Free will is irrevocable. We are always engaging it, yet countless editorial decision points determine the list of options from which we will choose.

In other words, the limits on human freedom are curated boundaries, set by the powers that be. In every corner of the world, throughout most of human history, those curated boundaries were set by natural threats, including competition from distinct small, nomadic bands of human beings.

With the advent of agriculture and permanent human settlement, the curatorial process became one of human engineering—societal convention, systems for adjudicating power and justice, and access to prevailing technology.

Droughts, floods, wildfires, and unseasonal frosts, threaten our supply of food and water. Industry may pollute the air, land, and water, or give us incremental solutions, but it is natural systems that determine the health-building capability of the resources we interact with.

Creativity may best be described as the act of seeing around the most forceful of these limitations. This may be the reason violent authoritarians tend to persecute creative visionaries and artists. They show the way out of darkness and into the light, and they point to the injustice of eroding generosities that cannot be replaced.

In the modern age—having taken on board scientific positivism, democratic revolutions across the world, and the rise of telecommunications—we are accustomed to viewing the elevation of individual choice as a measure of civilizational success. Global interconnection—through post-war peacebuilding, commerce, space-based telecommunications, and the Internet—raises questions we have never had to answer before:

  • What if technological liberation is a shortcut to integrated media control?
  • What if my access to information feeds information to those who wish to predetermine my choices?
  • What if the line between digital viruses and physical pathogens is not so well defined?
  • What if the Internet of Things (IoT) makes artificial intelligence not only necessary, but necessarily smarter than any of us?
  • What if there is no one in political office who understands how to plan for these existential questions?

Hyper-convergence is a description of the coming together of information, technology, day-to-day human activity, the built environment, and the role of human choice in determining outcomes—locally and globally.

For instance: convergence of electrical power with high-definition monitoring of electron flows, with accurate maps of buildings and communities and regions, with smartphones and satellites, could enable individual human beings to achieve more in energy conservation and decarbonization than any public policy initiative yet conceived. That is hyper-convergence.

  • Hyper-convergence is an engine of human empowerment, and also a structural curation of the menu of options we will confront, as individuals and as a society.
  • Free will is irrevocable, but the limits on human freedom are curated boundaries, set by the powers that be.

A short run-through of the really big problem:

  • In the last 20 years, we have seen a steady decline in people’s trust in, and understanding of how to define, “the powers that be”.
  • In the happy revolution of universal information technology, any abusive power can be toppled. This is celebrated, as it should be.
  • But that same revolution brings with it a pervasive destabilization of tested structures and deeply evolved moral codes.
  • The question arises: Who is at the controls? Should anyone be? What if we are freer, but human frailty pushes a new concentration of power?
  • Are nonlinear connected threats an unprecedented, impossible-to-plan-for destabilizing force?
  • And quite seriously: How can law prevent weaponized AI from starting to make its own targeting choices?

Concentrated power deceives all decision-makers. The in-built efficiency we feel we get from prevailing methods and practices leads us into dead-end choices.

  • We favor coal, because policy has made coal appear to be affordable.
  • We have infrastructure, and a lot of engineering experience exploiting coal’s unique qualities.
  • Coal pollutes our lungs, our air, our water, our food, and destabilizes Earth’s climate system, on which the human species depends for its existence.

We have agency; we make choices; the range of choices are highly designed and curated; we enjoy a sense of stability, and yet we harm ourselves and degrade our prospects for survival. We have, for all of our history, lacked critical information that would save us from ourselves. We are now beginning to access it.

As of 2013, human history had produced 4.4 zettabytes of data. Trends suggest this number will hit 44 zettabytes by 2020—nine times as much data as all of history, in just 7 years. A zettabyte is roughly 44 trillion gigabytes. Estimates of data acceleration suggest we may hit 44 zettabytes far sooner.

Free will is irrevocable, but hyper-convergence and the rise of intelligent machines could push us past a point of no return, where we no longer understand the scope or structure of the curation of our menu of options.

If technological hyper-convergence is going to be a force for good, it must:

  • empower individuals,
  • expand freedom of choice,
  • inspire lifelong everyday learning, everywhere,
  • and ensure we are more sovereign, capable and peaceful in our relationships with other people and with natural systems.

[ The Note for August 2017 ]

Written by Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Lobby. He coordinates the building of CCL's citizen engagement groups on 5 continents, leads the Citizens' Climate Engagement Network and represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes. He is a member of the Executive Board of the UN-linked NGO Committee on Sustainable Development-NY and of the Policy and Strategy Group for the World We Want. He is also the founder of and the Geoversiv Foundation and the lead strategist supporting the high-level climate dialogue series Accelerating Progress, Advancing Innovation.

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