Fake Future

It's never too late to be annoyed by stupid futurism. After all, yesterday's irritating images of tomorrow are what helped create the things that piss you off today.

My latest source of consternation is a British neuroscientist named Susan Greenfield, who wrote a book in 2003 called Tomorrow's People that's a kind of summary of all the worst impulses we bring to bear when trying to predict the future. Her thesis is that technology - in particular, something she refers to as "the cyberworld," which I can only assume is the Internet - is going to change the way humans think and feel for the first time in 50,000 years.

Like many Netphobes, Greenfield wants us to believe humans have existed in some kind of natural, unchanging state for the past 50 millennia - the magic number being 50 because some anthropologists believe that was when humans started using language. It's also the era when we start seeing complex tools in the fossil record that are composites of three or more elements (like stone, sticks, and hide laces).

To claim that the Internet's influence over social life is so profound that it's the first big thing to happen to humans since language and composite tools is clearly absurd, and yet Greenfield isn't alone in her assertion. Alvin Toffler, the guy who introduced the concept of futurism (not to be confused with the early-20th-century Italian aesthetic movement of the same name) back in the early 1970s in his book Future Shock, felt the same way, though he wasn't as freaked out about it as Greenfield. Both authors believe the Internet will convert everyday life into a virtual world where all needs are met and humans live only to soak up electro-stimulation delivered directly to our brains. Predicting brain-computer convergence prompts these futurists to ask, "Will we be human in 100 years?"

Would humans of today seem "human" to humans of 30,000 years ago, back in the days before cities and agriculture existed? How about to humans of 5,000 years ago, who were on the cusp of inventing the nation-state? Unlikely. We'd probably seem like bizarre creatures who live in a virtual world.

What exactly is it about this virtual world, Greenfield's cyberworld, that's so terrifying that it's turned futurists into Netphobes? Greenfield says it all has to do with the fact that people on the Internet will merge into one giant collective personality that passively consumes stimulation. We will no longer be "individuals," and thus we will suddenly diverge from that 50,000-year-long path of perfectly recognizable humanity.

What annoys me about this characterization of the Internet is how much it misses the point of what goes on there. The Internet isn't a medium that encourages passivity. Sure, you can consume things online with very little creative interaction, but most people spend their time on the Internet talking with other people, or playing games with them, or publishing long, individualistic rants so that other people can read them. I would hardly call the Internet utopia, but by the same token I think it's a mistake to say that it's any more mind-numbing or de-individualizing than hanging out with the same group of friends at the pub every night.

If Internet culture is going to bite us in the ass, I'm guessing its problems will grow out of rampant individualism and the cacophony of voices contributing to the medium. As Internet futurist Robin Sloan recently noted in his Flash movie EPIC 2014, the Internet is likely to evolve into what he calls "Googlezon," a combination of Amazon and Google where people store all their personal information online and make it fully searchable. Consumers will get "recommendations" on whose personal information to read, and thus newspapers and other collective media creations will be abolished in favor of individually tailored news searches scraped from the data provided by other individuals.

But in the end, I think all the hand-wringing about how the cyberworld will deprive us of our humanity is an alibi, a fake fear that hides a more profound truth. Which is that the Internet isn't going to deliver us into a virtual world at all. If you consider the choices we're making about how to deal with issues like war, health care, and the environment, our future is looking more real than ever. You know - as in starvation real, or global flu epidemic real.

Futurists like Greenfield are peddling wish fulfillment. If only our future problems were going to be deciding whether cybersex is dehumanizing, or whether to get brain implants to improve our memories. Those difficulties sound positively lovely compared with what we're likely to get, given the realities of the resources we have left.


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