Of Ebos, Egypt and the Crackpot Utopian Imperative

You can always tell when you’ve got a bona fide crackpot idea. You’ll hear one or more of the following responses: A) They’ll never let you do that. B) That’ll never work. C) They’ll put you in jail. D) You’re gonna get us all killed.

Please indulge me: I’m elaborating on the classic definition of crackpot. To me, while eccentric, a crackpot idea must also make sense. It has to feel right on a sub-logical level. It will characteristically evoke the secondary response, “But you know, that’s just crazy enough that it might work.”

Now, my stated criteria, A-through-D, are not exactly of the nature scientists use when chasing down a promising hypothesis. I would venture to guess that most, if not all, of the “technoprogressive ideas” showcased in this forum come to light at the end of a fairly disciplined scientific review process. But what of the truly crackpot ideas? What does the scientific community do with these when they come along? Is there an ethical imperative to review them seriously? Before answering, I would first ask that you note my inclusion of the word “Egypt” in the title of this piece.

Yes, I am implying that using Twitter and Facebook to organize a downtrodden, intimidated people in the non-violent overthrow of a dictator was a particularly audacious, crackpot notion. These events were analyzed, often brilliantly, on this website once the process was underway, but had the scheme been proposed to social scientists in advance, would they have given it the time of day? (Very possibly in this forum, but this is an open-minded group.)

There’s too much 20/20 hindsight going on with the Egypt situation right now. We need some other crackpot examples. Suppose someone came to the IEET with a formula for a new kind of social networking platform that would make us all better humanitarians? Or a one-sentence solution for ending war for all time simple enough for a third grader to comprehend?

As it happens, I’m not just supposing. These two crackpot ideas are published in my new novel, Ebocloud. And there’s a story behind how they sprang to life—lucky you.

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It’s funny how things come together. Oftentimes, funny is good. When scattered thoughts vie for our attention, it’s natural to do a kind of mental shake, using your skull like an eight ball game, to force an idea to the top. But incongruous mash-ups can be beneficial too sometimes and I put this method to use as I took my regular lunchtime stroll one spring day back in 2007. Freewheeling in my mind was the recent passing of Kurt Vonnegut along with passages from many of his stories and essays I’d recently re-read. Also, we were at that time hot and heavy into the 2008 presidential campaign, so in my thoughts were dreamy visions of hope radiating from this new Obama guy. They were setting up a holy crusade against all the Bush-era Iraq War frustration still eating away at my gut. And I had just heard about more newly-won Haliburton contracts and, although Cheney’s approval rating was in the 20 percent range, his options in that company were in the stratosphere and I just said to myself, “Damn. This war profiteering has got to end. How in the hell can we ever dissuade leaders from making war when there’s this kind of a profit motive?”

And then I answered myself.

“Well, actually, that would be damn simple. For every dollar Congress allocates for war, make them spend two for peace.”

Yes, Haliburton would still get the contracts, but instead of supporting war efforts and ostensibly rebuilding war-ravaged nations, they’d be building roads, schools, water treatment plants and improving energy resources in unstable regions for the purpose of establishing good will and preventing war. And military contractors might retrofit their factories in order to chase the new funding dollars—swords into plowshares, amen.

Makes perfect sense. And yet: A) They’ll never let you do that. B) That’ll never work. C) Pursue this long enough and you’ll probably wind up in jail.

Now as I’m recounting this for you, it’s all spinning out in nice, linear fashion but it was hardly so because I was, meanwhile, still very much occupied with ol’ Kurt and thinking, “You know, this is just the sort of crackpot idea he would have had. And you can bet Kurt wouldn’t have shrunk from it. Man up.”

Now, of course, Vonnegut was no idiot. He knew crackpot ideas could get you locked up or killed. That’s what he had his fiction for. Whenever he wanted to let loose with a lunatic idea, he put one of his characters to use as a mouthpiece. Perhaps he’d let his alter ego Kilgore Trout—a semi-derelict pulp sci-fi writer—spin out the notion as part of some lewd, pan-galactic tale.

But that’s not to say Vonnegut wouldn’t stand up boldly for a crackpot idea himself when called for, which is why I immediately thought of the Ebo.

You see Vonnegut had visited Biafra, that short-lived nation, back in the early ‘70s as part of a humanitarian mission while the region was torn by its war of secession with Nigeria. In the midst of mass strife and starvation, Vonnegut was absolutely floored by the resolve of the predominant tribe of the country, the Ebo. As a people, the Ebo highly valued human rights and education. He saw how the tribal support structure picked up where individual families left off, offering aid and continuity from village to village.

Vonnegut figured if we had extended families in the U.S., it could solve a lot of problems.

“Huge families take care of their own sick and old,” he told Playboy in a 1973 interview. “They do it right away and at no cost to the government. So the President of the United States … announces that the trouble with the country is that nobody has enough relatives within shouting distance. Everybody has to fill out forms. So the President is going to have the computers of the Social Security Administration assign everybody thousands of relatives.”

Say it with me now. A) They’ll never let you do that. B) That’ll never work. C) They’ll put you in jail. D) You’re gonna get us all killed.

Right, I figured that was a crackpot notion firing on all four cylinders. But then the “just crazy enough to work” moment hit me and I thought, “You know, today, if a smart enough computer scientist used Kurt’s idea as the core of a social networking platform and people could join without any need for government intervention …”

And that’s where the ebocloud.com idea originated, arguably more crackpot than the one from which it was spawned. In my novel, an ingenious billionaire internet entrepreneur—heck, they’re a dime a dozen these days—works out a fabulous algorithmic method for placing new members into appropriate extended families, or “Ebos”, based on psycho/demographic profiling. Key to the effort’s success, he and his team create a “Kar-merit” system that rewards altruistic behavior.

“Ebo cousins” build up their Kar-merits by putting in service hours and can then draw on their points when in need of services themselves. Projects range from caring for an elderly neighbor to manning sandbag lines when floodwaters rise. All projects are authorized by committee with voting weighted based on Kar-merit ranking. It’s made up of thousands of localized, grassroots efforts but all organized on and analyzed by the cloud network. Ebocloud.com quickly blossoms and changes the world. And then the organization’s neuroscientists release a personal interface device that allows all the ebo cousins to interface with the cloud and …

Well, I don’t want to spoil everything.

And then there was that whole ending-war-for-all-time thing. I thought that might be worth exploring too. So within the Ebocloud story, I wrote a pulp sci-fi novel-within-a-novel, called The Venaries of Planet Flounce, and gave an idealistic world leader the job of coming up with that crackpot idea.

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So there you have it; two crackpot notions for consideration. If you want a third, the book gets into the idea of human enhancement leading to a form of collective consciousness and what is being loosely thrown around as “The Social Singularity.”

I promised myself, once published, I would put the book in front of some real scientists and take my lumps, if deserved, because I think there’s a chance there may be something worth pursuing—or desperately avoiding—in the crackpot notions I illustrate. There is some evidence the ebocloud.com extended family idea could be taken more seriously than I had any reason to expect. In a Feb. 8 blog post, Stephen Gordon, writes, “This is a powerful enough idea that I think it’s nearly inevitable. At some point, it will be tried.”

And last week, when the news was swirling out of Tahrir Square, I got an email from an old friend. “Wow, I just was reading the brief on Ebocloud,” he wrote. “Sounds like it could relate to Egyptcloud.”


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This piece was originally written for The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies website.