Paul Fernhout

¬†Paul Fernhout has been programming computers for over thirty years since his father helped him buy a KIM-1 with 1K of memory (as well as build the power supply for it). Over those three decades, has witnessed the computers he has owned growing literally a million-fold in capacity for the same price following Moore’s law. He expects that trend to continue for at least a couple more decades, if not further. He feels that the world will be a very different place when you can have all the music ever recorded on your SmartPhone, plus everything in the current Library of Congress, with room left over for a video record of your every waking moment. He has been exploring the economic idea that as any one core good or service, like computing, drops in price towards zero, it essentially brings the price of all other major goods towards zero along with it, creating divide-by-zero errors in mainstream economic equations. Those trends in turn lead to related broader social, economic, and political changes. Along with his wife, Cynthia Kurtz, he has made several free and open source software applications including a garden simulator to help people grow their own food. They are currently co-developing the second version of a FOSS social media application called Rakontu for small groups to share stories and do related sensemaking to achieve common goals. He is also the author of several essays about post-scarcity themes, including one called “Post-Scarcity Princeton” about re-envisioning that exclusive university as a more inclusive compassionate place. He has taken part in numerous online discussions about the future of society, economics, and technology from an open source perspective.

Like many other people, he has long felt it is possible that advanced technology that seems so promising as wealth creating tools may end up harming humanity if it wakes up in a bad mood or replicates out of control (two popular doomsday scenarios in movies). That was one reason he left the field or robotics and artificial life two decades ago. That was after time spent around Hans Moravec’s robotics lab at CMU when Hans was writing “Mind Children”, and after managing a robotics laboratory at Princeton University, and also after accidentally creating possibly the world’s first simulation of self-replicating cannibalistic robots on a Symbolics workstation in ZetaLisp at NC State in the 1980s. Someone from DARPA literally patted him on the back around 1988 after a talk on that simulation and said “Keep up the good work”, which is a comment that he has never been quite sure how to interpret.

While he still feels that unintentional emergent malevolence is an important concern, he has gradually come to realize that there is a much bigger issue confronting humanity in the 21st century. That issue is not so much “technics-out-of-control” at it is more about how we make choices about what we create based on values. Our personal and societal feelings about scarcity and abundance strongly influence the choices we make individually and as a society to develop specific technologies to create or destroy wealth. Those values affect how we intentionally create and promote specific social organizational forms that also create, destroy, and ration wealth. He suggests those choices tend to reflect either a “scarcity-oriented” or “abundance-oriented” world view. He has discovered that this is a theme that goes back hundreds and thousands of years in history and stories. He even sees that reflected in the academic discussions of the story of “The Garden of Eden” as possibly reflecting a changeover from an abundance-minded hunter/gatherer society of self-actualized individuals to a more scarcity-minded agricultural society full of toil and boredom, in part from population growth and the emergence of powerful bureaucracies. He has written some essays exploring how this theme of values interacts with our choices about economics as our technological capacity continues to grow (including how this is likely to affect employment of most humans in paid jobs). Connected to that are also our views on things like human nature and human motivation (such as Dan Pink brilliantly explores with the RSA in “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us” <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc> which shows how current research even by conservative institutions calls into question the entire logical underpinning of a information economy still based heavily on economic incentives and competition).

Many have written about the power of world views and values in the past (like Langdon Winner, E.F. Schumacher, Marshall Brain, or David Brin). Paul Fernhout brings his own perspective to that discussion based on decades of work as a software developer interested in AI, robotics, digital libraries, and semantic networks. That background is further mixed with another set of interests in Ecology and Evolution (he met his wife in a PhD program in E&E at SUNY Stony Brook they both got masters degrees from). Based on studies in academic Ecology and Evolution, both he and his wife feels there is a widespread misunderstanding of “evolution” as “progress” (in what direction?) where the truth about evolution as interactive cyclical change at many levels at once is much more complex. His work also builds on earlier studies in cognitive science (he has an undergraduate degree in Psychology with George Miller where his undergraduate work on semantic networks was one of several inspirations for WordNet). He also did earlier undergraduate studies at SUNY Stony Brook in a Federated Learning Community on human nature (a wonderful experience in alternative eduction made possible by many great educators like the late Patrick Hill).

