Our Future

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

—William Gibson

William Gibson’s quote about the future is often used to describe the uneven progress of high technology, spreading across society in fits and starts. But the truth is, his quote applies equally to utopian and dystopian visions for the future of humanity.

Some people are riding high on the cusp of the techno-optimist wave, in bubbles of power and privilege that seem fairly insulated from the growing destabilization of our ecological and social support systems. A few feel hopeful that the singularity will save us from ourselves, before we run out of cheap oil and effective antibiotics and empathy. And while hope is an essential component for transformative action, without a clear sense of grounding, we risk going off half-cocked and acting in ways that push systems in the wrong direction.

Many more people, born into areas with thinner buffers, can’t afford to wait. They are already being displaced by rising sea levels and global climate weirding, or drowning in a flood of e-waste.

Others are using high-tech strategies from core countries to meet the needs of people on the periphery, 3D printing prosthetic arms in Africa and releasing genetically-modified suicide mosquitoes to reduce dengue fever in Brazil.

And still others are rejecting energy-intensive practices from their communities of origin, and seeking to reconnect with low-tech ways of living, from attending primitive skills gatherings to following full-time nomadic lifestyles.

And a small but growing number of people are focusing on affordances, on appropriate technology, on finding the least resource-intensive ways to meet our needs—or, to flip it around, trying to figure out how to create the most shared wonderfulness given the available energy, materials, space, time, and innovation.

To imagine is to perceive many potential futures, select the most delightful possibility, and then pull the present forward to meet it.

director of the Imaginary Foundation

What do we want the future to to look like, and how can we increase our likelihood of getting there? Or, at least, how can we find our way to an adjacent possible space, a platform where we can catch our breath, survey the landscape, and gain a better view of our next steps?

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

Steven Johnson

Two of my favorite fictional visions of appropriate tech and compassionate society-building are:

These books both depict tractable changes in the way people relate to their environment and each other, changes that are feasible in the present and require no superhuman AI or replicator nanotech or asteroid mining. (Taking into account the fallacy of generalization from fictional evidence, I do also have some favorite literary examples of far-future scenarios!)

I’m looking forward to thinking and writing a lot more about possible desirable futures, but first, what might prevent us from getting there? People often talk about “saving the planet,” but that’s not really what’s at stake. Earth would still exist even if we weren’t around to discuss it. Even life on Earth has a pretty solid grip, barring local gamma-ray bursts, at least until the Sun expands and boils off the oceans in about 1.75 billion years. (We’d want to find another place to live, by that point.)

No, what’s at stake is the continued existence of our civilization, human life, and consciousness as we know it. Take it away, Carl Sagan!

One way of classifying possible threats to our continued survival is to divide them into two categories: global catastrophic risks, which would be terrible but survivable; and existential risks, which would result in our extinction. Wikipedia and Less Wrong have more information and discussion about a wide variety of different scenarios.

There’s nothing we can do to prevent some extinction scenarios, like “our simulation ends” or “false vacuum collapses,” so there’s really no point in worrying about them. To mitigate other long-term planetary risks, it’s probably not a bad idea to hedge our bets by colonizing other planets and asteroids, maybe building some nice Dyson spheres—but I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m more interested in looking at the near- to medium-term risks that could destroy our civilization before we even get to worrying about where we are on the Kardashev scale.

The two scenarios I’m most concerned about are: socioecological systems failure, and Unfriendly AI. Now, I don’t know much about that second one, except I hope the Friendly AI folks get there first, and you can throw money at them if you’re so inclined. (No guarantees of preferential treatment by any potential future supercomputing overlords.) Of course, hypothetical AI is a somewhat of a moot point if we destroy our ecological support systems and ourselves before managing to spawn a superintelligence.

Now, really, our problems are not new. We’re facing up against the same issues of entropy and uncertainty that may well be universal components of the struggle for existence.

With the origin of life a kind of rift opened up in the fabric of space-time. The great difference between the eons-long storm of life and a hurricane reducing the gradient between high and low pressure systems, of course, is that the solar gradient is so immense. Whereas the gravitational difference resolved by a whirlpool lasts seconds, life’s creative destruction of the solar gradient has already lasted billions of years. […]

With life, a strange thing happens on the way to gradient breakdown: the gradient-reducing systems, namely the open thermodynamic systems of life, self-destruct if they greedily deplete an available energy source. Thus life, though it obeys nature’s meta-drive to bring everything to the perinirvana of uniform stasis, is forced to moderate itself in order not to destroy, along with the gradients, the very means of gradient breakdown.

—Margulis and Sagan, Dazzle Gradually

So, my question is, how can we keep this gradient-fueled consciousness party going as excellently as possible for as long as it keeps being awesome? In later posts, I want to expand on ideas of increasing the resilience of our socioecological systems, and figuring out the most effective leverage points to take action and change systems. I’m especially interested in asking, with this site and with my life in general, what can I help catalyze that might not otherwise happen?

In the face of daunting existential risks coupled with unprecedented opportunities for growth and discovery, I offer this secular version of the serenity prayer:

I strive for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.