Recently I was interviewed by Martin Geddes. He’s been splitting the interview up and releasing in parts since. I felt the latest segment, part 2 was of particular interest because it provides some of the wider framing or context that the event fits into. He kindly agreed that I may cross-publish it here.
You have undertaken a vast multi-year self-education on wellbeing and happiness. What did you discover?
People live lives of quiet desperation! But maybe that’s not the most intellectual or appropriate way of saying it.
What I found out was that all people are lost and confused. It’s only the amount that varies. We are all looking for the same things, and we all have the same basic needs. We have the same hopes and dreams. They might vary according to life stage, but approximately they’re the same.
One striking thing is that the majority of people are living for an idea, and that idea is “the future”. So people are never really living “now”. I don’t mean in the spiritual sense, but in a practical sense. People are not, typically, living in the real “now”.
They are always chasing the next moment, thing, person, career, payment. So it’s like a carrot dangling in front of them, and people die before they ever catch the carrot. One day it fades away in front of you, as death slips in between you and the carrot, and that’s the end of it. It’s quite sad.
Humanity is in a deplorable state compared to where we could be; we are categorically living in the relative dark ages. But I strongly believe that a new renaissance is taking place, this time a networked renaissance. We’re at the end of a 400 year-long cycle. This renaissance is going to unfold much more rapidly than the last one.
So it is not “innovation as usual”, with a bit of business innovation on top of our standard technological progress. No, there’s a deep revamping of society and culture underway. We are remodelling how we relate to each other, to the biosphere and to the other kingdoms of life, and our functions in society. All institutions are being rethought. They’re already collapsing. But we’re in the midst of it, so it’s hard to see without sufficiently standing back.
The enabler and catalyst is communications technology.
How do you characterise this networked renaissance?
I hope that unlike the political upheavals of the 20th century, we don’t need conflict, warfare, or starvation in the transitional period.
The institutions of governance and economics haven’t yet been remodelled and reborn for the networked age. Each epoch is defined and built upon the communications technology available — be it movable type or geostationary satellites. This epoch will be built upon the Internet plus the mobile phone.
It was only a couple of decades ago that the average person could not reach a mass of others. We were restricted to one-to-one synchronous audio streams only, i.e. the telephone between people. You could not communicate to a mass of others because mass communications required capital, capital that rose proportionally to the number of people that you wished to reach. Think newspapers, terrestrial TV broadcast, satellite TV broadcast, or mass letter mailings. That era could only support top-down political institutions.
That era has absolutely, clearly passed its “sell by” date. This is why you have a politically inert citizenry, as that institution is collapsing.
These communications networks have also amplified fundamental attributes and beliefs that are baked into the existing system that are also past their “sell by” date. For example, trading algorithms are competing with each other on obscure financial instruments like derivatives, disconnected from “real life”. The economy as a whole then becomes disconnected from what we might call “actual value” that is grounded in real human needs. Or for example the belief that human nature is selfish, rather than reciprocal and cooperative.
New networked governance models and methods of exchange are being enabled. But we’re in that difficult period of the collapse of the old, and the birth of the new. A more utopian period ahead is quite possible, and many people are waking up to the potential and are asking the right questions. Why can’t we work less, have less stress, have better relations, avoid environmental destruction, etc.?
For instance, people are questioning why we have mega dairies with 40,000 cows, just to make milk at supermarkets a few cents cheaper. This is something important to supermarkets, since they know we only remember the price of a few items, like milk.
This industrial concentration ends up giving us lakes of cow shit so big that it affects water tables. These externalised costs need new economic and incentive systems to manage them. So eventually your individual wellbeing will have to evolve to become a societal and biosphere one.
Another example is what you might call “money technology”, which is overdue for a new “operating system” upgrade. If you look at the history of civilisation, it has been developed in bits and pieces. The industrial revolution required the idea of the nation state, for example.
The resulting world is a bit like the British tax code, a set of software patches developed in isolation; now we have so many patches, civilisation is very uncivilized. We need to dream ahead beyond small revisions and patches, to imagine instead what a full version update could be like. How can we solve issues of finance, human needs, the environment etc. in one “update”?
The Internet is fuelling a sense of global citizenry, and renewed self-reflection on the role of humanity and our collective direction. We have been going v0.1, 1.0, 1.1, and now we need to look afresh as global citizens for what v2.0 of society might mean. Why are we here? What do we want as a human collective? How could we collectively re-organise ourselves on the planet?
