Do I want to live forever?
Part of the Tomorrow's People conference was a series of set-piece lectures by John Harris, professor of philosophy at Manchester University. In his final talk he started with a quote from a philosopher I really respect - Douglas Adams. He used Douglas's story of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged who became immortal by accident:
"To begin with it was fun, he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.
In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn't cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2.55, when you know that you've had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o'clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.
So things began to pall for him. The merry smiles he used to wear at other people's funerals began to fade. He began to despise the Universe in general, and everyone in it in particular."
John Harris then went onto argue that finding technologies that help us achieve immortality is a good (and almost inevitable) thing.
Now, I've disagreed with almost everything John has argued in his lectures and this was no exception. However, he has helped me to work out what I think about enhancement. Before the conference I hadn't really made up my mind even though I had edited a book about it.
I realised I don't want to 'cure' ageing or rush headlong into the other smarter and stronger enhancements that were also talked about at the conference. I think of ageing as a good and often beautiful thing creating incredible variety in our societies that we learn a great deal from.
I'm sure life expectancy will creep upwards and I don't have a problem with that but the radical intervention based approach to halting the aging process that some people argued for during the conference isn't where I'd put all my money right now.
You can't talk about this without mentioning biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. Our profile of Aubrey in Better Humans? has been painted by some as supportive for his crusade to end aging. That's certainly not what I meant by it. I meant the article to be about his role as a creator of public debates on the future of science which he's very good at, and I'm glad that our interview has given him more profile because I think he gets people thinking in a way that other scientists shy away from. I also think he's a very nice guy and I've enjoyed our conversations.
But Aubrey, for example, argues that money to give people in Africa mosquito nets so they don't get malaria should be diverted into anti-aging research. I don't believe that . I don't believe in Aubrey's assertion that a life saved through postponing aging is the same as a life saved by stopping someone from dying in a road traffic accident.
I'm not a bioconservative, I'm up for enhancements as and when they come along as positive byproducts of medical research although I'll pick and choose as I go. I'm just not a rampant transhumanist. My approach is to stay involved and encourage other people to be involved in the shaping of technologies as they are being conceived . In the end I don't think either the bioconservatives or the transhumanists will get their way.
And that's why the best talk at the conference for me was Peter Schwartz of GBN. Peter didn't go for the usual academic approach of 'giving a paper'. Instead he told us he was from the year 2050, didn't he look good for his age (104), and that he was going to tell us was what happened after the conference. This gave him a chance to talk through the various scenarios he imagines for human enhancement as if they'd happened. And the most interesting thing about this is something that every other speaker missed. They do all happen. There's never one path for history, different people do things in different ways. Things evolve, they don't just materialise. We work out a way to survive in a complex world that's not always the best way or the worst, but we muddle through.
And that's the way I'd like human enhancement to develop and the way I think it will. By contrast John Harris's approach was universal, he argued that the transhumanists were right and that we should shift all our research priorities to follow. I just don't think the world should - or does - work like that.
So there you go. After a year and a half working on the issue, reading lots of books and articles, meeting many of the characters involved and even editing a book on the subject, I can safely say I'm not a transhumanist or a bioconservative.
And by the way, the average life expectancy of someone who is immortal (ie does not age) is apparently around about 1,100 years because even if you eliminate ageing there are still plenty of other ways to die. There's a cheery thought.
I'm at a conference in Oxford called Tomorrow's people: the challenges of technologies for life extension and enhancement. Everybody here has had a copy of the Better Humans? book that James and I edited. Sitting in the main lecture theatre with 200 copies of your work being leafed through by some of the world's leading thinkers and scientists is a bit scary.
A brief history of an '-ism'
Last Thursday I dropped in on the launch of a report I helped put together called Disablist Britain. It was hosted by Scope and DAA and featured the new(ish) Work and Pensions Secretary John Hutton as keynote speaker. BBC News Online covered the launch here.
It was strange to see what we've helped to pull off. As a tiny part of a network of other organisations and people, I realised I've helped change the language and intentions of the Government.
Two years ago we published Disablism, deliberately setting out to get policy makers and politicians using the word and recognise that disabled people are the victims of prejudice as insidious and excluding as racism or sexism.
