Federico Pistono at TZM Interviews

TZM Interviews is a new form of dialog that brings proactive, visionary and inspiring people into this conversation about how the scientific method for social concern applies to global sustainability and how to effectively change the world. This month our guest is Federico Pistono, former coordinator of the Italian Chapter for The Zeitgeist Movement, author, blogger, activist and more...

TZM: Yesterday I was just thinking about technological unemployment (TU). 5 years ago when TZM started its activity it was pretty hard to see any serious reference in the mainstream about this problem; most people could say they had never heard about it and basically it could seem like some random idea, but today we have great minds talking about it. Recently you shared a video where Peter Diamandis comments on this issue. Wired also wrote a BIG article right after you released "Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK". I think we might say that things have changed and that we have successfully introduced the idea of TU into the zeitgeist. We are not there yet when talking about planned obsolescence or the steady state economy but I think this is a huge milestone, perhaps the most important one after Occupy Wall Street. What do you think about it? Are we targeting mainstream or should we be more concerned about organizing those already in favor of a Resource Based Economic Model?

FP: I think we have done an amazing job (apologies, I couldn't resist :P) in spreading unconventional ideas such as technological unemployment. Just a few years ago we were considered crazy for saying this, now it's on the public spotlight, and soon everyone will be taking the credit for having thought of that long ago. And that’s good. Ideas are spreading, society is evolving. It's a process, very well defined and with clear identifiable steps in between; it just takes time, but in the end it's inevitable. It's an inescapable consequence of being curious; of the fact that we evolved the ability to manipulate tools, transcend our biological limitations; that we developed a language with which we can spread ideas at the speed of light.

I think this is just the beginning of an exponential expansion of human development. As Steven Pinker demonstrates in his monumental work “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”; violence, poverty, deaths, and torture have been steadily decreasing since the beginning of human history, and 2012 has been the most peaceful year in history.

Torture and public execution by torture were once instruments of power and popular mass entertainment—now torture exists only in secret, and hides behind political euphemism. Capital and corporal punishment have been eliminated in much of the world, and slavery has been abolished. Murder rates everywhere (including among male English aristocrats 1330-1829) are falling. Murder rates as a percentage of population were far higher among the supposedly peace-loving and cooperative hunter-gatherer communities – the Inuit of the Arctic, for instance, the !Kung of the Kalahari and the Semai of Malaysia – than in the trigger-happy US in its most violent decade. The list goes on: rape, infanticide, aggression, lynch mobs, ethnic cleansing, vendetta, psychopathology, genocide, sadism, cruelty to animals and murderous ideologies, almost everything that is bad is declining, as a percentage of population. Pinker argues that the decline of violence "may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species".

So why do we have such a skewed perception that the world has become a horrible place to live in, that violence and poverty are increasing, and that things are generally going really bad? Peter Diamandis makes a good point in his book “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think”, where he points out that the news media preferentially feeds us negative stories because that's what our minds pay attention to. And there's a very good reason for that. Every second of every day, our senses bring in way too much data than we can possibly process in our brains. And because (in most cases) nothing is more important to us than survival, the first stop of all of that data is an ancient sliver of the temporal lobe called the amygdala. The amygdala is our early warning detector, our danger detector. It sorts and scours through all of the information looking for anything in the environment that might harm us. So given a dozen news stories, we will preferentially look at the negative news. And that old newspaper saying, "If it bleeds it leads," is very true. So given all of our digital devices that are bringing all the negative news to us seven days a week, 24 hours a day, it's no wonder that we're pessimistic. It's no wonder that people think that the world is getting worse.

There are also, of course, the greatest threats that we ever had to face as a species— environmental degradation and runaway climate change, and the possible complete loss of liberty due to this double edge sword called "the Internet". Julian Assange wrote an interesting article called “The internet is a threat to human civilization”—an excerpt of his book “Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet”—where he says that “as states merge with the internet and the future of our civilization becomes the future of the internet, we must redefine force relations. If we do not, the universality of the internet will merge global humanity into one giant grid of mass surveillance and mass control.”

These threats are real, and not to be taken lightly. In fact, I think our attitude towards them and the level of involvement we decide to take on these issues will define what the near future will be like.

For that reason, I decided to write a new book (I'm almost finished). It's a sci-fi novelette called "A Tale of Two Futures", and it tells the story of an average day in life in two very different futures, one where things have gone terribly wrong, and the other where things have gone amazingly right. It's a way of answering the question that I get asked the most by people who have watched my TEDxTalk or have read my book "Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That's OK"—how will the future you describe look like? And the answer is, it depends. The future will either be beautiful beyond imagination; or dismayingly horrifying, much worse than sci-fi dystopias have prepared us for. The difference between the two futures lies in the choices we make. Most people think that the world is too big, too immense for any individual to have an impact, because anything we do is merely a drop in the ocean. But what is an ocean, if not a multitude of drops?

