While the surreal drama of the Marathon Bombing and the subsequent manhunt was going on last week, I was reading two books about the future.
I was expecting to be annoyed by Al Gore’s book The Future, and to be energized by Byron Reese’s Infinite Progress. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.
I have certainly enjoyed and been energized by Reese’s book. Its subtitle, How the Internet and Technology Will End Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger and War, gives you an idea of its thesis. It is a good antidote to the kind of doomsaying futurism that we so often see in these days of stagnation, mass shootings, and now seemingly random terrorism. It’s good to be reminded that truly catalytic technological progress is virtually inevitable – yes, I am a “futurist” scenario planner using the “i” word. A wave of profound transformative change is already in the pipeline for the next couple of decades. It’s going to happen, absent nuclear winter.
But Al Gore’s book has not annoyed as expected. I was not necessarily expecting to be annoyed by his politics, nor by any possible thesis of pessimism and crisis. I was expecting to be annoyed by a tone of exhortation, of being ordered to do something in particular, or else. (An example of this tone can be found in an early book of environmentalist Bill McKibben, Maybe One. That book was about having small families. As one of nine children, whose considered opinion is that my parents only finally got it perfectly right with my youngest sister, let’s just say I was annoyed at the idea that any of my siblings was superfluous. Certain types of liberals and conservatives each have their own brands of misanthropy – both at bottom assume that the net contribution of another human being on earth must be negative, when in fact all history contradicts that idea.)
But Al did not come through on this score. He pretty much confines himself to laying out where he thinks things are headed. In certain ways, his book mirrors Reese’s. He foresees amazing Internet-driven progress over the next few decades. But he is less sanguine about the prospects for national or global governance to tackle some of the resource and environmental challenges that he believes we are going to face. In particular, he thinks the growing (as he sees it) power of large corporate multinational interests may prevent any necessary action to forestall, you guessed it, climate change from kicking into warp speed, resources from being exhausted, the middle class being impoverished, and the environment being soiled. He restricts himself to just a handful of prescriptive pages at the very end, a sub-chapter entitled “SO WHAT DO WE DO NOW?” They’re mostly suggestive and fairly vague, and as expected, heavy on global warming content. But overall, they make up a tiny proportion of Al’s tome.
Byron Reese, by contrast, is much sunnier. In fact, his book is a throwback to the kind of gee-whiz flying-cars and robot butlers and basement household nuke plant predictions that were popular in the 1950s. He appears to be on strongest ground when discussing the technological advances that are coming in the area of the Internet and computing, which in fact can be said to be the major source of his wealth and prominence (he is a new media entrepreneur). But when he starts talking medicine and energy, things get a little less convincing. Is infinite energy really just on the horizon? True, research into alternatives is ongoing in a hundred places. But progress to date is not all that encouraging.
And no doubt hugely bigger databases will advance and personalize medicine and will help solve many mass problems of society. But he may be underestimating the problems of paranoia on the part of the average human being, who may increasingly want less and less of his or her personal data in the public arena. Much of his thesis seems to depend on the assumption that people will be so happy to reap the benefits of universal statistical sampling that they will blithely put their own digits online for all to see – with the assurance that it will all be done anonymously. That assurance, in my experience, is simply not going to convince, especially with the inevitability (there goes that “i” word again) of scandals and misuse of data that will harm individuals. There’s already a problem of identity theft; this problem is unlikely to decline in scale, and there are reasons to think it will grow. So a “Prisoners’ Dilemma” will loom: even though everyone would be better off if we all shared substantially all our information on line, each of us individually would be better off if we decline to participate, and simply take a free ride on the participation of others withoug putting our own digits at risk. This could result in a very suboptimal outcome.
There’s much more to the Reese book. But the Marathon Bombing, combined with my reading, put me in mind of two different metaphors that are relevant for the future: chaos theory and wormholes, and the lymphatic system.
Chaos theory posits, in part, that in a nonlinear world, certain states of being are going to be more plausible than others. Imagine a pool table whose surface is made of a stretched rubber fabric. Put a couple of bowling balls on the surface; then try to play pool. You will see that the billiard balls will be very likely to end up where one of those bowling balls is. Not all futures are equally plausible. Each is POSSIBLE; but certain futures are by their nature less coherent or internally consistent.
When we write scenarios, we try to figure out where the bowling balls are. Usually, there will be “bowling balls” that make it implausible for you to sink all the balls with a single shot off the break. Equally, the bowling balls will make it extremely unlikely for you to sink the eight ball off the break and instantly lose. Neither total disaster nor complete triumph are plausible scenarios.
Now to the lymphatic system: the Internet is like a new circulatory system grafted onto our society. Ideologies, religions, facts, knowledge, and different forms of idiocy are all far more easily transported through the “world circulatory system” now that the Internet is here. Older forms of circulation still exist, of course, and physical circulation brought the two Chechen brothers to Boston, and seems to have brought one of them back to Russia to be indoctrinated in some extreme ideology; but it appears probable that the Internet helped to radicalize the older of the two.
So to Byron Reese’s millenarian vision, I would add this caution: the Internet is a possible conveyance for much good. But, just as the lymphatic system can carry antibodies as efficiently as cancer, the Internet can convey evil just as efficiently as good. And often one person’s evil is another’s good, and vice versa. In particular, Reese appears to underrate the plausibility of a marked worsening of human conflict, as the ability of aggrieved persons to reach out and touch those they believe responsible for their miseries vastly increases. The loss of the state monopoly on “legitimate violence” is already a fact; in future it may devolve en masse from disaffected organized groups to creatively evil individuals. This is a huge “bowling ball” in the way of Byron Reese’s vision.
This put me in mind of another “scenario thinker,” Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi):
Thus, those who say that they would have right without its correlate, wrong, or good government without its correlate, misrule, do not apprehend the great principles of the universe, nor the nature of all creation. One might as well talk of the existence of Heaven without that of Earth, or of the negative principle without the positive, which is clearly impossible. Yet people keep on discussing it without stop; such people must be either fools or knaves (source: Alan Watts, Zen and the Way of Liberation).
Neither Gore nor Reese are knaves; and by any ultimate standard, I guess we are all fools. For this reason, we at the Futures Strategy Group never write an all-good or all-bad scenario. The “best” world will often be the most turbulent and least sustainable; the “worst” may bring out the very finest qualities of humanity and be the necessary precursor to a golden age (cf. World War II). I recommend both books to our readers; they will make you think, which is probably the most important thing you can do to prepare for the future.