This week, for Alien Crash Site's first episode of 2021, we invite Armin Ellis to contemplate his ideal alien item. Armin is an accomplished scientist, engineer, and explorer who founded the Exploration Institute, and the "i2i Method™", a proven methodology to turn challenges and aspirations into actionable and tangible plans. In this episode we discuss Exploration Institute's "Ocean Planet" Project, forgiveness, and what it means to slow down and truly listen.
Learn more about everything referenced in this episode by clicking the links below:
What Armin on the 2018 InterPlanetary Festival Panel “The End of the World?” with Annalee Newitz, and Lauren Oliver.
Read Armin’s introduction to that ^ panel in IP Transmissions Volume One: Genesis
Read up on Star Trek, if you’re unfamiliar for some reason...
Caitlin McShea: Hi Armin.
Armin Ellis: How are you?
CM: I’m good. How are you doing?
AE: Good, thanks. How's everything been?
CM: Yeah, you know, the same for everyone. In an interplanetary capsule at home, but I think that we've adjusted pretty well remotely. How are you guys doing?
AE: Yeah, pretty good. You know, a bit slower, but still, you know, things have been growing and taking on a bunch of really interesting projects and things like that, but you're right. I mean, everyone's been impacted by COVID so, yeah. Yeah. But happy 2021.
CM: I know exactly. And happy new year. Thank you so much for agreeing to be our first guest this year. I think it's great considering the fact that a lot of people during 2020 have used the time at home or the remote work opportunity to think up a lot of ideas for themselves or their projects, but you were really, really good at taking ideas and kind of materializing and instantiating them. And so I imagine your 2021 is looking pretty good.
AE: I'll tell you. I mean, some things have been great, but other things have been incredibly slow. So, you know, luckily we've got two sites, the business, you know, there's the artificial intelligence side that we don't really talk about so much, and then there's the other side of it, which is, you know, these workshops that we do and, and that not being able to get together with people has inevitably been impacted. But yeah, I mean, on the other side, we've grown quite a bit more.
CM: Well, that's great to hear, and I'm not going to ask you to break any confidentiality agreements or anything like that in terms of the AI side. But I think that we at SFI have experienced the same thing, our capacity to advance in our research is really grounded in how we convene a variety of individuals and meetings, and we're managing to do that remotely, but I don't know, there's some energy lost when you don't get the face-to-face transmission.
I was just thinking it might be good for our audience to have a sense of what it is that you do with the Exploration Institute, why you founded it, and I have this image in my background as a reminder to ask you about Ocean Planet. I want to hear about all of that, if you're willing to talk to us about that.
AE: Well, that's been one of the projects that's unfortunately, ground down to a halt.
CM: Oh, I’m sorry.
AE: I don't know if there's a lot that we can talk about, but I mean, the conference went great, but soon after that, there was the complete lockdown of life as we know it. But, to answer that initial question, why did I start it? So, there's an unofficial reason and a long-term vision of why I want to do this. And then, there's the kind of more strategic thing, the immediate need that we're trying to fulfill, right? So long-term, I think we should become a multi-planetary species. And I think that instead of having a military industrial complex, I'd like to see an exploration industrial complex. What I really want to see happen is that I would love for us to make Star Trek become reality.
To me that is an exciting future to live in. I think that would just be cool. I would love nations to outdo each other in terms of how much exploration they do. You know, I'd love our clubs to be replaced from nuclear weapons and things that do humanity harm, to vessels of exploration, better ways of thinking, we’re painting a future that people would want to be involved with.
And also, I think if we don't do that, we are in danger. We've got this planet and it's under enormous pressure right now from an ecosystem point of view. But if we were to expand way out there, well, there's no limits to what we could do, where we could go, how many people we could become. Then I think we would be able to create artificial intelligence, which I see as one of the fundamental dangers to humanity right now in this finite world as being a servant of humanity, when we push out
CM: You don't think that AI could in some way be of utility to us in a peaceable pushing out into the universe?
AE: Look, it's a tool, right? If we apply it the right way, it'll be amazing. If we look at the earth has a finite stomping ground for humanity, artificial intelligence will inevitably be something that's going to lead to a loss of freedom for individuals. And that’s going to put us in a very dangerous situation.
