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March 6, 2006


By Jamais Cascio

Two philosophies dominate the broad debates about the development of
potentially-worldchanging technologies. The Precautionary Principle
tells us that we should err on the side of caution when it comes to
developments with uncertain or potentially negative repercussions,
even when those developments have demonstrable benefits, too. The
Proactionary Principle, conversely, tells us that we should err on the
side of action in those same circumstances, unless the potential for
harm can be clearly demonstrated and is clearly worse than the
benefits of the action. In recent months, however, I've been thinking
about a third approach. Not a middle-of-the-road compromise, but a
useful alternative: the Reversibility Principle.

It's very much a work-in-progress, but read on to see what this could

The Precautionary Principle, first articulated in 1988, argues that
uncertainty should be a trigger for caution when it comes to
technological advances. The most widely-accepted version of the
principle comes from the Wingspread Statement:

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the
environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause
and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In
this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public,
should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the
Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must
include potentially affected parties."

Transhumanism advocates Max More and Natasaha Vita-More created the
Proactionary Principle in 2004 as a direct counter to the
Precautionary Principle. This concept argues that only probable and
serious negative outcomes should be enough to block the development of
potentially-useful technologies. The current version of the statement
can be found on Max More's website:

"People's freedom to innovate technologically is highly valuable, even
critical, to humanity. This implies a range of responsibilities for
those considering whether and how to develop, deploy, or restrict new
technologies. Assess risks and opportunities using an objective, open,
and comprehensive, yet simple decision process based on science rather
than collective emotional reactions. Account for the costs of
restrictions and lost opportunities as fully as direct effects. Favor
measures that are proportionate to the probability and magnitude of
impacts, and that have the highest payoff relative to their costs.
Give a high priority to people's freedom to learn, innovate, and

There's room for debate in each of these philosophies, of course. Many
worldchangers and WorldChanging allies subscribe to a version of the
Precautionary Principle that focuses on taking responsibility for
possible negative outcomes rather than simply avoiding any action that
might lead to problems; our friends at the Center for Responsible
Nanotechnology characterize this as the "active" form of the
Precautionary Principle. The Proactionary Principle doesn't yet have
multiple strongly-articulated versions, but the principle's authors
have modified its wording in response to ongoing discussion; it's
currently at version 1.2, although an earlier phrasing can be found in
the Wikipedia article.

Critics of the Precautionary Principle claim that it focuses too much
on worst-case scenarios, and gives insufficient weight to likely
benefits of disputed technologies. Critics of the Proactionary
Principle claim that it focuses too much on simple cause-and-effect
logic, and ignores both complex results arising from interactions with
other developments, and the potential for significant-but-not-
inevitable problems. In my view, both of these arguments are largely

We live in a world of rapid technological advances and tremendous
global problems. Ideally, the first can help ameliorate the second;
unfortunately, given the power of many of these advances, we run a
strong risk that the first could make the second even worse. A binary
"do it"/"don't do it" argument isn't well-suited to the degree of
uncertainty that accompanies technological advances, nor the
combinatorial, mutually-reinforcing aspects of global problems (such
as climate disruption making conditions of poverty worse in the
developing world, driving people towards survival strategies that
degrade the environment). I propose, instead, that we think not in
terms of "caution" or "action," but in terms of "reversibility."

A word of warning: this idea isn't yet fully-baked, and I hope to see
serious critiques coming from both precautionary and proactionary
advocates. I welcome the criticism, as it will help me work out the
details of the argument.

The Reversibility Principle

This is my first effort to articulate the Reversibility Principle:

"When considering the development or deployment of beneficial
technologies with uncertain, but potentially significant, negative
results, any decision should be made with a strong bias towards the
ability to step back and reverse the decision should harmful outcomes
become more likely. The determination of possible harmful results must
be grounded in science but recognize the potential for people to use
the technology in unintended ways, must include a consideration of
benefits lost by choosing not to move forward with the technology, and
must address the possibility of serious problems coming from the
interaction of the new technology with existing systems and
conditions. This consideration of reversibility should not cease upon
the initial decision to go forward to hold back, but should be
revisited as additional relevant information emerges."

Let's look at this in more detail.

