In our turbulent times, it might be difficult to see in what direction history is taking us. What are the long term trends? What will last? How will the world or mankind look like a (few) generation(s) from now? History gave us some clues. History was not a steady stream of changes, driven by natural events or selfish genes. It was a vast stream with many wild swirls, thundering whirlpools and eddies pushing many events in the wrong direction. But overall progress was made not only physically but also in our psychological, social and spiritual wellbeing. Some caught in a wrong eddy might have a different opinion, but as eddies, negative developments have limited lives. Eventually the push for progress will prevail. “Survival of the fittest” . . . and the fittest ideas.
Let’s look at some of the different currents.
( . . . and what other options do we have other than being optimists and believing in progress?)
1- Human beings
Our average age has increased dramatically. We are getting taller. Better fed and cared for babies. “Abnormalities” recognized and aborted during pregnancies. Our average health improved. Although many diseases are more common, they are much more manageable . . . HIV no more life threatening. For the unlucky ones, prostheses are improving from rudimentary crutches to sophisticated limbs, from a heavy iron fist to delicate hands that can handle raw eggs.
And we are at the verge of dramatic steps in gene therapies, bionics, and artificial intelligence:
- Genetics. We can modifying genes to eliminate hereditary diseases. We will be able to build in immunities and enhance whatever we think needs enhancements, designer babies, DNA printers . . . We are even tinkering with DNA itself. Today it consists of only 4 building blocks, cytosine (C), guanine (G), adenine (A), or thymine (T), limiting the combinations of what “biology” can produce. Theoretically, alternative chemistries are possible with different nucleobases or with different combinations. Also, the deployment can be influenced in different ways. If we want to survive on Mars, a lot of modifications will be necessary to cope with the environment and the radiation.
- Bionics. Many are external, substituting missing or limited limbs and senses, eliminating biological limitations. Propulsion: from stilts, wheeled contraptions up to space rockets. Communication: from trumpets, megaphones, radios up to the most sophisticated omnipresent smartphones. Spatial orientation: from milestones, compasses up to built in GPS. Muscle power, digestion, vision . . . Some are internal as pace-makers, hearing aids (some are so good that healthy people might want to implant them, too, to adjust volume, focus on specific sounds and eliminate noise or benefit from the built-in phone.)
- Artificial intelligence. Intelligence is a multitude of cerebral skills, memory, recognition of patterns, different ways of thinking and emotional coloring, creating . . . Many of these skills can be enhanced with external devices getting more powerful and complex by the day. For memory, calculating skills, handling big data . . . we have completely surrendered to computers already. New “gadgets” are introduced continuously; we are no more surprised about driverless cars, automatic translation, speaking robots . . . more just around the corner. The last frontiers such as “consciousness” are being taken on. We can transplant mice heads already . . . yes, human heads are still too big and complex. Eventually, virtual duplicates of ourselves might be beamed into the universe.
The foundation of knowledge has moved from beliefs based on the absolute authority of revelations towards observational facts and reasoned truths, where possible based on “double blind experiments”. Truths become just an assumption “for the time being”. Science asks everybody to please prove that its “truth” does not fully explain the facts, or to please come up with a more elegant explanation. Validity is relative, only within defined borders. Some “dogmas”, though, remain tenacious, especially when they are dipped in a sauce of religion or nationalism.
- Technology. Products evolve into artifacts providing more functions and needing less material. The ideal final results will do almost everything with almost nothing (Altshuller). Watch what your phone can do and how it got smaller (including all cabling and switching panels), your car . . . , even clothing . . .
- Science. From interpreting and expanding the revealed to the pure empirical inquiry by observations, experiments, deductions, modeling. Its field expanding to the infinite small, to the infinite large, and the infinite fast.
- Economy. Hunting & gathering. The agricultural revolution or husbandry as “automatic” hunting and fields as “automatic” gathering. The industrial revolution with extensive “automated” craftsmen and extensive “machined” agriculture. The digital revolution leading to “automatic” production and services. The knowledge revolution coming with “automatic” thinking. The future with a foundation of automated farming, automated manufacturing, automated services with on top many hobby farmers, hobby craftsmen, hobby white collar workers, and artists in a peer to peer economy.