CM: Well, so that being the case, are you excited about what prospects there are for, for instance, a return to the moon or all of the Mars missions that we have planned? Are there other things that you think we should be doing in the next decade that aren't exactly on the books yet?
AE: I'm excited for both. I think they should happen. What I would love to see is that while Space X is really pushing for settlements on Mars, I'd love to see Blue Origin double down on settlements around low earth orbit. That's what I'd love to see. I'd love for us to actually create an ecosystem where someone who has the passion and the desire to get a job in space right now, could. If someone has a passionate desire to get a job in Hawaii, they can. So why can't we do the same with space? Well, the reason is that the business model isn't there. I mean, technologically, we're not that far away, really. We're not that far away for lower earth orbit. I mean, if Space X is successful, if Blue Origin is successful within the next decade, we're going to have 8,000 times – like three orders of magnitude more – ability to launch things into low Earth orbit as we do today. Think about how incredible and exciting that could be.
CM: I think on a personal level, you know, whenever you come to a personal crossroads and you decide you're going to break it all up and you're going to relocate, the idea of space as an option, as opposed to New York City or San Francisco or wherever, I like that the adventurous might have the possibility to just completely separate and re-engage in low Earth orbit or elsewhere.
AE: This is I think a fundamental solution, you know, looking at challenging situations day in, day out. One of the things that I notice is that people try to solve problems by basically saying point A, point B, let's take the halfway and let's compromise. I mean that does work. Compromise does work, but from a creative point of view, I think it's probably the most boring way of solving a problem. What I'd love to see is fundamentally different way of solving problems, where the solution is what wasn't even imagined before.
A lot of the problems that we have right now on this planet could be fundamentally solved, at root level solved, by expanding out into space: environmental issues, social issues, economic issues. So many things could be solved.
CM: That is very cool. And it reminds me a little bit of IP 2019. We had Space for Humanity out in 2019, and Rachel Lyons gave a fabulous lecture about the social impact that the Overview effect would have were more people to have the privilege to experience it. And so, I agree that there's a lot that would be fundamentally resolved by what would you call that - a dilution of the population on Earth? If we dilute the amount of individuals on Earth and we placed some somewhere else, and we have the capacity to experience what's happening on Earth from a completely new perspective, I think obviously unforeseen solutions would present themselves… it's an out-there – literally a moonshot proposal – but I think that it's fundamentally capacious.
Would you do it, are you a space bound individual?
AE: Of course. What about you?
CM: I don’t know. I'm very earthbound. I think if I'm successful in my position with Interplanetary it's because I love this planet so much that as you described, expanding beyond spaces is a really excellent way of resolving so many things that could shorten the lifespan of the planet. And I want to extend the lifespan of this planet as far as possible, but I really like being on it. I'm not so adventurous myself.
AE: The point isn’t so much to go and live out there. I think the point is to understand that it's a place and an environment where there's the option of living out there, or being there. When it comes to how most people live their lives, one of the things that I've noticed is that we all have this tendency, don't we, to react to situations. And I think the idea of being able to just slow down to like zero miles an hour and then get the big perspective of what's going on is a fundamental part of solving a problem. Being in a reactionary mode, none of us can solve the problem. So, I think space offers that opportunity as well, to get the perspective, to get to just be in a different domain for a period of time.
CM: And as you say, I think that a reactive approach to problem solving kind of binds you a bit because suddenly you're building steps towards this inescapable pathway towards whatever solution emerges. We become very path-dependent when we react quickly to what we believe is a quick “band-aid” of a solution to a problem. I agree with you, better to be slow and proactive than fast and reactive.
AE: And when you force someone to make a decision and you give them two options, you know, there's not a whole lot of room for creativity.
CM: Why is it that the solutions that are often selected are exactly that, “selected”? Why isn't the person who's responsible for resolving the problem ever really given the opportunity to be creative, as you say. Where is the space for creative problem solving?
AE: I don’t know. I think culturally we don't allow ourselves to be genuinely creative. But I think, culturally, listening isn't something that's encouraged. I mean really listening. We're too quick to judge.
