The Social Will to Accelerate

April 09 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Culture   Year: General   Rating: 15 Hot

Exponential technology and information are poised to transform the world, but can the human species muster the social will to let that happen?

To date we’ve created amazingly fuel-efficient cars, robust water purifiers, revolutionary stem cell -based therapies, and better, cheaper light bulbs, all of which have met with great social and political resistance, greatly slowing the pace of their spread. This has caused many to scratch their heads in confusion, others to curse up at the sky, and some to chuckle at the naivete of their fellow meme-monkeys.

Take for example Dean Kamen, the Edison of our time who invented compact kidney dialysis, the Segway human transporter and most recently a water purifier that could save upwards of 5 million lives in under-developed nations if widely deployed. Kamen’s innovations have repeatedly encountered social barriers, causing him to proclaim that creating new technology is the easy part.

“I’m disappointed with every project I ever do. Because you work on something for years that you think should take hours. You finally get it done and you think, ‘Now the world’s going to be a better place,’ expressed Kamen in a recent Newsweek article, “Then you find out that as fast as technology moves, people move at the same slow, cautious pace they always did. If anything, people have gotten more cautious, more afraid of change, more skeptical, more cynical.”

Sloth-like technology diffusion is nothing new. The late great Everett Rogers taught us that all technologies except for Interactive Communication Technologies (ICTs) spread at an amazingly slow rate due to cultural barriers. Seasoned futurists all point out a consistent bias in favor of overly ambitious predictions and sternly warn their fellow prognosticators to avoid similar mistakes. And now Kamen has joined the ranks of those with enough experience to back up the notion. (cont.)

Jamais Cascio at Open the Future is one of the seasoned futurists that has seen enough. In an excellent article about the future of resources he explains why it’s difficult to get the masses to rally around sensical new products:

“Often, the issue really isn’t technology, but expense and willingness to change. Driving the cost of alternatives down to make them competitive with the depleting resource can be difficult; even more difficult can be getting people to accept a substitution service that isn’t exactly like the old one (even if it’s objectively ‘better’). Cultured meat would be far and away better than today’s meat processing industry – environmentally, ethically, health-wise – but, even if the product looked, tasted and felt just like ‘real’ meat, a substantial number of people would likely avoid it simply because it was ‘weird.’”

Still, while Cascio, Kamen, Rogers and the wide world of futurists are indisputably correct about the pace of technology spread to date, one has to wonder whether this fundamental social barrier to diffusion is about to give way to force of widespread, rampant innovation. As we enter the “knee” of the exponential curves that drive society and economy, the doubling rate of technology and information growth is due to shrink to less than 20 years, making it faster than the time it takes to raise one human generation (22 years). For this to occur, the rate of new paradigms and domain convergence must continue to accelerate.

Positive futurist and regular future blogger Dick Pelletier believes there’s a good chance that acceleration will continue unabated by human interference. Responding to an article comment that points out the slowness of diffusion, Pelletier points to virtual experimentation and artificial intelligence as breakthroughs that could speed the pace of invention and production:

“Much of Kurzweil and Freitas’ enthusiasm for this “magical future” stems from exponential advances expected in future technologies. This includes factoring in such things as the development of quantum computer and artificial intelligence technologies that will enable simulations to replace traditional clinical trials. This will allow new drugs to be found safe and brought to market in days or weeks, instead of years.”

He concludes that, “We cannot base how fast the future will unfold by comparing it with how the past has progressed, or how slow our present technologies seem to advance. The future will rush forward at much more aggressive speeds.”

While it’s always risky to say that “this time it will truly be different” it does look as though we’re about to enter a period in which linear thinking and traditional barriers to diffusion finally cave into the tide of change. In addition to AI and remarkably fast computing, we’re also developing simulated 3D environments, brain computer interfaces, powerful new pattern recognition algorithms, and the ability to decode and harness the information contained in biological structures, all of which are likely to accelerate the pace of innovation. At the same time new social media applications, protocols and behaviors are emerging that will enable all of this new technology and information to be networked and to multiply the value of our total datacosm.

Barring a disruptive event or a concerted effort to slow the growth of this distributed global brain or super-computer, it seems likely that we’ll figure out ways to innovate and implement at a much faster pace. Why? Because, ultimately, it’s in our individual interests (whether those include extending lifespan, developing defenses against other accelerators, or pursuing new compelling/addictive forms of entertainment or emotional stimulation) and our global interests (survival as a species, expansion, communication with other life in the universe) to do so.

One way or another, we are in for some interesting and dramatic times. The ensuing transformation of our social will to accelerate may well manifest as a culture war (and perhaps physical war) unlike any we’ve ever seen. At the same time, the promise of acceleration will continually leave us amazed at magical structures popping up all around us.

Whether you’re a luddite, a singularitarian or somewhere inbetween, buckle up, this looks to be one hell of a ride.

Comment Thread (4 Responses)

  1. I believe the driving force that keeps our technologies advancing exponentially is the 50 million or so humans that die each year.

    Nearly everyone views death as a tragic event and, other than those who are suicide-prone or brainwashed by radical religious beliefs; no one welcomes the grim reaper.

