[This short blog is an entrée to Chapter 5: “Technotopian or human-centred futures?” in my new Oxford book The Future: A Very Short Introduction.]
One of Australia’s sandstone universities has a new billboard picturing a robotic arm holding a small piece of origami. It reads: “Robots with a Human Touch” depicting a critical tension within the global conversation about human futures.
Technological optimism reigned throughout the 20th century. Paradoxically, committed techno-utopians such as physicist Stephen Hawking, philosopher Nick Bostrom and billionaire Elon Musk, have recently warned of the serious existential threats to humanity posed by artificial super-intelligence (ASI).
And even though some futurists are bedazzled by high-tech utopias, many others are focused on the social, cultural and environmental impacts of rapid change and the dehumanising effects of exponential technological disruption.
Two potential directions for humanity have contrasting values and images of what it means to be human: ‘human-centred futures’ and ‘techno-dreaming’.
Let’s consider where this contest for the control of human futures began.
A quick detour into the history of ideas leads to a crucial starting point in the mid-18th century when La Mettrie published his L’Homme Machine (below left). Building on Descartes’ mind-body split and Newton’s mechanical physics, La Mettrie’s view merged seamlessly with the dehumanising influence of the British Industrial Revolution. Casting a long shadow into the future La Mettrie influenced B.F. Skinner’s behaviourist psychology (below right) and cybernetic models of consciousness, sowing seeds for the techno-dreaming of transhumanists today.
In contrast, German idealists and romantics including Hegel, Schelling, Goethe and Novalis developed concepts such as evolution of consciousness and conscious evolution, well before Darwinian biological evolution. They foreshadowed the human potential and positive psychology movements and created a universal education system to develop the whole person (Bildung). Their spiritual-evolutionary humanism laid foundations for the consciously human-centred futures approach today.
Techno-dreaming requires a mechanistic model of the human being and a thin cybernetic view of intelligence. Transhumanism today involves technological, biological, and genetic manipulation of humans. Ambitious transhumanists, such as Kurzweil, believe that human functioning can be technologically enhanced exponentially, until the eventual convergence of human and machine into the ‘singularity’ or ‘posthuman’. The singularity refers to an artificial super-intelligence (ASI) greater than human intelligence. ‘Posthumanism’ refers to a hybrid species called cyborg, as seen in The Matrix. It is hard not to see such ambition as anti-human and anti-evolutionary. Extreme transhumanists harbour transcendental dreams of techno-heaven on Mars and satellite cities in space.
Ironically, Julian Huxley’s transhumanism (1957) was not technological, but humanistic, inspired by Teilhard de Chardin’s spiritually evolved ‘ultra-human’.
Human-centred futures arise from a view of humans as consciously-evolving, autonomous agents of change, responsible for the ecological balance between humans, earth, and cosmos. Such futures involve commitment to psychological, socio-cultural and spiritual development, and to the betterment of earthly conditions for all humanity. Expressions are found in wise education, cultural diversity, greater economic and resource parity, and respect for future generations. Aspirations towards kindness, fairness and peacefulness are more highly valued than exponentially increasing computational skill. Human-centred futures are inclined to be humanitarian, philosophical, and ecological.
But what is at the heart of the tension between the approaches?
Techno-transhumanists claim that superhuman powers can only be reached through techno-, bio-, or genetic means. However, findings from evolution of consciousness, cultural history, adult developmental psychology and studies of supernormal human experiences debunk this claim.
Cultural evolutionists point to emerging integral, ecological and more self-reflective cultural development. Adult developmental psychology research over five decades demonstrates that mature, high-functioning adults are capable of more complex reasoning than formerly believed—postformal reasoning. Research on the future of the body by Michael Murphy, Esalen Institute Founder, includes 10,000 studies of individual humans, throughout history, who have demonstrated supernormal experiences.
The human sciences research shows that we are already capable of far greater powers of mind, body, emotion and spirit than we ever imagined. Moreover, Marshall McLuhan famously warned us that every media extension of man is an amputation. Is it possible that techno- and bio-enhancement of our faculties will lead to arrested development in the natural evolution of higher human faculties?
Will we choose to consciously evolve our humanity or arrest our development on a wave of techno-dreaming? The choice we make will decide the future of the earth in its dual role as home for humans, and habitat for life in general.
For a deeper understanding of these issue of human-centred and techno-centred future, see Chapter 5 of my new book The Future: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press) Released 23rd March 2017.
*This article was first published in the December 2016 edition of The New Philosopher, Issue 15: The Future of Humanity.
My new book The Future: A Very Short Introduction with Oxford University Press is due for release on 23rd March 2017 in the UK.
Now available to purchase at OUP
‘Gidley has given us a stunning description of the new field of futures studies and of how we humans can help choose, and shape, the coming future.’
Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Wendell Bell, Yale University
About the Book
Abstract: Humans have always been driven by both a fear of the unknown and a curiosity to know. They have prophesied, foretold, predicted, and tried to control the future. The Future: A Very Short Introduction considers some of our most burning questions: What is ‘the future’? Is there only one future or are there many possible futures? It introduces the exciting field of future studies, spanning social, cultural, and environmental innovations, as well as technological advances. It asks if the future can ever be truly predicted or if we create our own futures by our thoughts, feelings, and actions. The book concludes by exploring the grand global futures challenges.