CM: Yeah. I wonder…there is this very special thing that humans have, and it's this capacity to adjudicate, to make judgments. And I think we've sort of fostered that in our minds as the end all be all greatest characteristic that we possess. I wonder if by honoring that capacity to such a degree we have limited the growth of other capacities, like being creative, like listening well. It's almost as if in an effort to evolve or survive in nature, we've really relied upon this capacity to judge, and we just use it too fast. It's the card that we employ most often, and maybe we've stunted ourselves in that way.
AE: And the underlying incentives seem to be pushing us in that direction more and more. If you are someone who feels that getting a like, or something like that, through social media is a good thing, then there's an underlying sort of promotion for behavior there.
CM: Right. And so then perhaps, I mean, here's an opportunity to be creative in problem-solving: how to recalibrate what incentives motivate individuals to behave in a certain way. I don't know.
I know that you said that it's kind of come to a halt, but could you explain a little bit about what your thoughts are behind Ocean Planet? When we last spoke about it, I really admired the project because it's so multifaceted and transdisciplinary and complex in everything that it manages to capture. And I had never really thought about the ocean as a means to do everything that you see it capable of doing. So, I would love it if you would explain for our audience why it is that you are shifting focus to the ocean of all things.
AE: I'm so honored that you remembered such details.
CM: Well, I'm excited to hear more.
AE: Well, given that the vast majority of the planet is covered with water, the ocean, why are we calling the Earth “Earth”? Shouldn't it be called “Ocean”? It's a funny way to frame things, but I feel that there's so much going on in the ocean right now that we have just take for granted. Every other breath that we take comes from the ocean. Why are we using the ocean in the ways that we are? Why are we so careless about certain aspects, but also why are we not thinking about the ocean as a frontier for thoughtful growth? Because we really can, from living space to exploration, to new areas of economy…it's just waiting for us. It's a cool environment. To me, when I think about the ocean, I think about it in one of two ways.
One is as an area of opportunity. And then the other is as an area that needs thoughtful attention. Not scare tactics, we’re not making people become concerned that we're about to do something terrible, right? Believe you me, there are areas that are not looking so good right now. But I think more to the point, we've got to be looking at it from the angle that the ocean is in need of thoughtful attention.
Think about the users of the ocean. You know, we've got the military, we've got all sorts of commerce taking place. We've got resource extraction, you've got tourism, these under-sea cables connecting continents. I mean, there are so many things, but at the same time, even now, we're not really thinking too much about it. And as a result, the ocean is in the state that it's in. So, I would love for people who are involved in one area of the ocean to start to think about their impact overall, and start to have discussions with other verticals in different uses, but using the same domain.
CM: And that might also include non-human endeavors, too. If we think about “users” of the ocean, and I wasn’t sure if we were only going to talk about human users – and I think that “use” is a good term – there is also the entire, really complex ecology that exists in the ocean: these deep sea extremophile species that manage to do so much with so little. And I think that it would be really interesting to see how it is for instance, that commerce practices or military practices completely impact with depend upon these species, and vice versa. There are so many interdependencies and it’s those connections and links that I’m most curious about.
AE: You know, here's a little story that I think is really interesting. And I don't think a lot of people are aware of this, but sometime ago we used to use whale blubber for lighting, and there was an environmental plea to start shifting over to kerosene lamps, to save those poor whales. So, we decided to start using petroleum products, and we expanded that. And then we allowed some of the whales to live, and so on. So that was kind of an interesting shift.
But one thing we never really understood was why are whales important in the ocean at all? What they do, actually, is pretty fundamental. They go down to the bottom of the ocean, bring nitrates up to the top and poop, and their poop helps to fertilize phytoplankton. Without phytoplankton, obviously at the base of the food chain, we would be in trouble.
CM: Yeah, there would be a lot of starving animals, including ourselves. Also, and I hope that I'm not misrepresenting this information, I was working with an artist for InterPlanetary Festial this past year. Of course, there no festivals in 2020 and I'm still bitter about it, vut there's an artist that I was working with named Tim Weaver, who was going to do this audio/visual performance called “Whale Fall”. What happens too, is that when whales die, their bones are of a certain density that they sink all the way to the bottom of the ocean. And they're kind of cavernous and architectural in a way that creates a sort of habitat space for struggling species.
