Yesterday, we presented reviews of Reg Morrison’s The Spirit in the Gene, and featured an article by Damien Broderick on The Spike. In this morining’s reposting from MetaFuture, Richard Eckersley addresses the question:
Is the human race hurtling towards oblivion, to be impaled on the spikes of accelerating technological change and population growth?
The End of the World (at least as we know it)
At an international futures conference in Perth last May, Damien Broderick, the Melbourne science fiction and science writer, described a view of the future drawn from his book, The Spike. Developments in computer, gene and nano (molecular) technologies, he says, will produce by 2030, or 2050 at the latest, a ‘spike´ or ‘technological singularity´: a period of change of such speed and scale it will render the future opaque, where things become unknowable.
The spike could end in human obsolescence, transformation or transcendence. It could mean, as computing power continues to obey Moore´s Law and double every year, the rapid emergence of not only intelligent machines but superintelligent, conscious machines, which leave humanity in their evolutionary wake. Or it could result in bionically and genetically enhanced superbeings who are effectively immortal.
Broderick has an optimistic view of the spike, essentially arguing that things are likely to turn out for the best because there will be neither a reason nor the means to harness the new technologies to exploit and oppress. At the same time, he admits it is not clear that ‘there’s any path at all for us mere humans on the far side of the Spike’s looming wall´.
Providing a counterpoint to this spike is another: the population spike of a plague species – us – as it grows exponentially then collapses as it overshoots the capacity of its habitat to support it. And this within about the same timeframe as the technological spike (or a little later). Sydney writer, Reg Morrison, argues in a new book, The Spirit in the Gene, that this is the certain fate of humanity. He says evolution ensures this outcome for any species that threatens to become too dominant and reduce the earth´s biological diversity.
With another 30 to 50 years of population growth (despite the declining birth rate), and the accelerating rate of energy and resource consumption, Morrison says, we seem to be well set up for ‘an evironmental coup de grace´ in the second half of the 21st century. ‘…(W)e are facing precisely the same conclusion that all mammal plagues eventually face – a hormonally orchestrated autodecline followed by an environmental backlash that cleans up most of the stragglers.´
Both spikes have a intriguing theological or religious dimension. With Broderick´s spike, it could be worship of the event itself: ‘While I continue to insist that religion, regarded literally, is the wrong interpretative filter to place over the Singularity…the iconographies of a millennium of richly-embroidered sacred art do yield a suitable set of metaphors for the strictly unimaginable´, he says. Or it might be in the form of stellar intelligences and cosmic-scale engineering – of other powers in the cosmos, even now, ‘who have passed through the veil of the Spike´, their physics being ‘to ours as ours is to Aristotle´s, or an ant´s´.
Morrison´s spike has theology at its core. He argues our genes have bequeathed us a self-destruct mechanism: our spirituality. The tendency to spiritualise or mysticise our existence, he says, has been crucial to our success as a species, but will be lethal in the long run. ‘Our genetically derived delusions´, without which we would never have come so far, will ensure we will never – cannot – behave rationally enough to achieve sustainable planetary dominance, and so are destined to suffer the fate of all plagues. ‘Only our obsessive yearning for significance, spirituality, and the supernatural,´ Morrison says, ‘could have blinded us to the dangers of overpopulation and environmental degradation and prevented us from from taking sufficient precautions to avoid it.´ He notes he is in the curious position where, for his thesis to be true, it must be generally disbelieved.
There is a fascinating symmetry to these spikes, both the result of exponential growth – one in technological power, the other in human numbers – both occurring at about the same time in history. Maybe we will see the evolution of a new level or form of intelligence and consciousness just as its progenitor – Homo sapiens – reaches its zenith, and burns out: a metaphorical spaceship jettisoning its booster rockets, which fall back to earth, as it sets out into the vastness of the universe.
The openness of these futures tends to excite such fantastic visions. But to come down to earth, how might we respond to either or both of these imminent spikes, each of which has the most profound implications for human civilisation? There are at least three, very different, possible reactions (I first began to think along these lines some years ago when asked to give a paper at a scientific workshop in Sydney on the social implications of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intellligence):
Surrender and abdication: the scale and speed of change is so great that people will give up any hope of trying to manage or direct it. The sheer impotence of government or any other human institution in the face of such change will totally undermine our already weakened faith in them, leading to further political disengagement and an even greater focus on individual goals, especially hedonistic ones – precipitating a period of chaotic change.
A fundamentalist backlash: the technological ‘fundamentalism´ that the singularity represents will trigger a desperate response by religious (or national) fundamentalists, to whom it is deeply offensive, and who will use every means at hand to oppose it – including potent technologies of biological or nuclear terrorism. A population crash could also see a fundamentalist revival, but for a different reason: this is the act of a vengeful God.
A new universalism: a more benign outcome is that the spikes – one or other or both, because of the global threat or challenge they pose – help to drive the emergence of a new universal culture, a new sense of human solidarity and destiny, and a resurgent spirituality. Set against the momentousness of these events, all differences between us become petty, our present priorities trivial; only the most fundamental aspects of our situation matter.
Both spikes are highly deterministic – one technologically, the other biologically. There is a strong element of inevitability about them, which I´d challenge. I also feel, as indicated in response ‘c´, that spirituality – a deeply intuitive sense of relatedness or connectedness to the world and the universe in which we live – is crucial to meeting the challenge of the spikes.
