Growing up, my mother seemed to worry about everything. What we ate, how we exercised, school grades, future employability, crossing the street. Trees creaking in a storm, us climbing trees and rocks, my father's driving, the least speck of dust in the house, all seemed to her signs of impending disaster. Perhaps it was in reaction that I acquired such a worry-free attitude about life in general, and in particular about the future. To me just about every step to the future seems a wonderful bright beacon to a better purer world, where human beings are fully valued for what they can really contribute, where drudgery is gone, abuse of other humans and the natural world are a thing of the past, all are enlightened and wise...
Now, I don't consider myself a techno-utopian like Ray Kurzweil. I've critiqued his hyper-optimism elsewhere - if Kurzweil is doubly-exponentially optimistic about the future, I'd limit myself to a single exponential, or even (as I think we eventually must) a power law. But I still think overall the future has to be, on net, more positive than negative. Maybe it's just in my nature.
Andy Revkin has a nice interview with optimistic "World-Changer" Alex Steffen, whose latest book "Worldchanging 2.0" (an expanded edition of the first version, of which I have a quite inspirational copy) was just released. As I've noted here before, Steffen's optimistic view of the future is one I largely share, despite much evidence that our present world has some very serious troubles, now and ahead of us.
Kent Anderson delves into the natural ludditism that's at the center of much antagonism to progress - it's an issue of those in power fearing their loss of power, loss of control:
The anachronists who wish to return to things like "deep contemplation," "classic texts," and the like seem to hearken back to a centralized information economy, one which had some virtues, but virtues that were not justified by the expense created in innovation, personal liberty, self definition, diversity, or choice.
Every change, every motion to the future is a threat to those who have vested significant effort, and have acquired what power and influence they have, in the context of the soon-to-be-obsolete.
David Roberts interestingly articulates some of the present obstacles to a bright future in this recent article - starting from "Climategate", but treating that as an exemplar of a pervasive trend in conservative thought and practice:
U.S. politics now contains a large, well-funded, tightly networked, and highly amplified tribe that defines itself through rejection of "lamestream" truth claims and standards of evidence. How should our political culture relate to that tribe?
We haven't figured it out.
I face obstacles to progress of some sort both indirectly and personally almost daily, and it seems funny to me how easily I forget them. My mind somehow thinks that the "now" I experience is one where all those troubles are behind us, because I know eventually they will be. My nature, resonating with my religious convictions, recognizes the goodness in all people, accentuates the positive and quickly forgets the bad. But there are real frustrations. Why do my children still carry heavy textbooks around in this day and age? Why do I have to drive a car all over the place when almost everything I do could be done from home over the internet, with telepresence and all that? Why do we have to keep going to stores to get the stuff we need for daily life, shouldn't it just come to us somehow? Why can't obviously useful standards be settled on quickly and adopted universally, to make everybody's lives easier? Half my work life seems to be spent these days in trying to link up bits of data that should by rights be hard-wired together from their birth, if only everybody used consistent standards. It can get pretty frustrating...
Perhaps a part of this is that I'm really still a mathematician at heart, more than the physicist I later became. From the joke archives:
A physicist, an engineer and a mathematician were all in a hotel sleeping when a fire broke out in their respective rooms.
The physicist woke up, saw the fire, ran over to her desk, pulled out her CRC, and began working out all sorts of fluid dynamics equations. After a couple minutes, she threw down her pencil, got a graduated cylinder out of her suitcase, and measured out a precise amount of water. She threw it on the fire, extinguishing it, with not a drop wasted, and went back to sleep.
The engineer woke up, saw the fire, ran into the bathroom, turned on the faucets full-blast, flooding out the entire apartment, which put out the fire, and went back to sleep.
The mathematician woke up, saw the fire, ran over to his desk, began working through theorems, lemmas, hypotheses , you-name-it, and after a few minutes, put down his pencil triumphantly and exclaimed, "I have *proven* that I *can* put the fire out!" He then went back to sleep.
If I know something is technically possible, my gut seems to think, ok, we've got it done, and I go back to sleep. Then I wake up the next day and wonder where it is. Why didn't we just do it already? What's the hang-up? In a separate interview, Alex Steffen neatly expresses my frustration:
What’s possible is moving really quickly, but what is reality is still largely unchanged.
In some areas, the future does seem to come quickly (iPad 2!) - though even then not everybody seems to have one yet. What are you guys waiting for?
The lesson I'm slowly learning is that technical feasibility is really just the first step. Next comes economics - there is a limited quantity of capital available (though with modern-day finanical wizardry I'm wondering how limited that really is) and any new technology initially costs more than what it's replacing (even if it is better). Eventually it should be cheaper - at least when all costs are properly considered. But even then there's a sunk-cost effect that makes the transition much slower than I seem to expect.
But some things that are economically possible and would be good still don't happen - there's a third obstacle in reality: the political. Entrenched power is naturally conservative because change is always a threat. To the degree old money has influence, it will prevent whatever change it can. The future will overcome the political - eventually change is inevitable. But the political may delay things by decades.
I just wish I could forget those economic and political issues. I want my solar power satellties and vacuum maglev trains ASAP. Let's get them done already!!