The Technium

The Missing Near Future


[Translations: Japanese]

Science fiction is an entertaining way to worry about the present. It uses stories set in the future to confront issues of today. Even when it is oozing marvels which have not yet been invented, those futuristic things can only be related in the way the current audience perceives them. Just look at decades old science fiction to see how old-fashion-y it considers the inventions of today – computers and the like. That’s what makes us giggle about yesterday’s visions of tomorrow. In the past they get the new gizmo, but miss the new context. It’ll be the same with the most edgy science fiction today. In the future they will giggle. Regrettably the bias of the creation date is indelible.

The best scenarioists understand this. Here is contemporary sci-fi hero William Gibson on why much of his science fiction these days is placed in the here and now, or what he poetically calls the “ever-alien present”:

I took it for granted that the present moment is always infinitely stranger and more complex than any “future” I could imagine. My craft would be (for a while, anyway) one of importing steamingly weird fragments of the ever-alien present into “worlds” (as we say in science fiction) that purported to be “the future”.

Of course not everyone is satisfied with the ever-alien present and craves some ever-alien future. Best would be the far future where true “otherness” lives. Where the beliefs and assumptions of today can really be tested. Hollywood, which has taken over the cultural center of science fiction,  prefers the cinematic far future, and so we continue to devour the far future sagas of Star Trek, Battlestar Galatica, Star Wars, Firefly, and so on.  But current science fiction of all types is leaving the near future a bit blank.

As an audience we can believe an alien present. It’s like today, only more so. Maybe an alternative version of today. We can also easily be persuaded to believe in a far future. We feel sure that someday, somehow they’ll have massive floating cities, or highways in the sky, instant food, and all the rest. We feel certain about this despite the fact that we can’t fund fast trains between our cities today, or permit genetically modified insect-resistant corn, or take any unified step toward large-scale 21-century developments. Even returning to the moon next decade seems far-fetched.

The near future – let’s peg it 2020 and beyond — is a blank because there is almost no vision of a near-future that seems both desirable and plausible. Most stories, “worlds,” and scenarios of say the year 2050 are dystopian. Take your pick of nuclear self-annihilation, mortal pandemics, planetary floods, robotic overthrow, alien invasion, or fascist apocalypse. They are all very plausible, but not desirable.

The advantage of the far future is we don’t have to be told the story of how we arrived there, of how we passed through the near future. It’s far away enough that the creators can punt past it.  But the near future is such a conundrum that is it has disappeared from our culture.

Computer scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, born in 1956, noticed that when he was a child the future was ‘far away’ in the year 2000, but that as he grew older, the future remained rooted to the year 2000, as if newness could not move beyond that boundary. He describes it as feeling as if the future was “shrinking” year by year until in 1999 the future was only one year long.  Now that we’ve passed through 2000, the future has effectively disappeared – except for the far far future.

This disappearance has been made more real by key science fiction authors, futurists, and the brainy, nerdy folks who ordinarily keep busy churning out visions of tomorrow. A common belief in this circle is that things are moving so fast and weird that it is physically impossible to imagine the future of 2050 and beyond. Many of these futurists believe this discontinuity, called the singularity, is eminently desirable, because it is sure to lead to great intelligence, greater wealth, greater heath and immortality. But because it is forecast to come about via the shattering of what we understand humans to be now, many others will resist this future at all costs. And others believe the singularity future is not only undesirable, but implausible.

Either way, we are left with a blank for the near future. We have no story of progress that fits in the next century. There is no vision of 50 years hence that billions of people on earth would say, yes, that is what I want. Billions of people in the developing world know what they want tomorrow: clean water, free education, self-governance, cheap consumer goods, and hope for their kids. But beyond that, what? What do the billion in developed nations want? A clean environment and opportunities for meaningful work and ……?

Blade-Runner-Los-Angeles-752153

We have great difficulty imagining progress in this century because in the last century we were educated about inherent complex side effects, by-products, and unintended consequences latent in every new thing.  We can’t see progress now because all we see are the costs.

It is unclear if the costs of technology are greater now because of their new complexity, or only more visible now because of their complexity. Probably both.

