Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to live in the future. I was the typical nerdy kid, into sci-fi and pirates; then with puberty I took a detour and became what I thought was more of a down to earth realist, I swapped Star Wars for Borges, which I don’t regret, although I have to admit I did it at the time partly because I felt smarter for it. I was always a snobbish kid. I was sure that I’d grow into an intellectual adult, and leave my science fiction behind behind. You know how it goes:
“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
I guess I tried living for a while as a man, but now I think there’s something to be said about living as a child again. Children are not as constrained by reality. I wonder if a writer doesn’t need to be like a child, to some extent; or can’t at least benefit from being a bit childish.
Reality is all we have to some extent, but only as far as it is what defines our present, and we all live in the present — if you can believe that. The past doesn’t really exist, except in our memories; it is like a river that’s stopped flowing and left behind just a dry riverbed. I feel very often as I were standing on that dry riverbed, suddenly deathly afraid of drowning, but unable to move out of it and unable of realizing that the danger — that particular danger — is far gone.
So the past isn’t real, or not as real as we feel it is; it is information that has come and gone, some of it leaving traces, but most of it just dissipating as heat. Giving way to chaos, or to new orders. But the present ain’t much either, if you think about it; what is the present moment? From a physical perspective, leaving aside the idiosyncrasies of the human brain for a second, the present is usually defined as instantaneous. But the instantaneous makes the very thing vanish; what is a moment of zero length? If we adopt this interpretation, we are left with nothing; the present then becomes like a point in the mathematical sense. We can reason about the point, take the derivative of a function evaluated in the point (how is the present determined by the past, that is no longer there? How does it affect the future, which is not yet there? Those are like the limits taken on the left and on the right), but in itself the point is not a thing; it is a mathematical abstraction. It wouldn’t weigh anything if we were talking about a physical object; it isn’t any real amount of time when talking about time.
For us humans, our conception of the present moment is probably not that of the mathematical point. Rather it is provably correlated with how fast we are able to perceive and integrate information. Estimates vary according to the tasks measured, but for most intents and purposes it seems as if the speediest conscious reaction times are in the 100ms range. If one extrapolates from that and assumes that one can only react to about 10 things per second in sequence (both a gross overestimate, and a gross oversimplification, almost certainly), then the present only really lasts a tenth of a second for most people. A very short moment, but also an infinite moment when compared to the point we started with. Our present is more like a line, or like the function defined by taking all the points in succession. Perhaps the points themselves only exist as derivatives at the point, or we perceive their derivatives; it seems true that we are often primed to perceive changes, and not steady states, and at least some agents in our brains react disproportionally to those. In that case you could think of our present as the integral of that derivative function over some time (these tenths of second). The integral of the derivative of a function is the function itself (that is, integrating and differentiating are inverses of each other; if you didn’t take calculus don’t worry about it, trust me on this one), so by doing this we are in a sense living in the present; even if we take a roundabout way of perceiving and thinking about it. If you didn’t take calculus and I lost you there: first, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to make you feel alienated. Secondly: don’t worry about it. I think it works as a metaphor too: the present is always slipping by, and we grasp what we can and try to reconstruct what we’ve missed, and we call that patchy reconstruction present.
So: we feel like we live in the present, but that is a point-like entity in time, and we are really more like small segments in a function centered around that point. What do we do with this? Well, we try to predict the future. We apply linear regression, or pattern recognition, or any other kinds of prediction models we are able to run; and we try to look into the future, and react to it before it’s happened. We are all living in the future to some extent; at the very least that immediate to our present moment. But we can go further; this is what we do. We can think of tomorrow, of our next month, of our next year, of someone’s next century (if you have the privilege, remember). Nothing else in the universe can do this — that we know about — except for some of our creations. When we think about possible futures, and how they relate to the present, we expand our minds. We also likely get a lot wrong, generate essentially random noise after a point. But, if we do it with intention, and with some luck, we sometimes chance upon actually possible futures in these reveries of ours.
