The present will not be recognizable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written a piece on futurism which is making me feel, well, contradictory. Apologies for my writing: fighting a killer headache this week.

Taleb asserts that the present has changed little from the past; that “futurists always get it wrong”, and that if we wish to envision the future we should subtract from the present things which do not belong. I believe the present is so different from the past that it would be shocking to humans from even a few centuries ago. Technology is culture, and our immersion in culture makes it quite difficult to understand just how unusual we are.

My great-grandparents were immigrant farmers. Most people were: prior to industrialization in the late 1700s, the vast majority of humans grew their own food or were engaged in providing it to others. Now worldwide, only a third of our workers grow food. The US's agricultural output has almost tripled over the past sixty years, a result of phenomenal improvements in efficiency made possible by the widespread use of petrochemicals–an energy-dense store only accessible for the past few hundred years. That same industrial revolution cut the fraction of our population employed in agriculture from 75% to only 3%.

Three quarters of the population no longer growing their own food. Instead we operate in “services” increasingly inexplicable to our ancestors. As an 80th percentile wage earner in the US, I composed argument-poems in a language which has never been spoken aloud to command the flow of invisible logical machines operating on a scale of matter which was not known to exist a century ago. The only visible consequence of my work were timeseries charts, considered a revolutionary way to display information when introduced by Playfair in 1786. The logical precepts of my field were only formalized two generations ago by Church, Turing, Rosser, et al. I collaborate regularly with people I have never met in person, instantaneously, via signals sent via undersea cable by lasers and orbiting microwaves, sometimes using machine translation effected by an invisible computer system which sifts through billions of textual and visual works across the globe, on a glowing slab of glass and plastic which lives in my pocket.

I received a world-class education for free, provided by a sprawling state bureaucracy unparalleled in US or world history until this century–and Sweden puts us to shame. Mandatory high school is only a few generations old, as are child labor laws. Some of the industries which would have employed me have evaporated. Virtually the entire structure of my childhood and adolescence would be unfamiliar to children prior to the industrial revolution.

I may be a part of the last generation of students drilled in penmanship. Two generations ago, the notion that writing was not an essential skill for formal instruction was unthinkable. Twenty generations back, writing was the domain of clergy, and before that formal scribes; that common humans would be expected to write–and to read–was unthinkable. Dangerous, even. The spread of text and information technologies is intimately tied to the power of ruling classes, church, and state, and to the evolution of commerce and cultural exchange: from Sumerian tax records to Greece's early libraries to Arabic scientific revolutions in the 700s; from European monastic tradition through early universities a few centuries ago.

In the past forty years, world illiteracy fell from 38% to 12%. In 1820 80% of African Americans were unable to read or write, and even after their right to vote equally was secured, literacy and “intelligence” tests decimated an entire culture's ability to speak in the democratic process. Only thirty years ago we closed that basic literacy gap. In 2008, we elected a Black president in large part due to widespread youth engagement–through textual media literally invented only a few decades ago. The incredible civil rights advances of the past sixty years, for women, people of color, and LGBT individuals, are in many ways due to information sharing through mass and individual media. And those media evolved with the technologies behind them: broadsheets, offset printing, newspapers, the typewriter, television, packet-switched networks, and hypertext.

Our culture is intimately linked to technology. They are consequent and cause of one another. When Taleb argues technologists “share an absence of literary culture,” I wonder if he recognizes that same culture is a recent engineering development undreamed of by generations past. “My dream would be to someday write everything longhand, as almost every writer did before modernity,” he writes using spaces between words (700s), in a latin script far removed from early majescule, in a typeface (1600s), for silent reading (~1000s), published online (~1980) and read on devices conceived of by futurists like Arthur C Clarke (1960s)–only possible to manufacture in the last decade. The argument that the iPad is in any way similar to clay tablets is bullshit. Clay was phenomenally expensive, low-density, took weeks to produce and harden–and could only be written once. Parchment and vellum were literally revolutionary, and paper changed the dynamics of the written word by cost savings alone. Display media is an entirely new game in many ways, and we're just beginning to push its resolution, sensitivity, density, and scale.

Yes, the future will always have familiar aspects. We'll still eat, work, rest and play, see our friends in social settings, build homes, create art. Our biology imposes relatively constant demands, and as long as we have human bodies and minds those physical and emotional needs will continue to shape our activities in much the same way.

But our culture will drift as new technologies emerge. As technology amplifies our abilities, creative and social activities will become more important. Manufacturing and agriculture will take less of our collective time as robotics improves. In its place, new fields of engineering, research, and creativity. And those fields create new aspects of our culture–like texting each other to keep in touch, arguing theoretical physics through blog comments daily instead of papers every few months, or knowing how to search the web–and evaluate one's sources.

Media is going to look different. Really different. Text was relatively stable for about a thousand years before Gutenberg's press. It took only three hundred years or so to develop mass printing technologies which made books and magazines disposable, commonplace items. After a few hundred years of dominance, reporting via TV and magazines is beginning to collapse, fragmenting as it reinvents itself through the web–and with the web comes an unprecedented nonlinearity to text. In merely fifty years, we went from typewriters to computers–and with it a new way of thinking about the writing process. Wikipedia and Khan Academy, not to mention the treasure troves of ancient HTML resources on model trainbuilding and quantum mechanics created by professors and enthusiasts–are fucking mindblowing. I'm not sure we've really come to grips with their effects. There are also fantastic amounts of money flowing through media, via subscriptions and advertising alike, and those industries will exert resistance to the destruction of old models–and transformative pressures on new media as well.

Meanwhile, our ability to create meaningful virtual cultural interaction is expanding. I have friends who kept in touch across continents through World of Warcraft–and got married a few years later. Remember MUDs and BBS? Beat literature and the rise of subculture zines? Enthusiast web forums, Youtube channels exposing vast swaths of mediocrity and stunning talent to millions, distributed families interacting primarily via Facebook… all arose in the last twenty-odd years. Deaf language and culture are evolving in response to text messaging and web video. If I had to guess, we'll spend more and more time engaged in virtual social interactions specific to our interests and affiliations, and the quality of those interactions will improve. As the culture each of us participates in becomes increasingly virtual we'll interact less with our local, physical social fabric, which brings human costs and advantages. If you're the only gay kid in a rural Louisiana town, a message board can be a lifeline. On the other hand, immersing one's self only in progressive blogs, or HN, or Fox News yields a uniquely polarized view of political events, which brings a change in the way we engage with the state and our civic peers.

There's a much longer discussion I want to have about how sufficiently complex physical processes might as well be “alive”; the cultural implications of direct brain-computer links and hybrid-human entities; even things as simple as replacement limbs and organs, but perhaps we should save it for another time.

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