This article is part two of a series on the future of technology. You can find part one here.
Now, this section really is worthy of an entire library of books. I mean, how can you get at something like this usefully given the spectrum of interpretations, limitations of empirical evidence and about a million other ‘variables’? In short, you can’t. Instead, let’s focus on something like a brief and directionally useful approximation.
To do this we will use The Futures Cone. This is a visual tool used in futures studies to represent the possible, plausible, probable, and preferable futures emanating from the present moment (we also like to go back to try and make sense of how the present moment came to be).
We use this to draw attention to futures that we might collectively agree are good and better, so that we can actively engage in the living process of moving closer towards them.
Image credit: https://www.delve.com/insights/speculative-design-and-a-cone-of-possibilities
Homo sapiens are approximately 300,000 years old. And although we’ve experienced a heck of a lot during that time, the reality is that very little can be truly known about how things have played out.
Sometimes the stories we are told about ‘our history’ suggest that there have been fairly clean transitions. The idea of the agricultural revolution is one such example. However, as Wengrow and Graeber have suggested, it seems as though a ‘closer to truth’ telling might be far more colourful and experimental. For instance, the idea that, combined with different forms of social organising, agriculture was something different cultures or communities ‘tried’. Some continued. Others ‘chose’ to stop. Others were more dynamic, residing in one fairly stable place for part of the year, therefore relying at least in large part on some form of agriculture, yet during other times of the year were far more nomadic and dynamic, relying on something more like foraging and hunting (different social organising structures came with each ‘mode’).
All of this is to suggest, as we alluded to in the opening of this section, we can’t really do justice to the longer-term history of our species in this essay. So, let’s explore a little of the last 500 or so years, which aligns to the emergence of capitalism and its organising principles, along with the big impacts of what we now generally think of as modern technology, our political economy and a genuinely interconnected and interdependent global civilisation.
To start with, a story, perhaps one that was bubbling away in certain ways for a couple of thousands years, became deeply entrenched. It, the ‘modern story of separation’, goes something like:
- Nature is a machine (and more broadly, the universe is inanimate)
- Humans are separate from nature
- Humans are separate from each other
- Human progress arises from the conquest of nature
- The Earth is a resource to exploit for human benefit
- The purpose of life is to be wealthy and powerful
Former Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, Francis Bacon, suggested that us walking, talking apes, “… “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature” and “… “establish and extend the power of dominion of the human race itself over the universe”.
It’s pretty heavy stuff.
We can then argue, in conjunction with the rise of capitalism (approximately 500 years ago), the discovery of fossil fuels (enabling our energy obsession), new forms of education, scaling the mechanisation of ‘work’ and plenty of other stuff in between (some wonderful and some fucking terrible), that this vision came true on a planetary scale (going universal was probably a wee bit ambitious. Fermi anyone?).
We are without a doubt highly intelligent. But, as we look back, embody what is here now and consider what might come next, we have to ask, are we really living in loving relation to the process of wisdom seeking?
As we write this, there are multiple wars being waged. Some are obvious and overt, others are far more subtle and hidden away. Half the planet is on fire (Taylor Swift literally just cancelled a concert in Rio. This is impacting EVERYONE). The other half is treading water (close to literally!). People are sad and depressed. We socialise less, have less sex and seem far less hopeful about the future. The cost of living is skyrocketing. The wealth divide is more extreme than it’s ever measurably been. We don’t seem to trust institutions, arguably for justifiable reasons. This is non-exhaustive, but you get the picture.
As usual, The Juice get at this ‘enshittenment’ powerfully. And for a less satirical take, here’s Wellbeing Economy Alliance and Greenpeace on ‘what do we mean when we say change the system’.
Yet when looking at certain quantitative data points, which always need to be interrogated with care and humility, life has never been better than this for such a huge group of people. Infant mortality is way down. We’ve all but eradicated certain diseases. We have access to all the material ‘stuff’ the heart – well, since the invention of PR/Propaganda anyways – could ever desire. Our technologies afford us certain privileges that are beyond the wildest imaginations of those living mere generations ago. We can eat blueberries, even when they’re out of season! Oh those antioxidants, the explosion of flavour, the overdone but always classic ‘blue tongue lizard joke’… Maybe just an Aussie thing?
