Learning From Nature to Shape the Future

At a Transhumanist conference in the Bay Area, one of the attendees stopped by to chat with me. During the conversation, he noted that my biography was very strange.

          “Spinning, raising goats and chickens, homesteading, these things don’t sound very Transhumanist or futuristic to me," he said.

          “Understanding nature and the way it works is the most powerful way a Transhumanist can shape the future,” I replied.

I then went on to explain that while we can learn a lot from our technology, in reality, most technology directly interacts with nature and by understanding the way the world works, we can become better designers and inventors. We humans are known to try and force our hand upon nature in an attempt to bring order to what appears to be chaos in our minds, but this impulse isn’t logical. This way of thinking is what leads a scientist to invent plastic bags without ever understanding the environmental impact they would eventually have on our marine life. Thinking that we’re above nature and don’t need to understand it, gives us the false sense that we know better, yet when the hurricanes come and destroy the levees, we’re left wondering why.

I took up my homesteading hobbies as a direct compliment to my technical education. I knew how a radio system worked, but I didn’t fully understand how life itself worked. Learning how to knit a sweater from animal to end product taught me so much—how goats behave, what they need to eat, how to shear them, card the fiber, spin it using a rather elegant, yet ancient technology, and finally knit it. By the end I truly understood why we invented the machines we did to make this process so much easier. Spending time with nature in this case gave me a fuller appreciation of our technology.

By spending time in nature and learning to do things for ourselves, we learn the necessity behind the invention and we grasp and appreciate our technology in entirely new ways.

Yet there’s another reason to become intimate with nature—it can show us solutions to the problems we’re trying to solve. Nature has certain cycles and systems within it that we as humans can mimic. After all, we are a part of nature ourselves.

Some people believe nature is chaos. Others believe its order. I’m of the camp that nature fluctuates between the two. There is chaos and then it tends to order. Then back to chaos. Then back to order. Take a bee hive. When it swarms, the bees go flying out of the hive in a messy bunch, loudly buzzing and scaring most humans away. They flood the sky in complete chaos. And then, something amazing happens as they begin to swirl around one another and what was once frantic becomes an organized funnel, similar to a tornado, as they follow their queen to a tree and form a perfect ball around her. Then they wait, as quiet as can be, until their scouts find a home and they fly off once more.

Chaos to order. Order to chaos.

We fear change and this is often what holds us back technologically. Our imaginations are capable of seeing what needs to be done, what new technology or process could be developed, and how we can bring solutions to the world’s biggest problems. But we fear change and chaos so much, we often march at a snail’s pace when it comes to implementing our big changes. Yet we managed the agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution.  We can navigate change as a group.

We’re now entering the technological revolution. At the beginning of each of these stages, we live in chaos. Roles, work, family structure, governments, everything is in play. The type of leaders needed to bring about the true information age are very different than the leaders we’ve had. Yet we keep electing people with a 19th century mindset because we fear the change that’s happening around us. Why the 19th century? Because that’s when the industrial revolution truly hit its high point. Society had fully integrated the factory based economy and life was good. But guess what, like nature, we’ve moved past that stage.

Society now is falling apart precisely because it must in order to integrate the information age economy. Until we get there, we’ll experience pain. But when we’ve made the change, things will settle into order and a whole new way of living will become natural to us.

This is what living in nature has taught me—that it’s useless to turn away from chaos. It’s going to happen, structures must break down. Yet there’s the promise of order right around the corner. Everything in nature works this way. The redwood was once a little seed that underwent extreme chaos to form a root and eventually become a tree. Yet for two thousand years after that chaotic event, the redwood is still standing in an orderly, peaceful manner.

We will transition to the information age and with it will come many new opportunities. The changes on the way won’t be easy, and many will go kicking and screaming. However there’s a more logical approach—accept the change that is part of evolution, imagine solutions, technologies and opportunities, and turn to nature to show the way to order once more.

Capital Lust, Not Capitalism, is Destroying the Earth and the Economy

I don’t like the word capitalism, but not because I’m against the free market. Open trade and markets provide wealth and raise the standard of living for the majority of people in democratic societies. Free markets also allow the exchange of ideas and innovations without the meddling of governments or religion.

