Apple's Steve Jobs and Yahoo founder Jerry Chang found out the hard way — are ultimately calling the shots. This would inevitably leave us at the mercy of whoever might step in to guide Google’s exploding machine intelligence, and inherit the mountains of data we have entrusted to the company.

    Ultimately, the best thing corporations like Google can hope for is that we, the users, continue to go along with their founders’ plans, and that our compliance will generate sufficient income to hold the company's board at bay — leaving it up to Larry Page and Sergey Brin to stay the course as they help ring in the Singularity.

    If there is one redeeming aspect of working within the corporate system that rules the Internet today, it’s that the same services that allow us to share personal information, also provide us with a platform to voice our discontent. When Facebook, for example, makes unfavorable changes, their initiatives are instantly squashed by user revolts. And at the moment, the social network’s less than transparent attempts at manipulating privacy settings for its own gain are seriously jeopardizing its reputation among users who make their negative opinion of its founder, Marc Zuckerberg, very public.

    At this juncture, corporate leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg, Page, and Brin — and all the other engineers operating within this mysterious algorithmic culture whose products we so eagerly adopt, should perhaps be scrutinized in the same way as we probe our politicians. So we decided to use Google’s search algorithm to do a little data mining on its creators, and the results of our queries proved to be as reassuring as they are revelatory.

    It turns out that the philosophical underpinnings of today’s Internet, take us back as far as 1907, when a radical Italian woman, named Maria Montessori, conceived of an anti-authoritarian educational system that would focus entirely on the students’ individuality, tapping into their eagerness to share, and their inherent desire to learn.




    What at the time was seen as a marginal educational model has, more than a century later, taken on a prophetic significance, which the educational innovator herself could not possibly have imagined when she wrote:

    “Human teachers can only help the great work that is being done, as servants help the master. Doing so, they will be witnesses to the unfolding of the human soul and to the rising of a New Man who will not be a victim of events, but will have the clarity of vision to direct and shape the future of human society.”


    From the first day of class the Montessori method offers pre-school students a simple set of building blocks to play with, which has caused a Singularity in its own right by catalyzing the genius of Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and George Braque, all of whom left an indelible mark on 20th Century culture.




    As it happens, in the 21st century, the list of Montessori alumni includes Larry Page and Sergey Brin, both of whom attribute Google's success story to their Montessori education, which they credit for teaching them to be self-directed and to think for themselves, while giving them the freedom to pursue their own illustrious path. This would ultimately lead to the creation of their non-hierarchical mega-corporation, which promotes the Internet’s bottom-up ethos through the creation of simple user-friendly tools to access all the world’s information. And these tools have in turn produced a whole new generation of autodidacts, spontaneously sharing with each other and the world in the best tradition of a Montessori education.

    In fact, no initiative on the Internet demonstrates the success of Montessori’s educational principles better than Wikipedia. This open-source platform for knowledge creation has proven that people are both willing and able to collectively generate and regulate a vast accumulation of knowledge. So it makes perfect sense that its founder, Jimmy Wales, is a Montessori graduate as well.

    Other disciples include Amazon’s Jeff Bezos who revolutionized online commerce, and Will Wright, the pioneer of interactive games, who credits Montessori’s ideas as the main inspiration for his world-building game “The Sims” and the more recent “Spore,” which invites players to single-handedly re-invent the entire universe.

    Together, these men make up the pillars of today’s interactive paradigm, which encourages us to participate in “the unfolding of the human soul,” and by extension “the rising of a New Man,” as envisioned by Maria Montessori, who, at the tender age of 13 attended an all-boy technical school in preparation for her dream — to become an engineer.

    She must have understood — even back then — that, as Marshall McLuhan puts it,

    “first we build the tools, then they build us.”