The conundrum is that no path, no vision of progress – technological, social, moral – will be plausible today if it does not include the complexity of costs, yet it will not be desirable if it does.

That makes our society blind. People assume progress even if they don’t see it. They act as if progress is real, investing into future, starting things up, leaning into tomorrow as if it will be better than today – but there is no shared vision of what this is headed, or even where we’d like it to head. There’s no agreed way on measuring if in fact our actions are titled in the desirable direction – because there is no desired direction. Muddling through blind is the default scenario of the near future. We just kind of bumble along, taking one step after another with no larger goal. A few philosophers declare this is the post-modern stance. Living Without a Goal is all we can hope for, so we better get used to it.

The danger with this stance is that when there is no vision of progress or betterment to unify a society, the leaders will introduce fear to unify them.  The  BBC documentary series “The Power of Nightmares” argues that this is what recently happened in the US. When the hope of technology solving everything (he glorious days of Progress, with a capital P) petered out, it was replaced by the fear of communism as a way of unifying the country. When communism rotted from the inside and collapsed,  the fear of terrorism had to replace it. That exaggerated fear governed the past decade. But unless there is a plausible, desirable vision of betterment, one that billions can agree on, another fear will have to be found.

In that way I think there is a moral imperative to articulate our path towards something better. Not to leave it a vague post-modernist muddle. Not to shirk from the complexity and realities of costs. And not even to expect everyone to consent.

I don’t know if it is possible. It may be as the postmodernists insist: a vision relegated to the past. But I think we’ll behave better to each other, and towards future generations, if we can tease out a scenario of near-future progress for 8 billion humans and our uncountable natural co-inhabitants on this planet.

If you have a plausible desirable version of progress I’d like to hear it.




Comments
  • thinkahol

    I think the Venus Project does have a vision for the near future; it seems to hinge on the concept of a resource based economy (http://www.thevenusproject.com/resource_eco.htm).

    Unfortunately, even though that future is potentially possible today, I don’t think we can expect the existing centralized authorities to give up their power.

    I think we are in desperate need of David Brin’s hypothesized disputation arenas (http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html), and these might be the stepping stone we need.

    It also helps that with the accelerating availability and utility of decentralized power sources like solar centralized authorities will wield less power.

  • glory

    bruces ‘last’ viridian design note and, if you want to get generational about things, the (near) future may just entail a lot of (un)forced idleness, a collective time out if you will, to pause and reflect :P

    cheers!

  • CanadianAlien

    A global near term scenario should focus on quality of life including ensuring that all humans have adequate food, water, shelter, and opportunities to engage in meaningful employment and self-fulfillment. Essentially provide everyone with the same ‘essential platform’ from which they can use to achieve wealth, accomplishments, discovery, create, etc should they desire.

    Utopian sci-fi scenarios are often the result of infinite or adequate resources that provide everyone with essentials (or more).

    However, there is nothing ‘futuristic’ about these goals. They have long been purported intentions of most societies/governments. But the reality is that even in advanced industrialized nations, wealth and intentions have not proven sufficient to provide this to anywhere near 100% of the population.

    It isn’t clear yet whether fulfillment of this scenario is a shortcoming of type of social organization and governance or if there are simply not yet enough resources.

    I tend to think that there are simply not yet enough resources to ‘float everyone’s boat’ or to provide that ‘essential platform’. Even though inter/intra nation wealth/income gaps are often enormous, I suspect that they will always exist, and are necessary.

    We need nearly free/infinite energy, that does not damage the environment, and the means to use this to provide the ‘essential platform’. This seems to me to indicate the need for further technological advances.

  • Tom Buckner

    I’ve been reading the Bob Altemeyer book “The Authoritarians” after Christopher recommended earlier in this comment thread. I second it! Very good. Free online, and here’s the link again: http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    There’s a bit in the book where Altemeyer recalls doing a world simulation game in a high school gym on two consecutive days: first with just under 70 people who scored low on a test for authoritarian personality, the second day with about the same number who scored higher. The less authoritarian group ran the world passably well. The second group had a nuclear war (Russia and friends invaded North America) and killed everybody on Earth. Given a second chance, they attacked China instead, killing ‘only’ 400 million.

