Generation of Crisis: A Warning to the Nanocogniscenti
June 25, 2010 Leave a comment
By Tom McKendree
I have just read a book that is interesting, and on reflection, extraordinarily scary.
On reflection, the scary part is their projected timing of the next Crisis period — 2005 through 2026 (although they admit it could shift a few years either way). This sounds like a very good estimate of when transition to and first widespread use of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) will unfold.
This confluence of schedule estimates leads to three interpretations. First, it doesn’t mean anything, as either Strauss & Howe are wrong, or MNT will take much longer to develop than now seems likely. Second, that molecular nanotechnology will play a key role in resolving the next great crisis. Third, the development of molecular nanotechnology will be the next crisis.
The first case, where MNT is developed in other than an atmosphere of crisis, is the best case. While we can hope for the best, we must consider the alternatives.
The second case is the worst. Here, there is some dramatic crisis, forming the context within which MNT is developed. Crises one could imagine unfolding in this time frame include:
- World War III. For example,
- A total war between the US and China,
- A total war between the West and the Islamic WorldA global pastiche of interlocking inter-ethnic warfare, with genocidal “ethnic cleansing” used as a first resort
- Ideological, widespread civil war, such as
- A rich versus poor holocaust
- Many people and powerful interests try to form a world government, while national governments resist
- Nation states break down as elites establish a feudalism of “Sovereign Individuals”
- “Greens” attempt to destroy industrial society, and industrial society is radicalized into total war for its defense
- Financial breakdown
- Cultural distress
- Ecological calamities
I emphasize the many types of war, as organized violence seems to be the worst master to first call forth molecular nanotechnology. Note that the last Crisis is defined as “Depression and World War II,” so even if the era is launched with something other than a great war, deadly conflict may well unfold before the Crisis era is over.
Now, imagine MNT being developed during one of the example crises above and read Strauss & Howe’s claim that every crisis heads towards a climax, at which point:
Leaders become more inclined to define enemies in moral terms, to enforce virtue militarily, to refuse all compromise, to commit large forces in that effort, to impose heavy sacrifices on the battlefield and home front, to build the most destructive weapons contemporary minds can imagine, and to deploy those weapons if needed to obtain an enduring victory.
Suggested applications of MNT are often a Rorschach test–revealing more about the suggester than the technology. This is because the technology is potentially so powerful that limitations in people’s minds are often more constraining than the limitations of the technology, and deep wishes are often first thoughts. With little effort, molecular nanotechnological horrors of nearly Lovecraftian proportions are imaginable. “The most destructive weapons [then] contemporary minds can imagine” will be terrible indeed, far beyond a fleet of thermonuclear-tipped ICBMs. Unleashing such horrors “to obtain an enduring victory” may well seem necessary to future leaders. A race to develop MNT weapons and unleash them first is likely if opponents “refuse all compromise” while seeking “an enduring victory.” Rational combatants faced with such implacable and potentially deadly enemies should be expected to unleash nuclear weapons first, in an attempt to slow down or pre-empt the other side from being the first to develop and use MNT weapons.
Few good options present themselves once in the situation of a crisis with society’s survival at stake, just as MNT and its use is unfolding. The best approach is to avoid this situation. Strauss & Howe make the point that a crisis era is unavoidable, and how it plays out is unpredictable, but individuals can still influence events for good or ill. In thinking about preparing for MNT, there as been a lot of “hope for the best, but think about the worst.” Society may find itself in the worst, for reasons totally unrelated to MNT, which would be very bad indeed. We need to think about ways to prevent MNT from leading to its worst abuses, even if developed during a crisis in which every possible contribution is sought.
The third case is that the development of MNT *is* the crisis. This may actually be a good thing, strange as that sounds. The key to understanding this position is that in Strauss & Howe’s theory, “Crisis” is at least as much a state of mind in society as a dire threatening circumstance. In a Crisis era, the elders are uncompromising moralizers, the middle-aged are hand’s-on manueverers, and young adults are motivated team players. Imagine the Children of the 60’s, more rigid with age and judgmental, as our most powerful leaders.
Imagine rootless Generation X’ers, honed by years of angling for survival and advantage, as our middle managers. Imagine the young, soldiers and young scientists, as well raised “heroes,” willing to unswervingly follow their superiors, and dedicating their all in unison to succeed for their society in a great cause. Note that such selfless dedication to a cause describes both the GI’s of World War II, and eager and elite volunteers of the Nazi SS. Meanwhile, children are well-behaved, protected, and stand back so adults can do their critical work.
This alignment of these generational types at these stages of life forms the “crisis” pattern that Strauss and Howe claim recurs every four generations.
Consider now the emerging potential of MNT in such a world. Say Zyvex builds a very limited, but undeniable, assembler. That may be dramatic enough for society at large to take a deep look at MNT. They could see that assemblers and their products are inevitable. Society may have just spent two decades unraveling, however, and could then easily imagine a Timothy McVeigh trying to kill millions from his garage, another Aum Shin Rikyo developing a virus of global destruction, out of control developer’s strip mining the biosphere, or government embrace of a totalitarian approach that ultimately seeks to command every human moment. “The enemy” in this scenario is MNT developed for or used in abuse.
