Many changes have occurred just in the past ten years. Who would have thought that Twitter and Facebook would have become the great democratizing forces in the world and helped change governments? (Not to mention WikiLeaks!)
Futurist John L. Peterson of the Arlington Institute recently posted on Starpod.org an article in which coming changes in the 21st Century will eclipse the changes that occurred during the previous century by a thousand fold.
And that might not necessarily be a bad thing.
We are living in unprecedented times … but, of course, everyone has said that at any given period in the past. Nevertheless, technically it’s true. Every year is a fresh, new one that might seem familiar, but essentially, is not. Unless all change could be eliminated, we’re necessarily producing new realities every moment that have never existed before.
Parallels with historical times, at best, therefore, reflect only a very rough congruity with an earlier time that certainly did not have the technology, communications, ideas and values of the present. So, sure, these are unprecedented times.
But in important ways, this time it is really unprecedented. There is always change, but the rate of change that we are experiencing these days has never been seen before … and it is accelerating exponentially. That means that if present trends continue, every week or month or year going forward will produce significantly more change than in the previous one. Humans have never experienced this rate of change before.
Let me give you an example. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, in his important book, “The Singularity is Near,” cataloged the rate of technological change in many different dimensions. His bottom-line assessment was that our present century will see 1000 times the technological change as the last century — during which the automobile, airplane, Internet and nuclear wars emerged. Transportation rates went from that limited by the gallop of a horse to chemically propelled space craft that traverse more than 15,000 miles in an hour. And, of course, we visited the moon.
Now, think about what 1000 times that change would be. What kind of a world might show up in 100 years if we lived through a thousand times the change of the 20th century? Well, you can’t reasonably do it. No one can. The implications are so great that you are immediately driven into science fiction land where all of the current “experts” just dismiss you with a wave of a hand.
Try it. With two compounded orders of magnitude change over the period of a century, you could literally find yourself in a place where humans didn’t eat food or drink water (which would eliminate agriculture). They might be able to read minds telepathically and be able to visually read the energetic fields of anyone they looked at — immediately knowing about the past experiences, present feelings, and honesty of statements. Just that, of course, would eliminate all politicians and advertising!
But maybe, as some sources seriously suggest, you could manifest physical things at will — just by focusing your mind. Think of what that would do to the notion of economics as we know it. In this handful of future human characteristics you’d also be able to transport yourself wherever you wanted by thinking yourself there. In that world, no one would know what airplanes were.
You might think that what I’ve just described is farfetched, and if so, then you just made my point. Even though there are credible analysts and observers who seriously propose that the above changes will happen in far less than a century, change of this sort is more than we can reasonably understand and visualize. Just to parse it down to the next decade — 70-80 times the change of the last century — boggles the mind!
Well, it’s my business to think about these things and even I have a hard time visualizing how this all might turn out, just because it is so severe and disruptive, but I can tell you a bit about what a revolution of this magnitude means.
First of all, it means that we are in a transition to a new world — a new paradigm. All of this change has direction and it is leading us to a new world that operates in very different ways.
Secondly, in this kind of shift, things change fundamentally. We’re not talking about adjustments around the edge. The only way to support and sustain this rate of change is if there are extraordinary breakthroughs across almost every sector of human activity.
Already, for example, there are serious efforts afoot to make it possible to control many processes with only your thoughts and the ability to make physical things invisible has made great strides. In a very short time it will be possible to capture, store and search on everything you say in any public (or even private) environment and extract it at will. As this book suggests, unlimited energy and the control of gravity are all in the works.
Thirdly, the tempo accelerates — things change more quickly. The rate of change is increasing so bigger things are coming faster. And as they converge, these extraordinary events and driving forces interact and cause chain reactions, generating unanticipated consequences. There’s a pretty good chance that the inventors of Facebook and Twitter didn’t think they were going to be part of bringing down governments … and it’s certainly clear that most governments didn’t anticipate that this new technology might threaten their ability to govern.
Fourthly, much of the change will therefore be strange and unfamiliar. When very rapid, profound, interconnected forces are all in play at the same time, the unanticipated consequences are likely to move quite quickly into threatening the historical and conventional understanding of how things work. Our situation is exacerbated by the fact that significant cosmic changes are influencing the behavior of the sun and therefore major systems (like the climate) on our planet. These are contextual reorganizations that are so large and unprecedented that the underlying systems — agriculture, economic, government, etc. — will not be able to respond effectively.
Because of that, human systems will have a hard time adapting to the change. Research has shown that civil and social systems (legal, education, government, families, et. al.) reconfigure themselves thousands of times slower than the rate of technological change that we are experiencing.
Therefore, it is inevitable that the old systems will collapse. They will not have the capability to change fast enough, and in some cases (like the global financial system), have structurally run out of the ability to sustain the status quo.
So, lastly, a new paradigm will emerge from all of this upheaval that only seems chaotic because we’re in the middle of it. Something new will arise to fill the vacuum left by the implosion of the legacy systems. If history gives us any indicator of what the new world will be, it is certain that it will be radically different from the world in which we all now find familiar.
In physical terms, there is no more fundamental and basic influence on the way we live and behave than the availability and form of energy that we use. Every aspect of our lives, food, clothing, shelter and transportation . . . and therefore every derivative activity (work, government, recreation, etc.) changes when the affordable source of energy changes. The modern world has been directly enabled by the discovery, development and availability of petroleum, for example. When that era ends, many other ways of doing things will also necessarily end.
Peterson is clearly a Kurzweil Singulitarian and that might not be a bad thing.
But if Charlie Stross’ novel Accelerando is a guide for the 21st Century (and it looks like it is), we’re in for a wild ride!