Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Your Future Sucks

We have just emerged from a decade bookended by the years 2001 and 2010, that is to say, by years that also happen to be the titles of excellent and incomparably influential science fiction by Arthur C. Clarke. These works contained what Clarke regarded as sound futurological conjurations of the decade which, compared to the actual decade now thankfully behind us, might just as well be republished as futurological conjurations of a world a century ahead of us (on the actually optimistic assumption that the human race hasn't managed a century from now to destroy itself altogether through war and waste).

Meditating on our traversal of this disastrous disappointing decade, Transhumanist Kyle Munkittrick wants to know "Can we finally admit we live in the future?"

To the extent that "The Future" denotes the hyperbolic marketing and promotional discourse by means of which futurologists peddle, through hyperbolic promises and distractions, a corporate-militarist present shittier by far than it needs to be to the majority of those who are getting shit on, I think it is very fair indeed to say we do indeed live in The Future.

Munkittrick is well aware that the present might seem disappointing to those whose best hopes were shaped by generations of futurology past. As is usually the case he captures this disappointment by pointing to the jet-packs we don't have.

I must say, I am less disappointed at not having a jet pack (which I can't see much use for, to be honest, preferring as I do reading a book on the train, which is less possible now than it once was because Americans have long been in thrall to their cramped dangerous demanding polluting automobiles) than I am in the way our biosphere is failing in the face of ongoing waste and pollution, the way the working hours of average Americans are going up while the purchasing power of their paychecks is going down, the way the power grid goes down for millions every time it rains or snows, the way bridges are collapsing and roads being re-graveled for lack of maintenance, the way tuberculosis, whooping cough, and plague are returning to the scene, the way human slavery is back on the rise, the way the Concorde ended its run, the way Americans apparently can't build tunnels anymore, the way we can't go to the Moon the way we could half a century ago, the way weapons of mass destruction are proliferating, the way fewer and fewer people feel confident that through hard work and following the rules they are helping to create a better world for the next generation to live in.

Munkittrick seems to think those who are disappointed in The Future in the present lack perspective, frankly he seems to me to imply that we're ingrates. He proposes that we imagine what it would have been like in 1995 to be given a glimpse into the stunning world of 2010.

He speaks of cellphones. (Weren't we already being annoyed by them ringing at the movies by 1995?) He speaks of the Internet. (I had a homepage up by 1993.) He speaks of video games. (World of Warcraft was released in 1994. [EDIT: My partner Eric informs me that WoW appeared on the scene akin to its present mmorpg incarnation in 2004, but that I can make much the same point in reference to Everquest.]) He speaks of private spaceflight. (Amusement park rides and high altitude flights, neither of which are real spaceflight any more than what passes for "private spaceflight" is today, have been around for generations.) He speaks of "a rogue Australian cyberterrorist [who] is wanted by world’s largest governments and corporations for leaking secret information." (Quite apart from the grotesquely wrongheaded description of Assange as "a rogue cyberterrorist" I will point out that Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971.) He speaks of "Time Magazine’s person of the year... created a network, 'Facebook,' which allows everyone (500 million people) to share their lives online." (In a world of billions, many of whom lack access to the Internet, 500 million people is not "everyone" in any remotely meaningful sense. Furthermore the superficial belches and snapshots swapped via the marketing and surveillance schemes that pass for "social media" provide a profoundly and even tragically impoverished form for people "to share their lives" for most of their used users to my eyes. Interestingly enough, Amazon dot com's Jeff Bezos had already been featured on the cover of Time as Person of the Year by 1999 -- prior to the turn of the Millennium, although in Munkittrick's chosen year 1995, it was futurological darling and con-man Newt Gingrich who made the cover -- how things have changed!)

"If the past decade has taught us anything, it’s that though technological progress is guaranteed, its direction is impossible to discern, pace Ray Kurzweil." Technological progress is guaranteed? I must say, if that's what this empty, static, vapid, crap decade teaches you, you may be unteachable. He continues, "It’s no longer a question of when the future will get here but which future is next?" It's a good thing we have futurists on hand to offer us these insights, otherwise we might not realize that we don't know what will happen before it does.

If the past provides any guide, however, we can be sure that no amount of failed hyperbole, repackaging of the stale as the new, falling standards will ever dim the delusive cheerleaders of The Future peddling their crap for the rubes. Dragging our way out of a Lost Decade and contemplating looming economic and ecologic catastrophes the saucer-eyed rictus-grinning can-do hysterics of futurology ponder the possibilities to come: "A future of space flight and interplanetary colonization? A future of androids, cyborgs, and AI? A future of genetically enhanced and near-immortal transhumans? A future of nanotech based post-scarcity production?"