Nevertheless, the ‘technological singularity´ and ‘plague species´ scenarios, and how we might respond, contain several important lessons for us. The spikes are real possibilities; they are not events in the far distant future, but within our lifetime or that of our children. Even if we regard them as too extreme and so improbable, they can serve as metaphors for contemporary social, technological and environmental trends, as stories that compel us to fix our gaze on much larger visions of the future. We can, for example, already see elements of all three responses in the ways we are reacting to these trends today.
And yet there is no recognition of these issues and possibilities in the current political debate about the society and world we are creating. Government and business are dominated by linear optimists – those who believe that by continuing on our current path (human) life will keep getting better. Their opposite might be called linear pessimists – those who believe that life will inevitably get worse. For both linear optimists and pessimists, it is , for the time being, more of the same, busines as usual – although with dramatically different outcomes. What we need to become are systemic optimists – those who believe life can get better, but only with whole-system change, only if we alter quite fundamentally the way we think and do things. (Most professional futurists are systemic optimists).
Techniques for creating futures scenarios include expressing key variables or uncertainties as dichotomies or polarities, and to construct scenarios around these. Two such contrasting scenarios, based on inner- and outer-oriented values, meanings and satisfactions, might be labelled ‘cheap thrills´ and ‘inner harmony´. They occurred to me when, on a recent family holiday to Queensland, we spent a day at Dreamworld and, about a week later, walked along a bush road to visit Chenrezig, a Buddhist retreat in the hills inland from the Sunshine Coast. (The scenarios also mirror, to some extent, two of the three responses – ‘a´ and ‘c´ – to the historical spikes I have described.)
Bear in mind that the scenarios are extreme expressions of plausible futures; I´m not suggesting we will literally live, work and play in theme parks or, on the other hand, become Buddhist monks. Dreamworld – like all such places, casinos and huge retail/leisure centres included – is a good metaphor for the current preoccupations of modern Western societies: the quest for ever-more forms of consumption that offer pleasure, fun, excitement. (Although something I´ve long wanted to do, I found the Dreamworld visit strangely disappointing, the thrill of even the most extreme rides momentary, lasting barely longer than the ride itself). Chenrezig – with its sign requesting no drugs, sex or killing (of anything), its tranquility, and the Buddhist recognition that suffering is rooted in unceasing desire for more – is about something entirely different: developing a whole new (from a modern Western perspective) awareness of ourselves and our relationship with nature.
‘Cheap thrills´ and ‘inner harmony´ reflect growing and conflicting trends in modern life, which are producing an increasing tension between our professed values – a desire for simpler, less materialistic, less fraught lives – and our lived lifestyle – one encouraged, even imposed, by our consumer economy and culture. ‘Cheap thrills´ does nothing to address the challenges the two spikes pose. In fact, its appeal lies in allowing us to avoid such issues, in celebrating the power of technology to distract and amuse. As Woody Allen once said, ‘don´t under-estimate the power of distraction to keep our minds off the truth of our situation´. ‘Inner harmony´, on the other hand, reflects an emerging global consciousness, environmental sensitivity and spiritual awareness – a transformation of the dominant ethos of industrialised nations in recent centuries.
The structures of modern societies, especially politics, commerce and industry, are still driven by the old ethos. In the spaces between these structures, at deeper levels of our individual and collective psyche, the new is emerging. We need to acknowledge this, to recognise in our social and political analysis and commentary the importance of richer philosophical, historical and scientific insights. I cited one example in an earlier piece on science and spirituality (Universal truths, The Herald, 8 January 2000, Spectrum; From the mouth of a cave, a vision of a moral universe, The Age, 8 April 2000, News Extra), Morris Berman´s closing comment in his book, Coming to Our Senses:
Another is this judgement by Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind:
‘The ìman” of the Western tradition has been a questing masculine hero, a Promethean biological and metaphysical rebel who has constantly sought freedom and progress for himself…This masculine predisposition in the evolution of the Western mind, though largely unconscious, has been not only characteristic of that evolution but essential to it…to do this, the masculine mind has repressed the feminine…a progressive denial of the soul of the world, of the community of being, of the all-pervading, of mystery and ambiguity, of imagination, emotion, instinct, body, nature, woman.´
Whether a technological singularity represents just another ‘genetically derived delusion´ that will prevent us from escaping the fate of all plague species, as Morrison would argue, or whether it will allow us to break free of our evolutionary origins and ecological limits, as Broderick suggests, only time will tell. But both stories warn us of the need to think more deeply about our situation and our destiny. Until this happens, our politics will become increasingly irrelevant to what is most important to us (except through its omissions) –another source of distraction.
In ordinary times, it is perhaps normal for different planes of perception and understanding of the human condition to remain relatively separate and distinct, with little ‘friction´, or influence, occurring between them. In transitional epochs, when what it is to be human is undergoing profound evaluation and radical alteration, these planes of perception need to come together in a single, interwoven, public conversation.
Ours is a such a time.
The Spike: Accelerating into the unimaginable future, by Damien Broderick, Reed Books/New Holland, Melbourne 1997; revised and updated edition to be published in the USA February 2001, by Tor/Forge, New York.
Coming to Our Senses: Body and spirit in the hidden history of the West, by Morris Berman, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1989.
The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view, by Richard Tarnas, Harmony Books, New York, 1991; Ballantine Books, 1993.
Richard Eckersley is at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, Canberra, where he is working on progress and well-being.
Reposted from MetaFuture.