International aid, oppression, dystopias, Cosmos, and the future in science fiction…

Live Aid, Band Aid, USA for Africa: Did pop stars and hit songs help Ethiopia famine victims? is a very good read, which made me think of The Hunger Games. Stick with me. The article makes the startling but entirely logical point that democracies don’t suffer famines. Autocratic nations, dictatorships, suffer famine because the people have no power there; in fact, the famine is used as a tool to further control and oppress them. The Hunger Games has very effectively delineated these tools of oppression in a form that even young readers can understand. I guess that makes them more savvy than rock stars.

For related reading: How America’s leading science fiction authors are shaping your future. More on The Hunger Games and how it reflects our current societal anxieties, which helps explain its enormous popularity. Science fiction, like horror, reflects society’s fears, but unlike horror, it also reflects society’s hopes. Perhaps we do need more optimistic science fiction right now.

Have you been watching CosmosThe episode last night on the next great extinction was… unsettling.

A look ahead: Four possible futures

“It’s easy to imagine the end of the world, but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.” – Four Futures

Why is it so difficult to see outside the box we’ve currently put ourselves in?

The author of this article imagines four possible futures based on combinations of scarcity or abundance of resources and a hierarchical or egalitarian social structure. Like all fictional utopias and dystopias, these postulations are not meant to accurately predict the future, but to point toward extreme potential end points of our current path. He draws heavily on science fiction to guide him, including the works of Cory Doctorow, Charlie Stross, Orson Scott Card and Star Trek.

For more fictional future takes, see my Dystopian Reading List.

Here’s the Problem

The problem that we’re wrestling with, as a culture, is that the old ways don’t work anymore. Capitalism doesn’t work anymore, not in the old, unfettered, limitless growth way we think of it. Many jobs, many industries are going away. We need to rewrite the rules, rebuild the systems. But we seem stymied, for some reason I can’t fathom. We can’t seem to think outside the box we’ve put ourselves in. I believe in human creativity, ingenuity, innovation, but for now it seems to have fled. So we indulge in doom and gloom, in bemoaning our past and fearing our future, without realizing that now we have the opportunity to build something great. It’s in our hands. Ours alone.

Why deny?

The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky. — Carl Sagan, Cosmos

All my life, science has fascinated me. Science is the ultimate detective story: look for clues, come up with theories to explain them, then test those theories to determine what is true. The scientific method enables us to navigate around our human fallibilities and learn how the universe actually works.

I admit that I don’t have a lot of patience with people who say they don’t believe in science. Science is not like religion; it doesn’t require faith. The evidence is out in the open, for anyone to see and study.

I can, however, understand why someone would want to pretend that climate change isn’t happening or that it will just go away if we ignore it. The problem is huge and scary, and doing something about it will require sacrifice and change, which we humans aren’t very good at.

But I can’t understand how someone can really look at the scientific evidence — even the photographic evidence — of climate change and still loudly, vehemently deny it, even aggressively try to convince people who do accept the science that not only are we wrong, but there is something wrong with us for wanting to act. What do these deniers have to gain by convincing the world to do nothing? Even if they are right — which they are not, but even if — there are many benefits to acting now, not least of which is reducing our dependence on dwindling fossil-fuel resources. But if they aren’t right, what are they arguing so passionately against? Nothing less than the future of the human race. Why would anyone want to be on that side of history?

I recently read something — a short piece in a giveaway magazine, but the message stuck with me. The gist was that as long as we’re fighting one another, our problems will seem insurmountable. But if we can come together and realize that we have common goals, we become more powerful than our problems. The author was optimistic we could do this. I look at the world and I’m not so sure. But I have to have hope, at least for my two-year-old’s future.

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still keep my faith in the human race.

Utopia or dystopia?

Any society left following an apocalyptic event — assuming there is more than one survivor — generally has a choice of forming itself into a dystopian or utopian society. In a dystopia, life is generally miserable and the people are oppressed, enslaved, poor and/or violent. A utopia, on the other hand, is an ideal society with a perfect socio-politico-legal system, where everyone is happy and all needs are met.

Not surprisingly, there are many more novels and movies about dystopias than about utopias. Jo Walton, in her review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s utopian novel Pacific Coast, explains why better than I can:

The problem with utopias is that they don’t change, and because in science fiction the world is a character, the world has to change. You can write a story set in utopia, but it has to be a small scale story of love and softball, because when you’ve got there, there’s nowhere to go.

The same issues that make utopias poor subject matter for novels might also make them rather boring places to live. Consider the utopian future of Star Trek: adventurous people had to take off for the farthest reaches of the universe just to find a little excitement.

Another caution is that one person’s utopia will certainly be another’s dystopia. A true utopia cannot be built by forcing everyone to conform to one person’s vision, because that would certainly require oppression, no matter how covert.

