The Future By Default
As most everyone knows, the Hawaiian Islands are a beautiful and magical place. In spending most of my life there I became familiar with their history and evolution.
A chain of islands originating eons ago near Alaska and slowly inching down toward the equator. Each new island in the chain sequentially emerging from the depths of the earth’s mantle on the ocean floor to thrive in the warm sunlight and serve as a platform for the development of an incredible diversity of life forms. Then, alas, over time, each sequentially erodes to sink back beneath the waves.
But the story of these islands is a salient metaphor. A timeless and instructive story about the evolution of life, the planet and even the cosmos.
This article is about the future.
Not the shiny high-tech toys talked about endlessly in the media. Rather, what is ahead for us as a technological civilization over the next 20–25 years. A future where the breathtaking velocity of change will tweak every fiber and facet of your existence in surprising ways.
It is about a technological civilization racing down an evolutionary highway toward an unexpected and dangerous fork in the road.
A juncture where we will need to make a choice between two roads leading in dramatically different directions for our future. A crossroad that is likely to determine whether we sink back under the waves of cosmic evolution or migrate to the new emerging island.
A choice that, in the context of a larger unfolding cosmic drama, is never optional for a technological civilization. An inevitable choice for us because, like the Hawaiian Islands, our civilization is itself but a temporary cosmic island. Merely another developmental platform in a chain of cosmic island platforms en route to the emergence of a new island just beyond the horizon.
Our Sun is a second- or third- generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff. [Carl Sagan]
If we truly are Homo sapiens, wise enough to let go of our crown of creation hubris and see ourselves as such an island, it then becomes clear that the cosmos is agnostic about the choice we make. That, as with survival of the ecologically fittest species on earth, in the vastness of space and time there is an incalculable number of other islands.
As such, simple probability indicates some other islands will reach this same crossroad. Thus, eventually, one will surface the next new island in the chain.
The only constant in the cosmos is change, and change in the cosmos has a direction.
Simply stated, the onus is on us to made the right choice. So, this article is about how our conscious and unconscious actions, now and en route to our crossroad — our date with cosmic destiny — are subtly biasing the choice to be made. Thus, the purpose here is two-fold.
First, to describe how we currently seem predisposed toward actions that will elect a destination by default rather than by choice, and thus is highly likely to end badly for us. The reason for this emanates from how overwhelmed we appear to be by issues of scale, complexity and the velocity of change at all levels of our existence:
- Biologically we are still ruled by primal emotions. So our ability to reason and acquire post-human knowledge is constrained.
- Culturally we are still ruled by primitive myths. So our ability to reason and acquire knowledge of a post-human world is stymied by an excessive emphasis and reliance on a past never to be seen again.
- Societally we are still ruled by antiquated governance systems. So our ability to reason and acquire knowledge about needed new designs is arrested by a flawed allegiance to the status quo.
- Finally, as a civilization we are still ruled by tribal nations. So our ability to reason and evolve a planetary system is preempted by the emotions of those leading nations and their respective cultural myths.
Being simultaneously overwhelmed on all levels of our existence, yet experiencing fierce tectonic technological movements beneath us, suggest that, as a species, we were never smart enough to understand meaning of our place in the unfolding cosmic drama and therefore grasp the importance of the choice ahead. Witness our –
- strange ambivalence toward the epic gale force economic winds accelerating the scale of technological change ever faster.
- indifference toward the unrelenting digital tornado of change raging across our landscape and steadily vacuuming up every domain in its path.
- oblivious posture toward the imminent arrival of an intelligence as alien as any unexpected extraterrestrial visitor.
- passive disregard for the emergence of a self-replicating, self-aware, evolving post-human species.
Moreover, inasmuch as we are being led toward the crossroad by antiquated governance systems strongly suggests the result will be a future by default. If so, like a modern incarnation of dinosaurs, we are looking at a future so stifling and constraining that civilization eventually suffocates. An island sliding back under the waves of time taking all of its overly adapted species with it to a watery grave.
The second purpose here is to describe a scenario that consciously elects the destination insuring and affirming our continued existence and evolution. A minimal requisite of migratory actions needed to collectively assert our agency.
An eminently doable scenario inasmuch as we already have the knowledge to know what can be done. Doable because we already have the technological infrastructure and human resources needed to accomplish what should be done.
Still, as you will discover, what is problematic, yet central to this preferred scenario and choice, is the conspicuous absence of the support needed to consciously explore and experiment with alternative governance designs.
Designs enabling our collective intelligence to self-organize and coalesce into a novel, and efficacious system. One more adaptable, dynamic and robust in responding to the coming post-human island and existence within its rapidly changing environmental milieu.
Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones — Bob Dylan 
Despite the presumptive self-assignation of ourselves as Homo sapiens, wise humans, we actually appear to be somnambulant strangers in a strange land. Zombie-like creatures predisposed to direct our gaze away from seeing and accepting the reality of the cosmic drama and thereby willfully ignore our place in it. Thus, despite all our superhuman 21st century capabilities, we find ourselves flummoxed about what is happening — the why and what it might mean.