And so, there's this really beautiful sacrificial element that whales contribute to the overall success of the ecology of the ocean. I just thought that was very beautiful.
So, whales! Glad we stopped using them for energy. But of course, our transition, as you said, was very reactive and “band-aid-y,” and now we're reliant on oil and have been for so long. Maybe we need to shift away from that. What's next?
AE: We always do the best that we know how to at the time. With the information that we do. We are never going to solve problems as if we had the hindsight of infinite time and infinite resources, right? We're going to be making mistakes throughout history and we're going to be doing the right things at that moment. But in hindsight, there're going to be all sorts of perspectives that we wouldn't have at the time we're doing things.
It’s the same with wind energy. We thought we were doing such a wonderful thing and it certainly lends itself to this idealistic view that we can have free energy from gusts of wind. But the reality of it is that we've come to realize that every 10 years you have to replace the blade, and you can't recycle those blades, so what are you going to do? Send them to a landfill? How much energy does it take to make each one of those blades? Well, we're not getting that much back. And it's doing all sorts of funky things to the local ecosystems, with the birds, and so on.
Would we have done it if we had known that these are going to be the outcomes? I don't know.
CM: I appreciate your perspective. I'm often upset when we realize that we’ve made mistakes in our attempt to solve problems, but you're right. We have the information that we have at the moment, we're usually well-intended when we attempt to employ it. And maybe we should, I don't know, cut ourselves a little bit of slack in the history of innovation and solution.
CM: Well, if I may, I'd like to shift to the actual crux of the conversation and ask you about your alien artifact. I'm going to state the question in its entirety, since this is our first episode of 2021. This idea is taken from the Strugatsky brothers’ novel Roadside Picnic: At the risk of great personal peril, imprisonment, or even death, what object would you hope to uncover from an Alien Crash Site Zone, and why?
AE: Okay. I would love to grab a device that allows one to hold it in their hands, and allows someone else to hold it at the same time. And each person gets to completely understand the other person's perspective without judgment, and without the passage of time. Just to truly, truly, truly, truly, truly stop and understand the other person's feelings, perspectives, experiences, cognition, where they're at, how they reached that decision, etc., in a very kind of non-judgmental way.
And then there's a button on this device that allows us to then press it and expand our mind so much more, that it allows both points of view to sort of merge and meld and come up with a better solution.
CM: I totally understand the merits of that device, for it to work in that way, but could you go ahead and articulate what benefit would be gained from such a shared understanding, like a true shared understanding between individuals?
AE: Take it to a war zone.
CM: Lieutenant to Lieutenant? That kind of thing
AE: Or Dictator to Dictator. Yeah. Take it to UN General Assembly, do a world tour with this device.
CM: Okay. That's good. So, it's a very precious item. There's only one. And therefore, in order for that experience to be distributed, the actual item has to be traveling around the world at all times, correcting understandings between individual human beings. So, who then would be in control – who would get to decide when and where that's used?
I would say this is one object that I've heard of so far in the series that I can't imagine being weaponized. I don't think that an evil person could convince a non-evil person to understand evil, and then become evil. But, how is it decided who needs to touch the object?
AE: That's a good question. I would imagine that someone who gets to connect with this device would instantaneously appreciate the power that it has to unite people. And then from there, you know, the next person would be added to this group and then the next, and the next to the next, so that it's a cumulative sort of situation.
CM: By virtue of its singularity, it's a sort of a grassroots conscious. That’s really cool. I love a grassroots emergence. So obviously, yes, it would be kind of a peaceable object. What about intellectually? You say “conscious,” and “emotions,” and “understanding,” “perspective,” “experience,” but is there a possibility that this device would allow for a transference of understanding, for instance, of artificial intelligence? If I didn't understand machine learning, but I shared this object with someone who was a computer scientist, would I get that benefit as well? I don't know, what are its limitations?
AE: Well, if you think that that feature needs to happen, then we can add that.
CM: We don’t get to add anything. The aliens left it behind, and we get what we get. I'm wondering if you agree or disagree that it could provide an intellectual transference as well.
