As I spend more and more time awash in the techno-optimism of the great futurist forum that is r/Futurology, a thought has been bothering me lately. Make no mistake, I am very much an optimist about the power of technology, but I just think that we are missing an important counterpoint. Our mistake is that we imagine a totally transformed world, but we often place ourselves relatively unchanged within this world.
I think we sometimes forget that the future can be as merciless as it is fantastic. The world of the future will be a remarkable place, but we are not necessarily going to like it.
To flesh out this view, I will start with an inverse example. Imagine an average person of 100 years ago instantly transported to the world of today. They would be met with a marvellous world of technology and possibility, the likes of which they could not have even imagined in 1913, but would they like it here?
Our traveller would certainly be astounded that we can instantly communicate with anyone in the world, but would they perhaps be equally dismayed by our inability to communicate with those in front of us? They would likely be amazed by our unprecedented access to the sum of human knowledge, but also likely disheartened by our lack of applied knowledge and skills that were so important to people of their time.
I think that the view of our social progress would be more or less dependent upon their personal views, but I would wager they would shocked by the race-mixing, gender-equal, homosexual-accepting, multi-cultural, and generally tolerant society that we have become. To expect that a person transported from 100 years ago would be entirely happy or even comfortable with our society as it is today is to place unrealistic expectations on our past, and essentially is to rewrite history.
The traveller would be impressed by all that we had learned about the way that the world works (the age of the universe, the quantum nature of reality, DNA, etc…) but I think that the impact of these revelations on a mind unready for them would ultimately be devastating. The traveller’s whole world view is based on a 1913 mindset and they are entirely unprepared for the godless and techno-centric new world of 2013.
If instead of bringing a traveller forward to our time, we project ourselves forward into the future (as futurists like to do), there is no reason to necessarily think that we would fit better into or be more happy with the world of tomorrow. The new world will be a remarkable place, but we probably wouldn’t like it.
If you buy a goldfish, take it home, and plunk it into it’s new home suddenly, the shock can be enough to kill it. If on the other hand, you place the fish in its bag on top of the water in the new tank, and give time for the water to slowly change then the fish can acclimate well to new conditions. We are the goldfish; immersed in the unseen philosophy and morality of our time. We can and will slowly acclimatize from one time to another, but the jump from one time to would likely be an unbearable culture shock.
So what are some of these fundamental changes that will make the future so foreign and potentially distasteful to someone of today? A few that I have been tinkering with are as follows:
- The proliferation of cheaper and cheaper consumer good and the melding of the real and the virtual will ultimately lead us to massively devalue physical goods. The idea of owning anything will become completely foreign because we will be able to so easily bring anything we imagine into existence. Through this we will eventually lose touch with physical reality altogether.
- The fact that the vast majority of work will be done by machines will make the idea of work ethic quite quaint. As it becomes possible easily to sculpt our bodies and our minds to meet our desires, the very idea of work will dissolve away. The very idea of a purposeful life may eventually become an idea of the past.
- The exponential increase in the speed and volume of communication between human minds will eventually lead us to devalue individualism itself. We will no longer see individual people as hard separate nodes, but rather as another part of a robust and redundant biological information network. As I pointed out in a previous post, as it becomes possible to reinstantiate individuals at will, we may stop caring about individuals at all. What care would gods have for the fate of men?
These are just a few ideas about how I think we might outgrow the the grand ideals of our time, that of hard work, material success, and the realization of our individual potential. What are some of the unseen philosophies which you think will change in the fullness of time?
For those that believe in an afterlife, it is often said that we can take nothing with us from this world into the next. It strikes me that the slow slide of now into the afternow is also a passing of sorts. The journey to the future is every bit as absolute as death, and is ultimately a journey that can strip us of everything that we thought we were.
You can have the future but you can take nothing with you.
Can you elaborate on your first fundamental change, or give an example of a “physical good” that would eventually be obsolete? Could this theoretically be a complete transition from book to ebook?
One thing I can think of would be the ownership and coveting of automobiles. I really think sharing of self driving cars is going to take this paradigm apart.
There is another aspect of self driving cars that few have commented on. Based on observation of my aging father and discussion with doctors, I came to realize that driving a car, and to a greater or lesser extent, walking, utilizes large portions of the brain that quickly atrophy when these two activities are taken away.
I think this problem will be highlighted once we are no longer physically steering a car. My expectation is that it will be somewhat mitigated by VR driving games, which by the way are a good investment for future markets.
A great point, and one worth talking about. What happens to our brains more generally when we become reliant on technology to think for us?
A microcosm of this might be the proliferation of GPS enabled devices. I myself feel like my sense of direction is starting to fade away. I wonder what it will be like when we have something like google glass telling us where to go every step of every day…
If only. The individual won’t be going away for a long long time and even then it will only be in a galaxy far far away, There’s far too much money to be made. Maybe you’re not so prepared for the shock / bewilderment at the challenges we face to substantive progress either.
You seem so confident about that. I am not even sure that I am an individual, I think we are all more connected than we want to think
I think increased security in every aspect of life is an eventuality that will cause some shifts in human philosophy; ultimately leading to a more complacent populous. I think we will see more background checks being conducted for the purchase of certain goods, more security cameras/robots, more and better (or worse, depending on viewpoint) communication monitoring, etc. We are already seeing the beginning of the complacency and apathy towards these trends and it is just going to increase from here.
The people of your imagined future haven’t been born yet and when they are born they will adapt the future to their own sense of right and wrong. Don’t worry. Things will be fine.
But what about for us?
As far as we are concerned, we have embraced our new technologies and are improving upon them with break neck speed. The changes of the last 50 years can only be described as mind-blowing, and those changes have not turned us into mindless zombie like creatures stumbling around in a drug induced stupor. The new generations are always smarter, stronger and quick to adapt to their new surroundings. Just like we were.
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