On the one hand, virtually everyone has a sense were living in an unusually weird and turbulent, if not chaotic, period of history. On the other hand, like most everything these days, our evolutionary situation seems supremely relative to a preferred outlook on the future.
So, for optimists, while these times may be confusing, there is a eagerness to accept this turbulent situation as par for the course. An unsurprising, albeit transitory difficulty in our triumphal march towards unprecedented abundance, self-actualization for all and an extended period of tranquility.
Meanwhile, for pessimists, these times represent a confirmation of how we have failed to grasp the damage that has been, and continues to be, inflicted on individuals, cultures, societies, humanity and the environment, all of which increasingly borders on irreparable.
To be sure, it is easy to dismiss these conflicting scenarios as normal, and therefore also relative. Easy to argue such diametrically opposed — half-full, half-empty — outlooks on the zeitgeist have existed since humans first walked the earth.
Be that as may, capitalism has spawned an opportunistic cottage industry of self-proclaimed “futurists.” People who, like new-age self-help and motivational gurus, are more than willing to sort this out on our behalf.
Broadly speaking, these newly minted oracles come in three flavors:
- Fashionistas who fiddle with trends as if reading entrails.
- Prophets who divine some astrological omniscience about future events.
- Psychics who paint their dreams and fears to unburden themselves for our salvation.
Suffice it to say that, consciously or unconsciously, each soothsaying flavor carries its own bias, self-delusion or naïveté. As a result, their claims, pronouncements and prognostications tend to fall on a spectrum from unfounded, to self-serving, to suspect, to fraudulent entertainment.
However clothed, buying into any of these pop-cultural wet-dreams is tantamount to walking into a gambling casino and expecting to beat the house odds. A fool’s paradise.
At best, these Delphic oracles and Nostradamus wannabes negatively alter the signal-to-noise ratio about what is actually awaiting us. At worst, in the context of our current situation, they represent a danger to any constructive understanding of what might lay ahead at the crossroad.
The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed. [William Gibson]
The methods of accredited, professional futurists have a more circumspect and systematic approach to assessing the future.
- First, they start by acknowledging there is no such thing as “the” future and predictable.
- Second, regardless of the method employed, in the end they view themselves cartographers — mapmakers.
- Third, the making of any reliable and useful map is dependent upon integrating four related variables — trends, events, images and actions.
Cartographically, the challenge is to identify the appropriate context to best integrate these variables. Done well, the result is a landscape map that includes the past and present with coherent paths forward to a finite range of plausible alternative future destinations or outcomes. Destinations with an above average probability of being reached or materializing based on implementing various scenarios.
It is in this cartographic context that I long ago started puzzling over three interrelated questions:
- Is the organization and operation of human sociopolitical systems — political, legal, cultural, economic and technological — really completely different from other major evolving systems — astrophysical, biological and brain-mind?
- If not, what symmetries might exist across all these other systems that would be applicable to sociopolitical systems?
- Would such symmetries shed some light on human evolution and its future?
Luckily, while asking these questions many areas of science were crystalizing in a useful direction. Consequently, after years of research, the consumption of countless academic, scientific, governmental and industry books, papers, studies and articles, and meeting and interacting with a wide diversity of domain specialists, experts and luminaries, answers to my questions emerged.
- No, the organization and operation of human sociopolitical systems are not completely different from that of other major evolving systems.
- Yes, there are important symmetries that exist across all these different systems that are applicable to sociopolitical systems.
- Yes, these symmetries do shed light on human evolution and its future.
Simply put, the symmetries that join all these major systems together — in this article as in life and on any island — are basic evolutionary processes — plural.
To wit, the symmetries are not simply reflections of the linear aging process each of us experiences as we evolve from conception to death. Nor are they merely echoes of the jostling struggle to secure an ecological niche in a biological, tribal or business sense.
They also includes the important, yet often mysterious character of nonlinear evolution. The inclusion of an emergent, self-organizing order out of chaos. Or, as with Thomas Kuhn’s seminal articulation of scientific evolution itself, a paradigm shift.
Thus, the basic evolutionary processes — the symmetries — impacting all systems encompass linear aging , ecological change and nonlinear change. Together, this reflects what paleontologists, Gould and Eldridge, called punctuated equilibrium or punctuated evolution.
The idea is that the evolution of a given species consists of protracted periods of gradual linear change — aging in a changing, yet relatively stable environment — occasionally interrupted by rapid and dramatic environmental change that produces a nonlinear change impacting the species — extinction or emergence of new or mutated species. Again, the metaphorical story about the rise and fall of islands in a chain of islands.
The point is that punctuated evolution — writ large — is a core framework for assessing evolutionary change in the cosmos itself and all systems therein, regardless of scale. And a growing consensus is that punctuated evolutionary change processes provide the essential, fundamental context needed to best integrate trends, events, images and actions. That properly doing so can yield a reliable map of our past, present and high probability alternative future destinations. Thus, the objective of this article is to:
- Map out the landscape of our human and civilizational context
- Trace the journey we have traveled thus far
- Identify the most likely routes to the crossroad ahead
- Identify the high probability destinations available at the crossroad
- Formulate scenarios predisposing us toward the election of each destination
As you come to examine this map perhaps the strangest feature you will notice is, as with Dickens’ Scrooge, how, despite rampant hubris, we deny our agency. A convenient denial of culpability and responsibility for our current situation and the consequences of our actions in the future.