Technology in the last few decades has not been making a net positive life difference. It was, but then stopped around 30 years ago. Certainly my generation was promised in the 1980s a “leisure society” with shorter hours, and that computing would usher in a golden era of mass leisure. Humanity was to be freed.
Instead we consume more global resources, work longer hours, are more stressed, and we don’t feel any happier. I don’t believe that it needs to be like this, and I suspect there’s something inherently wrong, which explains why that golden era didn’t happen. The basic wiring of the socio-political architecture doesn’t allow for it, and in ways that we didn’t foresee.
How does Hyper Wellbeing take a different approach to wellbeing?
I have an engineering mind, and I am inquisitive about life’s purpose. I take it as a fact that I will die. Therefore, I have to ask myself a fundamental question: what should be done before I die? What are the optimal choices? This requires asking yourself about the purpose of life, to distinguish good from bad choices.
What we mean by “productivity” today is industrial productivity. If you see a “personal productivity” technique or tool, it might help you to generate a document faster, which “saves” time in a week. But that “saved” time must then be spent, i.e. once you save an hour you then have an extra hour that must be spent. How do you know the other thing is more valuable, unless you have values?
I’d imagine that, more often than not, the time “saved” gets dedicated to yet more unfulfilling labour, so it’s somewhat aimless and self-perpetuating. Machine intelligence is likely to amplify this effect, unless we start to make more conscious choices about the role of technology in our lives and society.
On our current trajectory, machine intelligence will turn us into servants of the machines and their owners. That would be alright if the machines had developed a value system greater than our own. However, the majority of machines will be operating to maximise monetary profit of faceless collections of people known as corporations, whose primary goal is to satisfy shareholders.
But there’s an opposing opportunity of applying machine intelligence to optimise our lifetimes. True “productivity” looks at your entire lifetime and looks to optimise it; it can only do this if human-centric values are plugged in.
An easy starting point example is basic health – i.e. health is good. But it goes far beyond just basic health and all the way up to living a meaningful existence, what we may call optimal living. Let me give an idea how you can start to engineer mobile and wearables around humanistic values.
I have personally noticed people die in one of two ways. I spent a decade visiting very close relatives in hospitals and hospices. And I watched people facing their protracted deaths. I noticed that people normally shy away from asking the dying or the sick personal questions. How does the cancer feel? What is the pain like? How is your terror?
I would ask them on a daily basis. I also interviewed many others. They appreciated direct and real contact. No “just be brave”. This is something I fundamentally liked about people with terminal diseases who faced their own death. They are very humanistic, no bullshit and bravado, it’s just gone.
They spoke to you as it was: a re-evaluation of their values, one that was more “proper”. Many, if not all, wish they could take this newfound value system and life all over again with it. This is one that puts relationships first: time together, human contact. Not more time in the office.
I found that people fell into one of two camps when facing death. Some were bitter, regretful, and resentful; they were not very resistant to leaving. Others didn’t look forward to dying, but they had acceptance. They faced death in a more peaceful fashion, with less resistance, and were more amenable.
So there are two camps, and I know which one I want to be in! Real “efficiency” is living your life to be in that camp of contentment and acceptance towards death when it comes. So you can begin to reverse engineer the lives people have led, to determine which camp they would end up in.
There are definite factors and ways of living that would ultimately put you into one of these two camps. So I asked myself why my Fitbit it not guiding me to be in that latter camp. Don’t just guide me towards fitness, guide me towards the ultimate aim. That is real productivity!
Hyper Wellbeing is ultimately about engineering computation towards individual “intelligent living”. So that we are hopefully in that latter camp in the end. It’s a “moon shot”, but I tend not to speak of it, as it is esoteric. People can relate to physical health, but Hyper Wellbeing is a revolution in wellbeing through an optimised life; it is not about managing diseases or even just preventative health.
I see life more like an engineering project. We have only so much capacity, and we spend it over time. I believe computation can and should augment us, so that we spend our energy and health wisely. The long term view is which camp we lie in; the short term is helping us to avoid non-communicable diseases. As such, today’s Hyper Wellbeing event is health-centric, but even in a decade we may be closer to the “moon shot” goal.
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