Ask a Futurist #2: Meta-Trends

What all-new things may come to humanity?

Travis Kellerman and Kurt Cagle go meta, beyond the current trends, to indulge in the abstract philosophy between the world of science fiction and shifts in human consciousness. Let’s get weird.

This is #2 in FutureSin’s Ask A Futurist series.

Prompt 1: Imagine a human cultural scene of the late 21st century. What is happening and why?

Travis: I see a game show. Contestants are brain-scanned to reveal traumas and triggers. They choose to revisit these specific dysfunctions and old programming, to confront them and resolve them in moments of deeply vulnerable and honest humanity. What could be more real, more profound?

When shows like Jeopardy have been made silly — unfairly dominated by Watson or any modified human contestant — we will seek real human expression and demonstrations of emotional intelligence and adaptation.

Brain responses are measured by neuroscience metrics, and stopped if biometrics become dangerous or cognitive limit reached, BMIs are used in advanced rounds. The crowd cheers on and supports healing, clarity, the resolution of blockages and unhealthy programming we have become comfortable identifying. We accept neuroscience tools as a way to find and fix trauma, adjust irrational or negative behavior. The ethical balance lies in keeping agency/consciousness with the contestants and individuals beyond the show, i.e. preserving what makes us individual and human.

Kurt: Body modification has become commonplace, using a mixture of bone scaffold printing and genetic manipulation. You want to give yourself a cat-like tail? Better night vision? Elfin features? All doable, for the right price. These are not yet genomic changes, though transgenics — rewriting the genome and then reproducing it, is around the corner.

Cyborg modifications have become old hat, though those who had experimented with cybernetic limbs and computer enhancements a few decades earlier are 4now facing a stunted life as heat build-up and poorly understood human/machine interfaces takes their toll. The new bio-enhancements are still cybernetic, but are grown rather than constructed.

There is growing strife between pure humans and biomods, and the same dynamic of coastal biodiversity and nativist inland conservatism that echoed the strife of the beginning of the twenty first century is a major dividing line toward the end of it. Large countries collapsed as a rush away from globalization after the late 20th century.

By the late 2090s, the conflicts that had torn apart many of the larger countries have abated, though brush fires still flare up. The United States has is now six or seven distinct countries, Canada has become three, and Mexico has become two, Mexico Nuevo and the more northern Aztlan, the latter having subsumed a significant portion of the US Southwest in the process. The United Kingdom has now become the kingdoms of England, Scotland, Cymris, along with the Republic of North Eire. China has split into three distinct factions as well. Most of these are still considered de facto but not necessarily de jure countries, though with the UN having been dissolved in 2055, global imprimature is still awaiting some new form of global body to recognize the legitimacy of these countries.

The current working definition of a country is any geo-regional government that has a stable, autonomous government, currency (mostly blockchain based), and a population of five million people or more, though there are a number of unaffiliated freeholds that are part of mutual economic and defense networks, not all of which contiguous, that make that definition fuzzy.

Prompt 2: History in the future — How will we present the past as more people participate in describing it? What views will be told as more data and historical record is captured and distributed, made accessible?

Travis: This triggers a longer response from me as a history geek. History is a powerful tool for futurists.

The stories of select events told by common people, by individuals, is microhistory. We will continue to crowdsource and roll these seemingly separate tales and scenes into a rich narrative of the Anthropocene, the world and history of the Age of Humans.

We already see complete and multi-layered visuals created for a place by combining the millions of photos taken and shared by individuals from different angles, at different times. Public events and controversial incidents generate multiple versions of the “truth” instead of one simplified or set story.

History will be as much a telling of time as a story of shared perspective of time-space.

Historiography is the study of historians and their methods. Marxism is still a stigmatized word. The practice of seeing broader movements, power structures, and shifts in humanity is important though.

