Category Archives: Humans: Future of

Quote: This is a one-shot affair (Hoyle)

It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned.

— Fred Hoyle, Of Men and Galaxies, 1966, p. 64

Notes: Transhumanism

Image resultAs we venture into questions about the future of humanity, and the specific visions that prominent individuals and groups hold regarding that future, we must immediately consider the people who see no future for humanity at all.

First stop: the Transhumanists.

You are probably a Transhumanist if you believe any of the following statements to be true:

1. If you freeze or vitrify your brain just at (preferably, just before) the moment of your death, you could come back to life in the future when technologies evolve to make resuscitation and life-extension possible.

2. When the procedures become safe and affordable, it would be a good idea to get a few cybernetic implants in your body — electronic things under your skin or attached to your skull, giving you extra senses that you currently lack (examples might include “feeling” the Earth’s magnetic field or “hearing” X-rays) or even linking your brain directly to a computer, so that you can use the Internet just by thinking.

3. When computers and artificial intelligence systems have become sufficiently advanced, you will be able to “download” (or “upload”, if you prefer a rising metaphor) the contents of your mind and all your memories into a new, far more durable and physically superior platform — so that you become either a computer-based, bodiless intelligence (that is somehow still “you”), or that your consciousness is housed in an advanced robotic form (which means it could be of any shape, from humanoid, to whale-like, to inceivably alien in design). And this future is something you are genuinely looking forward to, and perhaps even actively working toward.

4. In any case, conquering physical death — through medical science, merging with machines, or some other as-yet-unknown method — should be a high priority for humanity.

If you do not answer “yes” to any of these questions, a real Transhumanist is likely to ask you, “Well, why not? What’s to like about death? What’s wrong with upgrading our bodies and minds, just as we do our cars and our computers?”

Very likely, the person asking that question will be highly educated, technologically literate, and relatively well acquainted with the world’s principal religious and philosophical traditions. It is not impossible that this person will also be a wealthy technology entrepreneur, or perhaps well-connected in Silicon Valley.

That’s what journalist Mark O’Connell discovered when he spent some time in the Transhumanist movement, talking with a wide variety of prominent spokespeople and experimental protagonists, resulting in a gem of immersive reporting called To Be a Machine (Granta, 2015).

Transhumanism is not a vision of humanity’s future so much as a project, a goal — perhaps even an investment opportunity. Those who embrace it range from the billionaire Trump-supporting PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, to the upstart US political candidate and volcano-surfer Zoltan Istvan, to the Google technology guru and singularity prophet Ray Kurzweil.

And yes, the leadership of the Transhumanist movement does appear to be overly represented by white men who live in California, but the movement is certainly not limited to that. In 2011, there were 400 members of the Facebook group, “Singularity Network,” which is considered an important digital watering hole among Transhumanists. By 2014, there were 2014. As of early 2018, there were over 25,000. [1]

Of course, not everyone who reads a Facebook group is making a public declaration of allegiance; and according to Facebook, I know a few of those folks, and I know they are not card-carrying Transhumanists. They are just interested in everything new, futuristic, and weird.

But there is not doubt that interest in Transhumanism is growing. To understand it — this most-futuristic of future visions for humanity — we have to go backward in time.

Before Transhumanism there was Extropianism. The word is derived from another neologism, “extropy,” which is intended to mean the opposite of entropy. If entropy is the universal law that all systems tend toward increasing disorder over time, then extropy is the process by which entropy can be stopped or reversed. And the agent of extropy is life.

The early Extropian philosophers (the word was coined in 1967) thought big. They wanted to …

IN PROGRESS – CONTINUE FROM HERE.

 

[1] Zoltan Istvan, ”A new generation of Transhumanists is emerging,” Huffington Post, 2014; and a check of the current Facebook group as of March 2018.

Notes: Utopia is Dead

The original cover illustration for Thomas Moore’s “Utopia,” from 1516, courtesy Wikipedia

In 1516, Thomas More — a lawyer and councilor to the notorious English king Henry VIII — published a little book called Utopia. More’s account, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, centered on a fictional island, on which a country reminiscent of an updated vision of Plato’s perfect Republic had been discovered by a mysterious world traveler named Raphael. The book was not, strictly speaking, about the future. Utopia was a place that was imagined to be far away in space, not time. Nevertheless, the word “utopia” has become synonymous with the vision of a perfect, future society.