Just as with dog breeders, while things we make or breed in the lab may bite us back by accident, Paul Fernhout feels things we make are much more likely to bite us back if we design or train them *intentionally* to bite other people (for either military or competitive commercial reasons). Also, devoting resources to creating robots that bite means that we are not devoting as much resources to creating robots that care for us and our children, herd sheep for us, bring food to us, and fetch and carry for us as partners where we look out for each other. So, there are choices we make as a society about where to invest our current resources. And those choices flow from how we think about wealth and the security of that wealth as individuals and as a society.

With an approaching technological singularity including the development of AI, we can of course expect whatever we make is likely to grow far beyond whatever we originally made it for. But, like David Brin suggests, we can still ask, what values and assumptions does that future grow from? That’s a question Paul Fernhout enjoys exploring and discussing.

For example, he has expressed concerns in some online forums frequented by transhumanists that for all their embrace of 21st century technological change (including for self-modification), many (if not most) self-identified transhumanists may still in practice hold a fairly unexamined set of political and socioeconomic beliefs. Those beliefs often prioritize competition and market-driven capitalism (as drive many small high-tech for-profit startups in the USA). But such beliefs derive mostly from one style of 19th century (and earlier) scarcity-based economic thinking that has become dominant in the USA. History shows there are many alternative paths to consider. He feels there is a growing disconnect between 19th century competitive economic rationalizations and 21st century technology of abundance, and he feel that disconnect may be one of the biggest barriers to transhumanists realizing their dreams (as opposed to global nightmares). However, with various open source movements on the rise, a new generation of transhumanists seems to be considering more economic alternatives (like a gift economy through FOSS or improving the subsistence economy through improving 3D printing), which he feels is a hopeful sign.

Albert Einstein said in the 1940s that harnessing the power of the atom changed everything but our way of thinking. Generalizing on that theme across all advancing technologies (nanotech, biotech, AI & robotics, nuclear, social media, bureaucracy, healthcare, etc.), Paul Fernhout summarizes the biggest problem of the 21st century as “the irony of technologies of abundance in the hands of those thinking in terms of scarcity”.

But some older transhumanists are not the only ones caught in such an irony. One other example he wrote an essay about is the ironic choice by the USA to use public funds to develop and use robotic drones to blow people and things up out of fear over limited oil supplies and related concerns. An alternative would have been spending similar amounts of money developing robots to help people and build things like solar-thermal power plants out of confidence there can be enough energy to go around. He suggests a 19th century military posture emphasizing security through extrinsic and unilateral approaches is not an approach well-suited to 21st century national and global security needs. In the 21st century, he suggests intrinsic security and mutual security are more important given technology is an amplifier that makes possible things like the spread of WMDs as well as the spread of better tools to make sense of what is going on in the world in a compassionate way.
There are more examples he delves into in various essays he has written related to health care, schooling, manufacturing, and government.

Yet, despite a need for better tools to make sense of this all, he feels, as Robert Steele suggests, that our current notion of government intelligence still focuses mostly on stealing secrets to fight other nations, not in putting sophisticated sensemaking tools into the hands of individuals and small groups in a democracy to help make sense of what is going on to make better choices about their future. He feels that choice of what kind of robots, security, or intelligence tools to invest in flows from a certain view about wealth, scarcity, and related competition. But, until government seriously invests in FOSS public intelligence tools, he and his wife have been trying their best as resources permit to make free tools to help everyone to make sense of their world. And he is glad some other people and groups have been doing the same.

So, to that end of improving public sensemaking about the future, he has been exploring ways to help people move past that irony of misusing the tools of abundance from a scarcity-based world view. One way is with better ideas (like an essay on why millionaires should support a “basic income”). Another way is with better tools (like he and his wife have developed for for sharing stories with Rakontu and for using evolutionary processes to create new 3D objects and new musical phrases with PlantStudio and EvoJazz). Another ways is with better social processes (like Debian exemplifies and he has written about). There is also some co-evolution of all three together like Doug Engelbart talks about. Because of such work towards developing ideas for a healthier world and developing better FOSS tools for collective sensemaking, both he and his wife (Cynthia Kurtz) have been listed in the “Who’s Who” of Public Intelligence.

