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Vaulting into a Rapturous techno-future with Jaron Lanier

VR inventor on memes, and the blandness of digital culture

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So why the objection to the C- word, then, Jaron? Is it simply forgetfulness?

"There's a strong libertarian feeling to the cybernetic culture. But only up to a point: I don't see them turning down government research grants, particularly."

At this point we turned into a discussion of the dangers of gloop-headed internet thinking: the Madrid bombing which perhaps could have been averted if the FBI didn't a) have such faith in their digital fingerprint technology (which turned out to give a false positive) and their six-degrees, Friendster-style social software. The combination of the two arrested the wrong man.

But back to the collective: aren't there so many things we need to act collectively to fix, so that talking about augmentation and living forever, as people are at this conference, sounds extremely selfish.

"I think there's another way to frame this. To do it as a competition between selfishness and service orientation among people with religious or transcendent feelings, either cybernetic or Christian.

"We're living in very selfish times, where Islamists ask people what their religion is before shooting them. But at the same time, if what we have is a Christian government, how can we have malnourished children in the richest country in history? How can it call itself Christian at the same time? So there's a shifting sense of what religion is.

"I'm concerned profoundly that part of the problem is actually the rhetoric of the technical world - scientists proclaiming they’ve captured or refined or controlled some aspect of what life is.. These Frankenstein claims are always being made by people in AI or genetics research, or people working on medical technology. They're not necessarily maliciously made, they're designed to draw attention to improve their chances of claims for funding. But it's created a panic for many people."

"I don't think people worry about 'the singularity', but a changing world view in which there isn't a soul anymore, and where technologists seem to have the only legitimacy. I often ask 'Why are we picking this fight?'"

"Our survival really depends on making metaphysical belief in a technological age: the future has to be kind to everybody."

Absolutely everybody.

Tomorrow's People

And with the clock ticking down to Jaron's speech we ended there, and decided to check out the self-selecting Tomorrow's People. It's come to this: Extropians evict Stanford Catholics"Check that out!" exclaimed Jaron, on the way up to the main conference hall. "The Extropians have forced out the Catholics. There'll be hell to pay!"

Indeed so. On a Sunday, too.

Inside, upright men in grey polo necks who could probably crack walnuts with their sphincters mingled impatiently with scruffy bloggers. To ward off evil demons, your reporter had chosen to wear the most entropic image he could find - an Idler badge, featuring that king of the garden: the heroic snail. It was safe to mingle. What was the vibe of Accelerating Change 2004, we wondered?

"To be honest, it's not as good as last year," one attendee told me. The big sponsors from 2003 didn't seem to be there. The Association of Professional Futurists had gone, perhaps catapulting themselves into the future, and Better Human had, alas, found Better Things For A Humans To Do.

It was all rather a waste for Christine Paterson of the Future Institute, who had come all the way from Palo Alto to deliver a talk entitled "Leaping the Abyss: Putting Group Genius to Work". The geniuses had better things to do than listen to Christine.

The marquee sponsors had gone, but the site did sport a couple of new wikis. Causing more excitement than any speaker was a head to head between a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner and a Segway scooter. The news had even made it on to Slashdot, and was in the words of one attendee, "Spectacular. Best fight of the year."

Several attendees regretted how, in the words of one, "last year there was much more emphasis on life extension".

So you see, the future is never what it used to be. Who wants to live forever, when the future means sitting through an endless succession of futurist conferences? Death beckons for even the boldest Extropian. There's nothing to be afraid of. ®

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