"... development or deployment..." Ideally, the Reversibility approach
would take hold in the early stages of the research and development
process. The goal isn't necessarily to shut down research the moment
potential problems are discovered, but to make certain to design the
technology or process with reversibility in mind. We can assume that
responsible technological development includes a desire to avoid harm;
the Reversibility Principle would add to that a desire to include an
"off switch" if harm is later identified.

"...technologies..." By this I mean any human-constructed tool,
whether mechanical, biological or social.

"...uncertain, but potentially significant, negative results..." This
encompasses two key issues: the negative results need not be
guaranteed or inevitable; they should, however, be demonstrably
serious. How "significant" is defined is likely to be a point of
debate, but to start, I would look at the possibility of death, the
difficulty of mitigation or amelioration, and the potential to make
other, existing problems worse.

"...strong bias..." The potential for reversibility should be a
critical issue as to whether to develop or deploy a technology, but
shouldn't be the sole determinant. Other issues, such as the need to
avert an even greater problem, will always come into play.

"...reverse the decision..." This is the cornerstone of the principle.
Ideally, we would be able to recall the technology and undo the damage
it has done should an unexpected negative result emerge. This will not
necessarily be easy or even possible -- but the difficulty of
reversing the effects of an action arises, in part, from not taking
reversibility into account during the design process.

"...grounded in science..." Misunderstandings, rumors or myths -- even
popular ones -- should not be sufficient to cause a decision to hold
off the development or deployment of useful technologies. At the same
time, we must recognize that all science is contingent upon better
information, and the inherent uncertainties of scientific study should
not be cause to dismiss concerns as not "grounded in science."

"...the potential for people to use the technology in unintended
ways..." Saying that something is safe if used correctly isn't the
same as it being safe. If "the street finds its own uses for things,"
those uses will often be contrary to the manufacturer's instructions.
In short, consideration of possible harmful results must include
possible misuses and abuses of the technology.

"...consideration of benefits lost..." The strongest argument against
the strict form of the Precautionary Principle is that it fails to
account for the harm that could result from the lack of the new
technology in the same way as it accounts for the harm that could
result from its deployment. In a world of large-scale problems
requiring innovative solutions, this is dangerously short-sighted. The
potential for irreversible negative results coming from the use of the
technology must be weighed against the irreversible negative results
coming from its relinquishment.

"...interaction of the new technology with existing systems and
conditions..." This will be the most difficult to measure part of the
Reversibility Principle. New technologies do not exist in a vacuum.
When deployed, they immediately become part of a larger technological
ecosystem, and effects that, in isolation, may be essentially harmless
can, in combination with other parts of the ecosystem, lead to serious
problems. An example would be a biofuel plan that leads many food
farmers to shift to fuel crops, at the expense of the availability of
food for poverty-stricken regions.

"...should not cease..." Once a decision has been made to deploy or
not to deploy a given technology, questions about the technology
should not be forgotten. New discoveries and analysis may change the
balance of issues around the decision, and what was once the right
choice may in time become the wrong one. In short, the decision as to
whether a technology is sufficiently reversible should itself be

Why Reversibility?

Reversibility is something that would be useful for everyone to think
about as they decide whether or not to adopt a particular tool or
system, but the concept is particularly important for designers and

From the design perspective, reversibility is something that should be
part of the overall design process, much like sustainability. Just as
it's easier to undertake a sustainable or "cradle-to-cradle" project
by including the concept from the beginning, technology deployments
are more likely to be reversible if the concept is inherent to the
design, not simply an afterthought. For designers, then, the
Reversibility Principle would advocate the question "how can we make
this technology in a way that gives us the best ability to shut it off
and undo any harm it might cause?" There may not be a perfect answer
to the question, but it's almost inevitable that designs that take
this issue into account will be more reversible than those that do

For planners, reversibility becomes an issue to take into account as
technology development turns into deployment. By "planners," I mean
anyone with responsibility for how a technological system gets into
common use. For manufacturers, Reversibility Principle planning could
be a hedge against lawsuits; for governments, Reversibility Principle
planning could be a part of both economic and political strategy. If
the reversibility concept were to take hold, I would imagine that
insurance companies would be among its most strident advocates.

So how would the Reversibility Principle play out in practice?