AE: Well, I think usually a lot of intellectual understanding and in a particular topic comes from, an improved perspective on that subject. So, the more we understand it, the more we can then connect the dots and form a model. I think it would definitely lead us there. Imagine that, if for example, you had this amazing awareness of fundamental physics, and I had a friend who had an understanding of psychology. And then you and my friend were able to connect. Then, all of a sudden, your perspective on fundamental physics and my friend's perspective on psychology would sort of meld and you would know so much more, because you're both deep experts in these two fields rather than just one person, you would know all of these important deep insights.
CM: And you might learn about your own void in your expertise by engaging with this other expert, and their void in their expertise, and how each informs the other.
AE: Absolutely. You know, sometimes I say things like – and it doesn't win me any favors saying this – but, the biggest problem with science is scientists. That's not to be critical of scientists of course. I mean, I consider myself to be a scientist, but it's that sometimes when we feel like we've become an expert, we stop listening. And that's a human trait, and it's not the trait of the actual underlying subject that we're trying to study. So, we prevent ourselves from digging in a little bit deeper.
We become experts in some field and we have resistance in certain areas, and we stop having this awe and wonder like a child might have, going into the field. I think that what this kind of object would do is that instead of a fundamental scientist who at times might poopoo someone who deals with humanities, they just drop that judgment and they kind of understand where they're coming from. And also the other way around, there's no intimidation factor.
CM: I think that's a really valuable point. And it speaks to a lot of what I think the Santa Fe Institute hopes InterPlanetary will accomplish. Obviously, we are rooted in science. We're a scientific research center, but InterPlanetary is rooted so much in creativity, and imagination, and arts, and film, and literature, and media, science fiction, etc. I find quite often when I'm trying to merge arts and science, which I think deserve to be coupled, sometimes there's a lack of respect towards the artist by the scientist, or maybe there's a lack of imagination and flexibility on behalf of the scientist, from the perspective of the artist. This I think would do a lot in resolving that, and it doesn't happen perfectly yet, but I think we're getting closer and closer.
AE: Well, it's all in how the human kind of experiences that. The pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of different fields, and being the best version of ourselves, and trying to sort of learn something as much as we possibly can given the the tools that we have, and so on. I think it's as much a limitation in fundamental physics as it is in arts. I don't think we're fundamentally that different, no matter what pursuits we regard as the most interesting.
And I think partly the reason why I don't think we're that different is because I don't think we're anywhere as smart as we think we are. You know, I hope that's not an offensive thing to say.
CM: I don't think so.
AE: Well, I mean, we all sort of get in the zone and when we're there, we think we're so smart and so on. But how often has it been that you write something – I know it's happened plenty of times with me, I write something and I leave it alone for a period of time, and then I come back and I look back on it, and I'm like, “what was I thinking?.” I don’t think I’m alone in that experience.
CM: Yeah, you’re not. So, by virtue of the fact that this question is kind of rooted in an objective, artifactual space, can you try to attempt to explain to me what you think this object would look like or feel like, or how you would recognize it in the Zone?
AE: Maybe sort of spherical. And something that wouldn't have too many features. Unassuming.
CM: Well, that makes sense. Right? You would want an unassuming object to allow individuals to in their use of it to jettison their assumptions.
AE: Yes. And there's no instructions for how to use it. It's so simple. You will know how to use it the moment you get into contact with it.
CM: Well, if there are no instructions and it's found by an individual, it might be a very long time before someone has the thought to share the object simultaneously with another person. It might go unused for decades. Who knows? I don't know, unless someone finds someone precious or someone worth sharing that with, and then explosively the device's capacity is revealed and then it can goes on its world tour.
I guess the expression of this object as the device you'd like to find underlines what you see as a lack of empathy between individuals when attempting to resolve an issue, is that correct?
AE: Oh yeah, and by the way, you can apply this in physics, too, and then you can have two mathematicians, or two physicists, or two cosmologists. Or you know, genetics experts sitting down who have slightly different perspectives on a subject and boom, all of a sudden you’ve solved it.
