DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

The Odd Way We Design Our Destiny

By David Brin, Ph.D.

What will tomorrow be like? Human beings are fascinated by the future. We project our thoughts into unknown territory, using the brain's talented prefrontal lobes to explore and envision, sometimes even noticing a few errors in time to evade them.

People acquired these mysterious nubs of gray matter -- sometimes called the "lamps on our brows" -- before the Neolithic. What has changed lately is our obsessiveness at using them. Citizens of the NeoWest devote large fractions of the modern economy to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or just preparing for times to come. Indeed, our civilization's success depends at least as much on the mistakes we avoid as the successes that we plan.

Do we live in a special time? In an episode of his science-interview show Closer to Truth, Robert Lawrence Kuhn warned against temporal chauvinism... the ever-present temptation for any observer to believe this particular moment is unique, a fulcrum around which destiny will turn, decisively transforming all future ages. That claim has been made by thinkers in every generation that ever recorded its thoughts. And yet, former JPL director Bruce Murray maintained that this era truly does face unique challenges; unprecedented crises confront the world's social, scientific and ecological networks. Why else would average citizens find shows like Closer to Truth so fascinating?

If we face a time of crisis, it isn't with our eyes shut! Consider George Orwell's groundbreaking novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published fifty years ago, it foresaw a dark future that never came to pass, perhaps in part because Orwell's chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight "Big Brother" to the last. Since then, other "self-preventing prophecies" have rocked public awareness. Did we partly avert ecological catastrophe thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green? Did films like Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe help caution us against inadvertent nuclear war? Above all, every power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, gets repeatedly targeted by Hollywood's most relentless message... to stay suspicious of all authority.

No, if our prefrontal lobes fail in their crucial job of predicting/exploring/preventing, it won't be for any lack of trying.


[image from The Grumpy Owl blog]

The episode of Closer to Truth touched on many contemporary worries. For example, what kind of human population can be sustained by the planet? Citing the high-densities that today thrive in countries such as Holland, Graham Molitor projected that sixty billion humans may someday share the Earth -- assuming powerful symbiotic technologies arrive in time. Bruce Murray seemed rather more worried about the planet's near-term ability to support even today's six billions. Which of them is right?

The panel also discussed the fate of nationalism, long a controlling force in human affairs. Today, some countries are creaking and splitting into ethic sub-units while others seem just as busy amalgamating -- eagerly surrendering bits of sovereignty to supranational groupings like the European Union and the World Trade Organization.

And I should draw attention to a third anti-national trend: About a hundred years ago, people all over the world began drifting away from priests, kings and national flag-totems, transferring their loyalty instead to fervid ideologies -- models of human nature that allured with hypnotically simplistic promises. Often viciously co-opted by nation states, these rigid, formulaic, pseudo-scientific incantations helped turn the mid-20th Century into a hellish pit. But ideology may at last be passing from its virulent phase toward a more commensal one, as millions of educated people pin their righteous passions to more narrowly-focused agendas -- from child labor to animal rights, from privacy to dealing with land mines. In another de-nationalizing trend, thousands of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, now must be heard and accommodated whenever great powers meet. It is a chaotic trend, noisy and self-righteous... yet also full of promise.

Even if NGOs offer hazy outlines for a distributed style of world governance, it won't happen overnight. Meanwhile, there remains the perennial question of war. Robert Kuhn suggested -- and Bruce Murray agreed -- that we haven't seen an end to conflict. In fact, Pentagon officials are deeply worried that future foes won't ever again let us meet them with our strengths. Instead, adversaries will try to exploit the inherent weaknesses of a complex, interdependent civilization, using inexpensive -- and possibly uattributable -- modes of attack.

One key to our survival will be agility in dealing with whatever the future hurls our way. That means not relying on assumptions just because they worked in the past. As the late Richard Feynman put it -- "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool."

The panel raised another important issue: how to manage technological change so that it benefits all people, not just those living in the NeoWest. They also touched lightly on the problem of preserving both freedom and privacy at a time when cameras seem about to prodigiously expand human vision and databases exponentiate human memory. Worthy topics that merit further discussion in any followup hyperforum.

One more aspect of the fast-approaching future has become a fixation among some of our best and brightest. It is the possibility of a sudden break in the balance of intelligence and power on Earth. For example, many foresee the imminent arrival of human-level -- and then transhuman -- artificial intelligence. Optimists expect this transforming event to result in a "singularity," when all humans will share access to all knowledge, advancing together toward a sublime, godlike state. Pessimists, including Sun Computer's V.P. Bill Joy, view the prospect of hyperintelligent machinery with dread akin to what Homo erectus may have felt, upon glimpsing the first fully modern man.

Similar scenarios are offered by those who see either salvation or ruin in some looming breakthrough of biology, or in physics. Such wild speculations may all prove to be smoke. But if any of them -- optimists or pessimists -- turn out to be right, we will see astonishing changes in far less time than it takes to wreck an ecosystem. Or to teach a new generation how to cope.

It means we'll have to handle things on the fly, improvizing as we go along.


[image from JISC InfoNet]

A final topic always gets raised whenever we talk about the notion of "progress," and this episode of Closer to Truth is no exception. Why has human wisdom not advanced as rapidly as our technology? How can we hope to deal with all of these new dangers and opportunities, if our moral character stays mired in primitive brutality?

I've heard this question asked so often that a strange thought occurred to me. Yes, it's a cliché. But could it also be a lie?

Consider the famous Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it appeared in 1967, two monumental new projects transfixed the people of the United States -- conquering outer space and overcoming deeply ingrained social injustice. Now compare the world depicted in the film with the one we live in. Who would have imagined that colonizing space would prove so grindingly slow -- yet by 2000 we'd refute so many cruel bigotries that citizens once took for granted, back in 1967?

We still don't have the fancy space stations of 2001, but our astronauts come in all sexes and colors. And kids who watch them on TV feel less fettered by presumed limitations. Each may choose to hope, or not, without being told you can't. At this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won't preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?

Progress doesn't always go the way we expect it to.

It is sometimes wiser than we are.

THE END

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[image from Gamestorming blog]