AQ&A10 11 December 2017 A Short History of the Future
(feel free to add more focus questions) . Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding. Note: clearly not all of these questions can be properly covered in a meetup, but they give us a conscious choice about what to talk about while making the background context clearer. On this particular 'futures' topic, any one of the focus questions below could easily expand into a full meetup topic. Maybe there is too much emphasis on future catastrophe below. It is up to the people who come on the day to choose what aspects they would like to deal with.
1) Imagine Adelaide four generations from now. What does your vision say about your personality?
2) OK, Adelaide has been used as a demonstration nuclear target prior to an invasion of Australia by an enemy power. How will the city be different when it is rebuilt?
3) Soon (if not already) everyone walking down the street will be picked up by facial recognition software in CCTV cameras. In what ways will living in a total surveillance state change the ways people behave?
4) You don't need to go to work in an employment sense. In fact there is no work to go to because it is a robot-AI economy. Humans have developed a parallel hobby & craft economy. Where will you personally fit into the hobby & craft economy? How will this shape your values?
5) For most of all past civilizations, most people have been illiterate, with only a small literate elite. In our future history, the pressure to become literate will have disappeared again. Most people will get by fine with just visual/voice media and at most a sentence or two of writing (Twitter, Facebook anyone?). Again, in our future history, only a small elite will remain highly literate and numerate. In what ways will the quality of life be different for the tiny literate elite and the vast illiterate majority?
6) Sex - sexual conquest, sexual partnership and sexual fulfilment (e.g. having children) - has been and remains the prime motivator around which most people build ambition, a career, status and material wellbeing. In a future history, if sex becomes risk free, and freely available, while conception is just a medically organized process to be applied for, will most of the population sink into endless laziness and self-indulgence? What are some alternatives?
7) Way back in 2017, medical science was in its infancy. Messing by doctors with the 37 trillion cells and 90 trillion symbiotic bacteria in a human body was pretty much voodoo medicine and brain surgery with a blunt axe. Now in a future history, superior investigation by AI-robots has sorted out what is going on much better, so where humans are considered worth repairing they have a much better chance of living very long, active lives. What kind of humans will be worth repairing, and how will they reach that privileged access?
8) The planet's climate reached a tipping point some time ago. Sea levels have risen 6 metres and are expected to rise further. Numerous world cities - New York, Shanghai, much of Adelaide - have already been drowned. Desperate displaced populations are reaching into the billions (even in 2017 they were officially 65 million) and the effective administration of nation states has broken down. A small collection of mega-multinational corporations have private armies and plunder at will. The ambition of any bright child is to somehow get into a mega-corporation, where some personal security is guaranteed. Predict the evolution of life in these competing parasitic corporations, where states have failed and the natural environment is now hostile to life.
9) About 70,000 years ago there seems to have been a mass human extinction, leaving only about 1,000 to 3000 breeding pairs. (In one theory this has been linked to the Toba super-volcanic explosion in Sumatra, which tipped the world into an ice age: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory ). So supposing our future history leads to another mass human extinction (highly probable). Propose how the remaining breeding pairs might rebuild differently from out ancestors 70,000 years ago.
10) In a future history there are several classes of intelligent beings on the planet. The original humans represented a peak of carbon-based evolution, but their own meddling led to many adaptations of intelligent robots, generally superior to the humans at problem solving and production. An intermediate class of cyborgs, maximizing the benefits of both human biology and AI capacity have seized control of the ecosystem. Describe the social structure in this new world of plural intelligences.
Comments and Links
Focus question 10 is a contest-between-species query. In the past homo sapiens somehow bested Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthals, not necessarily in a fair fight. We are already prone to inter-human racial divisions, often brutal. Not very far down the road there will be humans, enhanced cyborg type 'humans', and AI creatures or presences of so-far unknown form. Old fashioned humans, you and me, will likely be at the bottom of the heap. What do you want to do about that? "Elon Musk says humans must become cyborgs to stay relevant. Is he right?" at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/feb/15/elon-musk-cyborgs-robots-artificial-intelligence-is-he-right . Also see Cyborgs, Wikipedia @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyborg
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Focus question 9 notes a mass human extinction about 70,000 years ago leaving only 1,000 to 3,000 breeding pairs. Looking at a re-occurrence of this in the future is the stuff of science fiction drama. But is is also inevitable at some point, near or far. So it is an interesting exercise to imagine building human civilisation from the ground up. We've certainly left lots of artefacts lying around, from railway locomotives to baby's dummies. But how much wisdom would that small, surviving group of human breeding pairs carry forward? Here are a couple of links to start you thinking: "Want to reboot civilization? What you’ll need" at https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/04/19/want-reboot-civilization-what-you-need/fReMGOEq2ZkgZ8WPu3xLCL/story.html and "Two ways of dealing with the Apocalyse" at https://io9.gizmodo.com/two-ways-of-dealing-with-the-apocalypse-1583533478?IR=T
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Focus question 8 looks at the vexed question of corporate power. For now it is convenient for large corporations to use nation states as shields against taking responsibility for corporate behaviour. However if there is worldwide civil breakdown, stemming for example from climate change catastrophe, then one scenario is for large transnational corporations to openly become rootless and ruthless agents of power over populations. What do you think? Some of these points come up in the political forum at https://www.politicsforum.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=75735 . . Also look at an interesting piece on corporate feudalism at http://steve-lovelace.com/corporate-feudalism-the-end-of-nation-states/ . Another one: "Who's in control – nation states or global corporations?", Gary Young at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/02/control-nation-states-corporations-autonomy-neoliberalism...