CM: It's like objectified string theory. It's like, you got the relativists, you got quantum, and then you got gravitational people…maybe if they each touch the stone, we suddenly understand that this big paradox in physics that's been bothering us for so long.
CM: Yeah I think this is a really beautiful object, and its possession by these aliens points to the fact that they are likely much more sophisticated than we are. I like that. It's nice to be reminded of the hubris of humanity. We might not be the end all be all.
AE: I hope you're right. Why would they be visiting us?
CM: Good question. Actually in the book, in Roadside Picnic, there's this proposal that they weren't visiting us at all. That we’re so “nothing,” that they just needed to, for instance, make a pit stop, maybe go to the restroom, get a snack on their way to their true destination. That Earth was just like a place for them to land in the meanwhile. And they have no idea what junk they left behind, and how much that will change us. The hypothesis is that we were completely unnoticed, that we're so insignificant. But what do you think? Do you think there's something worthwhile for an extra-terrestrial species to come in search for?
AE: Well, you know, I have thought for at least the last 15 years on and off about how we would recognize an intelligence greater than our own. Primarily, thinking about all the space stuff, if we did recognize an alien species, well, what's to say that we haven't already met them. You know, maybe their intelligence is so much greater that we don't realize them, or we don't recognize that their intelligence. It’s almost like saying, does a mouse or a cockroach recognize the intelligence of a primate? I doubt they do.
I think if we can recognize an intelligence a little bit greater than our own because of the outcomes of their activities, but fundamentally beyond a certain event horizon of recognition, I think it's going to be very difficult. I think they're doing things on much different scales then what we would recognize as intelligent manipulation.
CM: If you thought that there was a way to demonstrate our intelligence to an extra-terrestrial species, what would you send to them? What do you think – this is another object question, but I've never asked it before – is there something that we possess that you think you could show to an extraterrestrial intelligent species that they would recognize as valuable, in terms of their judgment of humanity?
AE: You know, I could say send them works of literature. And they would look at it and they would say it's okay, whatever. Or we could play them some music or something like that, and they might not like it. Or some painting, to show our deep understanding of the universe, and they might think it's pathetic. But I think the thing that, if possible, it'd be to a big hug.
CM: Ah, a physical expression of love, a shared love, somehow.
AE: Yeah, exactly. Because I think our understanding of pretty much everything is kind of a time-sensitive. Over a period of time, our understanding of physics has changed, our understanding of so many things has changed. And so I like to think about most information as just that. I mean it's information, but in the context of it, is it an idea? Is it a hypothesis? Is it a theory? Is it a law? Very few things do I know are actually facts. The closest I've come to thinking of something as a universal fact is this idea of love. And so maybe, maybe we should love aliens or something like that. I think that notion could be quite powerful if they're able to receive it.
CM: I think that's absolutely beautiful, and I agree. And what's interesting too, is that the hug, as it exists between individuals on earth, is almost as close as we can get to this object that you've invented. You can't specifically transfer your experience or an understanding in totality, as you described, but I think that to share a hug with an individual is always understood.
Did you think of this object pretty immediately, when I asked you to be on the show. Did it come instinctively?
AE: Yeah. As soon as I understood it, because this is something that I've been working on for a long time, and it's not as clean as having some sort of a spherical ball, but you can do stuff like that in a way. The idea of it is something that I think is very important for us as humanity, because we're at a point where we can destroy ourselves any day through bad ideas. You know, it's funny actually, Caitlin, I think the biggest threat to humanity isn't the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. That's obviously a big deal. It’s a terrible thing. And, I don't think it's environmental degradation. I mean, again, these are big, difficult subjects. I think the biggest threat to humanity is the spread of bad ideas because the spread of bad ideas will unleash all of these other terrible things.
CM: But, you can't eradicate bad ideas from the world, so…
AE: We could encourage a cultural kind of realization that we as humanity need to slow down and listen to each other better, but fundamentally listen to each other without judgment. That would surely slow down the spread of bad ideas.
CM: I've been in this head space because of coronavirus and because of 2020, I have this epidemiological idea of how economies can break down, or how ecologies heal, how a virus spreads, et cetera. And the speed with which bad ideas have made their way through the minds of individuals is kind of viral. And it's impactful... we’re obviously not very good at quelling that spread, try as we might, but this is even harder because of its immateriality. But, as you say, slowing down through listening as a sort of vaccine for this terrible thing that could be our undoing is worth sitting down and thinking about.