TABLE OF CONTENTS with Abstracts
List of Illustrations
Abstract: The Introduction highlights some of the tensions one might expect when reading about the future, most notably between scientific prediction and ungrounded speculation. It discusses the many ways to name the study of the future, whether the future is a time or a place, and the quest to tame time through clocks and calendars. It steers a course between Malthusian doomsday catastrophes and the panorama of Cornucopian techno-optimism. While we may feel we are locked into a worrying future that we cannot escape from, learning about different ways to think about the future gives us more choice and empowers us to create alternative futures from the myriad possibilities out there.
Chapter 1: Three thousand years of futures
Abstract: By understanding how humans in the past have framed the future, we can gain a deeper appreciation of the significance of futures thinking. ‘Three thousand years of futures’ explores the history of time consciousness, beginning with prophets in Judaeo-Christian and Persian cultures, the sibyls of ancient Greece, and Plato’s utopian vision. It then considers the Renaissance period, which represented a revolution in thinking and culture that pointed to a radically different future, and the 18th-century European Enlightenment. The dark side of progress—as portrayed by Malthus—is discussed along with Cornucopianism, which emerged in response. Finally, the effects of the two world wars on states’ future planning is considered.
Chapter 2: The future multiplied
Abstract: What if there is not one future that can be colonized and controlled, but many possible futures that can be imagined, designed, and created collaboratively? In everyday language we speak of a singular future, which has both conceptual and political implications. ‘The future multiplied’ outlines early future research—influenced by scientific positivism—with its predictive-empirical approach. then discusses pluralism in the social sciences and the shift to multiple futures thinking. Pluralizing the future opens it up for envisioning and creating alternative futures to the status quo. The chapter concludes with a variety of methods used in multiple futures research approaches, including the four-step Swinburne methodology used in strategic foresight applications.
Chapter 3: The evolving scholarship of futures studies
Abstract: Many futurists over the years came to the realization that attempting to predict the future, based on scientific positivism, was not the most productive way to approach futures studies in our complex world. ‘The evolving scholarship of futures studies’ describes four different futures approaches that have followed on from the positivist predictive-empirical future: critical futures, cultural futures, participatory futures, and integral futures. Over the last five decades futures scholars have developed new language, concepts, and methods to articulate the breadth and depth of the futures studies field and have made important contributions to advancing our ideas about the complex relationship between time consciousness and futures.
Chapter 4: Crystal balls, flying cars, and robots
Abstract: In spite of the substantial body of futures literature with its conceptual and methodological innovation and engagement with real world issues, misconceptions abound in academic, professional, and policy circles. The term ‘future’ is increasingly used in these circles without reference to the published futures studies material. ‘Crystal balls, flying cars, and robots’ considers general misunderstandings and the trivialization of futures research by the media. Futurists are not crystal ball gazers; they are not all involved in high-technology, flying machines, space-technology, and science fiction; and future studies is not dominantly involved with robotics, drones, and artificial intelligence. The concepts of transhumanism, posthumanism, and dehumanization are also discussed.
Chapter 5: Technotopian or human-centred futures?
Abstract: A vital question with regard to the future is how we deal with human futures. While high-tech futures are of interest to some futurists, many futures scholars are focused on the potential social, cultural, and environmental impacts of rapid unprecedented change, including exponential technological developments. ‘Technotopian or human-centred futures?’ describes two contrasting approaches to human futures and their inherent values and ethics: ‘human-centred futures’, which is humanitarian, philosophical, and ecological; and ‘technotopian futures’, which is dehumanizing, scientistic, and atomistic. It also considers the history of the struggle between these two approaches, which has been waged since at least the European Enlightenment, and still challenges us today.
Chapter 6: Grand global futures challenges
Abstract: The challenges we face for near and long-term futures have been called a crisis of crises. ‘Grand global futures challenges’ synthesizes these complex and interconnected major global futures challenges into twelve clusters of issues across three domains: environmental, geo-political, and socio-cultural. The first mind-map includes current trends likely to create major problems for futures of humanity. The second includes counter-trends, twists, and surprises. These alternative futures have potential to mitigate, disrupt, or reverse the dominant trends and enable others to imagine and create alternatives to the disturbing trends being forecast. Finally, the focus is on three Grand Global Challenges: growing urbanization, lack of (or inadequate) education, and the climate crisis.
Abstract: Futures studies is the art and science of taking responsibility for the long-term consequences of our decisions and our actions today. The Conclusion proposes that once we know there is not one predictable future, we are freer to imagine alternative futures and work towards creating the futures we prefer—for self and humanity. The grand global challenges faced by humanity may seem insurmountable, but the sense of fear and hopelessness often comes from not knowing enough. By working collaboratively for positive change, whether in the area of climate change, alternative energy, humanitarian causes, health, economics, or transforming education, we can create a critical mass for creating positive futures.
Appendix: Global Futures Timeline
Further Reading and Websites