futures, real and imagined

Monday 2013.10.28

I decided to borrow a title from a chapter of Jon Gertner’s book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, about the history of Bell Laboratories. I realized that most of what I end up writing about in this space more or less fits into a theme of looking toward the future and trying to figure out where we’re going. That ends up usually hitting some of the same general topic areas, especially the subjects of energy, economy, and Earth (or ecology, environment, whatever other labels you might like to stick on the subject of the state of health of our little ball flying through space that is our only home).

I try to do what I can to direct people to some of the serious people looking at all these things, but I have to wonder how many people are getting the messages. I remember a funny quote from Hunter S. Thompson; when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Sometimes I think about that, and contemplate how a slightly modified variation of that might apply to a variety of situations around us now.

What it comes down to is that when the going gets weird, too many confused and disoriented and disappointed people seem to turn to the weird. People start looking, not for real understanding and truth, but some kind of convenient explanations, or reassuring platitudes, or maybe a good scapegoat or two. It’s an unfortunate fact of human history that, too often, when things do indeed get a little weird, when troubles are happening, when things get confused, when changes are happening that some people just don’t like, many people will turn to clueless buffoons, manipulative swindlers, and even, in the realm of governance and politics, malevolent and ambitious demagogues.

I look back at my childhood in the decade of the sixties, and it’s interesting to recall how much interest and attention was devoted to various visions and speculation about the future, particularly in terms of forecasts for the coming 21st century. I think we can say that things are quite a bit different now in that department. You don’t see so much about the thoughts and forecasts of “futurists”, in fact, I don’t even see that word very much.

A couple of years ago, one of the cable networks ran a program that consisted of a group discussion about what might be in the path ahead, with each member of the group addressing a particular subject area that they saw as problematic. According to one of the participants, this was put together with the working title “The Futurists“, but, apparently, some TV network suits decided that wasn’t dramatic enough. So, the program aired with the much more provocative name “Prophets of Doom“. That wasn’t exactly very helpful to anyone.

Likewise, it does no favors to any of us for people’s cable TV entertainment diet to include shows with the theme of “doomsday preppers”, with various people convinced of imminent complete catastrophy and the end of everything building themselves some sort of compound or bunker with loads of weapons and ammo and canned food. Have enough of this stuff, and eventually you get either paranoid socipaths or people who think everything that serious large scale long term problems are some kind of farce to laugh at on television, and then move on to the next amusing diversion.

Right now we’re in a pretty seriously challenging period of human history, and we can do without either fantasies about flying cars and personal servant robots being just around the corner or characters waiting for zombie attacks.

The unfortunately titled Prophets of Doom program was actually very, very good, with the themes under discussion (with each participant taking on a particular theme, then turning it over to group discussion) included water supply problems from depletion and pollution, overpopulation and resource overconsumption, peak oil, and the building mess of economy and finance revolving around what are increasingly Ponzi schemes and illusions, coupled with a near religious belief that exponential economic growth is a permanent state of affairs. All of these are difficult subjects, made more difficult by people not getting a grip on reality, and either wallowing in “it’s all good” delusional thinking, or “oh, we’re doomed, so why bother?“, or “load up the secret bunker with guns and canned food” madness.

One of the themes in the Prophets of Doom program was artificial intelligence, and the man who was presenting his thoughts (whose name I’m now forgetting, sorry) was essentially presenting the idea that within the next few decades, we would arrive at the point where AI advancements would produce the Ray Kurzweil fantasy Singularity. This is a notion that seems to grab the imagination of many people who take it very seriously. I don’t, although I do very definitely see a possiblility of developing machinery that becomes effectively out of control. We already are pretty far along on that road. I just recently wrote about how we already have computer software and various digital electronics technology that are already turning into ridiculously overcomplex clusterfucks of dysfunction. Beyond that, looking at the Kurzweil Singularity idea, I just think “why would anybody want that?”. It strikes me as one of the greatest examples of the idea that just because, maybe, perhaps, you might be clever enough to actually do something, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, and you should do it.

I should note that, just now, I wasted a couple of minutes dealing with software blowing up in my face, right here and now, simply trying to write this note. And people are seriously imagining some sort of machine sentience? Really?

It’s a slight sidebar diversion, but I think this is a good moment to point people again to the very interesting book The Quants, by Scott Patterson. It’s an excellent study of how brilliant, highly intelligent, very educated people can turn their cleverness to tasks of doing things that are past foolish, and arguably into the territory of full balls-out lunacy. Just to contemplate the idea of somebody conceiving the idea of “financial engineering” as a serious concept is an astonishing glimpse into extreme hubris, some kind of severe mental warp. We’re suffering the repercussions of this now, in case you hadn’t noticed.

The group there discussed the AI idea as a potential serious threat to the future of humanity, and came to a consensus of conclusion that I think is exactly right. The reality is more likely to be that the other subjects they were discussing were going to create circumstances where this imagined AI singularity was not going to be likely, as things that would be necessary were derailed by other more fundamental and immediate factors.

Beyond that there was a larger point there. This is that just because something has been proceeding along in a particular trend, following some particular plot on a graph, does not mean it’s going to continue that way forever. In the domain of computing and digital electronics in general, people who are fond of refering to Moore’s Law as if it’s an immutable law of the universe usually act as if that trend will go infinitely, never running into physical limits. There is plenty of evidence around us of a similar lack of foresight and grasp of limits in the people who seem to genuinely believe that it’s possible to have endless exponential economic growth on a finite planet.