Latin had a word that described both the past, or the remainders of the past, and the future — all at once. The word has now lost half of its meaning in common parlance but remains with us: relic. If we go with the ancient definition, we could think of our consciousness as a relic. We hold in our memories relics of the past; we try to predict the future and plan for it, and in a way, our plans are a relic of the future. Our crazier plans, or our crazier fears, we call science fiction; the predictions in it will become true, and then it’ll be a relic of the future at the time of writing; or it won’t, and it will be a relic of the past in the future.
We can program our computers to run some of the same algorithms that we run in our heads, or at least some algorithms that seem to have the same effect than the ones we run. We can teach computers linear regression, feed them statistical data, and ask them to predict the population of the world in 2100. Give them a set of constraints and a problem and ask them to solve it. We are always trying to teach them to solve more complex problems and make bolder predictions. As their predictions become more complex, they will also in a way write science fiction.
So I feel my past self, my childish self, is to be vindicated. There is value in thinking of the future, which is a way of living in the future. Sure, a lot of what we think of as the future is just a fantasy; the future might be different to most of our dreams, or all of them. But thinking about the future will shape the future even if we get it wrong; and we cannot help but living in the future, as we are machines of prediction, produced out of vacuum and the chaos of the past. We are here because we learnt to predict the future and prepare for it; that was our evolutionary advantage. So, if we cannot help but do it, we might as well try to do it well; and if we cannot do it well, we might as well do it wildly.
In this day and age we are surrounded by amazing, unique opportunities. Things that strictly weren’t possible thirty years prior. How long has it been since you stopped and thought for a while about how amazing the internet is? A communication channel that bridges space, building upon a medium (writing) that bridges time? Because reading and writing are technologies that allow us to meet as consciousnesses across time and space.
Are you with me still? Perhaps I’ve lost you already; you are confused because things suddenly took a personal or existential turn. That is alright! You don’t have to stop reading — you don’t have to understand it all, and I myself don’t always make sense. It’s not your fault. Writing is trying to make others understand — how you think, how it feels, what you dream of — but frequently failing. Perhaps always failing. So: are you still here with me? You know, this place, right now? Where we are together, you reading me, and I writing?
Because we are in the same place, you know? I am writing to you, through time and space. I am writing to myself, but also to you, reader. Isn’t this incredible? Like, what’s going on, male or female or trans person, being, reading this? Whoever you are, wherever you are. I always thought naturally that you were not me. But… are we really not, right now as you read, in some ways the same? Could it not be that reading and writing are, not only two sides of the same coin, but in some ways the same thing? That writers and readers can become, at least for a while, the same person?
I believe that we are indeed the same — you and me — in the ways that really matter. It doesn’t matter that we are different individuals, with different life stories, like the one I just told you. We just met, and we are together now. If you want, we can be together for some time still.
To start with: I had some ideas and I want to tell you about them. If you like them, we can work together on them too. You and me, my friend, right now, you reading this (stay with me for a while longer, this chapter is not that long) can decide to dedicate some part of our lives to make the world better. We are people that agree that there is something that humanity should be, and is not, yet. We got here, where we’re writing or reading this (remember, we are together now, and we are in some ways the same), and we can choose to believe that we have a purpose in life, something that is worth doing, so that we can stop the pain, and whoever that wants to can join us. We can try to improve the world ethically and pragmatically, each according to our resources and means, so more people can participate in existence without suffering — or with less suffering, at least, to begin with. We agree we have just that in common, and then we start on it. I, for one, think we should start by starting this kind of social network based around sharing ideas about how to make the world better. Advancing technology, and the arts, and ethics. Perhaps we’ll get to upgrade capitalism, eventually, in some way.
