I was intrigued by some comments in the current (Jan 2015) National Geographic in the editorial feature 'looking ahead.' A series of short sound-bite predictions were presented from leading US academics and technological thinkers on the shape of the future. The predictions were very positive, I might add, but the comment that really got me thinking was from a 'technology forecaster' called Paul Saffo:
A new religion could emerge in the next decade or two, perhaps based around the environment.
And the reason (which really struck me):
Digital technology is the solvent leaching the glue out of our global structure - including shaking our belief systems to the core.
Amen I say. We have some pretty impressive means of sharing information and communicating with each other now: the internet in your pocket, video conferencing from your own laptop; instant calls to outer space or thousands of miles around the globe - and all (really) in the last decade. Smart phones now rule and every one of us has an attentive audience of possible supporters, fans and comforters in our back pocket every second of the day via a raft of social media sites.
The world HAS changed. We think differently about our lives, what we share of our experiences and how we make our decisions.
We are living through (in my opinion) one of the greatest transformations ever experienced by the human race - a total overhaul in how we see ourselves, other people and our relationship with both them and the world around us. There is so much information available, so much of a digital filter through which we view everything, from planning a party to shopping, to learning anything you care to think of.
It is an utterly different world from my childhood in the 70's, when TV, a toaster and an electric kettle were the most high-tech gadgets in the home. We are living through a revolution and don't even know it. with innovations like augumented reality to come (where the kind of data, stats, reviews and info about places and products you see on the likes of Google Earth will be overlayed over real scenes in front of you via your smart phone or sunglasses) our access to 'knowledge' will baloon perhaps infinately.
The world is changing: and my generation will probably be the last that has one metaphorical foot in the pre-digital (and in some ways the pre-industrial or analogue) age, a world before the invention of the silicone chip. Mass communication, knowledge and understanding will quickly outsrip traditional loyalties to state, politics, religion and social structures; and with the help of multinational corporations making money from (and via) the digital 'solvent can' in our hands, 'the people' will be able to shape their world in whichever way they like, tailoring everything to their tastes indefinately.
The positive applications are phenomenal. The end to traditional social dogma holding people of certain backgrounds back. The opportunity for new ideas and creative work to be snapped up by an easily accessible audience - and maybe the chance to hold up your smart phone as a woodpecker flies past and let the imbeded technology identify it for you!)
But will all this knowledge bring wisdom? will the chance to shake things up make everything fall down into a better arrangement?
Byron Reese, another of the experts interviewed in the National Geographic's 'Looking ahead' article is upbeat:
Since technology grows exponentially, not in a linear way, we will see dramatic improvements in our way of life in just a few years. Though it took 4000 years to get from the abacus to the i-pad, in 20 years we will have something as far ahead of the i-pad as as it is ahead of the abacus.
That's the joy of information shared digitally. Reese goes on to paint a picture of a world in which problems which are fundamentally technical (like disease, poverty, energy usage - and even moartality) could one day be ended entirely. And I'd tend to agree. If 'cave men' could produce carvings as realistic as we are capable of 40,000 years ago, then it is only the lack of population desity and the ability to pool, share and develop ideas which meant their endevours perished with them all those millenia ago, innovation expiring as family groups died out. We have (and have always had) the potential to create the most astonishing things, and to answer the most difficult questions - and I am utterly convinced that if all the money, technology, innovation and brain power of the human race was focussed solely on answering the 'big' problems we face today (such as replacing fossil fuels, feeding everyone in the third-world etc.) the answers could certainly be arrived at.
We could - and can - solve all the problems of the world. But do we want to?
Are we more focussed on comfort, entertainment and our own parochial tastes and interests, then putting all this super-cool technology to good use?
I would love, like Byron Reese, to be upbeat and say we'll make the world a better place, but the track record of human history based on greed, money and the exploitation of the many by a powerful few (whether it be a medieval warlord, twentieth century dictator or a multi-national corporation) doesn't leave me with much confidenece.
We've got a powerful can of solvent in our hands, but how will we use it. We're in the middle of a revolution, holding a petrol-bomb, but most people use is as a toy. Will we 'get wise' and use our finest ideas and achievemnets to solve the world's problems, or will we follow the primal urge of survival of the fittest in classic Darwinian style?