In the present, we live in neither a utopia nor a dystopia, and this will probably always be true, no matter what happens. Both are idealized — and simplified — visions of society. But if the population were dramatically reduced, it might be that much easier to impose a dystopia or utopia, at least for a brief time.

What is the singularity?

“The singularity” is a term I’ve heard floating around for some time now, but even with all the science fiction I read, I still never quite understood what it meant. I think that’s the point, actually. But here’s a stab at it.

Singularity describes the point at which superhuman intelligence develops, usually as the result of one or more key technological breakthroughs. As a result, human civilization would change so radically that it would become unrecognizable to those who came before. This article describes the advent of the Industrial Age and the Information Age as singularities, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Pre-Industrial and pre-Information Age cultures exist in the world today, but a person from one of those cultures could understand us and even assimilate into our culture. I think it’s more analogous to when humans evolved from a previous species due primarily to an increase in brain capacity. Those pre-humans would look at us and see something entirely alien, just as the post-humans existing after the singularity would seem incomprehensible to us.

It is hard to talk about the singularity because by definition it is something we can’t understand. But everyone seems to agree that the singularity would occur after one or more key technological milestones are achieved.

Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge popularized the term singularity, and he pegged it to the advent of artificial intelligence. Just as we can know nothing about an object when it is pulled into a black hole, we find it impossible to envision a future that includes smarter-than-human entities. Specifically, when artificial intelligence — think robots — can construct AIs that are in turn smarter than themselves, technology would advance at a faster and faster pace, and the singularity would be upon us. Look to Skynet in the Terminator movies or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica for examples of this. In neither case was this good news for people.

Tied to the evolution of super-intelligence, at least in many conceptions of the singularity, is the extension of the human lifespan via mind transfer or upgraded bodies, resulting in functionally immortal people. Who knows how we might be altered psychologically or physiologically by such an achievement, not to mention the resulting population problems? Kim Stanley Robinson addresses the issues that might arise in his Mars series.

The singularity could come about as a result of completely unforeseen technologies. What if nanotechnology or fully immersible virtual reality are possible and achievable? What if we figure out how to teleport a la Star Trek, or we discover cold fusion or some other cheap, eternally renewable energy source? Or aliens might visit. Any of these might contribute significantly to a net gain in intelligence.

The common outcome of all these possibilities is a radical and sudden change resulting in a new paradigm. It is impossible to predict how such a world would operate and what our place in it, if any, would be.

The singularity is a nice theory for playing mind games on a Saturday afternoon, but it seems like something of a pipe dream to me, the equivalent of the Christian idea of the Rapture. Some technological marvel will appear and save us all from ourselves, or end the whole mess. I think we’d be better off learning to live with ourselves and trying to solve the problems we’ve already used our technological advancements to create instead.

What Is the Singularity and Will You Live to See It? (io9)
Technological Singularity (Wikipedia)
What Is the Singularity? by Vernor Vinge
The Singularity Is Always Near (Kevin Kelly)
The Singularity (the inevitable blog)
The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

Predicting the future: A futile exercise

Buddhists advise us to live in the moment. It seems simple, but it is probably one of the hardest things we can do as human beings. Being aware of time gives us consciousness, and is our curse. As Jonathan Franzen says in The Corrections:

The human species was given dominion over the earth and took the opportunity to exterminate other species and warm the atmosphere and generally ruin things in its own image, but it paid the price for the privileges: that the finite and specific animal body of this species contained a brain capable of conceiving the infinite and wishing to be infinite itself.

We obsessively live in the past, wishing we could get a “do-over” or just trying to figure out why things happened the way they did, usually an exercise in futility. But we are even more obsessed with the future. Turn on the TV or NPR, surf the blogs, open the newspaper. You will find story after story, one “expert” after another, trying to tell us what will happen. How will the Senate vote on healthcare; what will the 2010 election results be; what will happen to the economy?

Stand back from all this noise and view it as a whole, and it quickly becomes meaningless. What makes these pundits’ predictions any more accurate or trustworthy than the predictions of the ancients reading the future in the entrails of their animal sacrifices, or the old lady trying to find a pattern in her tea leaves?

We look into the future and what we see is the darkness of the abyss. Hardly comforting. So we try to do the impossible: We try to act like we know what is going to happen.

That’s why “live in the moment” is such great advice, even if it is so difficult to achieve. Think of the concept of flow, of being so focused and in tune with what you are doing that time effectively ceases to exist. It may occur when you’re fixing a car or shaping a vase from clay or taking a run or talking with friends. For me, it usually happens when I’m writing, cooking, gardening, organizing or am caught up in a project that has me fully engaged. Regardless, at that time of flow, you are truly in the moment. The past and the future have lost their significance. For many people, including me, it is these times of “flow” when they are happiest.

If we all spent more time in flow (or pursuing those activities that bring about that state) and less time worrying about the future, I think we’d actually achieve that other elusive element of human existence: peace.