    Rene
    Megan May

    Fri, Jun 25, 2010  Permanent link

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    Infinitas     Tue, Jul 6, 2010  Permanent link
    I'm happy to see Maria Montessori here. Having gone through an excellent pre-school through 3rd grade Montessori program taught by some very nice Catholic nuns, it's hard to give this style enough credit. It really is remarkable how early they try to help kids begin to learn, and more importantly, want to learn on their own. It's completely open-ended learning, much like how the Internet has increased our personal yearnings for more information and knowledge. And to give you a more concrete idea of how amazing Montessori programs are, 3-4 of 15 classmates in my 1st through 3rd grade class went on to attend and graduate from Ivy League Universities with another 5 going to other top-tier colleges.

    At this juncture, corporate leaders like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg, Page, and Brin — and all the other engineers operating within this mysterious algorithmic culture whose products we so eagerly adopt, should perhaps be scrutinized in the same way as we probe our politicians.


    I partially disagree with this statement. I think that people like Jobs and Zuckerberg are kept in check and criticized moreso than politicians by people under the age of, say, 30. This age group is more "tech-savy" and has a more comprehensive ability and desire to watch what some of the leading tech kings are doing. While the main, "older" working class, who are more affected by political/economic decisions, are more concerned with our politicians. It's vital that the younger population takes an interest in the politics and decisions of today, which I don't think is happening to the extent that it should. This is dangerous because we cannot disregard the duties of our politicians or else they could further undermine the power of individual human beings and their spirits. But regardless of who is probed, both our corporate and political leaders need to kept in check a whole lot more.
    rene     Sat, Jul 10, 2010  Permanent link
    Since our article is largely about the fact that the engineers who create today's world tend to be more important than politicians, it is interesting to note that

    the Communist leaders of China are for the most part former engineers. Rana Foroohar wrote in Newsweek, “China’s faith in its ability to mold markets may derive from the fact that its leaders are mostly engineers, trained to build from a plan. Eight of nine top party officials come from engineering backgrounds, and the practicality of their profession may help explain why they didn’t buy into risky (and Western) financial innovation. These ruling engineers preside over a system that is highly process oriented and obsesses with performance metrics.”
    Olena     Wed, Jul 14, 2010  Permanent link
    Thank you, Megan & Rene!

    I'm curious about the Montessori method...
    from what little I've read about it so far, it seems to be primarily focused on young children.
    Is it too late for those of us who are older, and have "suffered" a more traditional education?
    I'm about to read more about the method, now.
    Infinitas     Wed, Jul 14, 2010  Permanent link
    Olena,

    I've only heard of Montessori for children. I think it's primarily a way to get young kids to start making decisions for themselves so that as they become older they are more capable of doing things on their own. Let them learn by their own curiosity and not by force, such as a teacher telling you that you must do this and that day in and day out. It's like planting a seed inside a child that gives them a head start in attaining the necessary skills to be a self-empowered person. That head start can be a really big advantage.

    We practice the Montessori method every time we act on our will and curiosity to better ourselves.

    For us older folks: I don't think professional Montessori "schooling" would really work because why would an institution give us a diploma solely on the basis of trusting that we attained the necessary knowledge and skill on our own under the basic guidance of some professors? I think the better question would be: how much do I have to pay to have the approval (and maybe some insights) of someone more accredited than I am?

    Almost everything today is based on our accredited skills we obtained from high school, college, etc— we have a degree that says we have adequate skills in this field. Contrary to this, many of us may spend enormous amounts of time learning a skill on our own accord, which is not openly recognized by society unless proven otherwise through an exhibition of some sort. I definitely see a benefit in merging these two "methods of leaning," but I don't see it happening in our society.
    Olena     Fri, Jul 16, 2010  Permanent link
    After reading more about the method, I guess you're right... it's not really for adults. But, this
    why would an institution give us a diploma solely on the basis of trusting that we attained the necessary knowledge and skill on our own under the basic guidance of some professors?
    sounds more like graduate school. Or what I've experienced in art school; it's really up to the individual to take advantage of what's offered... it's great the Montessori does this for children, since that's more true to "real life".