Going with inertia—keeping business as usual—will not do us any good. In fact, I think things can go very bad, if we don't act and decide to take control over our lives and make sure that we keep the freedoms that our ancestors fought so vehemently and passionately for in the past. I believe it's our moral responsibility—towards them, towards our children, and towards us.

TZM: During the last years of work we have witnessed several projects trying to 'change things' which is something really hard to do. Perhaps that's why we don't listen about those projects for a long period of time, they remain projects. I see a different approach from some successful activists where instead of trying to change things you guys try to change ideas and it makes sense to me since ideas are information and as powerful as DNA into every living thing on Earth (perhaps out of the planet as well), and I think this might be accompanied by some trust in how society organizes itself when reaching certain cultural level. This is what we might call Social Evolution. How can one single person accelerate it? Should we trust people organize themselves or should we try to organize their activities with a very specific itinerary that might be called 'transition plan'?

FP: It's a very complex issue, and I don't think anyone knows what the right answer is. Perhaps there is no single thing that is best to do, but we should instead look at the evidence and trust the scientific method, even—or should I say, especially—for this. Let's try different things, see what works and what doesn't, and under which conditions. Take notes, document, gather data, be as thorough as possible, and be prepared to be proven wrong and change direction at any given time. I think this is the strength of science as opposed to philosophy or politics; it's not based on ideology, it doesn't—or shouldn't—have prejudices, and it looks at the evidence instead.

I think some level of self-organisation will emerge, as an inevitable consequence of the efficiency of self-stabilising systems based on shared ideas and cooperation. It's also true that many people—particularly those who aren't very well educated—prefer to be told what to do, instead of finding out what's best. It's easier, and requires less cognitive effort, also because you delegate the responsibility of an action to the person who gave you the order, rather than recognising that you were in fact an active agent yourself.

We probably need both, at different degrees.

I enjoyed very much the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, it had a big impact on the way I see society and the phases of social evolution that humans go through. Each stage of human evolution has been characterised by a technology. We started with religion—one of the most primitive forms of technology—we then transitioned to commerce, and now we are moving towards open source, collaboration, and group minds. We are just at the beginning of this third transition, but it's happening exponentially faster than the previous two. Who knows how long will it take, and who can imagine what will come next.

It's exciting.

TZM: I was just reading "Future Perfect" by Steven Johnson, where the author provides several examples on how society and peer networks are slowly taking some social structures and transforming them into transparent, crowd-sourced, efficient processes. Are we open-sourcing society?

FP: One word answer: YES! Two-word answer: FUCK YEAH! I wrote in my book:

Open Source is not just software. It is a philosophy. It is the idea that sharing is better than secrecy, it is the proof that cooperation is more effective than ruthless competition; and that by opening up the blueprints, the development of science, culture, the arts, and everything that is positive accelerates. It is possibly the most outstanding example of all human achievements, the light in the tunnel of our gloomy idiosyncrasies, a triumph of transcendence from our primitive condition. It is what gives me hope for the future of humanity, the reason I think we can evade the path of self-destruction, and move forward as a species.

Over the past 30 years, the Open Source philosophy has pervaded every aspect of our lives, and everything it touched was made better. It is an inconceivable force, inspiring millions of people to create positive change in the world. What may have started as ‘just software’ moved on to virtually every other field of science, the arts, and even our culture at large. We have open hardware (e.g. Arduino, a microcontroller platform for hobbyists, artists and designers), open beverages (Open Cola and Open Beer!), open books, open films, open robotics, open design, open journalism, and even experiments of open governance.

Open Source pioneer Linus Torvalds, father of Linux, famously said:

“The future is Open Source everything.”

My advice is to support with as much as you can great Open Source projects that are fundamental to the development of humanity, such as Wikipedia, Creative Commons, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as many micro projects of your interest. Whatever you can donate will work. $50, $20, or even $1 can make the difference. It will not only help out the creator and the community at large, but also you directly. If you can reduce your dependence on money by utilising something that was created through an Open Source project, which you helped co-fund, you are in the sweet spot. Once something goes Open Source, it is available to the entire human race, forever. It is a win-win situation.

Together, we can begin to transition towards of society of openness that benefits all, instead of one of secrecy that serves the powerful. Author Clay Shirky pointed out that Wikipedia represents the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. With 100 million hours of thought and collaboration we were able to create the largest and most complete encyclopaedia of all time, “a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing”. Compare that to television watching. Two hundred billion hours of television is watched, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, we have 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television, and 100 million hours (1 Wikipedia project) every weekend, simply watching the ads.

Just think about what we could achieve if we were able to capture even a fraction of that time and use it for something useful. The possibilities are endless – together we can create a truly wonderful world.

In fact, it has already begun.

