History tends to look better over longer time horizons. For example, consider one bit of good news: the Singularity is coming.
This mathematical concept came to the public’s attention from Vernor Vinge’s book Marooned in Real Time, describing a wondrous future in which the rate of technological progress accelerates – eventually going vertical — after which the humanity leaves for a higher plane of existence (see links below for more on this). Since then it seems that singularities abound in our future, in addition to this technological singularity. Those terrified by the approach of Peak Oil often describe it as a dystopian Singularity; those elated by Peak Oil describe it as a wonderful singularity — a forced purification as we enter a new age. In this post I have described the end of the post-WWII regime as a singularity in a limited sense: we cannot see beyond it (and before worrying about what lies beyond, must first survive the passage through it).
More importantly, singularities are in fact common in human history. Been there, done that. Singularities – or perhaps The Singularity — lie in our past. Consider these awesome accomplishments of our species, each of which radically changed our world.
- discovery of fire — giving us power over the environment
- agriculture — giving control of our food sources
- writing — key to accumulating knowledge over generations
Similar good discontinuities might lie in our future:
- space travel — vast increase in resources, planetary engineering, independence from Earth as our only nest
- widespread genetic-engineering — independence from evolution, the freedom to shape ourselves
- construction of Artificial Intelligences — an end to our solitude, independence from limitations of biological intelligence
- vastly extended vital lifespans — “vital” is key, to avoid becoming Struldbruggs, the immortals described in Gulliver’s Travels as old and decrepit
Longer lives might prove the most important. In Back to Methuselah, George Bernard Shaw temporarily abandoned his utopian dreams and suggested that only longer lifespans — 300 years — could bring true human wisdom and hence a better world. The horror show of violence and folly we call history results from the absence of adult supervision (people over 100 years old). That might change during the next few generations as we unlock the secrets of biology, as in the 19th and 20th centuries we with chemistry and physics.
Of course, those are only the innovations in the “plausible” realm. Outside that are things such as time travel, unlimited energy sources, and faster than light travel. Who knows what we might achieve in the future. Given our past, why are so many people so gloomy about our future? Challenges lie ahead, as always, but we have survived ice ages (large and small), natural disasters (such as the eruption of Toba, which exterminated most of our species), and our own mistakes and follies.
History gives us reason to look to the future with anticipation, not fear. We must remember this as our elites increasingly attempt to lead by exciting our fears.
The articles that inspired this post
Cro-Magnon Communication, Brad Delong, Grasping Reality with Both Hands, 5 August 2005
The Twelve-Year-Old is on strike. She refuses to write more than one paragraph of a letter detailing her day to our pre-Neolithic Revolution ancestors. She says the idea is stupid because it cannot be done — the Singularity is not in our future but in our past. Nevertheless it is quite a good first paragraph:
I was jigging to my iPod when my friend Noelle rode up in the front passenger seat of her family’s minivan. “Will your parents let you come see ‘The Wedding Crashers’?” she asked.
She has a point. “Jigging” can be gotten across. And the East African Plains Ape social dynamics can be gotten across — friends, marriage, excessive parental control of the activities of adolescent females, et cetera (although not all of them: the idea of a “wedding crasher” is a very complicated concept to get across to a hunter-gatherer who has lived in a group of 40 or so her whole life).
But the rest? Maybe I should have reversed the assignment: What kinds of science fiction would hunter-gatherers have written?
Early Holocene Sci-fi — written by Pat Mathews (link)
Shaman: I have foreseen a time when everybody can have all the meat, fat, and sweet stuff they can eat, and they all get fat.
Chief: You have had a vision of the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Shaman: It is considered a great and horrible problem! People go out of their way to eat leaves and grass and grains, and work very hard to look lean and brown.
Chief: You’ve been eating too many of those strange mushrooms, and are seeing everything backward.
Conclusion: Why is this important?
Survival requires that we focus on risks and threats, as good news usually takes care of itself. Hence the articles on this blog about the dangers facing us, as the American summer fades into winter.
Survival also requires a positive attitude, which means seeing things in their proper context. Events often move in cycles, experienced as of unknown duration, magnitude, and scale. America might re-emerge from winter revitalized, as strong or even stronger than ever. Perhaps this cycle moves humanity to a higher level, with winter for the West followed by a greater spring in Asia.
No matter what happens, we can face the future with pride in our past and optimism for the future. Let us not let our critics and naysayers take these away from us.
Links to more information about the things described in this post
- Wikipedia on the technological singularity.
Ray Kurzweil: his website; the Amazon page for his book (Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology)
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp interest these days:
A few of the posts about good news, an antidote to the doomsters:
- Some good news (one of the more important posts on this blog), 21 December 2007 – I do not believe we need fear the future, despite the tough times coming soon. This remains a great nation, not because of our past but because of us and our polity. We differ from almost every other nation. The difference consists of our commitment to our political order, of which our Constitution is the foundation. In this we are like Athens more than our neighbors …
- An important thing to remember as we start a New Year, 29 December 2007 — As we start a New Year I find it useful to review my core beliefs. It is easy to lose sight of those amidst the clatter of daily events. Here is my list…
- Fears of flying into the future, 25 February 2008 — Reasons we need not fear the future.
- Experts, with wrinkled brows, warn about the future, 2 May 2008 — Experts often see the future with alarm, seeing the dangers but not benefits. That gets attention, from both the media and an increasingly fearful public. Both sides feed this process. It need not be so, as most trends contain the seeds of good and bad futures. This post considers two examples.
- Good news about the 21st century, a counterbalance to the doomsters, 9 May 2008
- Some thoughts about the economy of mid-21st century America, 12 January 2009 — Optimistic words from the greatest economist of the 20th century.