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.
Scott, it does seem likely that automation will replace a lot of low-wage labor, and might do so soon enough to mitigate the balance of trade with respect to China. But at the same time, that increase in productivity could exacerbate employment problems, especially since the United States seems to have a deep aversion to supporting people who aren’t working. Meanwhile the cost of the medical innovation you envision is could easily be quite high, which leads me to suspect the “some” that get the healthy lifespan extension will be a tiny elite. That isn’t exactly congruent with the secular Western liberal values you’re pleased with.
At the same time, the way the poorer countries of the world have developed has been to bootstrap through the low-skill low-wage labor path. If that path is taken away, how is the lateral spread of wealth going to take place?
I disagree with Stephenson’s contention that innovation has lagged (I just think it has been focused — far too much — on materialism and consumption, which the “invisible hand of the market” finds much more appealing) and agree with you that science fiction writers shouldn’t try to spin falsely positive futures. But you’re wrong about science fiction merely reflecting the zeitgeist. The “speculative” part of their job is to look beyond today’s conditions. Peoples ideas and lives can change based on what they read, and science fiction has inspired many to become engineers and scientists who otherwise might not have seen any appeal in those careers.
Perhaps even more importantly, visions of the future can sway opinions of the broader population. Those dystopian stories that Stephenson dislikes might have played a role in making the use of nuclear weapons politically unpalatable. Back in the fifties there were proposals to use nukes in civil engineering, which now seems like a spectacularly bad idea, doesn’t it?
The Rifters novels of Peter Watts are examples of an extremely dystopian future where most of humanity has become redundant. The prescription you provide for a “good future” scares me a bit, because while those four bullet points all sound great, the parts you don’t address could just as easily lead to Watts’ future.
I agree that automation poses challenges for the economy and that’s a position that I’ve explored on this blog already. I’m trying to be positive in this post, so I will suggest that the wealthy elite of America will cough up stipends to keep the villagers with pitchforks at bay.
I think it’s obvious that extended lifespans will come first to the wealthy. I agree that this isn’t super egalitarian, but I am only a loose egalitarian. All people are clearly not exactly equal. Capitalism with it’s profit motive has been the force that raised all boats. The communists didn’t do that.
As for the mechanism for lateral wealth distribution, it’s interesting to note that worldwide employment decreased slightly during the same period that poverty decreased. Maybe wages increased? Maybe more aid was given? I don’t know. We shouldn’t assume that the low-skill labor path is the only way for the developing world to advance. Maybe the Global South will be able to cash in on their raw materials. Maybe ubiquitous internet will open up other opportunities for them to develop higher end skills.
I’m trying to move toward the position that writers wield influence. But it’s certainly true that the work of many writers reflects the mood of their time. This is not a bug, it’s a feature. Go back and read Gibson’s early work like Neuromancer and tell me it doesn’t scream 1980’s. It’s a dark vision and it reflects the mood of the 80’s before the wall came down and we were all still worried about nuclear Armageddon.
I haven’t read Rifters, but based on Blindsight, I am not surprised that Watts fleshes out a pretty bleak scenario. I’ve explored a bunch of bleak scenarios on this blog, which is why I took up the challenge to write a positive vision. I agree that an unrealistically positive vision doesn’t help anyone, so I will continue to try and imagine plausible solutions to some of these thorny issues.
Very inspiring, Scott. Thank you for lifting us up!
Protein-based therapies can be very inexpensive to produce. After all, they are made by yeast. Proteins are even more inexpensive if they are endogenously produced by a person’s own cells after introduction of a gene-therapy virus.
Yet, in many parts of the world, people cannot even afford the bit of salty water needed to keep them from dying of dehydration. So, most of the lateral aka global issues are sociopolitical in nature. People with skills in those areas can contribute much. Meanwhile, we in heath tech do our part.
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. —Helen Keller