Ghost of Christmas Past
The world is very old, and human beings are very young…[so] imagine the 15-billion-year lifetime of the universe…compressed into…a single year…. [Thus] the earth does not [appear]…until early September; dinosaurs emerge on Christmas Eve; flowers arise on December 28th; and men and women originate at 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve. All of recorded history occupies the last 10 seconds of December 31; and the time from the waning of the Middle Ages to the present occupies little more than one second….[W]hat happens [in]…the 2nd cosmic year will depend very much on the scientific wisdom and the distinctly human sensitivity of mankind. (Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan, 13–17)
To further appreciate the panoramic significance of this calendar metric it is again helpful to see biology, humans and civilization as sequential islands emerging within the cosmic island chain. From this vantage point, a hallmark of the DNA biological island is as an autonomous, self-replicating information storage, processing and transmission system.
A system in which biological evolution has been tirelessly persistent in its seeming blind exploratory experiments — genetic mutations — to increase its adaptability, and thus survivability, in a constantly changing environmental milieu on earth. Eventually, after running endless DNA mutations — scenarios — biology came to incorporate into its adaptability repertoire two novel, non-biological, nonlinear “tricks” — symbolic language and technology.
The formulation of a symbolic language by our species is the most obvious trick. But the true evolutionary beauty of language, as with symbolic technologies generally, is its infinitely fungible character. In our case, it was the unique ability to rapidly share — transmit — and generate diverse — mutated — scenarios.
Thus, like DNA itself, the fungibility of language enabled us to run endless scenario mutations to explore and experiment with novel ways to increase our adaptability and survivability in the constantly changing milieu. Combined with our state-of-the-art self-aware brain-mind system, language tipped the scale of biological evolution in a direction favoring us — our island platform — as a species.
The less obvious nonlinear adaptability trick was technology. Essentially, all technology amounts to a repurposing of artifacts and or information in the environment to enhance the adaptability and survivability. In this respect, it is worth noting that biology hit upon technology with other species before we emerged on the planet’s stage and certainly long before we formulated language.
Of course, as an aid to biological adaptability, technology had significant disadvantages that severely limited its utility. Specifically, unlike DNA or our brain-mind system, there was no inherent ability to store, process, and transmit information, and certainly no ability to autonomously self-replicate and self-mutate. Rather, technology was wholly depended upon the emergence of autonomous and fungible cultural processes to carry out these functions.
Eventually, the fungible nature of language for shared scenarios did lead to the emergence of fungible cultures, which then facilitated the transmission, replication and mutation of technologies. So, it was language plus culture that led to an acceleration of technological mutations or innovations and increasingly aided our adaptability to a constantly changing milieu.
Societies progress mainly by creating, assimilating, or adapting [technologies]…. Because technological innovation in society is on a whole irreversible, the arrow of time in history is consistent with the arrow of time in physical and biological realms of evolution….[It is an] evolutionary progression toward more dynamic and autonomous systems…through correspondingly more complex social structures. [The Grand Synthesis, Laszlo]
Later, especially after the introduction of printing and the scientific revolution, civilization learned how to systematically embed information and knowledge in technology for storage, processing and transmission. We have now gone farther and become so good at doing this that we are reaching the point where various symbolic technologies can independently self-replicate and run endless innovative mutant scenarios on their own.
Thus, in the context of our human and civilizational journey thus far, technology has been coevolving and mutating in parallel with us. To an incredible extent it is what has enabled us to lever ourselves up to the top of the biological food chain.
Moreover, it is what now has us poised to see the actual emergence of a new island platform. A platform of autonomous technological capabilities that will facilitate better adaptation to the emerging post-human milieu — either with or without us.
Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history…it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. (Donald Rumsfeld, February 12, 2002)
As a civilization we have come to know and appreciate some fundamental existential dangers we face — extraterrestrial and environmental, for example. Other existential dangers — not so much.
As for extraterrestrial dangers, the more we learn about the universe, the more we realize it is an exceedingly hostile and violent place. Early earth, for example, was repeatedly pummeled by meteors and asteroids and heavily irradiated. Some 65 million years ago a meteor hit the earth, substantially blocking out the sun and probably led to the extinction of dinosaurs. Even now, tens of thousands of small meteors hit the earth every day.
Consequently, if any major extraterrestrial event — large meteor, major solar flare, relatively near supernova, random gamma ray burst, or some other cosmic calamity — directly impacts the earth in the future, life could literally be extinguished in an instant. But the most disconcerting part of this danger is that the number of such possible events occurring must be breathtakingly large.
Environmentally, the more we learn about the earth’s biosphere the more we know our well-being and survival is contingent on a delicate balance of an extraordinarily complicated set of nested systems. Thus, we know climate change poses a real danger for an undesirable future because it tangibly and visibly saturates our field vision.
