Imagine we were in the middle ages. There is no real democracy. There is widespread poverty, people die young. Disease, wars, ignorance are dominant. You get the picture. Imagine that I'm a visionary and I see how it is possible to go from where we are in the middle ages to where we could be let's say in a modern western country circa 2012. Of course this would be amazing and such a futurist would have an incredible visionary outlook, but not utterly impossible, right? (and I'm using this as an extreme to make a point). Then I start to write pamphlets about the future and what is the path for mankind. I introduce the concept of democracy, of the scientific method, how we should get rid of the power of kings and church, how we should give free education to the children, women included, that science will help us to produce more food, that people would not work in the field all their lives, that we can defeat disease, bring water to the houses, have machine to transport to places, communicate with people over enormous distance, we could travel to the moon. Continue this list and add anything you are so familiar with and take for granted from your experience. Think how a middle ages man, even a very clever and open minded one, would react to such fantasies about the future. The car-cultish people are ridiculous, extend life to 80 years for the majority of people when most humans die before reaching 30? Give rights to women, what is next allow sodomites to have sex without being harshly punished? Or maybe going to bed every day with a full stomach? Such foolish, elitist thing to say, these airplane-cultist they think they can fly, like witches do. It is ridiculous and full of hubris. I can go for ever and if this seems stupid, it is because it is stupid. No imagination man, it is a medieval sin in particular for a so called artist.Needless to say, while you find me lacking in imagination, so might I find your own vision lacking in originality, interest, use, or promise as well. It's not that neither of us have an imagination, it's that what we value as imagination is so different that we find it difficult to value both. Even if we can't overcome that impasse, I do think we might clarify its stakes. Let me make three brief comments about your thought experiment here, which I do think captures certain futurological commonsense intuitions quite well and which, as it happens, I also think gets things mostly rather wrong.
First, while I do not deny that visionaries can sometimes be splendidly visionary, and the ones who do (Leonardo, say) are, well, splendid, the fact remains that folks who want to justify their marginal views sometimes point to this fact all the while forgetting that many more of the claims in the past from so-called visionaries were in fact just as ridiculous as they appeared. We tend to focus instead on the success stories or on the skeptics who denigrated the few success stories, and this skews the way this sort of story gets told.
Second, I actually do not think it is right to assign causal force to those who are so visionary that they get incredibly distant outcomes more or less right. This is an enormously important point to grasp. I think progress actually results from people solving the problems that beset them, including solving the problems created by the solutions to the problems that beset them before. I think this is true both of progressive political reform, and the solution of instrumental problems as well. I think the shape and substance of outcomes far in our future will be determined by what we do about our present problems and the problems that shape intermediate developments along the path to these eventual outcomes. If some "futurist" guesses some of this correctly it seems to me much more a matter of luck than a matter of his grasping some deep underlying principle more clearly than others do. But even if it isn't luck, even if she has hit upon the right solutions centuries before anybody else, that is far from meaning that their eventual realization owes much of anything to the force of her insights in particular. Democratization has been a convulsive struggle among actually-existing stakeholders beset by actually-existing present problems -- look at how our present democratic forms are indebted to historical events in which aristocrats sought rights that undermined absolute monarchs, struggles that hardly yielded anything remotely democratic as a reality in those historical societies. History is not a matter of majorities of inferiors struggling imperfectly and managing only asymptotically to implement logical ideals imagined well in advance by superior minorities of elite visionaries, it is a matter of the collective address of shared problems, peer to peer, ever in the face of ignorance, error, greed, inequity, of slowly coming up with good normative and instrumental notions worth keeping. I think futurologists battling over competing visions of the world a century away will have a vanishingly negligible impact on what the world a century away will be like (although they have in my view a mostly damaging, distracting, deranging impact on our grasp of and in the present), while people solving urgent shared problems of the present are creating the legal, normative, infrastructural, and even aspirational landscape on which the next problem solvers will grapple in ways that have incomparably greater impact on tomorrow's presents to come.