    Why do you think it's impossible for our society... even in the future?
    Many people are speaking of oncoming changes; maybe this is also one that needs to happen?
    This is something I wish I had as a child, but since I can't go back, I guess the next best thing would be to try to give it to others, somehow.
    Infinitas     Fri, Jul 16, 2010  Permanent link
    Ah very true. I'm hardly an art student so that's certainly something that I clearly overlooked. As for graduate school, I agree and disagree. This Lyons woman didn't need a formal academic degree to study how radio waves affected trees.
    Why do you think it's impossible for our society... even in the future?

    Maybe I should have clarified my opinion a little better... Not for society in general, but for our society's current higher educational system. With more and more information becoming more easily accessible, people are embracing that Montessori-type of learning on their own. I see this as a growing trend. Also, some research has shown that young people (including myself) are finding it extremely difficult to find job opportunities after completing undergraduate training and also in many cases, graduate training. So I think that this, further reinforced by the worsening economy, is going to cause a decrease in college enrollment in the long run. People are going to rely on a growing status quo of attaining knowledge and skill on their own accord because paying tens of thousands of dollars for "real education" is not worth it. It's like natural selection will be taking back control. I see this as a good oncoming change, in a way, forcing people to empower themselves. Perhaps it will help decrease the educational gap in most of the world?
    rene     Fri, Jul 16, 2010  Permanent link
    Olena, I love the way you so longingly respond to certain mindsets, like the Renaissance Man idea from my earlier post and now the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori. Both of those subjects are very dear to me, although in the case of Montessori I wasn’t aware of its power for a long time because I went to these schools from Kindergarten through High School (of which there are quite a few in Europe). In terms of education it’s all I really knew. So I was truly amazed to find out that so many key figures behind the Internet are speaking about their indebtedness to the Montessori system, and the same goes for some of the greatest architects. In fact, to the list of graduates in this post you can add architect Rem Koolhaas who I befriended when we were classmates in a Montessori high school. Even though at the time he and I were critical about what we considered the ‘soft” edges of the system (and by extension the school’s students), it nevertheless turned out to be an essential formative experience that is still very much reflected in the way we collaborate with other people and look at the world as some kind of giant experimental sand box where anything is possible and therefore achievable.

    Come to think of it, even SpaceCollective has a Montessori feel about it, creating a shared vision that is spontaneously pieced together by many distinct individual voices. Not unlike the Montessori process which, according to Hermann Röhrs was “not conceived as being linear but rather dynamic, exploding with awakenings, enlightenments, transformations and creative syntheses which lift it up to new heights of evolution, the nature of which cannot even be guessed at.”

    Sounds just like what we’re doing here!

    And with regards to Infinitas’ comment, Maria Montessori said: ‘A person is what he is, not because of the teachers he has had, but as a result of that which he has done himself,’ an idea she called ‘self-creation’. All of which rings particularly true when we recognize that the Internet itself should to some extent be seen as a spin-off of the same kind of thinking that informed the Montessori system.
    Infinitas     Wed, Jul 21, 2010  Permanent link
    I'm sitting in my "competitive effectiveness" business class right now and we just briefly talked about the Montessori method and creativity among young children. We then watched this excellent (and hilarious) TED video by Sir Ken Robinson about how our educational system is detrimental to creativity and how our educational system is undergoing a big change, specifically in how getting degrees is becoming less valuable.

    I highly recommend watching it.
         Fri, Jul 30, 2010  Permanent link
    Weren't we discussing at length the idea of starting some sort of alternative education system at some point here? Whatever happened to that discussion?

    I've been digging http://khanacademy.org  lately. It makes a lot more sense to be able to navigate through a lecture than it does watching a real one. His vision of the future of free internet-enabled education is really awesome, I just think that his vision's infrastructure could use some aesthetic improvements for it to become more enticing and engaging. He wants to make it a registered school in a bunch of different countries!

    I wonder if his idea could be extended to something similar, but where anyone can conduct lessons - I'm thinking something like a browser-based deal where people can record their own lectures in his style, and then have them peer-reviewed, voted up-down, community moderated etc... Something like that could produce some wonderful content.
     
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