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Two Futures?

January 29, 2013

As I’ve written a bit about on the Digital Living project blog, I feel it’s useful to consider the relationship between two contemporary visions of the future.

These “future visions” are commonly invoked, usually implicitly, in daily life conversations and decision making, e.g. which future you believe in is likely to impact choices you make about how you live. They are also a part of the paradigm in which research and larger decisions take place, for example: which future you and/or funders believe in influences what research is done.

In a basic way, I think these two futures can be sketched as follows:

1. Techno future — “Technology is just going to keep getting more and more refined, more smart, more immersive.” Smart Homes, Augmented Reality, Robots. Video Games, Second Life, Virtual Reality.

2. Nature future — “The planet can’t sustain the way that we’re living, the amount of energy we’re using, how much we’re polluting. We need to live more simply, take less, give back more.” Climate Change, Sustainability, Resilience. Voluntary Simplicity, Permaculture, De-Growth.

Sometimes we try to reconcile the two futures. For example: “We can use technology to help us be more sustainable!” But of course technology itself can make or help to facilitate all kinds of negative environmental impacts.

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The 3D film Avatar embodies these two futures in an archetypical way. In the film humans have traveled to a far away, pristine planet with a nature-based culture to mine the place of its natural resources. The hero is caught between falling in love with the planet’s creatures and their way of life and his duty to the corporation that has brought him there. This story is of course playing out here on earth too.

Once one starts to look it’s easy to find examples of the “techno future” and “nature future” views. For example, take a look at the following comments on a December 2012 NY Times article by economist Paul Krugman (“Is Growth Over?”).

Here is a, somewhat extreme, example of a techno future view:

I vehemently disagree [with the article]. We live in a Universe so vast its completely unimaginable. Think of the moon for just a moment. Helium 3 must be mined from lunar dirt to fuel future fusion reactors. Then there is Mars, someone must engineer a magnetic shield for Mars so we can then terraform Mars for habitation. And then those helium 3 fueled fusion reactors will allow us to go to the outer solar system with the stars beyond it daring us to develop the matter/antimatter reactors necessary to travel to the solar systems beyond our own. So how do we get there from here? [Ray] Kurzweil explains that we merge with our intelligent machines, we don’t compete with them. We don’t compete with our cell phones, they give us vast abilities and so it shall remain.

And, here is an example of a nature future view:

[I'm] Reading:
1. Richard Heinberg, “The End of Growth”
2. William Catton, “Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse”

In short, the world is at the end of real economic growth, AND everything (absolutely everything) will shrink throughout this century, with several billions fewer humans on the planet by 2100 – with or without climate change (but fewer with c.c.). Such is the importance of cheap, conventional oil. The big uncertainty is what humans do to the post-carbon planet carrying capacity between now and then, in its vain efforts to “grow the economy.” Like it or not, that’s where the science comes down.

Of course, there are many variations on these views, and perhaps a fairly wide gray area in the middle where combinations of these two views exist. Still, both of these versions of the future play a role in answering fundamental questions about our lives: Who am I? What does it mean to be human? Where have we come from? Where are we going?

Most likely the actual future won’t look like either one of these extremes — and aspects of both exist now in the present. But, perhaps it’s important to look at how the two relate to one another. Are these two futures, these two understandings of how the world works, incompatible?  How does the future we believe in, or believe we should help bring about, shape the choices we make? Can a technology researcher believe in a nature future? Can a permaculturist believe in a techno future?

Examining this relationship is particularly relevant to people involved in technology research, or technology use/production more generally. Technology itself is of course a central part of the techno future narrative, and thus, in many cases, there’s an unwritten rule that technology research and development must accept this story as true and work from within that framework. But, interestingly, technology researchers, such as this group of HCI folks (“What if Sustainability Doesn’t Work Out?), are beginning to challenge that position.

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Social Impact, Systems