More’s fictional Utopia had not evolved organically to perfection. It was designed, in meticulous detail, by a man named Utopos — a foreigner who had conquered the place and its “ignorant savages” centuries earlier, transforming them in the process. Considering that the real “New World” and its “ignorant savages” had been discovered by Europeans just a few decades previously, this aspect of More’s Utopia reveals a great deal about Europe’s future vision for that New World and its peoples. In its all-but-inevitable conquest of the Americas, which still lay a few decades in the future, Europe imagined that it would play a role like that of Utopos, the designer of a perfect civilization. As we now know, their impact was the very opposite of utopian: existing human societies in the real New World were rapidly destroyed by the European lust for gold, profit, and geopolitical power.

Meanwhile, back in More’s innocent, fictional Utopia, the politics might strike us as socialistic, or even idealized communism; in fact, they sound something like the universe of Star Trek. There is no money in Utopia. Not even gold is considered to be valuable; the ultimate pleasure in life is not the ownership of possessions, but good health. There is no hunger or poverty: “Recognition of individual merit is combined with equal prosperity for all.” The Utopians have learned to work the land effectively, on an island of relatively scarce resources and poor soil quality. In fact, they are so efficient that people work only as much as they want to, at their chosen trades, and are otherwise free to spend their time in “some congenial activity” (though not “in idleness or self-indulgence”). Utopian society is even wealthy enough to donate a significant fraction of its total exports to the help the  in other countries.

At first glance, More’s Utopia sounds like a future Scandinavia, where the idea of a basic “citizen salary” (a social payment that a citizen receives regardless of whether she works or not) is gaining traction as a social experiment in some countries, and where up to 1% of the national GDP is already committed to overseas development aid. But one should not jump to the conclusion reached by More’s fictional alter-ego, “More,” who concludes that “there are many features of the Utopian Republic that I should like … to see adopted in Europe.” (p. 132)

For example, there is plenty of slavery in More’s Utopia. The slaves are convicts, or poor people from other countries who have volunteered to be owned, in order to have work. And there is absolutely zero tolerance for premarital sex. “The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing, because they think very few people would want to get married — which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves — if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise.” (p 103)  And by the way, monogamy is a strict requirement in Utopia: marital infidelity, or even attempted seduction, is a crime. The punishment: slavery.

More’s depiction of the perfect society is quite unconvincing today; but the influence of his book on Western society was enormous and lasting. The idea of utopia became so ingrained in the Western tradition that even computer modelers, centuries later, use that word to describe the best possible outcome of their future-trend simulations. But like More’s “More,” thinking out loud about Europe’s prospects in the final sentence of his surprisingly modern-feeling work of fiction, the word “utopia” has also come to mean a fantasy future that one “hardly expects” to become real.

*

Fast forward five hundred years. Along the way, we pass dozens, growing to hundreds and finally thousands of imaginary utopias, all written, drawn, and — beginning in the early 20th century — rendered into motion pictures by the mind of man.

For it is principally men who have busied themselves with thoughts of a future utopia over the past five centuries. As late as 1998, in a comprehensive book-length study of Ecological Utopias by the Dutch political scientist Marius de Geus, there was not a single female thinker or author, in all of history, with a model of utopia that he considered important enough to mention, let alone analyze. (In fact, only three women are quoted or cited by name, as commentators on the concept of utopia, in the whole book.)

De Geus made a useful distinction between two types of utopias, and that distinction was still highly relevant twenty years later. On one side, there are utopias of abundance, where technology advance has provided ever-increasing access to resources, machines, and opportunities, such that everyone is living a life of comfort and even luxury.

On the other side, there are utopias of sufficiency, where humanity’s material appetites and desires have been tamed, minds are enlightened, and nobody is in need because nobody wants (or gets) more than their modest, sustainable share. Thomas More wrote the first of these “sufficiency utopias”: his Utopians wore simple clothes, eschewed excess, and avoided killing animals. The iconic modern example of the genre was Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia — a green-politics dream of a book that inspired a generation of activists and innovators and that, like Thomas More’s Utopia, gifted the world not just with a provocative future vision, but with a useful new word.

Most “ecotopias” — whether they are fictional stories like More’s and Callenbach’s, or theoretical constructions of green-tinged social and economic theory such as those put forth by the modern “degrowth” movement — fall into this second, “sufficiency” category. But de Geus, an environmentalist professor whose concern was to help rectify “a blatant lack of new ideas … concerning the future of our society,” considered this green tendency toward sufficiency-utopia thinking a flaw: “ecotopian thinkers underestimate the advantages and pleasures of luxury and comfort,” he wrote, “and are inclined to exaggerate the positive aspects of austerity and moderation.”