    Nearly all of today’s technology advances will contribute towards extending human health and life until sickness and death are no longer a part of humanity. Over the next four-to-five decades humanity’s horrific death rate will diminish and eventually disappear.

    Humans will evolve into a much safer and more durable “housing unit” and this evolution will not stop until an indefinite lifespan becomes an option available to everyone who would choose it.

    This is merely the next step for civilization as we get closer to our “magical future.”

    Posted by: futuretalk   April 09, 2008
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  2. I agree that solving death is a carrot we’ll strive for perhaps unlike any other. Expanding the demand for this, natural disasters (resource collapse, pollution, climate change) or security issues (info-structure collapse, new weapons, YGBM technology) could also make the prospect of death or economic regression more likely for all humans, even us young whipper-snappers, which would contribute to a social desire to seek and effect new solutions.

    Also, it’s interesting to note that while one might expect most of the resistance to new technology to come from the oldest generation, that the prospect of life extension may make them acceleration’s biggest advocates (as in the awesome Otherland series by Tad Williams). This might result in a Senior-Junior pro-tech sandwich with middle-aged luddites inbetween.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   April 10, 2008
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  3. In this writer’s opinion, all human deaths are wrong. Deaths that happen as a result of natural disasters, resource or info-structure collapse, pollution, climate change, new weapons, or YGBM (You Gotta Believe Me; the art of manipulating people’s minds through broadcast media) are all unforgivable; but the majority of the world’s 50 million annual visits from the grim reaper are caused by what could broadly be classified as aging diseases.

    Once perfect health and elimination of aging is achieved, humanity will adopt an entirely different look. There will be no “old” or “young” people as in today’s world – just people with different life memories. Some forward-thinkers believe that by the end of this century, we may no longer create new humans as “babies”. Fully grown artificial “housing units” could be built and a programmed consciousness with inherited ties from the parent’s minds could be uploaded into the new body. Is this wild? Of course it is. But is it technically possible? Yes!

    What goals might a futuristic civilization aspire to? We certainly may want to clean up our “house” by making the planet more efficient and comfortable; and with enhanced brains we will be able to launch gazillions of simulations when faced with decisions, and we will quickly lose the desire for hostility between each other; instead, we may focus our efforts on exploring space.

    When humanity achieves this “magical future” era, our species may be unrecognizable from today’s crude world where sickness, suffering, and death cause such huge impacts in our lives. 2100 humans could be as different from us as we are from our caveman ancestors.

    Positive futurists believe that this “science fiction-type life” has an excellent chance of becoming reality, but we’re not there yet. Risks of WMD attacks and a possible asteroid collision could still wipe us out in a blink. We may need a little luck to achieve this utopian life.

    Posted by: futuretalk   April 10, 2008
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  4. I really hope that this rush to the future is about to occur and I agree that the fear of death is a major driver in developing new medical/biological technologies. However governments are run by people who for the most part have access to the very best health care available so the health imperative is often not so demanding in their consciousness. It is these people who control a great deal of the wealth that is being channeled into research and development.

    If you look at the academic R&D community it seems they are in a constant search for funding most often through government grants and programs. If you look at government R&D funding in the US I suspect that you will find that majority of funds are directed towards military objectives. Such research is often not focused on solving immediate societal needs but as with the space program the spin off technology is often put to work in the private sector later. Of course, corporate R&D is driven by profit. It would be interesting to compare the numbers between government & corporate spending and the speed that technology is accepted.

    So what drives government and corporate spending? The cynical would say power and greed. The real answer, like most things in the human realm, is much more complex. Does a Bush led administration have the same R&D focus as an Obama administration? Does a large multi-technology conglomerate corporation such as GE have a bias in awarding internal R&D funds? Perhaps this is why small socially oriented entrepreneurs such Dean Kamen can have such a major impact when they are on target.

    Natural and political/economic disasters can and have slowed or even reversed knowledge development and transmission through out human history. In the past these reversals where usually regional in nature and catching up became a matter of developing communications with the regions that had continued to develop. Our world today is so interconnected that regional lapses in the rush to the future are unlikely to occur. Only events which are global in nature are likely to stop the rush now.

    Are such events on the horizon? Of course an asteroid strike or a super volcano could push us all back centuries if not total end the species until we can get off the planet and establish self sustaining colonies but more immediate threats exist that could slow this approaching nirvana of the future without death. Global warming and peak oil being the principal threats. Population growth, water and food supply issues will drive technology towards solutions but without alternative energy sources to replace oil and coal high tech societies and their R&D efforts will be greatly curtailed. Rising ocean levels and crop failures caused by global warming can cause social upheavals that are likely to draw away R&D resources just to deal with the tremendous human tragedy.

    Let us hope our politicians understand that now is the time to address these issues before they become catastrophic. Of course they will not understand unless you and I tell them to get with it, here in our democratic form of government. I would rather see Alvis’s view be the future so I am writing my congress people now. I hope all who read this will do the same.

    Posted by: learner   April 15, 2008
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