I have little doubt that while none of these endlessly robotically reiterated futurological futures will arrive in anything remotely like the lifetimes of anybody now living, almost every life here and now and throughout our lives could have been made healthier, fairer, safer, freer without the distractions, derangements, and fraudulent sales-pitches of futurologists skewing our sense of what is happening, of what is possible, and of what is important in the living world, opening in the present onto what comes next, peer to peer.


jimf said...

> Munkittrick is well aware that the present might seem disappointing
> to those whose best hopes were shaped by generations of futurology past.

On the other hand, "The Jetsons" is even more entertaining today
than it was in 1962. As sharp as some of the scripts were back
then, they benefit today from additional layers of irony.
(Remember Jane's "morning mask" -- indispensible to ladies
who have to deal with answering the videophone when they've
just gotten out of bed?)

I love the fact that the Web (and if that's not The Future
we're living in, I don't know what is) has made available
all the thigh-slapping comedy of retofutures past available
at the click of a mouse.

jimf said...

> Amusement park rides and high altitude flights, neither of which
> are real spaceflight any more than what passes for "private spaceflight"
> is today, have been around for generations. . .

Did you ever see the old _Outer Limits_ episode "Second Chance"?
It has an amusement-park space ride that turns out to be real
for a few select passengers. If you can get past the beaked-
and feathered- "Empyrean"'s cheesy costume, that episode has a
satisfying helping of OL's trademark philosophical alien-delivered
commentary on the human condition, and edgy dialog (helped
along, as always -- at least in the first season --
by Dominic Frontiere's memorable music).

Dale Carrico said...

Well, when it comes to high camp, far be it from me to deny the endless laugh riot provided by the least exposure to futurological discourse, especially in its Robot Cult precincts. If Natasha Vita-More, Eliezer Yudkowsky, the novels of John C. Wright, and the Order of Cosmic Engineers didn't exist in earnest (oh, so earnest!) no one, however cynical or absurd, could ever invent their like. Who could believe it?

jimf said...

> [F]ar be it from me to deny the endless laugh riot
> provided by. . . the Order of Cosmic Engineers. . .

I think of them as the "Order of Comic Engineers". And
we all know who the chief comedian is.

jollyspaniard said...

His own examples only show incremental improvements. We've got X-ray scanners in airports? Is that really new? The fact that we're on Playstation 3 instead of Playstation 1? That's not a revolution, that's an evolution. If anything a lot of longtime computer game players are bored that games haven't evolved much. The graphics get better and the virtual sandboxes get bigger but the games are fundementaly the same. From 1980-1995 we saw the emergence of colour, 3D and networking in computer games. From 1995-2010 we got the Wii and the Kinnect.

We've completed the Human Genome project but it didn't give us absolute mastery of biology. It's a signifigant milestone on a neverending and winding road of progress. Even the modest predictions of technological benefits are still decades away. The biotech revolution hype hasn't panned out. Our understanding of genetics has expanded dramaticaly but progress on practical applications is as slow and steady as it ever was.

One thing which is sort of new and really cool is 3D printing. It's a very promising technology but progress is incremental, steady and slow. We may see widespread use of these machines within our lifetimes. This is an exciting technology that could lead to eco friendly, low energy, low waste, localised bespoke manufacturing. However it's also very low output and very labour intensive compared to exsisting manufacturing technologies. It's pretty clear that 3D printers will never be cornucopia machines. Presumably singularitarians know about this technology but they never seem to mention it. Nanotechnology fabricators are where it's at presumably because they are cornucopia machines. When real technologies don't conform to your fantasies you'll just have to dream up a replacement.

These kinds of people didn't predict the rise of the internet until after it had been around for 20 years. Twenty years from now we'll be able to look back at their current predictions and see a similar pattern. We'll have some cool new technological abilities in 20 years. Except they won't be as dramatic or worldchanging as the promised technologies. They'll probably be technologies that already exsist now. They might even be a decade or two old but haven't crossed the line into widespread practicality. Once they do become widespread they'll be percieved to be really cool and awesome and a sign that the future has arrived. However they won't be anywhere near as powerful as the technologies that were predicted. They'll be used as examples that the predictions were correct nonetheless.

Dale Carrico said...

I think of them as the "Order of Comic Engineers". And we all know who the chief comedian is.

Quite. In that vein, one also has to appreciate Athena's insistence on designating the transhumanists as the transhumorists...