No, the reason I don’t like the term capitalism to describe free enterprise is because the term itself narrows the focus of free enterprise on capital, which is both the money needed to launch a business, as well as the money generated by the endeavor. Capital is of course important, without it, there would be no enterprise. But business doesn’t run on capital alone, no matter what modern Wall Street tells you.

For a free market to truly work, there are two more areas to consider: Labor and Land.

No business functions without labor. Whether machines or people, the free enterprise system needs workers. These are the folks who take the big idea and make it real. No invention has ever seen the light of day without labor, and often large amounts of it.

In addition, most businesses need raw materials, which come from the land. They also need a place to house their business and that too requires land.

Therefore the free market needs three things to thrive: Capital, labor and land.

The news is full of examples of how capitalism is failing us and the environment. The recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example of this. Why would Shell let this happen? Will the reason for the spill be similar to the BP debacle where it was shown that they’d skimped on maintenance to enhance the bottom line? Then there’s the famous Foxconn manufacturing in China, where all of our iPhones are made and workers make$1.85/hour yet Americans spend $399 to own the phone the workers so painstakingly make shiny and beautiful at the cost of their health, lives and dignity. Or the 1,100 workers who died in Bangladesh in 2013 making clothes that sell here in America for hundreds of dollars, but for which they received less than $2 an hour and in the end lost their lives.

I can go on and on with examples. Steel mills shutting down. The loss of the middle class. Shipping jobs overseas. Technological unemployment. All of these point to a failure on the part of our economy, but is capitalism to blame?

What if Capital Lust was to blame?

Capital Lust is the obsession within the business community to focus solely on the profits at all costs, to the detriment of labor and land. Capital Lust is what drives a company to reduce benefits, or cut back on safety measures, or lower wages, or dump toxic chemicals into the water rather than clean up their waste, so that they experience continuous profit increases. Capital Lust is the worship of capital over all else.

And unfortunately, Capital Lust is what rules the global economy.

How did we get here? Business owners have always been greedy. Money has a way of bringing out the worst in us. However I think a more modern form of raising capital might be the issue today—The Stock Market.

“Stock is a term used to symbolize an investor's ownership in a company. Those who own stock are commonly called stockholders or shareholders. As a shareholder, an investor theoretically owns a percentage of everything the company owns or owes. The company's profitability, or lack thereof, determines whether its stock is traded at a higher or lower price. While trading of debt and commodities has its origins in the Middle Ages, the modern concept of a stock market began in the late 16th century.” 

Stocks literally paved the way to the new world and financed almost all of the trade ventures of that time. Eventually, traders in London in 1773 took over a coffeehouse as a means to physically trade stocks between the companies, founding the London Stock Exchange. In 1770 traders in Philadelphia would do the same.

Stocks as a means to raise large sums of capital gave us the Industrial Revolution. With this form of investment much technological and social progress has been made. There is no doubt that as a means to supply cash into the free market, stocks are truly important assets.

But what about shareholders? With time, shareholders have demanded more and more profits from companies. Stocks are assumed to always increase in value, exponentially. No one wants to be the one who says, “Well, we’ve hit the limit. Profits can’t rise anymore so stock prices will remain steady.” No one. Every company has to continue to increase in value. There are a few ways to do this—increase productivity, increase price, increase market share or decrease expenses. In a world with finite resources when it comes to labor and land, eventually the opportunities to increase diminish and the only way forward is to decrease expenses.

Shareholders now govern the actions now of the company. Since most CEOs are paid via stock, they too want to see the share values rise. So do the traders. So they manipulate markets. They lobby for laws to allow them to take on shadier investments, they work with bankers to increase credit within the market place to give the impression that increased consumerism is occurring, even though wages have been stagnant for decades. And finally, they create hype and bubbles to give them a momentary abundance of capital, and then cash out just before the bubble bursts.

Stocks have encouraged new forms of Capital Lust within our modern market. Stocks are longer pieces of paper that you can exchange with another person, and instead are traded in microseconds by artificial intelligence programs called algorithmic trading systems written by brilliant software engineers affectionately nicknamed quants. Thus stocks are more virtual reality than anything else, yet stock prices govern the lives of many.

