Thursday 7 August 2014

Lovelock, Singapore and Techno-Superorganicism

James Lovelock's most recent book, A Rough Ride to the Future (2014), backtracks from his previous apocalypticism and, to some degree, from his repeated suggestion that the human global population needs to be reduced to a few hundred million in order to ensure the survival of the species. In this latest work he instead argues that what is needed is a massive and rapid increase in urbanisation and technological development. It is only, he argues, in densely populated mega-cities that humans can keep a low enough ecological profile per capita not to throw Gaia into a wholly hostile state. That is the claim.

Interestingly, the model he holds up for these futuristic urban utopias/dystopias is Singapore -- a city-state often credited as exemplary by futurists in large part due to its success in marrying economic and consumer freedoms with political and social authoritarianism. As a model for authoritarian capitalism in a hot, wet and massively urbanised environment it surely has few rivals.

The epigraph to A Rough Ride comes from Daniel Dennett:
The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
Lovelock thus redoubles his penchant for superorganismic metaphors to describe human society. We are and must become more like ant colonies, he argues. It is only with such technically efficient social organisation that we can hope to survive. Fortunately, we undertake this improbable task endowed with certain gifts. Humans are exceptional Gaians inasmuch as we are the only species able to wire her neurons, to become her mind. We thus have not only the capacity but the duty to undergo this intensive self-systematisation -- 'for Gaia!'

Which brings me to a very interesting (if somewhat toothless) article (accompanied with some beautiful animations) in Foreign Policy today; the headline:
The Social Laboratory: Singapore is testing whether mass surveillance and big data can not only protect national security, but actually engineer a more harmonious society.
I won't repeat its arguments here but it deserves reading -- both in its own right and in light of the above.

With regards to Lovelock the phrase 'Curate's Egg' springs to mind. He is troublesome; but perhaps that is what makes him so important. His potentially genocidal predictions with regard to human population reduction have been heavily criticised but less attention has been given, so far, to his latest thoughts. It is frankly impressive that at 95 years of age Lovelock has flip-flopped from apocalyptic catastrophism to what is basically a qualified capitalist techno-utopianism. But then again, how far apart are these visions?

It would seem a wise bet that our future lies somewhere between the two Lovelocks: between mass eco-death and mass techno-urbanism; perhaps both together.