With intelligent foresight, a common wisdom can be prepared for society that banning MNT is not a solution — banning will just lead to development and use of MNT by people the enforcers of the ban do not influence, making its abuse more likely. If this position is accepted, then a plausible crisis response is a giant global consortium, uniting the major players most able to develop the technology into an integrated effort to develop MNT first, deliberately and in safety. This strategy allows prior coordination between likely developers of early MNT uses, limiting to something manageable the downside risks from coming in second in the development and applications races. A major goal of the consortium must be to develop protections against MNT misuse. Since this is a crisis atmosphere, one might expect those not willing to join the consortium and play by its rules to be strongly suppressed, and that strong means will be used to insure against cheating. If the requirements for inclusion can be sufficiently permissive that an overwhelming array of the power centers in the pre-nanotechnology world will agree to be part of the consortium, then peace can be maintained in this pre-nanotechnology world.
A large, potentially bureaucratic Consortium could slow down development relative to what a free and open race would achieve, but also maintain some control for safety. Something like a crash program would be reasonable, with different approaches tried in parallel. The main benefit of structuring the consortium efforts this way will be faster progress by following whatever partial paths yield quicker results, and by not getting stuck along any single path. The approach also allows rewarding subteams that win their part of the race, while keeping subteams that are not first in their part of the race part of the overall winning side. Furthermore, with an “in-group” widely defined, a great deal of freedom can still be maintained within that “in-group.”
The advantage of a “Crisis” era, as defined by Strauss & Howe, as the environment for developing MNT is that young people would be willing to be team players for a great cause. Thus, they are likely to be more dependable developers of MNT for widespread good, rather than narrow interests.
Now, what does this third scenario, “MNT Development as the Millennial Crisis,” mean for the Nanocogniscenti, those people who today are aware of MNT and its implications? Most of the Nanocogniscenti are beneficiaries and proponents of current technological progress, embracing the change this generates. Many are computer professionals. They are more libertarian than society at large. While early visionaries like Drexler and early proponents like Merkle are of the “Boomer” generation, and given the probable timing of MNT development, these leaders could easily play the “Prophet” role that Strauss & Howe assign them. Generationally the Nanocogniscenti largely align with the “13th Generation,” predicted to be the most entrepreneurial and libertarian generation, and least liked by society.
The Fourth Turning theory implies that libertarianism as a popular attitude may jump out of fashion in the upcoming Crisis. Consider in history how quickly H L Menken fell out of favor once the Depression hit. This creates the disastrous potential for conflict between the Nanocogniscenti and society at large. Proponents must be able to make an appealing case to for responsible MNT development to a society preoccupied with fixing the outer world, strengthening families, and raising up community even at the expense of individualism. Each era includes judgments of the era just past, and supposedly a Crisis era typically judges the previous era harshly for excessive individualism, and includes many people who will feel burned by change and who are interested in a pause. While we must prepare for other contingencies, we need to find wise policies for MNT that are implementable in a hysterical, defensive, communitarian atmosphere, and explainable to the satisfaction of those sensibilities why the policies are proper and wise.
It is important not to be tone deaf should the general tenor of society change. If the Nanocogniscenti cannot discuss the issues of MNT in the context of powerful values and priorities following a shift from today’s, then miscommunication and conflict is likely, and would be utterly tragic. If the Nanocogniscenti cannot make peace with those values, then the deadly possibility exists of a “Crisis,” as perceived by society, that becomes “Our current course is leading us to nanotechnology, the ultimate evil from these out-of-control technolibertarians/utopians/elites, that must be crushed.” That result would be terrible, radicalizing MNT during an already risky transition. Fortunately, the potential benefits of MNT are so large that it can advance many different values. Thus, with care the utility and issues of MNT should be favorably translatable into nearly any context. Beyond the specifics of this particular scenario, coherent presentations of MNT for many different points of view need to be developed.
However it plays out, if a Crisis era in of 2005-2026 combined with the simultaneous development of MNT can be safely navigated, then the future looks bright. Following a Crisis in Strauss and Howe’s schema comes a “High” of great material progress for society, like the United States in the 1950s. One can easily imagine a post-breakthrough High, as the beneficial uses of MNT flower.
Such an era should see species and environments recover, restored and protected, widespread wealth creation beyond most of today’s dreams, general health as cures are found for all physical ailments, cryonically suspended victims of the Crisis and before revived, families reunited, asteroids settled, other equally great but currently unforeseen advances, and the miracles of life and civilization carried forth to the stars.
One can even vaguely see potential elements of the subsequent post-High “Awakening.” MNT should provide tools to address memory, personality, thinking and identity, offering great potential to anyone interested in “Revolutionizing Consciousness.”
If Strauss and Howe are correct, then before these wonderful eras to come, however, we must first survive the Crisis approaching over the horizon. The final irony is that reaching a post-MNT High seems quite likely to offer strong life extension capabilities, and the ability to revive the well-preserved in cryonic storage. This will modify the cycle of life, and thus mutate, or even bring to an end, a generational cycle that Strauss and Howe plausibly argue has coursed through history since at least the late 1400s.