We need to adopt this idea of peer networks—that has worked so well with software, hardware, and works of art—to the realm of politics, education, and the management of society at large. I think it's the natural step in our cultural evolution.

I exactly don't know what I will be doing next, but I'm sure it has to do with massive online collaboration, learning, and anything that can shape the future of society for the better.

I'm excited to see what's coming, and I want to play a role in making it happen. Alas, I am but a drop in the ocean.

The real question is—what will you do?

TZM: Talking about what we are capable of doing both as individuals and as a global society, I’d like you to talk about art and science, since both had been drivers of change, are those two really different and separate from each other? Can you see any weird connection between art and science?

FP: In my view, Art and Science are really interdependent, in an endless feedback loop. Science is, in a way, the art of making sense of the world and creating things that are useful (or even just plain cool). Art is the expression of transcendence, and it has deeply influenced science since the beginning of time. The first sketches in caves were our first attempt at telling stories. They were useful, and a science—albeit primitive—because they showed others how a hunting tactic went, and people could understand the rationale behind it, replicating it, and adjusting it. But they were also art, one of our very first attempts at it. You see, from early on in our origins (the first of such paintings date back some 40,000 years in El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain) we had this inseparable duality. Art and science developed together, and had tremendous influences on each other since then.
Jules Verne pioneered science fiction in Europe, writing in his 1863 novel “Paris in the Twentieth Century” of glass skyscrapers, high-speed trains, gas-powered automobiles, calculators, and a worldwide communications network. At the time, what Vernes talked about was unthinkable, but here we are now, with all that and much more. Though, if we really look at it, Vernes didn’t come out of the blue with those ideas. They too were influenced by what the science of that time had created. What Vernes did was to transcend that condition in his mind, put it into a work of art, which in turn inspired physicists, engineers, architects, and computer scientists to make that world the reality in which we live in today.

If I had to find an image for it, I would say that science and art are like two people holding hands, pulling each other forward with large swings, in a sort of infinite dance of human evolution.

TZM: Hey and talking about that! Now it seems that those two people are going faster than ever, given the impact of the Internet, today its easier for everyone to learn about science and also develop art. We also have -as you said- more spare time, and people can integrate both in a better way. How is this gonna impact the world?

That speaks to the exponential growth of technology. We can leverage that unfathomable expansion to leapfrog entire generations that would otherwise be needed using linear thinking. We are democratising information and access to information faster and faster, at an ever-increasing speed. And at the end of the day, everything is information. And I mean it quite literally.

The keyboard I’m typing on right now is ultimately information. And so is the laptop, the table, and the same goes for everything else, including you and me. Information is the most basic concept in physics, and everything that exists in the universe is, at its very basis, information. In fact, the Holographic Principle suggests that the entire universe can be seen as a two-dimensional information structure "painted" on the cosmological horizon, and according to digital physics the universe is, at heart, describable by information, and is therefore computable. Hence, the universe can be conceived of as either the output of a computer program, a vast, digital computation device, or mathematically isomorphic to such a device. While some of these theories are still speculative, it should be noted that information (whether classical, quantum, or otherwise) is at the very basis of every system we encounter.

Ultimately, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the courses we study, the houses in which we live, and even the medicines we take or the processes to make our bodies immune to viruses, pathogens, and illnesses; will become essentially free, accessible to everybody, everywhere. And this is possible thanks to the convergence of three conditions: the technologies, the vision, and the passion that people put into creating those technologies, following the vision.

I think this is an inevitable step of our evolution as a species. The question is—how long will it take, how many people will suffer and die in the meantime, and what can we do to accelerate this process, minimising the suffering and maximising the awesomeness that we collectively create?

It’s really hard to say, but I give my two cents in the books I wrote, which again are a combination of art and science. In fact, “Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK” is a very technical book, a work of non fiction. It kindled the interest and the attention of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, as a consequence of that I was asked lots of questions. Yet I found that the best way to answer them was to write a work of art, a sci-fi novel; because sometimes, more than a precise set of instructions, we need to be inspired, to dream of being in a plausible yet seemingly unattainable scenario, in order to look further, and make the future happen.


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Sat, 01/26/2013 - 12:55am | I love the work that Federico (Score: 2 Insightful)
4ndy's picture


Karma: 1

I love the work that Federico has been doing recently. Sagan and Fuller would be proud to see what this young guy has been doing to popularise science and push us along our journey towards peace.
I only hope that more people will get on-board with us, read into where their interests take them, and help to steer this wayward ship of human society away from those possible disastrous courses that we have before us.

Sat, 03/02/2013 - 9:51pm | Enjoyed the interview format (Score: 1)
Tue, 08/19/2014 - 5:36am | this site is interesting and (Score: 1)
Tue, 08/19/2014 - 5:37am | this site is interesting and (Score: 1)