I’m sitting in the tool crib on a much quieter afternoon shift, looking out through the tool window onto what I can see of the shop floor, and there’s a sudden moment in which I’m seeing the loveliest thing I’ve seen in days.
Off in the far corner of my field of view is one of the MTL’s tall, mullioned windows. Visible through that window is just the very corner of a neighboring building, Crosby Hall, and beyond that is the opposite corner of another building, Little Hall. Little is a story taller than Crosby and flat on top, where Crosby has a mansard roof, so the view is of this interesting little angle they make, a sort of triangular open space between the slant of Crosby’s roof and the flat side of Little, then an open rectangular space above.
And while I’m looking at that, pondering the interesting play of perspective and foreshortening that’s involved in creating that triangular illusion, a scrap of cloud drifts through that bit of sky. Since it’s just coming on for sunset, the sky is still daylight blue, but the bit of cloud is the most amazing shade of pink-orange as it drifts between the white of Crosby’s snow-covered roof and the black of Little’s brick side silhouetted against the sky beyond.
Unfortunately, this trick of light and color is completely baffling to digital photography, and so I could not capture it for posterity. The best I could do is this poor bit of superfluous prose, a vain effort to prevent the moment from being lost forever.
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.
They wanted to know my preferred future. So I told them. Let the chips fall where they may.
My preferred future, eh? This is a slightly daunting assignment, since, as we’ve already seen in this course, futurists have an extensive track record of being hilariously wrong. Even extremely clever ones, like Vannevar Bush and his building-sized, waterfall-cooled computers, or Count Zeppelin and his fleets of slow-moving, comically vulnerable airships plying the skies of a curiously German world. As I am neither extremely clever nor a proper futurist at all, this should be… interesting.
Here are a few developments in the next 50-100 years that I consider possible and desirable (although, contrary to the suggested framework, I don’t always consider the things I prefer to be terribly probable, human nature being what it is).
Maturation of Human Attitudes
This is the whole fulcrum of my vision of the future. Hutchins’s 22nd century is predicated on the probably-overly-optimistic idea that it’s about time the human species grew up and threw off its lifelong addiction to superstition. Crystal gazing, orgone energy, pyramid power, astrology, ghosts, alien abductors, astrology, dire predictions of the world-ending wrath of some unobservable god or gods, psychics, astrology, and I may have already mentioned astrology – none of it’s real, none of it helps us advance, and it all has to go into the dustbin of history, alongside werewolves, trial by ordeal, and eight-track tape cassettes. We in the Western world, particularly, have no call to shake our heads at the benighted savagery and quaint folkways of primitive desert tribesmen when we’re still printing horoscopes in our daily newspapers and stifling important biomedical research because we’d rather wring our hands about scientists Playing God.
I recognize that this may be a difficult thing to ask of humanity, but on the other hand, it’s probably an easier ask than global brotherhood; in fact, I suspect it’s a prerequisite of global brotherhood. Until we abandon our superstitions and approach the world from one universal, rational perspective, we’re never going to make useful progress toward the goal of worldwide common understanding.
Which brings us neatly to
The future of governance lies in the decline and fall of militant nationalism. Particularly fashionable since Napoleonic times, this popular human prejudice is responsible for war, obstruction of global progress, economic instability, enormous expenditure of resources on vast and useless "defense" systems, and the general persistence of needless divisions among the peoples of the world. It’s a dangerous waste of time and effort and it has to go. This is the century when humanity must finally pull itself together and recognize that – not so much in the eco-warrior or flower-generation sense but as a concrete, practical reality – there is one planet Earth and one human species living upon it, and there are too many of us going in too many different directions for this "competitive nation-states" business to be workable any longer. It was fine in ancient Mesopotamia, but one only has to look at the mess that is modern Mesopotamia to see how counterproductive the concept of the sovereign nation is in the 21st century.
Mind you, even with modern instantaneous telecommunications and the like, it’s an inconveniently big planet with a staggeringly impractical number of people upon it, so a single world government is a pipe dream on the same scale as universal love and brotherhood. In the short or even medium term, it’s likely that the best we can hope for is a slow erosion of the ideological differences that divide the existing nations so completely. This needs to start locally, with, e.g., the rendering unfashionable of such unhelpful, obstructionist philosophies as Not In My Back Yard and There Goes the Neighborhood. These things can happen within one generation. For precedent, we have only to look to earlier social advances, like the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century.
