Review of Tony Czarnecki’s „Becoming a Butterfly“ book
1st January, 2021
This is a prescient work that deserves your attention. It is the third in the “POSTHUMANS” series, whose prequels are “Federate to Survive!” – enumerating our existential threats – and “Democracy for a Human Federation” – how we might survive those threats. This work completes the trilogy by asking who humanity might become after a successful survival, building from Tony’s earlier book “Who Could Save Humanity From Superintelligence?.”
Tony is thinking on a grand scale, as you might expect from a key speaker at the London Futurists. He thinks out to the logical conclusion of the trends we are beginning to experience now, and foresees – as many of us do – a rendezvous with destiny that goes either very well or very badly for us all. The path to the favorable outcome requires us to assume control over our own evolution, in Tony’s view, and so he lays out how that ought to happen. These sweeping prescriptions, such as “Build a planetary civilization,” may appear thoroughly unrealistic; Tony acknowledges this, but is unafraid to make the case, and readers of this blog will know that it is one I share. We can hope at least for a Hundredth Monkey Effect. Tony repeatedly outlines how surviving the near-term existential threats will propel us to a condition where we will be resilient against all of them.
Tony delineates the exponential factors driving us towards this nexus and then describes the attributes of a planetary civilization: operating at level 1 on the Kardashev scale, able to harness the total energy available to the entire planet. (We’re at around 0.75 on this scale at the moment.) To get further, though, we need to be more resilient against the kind of threats that accelerate as our population and technology do, and here the author uses current experience in the pandemic to illustrate his point while giving a numeric treatment of threat probabilities.
Tony is happy to make specific suggestions as to what the government should do to achieve that resiliency; the problem is that those suggestions, while naturally pitched at the government of the author’s homeland of the United Kingdom, need to be picked up on a global scale. One government acting alone cannot expect these measures to gain traction any more than one government could make a Paris Climate Accord. (With the possible exception of the United States and its power to wield the global reserve currency like a baseball bat.)
Czarnecki then tackles the subject of superintelligence: What drives the evolution of AI, what might the risks of superintelligence be, can it be conscious, and how should we curate it? This is where he connects the dots with transhumanism. This, of course, is a touchy subject. Many people are petrified at even the most optimistic scenarios of how humanity might evolve in partnership with AI, and futurists owe it to this audience to provide the most reassurance we can.
Czarnecki refers extensively to the need to federate, which was laid out in one of his earlier books. His examples are Europe-based and North American audiences would find the book more relatable with some that were taken from their experience. In particular, Americans in general are somewhat allergic to the United Nations and Czarnecki’s proposals should clearly demarcate for them the limits of power he suggests they exercise. He recognizes this by suggesting that the USA may be among the countries not participating in the world government he proposes, but this strikes me as leaving out an essential ally in plans of this scope. I’ll leave you to discover in the book which body he settles on identifying as the best candidate for leading the world into the new federation. (And Star Trek fans can hardly object to plans for creating a Federation, no?)
There is much more, including discussions of potential pitfalls, economic realities, and likely scenarios for armed conflict along the way to what Tony calls the Novacene – the new era. The treatments of these sweeping paths are undertaken with a thoroughness that suggests the book’s application as a textbook in the right kind of course – perhaps The History of the Future. Listeners of my podcast know that my thoughts tend in the direction of education already. In summary, Becoming a Butterfly is a serious work, to be taken seriously. Don’t try to skim through.