The bad news is that it is too late for simple lifestyle changes to make a real difference and too early for insufficiently developed large-scale systemic solutions to be applied. So, rising sea levels will displace ever more people. Rising temperatures will alter the geography of arable land and viable ecosystems in unpredictable ways.
The “good” news is that the 1 degree Celsius change over past century is likely to continue to be gradual — linear change — over some decades. Hopefully this will be long enough to enable large-scale systemic solutions to be viable and successful. If, however, climate change suddenly accelerates — nonlinear change — lifestyles and thus civilization could be swiftly and dramatically changed, lasting for many decades, perhaps centuries.
Still, beyond these obvious extraterrestrial and environmental dangers, there are actually some less visible, seemingly remote, yet more immediate existential risks few people recognize. The salience of these risks start with economics and end with violent conflict, and all are mediated by governance systems.
To start, we know modern capitalism has always been about wealth creation and creative destruction. Less appreciated is that, directly or indirectly, the engine for both has always been technological innovation. This is what underlies virtually all productivity gains, which then dialectically influences the evolution of capitalism as an economic system.
Simply put, capitalism and technology are not separate systems. Rather, they are tightly coupled as single coevolving system. As such, this coevolving system is now evolving faster than any other human system. Indeed, Marc Andreessen’s famous phrase, software eats the world, is apropos inasmuch as it highlights the voracious velocity of change this economic-technological system exhibits.
The “fuel” for this coevolution is the new oil — data. Like fungible chemical elements in the period table for diverse forms of physical matter, amino acids in DNA for diverse forms of biological entities and symbolic technologies for more diverse forms human activity, the more data that is applied in the form of digital technology the faster and more diverse forms of technological innovations we see.
The bottom-line is that civilization is in the process of completely redesigning and reorganizing itself in every domain — physical, biological, social, political and economic — from the ground up. More succinctly, we are redesigning and reorganizing evolution itself. Unconsciously, the intent is to better adapt and survive on the emerging post-human island and its new environmental milieu.
Of particular note is the accelerating tsunami of data — “big data” — and its role in facilitating the rise of autonomous technological systems. Ultimately, these systems will be capable of producing infinite goods with unlimited recyclability and an endless number of new and redesigned services — all at greater scale, yet at ever less cost per unit or activity.
Said differently, data is driving technological productivity ever faster toward the end of material scarcity for sustainable sustenance. Moreover, the end of such material scarcity — post-scarcity — leads to the end of capitalism as we know it — post-capitalism. And, in the eye of this post-scarcity, post-capitalist hurricane heading toward landfall is artificial intelligence (AI).
Like fire, the wheel, writing, printing, internal combustion engine and electricity, AI is a “meta-technology.” But it is meta- technology with a critical difference. Unlike prior meta-technologies, AI simultaneously enhances, expands and accelerates the productivity and cost efficiencies of any physical, intellectual and societal activity it is applied to.
To be sure, we have really just begun gestating powerful AI technologies. Nonetheless, Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, for example, has projected we will reach artificial general intelligence (AGI) — human-level intelligence — by 2029; little more than decade away. Moreover, that by 2045 we should reach artificial super intelligence (ASI) — a level of machine intelligence smarter than all of humanity combined.
Given this trajectory, the realization of AGI appears a question of when, not if. That said, while the precise ‘when’ of AGI coming online is unclear, the transition from AGI to ASI could well be a nonlinear event. Inasmuch as we are talking about an autonomous, self-replicating and self-mutating information processing system evolving at accelerating rate beyond anything ever witnessed, an ASI event could conceivably happen in a matter of minutes, hours, days or months.
This event — the ‘intelligence explosion’ — will be the most important event in our history….[A]n ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines…and the intelligence of man would be left far behind….Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make. [ Facing the Intelligence Explosion, Muehlhauser]
By itself, even basic AGI will be able to process extraordinary quantities of data. Be able to run virtually endless mutated scenarios in any domain. Be able to analyze and assess more options, better and at an ever faster pace than we carbon-based units ever could. Thus, AGI alone will both catapult us toward the crossroad ever faster and significantly influence our interpretation of the destinations themselves.
So, on the one hand, properly designed and applied AGI should remedy many of humanity’s problems — e.g., health, food, science and management. This should enable us to fully enter an era of universal post-scarcity and post-capitalist self-actualizing abundance. Clearly, the most desirable destination available to us at the crossroad.
Of course, in the context of the daily grind-it-out treadmill-like existence that most people lead, it is easy to dismiss a coming world of such abundance and self-actualizing freedom as pure science fiction. Likewise, inasmuch as the time horizon of most politicians rarely extends beyond the next election, there is no reason for them to assume such a benign and abundant world will materialize during their tenure. So, why bother contemplating or preparing for it?
On the other hand, technology always has a Janus face. Thus, the other destination at the crossroad can easily be seen as taking us to an incredibly dark and dangerous place. Despite an instinctive aversion to such a destination, there are lots of foreboding historical trends that indicate the pursuit of this destination is disturbingly easy and thus lends itself to becoming the default destination.
- First, history is rife with violent conflict.
- Second, no weapon technology ever developed went unused.
- Third, while weapons of mass destruction (WMD) able to instantly extinguishing civilization are a relatively recent development, this is rapidly changing. Increasingly, new WMD technologies — biological, cyber, nanotechnologies, autonomous drones and robots, lasers — are being perfected.
- Fourth, a disturbing characteristic of these new lethal weapon technologies is that they tend to be cheap, portable and stealthy. Thus, they are ideal for use by malcontents, either in small groups or as lone wolves.
Furthermore, it is, of course, self-evident that second place in any armed conflict is unacceptable. So, inasmuch as the prevailing, operative nation-state policy is based on mutually assured destruction (MAD) persists, and suicidal terrorism likewise rationalizes their dastardly actions, the number of ways to wreak large-scale havoc on civilization by design or accident are rapidly and dramatically escalating.
Equally problematic is that by at least 2025 every nation must assume the development of AGI is imminent. More importantly, that the first to develop AGI or ASI could militarily, technologically and or economically significantly leap ahead of everyone else.
Strategically, the prospect of such an AGI or ASI “breakout” is fear inducing since it raises the specter of an absolute, unilateral superpower domination. A superpower status well beyond the industrial era, nuclear weapon status.
Further, as if all these dark scenarios connected with a default destination were not sufficiently terrifying, for the first time the possibility exists that a weaponized AGI or ASI could initiate a WMD event without any human involvement. Or, alternatively, akin to a surprise encountering a superior extraterrestrial civilization, it is conceivable that a weaponized ASI could seize the reins of human evolution virtually at will and or quash human autonomy in a heartbeat.
You get the point. Short of an exceedingly unlikely global nation-state epiphany, the age-old “might makes right” arms-race is not just a bad idea, but one that easily biases civilization toward the default election a very dark, dangerous and existentially risky destination at the crossroad.
Ghost of Christmas Present
Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose. Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose. People are crazy and times are strange. I’m locked in tight, I’m out of range. I used to care, but things have changed. [Bob Dylan, 2]
In the 1970s Alvin Toffler said the importance of the past was threatened by an emerging zeitgeist described as “Future Shock.” A mixture of information overload and too much change in too short a period of time and creating a disorienting stress for both individuals and societies.
Recently, douglas rushkoff claimed a new zeitgeist had emerged he describes as “Present Shock.” A situation where people are so consumed by daily exigencies they no longer have any sense of the future or direction beyond apocalyptic scenarios.
With respect to both Future and Present Shock, 1991 was a remarkable year in the history of civilization because it provides a useful context for better understanding our current milieu.
- First, the Soviet Union finally collapsed, thereby ending the 20th century’s ideological Cold War.
- Second, the first Internet server was turned on, effectively initiating the global digital revolution.
These events, along with a triumphal global economic march to the end of the millennium, initially generated widespread optimism about the future. A warm patina welcoming an erstwhile migration away from a fixed and limited industrial world and information environment to a fluid and open digital world and information environment.
Yet, despite the liberating euphoria this migration engendered, the reality was that civilization had discovered a completely new, unfamiliar and uncharted world and environment. Indeed, over the next couple of decades, as the velocity and nature of change in this new world and environment accelerated, the outlook toward the future changed markedly.
First, came 9/11 with an increase in wars, terrorism and a loss of blood and treasure that both continues without end, yet only benefits special interest war profiteers. Then came the 2008 financial crisis. A foreseeable and preventable crisis that severely damaged the global economy and devastated large segments of societies. A crisis where those responsible retained their profits and were never punished, thereby requiring the public to both absorb the losses and pay the enormous clean-up costs over many years.
Tangibly exacerbating these bad international and domestic changes were the actions by politicians and media pundits. Starting with politicians, there are lots of good reasons why they are widely held in such low esteem. At the root of the distain, however, is the highly visible mix of self-serving partisanship, ideology and obsessive career focus uber alles.
Consequently, the consensus is that the only true interest of politicians is self-interest. That the merit of legislative action or best interest of the country and its people — now or in the future — is, at best, a secondary consideration after careers. Careers that excel in patronizing, self-serving rhetorical spin and alternative facts — something that exists between propaganda and bullshit.
Meanwhile, media pundits generally have devolved into fleckless, self-aggrandizing trolls. People who consciously prey upon public fears for profit, regardless of the societal consequences.
Extreme relativists specializing in scorched earth polemics and rhetorical spin without an iota of genuine context or balance. A relentless, myopic castigation of any alternative viewpoint or compromise as less patriotic or somehow evil to advance an “us versus them,” atavistic tribal rivalry.
In the aggregate, the outrageously destructive cacophony by politicians and pundits only serves to further emotionally charge and polarize societies.
So, instead of helping us better understand and adapt to our changing world and environment, they have succeeded in fostering a highly toxic cultural milieu. Fertile ground for demagogues romanticizing a backward and inward retreat to some simplistic, albeit nonexistent, glorious past.