- Philosophy. Difficult, Buddha, Confucius, Laozi and Plato, Socrates, Zeno, Jesus, Seneca . . . they all lived so long ago. But maybe the concept of “happiness” and the understanding of “utility” are deepening and expanding. The conversion of the Western hardware approach, humans as individual machines and the Eastern software approach, humans as spiritual connected in the “cloud”. A happy and healthy family, creative and fulfilling ways to enjoy, deep friendships, contributions to society emotionally rewarding, athletic, artistic and intellectual skills . . . a mystical awareness with the absence of dukkha, “suffering or unsatisfactoriness”. Need Edgar’s help here.
- Religion. Belief in a multitude of good and evil spirits in the nature around us and of our ancestors. A multitude of more potent active and passive gods. A One all-powerful humanlike God revealed through prophets and holy people. Ultimately a more abstract God, justified by reason. The domain of religion expanding, too, encompassing the supernatural, spiritualty, live rituals, the root explanation for everything, incitement for moral behavior, consolation in hardships, inspiration for a better life . . .
3- Social Coherence.
Society first organized around families and clans. A break through with larger associations of clans requiring patriarchs, evolving in empires and theocracies with owner/slave relationships, then feudal systems with kings, nobles and servants. The next big step with the rise of State Generals representing the 3 estates of the aristocrats, priests, and commons, as foreboding of crude democracy. Eventually, the age of enlightenment first with a narrow participation in the democratic processes, no women, no illiterates, no poor involved, followed by an increasing representation with increasing checks and balances.
The democratic horizon evolved from small clans over clan clusters, states, state clusters, eventually giving birth to the UN. Globalization with multinationals and markets with one international scope.
The binding force from family ties, over ownership of land, communality in language, culture and religion, around economic unities, up to shared responding to global conglomerates and challenges.
Human rights first for the wealthy white man only, then for all man, later also for women, believers in other (and no?) religions, LGTBs, the disabled and less fortunate ones. Animal rights (?) The norm expanded from a few developed nations into the international norm.
The stream, the direction is clear but wild eddies are very common too. Why do these backlashes happen, and why are some happening now:
Why do they happen?
Civilization is just a very thin veneer, our genes developed over millions of years are still very present. Reason and feelings fighting. Many of our deep beliefs are out of date, we inherit them from our parents. They can be very potent, especially if they get dressed with a religious or nationalistic sauce. Education is bound to fall behind, we learn the values of the previous generations. The fight between tradition and progress.
Why are some backlashes happening now?
We live in an “unfrozen situation” caused by a fast changing world going through dramatic transitions. A fast shrinking word with globalization, global warming, and smaller and smaller mono-cultures. With an unfinished shift from a manufacturing economy into a service economy, we are preparing already for the next shift into a hobby and knowledge economy.
Two good old principals, easy to understand and thus promoted by populists:
- The strict nation state surrounded by physical walls and walls of tariffs.
- Belief in our purity and that the “others” cause the problems.
And personal “viewpoints” of those in charge matter, too, e.g.:
- Trump’s viewpoint as a real estate manager is old fashioned. Real estate was based on land, always limited; it can be divided but not created (except for the Dutch who created half their land themselves). It is basically a zero sum world, an easy concept.
- Duterte’s viewpoint as a mayor is that a lot is outside his control and will need tricky methods to eliminate the problem.
- Xi Jinping comes from the Land in Middle, seeing the rest of the world as its outskirts to be used by the main land when opportune. We need a sea as buffer during conflicts to keep off any potential enemies.
What can we do?
The options are limited . . .
- Wait it out, it will all come out good.
- Close our eyes and pray.
- Help to speed up the change, any change, by being active in the stream of history. Be active on the political front or on the technology/science/economy/philosophy/religious fronts. Stay active communicating on this blog. All influences everything, it influences the “Zeitgeist”. Progress in one area will influence progress in other areas.