Posted: Thu, January 24, 2013 | By: Reeve Armstrong
If we follow the media Zeitgeist: Make sure we keep up-to-date with technology; read Wired and New Scientist; follow the twitter accounts of Reuters Science News and Discovery Magazine; own the Blu-ray, 25th Anniversary, Final Cut of Blade Runner and read Iain M Banks’ books – maybe even have a blog on Technorati; It seems easy to see that the world is updating at high-speed.
Technology gets more efficient all of the time, and more pervasive. Science illuminating the darkness of ignorance with revelation becomes a chore. And any day now we’ll be connecting to the Internet with our augmented minds. Once we are immersed in such an ethos it seems realistic to announce to the world your fantasies about “any day now.” An exercise in stating the obvious even. Ray Kurzweil tells us that our Xbox, that we play Deus Ex on, will rival the capabilities of the human brain by 2020, and we say “Well obviously” because it doesn’t sound like a revolutionary forecast; it sounds trivial. After all look at history: There’s a clear trend. Exponential progress. Fifty years ago, communications satellites were only just coming out and before that: stone tools. Now look at where we are. You’re reading this.
And so it is we believe, similar to Adam Smith, in a kind of “invisible hand” guiding the course of civilisation. Where the actual passage of time is synonymous with the advance of technology. In the same way that we could foretell the coming of dawn tomorrow, we foretell that things get better over the years. All we have to do is pull up a seat, sit back and watch and wait. And “any day now” Santa Claus will show up on his hoverboard and give us our cyberpunk toys. (A good song that encapsulates this idea is “The Future Soon” by Jonathan Coulton.)
Except this is just an illusion.
It is no law of the universe that technology should get better over time. There’s no reason why there ought to be progress. Unfortunately for us, reality does not favour the latter half of Hume’s is-ought problem. Consider: it’s perfectly possible that, at some point in humanity’s history, such as when Galileo was working out that Copernicus was right, some virus could have got lucky and killed everyone. Or perhaps we could’ve been out competed thousands of years by another species. Turning our heads in the other time direction: Perhaps the ignorant will get themselves to the top of the hierarchy and enforce stagnation. Perhaps we’ll discover at the last moment that we’re in for another extinction event.
The point is: Progress does not just happen. And it won’t be “any day now.” Reflect on how we’ve got this far. How did society reach this apex? It is not thanks to some invisible hand making computers and antibiotics spring out of the ground. Technology is this good entirely because of the work of individuals. At some time, someone, somewhere decided that they were going to spend the time that they had investigating or inventing. You are able to navigate to this page precisely because Tim Burners Lee realised that hypertext would make everything easier. You can visit the world’s first website and web server at Info.cern.ch
Indeed the Internet only exists because some physicists were interested in light. We must realise that the only reason why society changes or advances is because real, individual people decide to do something constructive with there time in the real world. And like the proverbial butterfly beating its wings, a few people may bring on the Singularity.
So it depresses me ever so slightly when I visit transhumanist themed websites and find people fantasizing about all the cool stuff we’ll be able to do “any day now” and telling everyone about their fantasy. If we just fantasize then there will be no progress. Our fantasies will remain only fantasies. Therefore it is not good enough to tell people about “any day now.” We don’t just need to be like people that advance technology. We need to be the people that advance technology. If we want progress – if we want bionic eyes, bulletproof skin and designer babies - we will have to make progress. If that is the reality that you want; make that reality. You have time. You’re using some of that time reading this. What else could you be doing? Are there still things that you don’t know or understand? Do you want to stay ignorant? Do you have unrealised ideas that have been in your head for years? Why haven’t they been realised? Could you realise them? Have you tried? Are you going to try? When?
Too often I suspect that those of us who like to think they are “pro-future” are really only engaging ritualistically as though this is a fashion trend. Fashion trends die out. You can compare it to the the person who thinks that they are a kind person but ultimately they heartlessly pass the beggar by, like everybody else. That person isn’t going to be taking up the “good Samaritan” role any time soon. And like that person, it is no good just thinking about the march of science and technology. The only person your thoughts affect is yourself. You need to act. It is physical action in the real world that actually changes things.
The day is not going to come where you are rewarded by some messiah for making a show of support. Unless you are actually contributing your time in a substantive way, you are just another person using resources and spending time. Perhaps you think of yourself as an activist. If this is the case, when were you last advocating? What did you do? Hand out flyers? Cosplay at a convention? The question is always: Can I do more? Remember that if you don’t take the opportunity now – in the present - “any day” might never come.
It is said that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. It is giants that have brought us all of this progress.
Well, it is time to grow up.