23 May 1999

The Future of our Past

Every middle aged writer has a commencement address somewhere inside. Here is part of what I would say to the class of 2000 at my alma mater.

The future isn't what it used to be. — Yogi Beara

...If the century now past has taught us anything, it is that to predict the future is to invite posterity’s ridicule. Little in the last hundred years turned out as anyone thought it would. In the words of Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." It was a century of miraculous promise, it was a century of despair. War, genocide, pollution, the politics of mutual assured destruction, and the politics of abandoning the already disenfranchised shattered the hopes that Machine Age wealth would establish an earthly Paradise. And yet, the discovery of antibiotics and new vaccines conquered many infectious diseases, the "Green Revolution" postponed Malthus' world famine, and people took to the skies and to the moon.

Now, for better or worse, the tools and technologies with which we built the last century have enabled us to create the even newer tools with which we will shape the next. It is my purpose in the remaining minutes to survey the equipment we have for constructing the future, rather than to describe my hazy vision of its blueprint.

The first of the future building tools is Artificial Intelligence, or AI. The growing capability of machines to work with ambiguity, to recognize patterns, to draw inferences, to learn from experience, and to communicate with humans in natural languages is reshaping the very definition of knowledge. Rather than to know a subject in detail, it may become more useful to know about many subjects, and to leave the details to your computer. At best, we may have an unmanageable explosion of creativity, with every person an inventor, or rather, a manager of invention — and if nanotechnology lives up to its promise — a manager of production. At worst we have the possibility of automata built for terrorism or war — intelligent machines of all sizes created to inflict devastation faster than thought — giving a macabre ring to John von Neumann’s prediction that computers would become more important for war than bombs.

The second tool is provided by Physics. Modern theoretical physics may be on the verge of understanding the source of space and time, of matter and energy, of gravity and inertia. The possibility of Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘inertialless drive’ seems somewhat less fanciful now than when he first described it in the 1950’s. At best, such near lightspeed travel would bring people together in a real global village (apologies to Marshall McLuhan), and perhaps take humankind to the stars. At worst, the knowledge of how space-time is put together may enable us to take it apart, creating planet-shattering technologies that may make us long for the comparative safety of nuclear weapons. And the true global village itself may strain our endurance. As George Herbert observed in 1651, ‘Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.’

The third tool for shaping the future is Biotechnology. In its infancy, biotechnology conquered bacterial disease, and in its adolescence it is making inroads on viral and genetic disorders. Now the emerging capability to engineer the genome of somatic and germ cells may enable us to eradicate the class of inherited diseases, of which what we call aging may be a member. At best we may ‘improve’ the human species, if we are wise. At worst, we may de-stroy it through biological warfare or ill-considered ‘improvements’ upon the human genome, if we are foolish.

The fourth and final future making tool I mention today is the set of disciplines I call the Study of Humankind. In these I include Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Linguistics, and the like. These are the sciences (some say the pseudosciences) of human minds and societies. At best these disciplines may improve our collective judgement, liberating humanity from self-imposed bondage. At worst, they may permit the fashioning of ever more refined practices of deception, disinformation, manipulation, and oppression.

Such are the four implements for creating the coming century. Without sufficient wisdom, they may be a high-tech version of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

From where will the wisdom come? For all practical purposes, Philosophy has succeeded only in making itself generally inaccessible, while Religion has sought mainly to avoid rather than to answer questions, and to negate the human spirit by denying the validity of personal and historical experience as bases upon which to reshape Religion. Political Economy has done no better: Capitalist democracy impoverishes even as it rewards, and disenfranchises as it empowers, while obsolete Communism merely legitimized a criminal ruling class, and reduced everyone else to a common level of mediocrity. Finally, the now popular human potential movement merely profits charlatans at the expense of the gullible. In short, our values have not kept pace with our technologies and techniques. But one thing is certain — we must discover, or re-discover, some sacred aspect of ourselves and our existence, lest we destroy ourselves spiritually or even physically.

Will we survive this next century? Well, we survived the ten thousand centuries before it. But we humans, we tool-making animals, are now forging tools of exceeding subtlety and power, which will remake our economies, which will remake our societies, which will remake ourselves. Such effects are familiar to us in our myths — as when Prometheus brought fire from Olympus. Thus, if humans do survive (and I believe they will), they may become unrecognizable to us, the people of former times, and we and our history to them.

And so I think Prometheus may be about to burst his chains. In some of you he may even be graduating from college today. "Use well thy freedom." I congratulate you all.

No comments: