Peter Durand

A Visionless Future

In Ecology, Sustainability on November 21, 2008 at 2:05 am
Kevin Kelly, a sketch

Kevin Kelly, a sketch

No hiding it: Kevin Kelly is one of my heroes. As a dad, as a writer and as a Christian, Kevin is a tremendous optimist. Which is why I was struck by his recent post, The Missing Near Future, on The Technium, the feederblog for his book-in-progress.

His book Out of Control introduced me to complexity theory, or, more accurately,his essays provided vivid stories that echoed the patterns of emergence I was observing all around me.

For me, a guy who’s job is thinking about “The Future” (I even serve on a team at Vanderbilt called Vision 2020), I feel a nervous recognition of this phenomenon of futureblindness that Kevin sketches out:

The near future – let’s peg it 2020 and beyond — is a blank because there is almost no vision of a near-future that seems both desirable and plausible. Most stories, “worlds,” and scenarios of say the year 2050 are dystopian. Take your pick of nuclear self-annihilation, mortal pandemics, planetary floods, robotic overthrow, alien invasion, or fascist apocalypse. They are all very plausible, but not desirable

The dark future, the neo-fascist, android-riddled dystopias of most science fiction is easy to fret about. But even with the cantilevered hope that hangs over the planet with the pending ascendancy of Prince Obama, there is uniform disquiet as to the future. No knuckle-wringing nemesis seems to be holding the planet hostage more than our collective gluttony and Nick Gatsby fatalism.

Whether pandemic, androids, astroids or zombie vampires, the future looks bleak.

Will Smith's Legend(2007): Whether pandemic, androids, astroids or zombie vampires, the future looks bleak.

But staring into the future, whatever mile-marker we attach to it… 2015, 2020, 2050… we have no focus of what it could be for the all 8 billion participants.

Computer scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, born in 1956, noticed that when he was a child the future was ‘far away’ in the year 2000, but that as he grew older, the future remained rooted to the year 2000, as if newness could not move beyond that boundary. He describes it as feeling as if the future was “shrinking” year by year until in 1999 the future was only one year long. Now that we’ve passed through 2000, the future has effectively disappeared – except for the far far future.

Back during the paranoid Y2K New Year’s Eve of 1999, my girlfriend, sister and I had fled our new homes in major metropolitan cities to watch the countdown to the End of the World as We Know It, safe and sheltered at a country club in a sleepy, Southern, suburban college town.

I figured that at the very least, my step-father had a lot of batteries and hand tools stored in his garage. An added bonus: riots in leafy West Knoxville are rare.

The year 1999 was one of the singular moments in history in which both technologists and religionists were unified in their vision of iminent doom.

Whereas technology’s faithful have grown past Y2K and the Dot.Com Bubble, Kelly notes in The Next 1000 Years of Christianity  that the followers of the dominant faith of Western civilization still have a pretty limited future vision:

Despite the fact that Christianity is two millennia old, and often takes a longer view, it has been myopic when it comes to the future. For the past 2,000 years it has offered only one scenario for the future: the world will end tomorrow. You’d think that after getting it wrong every day for 2,000 years it would come up with at least one alternative scenario.

This current, contemporary culture’s fuzzy future, with its projected no-holds-barred, slow-motion cataclysms driven by our current and future wattage-sucking global warming processes, well,… it calls out for a vision grander than the election poster plosive: “CHANGE!”

And, you know, it needs to be one that we can actually pull off.

Like my hero Kevin, I have a modest request: ” If you have a plausible desirable version of progress I’d like to hear it.”

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