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The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Stewart Brand writes to Esther Dyson – Blog of the Long Now

Continuing the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. See lower link for Stuart’s full response (addressed to Esther Dyson) to NNT’s letter.

Nassim vaunts “mother nature” as the wise source of safe small-scale tinkering. There are indeed Black Swans—civilization-scale systemic threats—that have come from genetic tinkering. Every one of them was concocted by mother nature—bubonic plague, the 1918 flu, AIDS, malaria, smallpox, and dozens more. No new diseases whatever have come from human laboratories. Cures have, however. Smallpox is gone now, thanks to top-down efforts by science and government. Guinea worm is about to be eradicated permanently. Hopes are high to do the same with polio and even malaria. In the domain of disease, science is antifragile.

The same is true in agriculture. The science of genetic engineering is far more precise than blind selective breeding, and for that reason it is even safer.

I think that the ghost in the GMO ghost story is a misplaced idea of contagion. Any transferred gene, people imagine, might be like a loose plague virus. It might infect everything, or it might hide for years and then emerge catastrophically. But genes don’t work like that. They are nothing but extremely specific tools, operative in extremely specific organisms. A gene is not a germ and cannot act like a germ.

Nassim evokes what he calls a “non-naive Precautionary Principle” to warn about all manner of human innovation. Daniel Kahneman takes an opposing view:

As the jurist Cass Sunstein points out, the precautionary principle is costly, and when interpreted strictly it can be paralyzing. He mentions an impressive list of innovations that would not have passed the test, including “airplanes, air conditioning, antibiotics, automobiles, chlorine, the measles vaccine, open-heart surgery, radio, refrigeration, smallpox vaccine, and X-rays.” The strong version of the precautionary principle is obviously untenable. (Thinking, p. 351)

To achieve Nassim’s goal of an antifragile society, I think we can build on his core idea, which is that, over time, whatever is fragile inevitably breaks, while systems that are antifragile use time to grow stronger. The question is, how do we mix innovative boldness with caution in a way that gradually reduces fragile ideas and systems while promoting antifragile ideas and systems? How do we think ahead without paralyzing ourselves with ghost stories, or indeed with any simplistic narrative?

via » The Artangel Longplayer Letters: Stewart Brand writes to Esther Dyson – Blog of the Long Now.
HatTip to Dave Lull

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