AE: Do you know, maybe the Santa Fe Institute could think about what a healthy social media platform should look like? You know, one that has the underlying dynamics that gets people to a better point of understanding rather than the underlying dynamics that force people to be isolated and confrontational.
CM: That's a great question. How to approach a technology like this with the aim towards openness, as opposed to kind of echo chamber-y conflict.
AE: Yes. Because with the dynamics right now, a finite number of characters and having an argument in front of a whole bunch of people who are waiting to see who's going to punch who first. Of course, we're going to have this kind of an output.
CM: It's like the Colosseum.
AE: It is.
CM: It's clearly something that we are going to hold onto for a long time. Like, we're never going to jettison a social media type of a platform. We just haven't come up with the right one yet.
AE: What they came up with was the most obvious, the most linear way of thinking and the most obvious way to code. But there wasn't a whole lot of thought put into creating something with the dynamics that allows us to come together, and be more thoughtful, and grow as individuals, and learn different perspectives in ways that we weren't able to before.
CM: Right. And part of that has to do with how concise you have to be on something like Twitter. That you can only use 140 characters, so then you always have to distill what is a very complex and multifaceted idea into a brief claim. And then suddenly it's like a ghost of itself.
AE: Well, what you're saying is so true, but I just don't think that they thought about it. And also, there's another component to this: Communications requires two types of commitment, commitment from the speaker to be articulate, to be accurate, to be diplomatic when needed. I'm not saying nice, I'm saying diplomatic. And then there's a commitment also on the side of the listener to listen accurately, to really look for what the speaker is trying to say rather than what they wish the speaker had said or what they would like the speaker to say, so that they have justification to take out their club, you know? So these two forms of commitment to good communications are not enabled by social media right now.
CM: What comes to mind as you say that, is almost the introduction of a sort of contract. Like if you're going to engage in this social media platform, maybe you have to commit to some sort of a preexisting contract about how it is that you approach what communications you see and what communications you put out there. Of course, I guess that introduces the possibility of punishment, or being blocked, or whatever, and that exists. But the social contract, as an idea before you get to communicate or before you get to engage with other people's communications might be one step towards resolving that problem.
AE: You're right. I mean, when you've got a hundred thousand people listening to every sort of thing that you're saying, there's a duty of care. But also, this should really expand into all sorts of other fields too. Not just social media. It just so happens that it's so obvious that social media is more powerful than we thought it might be. But so is artificial intelligence. I mean, in the hands of someone who isn't completely aware of how dangerous it could be, artificial intelligence could be ridiculously dangerous.
CM: There are a few researchers in the community at the Santa Fe Institute who are almost kind of drawing up a contract for the development of algorithms and AI, which is like an ethical contract, so to speak. It's like you can to the best of your ability assert your intention to do this via good, but you also have to recognize that there are unforeseen possibilities. And they're trying to work out almost like a – I don't know if “contract” is the right word – almost like a Hippocratic oath for people who develop these technologies. It would force people to have to think about those possibilities before releasing anything into the world.
AE: To think about the level of destruction that AI is capable of, you know, to unleash about the same level of destruction as the Second World War within days, is something that we have to start to get some level of awareness around. And that's why I think we need to slow down a lot more, because there's so much happening that the possibility of getting caught in a reactionary sort of response to everything is becoming a more and more likely scenario.
CM: I think that that is becoming, I hope that that is becoming, more and more apparent: how easily we find ourselves in this extremely dangerous, reactive form of communication.
AE: You know, you said a little bit earlier that people are generally trying to do the right thing. Well, part of the pathology of ideas spreading is that every individual who's spreading that idea thinks that they're trying to do a good thing. How many people do you know who say, “I was trying to be a good person,” and they are saying this in judgment of their own actions, the particular outcome that they've had. Sometimes they've been good, sometimes they've been terrible, and sometimes they've been neutral. But nonetheless, we tend to do things because we think we're on the right side of history, or we’re doing something because it's just a good thing to do, but not having perspective of what that one thing is going to do, you know, what are the knock on effects and so on…
CM: Again, if we have the capacity to, without judgment, truly listen, perhaps we can recognize the fault in our intentions that we can't see ourselves when we're cloistered in our attempts to do good.
