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INT 400: Wrap-Up Week, Phase I

In its original coursework form, this was entitled "Futurism Isn’t What It Used to Be".


In looking over the materials for this segment and reflecting on what has gone before, I’m struck – as I have been many times over the course of this semester – by what a pessimistic view of the future many of today’s thinkers have.  I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I find this annoying, and more than slightly disturbing.

When my grandfather was a boy, the general view in Western society was that progress was good, it had made the present better than it would otherwise have been, and it was going to make the future better still – and this was in an age of widespread economic depression, impending world war, polio and Jim Crow.  The 1930s were a decade that arguably didn’t have a lot to be optimistic about, and yet you had massively forward-looking things being done, like the Hoover Dam and the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Contrast that with today, when a person can take a college class that is built around a dynamic conference of ideas and innovations like Pop!Tech and find himself bombarded for fifteen weeks by view of the present and future like The Story of Stuff and Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.  Message, as I perceive it: Progress is cruel and exploitative, the present isn’t that great and should feel guilty about most of what it has, and the future ranges from bleak to apocalyptic.

This is not acceptable.

Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us is a particularly good example of this delicate balance of daft ideas and general pessimism that seems to embody modern futuristic thought.  It starts out with an anecdote about Ray Kurzweil, whom we’d just seen in a video from a few years ago being boldly and far-reachingly wrong about what the distant year 2010 was going to be like.  From that shaky basis, the author then asserts that one of Kurzweil’s wackier (though, I admit, refreshingly optimistic) ideas – that we’re very soon to achieve a sort of cyberpunk apotheosis by becoming one with our Internets – is wrong not because the whole premise is absurd, but because it isn’t pessimistic enough.  Sure, Joy says, we will reach an age when our computers are as smart as we are, but then they’ll either enslave us or wipe us out.  "I think it is no exaggeration to say we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil," he writes.  Do us a favor?

I’m sorry that I always seem to be setting myself at odds with our sources here, but it can’t be helped.  A great deal of what we’ve been exposed to in the course of this odyssey has been richly, bountifully disappointing.  Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us isn’t about technology, it’s primitive eschatology dressed up in a lab coat.  One finds oneself surprised that the phrase "if God had meant Man to X, He’d have given him Y" isn’t in there somewhere.  At the very least, it’s shockingly timid.  Joy advocates abandoning research into several of the most promising areas of high technology because he doesn’t think they’re worth the risk.  That’s not the attitude that mastered flint knapping in Olorgesailie, Bill.

Bostrom’s musings on the transhuman/posthuman phenomenon are slightly better reading, if only because they’re a little more balanced – but the whole debate he describes between what he calls bioconservative vs. transhumanist elements on, e.g., the improvement of the human species through inheritable genetic engineering seems more than a little silly when viewed from the perspective of a living room in rural Maine on a chilly December evening.  I have a couple of friends who consider themselves "posthumanists", and they are without doubt the most tiresome people on the face of the Earth when they get to talking about how technology will transcend the meaning of humanity within the next arbitrarily chosen number of years.  What they really mean is "look how clever I am, and have you seen my brand-new Android tablet?"  Having experienced that sort of frivolity first-hand, I find myself extremely suspicious of the whole movement’s intellectual credentials.

What’s really interesting about this to me, though, is that there was almost none of this sort of nonsense in the actual Pop!Tech conference itself.  With very few exceptions, the Pop!Tech speakers didn’t preach, didn’t talk down to their audience, and didn’t espouse concepts so lofty and abstract that they served only as illuminated signs saying YOU UNDERSTAND, OF COURSE, THAT I AM VERY SMART.  They were people with concrete ideas for improving things, rather than tutting, fretting prescriptionists who only wanted to make it plain that We’re All Doing It Wrong and We’re All Going to Die.  The contrast between the tone of the conference itself and the bulk of the supporting material we’ve seen during the weeks when the conference wasn’t happening is startling now that I look back at it.

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