I was recently challenged by Dinelle Luchessi, Director of Community and Media for the Health Extension Salon, to describe my own vision of a positive future. Dinelle took exception to the part of my first Health Extension Salon blog post where I suggested that focusing on positive future scenarios (i.e. utopia) was comparable to drinking the Kool-Aid. This is a question that I have been struggling with since I first heard Neal Stephenson bring it up at Black Hat 2012 when he was launching his Hieroglyph project. Stephenson argues that the dystopian futures portrayed in science fiction in the past 30-40 years have contributed to the stagnation of innovation. He suggests that the positive visions of SF’s Golden Age inspired engineers and scientists to innovate by giving them an “over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision.” This theme was re-iterated by several speakers at the Humanity+ conference last year as well.
My gut reaction is to reject this idea. “Never trust science fiction writers who tell you how important science fiction writers are,” I said. “Writers are merely reflecting the Zeitgeist,” I said. “Blame politics and the markets,” I said. There is a fatalistic part of me that thinks that this deterministic clockwork universe is constrained to click forward to the next possible state. Humans who think their decisions matter are simply deluding themselves. But this isn’t how I live my life. Like most people, I assume that my decisions matter. So my rejection of the idea that writers can shape the future is in some ways an abdication of responsibility. It may be that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to envision and discuss positive future scenarios.
I will set aside the question of what “positive” means for now. I have poked into that question somewhat before. Humans don’t and probably shouldn’t have universally shared values. But I am not entirely a cultural relativist. Ethnocentric as it is, I am happy to assert that secular Western liberal values are inherently superior to the alternatives. I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that freedom and equality are cool ideas.
One way to approach a positive vision of the future is to project apparent trends into the future. Pinker points out that violence is declining. Matt Ridley reveals that we are using cleaner and cleaner energy over time. World poverty shows a clear pattern of decline. So a general vision of a clean, well-fed, and peaceful future world seems reasonable. But we can’t just sit back and assume that these trends will continue. What actions can we take today to move toward a better future? Consider the population problems in the Global South. If a good future involves humans breeding less, educating women seems to be one of the best approaches to reducing population growth.
Improving the lives of the poorest might be considered a lateral improvement in the human condition. But globalization is not innovation. We’ve already figured out how to control population growth in the developed world. Here in the Global North, we want something more interesting. That’s where Health Extension Salon’s goal comes in: working toward a healthy 123-year-old. Not decrepit 123-year-olds, but vibrant and lively geezers. This would cause some demographic problems if introduced to the entire world all at once, but it will probably be first achieved in the rich, low population growth countries anyway. I like equality and all, but let’s not get too carried away.
So what would a future first world filled with healthy 123-year-olds look like? I like to use Stewart Brand as a role model for how to live an extended lifespan. Brand himself has had several encore careers: founding the Whole Earth Catalog in the 60’s, the Global Business Network in the 80’s, and the Long Now in the 90’s, which he still guides. It seems inevitable that as human lifespans increase, we will all be taking on multiple careers in one lifetime. For that matter, the accelerating pace of change suggests that we will all need to continually learn new skills even if lifespans don’t increase dramatically. So we all need to explore new forms of education. Some will benefit from online learning, others will build skills and knowledge through play and experimentation at the local hackerspaces springing up around the world.
Hackerspaces bring to mind the question of a positive future for us here in the US. Fiscal cliff concerns and our weak economy have lead some to question whether our nation’s finest years are behind us. China is seen as ascendant. But what about a future where automation and rising standards of living destroy China’s labor arbitrage advantage? What if desktop manufacturing really does change everything? A world where we print out physical goods, just in time, as we need them, is cool for many reasons. It cuts down on environmental damage though lowered energy requirements and material waste. And it promises an amazing consumer experience of instant gratification coupled with unimaginable personalization. The US could become the top manufacturer once again, though the export situation gets a little weird in that future.
I have argued before that our modern first world society has left us socially isolated and disconnected from the lifestyles we evolved into. To me a positive future would have us adapt our society to match our evolutionary constraints. Perhaps we could reorganize ourselves into 150 member intentional communities to take advantage of our hardwired social unit size. This might even help solve environmental management problems by breaking up common areas into smaller segments. We all need a little green space around us to keep our brains working properly anyway. I like the idea of intentional communities because people should be free to break out of restrictive local traditions and cultures if they choose. Culture should be voluntary.
So that’s one take on a good future:
- a lateral spread of wealth and education that raises the third world out of suffering
- medical innovation that dramatically extends the healthy lifespan of some
- technical innovation that reshapes how items are manufactured to conserve resources and improve consumer experiences
- cultural innovation that creates a new “village” community without trapping anyone in restrictive parochial boondocks against their will
I want to thank Dinelle Luchessi for challenging me to write this up. It makes me feel pretty hopeful when I think about the possibilities for a positive future. I will try to address some of the ways that the political and market roadblocks to these scenarios might be overcome in coming posts.