Human 2.0 Project

Permanence * Adventure * Culture

Transformation One - the toolkit for tomorrow's civilization

2014-02-21 00:00:00 Erik Lee

If you could redesign civilization, what would it look like?

That's a fun question to ponder, and I spend a lot of time thinking about it. We all have a few things we'd like to see changed, but what if you could actually do it? What do you think would make a good civilization? My long answer to this question is below, but in a nutshell the concept is this: a good civilization makes people happy and makes the world healthier and more vibrant as time goes on. The whole point of civilization is to make life better for the people who live in it, and our current one certainly does that in many ways. I think we can do even better though (a lot better, actually). Here's how:

What's wrong with what we already have?

Our setup today is fantastically effective at one thing: generating material wealth. Never in human history have average people had as much access to goods and resources as we have today. This is defintely a good thing, as far as it goes. People need to have stuff in order to function. The question I have, though, is at what point do we have enough stuff? Or to put it another way, when can we stop spending all of our time and energy on getting stuff, and start spending it on things like having friends, raising our kids, and adventuring?

That last question hits pretty close to the mark for me in terms of what the exact problem actually is. I don't think there's anything wrong with having lots of stuff, what's wrong is that we seem to end up letting it consume our lives. The one resource we haven't figured out how to get more of is time. So far, a healthy person will survive for about 70-90 years, and that number hasn't changed much in our history. Before you jump all over that, remember that I said healthy person - what I'm talking about here is dying of old age. In our world today, way more people make it to where they of old age than ever have before, but the point is that old age still arrives at about the same time it always has. So, our time is our single most precious commodity. I think that we should rethink what we do with it.

The regrets of the dying

There was a nurse who would ask a question of all of her terminal patients [1]. Basically, she wanted to know what regrets they had looking back over their lives. The answers she got were not surprising, but they do tell us a story I think we need to hear. Here are the top five answers:

  1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
  3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

One thing that jumps out at me in that list is that there's nothing there about having a better phone or getting a bigger cable package. People don't regret their lack of things, they regret their lack of connection with other people, and the lack of interest and adventure in their lives.

We get so caught up in the pursuit of stuff that we forget to live while we have the chance. That is what I want to change about our civilization.

Civilization supports culture, not the other way around

I think the proper role of civilization is to make culture flourish. Culture shouldn't exist to make the machinery of civilization more powerful. After all, a civilization is just a collection of people and their technology,and the technology doesn't care whether it's living an interesting life or not. Our technology should be freeing up our time so that we can do things that make our culture richer. The exciting part about living right now is that I think we're in the perfect place to actually make this happen. The key things that will get us on the path are permaculture design, the Internet, and home-scale manufacturing.

Permaculture, a.k.a. ecology hacking

I think permaculture is the biggest thing that's about to change the way humans live on Earth. I'll explain a lot more about this in other posts, but for now I'll give you the ultra-abbreviated version. Permaculture is the art of hacking ecology to make it work better with human needs. An ecosystem is a more or less self-maintaining, sustainable collection of things in an environment. The individual things come and go, but the overall system is identifiable as a unit because of its behaviors. If you think of a forest, the plants and animals in the forest are constantly changing, but the forest system retains its identity because it's doing something recognizable as a system. It collects sunlight, air, and water, then converts them into chemical energy which cascades through a zillion different living things before ultimately becoming long-lived stored carbon in the soil (humus).

If you look at it like that, and you include humans as part of the system, then you can do some really awesome stuff to knock back the ever present need for work. One of the sayings in permaculture is "a need not met by the system is work, and a product not used by the system is pollution." I really like the part about work - it means that if we're careful, we can make a functional ecosystem that will provide for the majority of our basic material needs (i.e. food, water, shelter, sanitation, building materials, even some kinds of medicine). In effect, we're building an automation process out of living things. As a happy side effect, we're also building fertility in the soil, cleaning the atmosphere, and generally making the world a more vibrantly alive place to live.