By ignoring labor and land, modern capitalism isn’t really a free market. Companies are deemed too big to fail in this situation and thus, true competition is vanishing. In addition, workers are losing rights daily while the environment is polluted in new and more elaborate ways as we mine and harvest the Earth for our precious metals, oil and gas to run our industry.

What to do? Here’s a strange idea, how about we make some rules about what sort of company can be traded publicly on the NYSE? This law would state that only those companies who have fair and safe labor practices and that follow all EPA guidelines for land use, NO MATTER WHERE THEY OPERATE IN THE WORLD, can seek capital in the form of stocks in any publicly traded stock exchange. Imagine it.

These sorts of companies already exist. We call them socially responsible companies and many investment firms have offered Socially Responsible Investments for decades. I myself rolled my 401K into a SRI seventeen years ago. Do I make 10% each year? No. But they do get returns around 6% and I haven’t lost a dime either. Even during the 2008 crash, my funds increased in steady value because none of the companies in the fund participated in the subprime derivative mess. When my husband saw how much better my SRI funds performed than his regular funds filled with polluters and abusers of workers, he also switched.

In reality, companies that care for land and labor are safer bets in the long run. Their growth might be more realistic and the returns lower on average, but they’re still able to make money while also caring for land and labor. SRI companies are balanced free market enterprises.

In a world where all sorts of laws are passed to make the acquisition, manipulation and hoarding of capital easier, why not demand that companies treat labor and land with dignity if they wish to play the capital game? Show us a business plan that cares for labor and land while still making a profit, and you can use the stock market for access to capital. Too hard to do? Hogwash. Use those impressive MBA degrees to figure out this puzzle.

And if a company is found using Chinese slave labor, or one of their factories crashes on their employees’ heads, or a pipeline spills methane into the air for months, their stock can be frozen until they’ve remedied the problem, not only in the now, but also in their business plan going forward. Oh, won’t the shareholders hate that?

I love the free market and hate to see it abused by Capital Lust in this way. Greed will always exist, which is why we need government to protect us at some level. By restricting access to the stock market to only those companies with a balance between honoring labor, land and capital, we just might see a whole different future.

Faithfulness--The Key to Living in the Zone

Fifteen years ago, I was the modern woman who had it all—a great husband, sweet little toddler, fantastic nanny, and an interesting technical career at Motorola, Inc. Thanks to the dotcom bubble, I’d just received an enormous raise. I also had a second child on the way. Unfortunately, my beloved nanny also found herself pregnant, and one day I came home from work to her resignation. She had decided to stay home and raise her child.

I was devastated. I interviewed nannies like crazy. None were like Sally. She was one in a million. The perfect woman to be the wife of my household while I pursued my technical career. After a few weeks of searching for childcare, I started to hear a nagging voice in my head—that I could be the one to stay home and take care of the kids. This wasn’t the voice of God, though perhaps my younger self thought that. No, this was the voice of me. The same inner voice that had driven me to study computer science in the first place. The same voice that suggested marrying my husband would be a good idea. This voice is the one that has been the most trustworthy in my life, and avoiding it has often led to frustration, irritation and lost opportunities.

Call it the observer, higher self, intuition, consciousness, whatever—all I know is that back then, my mind constantly cried out for me to stay home and take care of my kids, which was the craziest idea I’d had yet in my twenty-six years on Earth. When I told my parents, they cried. When I told my colleagues, they thought I was nuts. Why would I throw away all my hard work to raise kids? What business did an intelligent woman like me have staying home? What a waste! And worse, the many, many men and women who told me that to leave a technical career, even for a few years, was suicide. I would never, ever, ever get back into technology (yes, people actually said these things to me.) How could I let it go?

But somehow I knew that I could leave technology and when the time was right, re-enter. It wasn’t logical at all, rather it was a knowing that if I followed my heart (gasp!) all would work out.

Indeed, I would be a liar to say that the transition was easy. The two years of identity crises and post-partum depression that followed the decision to quit my job and raise my kids were seriously the worst in my life. Daily I woke up wondering what the hell I’d done and daily I heard myself say, “Trust me. You can do this.”

