As a science fiction author, I spend a lot of time imagining what the future will be like. Though, I suspect the implied causality of that sentence is flipped. Because I spend a lot of time imagining what the future will be like, I became a science fiction author, is perhaps more accurate.
Most SF visions of the future fall into two categories: Utopias and dystopias. The world either gets much, much better or much, much worse. Utopias aren't lacking in conflict, nor are dystopias lacking in their rewards. The Star Trek series is essentially utopian. People have come together and worked out their differences more or less peacefully and banded together on a shared goal of intergalactic exploration. Technology has gotten cleaner and better. There doesn't seem to be a lot of poverty. The Star Wars series tilts toward dystopia... there's an evil empire that goes around blowing up planets that challenge its authority. There does still seem to be a lot of poverty, and more than a little racism, or at least speci-ism, with comments like, "I'd sooner kiss a wookie!" And, apparently, it's still possible to be sold into slavery on the black market. Yet, even against this backdrop, the people don't seem to be miserable. There's still music in the bars. People get together and watch pod-racing. They master they world they live in and endure, even thrive.
So which direction are we trending? By "we," I mean all of humanity. Is the world getting better? Or are we racing toward misery?
Trends that hint at a brighter future:
1. The growth of knowledge. This is a powerful one. As a species, we are simply better informed today than at any point in history. We've figured out the basic fundamentals of biology, chemistry, and physics. We know more about fighting diseases than ever. We know more about growing crops. We know how to purify drinking water, and move goods and services and people around the planet, and we have all these wonderful information technologies that let us move knowledge around the planet in seconds. Knowledge is a powerful tool for fighting human misery. It seems almost fated that, as more and more people learn more and more things, life will get better.
2. The spread of innovation. This is an outgrowth of the first one. In the last two centuries, innovation and invention flowed from a few hotspots--America and northern Europe. For whatever reason, all the life changing technologies like electricity, vaccines, telephones, computers, automobiles, planes, etc. were coming from a fairly limitted geographical area. They say that neccessity is the mother of invention. I suspect, however, that the true mothers of invention are education, wealth, property rights, and good patent and copyright laws. A relatively small portion of the world's population enjoyed these things over the last two centuries. Toward the end of the twentieth century, we began to see innovation spread to places like Japan and South Korea, as they took things like cars and stereos and television and began to find ways of making them better. Now, we're on the threshhold of truly world-wide innovation. Wealth and education are spreading to places like India, China, and Brazil. American's are going to keep buying oil to run our cars as it rolls up to 200 dollars a barrel. We're invested too heavily in the infrastructure of oil. But, countries like Brazil are already shifting their cars to a biofuel economy. By developing later, it's easier to move to better technologies without being tied to older ones. It similar to places like India leapfrogging over building a network of landline phones and just moving directly to cell phones. I was listening to an NPR report about how advanced cell phones are in places like India and South Korea when compared to American cell phones. They have better networks and more features because they aren't laying the new technology onto an network build decades before.
The point is, we aren't going to depend on a small handful of countries for innovation any more. We're going to see it becoming global.
3. The decline of war. War certainly hasn't gone away. Many places are still wracked with internal conflicts and civil wars. But, it seems like the full-blown invasions where one country decides its going to roll into and take another country are on the decline. Invading armies were commonplace throughout the twentieth century. Japan invaded China and Korea. Germany invaded France and Poland. Russia grabbed the Eastern Bloc and Afganistan. Iraq grabbed Kuwait. And then... it stopped. Many countries are still occupied by their old invaders, but the wholesale scramble of countries grabbing adjacent territories seems to have slowed to a trickle. The one big exception, of course, is America's "liberation" of Iraq. That went so well, however, that it may truly be the last true American war. The political costs have been so high that it's difficult to imagine a president in the next half century launching a similar adventure. And, the economic costs of this and other things are on the verge of clipping America's wings. We won't be able to invade other countries because we won't be able to afford it. And, I think this is going to be the true end of full blown war. At some point in the last few decades, it simply stopped making economic sense. Invading neighbors has been politically and economically ruinous for the invaders time and time again.
Trends that point toward misery:
1. The embrace of ignorance. Here's a curious trend: As knowledge has grown, and technology gotten more complex, it feels like the world has become increasingly dumber. There are a few people who understand their cars, their phones, or even their televisions. They can operate them, but they can't really understand them. There is also a fall off in basic knowledge. American's are trained universally how to read and write, and the fundamentals of math. Most people have basic training in science, history, civics, and economics. When I look at the things kids are learning in thier text books these days, I feel like they are certainly being exposed to a vigorous and wide-ranging base of knowledge. Yet, it seems like by the time these kids reach adulthood, all this knowledge evaporates. They could read, but they don't, and the ability to communicate by writing and reading withers. They could do math, but they don't, and lose the ability to figure out a 15% tip, or figure out the square footage of a room. On my day job, I do a lot of things that require some basic math, and I find that people have just lost the ability to understand numbers any more.
