Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Touching the 23rd Century

As promised, I am blogging on the discussion the other day about Soylent Green at thinkers, or rather, blogging my thoughts, since the discussion was extremely disappointing to me. First because there were two poles of foolishness. One pole was a series of defense mechanisms as to why we don't have to worry. These excuses are usually specious, or stupid, or both. They usually take the form of incontrovertibly true, but utterly irrelevant statements. Or they take the stance that the really terrible things aren't going to happen in the speaker's lifetime, so why worry about it. The other pole of foolishness is a metaphysics of the rights of the universe, often based on statements which are not provably false, but aren't relevant either.

We can laugh at 1970's dystopianism now, partially because many of the dystopian predictions did not come true. We don't live in a 1984 type state that pushes out processed calories and fake news. Or do we? I think that a good case can be made that we've just gotten much better at packaging fake food than the movie suggests, and much better at creating the sprawling megalopoli of misery all over the world. New York doesn't have 40 million people in it, but many cities around the globe have exploded in size, and the living conditions there, according to first had reports are easily as bad as the movie presents. People living amidst rivers of raw sewage, of example.

Their deaths, I think it is fair to say, make our lives possible. We not only eat people, we sit on them, walk on them, and pour them into our gas tanks. People naturally don't want to think about this.

The first pole is generally rightish on the political spectrum. It consists of statements such as there is plenty of energy and matter in the world. Well, that's true, but it is false as well. The question is not the amount of raw energy, per se, but forms we can use it. You can synthesize a vat of right handed amino acids. There is plenty of energy, there are all the basic nutrients needed for life. And a human being can't eat any of them. It's like there is more than enough processor power on the grid to do more than we do, but making it possible to get at it is a very hard problem that is taking up the time of lots of very smart people. I suppose there is some way to formalize the argument in terms of mathematics, but the essential thrust is that it takes more energy and time to get at the energy and matter than we can possibly get. Another rationalization is to talk about how in so many billions of years the death of the sun, or heat death of the universe, or something will mean it will all not matter anyway. Vacuously true. But that's like saying that everyone in the world living now will be dead in 1000 years, so why don't we just kill a few billion of them now in slow and painful ways now if it makes things a bit happier. These dodges pretend to talk from the great universal point of view, ignoring the fact that none of us are the universe. The universal consciousness, if there is one or more of them, will have to take care of it or themselves. The questions that face us are in the consciousnesses of people.

The other doge is leftish on the political spectrum. It pretends that the universe owns us, and that we should therefore retreat to some imagined pre-technological idyllic live in harmony with nature.

A sort of combination of the two is to presume some arbitrary technology that will solve all our problems, replacing the natural world with one of our own devising. The evidence is that such a technological world will have more, not fewer, problems of sustainability, if second life's crashes and problems are any indication.

This is why I want to make a very simple statement. That is that many of the people reading this blog, are going to touch the 23rd Century. Consider, it's not unlike that I will live to the age of 100. That means, roughly, that I will be alive until 2080. Now, I will meet people, very young people, perhaps my great grandchildren who are born at that time. I will hold them on my lap, smile at them, and watch their parents coo over them. That means that if they live to 100, then they will be alive until 2180. With only a very small bit of medical technology, 10 years more life span than is now the case, I will know people who will be alive for at least a little while in the 23rd Century AD. I know that CE is now the approved abbreviation, but AD has all those great literary relationships.

That's true of other people reading this too. So there are many of us, and more every day, who are concerned, rather directly with the world of 2300, because some of the people we love will be there when it arrives.

To me, if I can be again sort of obviously pragmatic about it, predicting what that world will be like, and what it's problems are, is hard. Some of the things we do now will make it to 2300, just as things like the clock face, as old as it is, are still with us. We don't know which ideas will still be common places 200 years from now, but we know that based on the past, some of them will be.

Breaking through the false sense of it not mattering in ten billion years, and the false sense that some how we should, out of guilt, toss aside ourselves in favor of something which no one will ever prove the existence of, and no one will every disprove either I look at the present and see that really, most people take the first form of denial. The world seems to work, and it seems like we don't need to do much.

We sort of have in technology a built in bias to escapism. We are in this new medium, and it is easy to believe that it will solve our problems. But it won't. Avatars produce a great deal of carbon to create, because all this runs on electricity, and as several articles that showed up in my google news feed on Second Life point out, that means coal burning power plants.

I'm going to leave it to others to argue about the causes in biology and human nature that are making us reach particular problems now. But any useful discussion has to focus on the problem we know, and can show. The world that we swim through, is changing, and many of the truisms and truths of the last century, are fading. And they will collapse long before many of us will die.

We touch the 23rd century, and it is touching us back. Talking about how there are plenty of bits of rock, or that it will all be gone in some far distant time, is really not thinking at all, but a rush away from facing what we have to do today, tomorrow, and in the years to come.


  1. Can you help me make a Second Life platform for Polar City dwellers in 2500?



    Saw your comment on Dot Earth and came here to visit. looking forward to your new blog on the lecture tonight. Will tune in tomorrow for an update.

    As an educator based here in Taiwan, an island far far away from DC, looking forward to reading more of your blog and hope that someday you can blog to your student readers about my VIRTUAL JAMES LOVELOCK MUSEUM OF POLAR CITY IMAGES: I think students will be inspired by these images to come up with their own ideas about future adaptation strategies....

    Do take a look:

    Danny Bloom
    Tufts 1971

  2. Lillie,

    Your blog entry really touched me (no pun intended); while I may be too old to touch the 23rd century, my children probably will. What aspects of the world will have changed fundamentally by then?

    It really seems almost impossible to foresee the future. I remember one cartoon from the 50’s, from a kitchen, where they had all sorts of fancy gadgets, including a flying saucer outside the window instead of the family car. But the woman still did the cooking while the man returned home from his day at work…. LOL now the next US president may be a woman. Society may change more than technology.

    That is true, because even limited to practically available resources, we do have the means to make a happy world. It is just a matter of priority. Are we spending on war? Or education?

    The world is not working fine, even if we lucky few are doing great, and prefer not to see the suffering around us. You are absolutely right, there are things to be done to ensure a good living for our loved ones in 2300, and we should certainly do what we can.


  3. Lillie
    Yes, your post was touchung, re 23rd CEntury. My polar cities project is set in the year 2500 or so, so that is 26th century. I wonder what you think of my ideas re polar cities for survivors of global warming's worst case scenario scenarios.? Email me at danbloom GmAIL

    and see iamges here