London Futurists news, 24th Oct 2014

Dear Futurists,

Please find below a set of items that may interest you. Do skip ahead to the ones that most catch your eye.

1.) Peace Grand Challenge – four days left to submit your essay

If you had to write up to 2,000 words on innovative approaches to reduce the risks of large violent conflict in the world, over the next 20 years, what angle would you take?

The Peace Grand Challenge, hosted jointly by Singularity University and London Futurists, awaits your essay. First prize, don’t forget, is free entry to the Singularity University Summit Europe, to be held in Amsterdam on 19-20 November – along with a £200 contribution to travel and other expenses. Full details of the contest are here. The deadline for essay submission is noon this Wednesday, 29th October.

In case it helps stimulate your own ideas, I offer a short list of articles relevant to this theme. I am sure you are going to disagree with at least one of them (maybe all of them…)

plus a couple of my own recent blogposts:

2.) Nesta “Future Shock” event, 14th November

Nesta describe themselves as “an innovation charity with a mission to help people and organisations bring great ideas to life”. They’re organising an increasing number of events that highlight important options and possibilities about the future.

One example is the “Future Shock” event they’re holding on the 28th floor of Millbank on Friday 14th November. It looks like they still have a few audience slots left. Check out the details here. This is an extract:

Future Shock – The trends, technologies and movements that should be defining the 2015 election (but aren’t).

In 2015, Britain will vote on how it will be governed for the next five years. We can expect a hard-fought, gritty, often negative campaign from all the main parties.

But a lot will change over the next five years. At this event, we’ll look at important trends and technologies that will shape the UK and its economy in the not-so-distant future, and what policy-makers should be doing about them.

Expect lively discussion from across the political spectrum, controversial economic views, and demonstrations of future technologies and the effect they will have on us.

Speakers will include Paul Mason, Diane Coyle, Izzy Kaminska, Michael Osborne, Sherry Coutu, Tyler Cowen and a host of experts and practitioners from the UK and around the world.

3.) Nesta’s “Future Fest” weekend event, 14-15 March 2015

Another Nesta event is further ahead in the diary, 14-15-March next year, but looks set to become one of the premier futurist events in London next year. The following details are from the Future Fest website:

What might the world be like in decades to come?

FutureFest is Nesta’s flagship weekend event of immersive experiences, compelling performances and radical speakers to excite and challenge perceptions of the future.

Themes include:

  • Future Democracy – What is the future of government “by the people, for the people”?
  • Future Global: African City – Modern Africa is home to some of the world’s most exciting innovators and imagineers.
  • Future Machines – How do we strike a balance between the non-human and the humane?
  • Future Money – How do we chart a viable future for the financing of our lives and societies
  • Future Music – Where do we find the sounds of the future?
  • Future Thrills – By hacking our senses, how can we establish new ideas of fun?

4.) Edupunk 2.0, by CyberSalon, 28th October

In 2009, Anya Kamenetz an American writer living in Brooklyn, wrote a landmark article called “How Web-Savvy Edupunks Are Transforming American Higher Education”. She had previously attracted attention on account of her 2006 book “Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold Out for Student Loans, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers–And How to Fight Back”.

Since 2009, the Edupunk movement has evolved into something that has been labelled “Epupunk 2.0”. Cybersalon have organised an event on 28th October at DigitasLBI in Brick Lane. The event, which included Anya Kamenetz, is entitled “Edupunk 2.0 – The future of digital education”. You can find out more about it from Cybersalon’s event page. Here’s an extract:

On October 28th, Cybersalon’s Stefan Lutschinger (Middlesex University) will be discussing the Edupunk movement as a rising phenomenon, emerging academic subculture and current paradigm shift in higher education with the American writer, columnist and blogger Anya Kamenetz, Jisc’s former Wikimedian Ambassador Martin Poulter, educational anarchist Helen Armfield, punk icon Helen Reddington a.k.a. Helen McCookerybook (The Chefs, Helen and the Horns) and media artist Larisa Blazic. We will be looking at the latest trends in instructional application design, Wikipedia assignments, the political economy of EdTech such as Google Classroom, the learnings of do-it-yourself education for punkademics, creative ways to avoid PowerPoint and how to apply the rebellious attitude and D.I.Y. ethos of punks, hackers and makers to new innovative teaching and learning practices.

5.) The Future of Life Institute newsletter

Whilst accelerating technology brings lots of potential for improving human experience – in education, health, governance, and even world peace – it also brings risks of existential destruction. An organisation that has gathered a very impressive set of advisors to review these existential risks is the Future of Life Institute.

I’ve just received their latest newsletter – back issues are available here – and it contains lots of interesting links. Consider subscribing directly to it!