AE: Well, to be sure. I don't know what that, what the right answer is. I mean, I'm not in any way claiming that I'm any smarter than anyone else. I know that's not true. I know that I'm smart enough to know that I don't have infinite intelligence, nowhere near that. And that's a fundamental thing to appreciate to for ourselves. And also, for the people that we paint as adversaries, and just slow down.
What would you like to see happen in 2021?
CM: I mean, I think to our conversation, it would be really wonderful if civil discourse had a Renaissance, if people could communicate their true feelings, desires, and thoughts with others who don't absolutely ascribe to the same, and listen such that flexibility re-emerges in everyone's individual horizons. I think if you asked me what my socio-political leanings were 10 years ago, they're very different than they are today. And I think that's because I try, I actively attempt to be open-minded, but I recognize that I'm not perfectly open-minded. No one is.
But I think lately there's a lot of self-affirmation going on – and I do that myself too. I'm not above any of this – but I would really, really love to see a return to thoughtful civil discourse, which is similar to, I think, this slowing down and listening without judgment to truly think through the opinions of others and see where that aligns or misaligns with your own perspective of the world, and what could emerge out of, at the risk of being “boring,” a compromise between those perspectives.
AE: Has anyone asked what your device would be?
CM: No, because that would be the end of the series. But, I have the opportunity and privilege to speak with all of these incredible individuals who are so thoughtful from their particular perspective. And that informs what it is that I think about when I think about my object. It’s always changing. So, I can't actually answer that question until we conclude the series.
AE: Well, can I ask you why you're doing this series?
CM: So, idea that there might be something greater than what we recognize on our own planet allows us to be imaginative, imaginative in the way that we approach how we want to resolve what issues we perceive exist on the planet Earth. So this series, I think, exists to one, get to share extra-disciplinarily with the people that we invite their opinions about what it's like to exist on this planet, what problems they perceive if any, what might be a viable solution to that problem, and how that solution doesn't actually exist on Earth as we known it. It's an opportunity to be kind of creative with people like yourself. And then I think just underlines the varying perspectives that everyone that we work with has, that's what I think this series is.
AE: Well, that's really exciting. And it sounds like it really does lend itself to taking the work that you're doing a Santa Fe Institute and sort of making it more accessible to a broader group of people.
CM: I hope, I think that the same can be said for what you plan to do with Ocean Planet. And if you're not initiated in the sciences, if you're not a scientist yourself, I think it's quite intimidating to try to engage with these big ideas. But there are ways to create entrée into those ideas. And I think this might be one way to do it. I hope again, this grassroots possibility is extremely important: the ideas that emerge out of a collective, and just ensuring that everyone has access to those ideas and can understand them in some way is something that I'm really excited to participate in.
AE: That's incredibly important. I think what you're doing is just so vital, just encouraging people to think about different issues, different sorts of concepts and giving themselves the permission really to dabble.
CM: Permission is a really lovely way to put it. Again, it's the access thing, not just creating these cloisters or relying too heavily on accolades or whatever … that everyone's capable of engaging in whatever capacity they're capable of engaging. And it's all valuable.
AE: I completely agree. And part of that is forgiveness of others and forgiveness of ourselves. And sometimes just letting go so that we can be creative. It's so easy to be distracted by things. Oh, what does this person think of me? You know what, honestly, if you're able to let go of that and just focus on the business at hand, we allow more mental capacity to do the thing that it needs to do. And that's a skill.
CM: That's a skill, you're right. That is a skill. Well, thank you so much for sharing that with me, and thank you so much for being on this show and for your contribution, your object.
AE: Well thank you for having me.
CM: I wish you a lot of luck in 2021. We should remain in touch to see how any of our mutual projects develop in case there's an opportunity to help each other. I think that we're both kind of working towards the same endeavor in whatever ways we can.
AE: Yeah, that sounds great. I couldn't agree with you more.