De Geus’s academic writing style tends to be dry, and one wants to shout, “What an understatement!” But then he continues, even more drily:

“Their general assumption is that by living more simply, attaching less value to material goods, by simplicity, frugality, and doing without luxury and affluence, a happy and environmentally friendly life is possible. This assumption appears to disregard the fact that most people in contemporary society are extremely fond of ease, convenience and comfort.”[1]

Now one wants to shout, “Exactly!” This misplaced belief in both the corrective and the attractive power of a sufficiency utopia has been the Achilles heel of the environmental movement for decades. It is demonstrably true that some people find joy and satisfaction in a monastically-inspired or a consciously-chosen simple life; but most people, very evidently, do not.

In fact, most people in this world do live a simple life: material simplicity is all one can afford on $3,000 or less per year (the approximate median annual income for the world as a whole).[2] Visions of downscaling our material way of life have so far proven appealing to a tiny minority of relatively wealthy people, whose annual incomes — even when modest by the standards of their surrounding societies — are nonetheless great enough to place them in the top one percent of all humanity. (By example: earning a salary of just under $35,000 in the United States, a level that might be considered “lower middle class,” still places that wage-earner in the top one percent, globally).[3]

It is empirically verifiable that the “abundance utopia” is far more attractive to the vast majority of humanity. It is also the official policy goal of most nations. Prosperity, opportunity, the pleasures of technology and travel and entertainment for all: this is the vision that guides the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments, organizations, institutions, and decision-makers. In fact, this dream of a world that is universally wealthy (while acknowledging that some people will always be more wealthy than others) has long since moved out of the domain of science fiction and into the halls of government, the boardrooms of investment banks, and the central offices of aid agencies and large foundations. It is no longer seen as “utopian” — a word derived from the Greek for “no place.” It is seen as humanity’s all-but-inevitable destination.

This is why I believe it is time to declare: utopia is dead. As a concept, it has been absorbed into the globalized industrial culture and has evolved into, or replaced by, a different dream. This new dream still encounters scoffers and critics and enemies, but it has nonetheless has been formally endorsed by 193 heads of state, at a United Nations summit meeting held in 2015.

We call that dream “sustainable development.”

[1] See “Median GDP per capita: how much does the typical person earn in different countries?”, by Hauke Hillebrandt, Giving What We Can, 25 May 2016, https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2016/05/giving-and-global-inequality/

[2] Marius de Geus, Ecological Utopias: Envisioning a Sustainable Society, International Books, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 242.

[3] See: http://www.globalrichlist.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes: The Foundation Trilogy

My battered copy of Asimov’s trilogy

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951) is a remarkable piece of science fiction not just because of its future vision of a galaxy full of humans, or its iconic stature in the genre. It is “future fiction” about predicting the future.

Asimov builds the tale around the work of an imaginary psychologist, Hari Seldon, who uses mathematical equations and statistical analysis of human social behavior (called “psychohistory”) to predict the rise and fall and recovery of the galactic empire over the course of a thousand years.

The action of the story revolves around just how clever Seldon and his colleagues were at planning, in detail, what needed to happen to restore the galaxy. The “Foundation” of the title is a special planet, where a kernel of rationality and science is preserved as war and economic collapse ravage the galaxy — just as Seldon predicted. In Asimov’s fantasy, even the unpredictable, in the form of a mutant with the power to control people’s emotions, is somehow accommodated in this homage to (exceedingly male) rationality and planning.

Foundation was enormously influential in its time. As a small reflection of that influence, two co-authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth — Dennis and Donella Meadows, who used computers and equations at MIT to try to understand what was likely to happen if the global growth trends of the 1960’s and 1970’s persisted — named their countryside residence in New Hampshire “Foundation Farm.” To be clear, they were under no illusions that they were preserving civilization there; Dennis Meadows has said it was simply a “sardonic reference” to a book they both admired.

When re-read from the perspective of the early 21st century, the Foundation trilogy seems impossibly dated. Men still carry briefcases, smoke cigars and run the world from small conference rooms, even 20,000 years after humans have fanned out across the galaxy.

And yet, there are aspects of Foundation that seem hauntingly familiar, in the age of global social media and populist politics. Apparently, great masses of people are predictable, and potentially manipulable, given the right psycho-technical tools. At the moment, we call those tools “Facebook” and “Big Data.”

Footnote: In a later 1980s novel, Foundation’s Edge, which expanded on his original trilogy, Asimov invents a planet called Gaia, where the humanoid “Mentalic” inhabitants are completely integrated with both the living and inorganic material around them, and each other, to the extent the entire planet functions as one mind. I wonder what dreams that Gaia would have? 

