A-Z of the Future > Narrative
The A-Z of the Future narrative
Futurist thinking can be difficult to understand. So many possibilities, so much time - near and far - to take into account, and so much terminology. It’s hard to step back and consider all its moving parts together.
That’s the mission we set ourselves for our first project: the A-Z of the Future. It’s a holistic view on futures thinking exploring the ideas, technologies and social implications that may define our future. With 26 terms from A to Z, there are many ways to thread a holistic narrative through it. Here’s one way to consider it.
The first thing to know is that there’s massive Complexity in trying to understand the future. Our world is comprised of a network of interconnected systems - from the most elementary particle, to the human body, to society, to the formation of the universe - and these connections are so utterly complex that it becomes impossible to be anywhere near certain where the future will take us.
Such is the effect of our current lifeways on planet Earth, we now live in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene - the human era. Our impact is having profound repercussions on the natural world, from the sixth great extinction event, to the potentially catastrophic effects of Global Warming. As our technological powers, population and resource demands rise in the future, these human impacts are likely to increase. There could be significant social implications too – from increased migration to Resource Depletion as people’s lives are uprooted by droughts, famines, conflicts and natural disasters, the strain on our social systems will be significant.
While our current social systems and technological developments lie at the heart of our parlous relationship with the natural world, they also promise profound possibilities. One such concept is Transhumanism, the idea of self-directed human evolution. This could revolutionize what it is to be a person, with technologies enhancing our physical and mental capabilities, transforming us from fragile, mortal beings into superhumans. The NBIC suite of converging technologies give rise to radical possibilities including far-reaching Life Extension. NBIC stands for Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science. Nanotechnology may enable scientists to engineer materials at a microscopic level with atomically precise engineering. This could have profoundly important medical applications and even lead to a radical abundance of resources. Biotechnology may also transform what it means to be human, giving rise to the possibility of genetically engineering the species for example. At the same time, the ability to alter living organisms raises huge ethical concerns, not to mention the threat of biohacking where individuals could be personally attacked inside out.
Exponential Growth in many areas of information technology has already radically altered our social world over recent years with the rise in computer technologies and the internet. But this may be the tip of the iceberg. We may be on the brink of an Intelligence Explosion - the moment artificial intelligence reaches human level capacities and soon after far outstrips it. Also referred to as the singularity, anything that happens after this point is fundamentally unknowable as the introduction into existence of a super-intelligent force offers possibilities that exceed our imagination, let alone our understanding.
But will everyone have access to these enhancements that these NBIC technologies promise? Or could current inequalities be radicalised in a world where humans and super-humans have to exist side-by-side? The risk of a new type of Xenophobia is high. As the concept of the human becomes increasingly fractured, there’s a greater chance of dehumanisation - the practice of undermining the humanity of a different group. This could be exacerbated by social effects of new technologies. Many more jobs could become automated, leading to Joblessness, which opens myriad utopian and dystopian possibilities. Will we develop meaningful lives in a world of leisure and radical abundance, or will large swathes of society be expelled from meaningful existence due to having no purposeful role in society?
The possibility of deep social inequities in the real world may lead to many opting in to a world of Virtual Reality with its potential to enrich human experience in a way that’s radically different to the real world. Virtual worlds may enable a personalised Youtopia for everyone, overcoming at least momentarily any scarcity or social inequality that will exist. The radical technological revolution we’re about to experience may offer humans greater possibility of self-determination and self-expression than ever before, but the opposite is also possible. The potential for very significant changes to our social, environmental, economic and political reality are almost certainly necessary and impending.
So much of how the future happens will as ever be controlled by those in power. The traditional right/left political dichotomy may become increasingly inapt for capturing the range of political questions about our future. Our attitudes to technology and nature, through Up/Down Politics, could become integral to the political landscape of the future. Whilst Up politics heralds increasing our technical and instrumental capacities as liberatory in itself, Down politics emphasises the need a coevolution of our ethical frameworks to keep up with our burgeoning powers. We may need to develop a greater sense of Kinship to ensure our ever-increasing powers don’t turn us into inhuman rather than superhuman beings. That is, we may need to attribute moral value to an ever-widening circle of being to ensure we don’t misuse anything and anyone we deem to be less, enhanced, civilised or powerful than ourselves.
New technologies make us ever more interconnected in ways that cut across and undermine borders. How individuals, communities, companies and governments identify themselves will change, reconstituting notions of selfhood, community and nationality. Debordering captures this sense of the shifting shape of social systems, that may, in time, challenge existing concepts we take for granted such as countries. Even the planetary border could become increasingly notional. Some see Space Colonization as an essential step in how to safeguard human existence should natural or man-made disaster destroy civilisation on our planet. Others are concerned that we’ll simply be extending our colonial instincts into space, taking social inequality and other human foibles to places that our bodies and minds weren’t made for.
Perhaps space will just be a new frontier beyond Earth for humans to fight in. The age-old human tendency War with each other looks destined to continue in the future. Advancements in weaponry, including through autonomous technology and diseases used as weapons, could have far more devastating effects. This gives rise to a stark reality: the choices we make could lead to Oblivion. Such a fate may be inevitable in the long-term anyway, though our actions may make this much closer than it need be. Many astrophysicists predict the end of the universe through their scenario modelling from the Big Bang to the Big Chill, the dissipation of all energy. Whether we are in one of many multiverses is still to be proven, but at the deepest metaphysical level we still understand very little about the nature of our reality. Which leads us to the Hard Problem of Consciousness. How can we connect the subjective feelings that we experience as conscious beings with the idea that we are just made up of inert matter? This has significant importance for how we understand ourselves and to what extent consciousness can be seen to have moral value. This can have many social implications in future, including whether humans will continue to subjugate other conscious animals in the way we currently do.
All the uncertainties about the future implied by in the ideas above remind us that we as humans simply don’t know enough about the complexity of our existence to create elaborate, coherent social systems based on facts alone. We require Myths to fill in the rest. One of the most important stories relating to the future will be about ourselves: what does it mean to be human? The stories we tell ourselves about who we are will depend a great deal on the information we have access to, who controls it and how it is accessed. The new complex ecology of media seems to be giving rise to a Fractured Reality where truth is becoming an increasingly endangered resource and one that is synthetically constructed as much as it is naturally occurring. Our actions and desires are increasing surveilled by an expanding apparatus of ubiquitous technology. The concept of Panopticism captures this pervasive and growing surveillance architecture that has the potential to bypass human agency and potentiate authoritarian control. The desire for control underpins our tendency towards the Quantification of our world Increasingly the human sciences conceptualise humans and other natural phenomena as biological algorithms. Humans thus conceived are reducible to their material constituent parts: rendered object along with the rest of nature. This is perhaps a vain attempt to render the complex unfolding of being into tractable process amenable to human will.
In reality, it is imperative to meet the very real ethical challenges that are upon us, and not just the technical ones. We cannot escape the ethical complexity of our reality through pure technical control. After all, we're at Zero Hour – these profound changes are already afoot and it’s very possible that we’re one of the last generations of humans as we currently understand them.