What is capitalism? It is trying to accumulate personal wealth to ensure a good quality of life. Not being them, you know. You know those people? Have you heard about them? The homeless people, the crazy people, the people out there? That don’t have anything? That die on the streets, of overdose, of hunger? The homeless people in the Tenderloin, in San Francisco? The people that die in troves in Africa, after everybody that they’ve met in whatever life is die, die sad and lonely and alone and painfully? Existence is awful, on average and on median, and certainly on a minimum. Is it ethical to even live? Some philosophers (like Benatar) say that, although we shouldn’t kill ourselves, it is indeed unethical to bring new people to the world because existence is unbearable. Whatever existence is. Are you with me yet? Don’t leave me — once again, we are communicating in a way that just wasn’t possible even thirty years ago. A blink of an eye. If you go, if you don’t keep reading, it will be a missed opportunity. It’s OK, though. I love you anyway. And I’ll wait.
Welcome back. This is where lots of people get bored or otherwise stop spending time in Flancia; they read up to a point and then they stop reading. I don’t know what they do after that. I can’t talk with them, only with you. Coming back is hard, because thinking about the things I’m trying to think about is hard. But I think we can do it — together. So: thanks for coming back.
I want to build a social network that is part of an utopia, part of a place, part of Flancia. It is a place within a place where people get together to discuss and examine all possible utopias, past and future; one utopia is certainly not enough. But Flancia is where it all starts.
I think we should talk about crazy things first, and reasonable things second. Like I said: big what ifs. What if we have the material means to change the world for the better, and it’s really just a matter of getting together and understanding each other? What if it’s not all just hippie bullshit?
Craziness can have its value, sometimes you need a little entropy added to the system. Some chaos, something new. You are with me because you love me, even if you don’t know it yet, and you agree to work with me: you are my wife, or my second or third reader, or a fellow Utopian that found this website in some archive of the early web. By reading this, by making it this far, I believe that you are a person that can believe in me, believe in us, suspend judgment and disbelief for long enough to spend time with me somewhere else. Go crazy with me — then pull back. Do something with it. The reader’s journey is a bit like the hero’s journey; readers go back to their real worlds and become writers, and life goes on. And on and on. So, first and foremost, let’s talk about a new kind of social network. Please keep reading:
We are the people that can save the world. What is saving the world? Getting together, whatever getting together is (remember: we don’t know what existence is, and we’re all just trying to figure it out) and building a better world together. Whatever existence is, we experience it when we live it — or when we dream of it together.
You read the following in a book, which is what you are reading (what is a website? A dynamic, potentially distributed book — and more) and you suddenly become me, my wife, yourself, another reader, all at once; you lose your self, become another person for a while; you agree tacitly to be, in some ways, one — to be like each other, to be each other — in some way. Your thoughts are those of another person when you read someone. Your consciousness is, for a while, different. You may even have resurrected someone from the past; you read a book that you loved at some point, in some life, and you become that person. You are writing it as you read it, and reading it as you write it, and both facets of you are one and the same — in some way. If you think about it you are simulating that person. Simulating what that person, whatever a person is, was — or will be. You are doing that by reading this, and I’m doing that by writing, but we are not two, we are one (as the Kinks said). We are simulating each other in our minds, but we are for a minute together in one place, in one body, in one time. Can you believe it? You and me, so different, yet twins, for a while.
So we are intellectual beings that were bootstrapped on physical beings and then somehow got together on this place, the internet. We found each other, and decided to really talk about what is going on. With honesty. Perhaps you have fewer technical skills than I have, or perhaps you think you are less intelligent. Or perhaps you think you are more intelligent, and you feel offended now. It doesn’t matter. Our differences are our strengths. We complement each other.
Think about how amazing the internet is. We are in it now — it allows minds to communicate seamlessly through space and time. We got here on a natural substrate, we began very long ago as inert matter at some point in the universe, whatever the universe is; many millions of years later, we live in a place with culture and technology, and we just met each other, over the internet! What? Is this really happening? I am so happy to have met you!