If the maturation of human attitude is the fulcrum of this future, then education is the hinge pin. Without a comprehensive system of education, we’re never going to find our way out of the swamp humanity has managed to arrive in in these opening years of the 21st century. Rather than attempt massive reform to the aforemention systems from the start – systems which, in all their broken glory, many people today have a vested interest in maintaining – it’s my belief that a future generation, properly educated, will come to the conclusion that these changes are necessary without having to be led to it.
This is not the Communist dream of the New Soviet Man I’m talking about here, programmed from childhood in the Correct Thinking. I’m talking about a generation of young people equipped with the tools for critical thinking and rational understanding of the world that everyone should have – what Carl Sagan called the "baloney detection kit". Our schools should already be outfitting everyone who passes through them with these vital tools, but instead we find ourselves in a situation where an alarming percentage of high-school graduates have trouble with words longer than "rotfl". This will not do.
Fortunately, it’s also the simplest thing on the list to fix. Great schools require, when you pare everything back to first principles, one thing: a lot more funding than they’re getting now. Funding pays for facilities, it pays for equipment, and, most importantly, it pays for teachers. Right now a person has to be almost pathologically dedicated to the enrichment of the young, or completely out of options, to choose public school instruction as a career. Group A are great, and will continue to be great if we pay them a wage that isn’t an embarrassment to our entire civilization. Group B are not, and we wouldn’t need to retain them if we paid teachers enough to attract Group C, the really bright but slightly less crazy people who presently opt for jobs that pay better than fast-food management.
If schools had funding enough to attract and retain the right people, the rest of the problem would take care of itself. Get enough bright, dynamic, motivated people together and the endless wrangling about the finest points of the curriculum, the hidebound traditionalism, the lowest-required-effort assessment methods, and all the rest of the rigmarole that’s strangling education today will just go away, because people like that don’t have time for it. Does Simon Hauger look like he has time for student self-actualization index metrics? No, because he’s too busy getting great education done.
That’s it. That’s really, truly the key to the future right there. Pay teachers enough. If you build it they will come, and if they come, the next wave of graduates will be outfitted with everything they need to clean up what we can’t get to of the almighty mess our parents’ generation is leaving us. If you don’t build it, on the other hand, we’ll go down in 24th-century history as the people whose fault the new Dark Ages (ca. 2025-2350) were.
This week’s task in INT 400 was to identify a technological advancement made since 1945 that’s held to have "changed the world" and then discuss whether we thought it actually had. So I did.
It’s relatively rare to run across a technological advancement that is genuinely without precedent – though it depends on how one interprets "precedent". Jet aircraft shrank the world, but no more so in their time, culturally speaking, than did proper seagoing ships (as opposed to the Mediterranean coastal vessels of Roman times) in the 15th century. Satellite telecommunications and the Internet have only continued the "annihilation of space" begun by the Morse electric telegraph in 1844 (and Morse’s telegraph had forerunners of its own). Computers can do a lot of math fast, but before them were computers – people who did a lot of math slowly. Television is basically just radio with illustrations. Even space travel is, at its heart, the same activity as the great exploratory sea voyages of the 16th century, only with smaller crews and in a different direction.
All of these technologies have a common trait: They’re held to have revolutionized the world, but if one looks more closely, one sees that what they’ve really done is enabled people to do things they were already doing, but faster, with greater efficiency, and/or on a larger scale than before.
Except one: the thermonuclear bomb.
"Hold on," I hear you say. "Nuclear weapons are just bigger, more powerful versions of, well, bombs. People had been using those for centuries before they came along. Nuclear bombs allow for warfare with explosive weapons on a bigger scale than before – you just disproved your own point." That’s true, but there’s an unintended consequence of that bigger scale that, I believe, is genuinely without precedent and qualifies nuclear arms for the unique status I’m ascribing to them here. Before nuclear weapons, there was no way for human agencies, acting of their own accord, to threaten the entirety of human civilization. We’d never developed a technology before that, if mishandled, could potentially end the whole story at a stroke. No one had ever conceived of such a thing except in apocalyptic myth. Not even its precursor, the atomic bomb – awesome in its own right – held the potential for such astonishing destruction… and then, in 1952, there it was. Suddenly, with the push of a button at a testing range in the Pacific, the H-bomb was born and the whole game of international relations changed.
Thermonuclear weapons gave the world the concept of mutually assured destruction, which had never before been a factor in politics, military strategy, or civil policy. It forced a near-total reassessment of what warfare was or meant. Not even gunpowder did that. Nothing ever had, and it’s unlikely that anything will again. How do you top "total obliteration" on the potential-consequences scale?