I sometimes wonder if television, computers, and calculators haven't somehow crippled us intellectually. True story: I spoke to a woman on the phone a few days ago who couldn't find our store. She was following a GPS device and our address wasn't coming up when she programmed it in. So, I tried giving her directions. My work is really simple to get to: It's right off the interstate. If you can find the interstate, and read exit numbers, you can find us. But, she sounded almost panicky as I tried to give her the very simple directions. She kept getting stressed that her GPS didn't show a shopping center off the exit I gave her. It was as if, if her GPS didn't believe we were there, then she couldn't believe we were there.
I have no hard data. I'm not even sure how you would test something like this. But, it feels like people are becoming less knowledgable as knowledge technology improves. Once we have machines to do our thinking for us, we seem to embrace ignorance. The main purpose of the mind ceases to be the pursuit of knowledge and becomes instead the constant quest for distraction and entertainment.
This seems dangerous in the long term for two reasons: First, people no longer seem able to judge the pronouncements of their political leaders. We start to base our decisions on who looks better on television and who is funnier in a debate rather than on who is actually better informed. Once the population loses the ability to judge our politicians, it seems we are fated to drift toward a government that more closely resembles the Star Wars dystopia than the Star Trek utopia. Secondly, the world is so interconnected that I worry that the stupid decisions of a few could wind up dragging us all down. The mortgage crisis is a good example. People were taking out loans they didn't understand. Now, everyone's home value is likely to decline, and responsible homeowners with good credit such as myself will wind up paying more for our next mortgage because we'll be paying for the losses of people who made foolish, ill-informed choices.
2. The rise of complexity. As technology spreads, and innovation spreads, it's going to become increasingly difficult to keep track of everything. There was a time when the study of radioactivity was relatively unregulated. I have comic books from the early 1940s where kids could order radiactive elements, including uranium, as part of a home laboratory. Fortunately, we figured out in a reasonably short period of time that this stuff was risky and passed regulations that kept us from poisoning ourselves with these dangerous substances. A similar response was called for with DDT and flourocarbons. We've been able to identify the dangers we are creating with our technological advances and nip the more harmful ones before the damage becomes permanent. But, this was when the world was much smaller. It wasn't that hard to band together to regulate DDT and flourocarbons. The manufacture was controlled by countries based in North America and Europe, places where representative governments have incentives not to kill off their populations. But, the next environmental threat to arise from our own cleverness could spread much more rapidly than these previous technologies, and be manufactured in more locations, and in countries with more authoritarian governments. Here's an completely imaginary scenario: Some bioengineered virus thats supposed to attack some obscure wheat fungus could be invented in South Korea, be in use worldwide five years later, and two years after that we start hearing reports about the world wide decline in earthworms. We take five years to argue about whether the bioengineered virus is the cause, but even when the consensus in most of the world shifts to thinking it is, political action to ban it is nearly impossible because a few non-democratic regimes insist it's safe. Ten years later, 90% of the world's worms are gone and we're seeing famine of Biblical proportions.
This is, of course, a highly unlikely scenario in its specific details. But, the broad categories I think are plausible: An innovation with an unsuspected consequence spreads rapidly with catastrophic results, and political action to fight the threat is nearly impossible because the knowledge has spread to places without the proper checks and balances of the American and European systems. Here, companies might halt the manufacture of a dangerous substance even without waiting for government regulation because they fear the effects of lawsuits. (Though, there are certainly many products, such as tobacco, where this hasn't proven true.) And, due to patent laws, if the company that invented the technology shuts it down, it shuts down. But, in places like China where patent law is almost non-existant, and lawsuits against a harmful manufacturer unlikely, what are the checks and balances that will prevent irreparable environmental harm?
In my more optimistic moods, I think that the good forces of knowledge and innovation will always stay a few steps ahead of the risky forces of ignorance and complexity. Problems will arise, some created by our own cleverness, and we'll solve them, and move on to the next problem. It will be a never ending cycle of innovation that leads us to an ever more utopian future. But, the pessimist in me can't help but think that, while the good forces must maintain constant vigilance to show true improvement, the darker forces only need one victory to knock everything down. We need only slip up once on an global environmental threat to create world-wide famine and misery. The laws of unintended consequence are going to forever result in people of good intentions unleashing threats to the health, wealth, and peace of their fellow men.
If you want the utopia, don't sit back and assume others are going to build it. Stay educated, stay engaged, and stay vigilant. If enough of us do this, perhaps we'll have a long, happy run on this planet.