Monday, October 29, 2007

Warmup: "We are as gods..."

Stewart Brand famously opened the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog with these words:

We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far, remotely done power and glory--as via government, big business, formal education, church--has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing--power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested. Tools that aid this process are sought and promoted by the WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.
Brand says in the Winter 1998 Whole Earth Review:
Credit where it's due: I stole the line. Page one, chapter one of A Runaway World? by British anthropologist Edmund Leach (Oxford, 1968) begins:
Men have become like gods. Isn't it about time that we understood our divinity? Science offers us total mastery over our environment and over our destiny, yet instead of rejoicing we feel deeply afraid. Why should this be? How might these fears be resolved?
But at some point Leach continues,
We simply must take charge of our own fate. We must somehow see to it that the decisions which have long-term consequences are taken by men who understand what they are doing and not by bewildered amateurs.
Amateurs, of course, being exactly who Brand wanted to empower.

(I learned of the Brand-Leach connection in the excellent book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, by John Markoff (p. 155))

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sunday, October 21, 2007

about ways of thinking about the future

I follow or take part in lots of discussions of the future, and besides being keen on all the juicy futurific topics themselves, I always find myself noticing the ways people think about the future, and wondering, how should we think about it?

For instance (and because I'm self-conscious about this): what do I even mean by "the future?" People are always thinking about the future: tonight's dinner, a coat of paint for the house, college for the kids... Everything's about the future; what sense making it a separate topic? What's up with treating it like something new?

So one way to think about "the future" is skepticism at the term. What assumptions is someone smuggling in under such a generality? Will they use it to excuse themselves from common sense in some way? On the other hand I'm being slightly disingenuous and dramatic because of course I think there's a Future.

Turning around now, my instinctive response to any two-sentence dismissal or debunking of a popular belief or concept, is to wonder how the supposed debunking can be used to clarify just what the wisdom in the popular wisdom is, so:

The difference between The Future and tonight's dinner is that people have planned a lot of dinners before. The Future is what's unprecedented, and not just the random exact placement of an almond sliver on a green bean, but, well there's an html thingie for a Spanish Inquisition of things like this:
  • unprecidented--at least to most people
  • coming soon to a theater near you
  • important--at least to a lot of us
  • non-random and possible to think about in useful chunks
I have seen gung-ho futurists, budding technocrats out to finally rid us of things I hold dear, and people who think that my favorite improvements will destroy everything they hold dear. Some people focus on an ironic harm to the exclusion of everyday good. People fret over piecemeal scenarios like, "What happens when everyone lives to 200 but retires at 65?" There's a particular form of optimism disguised as skepticism, as in, "I know why that's never going to happen." A lot of questions aren't so much about the future as let back out of the box by thinking about it. If everything is up for grabs, then, What does it all mean!?

Do you know the answer to that one? It doesn't do to just dismiss all the crazies and worriers-- especially if you think that anyone who isn't worried isn't paying attention. Change really seems to be happening faster, while our lifetimes are getting longer, so that more times more is being stuffed into our brains. "The future" seems to be defined by what's difficult to think about. Sometimes it's a demon who carefully tends our buried muddles until they sprout in our front yards.

I want to know, how can we think about this stuff without going nuts? In particular, are there ways to get handles on things to turn them for the better, in some qualitative way better than just building better mousetraps and bandaids, greasing the skids?

For that matter, what kind of future counts as okay, worth working toward, sufficiently grand? How can it be possible for people to see the future as something other than baffling, scary and alienating? One metaphor (getting slightly ahead of myself) is of continually re-packing for the Mayflower-- what's worth keeping and can be packed in a trunk? Can we take seeds?

I collected lists of ideas, both fallacious and hopeful, in the backs of a couple notebooks, enough to write about for at least a month. Time to dig em up and air em out.