Third, I do want to point out that there is a difference between
[a] those futurological proposals I find too marginal from scientific consensus to take as seriously as transhumanists tend to do -- for example, the idea that robust, reliable, programmable, multi-purpose, room-temperature desktop nanofactories are eventually going to be cheap enough to be practical, let alone adequate to unleash a superabundance that overcomes the impasse of stakeholder politics -- and
[b] those futurological proposals I find too marginal from the current state of the art to be proximate enough to deserve serious attention when there are urgent priorities in the very same domains of concern demanding our attention now -- which is, for example, how I would characterize SENS and comparable superlongevity preoccupations as compared to addressable problems of access to clean water and to family planning and to available treatments for neglected diseases in the overexploited regions of the world -- and
[c] those futurological proposals which I regard as conceptually incoherent and impossible in principle, whatever timeline is being bandied about -- for example, the idea of "uploading" which at once declares consciousness a material phenomenon (which I agree that it is) while proposing the actual material incarnation of consciousness in an organismic brain is somehow negligible or irrelevant to it (while I am open to the logic possibility of differently materialized intelligences or quasi-intelligences, it remains the case that human intelligence is materialized in organismic brains and in social settings, as a matter of fact), usually trying to brush this aside by pretending a metaphor like "migration" or "translation" can stand in for a testable hypothesis (it can't), or pretending to believe a picture of something is the same thing as the something it pictures (it isn't), or accusing those who point these things out of being "vitalists" or "deathists" (we aren't, or at any rate, to the extent that "vitalism" means believing life is supernatural or "deathism" means believing suffering and death are, other things equal, lovely, I'm certainly not).
It is crucial to grasp the difference between those who told the Wright Brothers humans would never travel through the air and those who insisted that schemes to square the circle or distill the immortalizing elixir of life were engaging in fools errands or arrant frauds: Anybody who has watched a leaf fall from a tree knows that heavier than air objects can remain afloat for sustained periods but nobody has ever encountered a non-biological intelligence, or a living but immortal self. Wishing doesn't make it so. Even simply structured asexually reproducing presumably immortal jellyfish -- not remotely complex enough to incarnate what passes for legible selfhood -- regenerate out of their prior incarnations in a process of creative destruction as akin to mortality as to immortality. Life and death appear to be intractably metabolically interdependent (you don't even have to bring the heat death of the universe into it), not to mention the structural limits that seem to bedevil narrative selfhood even under conditions of our present longevity, after all these centuries still rarely exceeding the Bible's three score and ten. It's true that one should suspect the scientificity of one who is drawn not only to one but to one after another after another belief marginal to scientific consensus, but quite apart from this problem, futurologists seem in their pining after transcendence to stumble into conceptual incoherences they rarely bother to admit of let alone address in any sustained fashion. Indeed, I suspect that transhumanists are not just willing to entertain possibilities that are implausible, I believe that they are drawn to very specific implausibilties that resonate with very old, very deep tropes and conceits that are freighted with magickal significance, mobilizing the loose technological faith of a consumer society to re-write the conventional omni-predicated of theology into a techno-trasncendental system of faith offering very familiar promises (advertized as radical change) not of omnipotence but of sooper-powers and sooper-longevity, not of omniscience but of sooper-intelligence, not of omnibenevolence but of a sooper-abundance that ends history as social struggle. Let me add, by way of conclusion, that this is not the whole of my critique of transhumanism (which I also regard as a subversion of science by pseudo-science and which I also regard as conducive to inequitable, anti-democratic, unsustainable, eugenic reactionary politics, even granting that some of its adherents abhor these outcomes all the while contributing to them nonetheless), but that I do believe that this complex of issues around transhumanoid "vision" and "aspiration" and "imagination" (which I view as deranging, domesticating, and reactionary) is well worth sustained attention on its own.