August ’22: Where Are We Going and Why Are We In A Handbasket?
The last 40 years have been a rollercoaster of globalization, technological innovation, and socio-economic hypergrowth. As a result, the people who caused the problems we face are still around to face the consequences. This wasn’t the case in the past, where each generation passed away before the next one had a chance to say, “What were you thinking?”. And so we have people who remember black and white television arguing about how to solve a problem with people who can research the problem on a smartphone, mid-conversation. It seems that we cannot solve things by trying to use the logic of one group, “Plastics are the future!”, to address the problems of the other group, “There are microplastics in the bottom of the ocean!”
If Donella Meadows was right, and I have no reason to doubt her, we either focus on degrowth or enough of us die that we get degrowth, by default. What will degrowth mean? Well, it could mean no more new phones every year or it could mean the collapse of geopolitical post-colonial power structures. Or maybe both? There are no easy answers but there are alternatives.
See, our species has a long standing tradition of solving problems that didn’t seem solvable, in ways that confuse and stymie more orthodox thinking.
Take space exploration. Its easy to look at the current climate of competition between nation-states and billionaires as the ‘way things are and the way things are going to be’. “Private space exploration was a natural result of moribund government agencies” says one group. “Billionaires shouldn’t be sending celebrities into near earth orbit while their workers pass out from heat exhaustion and have to pee in plastic bottles”, says the other group.
And neither side account for the underlying urge of the scientists and engineers who want to work together to be better. They ignore the primal urge of humans who look at a problem and say, “I know it looks insurmountable, but what if we…”
There are people who imagine and write about a better future. And then there are those who run headlong into solutions, regardless of the arguments that it won’t work or that the solution is too simple or that they haven’t accounted for all the variables.
We are a species of imagination and fantasy and wild storytelling. We build tiny robots to learn the secrets of ants and drive petri dishes mad to save ourselves.
It’s not all rainbows and cotton candy though. For every great idea that was turned into a great solution, there are examples of ‘solutions’ that are more akin to ‘new problems’.
“Hey buddy, this algorithmic overmind sees everything you do and thinks you’re paranoid. Any thoughts beyond the obvious irony?”
It is the shifting between compromise and consensus that defines progress. Disagreements come from different perspectives, but so do ideas. Which is why any argument towards homogeneity ignores the value of those ideas.
A homogenous view of the world never works. How many papers could have been avoided if, instead of staying in their echo chamber, people sought out conflicting viewpoints. I mean, do you want to tell them about politics and how it results in illogical decisions? Or should we just leave them to their little insular world of pure theory?
After all, it’s quite possible that our perception of uncertainty applies backwards in time as much as forwards. I mean, we assume the past is a fixed thing until we find out we were wrong. Doesn’t that mean we have to reevaluate all the things that assumption was based on?
Personally, that’s why I love the smell of research papers being invalidated. It smells like…progress.
For example, I suspect that light computing and quantum computing are going to be peers. And, at the same time, I derive visceral joy watching quantum computing fail horribly.
Because each failure gets us closer to success.
The issue is the line between fantasy and fact. What I’m suggesting is that those lines should blur a little more.
For example, we’re engineering bacteria to digest plastic, but what if we tweaked larger critters to find plastic delicious? What if we could harness biological machinery the way we harnessed steam engines? Or if we combined bacteria with silicon and made cybernetics a little bit more real?
The way forward requires embracing the wild and weird, the strangelets and spintronics.
A potential future lies in what I call ‘intrinsic tech’. Circuitry started with switches. Those switches can now be made of light. Toss in the idea of nano mechanical computing, and you get a light based, nano-computer that draws its power from the fabric of reality.
And how would that look? After all, pushing processing to the edges of a system is where intrinsic tech starts, but also where we already exist.
Will it free us from the tyranny of charging a device? Will it rewrite the way we think about ‘web services’ if everyone is a server? What would the newest phone mean when everyone has a supercomputer with WiFi that doesn’t need to be charged but runs the risk of being sneezed into the street?
Look, our species went from knapped flint to carving Bose–Einstein condensates with lasers. What makes you think we won’t keep doing things that make the wildest dream you’ve ever had as normal and everyday as a toaster?
We might become plant hybrids that colonize the stars with seed bombs that grow human-sequoia. We might use fish scale nano-onions to electrocute weeds. Or we might keep grinding away at today’s problems using yesterdays assumptions.
Now, more than ever, the future belongs to those who refuse to see problems in simple terms. Those who see beyond black and white, old and new, fiction and non fiction.
We must continue to imagine strange and amazing futures. We must listen to each other’s lunacy and wild-eyed ideas of solutions.
There aren’t any easy answers to the challenges we face. But there are some fantastical ones.