This piece is part of a series exploring salient aspects of the philosophy known as “Social Futurism” (a term coined and idea developed by myself from 2011-2018). For more full and systematic exploration of these ideas, see http://socialfuturist.party & http://socialfuture.institute.
New Bottles for New Wine
“New Bottles for New Wine” was a 1957 book of essays by Julian Huxley, which included his seminal piece entitled “Transhumanism”, calling for a movement to grow beyond the current phase of human development. Social Futurism is intrinsically and deliberately compatible with – even complementary to – the global intellectual and cultural movement now known as Transhumanism.
1.1 What is Social Futurism?
Social Futurism is a political philosophy, characterised by the use of advancing technology to solve social problems. This worldview’s primary vehicle is the Social Futurist Party (SFP), which has defined the philosophy via the Principles of Social Futurism since 1st May 2011.
To some extent Social Futurism (SF) may be considered a synonym for Techno-Progressivism, but SF is defined by coherent Principles in a way that the broader category of Techno-Progressive thought is not. The common, underlying line of thought is that technological augmentation of the individual is not enough to reach a good future. We must also optimize the societal systems in which those individuals are necessarily embedded, or any and all technological benefits of individual augmentation will be modulated and potentially negated by a less-than-optimal social milieu.
1.2 Convergent Promise, Convergent Risk
It is a fundamental premise of Futurist thought that streams of technological development converge, meaning that multiple types of functionality come together in single devices, and technological possibilities emerge from the new syntheses. We’ve certainly seen plenty of that in recent years, perhaps most notably in smart phones. The underlying logic or mechanism is simply that each innovation makes other innovations more tractable or likely, and so technological development as a whole accelerates over time and technical obstacles to efficiency have a tendency to dissolve (See Ray Kurzweil’s analysis of this phenomenon).
That’s a powerful and inspiring thing, but the problem is that not only can ever-more-efficient technologies cause problems, but problematic trends can and do also converge to create bigger, more dangerous, less tractable problems. As problems worsen they can become increasingly correlated or interdependent. For example, resource shortages and economic destabilization not only lead to an increased risk of both civil and international conflicts, but such conflicts can in turn worsen underlying systemic and environmental problems. In a world where patterns like these are inevitable, any movement toward a better human future must take societal and political factors into account.
1.3 A New Operating System for Society
In computing, an Operating System (OS) is the core software layer which effectively mediates between software applications (and users) on the one hand, and the machine’s hardware substrate on the other. The OS thus acts as something like a User Experience (UX) interface, providing users a framework for interacting with the “deeper” (and less User Friendly) computational architecture. Societies also have Operating Systems, and always have had, even if we haven’t always had the language to succinctly identify and describe the UX functionality of our civilization. Let’s take a moment to consider what society’s OS looks like, and whether it is in need of an upgrade.
There are two core functions at the heart of all human societies; (1) decision making, and (2) resource management. Obviously there is inevitable overlap between the two functions, but we can easily identify broad categories of decisions which aren’t primarily about resource management, and resource management that is automated in some manner that does not involve any explicit societal decision making process. Western “Liberal Democracies” approach these two functions with a variety of specific strategies or institutions, but generally speaking the “public interface” with those institutions is composed of the two mechanisms which together give the entire political-economic system its name; i.e. (1) Democratic assembly, and (2) Liberal (Capitalist) markets.
There is much more to be said here than could possibly ever fit in even a full TNET article, let alone a paragraph or two, so let’s content ourselves with one observation and let you draw your own conclusions: If you think that our current modes of democratic decision making and/or market-based resource allocation are not in any urgent need of serious review and upgrading, then you are not a Social Futurist. It is a defining feature of Social Futurist thought that both representative democracy and wholly market-based solutions to resource allocation are increasingly unfit for purpose in the 21st Century, requiring serious and urgent improvement, and that the revolutionary step required can be well characterized as a massive, society-wide OS upgrade.
1.4 The Importance of Principles
When we propose new ways of thinking, alert others to imminent danger, and indeed call for revolutionary revision of society as a whole, it behooves us to tread carefully. As much as these steps are utterly necessary to the survival and development of our civilization, history makes it all too clear that radical steps taken without proper care can have catastrophic consequences. Furthermore, it is quite clear that society’s ills have a tendency to be caused by self-interested behaviour unrestrained by any effective form of principle or regulation. Taking these things together, we can see that some simple rules for the proper regulation of society, starting from first principles with as few assumptions as possible, become very important indeed.
Human civilization faces a period of rapidly culminating promise and threat. If things are allowed to continue unfolding as they are, then the best likely outcome is that only a fraction of humanity survives and thrives, at the expense of everyone and everything which cannot defend itself from those survivors. The idea of the meek inheriting the earth sounds nice (particularly for the meek), but it is just a fairy tale unless we take steps to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Principles are not just a nice idea, but a stark matter of survival for most living things on this planet. Social Futurism is founded on and defined by principles for this very reason, and thus represents a robust rejection of our current civilizational paradigm.