  • alex

    i’d like to recommend david holmgren again:
    http://www.futurescenarios.org/

    :]

  • BonnieL

    Kevin, I believe we have found the new “enemy.” It’s name is global warming.

    bonnieL
    triiibe on!

  • jjohnjj

    I think it was Greg Benford’s -Heart of the Comet- that had citizens of the 21st century referring to the 20th as the “Hell Century”

    Let us hope that our recent past was the high water mark of human stupidity and suffering.

  • Paul Hughes

    Hi Kevin,

    Here’s my response to your post:

    Heal The Planet, Live Forever, Travel The Stars

  • Luis

    I’m fearful. As much as I can find exhilaration in technical progress, I feel us striding away, depending ever more on an artificial environment of an increasing complexity. I’m sorry I have nothing to offer except a nagging fear of dystopia, of a world where the social reality would turn the possibility of living within simple means into a pipe dream. Because of this, I believe we should aim to decouple, as much as possible, the wonders of modern life from the basics of living. We ought to relearn how to live with little technology, as humans and animals, and build ourselves a playground where we can pretend to be gods. I don’t believe in progress without mistakes and foolishness. I don’t think that moral, legal or economical boundaries are fit enough for their wisdom to save us. We should see ourselves as we are, as little kids hungry for dreams, and needing a good home. As of now, we’re loosing our homes because our dreams are falling apart.

  • John Read

    When life expectancy remained really low — say 23 — most of the world’s rulers consisted of teenagers. The bulk of decisions to go to war lay in the hands of the very young, and the world did not experience any peace that lasted longer than 40 years. China during the Confucian era stood as the only exception. They had a stable meritocracy and valued wisdom of older people. They did not have an overpopulation problem, though they had fairly dense populations. Not like today!

    The higher the standard of living, the lower the birth rate! Look at Western Europe. It can’t even retain its native population levels – except just barely in Ireland. So immigrants with low living standards flood in to fill the gaps, and quickly turn into problems. Solution to overpopulation lies in high standards of living (not just material goods, but lifestyles) and concomitant sense of well-being. That will achieve a world population that declines to some stable point a lot lower than now – maybe an order of magnitude or more lower. Life extension makes sense then for wisdom and stability.

    The Powers That Be also fret about overpopulation, and view war as a necessary evil for population control (in addition to the multifarious other utilities it has such as George Orwell portrayed so cannily.) Technologies that empower people at the most grass-roots levels can genuinely improve standard of living. Then maybe life extension or enhancement should come about as part of a meritocracy.

  • PJ

    Try Halperin’s _The Truth Machine_ … goes up through 2051 and isn’t very dated at all.

  • Fritz Bogott

    I can imagine pieces of a plausible and desirable 2020, and I could write some good fiction around the margins of it.

    Take your favorite disaster scenario for 2020– climate apocalypse, say, and/or war water wars between Turkey and all its neighboring states. Then start from today and impose the simplest chain of events that could possibly prevent the catastrophe.

    Now you’re in a desirable (but not obnoxiously optimistic) 2020 and you’re ready to plot your story. You’ve got no shortage of McGuffins, because plenty of stuff still sucks in 2020 even though the oceans are rising less quickly than they might be and Turkey’s borders are less anarchic than they might be.

    You’re in an optimistic near future, but you’ve still got a highly-networked Kurdish kid with some designer drugs, a sack of preserved limes and a major chip on his shoulder…

  • JP3K

    the final frontier is within. when I think of the next 25-50 years, I am reminded by the opening lines of Vonnegut’s ‘The Sirens of Titan’:

    “Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.
    “But mankind wasn’t always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them.”

    this global shift into (an evermore) enlightened consciousness is currently underway because the viscosity of information is eroding the legitimacy of the political sphere.

    within the next ~25years, humans will begin waking up to the extent to which they are being and have been manipulated by political machines. this new awareness will be applied to advertisers around the same time.

    within 50years, humans will once again reclaim control of their currency and will exchange with eachother rationally and voluntarily. two significant barriers to self-realization will be removed: political deception (the state) and consumerism.