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Focus question 7 looks at the dubious world of medical quacks. One advantage of living a few decades is that yesterday's con tricks become exposed. For my 72 years doctors have exuded the confidence of knowing it all "through science". Actually, only a small proportion of medical procedures are reliably verified, and death by medicine remains a leading cause of mortality ( e,g, https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2008/01/02/medical-mistakes-part-three.aspx ), Medical science is still in its infancy. However, there will come a time when a great deal can be done reliably. You can bet it won't be done for everyone. Indeed, lot's of people are already indifferent to living long healthy lives. Who among those who want the benefit of real medical knowledge will be given access to it? Why?
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Focus question 6 considers sex into the future. But surely sex is eternal, the foundation of our animal spirits? Well, yes and no. We know individuals vary both over their lives and between each other. But whole populations differ, though the quality of reporting on it tends to click-bait level. It is clear that superpower status has little to do with sexual satisfaction - apparently in some countries sex is 70 times more frequent than in US (https://www.alternet.org/sex-amp-relationships/12-most-sexually-satisfied-countries. .. ). And national wealth doesn't help - a large proportion of Japanese men have apparently given up on normal sex altogether (https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-of-Tokyos-very-well-kept-secrets [search on the page for 'Chwe'] ). We know that a hefty chunk of the Internet, like all media, is devoted to pornography now. As soon as there are credible robot sex dolls - they are on the way - you can bet that the messy business of intimate human relations will take a sharp turn for lots of people. Where is this all heading?
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Focus question 5 looks at literacy into the future. In the modern industrial era mass literacy has been a prerequisite and mass predictor of national prosperity. There were huge efforts on the 19th Century to bring Western populations to literacy, and more recently in East Asia. Some countries like Pakistan remain crippled socially and economically by low literacy. Even Australia still has a major problem (https://www.sbs.com.au/news/insight/explainer/hidden-costs-low-literacy-australia). Yet the rise of videos etc on smart phones has taken some pressure off literacy as a gateway to education and information. Social media like Facebook require only minimal literacy. Will the future see an even deeper division between a highly numerate and literate elite Vs low literacy zombie-masses? By the way, are you yourself comfortable reading long texts?
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Focus question 2 deals with rebuilding after a catastrophic urban extinction event in the Australian context. The history of Adeliade's first planning by Colonel William Light is well known (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Light). The idea of rebuilding after a catastrophe is rather less well explored in Australia, except perhaps for Darwin in Christmas 1974 (really a big country town then; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyclone_Tracy). However, throughout history other cities have had to face this (in 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and now Aleppo in Syria, one of the world's oldest cities. Cities are inherently fragile, and in the next century there are almost certain to be mass urban extinctions. Under the extreme stress of this kind of thing, would the spirit of Australia's now hundreds of ethnic groups consolidate ... or fracture? How effectively would Australian resources be directed towards rebuilding?
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Focus question 3 raises the problem of mass facial recognition in the streets. Actually this is only one part of our lost privacy. A society where individuals have all the secrets is free and creative. A society where governments and companies have all the secrets and individuals have none is a tyranny. We often accuse governments like that in China of being the second kind, but in fact we have less and less privacy ourselves - our secrets are already lost. That changes behaviour in a bad way. This very long article takes the issue to pieces: Jonathan Shaw, "The Watchers: Assaults on Privacy in America", Harvard Magazine @ https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2017/01/the-watchers . Here is an easier to read account of how surveillance destroys trust: "6 Insidious Ways Surveillance Changes the Way We Think and Act - Like it or not, we’re being transformed as citizens, neighbors and human beings" by Lynn Stuart Parramore @ https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/surveillance-thinking-and-behavior
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Focus question 4 asks about how living in a 'hobby & craft' economy might change people's values. This could seem like a counter-intuitive idea at first. Google has thousands of sites on "discovering" your values as if they are something fixed, and countless others on fitting your values to a career. It has websites on how ideologies and religions set out to change people's values (the success rate seems poor). However, there seems to be little on how people's values are themselves subtly changed by the jobs they find themselves in, and by other life experience. e.g. People who survive a war often have radically changed values. Also, people who try to start a business (or run a meetup!) often get insight into the behaviour of customers which changes their own values. Then, there's the invention of money, which has certainly changed human values ... So, a hobby & craft Vs a consumer-manufacturing economy ..?
1. All past topic questions are now listed at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/DiscussionTopics/DiscussionIndex.htm
2. From another meetup I run for English learners, twenty-four sets of 10x questions (from Thor) designed for students of English as a Second Language are online at
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