Future Schlock

November 16, 2007

Look at the headlines on any given day, and it’s possible to make a convincing case that yes, we’re on the cusp of some major seismic shift in world history. There’s the clash of civilizations, the culture wars, the battle for the climate, and the war on this/that/the other. Spengler’s thesis, to the extent that I understand it so far, which is only halfway through an abridged version of his seminal work, is that great cultures go through a nearly deterministic arc from youth to dotage. This process of maturation, culminating in eventual death, is reflected in the form-language of the culture (form-language has the curious sound of a portmanteau forced by translation from the original German).

This language, made manifest in the art produced, evolves over time and so it’s incorrect to artificially separate architecture, for example, into distinct linear periods. Architecture, according to Spengler, represents a continuum of development. In the differences between an early church and a Gothic cathedral, the historian can trace the changes between a culture in the springtime of tentative youth and the self-assured autumn of late middle-age.

Frankly, I don’t know enough about architecture to know whether he’s full of it. I’m inclined to believe he is not, but I also know that making vague predictions in the far future is a fairly safe occupation, especially if the news is generally on the bad side. In any event, his theory of history as a study of an organic whole rather than a series of discrete events is interesting, as are his theories of rising/falling civilizations. It’s not much of a stretch to think that things are on the brink of something…but aren’t they usually? Couldn’t it be schematically boiled down to:

“Something is about to happen. Maybe not today, but tomorrow – and then, everything will start being different.”

Well, duh.  Now if something happen, my future disciples will say that I was right, and if nothing bad happens soon, the naysayers need only be told that we haven’t waited long enough. Bonus points if I point to a ‘general state of flux that will last midway into the next century’.

And as long as I’m engaged a free-form essay about, er, the future, let me go on record as believing that the bright-and-shiny transhumanist future with a Singularity and all the rest of that Vernor Vinge/Ray Kurzweil nonsense is an unrealistic fever-dream after a Star Trek wank-a-thon. There, I said it. When we can build bug-free spreadsheets, I’ll start worrying about machines taking over our neo-Tokyo future. In meanwhile, peruse the RISKS digest if you need any further evidence. Save my entire consciousness to a hard drive and carry it around? Sounds lovely, but no thanks.

I’m not worried about computers approaching (or surpassing) the functioning power of a human brain. In the first place, the human brain != CPU, so I think that the analogies are specious at best. In the second place, the blue-skying of the future sounds a lot like the wistful daydreams of a generation that is about to move into retirement age and the Great Beyond that follows. We’ll live forever as electronic patterns and transcend all limits imposed by this sub-par meat bag we have to inhabit. Gnosticism never really goes out of style – it just rebrands itself.

Mind you, I say this as someone who has spent the better part of his life working with technology. I know what it can do, and I know what it’s supposed to do, but I also know how often people (and organizations) tend to fetishize it for its own sake. Then the technology doesn’t look so good, and we can’t figure out where we’ve gone wrong. The solution must be better technology. Rinse, repeat.

As it happens, I think the future is a little more accurately described by Josh Ellis’ “Grim Meathook Future“, which I ought to warn you is not necessarily family-friendly reading. This is a miniature version – the longer, later edition of the essay has been unfortunately lost.

I guess I’m done for now. I’ll probably come back and tweak this, so don’t go nuts if it changes. Don’t get the wrong idea, by the way, about Spengler. I’m still reading and enjoying it, and I will have to reckon with his thesis after I’ve finished it.

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