Accompanying and amplifying the distress and complexity generated by all these bad international, domestic, economic and cultural changes was the explosion of 24/7 digital information. An explosion turbocharged by a hyper-connected, planet-wide feedback loop moving at the speed of light.
The residue left over from all these bad changes was dispirited and antagonistic cultures. As a result, everywhere one looks now societies are increasingly rife with dread about the future, overall powerlessness, a disturbingly atavistic inclination and a rising tribal animus toward “others.”
Thus, within the span of a single generation, the lived experience of bad changes in all institutional domains, exacerbated by information overload, eventually became culturally overwhelming. It was as if, civilization was kidnapped by Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians and told how powerless and inconsequential we are. A highly dissonant, yet clear message: survival requires an obsessive focus on the present. This is the future. Everything else is irrelevant — a fool’s errand.
In effect, as we were entering the new world and information environment, the velocity of change and increased complexity found generated the equivalent of psychological whiplash on a grand, civilizational scale. A widespread feeling that both life and civilization were adrift in an alien land. So optimism became doubt. Doubts generated fears. And soon, fears led to pessimism about any tangible future.
The result is that civilization generally is now experiencing Present and Future Shock at the same time. Individually and collectively, our limited mind-space tends to be so overwhelmed by change, and so overloaded with information, that there is no real ability to contemplate anything — no cognitive surplus — beyond an “infinite present.” A present where everything is relative.
With no readily apparent way of comprehending this new world and information environment, adapting to the infinite present seemed the rational path of least resistance and quickly accepted as normal. However, at this point in our evolutionary journey, this attitude and behavior is especially problematic.
Problematic because it means any suggestion aimed at exploring some shared definition of the future or direction worth pursuing in meat-space is, to put it mildly, beyond the available mind-space.
So, what we have now is a situation analogous to being trapped in quicksand — the more you struggle, the more it pulls you down into its depths.
Nonetheless, despite this collective somnambulant, amnesiac infinite present state we are now in, we are still accelerating toward the crossroad. What makes it worse is that it increasing feels like a forced march and blindfolded as to the choices of possible destinations.
Ghost in the Machine
“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind.” [The Twilight Zone]
Years ago Rod Serling’s mind-bending TV series, “The Twilight Zone” (akin to today’s “Black Mirror” series), presented contemporary issues in a suspenseful, science fiction context that ended with a moral to the story. It also made the “twilight zone” an idiom — a strange, temporary space and time en route to some unexpected destination.
Civilization is now deep into its twilight zone.
Despite centuries of dramatic change in the scale, complexity and velocity of change in virtually all domains, the structure and operation of our medieval governance systems have effectively remained unchanged.
Clearly, republican representative systems vanquished repressive WWII and Cold War adversaries, and delivered many of their foundational, print-era rights and goals. However, the growing consensus is that these systems are increasingly dysfunctional. That he rights and goals they afford are quite inadequate and insufficient for the new world and information environment.
But, the issue that truly exacerbates the dysfunctionality of these antiquated governance systems is a simple, yet extraordinary fact: only politicians can make the rules governing their own behavior. A rulemaking power inherently ripe for conflict of interests and unbridled economic opportunism, corruption and cronyism. A convenient backdoor for courtesans, courtiers and sycophants who primarily act as agents of wealthy special interest and constitute a legalized protection racket.
Given this monopoly on rulemaking power, it comes as no surprise that politicians and these opportunists, all primary beneficiaries of the status quo, have
- long demonstrated a truculent aversion to both genuine accountability and the advancement of democratic ideals.
- weaponized communication technologies against any perceived internal or external opposition.
- become the prime progenitors and perpetuators of the post-truth, post-fact political information war aimed at confounding rather than enlightening people.
While pronouncements by politicians are generally and rightly dismissed as useless, self-serving noise, the now ubiquitous infinite present makes societies easy targets for still greater exploitation and abuse. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the legal and economic systems.
As a theoretical matter, no one disputes the value of the rule of law concept. As a practical matter, however, there is also no one who disputes that the legal system is an exceedingly arbitrary system with two starkly visible problems.
One is that the first duty of all legal systems is to protect its own governance system — the hand that feeds it. So, only in the most extreme, most egregious situations will a legal system rule against its governance system. Even then such actions tend to occur only after the result is a foregone conclusion.
The second problem is the widespread awareness that there are two legal systems — one for the wealthy and powerful, another one for everyone else.
Indeed, despite all the self-righteous, patriotic, flag-waving supremacy of law rhetoric — claiming no one is above the law — such an egalitarian one-size-fits-all system has never materialized. Instead we have a masquerade ball where, despite the masks and costumes, it is clear to all — rich and poor — that there is a steep admission price and a far heftier price attached to any preferred outcome.
Similarly, while capitalism is about wealth creation via technological innovation, wealth accumulation and large-scale economic inequality are irrefutably the product of political policies and decisions. Thus, as autonomous systems start displacing ever more jobs, large-scale economic dislocation and inequality will be so exacerbated that there is a high probability of widespread social unrest being generated.