6.) BCS Needham Lecture 2014 – Dr Natasa Przulj

On November 19th, at the prestigious venue of The Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace, the BCS (British Computer Society) is holding its annual Needham Lecture. The title on this occasion is “Mining biological networks”. Here’s how the BCS website describes it:

We are faced with a flood of molecular data. Various biomolecules interact in a cell to perform biological function, forming very large networks. The challenge is how to mine these molecular networks to answer fundamental questions, including gaining new insight into aging, diseases, and improving therapeutics. Just as computational approaches for analyzing genetic sequence data have revolutionized biological understanding, the expectation is that analyses of biological networks will have similar ground-breaking impacts.

However, dealing with network data is nontrivial, since many methods for analyzing large networks fall into the category of computationally intractable problems. In this lecture, Dr Pzulj will explain her research in this field and how her methods apply to other domains. This includes tracking the dynamics of the world trade network and finding new insights into the origins of wealth and economic crises.

7.) Making sense of where all these technology changes are headed!

At our own London Futurists event tomorrow, we’ll be taking an important step back from all these individual items of news about technological change.

It’s the task of philosophy to help us think clearly about boundaries, assumptions, values, and goals. Philosophy also challenges our assumptions about the nature, limitations, and potential of humans.

That’s why I’m particularly looking forward to the presentation by David Roden of the Open University, “How Human Will Posthumans Be?”

Note that this event will be held in the Roberts Building of UCL, instead of our usual venue, Birkbeck College. (The two colleges are neighbours.) The meetup page has instructions on how to find the venue.

David’s talk tomorrow (Saturday 25th October) will draw ideas from his recent book  “Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human”. The book is already gathering a series of 5-star reviews. I’ll end this newsletter by quoting from this review, from a reader on Amazon.com:

A Clear eyed appraisal of the various forms of posthumanism!

We are living in a technological era in which a convergence of NBIC technologies (an acronym for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science), as well as certain well supported positions in cognitive science, biological theory and general metaphysics imply that a posthuman succession is possible in principle, even if the technological means for achieving it remain speculative. Roden will term his version of this as “speculative posthumanism”:

“Throughout this work I refer to the philosophical claim that such successors are possible as “speculative posthumanism ” (SP ) and distinguish it from positions which are commonly conflated with SP, like transhumanism. SP claims that there could be posthumans. It does not imply that posthumans would be better than humans or even that their lives would be compared from a single moral perspective.”

He tells us weakly constrained SP suggests that our current technical practice could precipitate a nonhuman world that we cannot yet understand, in which “our” values may have no place. But if this is true he will ask:

“Does this mean that talk of “posthumans” is self-vitiating nonsense ? Does speaking of “weird” worlds or values commit one to a conceptual relativism that is incompatible with the commitment to realism? … If posthuman talk is not self-vitiating nonsense, the ethical problems it raises are very challenging indeed. If our current technological trajectories might result in the world turning posthuman, how should we view this prospect and respond to it? Should we apply a conservative , precautionary approach to technology that favours “human” values over any possible posthuman ones? Can conservatism be justified under weakly constrained SP and, if not, then what kind of ethical or political alternatives are justifiable?

He will offer various readings in depth upon four of the major forms of posthumanist discourse:

Speculative posthumanism is situated within the discourse of what many term ‘the singularity’ in which at some point in the future some technological intervention will eventually produce a posthuman life form that diverges from present humanity. Whether this is advisable or not it will eventually happen. Yet, how it will take effect is open rather than something known. And it may or may not coincide with such ethical claims of transhumanism or other normative systems. In fact even for SP there is a need for some form of ethical stance that Roden tells us will be clarified in later chapters.

Critical posthumanism is centered on the philosophical discourse at the juncture of humanist and posthumanist thinking, and is an outgrowth of the poststructural and deconstructive project of Jaques Derrida and others, like Foucault etc. in their pursuit to displace the human centric vision of philosophy, etc. This form of posthumanism is more strictly literary and philosophical, and even academic that the others.

Speculative realism Roden tells us will argue against the critical posthumanists and deconstructive project and its stance on decentering subjectivity, saying “that to undo anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism we must shift philosophical concern away from subjectivity (or the deconstruction of the same) towards the cosmic throng of nonhuman things (“ the great outdoors”)”. SR is a heated topic among younger philosophers dealing with even the notion of whether speculative realism is even a worthy umbrella term for many of the philosophers involved.

Philosophical naturalism is the odd-man out, in the fact that it’s not centered on posthuman discourse per se, but rather in the “truth-generating practices of science rather than to philosophical anthropology to warrant claims about the world’s metaphysical structure”. Yet, it is the dominative discourse for most practicing scientists, and functionalism being one of the naturalist mainstays that all posthumanisms must deal with at one time or another.

Ultimately Roden opts for the speculative posthumanism that offers a combination of performance art and social and scientific-technological invention and intervention, politics and practice. Where it will lead is an open and experimental question and path just like our universe. To explore one’s own possible posthuman becoming is to become post-human in the sense of extending and merging with what is possible through an active participation in the politics and technologies of posthumanism. The only constraints are those that we explore not impose upon ourselves.

// David W. Wood
Chair, London Futurists

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