Taking our inspiration from the disability rights movement, we defined disablism as:
'discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others.'
David Blunkett was the man in charge then and he was sceptical. Tom Shakespeare also took issue with it in an article for the BBC, but in the main, the pamphlet was very well recieved.
Just a few months later Andrew Smith was in charge and used the word freely, agreeing with much of what we'd said in the pamphlet. Behind the scenes in Whitehall a group of very bright and committed civil servants were using our ideas and support to push forward a Strategy Unit report called 'Improving the life chances of disabled people'. Andrew Smith didn't last long in the job but the work carried on in his absence.
Last Thursday John Hutton could have been reading from the introduction of Disablism. The issue of course will be in the implementation and the mainstreaming of the attitudes we've begun to instill in Government. I also don't think he's 'got' how differently work is defined by many disabled people and what that means for a Labour Government obsessed by 'hard working families'.
I can't tell you how much I've learned from working with people from the disability rights movement. I found it incredibly hard to begin with. They didn't trust me or Demos and probably with good reason. They'd been abused, screwed around and ignored for a very long time.
I often find it hard to explain what Demos does in those situations. But I think we help to shape the story of policy, working with all the principal actors and helping them to develop a shared language for next steps. I describe it using Peter Gallison's idea of trading zones where change happens when people with different viewpoints and expertise come together as equals. Shiv Visvanathan calls it cognitive justice.
When I first met Katie Caryer, it was the first time I'd had a conversation with someone who uses a communicator. She shattered all my preconceptions. Young, bright, entrepreneurial, feisty and with a very clear set of ideas about how things should change. I knew from that moment that disabled people had a heck of a lot to teach policy makers. A few months later and Katie's story was the obvious place to start when I was writing Disablism.
I'm not sure what next. While not everything is heading in the right direction, other people like the Disability Rights Commission seem to be doing a good job of stimulating discussion about disablism. Scope's own advertising campaign about disablism has had quite an effect. And movie's like Murderball are shattering peoples' preconceptions about disabled people. I'll stay involved and watch with interest as things change - I hope for the better for disabled people.
More on 'Better Humans?'
There's been more coverage and debate about our Better Humans? book this week.
In the Guardian, Dylan Evans called for the creation of new equivalents to the 'savage reservations' in 'Brave New World', where 'freed from the oppressive technologies that regulate life in the World State, the inhabitants develop individuality, independent thinking and initiative.'
In the FT (registration required), Richard Tomkins speculated on the drawbacks of eternal life.
I also noticed that the book has been reviewed on Amazon.co.uk - we get 3 out of 5. Not bad I suppose, but that is from a sample of one reviewer.
But the most interesting coverage for me was Radio 4's Moral Maze because of the depth it got into about the issues. Interviewees included John Harris who will be giving a series of lectures at the Oxford Forum on human enhancement in a couple of weeks time and the Cyborg himself - Kevin Warwick.
Kevin was less gung ho than I've heard him being before, warning against military involvement in cybernetics and enhancement. His prediction for the invention of mind to mind communication though was : "within a decade".
Melanie Philips took a conservative view of genetic selection, likening it to eugenics - an argument made in the collection by Rachel Hurst. She questioned John Harris pretty aggressively on the issue. Steven Rose agreed with Melanie (unusually) but Claire Fox couldn't handle it describing the idea that deaf parents might prefer to have deaf children as abhorrent.
I'm beginning to look forward to the conference in Oxford. Things are warming up nicely.
How to buy Dominos pizza in Bangalore
First you have to find the number. No 118 118 or easy online directories here. It will take you three or four goes on Google or Yahoo! India to find a number that works. Then you have to explain what you want and who you are - they won't take an order unless you have a phone number. And language will be a problem, somehow a lot gets lost in translation between English and English over India phones.
Turns out they do have Hawaiian pizzas everywhere though (except the ham is replaced with chicken) and twenty-four minutes later, the doorbell rings and there you have it: steaming hot boxes of globalised goodness.
Bangalore is comfortable with its newfound position on the international map. You're almost as likely to find a French or Chinese restaurant here as you are in London. You can get good espresso from Coffee Day who have opened up 137 branches across India in the last couple of years. Wifi isn't a problem - you'll pay for it, but it works pretty well. Even the street booksellers stock Blink, Seven Habits and Dan Brown on their pavement stalls.
