Those who know what is best for us are now concerned with our health or environment rather than soul. It appears even zealotry and fundamentalism have evolved with the times. But are these the only dangers we face or could something else sentence us to an impoverished existence. Might we yet turn back the clock to a time when life was short and brutish? Will people in a few hundreds years look back at our time as one of deprivation or plenty. Are we in the west at a peak where we can but hope to maintain our existing standard of living or can yet more progress be made? If the neoludites are listened to then clearly it is downhill all the way from here. But at least the consumerist machine will not be eating our future or depriving us of a spiritual dimension to life.
The neoludites are like those who back at the turn of the century wanted to close the London patent office because everything worth inventing had already been invented. Whatever your views of automobiles, medicine, computers and color televisions you probably recognize that we have profited from their development. It’s splendid to be able to access the thoughts and ideas of the greatest thinkers the world has known, just by pressing buttons on a PC. Going back to a time when they were no longer freely available is not something to be relished. The quantum increase in the availability of information that the technological revolution represents will no doubt have a significant impact upon our way of life. But changes to our social organizations resulting from technological change are only one aspect of progress.
Another aspect of progress is the impact of changes in technology on our health. It is easy to conjure up possible visions of our society at some distant point in the future, if scientific development continues. On the public health front we will have invented cures to the current crop of diseases. People could have ready access to replacement limbs and body parts, produced by micro machines. Already we are able to move individual atoms around to create simple machines. Nanotechnology holds incredible promise. Nanomachines could create new substances or move around our body repairing damage caused by the hand of time. If this is a bit too mechanistic for your taste then biotechnology may have come to the rescue. Plants could have been genetically engineered to grow the body part we need. Artificial ears have already been grown on a mouse’s back. The potential results of more development are breathtaking. If you are worried about the brain wearing out, rather than the body, then this too will no doubt be getting repaired or replaced. It is not even worth hazarding a guess at potential life expectancy. I suspect it will be as long as a person wants and can afford. Economics will still play a part, but even the most impoverished will be far better off than anyone today.
As for the impossibility of supporting the number of people an almost unlimited life expectancy will give rise to, there is little reason to worry. New sources of food will be developed and there will be enough space for everyone. Most of the world is covered in water and people could live on or under this. The first floating community is already being commissioned. If this does not come into being, then another will at some later point. Some might prefer to live under the ocean, or in high rise apartments rather than in spread out suburbs. The colonization of other planets may occur, raising the possibility of people looking back sympathetically at our time and thinking how dreadful it would be to spend ones entire life restricted to one planet. As unpleasant an idea to them, as the thought of someone today knowing nothing of life outside the immediate confines of their village, is to us. A fate which was normal for someone born not that long ago. The possibilities that result from continued progress are almost limitless and it appears likely that some of today’s science fiction will be tomorrow’s science fact.
Extrapolating progress since the industrial revolution into the future leads to almost limitless possibilities. The social and material progress of the last hundred years was generally not foreseen. Futurology is fraught with danger; developments will almost certainly take some unpredictable path. Quantum computers and some of their more interesting properties are already being discussed. The New Scientist has run several stories including one by Michael Brookes which suggested quantum computers will give you the answer just by being there, without even having to be switched on! And that “with near certainty a quantum computer could verify that a number is prime without ever doing any computation”. These capabilities are natural extensions of effects observed to take place at the very small or quantum level, where causes, which do not actually happen, can still produce effects. The portrayal of a society able to harness quantum effects in the macro world would never get to print. It would be too bizarre.
Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war or alien invasion could all throw out the above rosy predictions and result in life taking a turn for the worse. Doom laden futures are the normal picture of tomorrow that young people hold and are even used as the background for Hollywood movies. Pessimism is a natural consequence of growing up while being subjected to the pleadings of activists of various hues, desperate for more resources for their pet cause. The more immediate and worse a vision they paint, the better their chance of being given more resources to prevent it coming into being. With this incentive there is no shortage of impending disasters that the government has to do something about. It does not really matter what, just as long as it involves taking your money and giving it to activists interested in the area. Activists then metamorphosis into experts and become the best source of advice on the issue. The experts invariably find out how dire the situation is and publicize the problem. Publicity is necessary to solve the problem and this invariably entails increasing the level of concern in the community. This depresses some, worries others and ensures continued funding and interest in the area.
Continued funding is essential to continue the fight. For while some battles are won, the war never is. Every step forward is a potential step back and one that will be taken if the publicly funded experts do not keep us vigilant. Victories in battles take many forms and not necessarily just holding international conferences and setting voluntary or involuntary targets. Sometimes victories occur despite the strong incentives created for continued battle.
The impending ice age is no longer a credible threat. We can but hope that experts in this area were able to migrate to the blossoming field of global warming. The general public has certainly transferred their concerns. Public health campaigns have eradicated small pox and in the west polio and a host of other complaints. Does this mean the battle is over? Naturally not. Other horrors have risen to take their place. Now its breast or prostate cancer we all have to be afraid of. When science cures them some other complaint will arise in their place. Activists will always have causes, just as long as people, animals, plants and even inanimate objects continue to wear out, get depressed, sick or die. Don’t expect the neoludites and their kin to stop preying on peoples concerns. Not as long as doing so helps them get their government fix.
Everything that lives eventually dies. This is a truism of “life” on earth and always has been. Not for nothing does Shakespeare say the gravedigger started digging from the moment Hamlet was born. Why then are we getting more concerned and pessimistic about the future. Is it just a consequence of activists needing to beat up their particular concern in order to get funding. Could it be the normal story of government intervention causing more problems than it solves? Or in this time of unprecedented plenty and good health could there actually be a sensible reason for people to become increasingly frightened about their future. Perhaps it is because they now have so much more to loose. Now life is long and pleasant, its future loss weighs so much more on peoples minds. The latter explanation would at least explain why so many want to impoverish us all by sabotaging our capitalistic society. But could this be a case of the cure being worse than the disease.