Dusting off the Crystal Ball

December 06, 2012

Multiple Pages
Dusting off the Crystal Ball

Predictions are in the air, or at least in the dwindling little pocket of air from which I breathe, down here in my diving bell a thousand feet beneath the surface of Liberalism Ocean.

Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan bloke, has a new book out; Nate Silver, who is famous for reasons I haven’t bothered to follow but which have something to do with predicting the recent election’s results, likewise; and there are stirrings in the high-IQ end of the dissident-conservative blogosphere.

All right, I’ll get in the game. I have a prediction.

This won’t be the kind of prediction from which you can make money. I have nothing to tell you about the fortunes of Apple stock, the Republican Party, or the New York Jets. As George Gershwin would have said: That’s not the kind of guy I’m.

No, I’m going for the big picture—the future of the human race. And yes, I’ll get to a prediction.

“All I see in the crystal ball are broken images.”

First, though, let’s enumerate the top ten possibilities. I’ll list them from most to least dire. All are, in my opinion, perfectly possible.

1. Extinction. Homo sap. may not have any future at all. At least one perfectly sane and scientifically well-informed person—he was president of the Royal Society!—says he thinks the curtain is about to fall, and he numbers the ways: bio-error/terror, physicists’ curiosity, runaway nano-gadgets, garage nukes, and a dozen others. (Sir Martin Rees has been elevated to the peerage since I wrote that review. He is now Lord Rees. Much good may that do him when the stress-energy tensor blows a gasket.)

2. Through the Bottleneck. Among the calamities Lord Rees ponders are some—biological, cosmological—that could leave a small human remnant. Assuming some of the remnant is capable of reproduction, the human story then starts over again from a tiny base population of survivors with a very limited menu of genetic variation—a “genetic bottleneck.” As awful as it sounds, this happens a lot in biology and in fact may have happened to our own precious selves in the remote past.

3. The Singularity. The main idea of Singularitarianism is that at some point in the future we shall be sharing living space with creatures (via bioengineering) or gadgets (via comp-sci advances) blessed with Artificial Intelligence superior to ours—“AI+” for short. Since we cannot, by definition, follow the thought processes of AI+, we can have no clue what will happen next. Perhaps the AI+ things will create AI++, which will create AI+++. Perhaps they’ll be full of warm filial piety toward us; or perhaps they’ll domesticate, or enslave, or eat us. Or perhaps they’ll tolerate us so long as we don’t annoy them. I was a Singularity skeptic—a Continuitarian—for a long time, but recent advances are giving me pause.

4. Orwellistan. “A boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Could properly organized totalitarianism be a stable state for the whole world? I don’t see why not. The North Koreans have kept it going for 64 years, almost an entire human lifetime in North Korea.  And it’s what elites everywhere want.

5. Back to Blood. (Apologies to Tom Wolfe there.) As religious belief declines and the last trailing wisps of Marxist historicism fade away into the clear blue sky, we may revert to seeing each other not as immortal souls possessed of unalienable rights, or atoms of history destined to coalesce in justice and equality, but in the harsh cold light of biology, as gene machines self-organized in tribes. I think this is Nietzsche territory. I have never been sure I understand what Nietzsche was on about, and every time I quote him, a howling mob of Nietzscheans descends on my email inbox to tell me I’ve got the old boy totally wrong, so I’ll leave this to the commenters.

6. Fundiefication. Human fertility is cratering well-nigh everywhere except among religious fundamentalists. Eric Kaufmann wrote a book about this, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, which I reviewed here. Kaufmann argues that they shall. It’s a better prospect than an asteroid strike, and I’ve set it below the Darwin/Nietzsche scenario on my direness scale; but given the historical track record of seriously religious societies, it is not really to be gleefully anticipated…unless you’re a Fundie, I suppose.

7. Idiocracy. You’ve seen the movie, now contemplate the possibility. It’s a great future for people who like TV, savage music, self-abuse, and charismatic minority presidents—which is to say, most people.

8. Hedonia. Not to be confused with Idiocracy; there are lots of smart people around in Hedonia. They don’t get much done, though, other than satisfying their appetites, high or low. Hedonia, envisaged in various forms by E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C. Clarke, and Andrew Stanton, is culturally static. Getting to Hedonia may not require any radical social transformation.

9. Pinkerization. The trend of declining violence Steven Pinker identified in his most recent book (my review here) may continue indefinitely. Pinker does not himself predict this, but you never know. We may become a planet of smiley-face Walmart greeters. Have a nice day! A slight variant—Pinker Lite, as it were—has us not becoming ever kinder-‘n’-gentler, but not going Back to Blood, either. Perhaps the world will chug along more or less as it is for a few hundred years. Civilizations aren’t always rising or falling; sometimes they just coast.

10. Galactic Colonization. We crack the problem of interstellar travel (yes, I know, it’s a really hard problem) and off we go, flying Mother Nature’s silver seed to new homes all over the galaxy.

Derb’s Prediction. So what gets my vote?

None of the above. I predict Other.

The future is smarter than you or me. It laughs at our silly speculations. Eighty years ago most of the world’s intelligentsia believed the future would be a communist utopia. Nowadays that belief looks so quaintly absurd, I didn’t even bother to include it in my top ten.

All we see in the crystal ball are broken images.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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