One obvious candidate for reversibility analysis is biotechnology. A
Precautionary approach says that we don't know the long-term effects
of introducing genetically modified organisms into the ecosystem, as
they are self-replicating technologies subject to evolutionary
pressures; we should, therefore, avoid their deployment. Proactionary
advocates argue that the benefits of the use of GMOs can be
substantial, particularly in parts of the world that (for political or
environmental reasons) are unable to grow enough food for local
populations; we should, therefore, encourage their development. As
before, both of these positions are, in my view, more or less correct.

A Reversibility Principle approach to biotechnology in general would
argue that GMOs should be engineered in a way to make it possible to
remove them from the environment if unexpected or low-probability
problems emerge. Issues of human consumption of GMOs would be handled
on a case-by-case basis, with a bias towards holding off on products
that demonstrate a possibility of serious or irreversible problems.

Another candidate for the reversibility approach is the response to
global warming. The Precautionary Principle and the Proactionary
Principle could each be use to justify both rapid action to reduce
carbon and a "wait for better methods" approach. From a Reversibility
Principle perspective, however, the choice is clear. The potential
problems arising from immediate action to cut carbon emissions are
largely economic, and while in the worst case scenario they are
serious, they are more easily mitigated than those that would come
from a slow response, which in even a moderate-case scenario would
harm hundreds of millions of people in irreversible ways.

The Reversibility Principle would also apply in the case of geo-
engineering or "terraforming Earth" projects to stop globally
catastrophic climate outcomes. It's likely that, should we be forced
to consider such global-scale engineering to respond to climate
disaster, few of the options will be reversible. The question then
becomes which option -- including the option of doing nothing -- would
in the worst reasonable scenarios result in the least amount of death
and destruction, and which would give us the greatest opportunity for
gradual mitigation of harm. Underlying the choices will be the need to
make the ways the options as reversible as possible, even if full
reversibility isn't plausible.

There are two major questions that come to mind about the
Reversibility Principle.

To be blunt, the first is whether "reversibility" is even possible.
From a purely physical perspective, it's not; even the act of stepping
back and brushing over one's footprints still shifts the sand. But
there's a difference between being unable to return the world exactly
to how it once was and being unable to avoid inevitable disasters.
Some of the difference arises from how soon we decide that a choice
needs to be reversed; even gradual changes can become irreversible if
given enough time to accumulate.

We should see "reversibility," then, not as an attempt to go back to
precisely how the world once looked, but as an attempt to eliminate
further harm by its source, and to ameliorate the harm that has

But the bigger issue for the Reversibility Principle perspective is
just how readily we can predict the various possible outcomes, both
good and bad. The quick answer is we can't fully, but that hasn't
stopped us from planning for the future before; we often need to act
in situations of limited information. This doesn't mean our choices
must be ill-informed.

This is a situation where Scenario Planning methodology could be of
value. The scenario approach intentionally avoids coming up with a
single "most likely" future. Instead, scenario planners come up with
multiple contingent futures, with none of them meant to be a
prediction. Rather, the collection of scenarios function as
environments in which to test plans -- strategic wind tunnels, if you
will. In Reversibility analysis, planners would come up with multiple
contingent futures in which to think about outcomes if the given
technology is or is not deployed.

There's also the possibility of increasingly sophisticated models and
simulations. I have enough experience in the use of computer models
for political and social analysis to know that simulations should
stick to physical systems, but it may be possible in time to develop
decision-making aids using computer models that help human decision-
makers to better understand both the physical and social dynamics at
work. In situations where harmful outcomes are highly contingent but
potentially very serious, good simulations could help answer the "what
happens if..." questions in ways that can better be applied to
questions of reversibility.

Reversibility and the Open Future

A cornerstone of the open future concept is that we should be
striving towards a world that maximizes our flexibility in response to
challenges. We will never have perfectly free choices when problems
arise, but we are more likely to come up with good solutions under
less-constrained conditions than we would if we were limited to a
handful of options. The choice to pull back and say "let's try
something different" is an option that we should strive to maintain.

Ultimately, the Reversibility Principle should be a heuristic, a prism
through which we look at the world and make our decisions. We may not
always choose the path with the simplest way back -- it may not always
be the right choice -- but it would encourage us to consider the issue
for all of our options. Asking ourselves, "if we do this, how readily
can it be undone if we discover problems?" forces us think in terms of
more than immediate gratification, and to consider how the choice
connects to other choices we and the people around us have made and
will make. In the end, it may even be a good first-order approximation
of wisdom.