A Singular Summit, and a Thought Experiment for It

Right now, the mood of the times is pessimistic. The predominant trend in the Anglophone world is not about what could be, but to revert to what was. The obvious ones are Brexit and Trump, but Trudeau is a humbug who has done nothing to rein in the tar sands, while Australia may as well append “Mining, Inc.” to its name. That leaves little New Zealand as the outlier – good for them!

I don’t think I am the only one who wants the world to move forwards, but who feels on the wrong side of history. So it was a joy to attend the Singularity University Summit in Thailand in June (I’ve been flat out since, hence the gap in posting). I admit that I’d been sweet-talked into attending by my friend Lloyd, who organized the event, and, as most IT “summits” are self-congratulatory gabfests; I had low expectations. Boy, were they ever exceeded!

You can watch the highlights on Youtube here. The fundamental thesis behind what Singularity University (SU) teaches is simple. With enough critical mass, the marginal cost of production of certain technologies becomes almost zero, and their uptake becomes so rapid that it’s disruptive – meaning that incumbents don’t have time to react, and collapse. Just as the transition from horse to the internal combustion engine was done and dusted in the single decade following the First World War, and the transition from music on discs to streaming music onto your phone has happened in the decade just passed, a whole raft of technologies is set to disrupt energy, transport, money, agriculture, and a whole bunch of other things.

Of course, boundless optimism cherry picks its case studies, and not all technologies are exponential. But the presenters knew their stuff, the sessions were much fuller of facts and cautions than the average gabfest, and, above all, there were those hallmarks of confidence in presenting: jokes. I emerged from two intense, twelve-hour days invigorated and renewed.

And then, there was the food.

Humanity is eating this planet into an ecological grave. Meat and fish are not the only problems, but removing them from your diet is the simplest thing you can do to mitigate the damage. Continuing to eat meat and fish – sorry carnivorous friends – requires invincible selfishness underpinned by wilful ignorance, the wilful part being founded on having the intellectual curiosity of a house brick when it comes to your food sources. We cannot feed the world by going organic, but we can not only feed the world, but return lots of it to other species, or more of our own, if we cut meat and fish from our diets.

To their credit, lunch had a small vegan corner. It was tucked away in such an obscure part of the banqueting hall that I missed it the first time; half a dozen or so of us vegetarians huddled there, watching the other thousand or so delegates stuff their faces with animal cadavers.

But the point is this: all of the speakers knew that meat and fish has to go. Many of them said it in their presentations, others in the socialising that went with the event. Yet the cognitive dissonance regarding diet is so overwhelming that that small corner was all they could muster in the way of action. Words, yes. Action, minimal.

So here’s my suggestion for the next SU summit.

  • Be Bold. Tell the delegates that they’re going to be fed vegetarian food, and tell them why.
  • Don’t be Boring. Offer food that is tasty and interesting.
  • Donate the Skills. Most hotels haven’t a clue how to present a tasty vegetarian meal for a large number of people (actually, most chefs believe it cannot be done!). Send an executive vegetarian chef to the hotel, months in advance, not only to agree a menu, but to train the chefs how to cook it.
  • Leave a Legacy. Encourage the venues to re-use the model. If nothing else, it’s cheaper to prepare vegetarian food than meat and seafood, so more profitable.
  • So, SU, how about it?