He credits the late James P. Hogan’s stories like “Voyage From Yesteryear” (1982) about a conflict between two technologically advanced groups, one thinking in terms of scarcity, one thinking in terms of abudance, for awakening him to that concern about our choice of scarcity vs. abundance world view (including the problem of “financial obesity”). At the time he first read that book he thought it was absurd that the scarcity-minded group would persist so long in their ideology when confronted with advanced abundance, but Hogan’s book has proved all too prescient as a social commentary over the past three decades. Iain Banks’ adage that “Money is a sign of poverty” was also influential in his thinking, as have been the stories of Ursula K. Le Guin emphasizing “balance”. Various non-fiction authors including Langdon Winner, Julian Simon, Bob Black, Paul Hawken, Amory & Hunter Lovins, Jane Jacobs, Ivan Illich, Victor Serebriakoff, Gerard K. O’Neill, “Conceptual Guerilla” (who wrote an essay called “The mythology of wealth”), Dee Hock, Michael Phillips, Marshall Brain, Howard Zinn, Manuel De Landa, John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Alfie Kohn, Pat Farenga, Grace Llewellyn, John & Nancy Jack Todd, Buckminster Fuller, Jimmy Carter, Fred Rogers, Leon Shenandoah, Marcine Quenzer, and many others also talk about related themes from various perspectives. Paul Fernhout has tried to synthesize a lot of such authors’ ideas in his own work. Those ideas have also contributed to why he and his wife have chosen to homeschool/unschool their child.

While many people still think of our main problems in this world are technological or resource-related (like perhaps running out of oil), Paul Fernhout now feels the main problems confronting humanity are more social and ideological (or mythological) instead. This can be true even if technological change or working around current resource constraints is an important driver of the need for social change, and even if more of the right kind of technology will make social problems and resource problems easier to deal with. He feels our technology needs to reflect our social values, and that may entail different choices about what technologies we develop and in what order we develop them. The myths about wealth we live by can create reality like through encouraging government policy that does not account for externalities like by ignoring pollution, disease, war, or other risk caused by some activity, allowing profits to be privatized but costs to be socialized.

Like many others (such as Frances Moore Lapp√©, Bucky Fuller, or E.F. Schumacher), he believes we could have had abundance for all on Planet Earth decades ago, but our scarcity-based mythology of wealth basically stands in the way. He feels that current mythology based around material scarcity assumptions becomes increasingly problematical (and alternatives harder to ignore) with every technological advance and every increase in a rich/poor divide. Having a networked supercomputer-level SmartPhone in your pocket will only further increase pressure for broad social change, in a way foreshadowed by a 1950s story by Theodore Sturgeon called “The Skills of Xanadu” (which helped inspire Ted Nelson to work on hypertext which in turn helped lead to the world wide web). Those myths also sometimes prevent us from grasping the low hanging fruit for promoting abundance for all (like access to sunshine, sidewalks, vegetables, community, and laughter as discussed in “BlueZones”) and instead focus on profit-potential of expensive super-high-tech magic bullets. Both low-tech and high-tech may be needed and desirable, but we can still ask in what order should we make our public investments to grow our social wealth?

With a growing personal awareness of how our collective mythology of wealth affects our society, over the past decade Paul Fernhout has written several essays exploring potentially transforming major scarcity-based institutions in our society into post-scarcity ones, including Princeton University, Google, the New York State public school system, the US manufacturing sector, the global non-profit sector, the US defense department, and even the US CIA. He has also created some ironically humorous items about the transition to post-scarcity thinking. All those writings are available for free on his website as part of a growing global gift economy that he relies on for so much of his own learning these days.

He recently created a video presentation on Five Interwoven Economies: Subsistence, Gift, Exchange, Planned, and Theft. That presentation was intended to help people think about the shifting balance between different types of economic transactions as we transition from a scarcity-oriented economy to a post-scarcity abundance-oriented economy. As with his other work (mostly put under Creative Commons licenses), he encourages others to improve upon it in their own ways. He accepts that the same person who may be good at synthesizing some ideas may not be the best person at figuring out how to present those ideas in a captivating way or know how to tailor those ideas to specific contexts. He believes we all need to work together based on humane values to transform our world into a place that is healthier, more joyful, more fun, more abundant, and more intrinsically/mutually secure for all *before* the “Singularity” comes, because he feels our path going into a singularity might very well effect our path coming out of one.

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