Our Blind Spot on the Future

We can all see how the pace of life is speeding up. Technological breakthroughs spread through society in years rather than centuries. Calculations that would have taken decades are now made in minutes. Communication that used to take months happens in seconds.

And we feel it in our own lives. Remember when you used to write a letter, stick a stamp on it, mail it, and then be OK waiting several days for a reply. Now we email or text and expect to hear back within hours or minutes. There seems to be more and more things to take care of, more and more information to absorb, more and more technologies to adapt to, more and more time spent on line, and less time to do it all in.

But this accelerating pace of change isn’t new. Throughout the history of life on Earth development has been compressed into shorter and shorter times.

Imagine the 4.5 billion years of our planet’s history compressed into just one year.

Simple cells first appear in March.

But multicellular life doesn’t evolve until early September.

The first mammals appear on Christmas Day

But human beings don’t arrive until a quarter of an hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve.

In the last twenty seconds, the first civilizations.

The Renaissance, four seconds from the end.

Moon walks, the Internet, global warming—all in the last quarter second.

So where’s it all going? What is going to happen in the next fraction of a second?

One thing’s certain, development will continue to be compressed into shorter and shorter times.

You’ve probably heard of Moore’s law in computing which shows how computer power keeps doubling every eighteen months. On this basis,, sometime in the 2030s there will be computers whose performance surpasses that of the human brain. These super-intelligent machines could then be used to design even more intelligent computers. And do so even faster. Leading to a further explosion in acceleration. Within decades, rates of change would be astronomical. In the century beyond that, unimaginable. The curve would be off the charts. It would be both way beyond our comprehension—and way beyond any feasible reality.

But when we come to look at our long-term future, ever-accelerating rates of change present us with a major contradiction. On the one hand, there’s every reason to suppose the rate of change will keep increasing. On the other hand, when we imagine a long-term future for humanity, we unconsciously assume that rates of change will be relatively static.

Take the TV series Star Trek for example, set several hundred years from now. Technology on the Enterprise, and that back at Federation headquarters, doesn’t seem to change much over time. But how could that be? There is every reason to suppose that science and technology would still be developing fast. Indeed, given the exponential nature of development, the pace of change would have become unimaginably rapid long before the Enterprise was launched—and even more rapid in the following years.

The same is true with just about every other long-term vision of humanity’s future. They are not set within the context of accelerating change. In most cases, any development there might be is imagined as linear and slow—more appropriate to pre-industrial times.

This is our bind spot on the future. Accelerating change is inherently incompatible with a long-term future.

But anyone who contemplates the future of humanity hundreds of years ahead must first explain how the acceleration of development—which has been going on since the dawn of life—will suddenly come to an end. How does exponential change transform into slow linear development?

And we’re not just talking about technological or material development, but cultural, social and mental development. It would mean human innovation and creativity slowing to almost nothing.

If the rate of change continues to accelerate—and there is every reason to suppose it will—or even if it should steady up and remain at today’s dizzying pace—we have to radically reconsider our ideas about where we are headed.

It calls for an entirely new paradigm of the future. And of the role of humanity in the cosmos.

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For a more detailed exploration of the implications see: Blind Spot

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