Notes: Future Shock

In 1970, Alvin Toffler (and his wife Heidi, they wrote as a couple but used only his name) published a book that took the world by storm, selling millions of copies and introducing a phrase — “Future Shock” — that soon earned a place in the dictionary.

Future Shock was not just a book about what was likely to happen, based on trends and patterns (though it did plenty of predicting). It was a book about how human beings were reacting to a feeling that the future was arriving faster than they could prepare for it. The principal thesis of the book is preserved in its dictionary definition: “the physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes” (Merriam-Webster).

The Tofflers (Alvin died in 2016) were surprisingly skilled at extrapolating from the trends of the 1960s into the world that later emerged, accurately predicting personal computers, the Internet, “Information Overload,” the sharing economy, telecommuting, the role of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and the rise of informal and less-hierarchical organizational structures. Their famous “errors” look wise in hindsight: Heidi predicted throwaway paper clothes, which did not happen; but the throwaway society certainly did. Today’s “fast fashion” garments may not be made out of paper, but they are not much longer-lasting.

Future Shock was not the first book to claim that “This lifetime is … different from all others because of the scale and scope of change,” nor was it the last. But it was the first to bring the speed of change into global public discourse as a topic of debate, and to highlight the counter-intuitive features of exponential growth — a topic that would stand at the center of another mega-bestseller that followed just two years later, The Limits to Growth. The Tofflers noted that accelerating economic expansion — Japan was the China of their day, its GDP growing at an average of 9.8% per year — translated into “a doubling of the total output of goods and services in the advanced societies about every fifteen years.” The individuals coming of age in the 1960s might live to see a world 32 times as “big” in economic terms (after five doublings) because of the compounding impact of exponential growth.

As it happens, the world economy has doubled in size more than four times since 1950. Graphs of that growth resemble rocket launches.

The Tofflers were not the world’s first futurists — the term had emerged during World War II, in connection with US think tanks — but they were the first to popularize the profession on the world stage. Alvin even taught the first known university course on the subject of “future studies” in 1966.

In introducing the systematic study of the future to a mass audience, they were careful not to let it be reduced to mere trend-spotting and prediction. Instead, they gave the popular understanding of future studies a decidedlhy philosophical and analytical character. Here they are writing on the advancement of technology, in words that seem to presage the significantly more developed and coherent theories of contemporary thinkers such as W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, 2009):

“[T]echnological innovation does not merely combine and recombine machines and techniques. Important new machines do more than suggest or compel changes in other machines — they suggest novel solutions to social, philosophical, even personal problems. They alter [humanity]’s total intellectual environment — the way [we think and look] at the world.” (Future Shock, p. 29)

The Tofflers noted that for humans to avoid the “shock” part of “future shock,” they would need to become more adaptable, flexible, and ready for the unfamiliar and unpredictable. It was wise advice then, and it also seems to have anticipated the emergence of an entirely new area of scientific inquiry, which is today called “resilience”. Becoming more resilient was imperative, wrote the Tofflers, because the advancement of technological civilization “offers no surcease from change. It offers no return to the familiar past. It offers only the highly combustible mixture of transience and novelty.”

While the Tofflers are usually remembered as cheerleaders for the future, their agenda was far more radical. In their book’s final pages, they called for a massive slow-down in the pace of economic, industrial and social change in order “gently guide our evolutionary destiny.” Their diagnosis of where “this wild growth, this cancer in history” was leading reads less like a prediction, and more like a hauntingly accurate premonition of the early decades of the 21st century:

“[B]efore we can build a humane future, [we must] halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with — war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism.” (Future Shock, p. 486)

Today’s “ecological incursions” are happening at the scale of planetary ecosystems. The global “contrast between rich and poor” is wider and more obscene than ever. Phrases like “climate change” or “mass migration” or “school shooting” were not even in our lexicon when “future shock” was invented, nor was “social media,” which has become the most powerful technology ever known for spreading “mass irrationalism” in the form of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Today the “runaway acceleration” of human history appears to be speeding up rather than slowing down. The ever-faster arrival of “the future” may have become less and less shocking to us since the Tofflers’ time. It may even be that the majority of humanity is not just accepting, but even desiring, of the “novelty and transience” they worried about.

But that does not mean that we have solved the problem of collaboratively making the future that we are creating more humane, more livable, more sustainable. In fact, we appear to have just caught up to the Tofflers’ vision of how we might start.