The key idea to take away from this little section is that permaculture lets us build living systems that will support us as a byproduct of their natural function, by identifying the behaviors of natural systems and emulating them in an engineered assembly of useful species. If that's hard to grok, don't worry. I'll be covering it in great detail in the future. For now, I assure you that it's not only possible, it's currently working in a lot of sites around the world [4].

The Internet is like books, except with tubes [5]

There's one thing that's more important than anything else for a civilization to survive: passing on knowledge. In particular, the present has to hand the sum total of human knowledge to the future, in an unbroken chain, forever. It makes sense then that the two major information revolutions that humanity has experienced were watersheds in the development of civilization. The fist was the printing press, invented by a number of people but credited mostly to Gutenberg [2]. This brought the written word to the masses in a way that had never been possible before. By learning to read, anybody could master the secrets of the ancients, and the revolution it started continues to this day.

The Internet is like books, but more. Now it's not only possible for everyone to read, it's also possible for everyone to publish. That means that, even if you don't write well, and you only have one thing to say that might be important, you can still say it. You can comment on other people's words, and as a community the entire world can function like a big, continuous brainstorm session. It goes without saying that this has already spawned a revolution in the way people interact and learn, and it's only just getting started. If we can keep the Internet free and open, there is literally no limit to the heights of knowledge we can reach.

Not only can we write, but now we can build

The last thing that I think is crucial for our re-civilizing toolbox is the fledgling technology of home-scale manufacturing. What I'm talking about here is a bunch of computer controlled machines that build physical things for you based on a data file you feed in. The machines are anything from 3D printers to CNC milling machines and laser sintering rigs. They will only get more powerful as time goes on, and they will only get cheaper as people are able to manufacture their own parts.

This may not sound like such a big deal, but let me explain why I think it really is. One of the most powerful things to come out of the Internet (in my humble opinion) is the idea of open source software. Here you have a massive collection of people who work together to solve problems just for the fun of it. They're typically not being paid, and often the code starts out as just a hobby project. Then something interesting happens - somebody else gets interested and starts making improvements. Pretty soon, you end up with a big bunch of people developing world-class software for free, and the entire world is better off for it. I think that this model is going to spread into the world of physical things as these home-manufacturing machines become more common. You'll be able to make parts for nearly anything for the cost of raw materials (and I expect the term "recycling" to take on an entirely new meaning...). Need a new piston for your lawn mower engine? Download a plan from the Internet, load it into your CNC mill, and come back in an hour. Oh, and you got the aluminum billet by melting down the old piston and a few beer cans...

Factor-e farm is an excellent example of what will become possible for anyone in the near future. Their entire goal is to make a "global village construction set," or GVCS [3]. The GVCS is a collection of open source equipment designs that can be reproduced using only the tools from the GVCS. In other words, it's self-reproducing. That's not the whole story though. The equipment in the designs was selected in order to let people start from scratch and build everything they need to have a working town. The project is ongoing, but their progress to date is pretty amazing and I highly recommend becoming a "true fan" (I did).

The point of all of this is time.

Circling back to where we started, the whole point here is that we can reclaim our time. We no longer have to live chained to a desk because we have to earn the money to buy the food, utilities, and equipment we have to have to survive. We can design our way out of the vast majority of it by adopting permanent, passive systems and taking advantage of the Internet and distributed manufacturing tech.

If we adopt this as a culture-wide ethos, that we can design away most of the need to work in our lives, what will we do? Right now, the idea that people need constant employment has led us to a place where most of our time is spent doing makework of some kind. Economists argue that we need that though, or people will be destitute and broken. I don't think that's the case, and I'll explain my thinking in the next article. In the mean time though, I would really love to hear what you think about it. Why is it that people fear automation and the resulting job loss, and is there anything we can do about it so that we can have our cake and eat it too?


  1. The regrets of the dying
  2. The printing press
  3. Global Village Construction Set
  4. Permaculture Projects around the world
  5. Series of Tubes
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