2011 – Looking Forwards, Looking Backwards

On this the first day of the new year the state of my thoughts feels like a reflection of the world at large. Tumultuous, hopeful-yet-fearful, seeing innumerable strands & details yet struggling to hang on to them, much less to weave them into some coherent story about the future. Change has become so constant and accelerated that the event horizon seems nearer and nearer: the crystal ball has clouded and tomorrow could be radically different from today.

This is what the Singularity folks are tugging at, and what the Mayans supposedly alluded to almost 1500 years ago. That the feedback loops between culture, technology, and our very selves would become so tight and quickened that we’d begin to lose our ability to keep up with it all. The system would accelerate to such an incomprehensible pace that it would all seem to be slipping from our grasp. Then, like a boiling point, everything would undergo a state change, a phase shift into something born of the past but wholly new.

A singularity in physics is a point of absolute density most notably observed within a black hole. It’s so dense that it’s gravitational pull becomes massive, inescapable. Around the singularity is a spherical area physicists refer to as the event horizon. Within this area even light cannot escape, so nothing can be seen within the event horizon from the outside. Cross the line and you are doomed to collapse into singularity.

In contemporary usage, the Singularity alludes to, among other things, the notion that there is some point in our near-future where our lives have shifted so dramatically that the world, our technologies, and perhaps even the nature of our selves are unrecognizable and unforseeable from our current timeframe. Like the event horizon around a black hole, it’s impossible to see what’s on the other side; impossible to predict the next phase state. There are examples throughout natural systems that illustrate such phase shifts, from the formation of ice crystals in water to the emergence of a hurricane or tornado from an otherwise incoherent weather system. But it’s a much more challenging task to imagine such a sudden shift at the scale of global human systems. We have models for complexity & emergence but we have no real ability to model what the next global economic system might be or how human consciousness might shift when billions of minds are wired together in instantaneous communication.

Singularity or not, the world has become arguably post-historical. For millenia history was a book written by a few to record what was seen and known within their domain. Often bounded by geography, language, and political persuasion, the writing of the historical record has been a fairly narrow niche, curated by a relative few. As such, history has retained a reasonable amount of coherency. The post-modern world is post-historical because now virtually everyone is contributing to the historical record. There is no central curation or organizing principle. Every blog, Flickr account, Tweet, Facebook status, HuffPo & RedState post – all of these are writing the historical record. In a world where everyone can publish, who’s account is the most accurate? Is there even such a thing as historical accuracy anymore when so many witnesses chime in with their take? Even Wikipedia is a dynamic, ever-shifting crowdsourced story, constantly amended and updated around the ongoing dialectic of our unfolding. Without a single history we become post-historical, atemporal, and, arguably, much further from the shores of truth.

Indeed, our modern age seems to have little use for truth, tending much more towards the subtleties of persuasion and the blunt cudgel of opinion. In a choppy sea of philosophical relativity it’s more about how you can make your story the most influential among competitors. Pundits and politicians, marketers & evangelists all know this well. We’re all learning this in the internet age, each of us curating our personal brand in the social web. But this din of persuasion and memetic mudslinging has gotten so amplified that it’s drowning out sensibility and rational discussion, much less actual strategic coordination around the very real and threatening issues of our time. Having grokked the power of global broadcast everyone is yelling through their own personal megaphone. And the din is deafening (and oh so entertaining!). Not only do we struggle in a sea of data overload but we’re constantly tossed about by the onrushing waves of opinion. So much data, so much opinion, and so little ability to rationally parse and comprehend it all.

