Forward to the past

Charlie Stross, the British science fiction writer, recently posted a “21st Century FAQ” on his blog that has aroused some reaction in futurist circles.

Let it be noted that I’ve had a few drinks with Charlie, and he is a pleasant, engaging, and very intelligent guy, and writes really excellent science fiction. But I have a bone or two to pick with his FAQ.

Q: What can we expect?
A: Pretty much what you read about in New Scientist every week. Climate change, dust bowls caused by over-cultivation necessitated by over-population, resource depletion …

How well would someone in the “aughts” have predicted the 20th century by reading, say, Popular Mechanics?

There were, in fact, a couple of things that could be viewed as predictions with the benefit of hindsight, such as aerial bombardment and snowmobiles:

But PM didn’t really even predict the airplane; they just reported it. This cover is from 1910:

But the key thing you would have picked up was the general sense of technological excitement and optimism. It was the zeitgeist then. If you go to the New Scientist now, you’ll see a lot of the same kind of gee-whiz kind of stuff, but served up with today’s zeitgeist instead: currently fashionable doom and gloom.

This zeitgeist is captured in the mood and tone of the movies that are evoked by this quip of Paul Graham:

It’s hard to predict what life will be like in a hundred years. There are only a few things we can say with certainty. We know that everyone will drive flying cars, that zoning laws will be relaxed to allow buildings hundreds of stories tall, that it will be dark most of the time, and that women will all be trained in the martial arts.

So here’s the really interesting question: Compared to the people in 1900, we live a lot longer. We’re healthier. We’re enormously richer. We have an almost incredibly greater array of choices available to us, ranging from what kind of food we want to eat, where we want to travel, what kind of lifestyle we want to live, and on and on and on.

So why are we the pessimists and they the optimists?

One part of the explanation is hinted at by this graph. This looks just like the kind of thing you’re used to seeing in these futuristic essays, perhaps showing Moore’s Law or other exponential trend:

But this one is not technology: it’s the rate of indictable offenses in England and Wales, taken from this report by the British government. The crime rates are roughly 50 times as high at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. (Note that the US is not any better, but the graph is confounded by lots of noise such as the enormous crime wave in the early part of the century caused by Prohibition.)

No, I’m not suggesting that the crime rate is causing people to be pessimistic, per se. What I am suggesting is that the rate is an indicator, a proxy, for something in society that was right in 1900, and has gone wrong at an accelerating pace across the 20th century.

Charlie writes:

The big picture is that since around 2005, the human species has — for the first time ever — become a predominantly urban species. Prior to that time, the majority of humans lived in rural/agricultural lifestyles. Since then, just over 50% of us now live in cities; the move to urbanization is accelerating. If it continues at the current pace, then some time after 2100 the human population will tend towards the condition of the UK — in which roughly 99% of the population live in cities or suburbia.

This is going to affect everything.

Nope — it already did affect everything. Charlie’s stat is worldwide; the transition is largely done in the industrialized nations.

Is urbanization what has “gone wrong” and made us so pessimistic? People certainly feel safer in rural than urban areas. Cities are noisy, ugly and unnatural, constructed primarily of hard unliving stuff that’s usually dingy.

But they don’t have to be. It’s possible to construct high-density living areas that are pleasant, comfortable, and safe. It’s just expensive. But the continued increase in productivity we should see in the 21st century would make it possible to do that for everyone — but only if we see that as a goal and ditch the defeatist zeitgeist. Things “gone wrong” can be identified, understood, and fixed — or at least worked on. Optimism may be unfashionable, but it’s not unwarranted.

Here’s Charlie again:

Q: Space colonization?
A: Forget it.

Q: The Singularity?
A: Forget it.

(Together with an explanation that what he means is that they won’t affect 99+% of humanity if they do happen.)

I’d agree with the space colonization if we assume today’s technology. But that’s like predicting, in 1909, that 99% of humans would be unaffected by air travel, based on the range and capacity of the Wright Flyer. But I think that nanotech — real nanotech — is capable of most of what would be needed. And it’s silly to imagine that basic physics has just stopped and there will be no more fundamental discoveries.

As far as the Singularity is concerned, Charlie’s notion of it is not the same as mine, so arguing this point would be a case of talking past each other. But I will strongly claim that an AI/nanotech revolution that kicks the economy into a growth mode that looks like Moore’s Law, “is going to affect everything.”

The great challenge of the 21st century is going to be to make our large-scale systems — from cities to economies to the global ecosystem — work properly. The political structures we use to run things now are incompetent. Nanotech will help. AI will help more.

What happens in the 21st century depends entirely on what we do. Two centuries ago flying was a ridiculously impossible dream. Today you can hop on a plane and cross the continent in hours. The difference is that one century ago a lot of people were possessed by a vision of flight, and worked like crazy to make it come true.

The same is true of all the possibilities we can see, from nanotech to AI, from SENS to powersats. None of this will happen if we just sit around whining and moping. Alan Kay said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” But the only way to live in the future you’ve invented, is to build it.

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