  • Yuri van Geest

    Great post and discussion. Thanks again.

    Joel Garreau (GBN) wrote a great book called Radical Evolution in which Jaron Lanier deepens his future (and optimistic) vision. It extends the post by @haig.

  • Claes Mogren

    I think The Venus Project, as described in the latest Zeitgeist movie, have some really good ideas about what we have to do in the near future. The movie is definitely worth watching. (Google for it)

  • Christopher

    I think one of the (many) reasons that so many Americans are excited by Obama is that he doesn’t represent the kind of right-wing authoritarian government that needs to use fear to keep its followers chanting their name. They can (try to) appeal to other psychological features of the populace, and I think ‘progress’ – or ‘change’, as it was used in the election – is one of them. Hope for a future where we don’t have to live in fear, and where we can be proud and strong (etc.)

    Technology is one area in which Obama has rooted that hope: energy efficiency, production and manufacture – all the kinds of thing where the huge numbers of unemployed can hope to contribute to their own (country’s) future.

    For a very good run-down on right-wing authoritarian politics, and psychology of fear it uses, read Professor Bob Altemeyer’s amusing and insightful book, available free here:

    http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

  • pm

    It may be that our near future vision is clouded by the fact that, although we’ve evolved as a culture (technologically), we’ve not really evolved as a race. A casual glance at the human atrocity and struggle that continues in Africa makes for a discontinuous vision of technological advancement of the race. Far future vision has a utopian quality, and we are far from Utopia. Maybe we need near-future scenarios where the technology exists for the whole race to transcend the current state of humanity.

  • Helena de Groot

    I can imagine a future where not so much technology is the buzzword, but education in general. Technology alone can easily lead you to think of machines taking over, genetically modified plants growing out of control, and the like.
    But what if the future would be a place for integrated learning, understanding, reasoning, discussion, research and investigation. People could communicate over the internet or some sort of web, sharing data in a myriad of ways, proving arguments that can be objectified and discussing the ones that cannot (like ethical arguments).
    Populism and democracy could get a whole new flavor to it if the debate would be an educated, but not an exclusivist one.
    If that would be the future, I would move there right away ;-)

  • dsankey

    Just as those near-starvation have to worry about food for today and are unable to plan a month or even a week ahead, it seems like we have too many problems in the present to worry about the future. We could keep ourselves busy until 2020 just fixing the problems with the present.

    A related thought about what you’re saying about fear taking the place of hope in our visions of the future: that the Bush administration and the vogue for cinematic horror were closely related. So what becomes the fictional correlative of the Obama presidency?

  • ross

    I just want peace and quiet. No machines, no gadgets, no phosphor glows from stupid monitors.

    A nice place to lay my head and dream of fish.

  • pascal

    The Metaverse Roadmap takes a very thorough, probablistic look at the near future – out to 2025. Plenty there on the costs of it all.

    http://www.metaverseroadmap.org/overview/

  • NGA

    I see signs that information flow is deaccelarating due to the increase in the speed of social unstability generated by emotional unstability. It is possible that the next step in technology should involve maturity of the human being in order to achieve higher views. Otherwise knowledge tends to remain stagnant.

  • haig

    I don’t know if you’ve seen Jaron Lanier’s talk on what he thinks human progress should look like, but you can watch it here:

    http://www.archive.org/details/FutureSalon_04_2004

    He advocates for humanity to progress up along what he has termed the McLuhan ramp. He introduces the two ramps we are already familiar with: a morality ramp and a technological ramp, and then proceeds to show why these are not ideal for our future and why the McLuhan ramp is.

    The gist of it is this:
    1. Morality ramp: ever more increasing morality –> leads to conflict between beliefs.
    2. technological ramp: ever more increasing technological growth –> leads to ‘cybernetic totalitarianism’
    3. McLuhan ramp: ever more increasing self-expression, communication, and self-actualization —> leads to a sustainable, fulfilling, humanistic future.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @haig; I had not seen it. Off to the movies…..

  • haig
  • NGA

    Thanks for the suggestions haig! I will check it out.