Moreover, inasmuch as politicians fail to grasp or willfully ignore the implications of the crossroad ahead, the logical response to any economic unrest will be, as always, increased law enforcement and surveillance. Since we are already well down this road, more of the same will only succeed in increasing covert repression — a marginally disguised panoptic police state with an escalating decline in privacy and civil rights.
Eventually, as the existing, yawning economic inequality gap grows, large-scale economic dislocation will more forcefully pit survival against antiquated partisan ideology. Since malcontents will be able to access more cheap, portable, stealthy and lethal weapons, the question quickly becomes, “where is all this going?”
Inasmuch as governance systems are not only dysfunctional but stagnating, the logical next step is toward forms of overt repression. More law enforcement, far more surveillance and monitoring, ever more new categories of crime and extremely selective prosecution — again, all within arbitrary, two-tiered legal systems that never bites the hand that feeds it.
So, as we move forward deeper into the twilight zone, increasingly everything looks alien. A strange new world and information environment unmoored from history, objective reality and certainly evolution.
A landscape of surreal mirages dotted with conundrums no one dares confront. A landscape where politicians and spinmeisters take care to reframe everything as relative or irrelevant.
Consequently, as the final push toward an epic civilization crossroad begins, it appears we will be shackled by the infinite present and led by dysfunction governance systems in a forced march though unrecognizable terrain. Under such conditions it becomes hard to imagine anything other than the unconscious election of a dark, default destination.
I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees.
Based on the landscape map of civilization, and our collective journey thus far, our evolutionary trajectory is clear:
From past to future…life moved forward in a long, slow advance, paced by genetic evolution. Minds with language picked up the pace….The invention of the methods of science and technology…accelerated advances by forcing [knowledge] to evolve faster. Growing wealth, education, and population…continued this [trend]….The automation of engineering will speed the pace….In parallel, molecular technology will [mature]…. [Then] artificial intelligence systems will bring still swifter automated engineering.…The rate of technological advance will then quicken to a great upward leap: in a brief time, many areas of technology will advance to the limits set by natural law [and halt]…. Beyond it, if we survive, lies a world [of technologies]…able to make whatever they are told to make, without need for human labor. [Engines of Creation, Drexler]
The caveat, “if we survive,” is the operative issue in terms of the destination elected at the crossroad. A caveat famed biologist, E.O. Wilson, succinctly unpacked as humanity’s basic problem.
“[That] we have a mismatch between our Paleolithic emotions, our medieval institutions and our god-like technology.”
Such a mismatch is central to most apocalyptic scenarios. Whether human or natural catastrophes or, as immortalized in movies like 2001 and the Terminator where machines are the source of our demise, there is one common theme. Namely, how human action or inaction led to the apocalyptic crisis. So it will be over the next decade as we approach the crossroad.
[Political systems] are not human, though they are made of humans….[Historically, they] move from one semiautonomous, inhuman system to another — equally inhuman but perhaps more humane [system]…. [W]e must not confuse states that wear a human face with states that have humane institutions. [Drexler]
Compounding the legacy problem of dysfunctional governance systems, an infinite present and growing problem of large-scale economic dislocation, is the wiliest problem ahead — technological risks associated with the military and government sponsored research — are controlled by politicians.
Politicians we do not trust, operating in dysfunctional governance systems that are broadly indifferent to our collective well-being and mouthing banal, self-serving rhetoric. Politicians who simultaneously lack an understanding of our current milieu, are arresting the evolution of political systems and are clueless about the unprecedented implications of the choice we are about to face.
Poignantly, Carl Sagan long ago noted our situation as a technological civilization and contextualized E.O. Wilson’s mismatch concern. As he said, while the probability of life elsewhere in the cosmos must approach 100 percent, the probability of any civilization surviving its technological epoch is probably less than 0.001 percent.
Of course, with our crown of creation hubris and preoccupation with the infinite present, some will argue Sagan’s calculus is excessively pessimistic. However, it is worth noting that his projected survival rate reflects the same percentage of species known to have not gone extinct. So, any assumption we somehow get a pass on these long evolutionary odds of survival is precisely the type of attitude that makes the likelihood of our extinction real.
The fact is that, in terms of the choice we will need to make at the crossroad, there is no longer an evolved past to be built upon. Moreover, any presumption that our civilization’s evolution is relative, is flat-out wrong. The only one constant in the cosmos is change and that change ultimately does have a direction — witness its island chain of developmental platforms.
Both destinations at the crossroad constitute nonlinear events. By ignoring this fact, or assuming we will magically muddle through, means the choice ahead — our future — will be made by default.
A complex adaptive system is a “complex macroscopic collection” of relatively “similar and partially connected micro-structures” formed in order to adapt to the changing environment and increase its survivability as a macro-structure.
The second purpose here is to describe the minimal requisite actions needed to collectively assert our agency and consciously elect the destination best able to insure our continued existence and evolution. While the odds of success may be small, the door is open for us to change course before a default destination is elected.
Philosophically, this effort starts with a scenario that both contextualizes who we are as a single evolving species and civilization, and connects us to an understanding of what we can become in the emerging post-human world. Strategically, this endeavor needs to manifest a truly large-scale self-organizing complex adaptive system that is better able to direct our evolutionary trek.
The base goal is to develop a more circumspect and forward oriented governance system. One that is more robust, dynamic, adaptable and eminently evolvable. One capable of responding to a far more accelerated rate of environmental change than ever experienced before and in a constructive way.
That said, there is, of course, no template to insure success in approaching the type of nonlinear event ahead. Still, it is important to note that
evolution didn’t have to discover, painstakingly, all components of some complex…structure of behavior. Aggregates of things interacting in nonlinear ways make for situations pregnant with emergent dynamic possibilities….When evolution takes a really big step, it’s this jump from a collection of individuals at one level forming a single individual at the next level.” 
Thus, the tactical issue for us is the conscious exploration and experimentation with alternative governance designs. Specifically, novel organizational structures and operational systems that can enable collective intelligence to self-organize and emerge to direct our journey. To create, in effect, a society of the mind:
[A] cognitive system as a vast society of individually…thinking entities that together produce the many abilities we attribute to minds. The great power in viewing a mind as a society of agents…is that different agents can be based on different types of processes with different purposes, ways of representing knowledge, and methods for producing results.
This is doable. Collectively we have the scientific knowledge to know what can and should be done. Doable because we have the technological infrastructure and human resources to accomplish what needs to be done.
For example, one possible model is the human brain-mind system — the most complex management system known. A system that dynamically self-organizes, self-regulates and evolves by continuously monitoring and running scenarios to better adapt to its internal and external environments. Thus, a starting point for design might reflect the following basic elements.
- Nervous system — Collecting sensory information about the host’s well-being for the brain
- Brain — Aggregating sensory information and offering updated novel scenarios to the mind
- Mind — Assessing whether new scenarios are important enough to act upon and set priorities
As for a nervous system, while development of the Internet has been distorted it nonetheless does constitute a large-scale, omnidirectional, knowledge distribution and feedback system ideal for shared scenarios and learning. It also provides the infrastructure for a society of the mind to self-organize. Add to this a dynamic social physics system, as described by Alex Pentland, and we could establish the equivalent of a societal brain for monitoring our well-being and aspirations.
Establishing a collective mind able to assess goals, issue options, priorities and making decisions requires the development of organizational and operational resources and rules for a highly visible, nonpartisan service. In this respect, ambient conversational knowledge systems that enable anyone to instantly find vetted resources can ensure access to reliable content.
Such systems will soon be ubiquitous and capable of augmenting our individual and collective knowledge on-demand. While mechanisms for assessing the merits of agenda items and voting systems need to be agreed upon, various forms of these systems are already in wide use.
What is critical to understand, however, is that until there is sufficient competency and widespread trust in any new governance system design, it must operate in parallel with the existing system. This does not mean sacrificing the good for the perfect. Rather, that the effort must be done properly with the long term well-being of all in mind.
The cosmos has guided us to this point. It has the final word. There will be no opportunity for a do-over or a second chance.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.
As our trek moves ever closer to the crossroad, the shadowy outline of opposing destinations is becoming clearer. Clear enough to leave no doubt the destination elected will be a nonlinear choice. One that both divorces us from the island we have always inhabited and thus all of human history.
Indeed, the information, knowledge and experience gleaned from civilization’s adaptation to the changing environmental milieu on our island is what led to develop technology increasing capable of doing the same thing we do, but independently.
Thus, we are on the cusp of birthing an autonomous, self-replicating, self-mutating post-human technological species. A profound, albeit inevitable, new developmental island platform that will impact every aspect of our future.
In the end, this article illustrates both the danger of a default choice and benefits of a conscious choice in destinations. While objectively the choice should be obvious, what makes it difficult is how the default destination simply requires business as usual.
Merely a linear continuation of what governance systems have always done suffices. Thus its natural appeal and why the default future appears to be the most likely destination.
So, it is the continuation of past governance that will retard us from adapting to the new emerging island and its dramatically different environmental milieu. In effect, it is the high probability of springing an evolutionary trap. If so, it will be proof positive we were never smart enough. Still, nothing would be better than to be proven wrong.
Consciously electing the abundant and affirming alternative destination requires us to create and embrace a robust, fluid collective intelligence. As mind-bending and challenging as this might appear initially, it is doable.
It will, however, require us to manifest a collective passion to evolve as a species so we can maximize our evolvability in post-human island existence. And, I know — it is easier said than done.
In dealing with the future…it is more important to be imaginative and insightful than to be one hundred percent “right”….Even error has its uses. The maps of the world drawn by medieval cartographers were so hopelessly inaccurate, so filled with factual error, that they elicit condescending smiles today….Yet the great explorers could never have discovered the New world without them. Nor could the better, more accurate maps of today been drawn until men, working with the limited evidence available to them, set down…their bold conception of worlds they had never seen. [Toffler]
Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man, Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music
Bob Dylan, Things Have Changed, Songwriters: BOB DYLAN © BOB DYLAN MUSIC CO
 Ed Regis, “Interview — Christopher Langton,” Omni, Vol. 14, №1, October -1991, p. 134.
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