Anyways, the story is nuanced. Our world is terrible. It’s also bloody brilliant. And maybe, just maybe, it can be far better.
But, and the next section will further animate this, those who professionally study civilisational collapse seem to broadly agree that the civilisation we know and are actively a part of today is in the process of collapsing. Whether this is net good or net bad is beyond the scope of this essay.
Alright, let’s start strong. We are amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction (basically defined as a series of events and circumstances that leads to the permanent loss of greater than 75% of all life forms). This has been referred to as “mutilating the tree of life” thanks to the fact that current extinction rates are 35 times higher than expected background rates.
Next little nugget.
Worst-case climate projections have underestimated current warming and extreme events. This is a whole can of worms of course, that needs to be situated within the context of transgressing at least 6 of the 9 planetary boundaries and the fact that the latest paper by Hansen et al. finds that we will exceed 1.5 degrees celsius in the 2020s, and 2 degrees before 2050. Our response will require unprecedented levels of global coordination, full economic decarbonization and perhaps solar geoengineering to return to Holocene-like temperatures.
Honestly, do we have to go on from here? I mean, we had a pretty darn good picture of this back in 71’ when the Club of Rome funded Limits to Growth. If you want more on the last 50 years or so of that story, here you go. And none of this really gets into the technosphere, war or any of the other problems (genuine existential risks) that arise from the seemingly huge gap between our power and wisdom (obviously not all existential risks stem from this, unless someone is somehow magically manipulating super volcanoes, solar flares and other cosmological goodies).
With all of this and sooooooooo much more as the backdrop, it’s hard to know whether we are more likely to come together or further divide.
Going from possible to preferable
Although there’s a lot to all of this (how many bloody caveats can we fit into one essay…?), one significant problem (in addition to entrenched inequality, power imbalances, unhealthy stories about separateness etc.) is our imagination. With all this bad news in our projected future, it’s hard to see the light at the end of a very deep, dark tunnel. It’s hard to imagine going from possible to preferable. It’s hard to direct our transitionary efforts towards a world that feels far too utopic.
Interestingly, recent neuroscience research into the Default Mode Network (DMN) offers some timely insight. The more vividly we can imagine an event, the more detailed and influential our construction of potential futures becomes.
This is huge. And we don’t mean in the manifest / ‘the secret’ kind of way.
Similar research also suggests that the emotional weight we assign to imagined future events influences our evaluation and prioritisation. In essence, positive emotional valence can lead to a greater desire to achieve a particular future, whereas negative valence may serve as a warning or deterrent (this is why Rainbow Mirrors are sooooo important).
In summary, all the ‘black mirror’ stuff in literature, entertainment and other media is deeply wired. This leads us to inter-subjectively believe that the ‘bad’ is more probable. It’s something like a self fulfilling prophecy.
Today we seem to be so entangled in the ‘business-as-usual’ mindset. This keeps many of us tethered to the familiar, while inhibiting our ability to imagine radically different futures. This shared mental model constraint narrows the possibility space, reducing our capacity to purposefully and planet positively innovate.
But, all hope is not lost amigos. By adopting what we might call a “collective futurecrafting” approach, we can leverage social cognition to encourage a more vivid and detailed envisioning of diverse futures.
Remember what we wrote earlier: “It requires us to first imagine, then act together, to biodegrade that which is unhelpful, while collectively crafting that which can meaningfully carry us forward, the seeds and saplings that might eventually become a thriving ecology for millennia to come.”
As we engage in this collective envisioning, we are effectively participating in a synaptic remapping process. By repeatedly imagining varied and preferable futures, we can rewire our brain’s (and bodies) to be more receptive to the types of changes we together broadly agree are ‘good’ and ‘right’.
This is, to put it bluntly, one of the biggest challenges and opportunities we have ever faced.
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