The reason Bangalore is happy with the in-bound side of globalisation is that at least some people are able to pay for it because of the things the city is exporting, which increasingly the West can't live without. You probably know that many call centres are located here, but it's much more than that. If you own a non-iPod mp3 player, a Bangalore company called Ittiam probably developed the technology inside it. They also designed the technology behind the headrest screens that you can watch on planes. And they're not the only Bangalore success.
The story I heard repeatedly was that Bangalore is in the early stages of another boom. The last one was in 2000 (inflated by Y2K) and was promptly followed by a crash, but this one will be more elite than the last one; higher up the value chain particularly focused on research and development of new products and technologies. Most of the global tech firms like Intel, IBM, ARM and Microsoft all have labs here doing work that's at a similar level of sophistication and secrecy to their labs in the UK or US. And like the glory days of Silicon Valley start-ups, Bangalore is full of start-ups based in anonymous residential areas. It's just that here there may be a cow wandering down the street outside.
Economically, however, the city is on a knife edge. There are no big banks seriously investing in its future, no large family-owned conglomerates as there are in Kolkata or Mumbai. The state government talks the talk but is basically incompetent. Venture capital is learning as it goes, good with quick-win software companies and just getting into biotech, but it's not confident with early stage finance that will create world-beating returns over the long term.
And then there's the Bangalore paradox, that everybody will tell you about. 'For every 30 kilometres you travel out of the city you go back a century', as one professor said to me. There is shocking poverty within wi-fi range of the new coffee shops and it gets worse the further you look. India has no discernible practical strategy for poverty alleviation that measures up to the problem. Politicians talk about science and technology for the 'common man'. But how many of India's 260 million people who live on less than a dollar a day will get a chance to watch in-flight movies?
I've no doubt that Bangalore can create the wealth that it needs to sustain the odd Dominos franchise, but I don't see any hope of it breaking the cycle of extreme poverty. And if Bangalore, with its international brand and incredible workforce can't do it, is there anywhere in India that can?
'Better Humans?' everywhere
Blimey. That was a hectic few days. Better Humans? seemed to capture the imagination of the media this week so I've been dashing around doing interviews. On Wednesday morning the car arrived at 6.15am to take me to the BBC to do 13 local radio interviews around the country.
I've done GNS (as it's called in BBC speak) a couple of times before, but I got the feeling this was the topic that most animated the listeners and I've had a few messages from producers saying that they had lots of calls from people after I'd been on air giving their views. It's a bit frustrating that I didn't get the chance to listen to them.
We also got the prime spots on BBC Radio 4's Today programme and on BBC Breakfast on TV as well as being well and truly plugged on Radio 4's Start the Week on Monday.
And just to recap on print coverage:
Madeleine Bunting wrote an editorial in the Guardian.
Steven Rose's piece from the book was in the Observer.
Our interview with Aubrey de Grey ran in openDemocracy.
The Financial Times ran an editorial by my co-editor James Wilsdon on Wednesday (registration required).
The Guardian website ran an interview with me yesterday.
And I've lost count of the mentions on blogs...
The launch event on Wednesday at the Wellcome Trust was packed and I thought was really interesting. Aubrey (who's 42) did tell me that his mum was a bit annoyed to read in our interview that he swears though.
So I think we managed to achieve what we set out to do which was get a debate going. And there's more to come as the conference at Oxford in March will attract even more attention to the issues.
There are reasons why you shouldn't put question marks in the titles of books. James and I decided that we needed one in Better Humans? because we realised we didn't know whether we thought human enhancment was 'better'.
If you're smarter, as Raj Persaud points out in his piece for the book, you're not necessarily happier. And as I know from all the work I've done on disability over the years, having one idea about what's 'better' physically is very dangerous.
But when it comes to people citing the book, question marks tend to just get left out, so our nuanced decision to be undecided (or fudge it, you might say) is getting lost as word spreads of the book.
OpenDemocracy have published our interview with Aubrey de Grey (we've just had a request to translate it into Romanian!) and the Observer ran an extract yesterday from Steven Rose's piece about the potential downsides of the new resources available for brain science.