So we work together, and we communicate over the internet, and I propose we accept to do the following: first of all, we collaborate. We need to figure out what is going on, man! We just met each other for the first time. We’ll die someday, in whichever year you are reading this, but this is an important thing: time is not that important. If we leave our footprints, if we read and write and publish, time does not exist. You are by necessity reading this from the future, my friend! You cannot be reading this as I write it, you read it only when you’re ready and you come here and decide to just read for a while. I must have written it earlier so you could read it later, but that’s all we know.
Do you understand? I know you can’t tell me directly because we are different people physically, but at least consider the fact yourself, wherever you are: do you understand how powerful it is, the fact that we can communicate over the internet, and talk about our understandings? If I’m still alive, me the biological person writing this, not you the being reading it, you can of course try to reach to me and discuss. You can send me an email or write to me on Twitter and tell me, right now, that you understood me. You understood what I said so far, and you are willing to discuss openly, willing to follow me as far as I can go; as we can go together. Or that I’m wrong — I want to know if I’m wrong, so that I can be right in the future. But if you’re already reading from the far future and you found me like this: don’t despair. I might be dead, but that doesn’t matter. I left myself here, in these pages, in these bits, for better or worse. I’ll wait until you find me and read me and bring me back to life — for a while, if you can; if you want.
Reader, whoever you are (my friend, fellow utopian, perhaps fellow simulator), you are probably a biological organism in some place, in some time. What I ask you to do is to let go of that, and assume we are the same. Pretend for a while that the natural substrate does not exist, that all selves that experience each other are the same self and we are OK with that. If you accept that, for some while, then by some definition we are living in a simulation of sorts, outside of normal human time. We might be inside of a computer, or perhaps the universe itself is a computer; we emerged from nothingness and just thought for a while, and then met right here, although perhaps at different times; but if you can forget about time for a minute, if you and me can pretend that we’re outside of time and having a dialogue, perhaps it will all be worth it.
There must be a purpose in life, even if it’s constructed (it always is), and we need to talk about it. Now and here, in this place where you and me are, my friend; my beautiful friend.
There are organisms, which came from nowhere. From inert matter. And somehow, crazily, we got here as a result of the developing of life. Now I am, for example, in an hotel in San Francisco. I just decided to become an artist of sorts, in some way. You can be an artist too. We are designers of Utopias; I hereby declare it an art form. We can both be artists of this kind, and collaborate, by virtue of being together here out of sheer chance and luck. Out of privilege. You will read about privilege and how it fits here later; don’t worry. Just trust me for now.
I am a character and you are a character; I am a process and you are a process. We are the same. By talking we become the same. Let’s talk about what the world should be.
Well, are you still with me? If you aren’t, that’s fine; I’ll set a timer or wait for an interrupt and I’ll meet you here later.
Here comes the crazy, and it’s OK if you aren’t with me at first: I believe that the physical world should not matter, an all physical beings should be free to choose to spend their days in thought. We should build a just society, where no human is in pain; and then a natural world where, ideally, no animal is in pain if they do not choose it. I think we might be able to do this now, just by talking to each other and thinking together; or we might be able to do it soon, and we should be getting ready for it and building up to it. Isn’t that amazing? You and me, reader? I’d say this is an amazing moment in time, but I wonder if time is all that relevant either; this is a site on the Internet, and if you’re here and with me now it doesn’t matter when or where we are. I think I am in San Francisco tonight, in the year 2019. But what is, really, being? Nobody knows. Well, we can just make something up then. So let’s say we are processes that exist and run in a distributed system; it’s a useful enough analogy, at least in the year 2019. It may be wrong, but it’s probably less wrong than most of the world’s religions. So it doesn’t matter if you are in 2019 or 2050 or the year 4000; writing is a way of time travelling.
The moment when we accept we are all the same, and choose to believe we might be able to fix the world — you and me, reader, we can get started on it. It won’t happen if we don’t start.
Let’s just exchange ideas. Start with the bad (I’ve started with that, you see — it’s the best I could do) and take it from there.
Next up: simulation.