This blog is not a manifesto for staying home with your children. Rather, it’s a manifesto to listening to your inner voice and being faithful to it. Bear with me, because fifteen years later, everything has come full circle.

During those hard first years as a housewife when I felt like a complete failure—trust me, I was much better at software design than raising little boys—I discovered that while I’d been faithful to the particular needs of my sons and family, I’d abandoned my intellectual needs. I wasn’t being faithful to that part of me that needed to think about life, systems and solutions. With time, I found that writing while the kids napped, or in the early hours of the morning before everyone woke, would satisfy that. It seemed like a silly endeavor, but it saved me from self-destruction. Several years and a few poorly written novels and children’s stories later, I’d found a new love. Writing, researching and freelancing a few stories every now and then was the balance I needed.

As the kids got older, I was often asked, why aren’t you back at work? You’ll never get another job in technology. What are you thinking? Yet when I looked at my life in that moment, and listened to my inner voice, it wasn’t time. But the need to do the right thing in the eyes of others was strong and eventually I did go back to work, this time as a teacher. I wanted the hours to line up with my kids’ needs. But years into that job, I found myself exhausted with an income that after taxes barely provided any resources. In addition, just because I worked out of the house didn’t mean I could stop cleaning, cooking, hauling the children from one activity to another, etc. There was no time for writing, or any hobby to nourish my soul. It was work and family. A wise one once said to me, “Family, work, exercise, friends, hobbies. Pick two.” And unlike my technology career, I didn’t make enough money to hire a great nanny to help me. Again, my inner voice said, get out. Go back home. But my ego cried out in anguish, “But I’m so much more than a homemaker!!!”

In the end, I decided to be faithful to my inner voice and quit the teaching job. Three months later, I woke up from a dream and suddenly, my first novel came to life. I was faithful to this novel, setting aside time to write every day. I researched it and found myself deep within the eHuman world. Thus, eHuman Dawn was born. And less than two years later, eHuman Deception. I began this blog and two and a half years later I haven’t become a national bestseller, but I’ve met people from various walks of life who care about and love technology, humanity and the future. I even get emails asking when the final book in the trilogy will be published. My current answer—2017??? If I’m faithful ;-)

In writing these novels, I relied on what I’d learned as a homemaker and allowed myself to be faithful to the story and the characters, rather than force myself upon them. I followed their lead and in the end my life has been richer than I ever could have imagined. My faithfulness to these writing projects has been the adventure of a lifetime.

Now the boys are old. The eldest is on the cusp of college, the younger on the cusp of his driver’s license. I continue to write, having just finished my first venture into historical fiction/fantasy. I’ve adapted eHuman Dawn into film and am working with an agent to make it perfect and hopefully sell it to a producer. And in the middle of this action oriented faithfulness, what should appear?

A job offer. And not just any job, but one in technology.

After fifteen years out, I’ve been approached to be a founding member of a start-up—the CTO no less. The founder read my eHuman novels and saw that while they are stories, they’re also about technology and my knowledge of systems and design are evident in the writing. In many ways, these novels, like all science fiction, are high level customer requirements—only in a much more entertaining form than your typical documentation. In addition, the fact that I single-handedly managed to produce this product is evidence in his opinion that my program management skills are still intact, even if I did spend fifteen years raising sons.

It seems that against all odds, and contrary to the naysayers, a person can re-enter the world of technology. Key to this journey has been my faithfulness to that inner voice, the one who told me when it was time to stay home, when it was time to write and publish, and now, is saying loud and clear that the time has come to venture forth once more and bring my intelligence back to product development.

In a nutshell, faithfulness to one’s inner voice is like taking a dose of Felix Felicis (Harry Potter fans, you know what I’m talking about) and living life open and in awe, while remaining acutely aware of those moments when life cries out with opportunity. For me, this is what it means to live in "The Zone." It takes a lot of trust, and a support network, but in the end, it’s worth it.

In each moment of our lives, possibilities spread out before us. Decisions are what create the story of our lives, and being open to our inner voice is our navigation system. After spending fifteen years living this way, I can’t imagine following any other voice, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.