Eric (datan0de) wrote,

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(0/3) Memory Dump: Engines of Creation and the Extropians

This is another "why would you be interested in this?" post that I'm doing mostly for my own sake. However, it also serves as back story for what will probably be my next three LJ posts. Read if you like, or skip it with the knowledge that you will not be tested on this material. ;-)

I love when you can look back and trace major events and influences in your life back to trivial, seemingly random events. I met femetal only because I was late turning in my college housing application. I met most of what would become my college social circle only because I happened to be late to Calculus class on one particular day. If I'd moved to Tampa a week later I probably would not have ended up getting the "temp" job that I've now held for the last 15+ years. You get the idea.

I can trace most of my view of the future as well as my general outlook on life back to two events, the first of which was a complete accident.

Part 1: Engines of Creation

One Saturday afternoon in 1992, when femetal and I were still students living in Gainesville, we went to the Oaks Mall for the afternoon. My first stop was the arcade of course, and I probably played T2, Narc, Steel Gunner 2, and E-SWAT until I ran out of money (which wouldn't have taken long). After that I headed to the book store, knowing that I'd end up meeting up with Kim there.

Not looking for anything in particular, and having some time to kill, I literally grabbed a book at random. The title, "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology", seemed interesting enough, and the back cover talked of a world-changing technology revolution that would happen within our lifetime, so I started looking through it.

Engines of Creation

Maybe 40 minutes later when Kim came into the bookstore, I hadn't moved from that spot. I was enthralled. This was some heavy stuff, and at first seemed absurdly optimistic, but as much as the book promised incredible new things (both good and bad), it seemed to do so from a plausible basis. I needed to know more, but it was time to go and at any rate I didn't have enough money to buy the book. So I did a rare thing for me at the time and wrote down the title and ISBN so I wouldn't forget it.

The next time we went to the mall I tracked it down and bought it. (By the way, the updated 2006 edition is now available online for free here, and the text of the original 1986 edition can be found here)

This was my first introduction to the idea and potential of molecular nanotechnology. While it's a pretty common buzz term now, in `92 nobody I knew had ever heard of it, and it would be years before I met anyone who had heard of it other than from me. There's still some debate over the ultimate potential of nanotech, and a couple of the examples given in the book (most notably, gray goo arising accidentally) have since been determined to be implausible, but I think that the book has held up remarkably well over time (so far).

To me, it was huge. The potential hazards that it described are terrifying, but the potential benefits are even more awe-inspiring. Suddenly there was a reasonable, rational avenue by which nearly ever aspect of our technology could be profoundly improved, from manufacturing to energy generation to cellular repair. Seen from that perspective, even seemingly radical ideas like restoring people stored in cryonic suspension (I didn't know the term at the time) were suddenly feasible.

I admit that I had to make a conscious effort to stay grounded and to not see nanotech as a panacea, but as I devoured everything I could find on the subject (going from Engines to the followup Unbounding The Future to anything I could track down on the internet) it really felt a lot like going through NRE with technology. I'd never been so excited about the potential of the future.

If nanotech could provide radical life extension and peak health, I reasoned, why stop there? Why can't we fundamentally improve the human condition by expanding our physical and cognitive capabilities beyond the limitations of our biology? And along with making us happier and more powerful, could we also make ourselves more inclined toward helping other humans (both modified and unmodified)? Rather than spawning (or becoming) a race of Cyborg Overlords, could we become Cyborg Benefactors, working not just for our own benefit but for everyone's?

That last bit felt like I might be going over the top with my enthusiastic optimism, but the closest I could come to an argument against improving upon human nature was that nobody seemed to think it was possible.

Happily, I was wrong.

Part 2: The Extropians

For the next year or so I carried these ideas around in my head, discussing them with whomever would listen (which usually meant "Kim"), and generally wondering if I was the only person who held this radically optimistic view of the potential of technology and human progress. Then in October of 1994, Wired ran an article called "Meet the Extropians" and I discovered that there is, in fact, an entire subculture!

The article blew me away. Here was a group of people expressing exactly the ideas I'd had bouncing around in my head, and who had come to the same conclusions. Now I had a word for it - "Extropy", and a few names to associate as well - Max More, Tom Morrow, Tanya Jones, etc. One of the photos in the article was of the back of an Alcor bracelet with the caption "In the event that death rears its ugly head, some Extropians come with post mortem instructions." To put it mildly, I was intrigued. I started seriously looking into cryonics at that point, and would end up spending several years researching the science and following the developments in the field before finally deciding that it was sound and worth doing.

I also started getting involved, at least peripherally, in the Extropian "movement" (for lack of a better term). I followed the discussion list online (I'm still subscribed to this day), subscribed to the magazine, and really embraced the concepts and values in day to day life. People like Max More became… not heroes, but at least people whom I admire greatly.

As an aside, reading the article again now for the first time in over 10 years I have a slightly different take. The tone of the article strikes me as rather pollyannaish, but I still agree with all of the basic premises. Extropianism has become part of my self identity, to the point that the 5 arrow Extropian logo is my (so far) only tattoo. Also, I've since met a couple of the people in the article, which now gives faces and real people to the names.
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