I see a neo version of Marxist Historiography — a telling of history through the eyes and effects on common people — coming to dominate our consciousness. Instead of attributing change to single individuals/futurism celebrities (like Elon Musk), we will observe new developments from their root causes to their full effects. This is not so much a “Marxist Futurism” as it is a “Techno-Fabianism”. The Fabian Society of the 1920s is one of my favorite references for how broad changes can happen from within a system, potentially by large groups of strategic actors. Like Marxist historiography, it represents a counter perspective to who shapes the future — mass movements and common people, the adaptations and responses of the entire human species as a larger organism.

History and the future mimic our techno-biological evolution. The “secular crisis” of capitalism will soon render it incapable of maintaining current standards. Relentless iterations of the same basic products (where’s all the crazy new innovation going to come from within old, set business models?) sustain marginal consumer demand — but at the expense of human acceleration.

Accelerationists believe: “Any transformation of society must involve economic and social experimentation.” This does not require us to wait for “leaders” to show us how or create some new invention. With increased common data-sharing, platform access, and transparency the resources, tools, and structures — the trends — are already in place.

Accelerationism is a form of Techno-Fabianism — what I’m calling the use of shared technology and collective consciousness to create profound changes, to create history.

Kurt: History is not, contrary to an oft stated meme, is not written by the winners. It is written by the survivors. Revisionism occurs all the time — it is indeed one of the favorite tools of the religious, whether that religion is sacred (Christianity) or secular (Capitalism).

Yet one of things worth observing is that after the victors have left the public stage, there are usually a cadre of historians who go back in afterwards and attempt to resuscitate what really happened, rather than what was believed to have happened. During his lifetime, Thomas Edison was considered to be an American’s American, the epitome of the entrepreneurial spirit and genius. It was only much later that his legacy (and some of his truly inhumane acts) came to light, as well as how he built his own reputation through coercion, intimidation and outright theft.

It is the charge of the historian to put together, forensically, a view of what most likely did occur, rather than the gestalt view that the media builds every day that often serves to obfuscate reality. Ironically, the perspective that a historian has (typically years or decades after the fact) can actually help clarify such deliberate confusion, because seen in toto most propaganda is not internally consistent.

The challenge that such future historians will have, one that is comparatively new, is that there is too much information to sort through, albeit what does exist may also be too ephemeral. Most historical discoveries comes from letters, legal documents, and the rare photograph. From the advent of the Internet, however, this has turned into an explosion of content, albeit one that may have a potentially short shelf-life. Servers break down or their hosts go out of business. Hard drives fail, or are overwritten. The nightmare that most archivists have is the fear that we are creating fewer and fewer physical documents, leaving fewer and fewer artifacts.

In the long run, eighty years from now, historians may very well curse this era as the digital dark age, where they know that information was available but have no way of actually being able to access it.

Prompt 3: What is the sustainable role for humans in new technology and autonomous systems?

Travis: Intention-setting, the human role in technology, requires a wider and comprehensive set of inputs and calibrations. A single person or team cannot achieve this, no matter how enlightened (often the opposite, unexposed in their dark coding caves). I have worked and felt the comfort there — safe and defined in function, role, purpose, operating on assumptions from a limited set of feedback loops). Platforms can be built to find their own purpose, letting the community of users direct and adapt the use to human ends.

Kurt: To my thinking, sustainability will be a remarkably difficult and elusive concept to achieve. Sustainability implies equilibrium, the idea that one can live harmoniously with one’s environment, producing as minimal a footprint as possible. Most cultures that managed to maintain sustainability were also subsistence economies, where a balance had to be achieved with a stable but frequently harsh ecosystem, and such cultures were noteworthy for being fairly conservative in terms of innovation.

Achieving equilibrium in a stable environment is easy. The next century will be anything but stable. Global Warming and climate change will tax food production systems, significant swaths of the planet will be rendered too hot to be habitable and energy production will swing from abundance to shortage and back again. Once every thousand year storms will become once a year storms, and diminishing resources will have significant impacts upon political stability and regional conflict.

Additionally, expect that the imbalance between technologically progressive cultures and technologically conservative cultures to continue to widen, along with rifts growing between different types of technology (a cybernetic culture vs a biomod one, for instance).