Madeleine Bunting has written a good piece in today's Guardian hooked on the book out next week that I've edited with James Wilsdon called Better Humans? The book is a collection of essays about human enhancement, and as Madeleine writes:
"It's time we got our heads around this debate on this side of the Atlantic so that we can influence what technologies are developed, rather than leaving it to the scientists and the pharmaceutical and military interests who sponsor their research. There's a growing sense of urgency to get the public debate up to speed with what's at stake."
Contributors to the book include Rachel Hurst, Steven Rose, Raj Persaud, Arthur Caplan, Decca Aitkenhead and Nick Bostrom. Hopefully the diverse range of positions they put forward will help us get our heads around the debate.
If you'd like to come along to the launch event in London, we've decided to get some more chairs in (it's already oversubscribed) and we'll fit you in.
It was also incidently my first Skype-enabled publication. With James in Phoenix, me in Bangalore and Julie and Julia holding the fort in London we somehow managed to do the final stages of the book across multiple time zones.
The Country of the No
The best book about India I've read so far is undoubtedly Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay lost and found. He begins the book with his experience as a returnee to his childhood home of Bombay (or Mumbai as it's called now) from New York and how difficult it was to set up home for his family.
'India is the Country of the No. That 'no' is your test. You have to get past it. It's India's Great Wall; it keeps out foreign invaders. Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge. In the guru-shishya tradition, the novice is always rebuffed multiple times when he first approaches the guru. Then the guru stops saying no but doesn't say yes either; he suffers the presence of the students... only if the disciple sticks out through all these stages of rejection and ill treatment is he considered worthy or the sublime knowledge.'
I'm in India at the moment with Kirsten from Demos doing some research for the Atlas of Ideas. Travel is where we're finding the most 'no's. Trying to catch a train is a bit like trying to catch a flying pig. Every one we've tried to book - even if it's well in advance - has been 'full'. Basically we don't know the right people yet. So we're flying everywhere, which thanks to India's new budget airlines is pretty easy. But even then, you can't book unless you use Internet Explorer, getting your credit card details processed seems to be more of a matter of luck than judgement and with some of the companies you only find out at the final moment that if you don't have an Indian passport, you have to pay in dollars and it will be roughly four times the fare in rupees.
The contrast between the airlines and the railways shows how times are changing in India. The Indian Railway is the world's largest employer with 1.5 million workers. The costs and inertia in the system are incredible. To compete with the airlines the railways will need to change but reforming the system must be one of the most daunting challenges for any management consultant. It could suck up the whole of McKinsey without changing one jot.
There are some things that you might think could change quite quickly. For example, their 'electronic' booking system is antiquated, often isn't available and for nearly every route you still need a paper ticket to be delivered. But this is the country with some of the best 20-something programmers in the world. They could knock up a website better than say thetrainline.com very quickly. It's sheer bureaucracy and inertia that stops anything from happening - basically people saying 'no'.
The qualification for being an entrepreneur in India is sheer bloody mindedness; it's got very little to do with having a good idea. You just need to keep going at things until someone says yes. Many of the emerging entrepreneurs we've met have been Indians who understand how this works but have also spent long periods of time in Europe or the US working for large technology companies so they're able to bridge expectations. Their age is important. You're much more likely to get a yes here if you are fifty than if you're thirty years old.
We're not trying to be entrepreneurs, we're just trying to find out what's going on, particularly in high tech start-ups. But just organising the logistics of the research is a full time job without doing any of the interviews or writing any of it up.
India is a wonderful country and the more I see the more I'm convinced that it will be one of the main sources of good ideas in the twenty-first century but I've got a feeling that to thrive here you'll have to be able to deal with the fact that it's the Country of the No.
Chris Anderson's Pro-Am diagram
I was just looking for some stuff to do in San Francisco next week while I'm there and came across this photo of Wired editor Chris Anderson explaining the Long Tail. It looks like the Pro-Am idea is spreading...
I meant to post this a little while back but seem to have got out of the habit of using this blog (I post much more often on The Demos Greenhouse).
It's a new report called Independent Living with Sarah and Hannah that follows on from last year's Disablism report we did with Scope and DAA. This one focuses more on what needs to happen to the support and benefit systems for disabled people.