    Actually I take the concept of maturity deeper than two aspects of a human being for it may reveal some facts about invisible systems. The practical side of invisible systems might show new elements that the simulation can’t predict.

  • glory

    The near future – let’s peg it 2020 and beyond — is a blank

    you’re missing vinge’s http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbows_End :P

    cheers!

  • glory

    oh and re: ‘Living Without a Goal’

    speaking of xtianity :P

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish” –proverbs 29:18

    altho i’d hasten to add…

    His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”

    “It will not come by watching for it. It will not be said, ‘Look, here!’ or ‘Look, there!’ Rather, the Father’s kingdom is spread out upon the earth, and people don’t see it.” –gospel of thomas, 113
    :D

  • Tom Buckner

    We are living in a time of instability so profound that sane people can wonder whether the human species will even exist in a century. If we wish to salvage the near future we must figure out how to answer Yes to that question.

    We are seven billion on a planet, burning coal and chopping trees. This cannot continue. Either we become far fewer (it’s been suggested the planet can sustain one or two billion at most) or else we meet the needs of seven billion while somehow not chopping trees and burning coal. Is this technology or magic?

    In an odd way, the problem is really about how to distribute complexity. In prehistory, human society was very simple. We had only those tools a few people could make with bare hands and wood, sinew, flint, hides, straw, or other materials almost unaltered from nature, in simple configurations. Nature, on the other hand, was at its most complex. From one valley to the next, different species fluorished everywhere, in undisturbed and profoundly complex interrelationships.

    Now it is becoming the reverse. We are surrounded by complex networks of human artifacts, made from highly processed materials and put together in complex ways. Yet the natural world is becoming ill from simplification. There are fewer species, and you become more likely to see some invasive creature or plant on the other side of the globe. Will the Amazon become a desert? The ocean become a dead soup? Will we find ourselves trying to get our machines to do what the environment did for free? We cannot choose the economy over the environment, because…

    The environment IS the economy.

    And wiser people than me say the IQ needed to wipe out the world gets lower every year. The religious nutter down the street who wants the Eschaton to arrive can’t make it happen today. But give him twenty more years of advancing science and see what he can do. Probably with germs. We are rapidly approaching a day when we cannot afford to have even one such malcontent among us. How then? This, indeed, is the failing of military force in general: true security in the future can only come from making sure nobody wants to lash out. Is such a society even possible?

    Ultimately we either choose an Amish simplicity, renouncing advanced technology and having a far smalle population; or we continue to ride the rocket sled into the unknowable. Since someone will always want the advanced technology, and have an adantage over the Luddites, we probably stay strapped to the rocket sled until it crashes or goes into orbit.

    And we were never really in control.

  • Steve Witham

    “We have great difficulty imagining progress in this century because in the last century we were educated about inherent complex side effects, by-products, and unintended consequences latent in every new thing. We can’t see progress now because all we see are the costs.”

    Well, if by “educated” you mean scared. Maybe educated should mean able to assess risks and past problems, put them in context, and make decisions about new options sanely instead of with plain fear or plain boosterism.

    We credit artists and writers with courageous vision, but maybe nothing really works unless it’s reasonably in sync with what the current zeitgeist– however manic, depressed, romantic, unrealistically idealistic, egotistical, paranoid, etc.– is ready to absorb.

    Or, maybe now, the new stuff really is happening in the present faster than fiction writers can make things up. Like, I’m not sure why I’m on Facebook and can’t figure out whether I need to Twitter instead of txt.

  • PT

    Richard Brautigan wrote a great poem that captures the essence of what I find to be a plausible, desirable version of future progress. I believe it goes hand in hand with the “McLuhan ramp” mentioned below, which I also find appealing. (Not to mention It is a viable answer to the “lone nutter” problem mentioned below.)

    Here is the poem (I added a new stanza of my own; re-mix culture ;):

    http://wearetheweb.wordpress.com/2008/11/03/read-write-hear-talk-web/

    Also, two of Barack Obama’s favorite thinkers are Nietzsche and Ralph Waldo Emerson. This bodes well for our missing near term future, I would hope.