(There’s a side item to that I can’t let pass without mention. It amazes me how often I find grown adults casually throwing around the word exponential, who seem, from the way they use it, to have no idea what that means.)

That brings us back around to the problem of peak oil. Unfortunately, for the last few years, loads of nonsense and propaganda about the subject of petroleum have hammered the general public with all kinds of fiction and fantasy and warped thinking. Part of that has been confusing the hell out of people concerning what the term peak oil actually means.

Rather than understanding the patterns of Hubbert’s curve, and then thinking about what it means, people have been sold ridiculous nonsense, including the false definition that the term peak oil is some doomsday paranoia that claims the oil is going to be all gone any minute and the whole world will come to a crashing stop. As a result, the general consensus among most Americans is badly detached from reality in thinking about almost anything concerning petroleum. Considering how closely intertwined petroleum is with so much we now regard as normal status quo, that means most Americans are probably not quite operating fully within the realm of reality and rational thought in all kinds of subjects.

For anybody who might be reading and having thoughts that I’m furiously barking out the wrong orifice, stop and think about one item for a few minutes.

Consider how much you hear about crude oil prices hanging around the $100 per barrel and up area, and then after some news item about that, the news rolls right onward into people expressing their bafflement about how the economic state of affairs can just keep laying there like something the cat dragged inside, and never quite let these thoughts bump into each other.

As what I’m talking about now has gotten my attention over time, it’s been a little surprising to realize how little most people are really conscious of many things. They just take them as assumed to be normal, some force of nature or law of the universe, whatever exactly this kind of thing might be that gets people just putting it in the background without much examination. Offer a thought or two about petroleum and food, and some people are probably going to walk away thinking something like “some whackjob on the internet is babbling about oil prices and food, what does one have to do with the other?”. Then they’ll hop in the car (or the pickup or the SUV) and drive it five miles or ten miles to The Grocery Store, where they buy foodstuffs that came from hundreds or thousands of miles away, bonus if it’s a pile of processed food that has traveled whole extra journeys in the extra steps involved. Trace it back eventually to a farm and watch the farm machinery rolling around doing its stuff.

That’s just a glimpse at what I mean.

It’s unfortunate that it’s so hard to get people’s minds focused and wrapped around some of this stuff. Get them on the latest cable TV entertainment or “smart” mobile phone app, and they’re all over that and will tell you all about it for the next twenty minutes (if it stops after only that long). Raise some topic that’s pretty damned important and relevant and takes a while to get into it, something that won’t condense down to some sound-bite blurb or bumper sticker, and people’s eyes glaze.

Dive into the realm of speculation and fictional flights about the future as they’ve been presented over time, and along with the assorted science fiction material about interstellar travel and colonizing space and sentient robots, you can arrive at works like George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, presenting what people would call a dystopian vision. It’s an old topic for people to chat about those two novels, and have discussions about which of those two might be an accurate glimpse of the future going wrong for us. Unfortunately, they both got some things a bit right, and we would do well to just stop and give some serious thought to heeding both as cautionary tales.

Brave New World actually seems to have hit something on target that should scare the hell out of people, right now, in the way that it casts a vision of a time when people are swept along in assorted insanity while being all caught up and distracted by indulgence in idiot entertainment and amusements.

We could take just as much of a warning from 1984 and spend some time on serious contemplation of the present thinking about being bombarded by messages daily hammering people with notions that we must be a world dominating military empire covering the planet with everybody everywhere kept under total and thorough surveillance, you know, to keep us safe and free. It’s not some distant possible ugly hazard to consider a possibility of having a military empire police state in a constant state of war, or at least everybody told we’re in a constant state of war, and that good patriotic citizens will just shut up and wave the flag and sign up for military service to “defend our freedom” in some hellhole on the other side of the planet.

As I think about this, it’s hard to not be drawn back to the whole notion of “doomsday prepper” TV shows as entertainment, presented as televised amusement using the increasingly oxymoronic genre label of “reality TV”. It doesn’t require great paranoia of the “conspiracy theory” kind to step back and see all that as a pretty ugly kind of manipulation of people. It doesn’t take much reflection to see all that as an effort to keep people confused and divided and pitted against each other, hammering people with ideas that this stuff is about some kind of all-American patriot rugged individualism and self sufficient indepenedence, with an attitude of “I got mine, and the rest of you losers and bums are on your own and leave mine alone!”, precisely at a time in history when we need to be recalling the concepts of cooperation and community and conservation of resources.

[Extra irony here in noticing that contemporary American political “Conservatives” seem to have no concept of conserving anything except what falls under the heading of “mine“. Call that into question, and the standard response is to call you some kind of Marxist communist, which nudges us into the whole problematic subject of people being stuck in old political cliches from the 19th and early 20th century.]

Arguably, the other product of the “doomsday prepper” TV entertainment is probably intended to be something else from the “get yourself your armed camp and bunker together!” mentality, and that would be to hammer people with a sense of helpless resigned futility, like “oh well, we’re all on the road to doom, it’s all hopeless, so we might as well just grab all we can and party until the big end of it all!“.

Having people shoved into either one of these two pens of destructive lunacy probably suits some people’s goals just fine.

Some time ago, I wrote a note here about the topic of the future in general and the hazardous fool’s errand of trying to exactly predict the future. I don’t have a crystal ball, and as I said earlier in this note, there is a major trap for fools in thinking that everything will just endlessly follow some particular trend line that can be extrapolated. There are some things that can be seen, pretty obviously in some cases, but there is too much to tackle in any one note, so this will probably be a multiple part item.


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