This too may be symptomatic of our transit towards some higher order. Sometimes the best way to remodel a house is to tear it down and rebuild from the ground up. Surely the din makes it considerably more difficult to forecast the future. Is North Korea really going to start a nuclear war in Asia, or is it just rhetorical sabre rattling? Nothing new for seasoned diplomats but now it’s not just a matter for war-room scenarios and diplomatic cables. Now it’s fodder for the 24hr newsfeed, the blogosphere, and the tweetstream. We all share the uncertainty, the fear, the speculation… the net shares as much emotion as it does data. And we’re all open to being manipulated by those who would use such information to persuade us towards some unseen ends. As everything seems to become increasingly disordered so too does our own mental ability to organize the internal maps we keep of the world. As the world comes undone, so too do our minds. Herein lies both the opportunity for emergence of new orders, as well as the very real potential to be subsumed by the chaos and pass into void.

In a post-historical age of persuasion, forecasting the future becomes less predictive and more strategic. It’s less about how we expect the world to unfold and more about how we construct the world to become. Forecasting becomes an activist pursuit. Within increasing chaos there is increasing opportunity to apply new forms of order. The plenum is infinite potential. The slate of civilization appears to be wiping itself of many of the legacy systems we’ve been running on – industrial, economic, religious – now crashing into the finite resource limits of planet and population and fed crazy pills by the sudden massive outlier of the internet.

Transition is always marked by change & uncertainty, passing out of one phase into another as of yet unknown. Expectations reveal the psyche of dreamers more than the machinations of reality. Yet the two may converge if we will it to be. And of course, these thoughts reflect my own biases – western, American, Anglo, middle class, male. My world appears to be fading, threatened while Asia and the African continent perhaps see the shifting sands with greater hope. Asia, the return of the Dragon. Africa, the sandbox for the next global operating system. Not to belittle the very real and endemic suffering that wracks both continents but their indicators are heading upwards while ours appear to be on the decline. Of course the west is seized by apoplectic spasms. Its hegemony and exceptionalism is fading like the tarnished capital rotundas of the Byzantium. State competency is in decline. Deficits run rampant. Internal bickering, moneyed elections, and a bought, scandal-hungry media destroy any hope of democratic collaboration. The corporation is on the rise eager to displace democracy. The gap between Wall Street and Main Street is widening into a nihilistic chasm big enough to swallow the entire American Dream. Super-empowered individuals have more sway over our futures than do rulers. Insurgencies, criminal syndicates, and terror networks all have risen with the empowering tide of technology. The international order is increasingly looking like a great, heaving disorder.

Yet each of these admittedly-fearsome trends is also an enabler for new solutions unencumbered by the Old Ways. In the decline of the state grows the rise of the city-state, localism, and community building. In the economic gap is born innovation and self-empowerment, local resiliency & durable investments. Many super-empowered elites are not actually evil and are spreading their billions across the world for good causes. And every insurgency is in some ways just an angry local makers collective. The design patterns are often agnostic across good & bad. It is intention & compassion, hope & courage, that make the difference.

Here in the impossible post-historical year of 2011 we’re not quite as far along as we thought we’d be but, damn, look at all we’ve accomplished! Look at the crazy majesty of it all unfolding from that beautiful lotus singularity! Look at the dreams and imaginations given life! Look at the subtleties of humanity revealed and shared across the globe! Look at the deep currents of evolution, physics, and biology, seemingly lost and abandoned in the moment but so obviously masterful and commanding in the long-term. We are, each and every one of us, in a dance with nature, spinning away at times but always compelled to return and dance in step.

As the Great Wheel turns the future remains as it always has: a dream waiting to awaken.

5 comments

  1. Frank Spencer

    Love this paragraph:

    “In a post-historical age of persuasion, forecasting the future becomes less predictive and more strategic. It’s less about how we expect the world to unfold and more about how we construct the world to become. Forecasting becomes an activist pursuit. Within increasing chaos there is increasing opportunity to apply new forms of order. The plenum is infinite potential. The slate of civilization appears to be wiping itself of many of the legacy systems we’ve been running on – industrial, economic, religious – now crashing into the finite resource limits of planet and population and fed crazy pills by the sudden massive outlier of the internet.”

    Well written Chris, an excellent piece on creating the future!

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