In the closing pages of 1970’s Future Shock, the Tofflers laid out a suggested program of activity that bears a striking resemblance to something that finally occurred, at the international level, in the years 2012 to 2015. They called for “a movement” that would “broaden and define in social, as well as merely economic terms, the goals of ‘progress.'” They imagined gatherings happening “in each city, in each neighborhood” whose purpose was to “assign priorities to specific social goals for the remainder of the century.” They even proposed the use of large-scale, participatory simulation games, involving thousands or even millions of people at a time, to help us “formulate goals for the future.”

In 2015, the largest-ever gathering of heads of state convened in New York City, at the United Nations headquarters, to formally approve a document that had been developed with the input of hundreds of thousands of people, from all around the world. Called “Transforming Our World,” the document included 17 broad “Sustainable Development Goals”, and 169 prioritized sub-goals, to guide global development through the year 2030.

It was not exactly what the Tofflers had in mind. But it was astonishingly close.

 

Additional sources to review:

Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

https://www.fastcompany.com/1695307/future-shock-40-what-tofflers-got-right-and-wrong

Future Shock on Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

“Future Shock” Documentary Film on YouTube (starring Orson Welles):

Notes: Elon Musk’s vision of the future

Screenshot of Elon Musk’s 2017 TED interview. Click to view.

It is widely known that Elon Musk — founder of Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company (for revolutionizing tunnel technology), and most recently Neuralink (for developing computer-mind interfaces) — wants humans to live on Mars. Why?

Intellectually, he describes the reason this way: if we “stay on Earth forever, there will be some eventual extinction event.” [1] Apparently his biggest worry is “World War III”.[2] Musk and others believe that spreading humans out into the solar system is the only real insurance against these existential risks to humanity’s survival.

But that’s just the intellectual rationale. Musk’s most powerful motivations for heading to Mars appear to lie a bit deeper in his psyche.

In a revealing 2017 interview [3] on the TED channel, Elon Musk often seemed to be searching for the most efficient and effective words that would convey his thoughts clearly but in an entertaining fashion. As you watched him parse the interviewer’s less-than-clear questions, which were laced with hero worship (“Yeah,” Musk would say, in a disappointed tone that suggested he was thinking, “I guess you felt you had to ask that question that way, but you could have asked it much better”) one could easily imagine why he wants to create brain-computer interfaces. There was often a methodical jerkiness to this delivery, as though having to squeeze his big, fast thoughts through the slow, cumbersome instrument of an ordinary voice, in a body, on a stage, was just so damn slow.

Musk in public is one of the most future-focused people I have ever seen, though his passion for vision is deeply influenced by his sense of the past. He reminded the TED audience that past civilizations built up impressive technologies only to forget them later (the ancient Egyptians, the Romans). He summarized the history of the US space program in a few sentences:

“If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969! Then we had the space shuttle. The space shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the space shuttle retired and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that’s the trend.” He made a gesture with his hand, slicing downward from left to right. “The trend is down to nothing.”

This trend greatly disturbs him. “People are mistaken when they think that technology automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.” Without that continuous focus and effort, says Musk, technology often degrades.

Musk often appears in the media as a single genius, reshaping the future, but of course the greatest part of his accomplishment resides not just in “dreaming big,” as the TED interviewer kept insisting, but in building companies around those visions, hiring brilliant talent, and motivating them to “work very hard to make it better.”

But what motivates Musk, at least as he reports in this interview, is not a messianic urge to save humanity. It is his inability to live without the possibility of realizing his vision of the future.

“It’s important to have a future that’s inspiring and appealing,” he says. “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning, and you want to live.” And what makes Musk want to live? He does not wake up in the morning torn, as E.B. White famously wrote, “between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” Improving the world is absolutely what matters most to Elon Musk. Because Elon Musk is in love with the future. 

“What do you love about the future?” he said to the audience at TED, though he was referring to himself, and to the question he wakes up with in the morning. “If we’re not out there — if the future does not include being out there among the stars, and being a multi-planet species — I find that incredibly depressing.”

Elon Musk is not trying to save the planet, or save humanity. “I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”

[1] Elon Musk, “Making Humans a Multi-Planet Species,” New Space, June 2017.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war,” The Guardian, 11 Mar 2018

[3] TED.com, “Elon Musk at TED: The Future We’re Building – and Boring“, April 2017

About this Category: Humans: Future of

In development.

“Humans: Future of” is the category for texts and artifacts related to how we specifically imagine our own future as a species. This category overlaps a bit with others, such as “Future: Visions of” and “Philosophy & Religion” — but the question of what humans want to become is so central to this book’s purpose that it deserves its own category.

Here is where you will find explorations of topics such as Transhumanism, Neo-Primitivism, and Planetary Stewardship, as well as scientific speculations on the direction of human evolution (in a biological sense).