The More Things Change...

12 June 96

Let's talk about future shock for a few minutes. My thoughts are a bit unfocused on the subject, but my feelings about it are strong, and I want to share them here.

First off, progress is good. Technology equals freedom, in the sense that it can liberate us from biological realities like weakness and illness and helplessness and premature death. It can also provide us with new outlets for creativity, and while creativity is not art, art does demand freshness to flourish. Do we wish it to be shackled permanently to the tools of the stone age? Certainly not. Technology can also yield novel senses which provide data we've never had before, and while data is not information, and information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not insight, the processes by which knowledge and insight are constructed do lend themselves quite readily to technological assistance.

One simple example is the reference book, an invention no more than a few thousand years old. Another is geometry, whose most useful contribution is probably the humble Cartesian graph: X vs. Y on an infinite, two-dimensional grid. How easy and powerful a metaphor this is for the conversion of data to thought! And then there's algebra, and calculus, and statistics... On the hardware side we have the abacus, the mechanical calculator, the computer, the CD-ROM, the World Wide Web. Technology can't make us more intelligent -- yet -- but access to data and the tools to manipulate and understand it are crucial for the construction and derivation of knowledge, and continual access to derived knowledge is the only known way to build insight. And we're getting better and better at it.

Do gadgets make us happier? I've argued the case from time to time, and will no doubt do so again, but let's assume for the moment that they do not. Do gadgets make our societies run more smoothly? Well, no. Usually they just replace old problems with new ones, and while our experts get wiser and wiser and our politicians get slicker and slicker and our farmers and manufacturers get more and more and more productive, no device yet invented can force them all to work together. Eventually, they'll probably wind up as wholly separate species, and what a relief that will be. So do gadgets change the fundamental human condition? Demonstrably, no.

So why is technology good? Because it has the potential to shrink our societies back down into manageable units -- including the Solipsist Nation ideal of Greg Egan's PERMUTATION CITY. And because it has the potential to strip away those things about ourselves which we don't like, and enhance the things we do. Posthumanism is quite the rage in SF circles these days, and rightly so -- technology will soon give us the ability to alter our bodies and memories and environments as easily as we now change our clothes, or at least our cars. As has been said time and again, the societies of tomorrow may resemble our own no more than ours resembles a bronze-age farming village or precivillized nomadic tribe. In fact, if Vinge's technological singularity turns out to be a real thing, the differences may be much starker than that. It's no exaggeration to say that we're poised at the brink of a revolution unprecedented in the history of Terrestrial life.

Will our basic drives and motivations mutate in the process? Possibly. When everything about your lifestyle and self-image are changing, a little mental realignment is helpful. Will we become transcendent beings, liberated at last from the material scrabbling that characterizes us now? Certainly, just like the welfare state cures poverty and the existence of libraries cures willful ignorance. Fact is, whatever our minds may become, the desire to compete, to crowd out, to colonize, are characteristic of all life and will doubtless persist. And the laws of physics will remain absolute, and the resources of the planet, the solar system, and the universe as a whole will remain finite, and the immortal children of humanity, godlike in power and perception, unspeakably wise and unutterably connected to the ebb and flow of creation, will find plenty of things to squabble about. "Hey, that's MY galactic core hypermass!"

In short, things may not be so different after all.

See last quarter's rant.

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