A big wild card in all of this is the advent of fusion. The current ITEK Tokamak based research reactor being produced in Provence, France, is scheduled to be completed in 2024. It’s goal is to prove that fusion can both produce significantly more energy than it consumes, and that it can scale. While much of the research being done today is promising, ITER will prove whether it is a feasible power source.

Even given that, it is likely that it will be another couple of decades from ITER to the first commercial reactors, which means that fusion as a power source will only start disseminating to replace existing power sources by 2050, and the cost of such reactors will likely continue to be high for some time. It is also likely that such reactors will be rolled out near urban centers first.

If fusion proves to be unachievable, the next century looks considerably bleaker. It is very likely that globally we have reached peak oil production. While there is still likely a great deal of oil that is potentially reachable, the cost of getting to that oil continues to rise, even as the ability of people to pay for that oil continues to drop. Renewables are making up some of the difference, but they will only really do so by eliminating the gasoline driven fleet. It is very likely that by the time this goes from being a good idea to being a necessity, the damage to the economy will be unrepairable.

Prompt 4: What scenarios come to mind when you think of how humans might control and influence the world around them?

Travis: How to engineer a planet — the future is now.

Take an example from the process of biological diversity:

We setup animal population tracking (embedded chips for the most endangered) and can scale up a visual ID system for each species with active satellite image analysis, possible with the next iterations of platforms like Descartes Labs (disclosure — I provide futurist services for Descartes Labs).

Descartes Labs’ layers of analysis when looking down at the earth.

When population upper and lower limits are triggered, automated depopulation and CRISPR prompts force ecologists to execute resolution actions. The predictions are detailed in terms of ecosystem impact and human well-being connections. By watching our world from the level of satellites, we become the gods in the ceilings of the Renaissance.

Kurt: Humanity has been controlling and influencing the world around them since before the advent of agriculture. There is evidence that some forty five thousand years ago, the disappearance of Australia’s indigenous megafauna was likely due to humanity reaching the island continent via primitive boats. The fragile ecosystem in the Crescent Fertile of the Middle East collapsed with the rise of agriculture in the region 6000 years ago. Humanity is behind the sixth major extinction event of the last half billion. There is no question that humanity can influence the world.

The question is whether it is possible for humanity to engage in positive change with regard to the planet’s biosphere. The answer to this is a very qualified maybe, but it requires thinking very holistically, something that seems to be in short supply at the moment.

It requires setting aside not only biological reserves but biological highways between those reserves — overpasses that allow animals to cross human space without putting themselves into danger, reforestation to restore forests cut down for coal or real estate, remediation of lands that were once urban but that became uninhabitable, the re-establishment of viable wetlands. These put the needs of the environment before the needs of humans, and given that the environment usually has few lobbyists or lawyers, the potential for this to change will require social engineering changes as well.

The Salish and similar tribes of the Pacific Northwest had an interesting approach to raising children. When a young man reached the age of adulthood, they were given a knife, clothes, and a container for water, then were released into the wild for a month or more. During this period, they were considered ghosts — they were not acknowledged, being neither children to be cared for or adults to take responsibility. In that period they had to come to some understanding with the world around them, to understand how everything was interconnected. Once they completed this trial, they were considered to be an adult, with all the privileges that this entailed.

Technology can help (or hinder) such engineering efforts, but what absolutely must change is the attitude that we have towards the planet Earth and the resources within it. The one hundred and fifty year period from 1885 to 2035 will be seen historically as the oil era, or the third industrial age, and we are rapidly coming to the end of this era. There are indications now that the carbon bubble will burst within the next decade, potentially removing trillions of dollars of wealth from the economy (https://phys.org/news/2018-06-carbon-trillions-global-economy.html). This is in effect the bill for the age of industrialization coming due, with some serious interest tacked on.

Thus, if we are to survive this period, it will only come about by engineering our society to recognize that many things that we have come to see as normal are in fact highly destructive. This isn’t a technological problem. It’s a social one.

The next Ask A Futurist poses a single question to more futurists. #3 in the series

Honest history & proposals from a conflicted futurist.