Aug 29, 2010

History of the future

Somewhere along the breadcrumb trail I must have decided I didn't need to keep my copy of Marshall McLuhan's book The Medium Is the Massage, because it's no longer on my shelves. I would have liked to consult it today when I came home from a weekend jaunt visiting a friend who introduced me to a book I had never heard of by a writer I thought I knew.

The writer is Ray Kurzweil. I knew him as the inventor of the Kurzweil keyboard, regarded as an ultra-high-quality electronic musical instrument since its introduction in 1984. What I didn't know was that this was only one of many inventions by a man who has been compared to Thomas Edison, nor that his writings on the future of technology and society put him in the exalted ranks of McLuhan, Alvin Toffler, and the like.

The book was The Singularity Is Near. It's fantastic to visit a friend and discover a book so unexpected and so profound, a long way from the beach fodder one might be content to find.

I knew "singularity" as the term used by physicists to denote the collapse of gravity at the center of a black hole. I learned that futurists have adopted it to mean a period of cultural change so rapid and so deep that human society will be irreversibly altered. They see technological advances as the agency of this change.

The rate of technological change is exponential, the way gravity increases exponentially as one gets closer to the center of a black hole. To demonstrate, Kurzweil plots crucial events in human history according to lists from 13 sources. These are an assortment of fellow futurists as well as traditional references like The Encyclopedia Britannica. The events vary somewhat, but most include the big bang, the first cells, the demise of dinosaurs, and the successive rise of railroads, telephones, computers, and the Internet.

Linear x-y plots of these events over time are too compressed to be useful, appearing as nearly-horizontal lines for most of the chart followed by multiple events crammed into a near-vertical section at the extreme right. Logarithmic plots, however, consistently appear as 45-degree lines for each of the sources and their varying lists. This is what one would expect from events occuring at exponentially increasing rates of change.

This was just a two-day house visit so I didn't get much past the introduction and the first chapter, but it was enough to give me the picture as Ray Kurzweil laid it out in this 2005 book. I'll get a copy so I can finish it, and rustle up McLuhan's book from 1967 for comparison.

Meanwhile I did find Our Posthuman Future on my shelves, which was to be expected since I only read it in the past year or two. Author Francis Fukuyama was famous for his 1989 pronouncement that history as we know it had reached its end, but it seems that he found more to think about and write about by the time Posthuman was published in 2002. The subtitle, Consequences of the Biotechnical Revolution, is an accurate summary of what the book contains, and utterly consistent with what Kurzweil would be publishing three years later.

I realized that I've been fascinated by futurism for a long time without realizing there was such a thing. I Googled "futurism" and found a good summary on the Wikipedia page. This explained that the term in its current use didn't really arise until the 1940s, with 50s and 60s writers like Toffler and McLuhan giving us plenty to think about. I followed a link to a Wikipedia list of futurists, and recommend it highly. I found Toffler, McLuhan and Kurzweil there as well as architect Buckminster Fuller, astronomer Carl Sagan, and a host of people cited by Kurzweil in Singularity.

Curiously, the list omits novelist Wiiliam Gibson (Neuromancer) as well as Fukuyama, but it's a terrific start on the subject. Michael Crichton is there, and so is Gene Roddenberry. Wikipedia critics may find plenty to chew on from those included or omitted, but we'll leave the strengths and weaknesses of Wikipedia for another time.

For now, I'll be busy thinking about the prospect of nanobots in my brain, the merging of virtual and real realities, and other possibilities I find somewhat disturbing but which may be inevitable just the same.

1 comment:

  1. Mustn't leave out Future Shock and The Third Wave, both by Alvin Toffler. He specifically discusses our struggle with adapting to change, and exponential rate of change happening in our lives today-- something unknown before a hundred years ago.