Prometheus stole fire from Mt. Olympus and returned it to humankind. He did so at great cost. For eternity, Zeus condemned Prometheus to having his liver consumed daily by an eagle and regenerated each night.
Today, we face similar promise and peril. As fire was to early humans, so we will this century marshal natural forces more potent than we imagine, thereby transitioning to a radically altered context. This statement is aggressive but not hyperbolic.
For all of history, humans have lived in contexts of scarcity and opacity. Limited resources fundamental to life, and a blind-like ability see beneath outward appearances, an inability to consider beyond the near in both time and space. Though at times a privileged few enjoyed abundance, the overall context has been one of scarcity. Over the next few generations, we will proceed toward a context of ABUNDANCE and TRANSPARENCY. None of our human systems—cultural, social, political, economic or faith systems— have developed to help us cope in such a context.
The transition from scarcity and opacity to ABUNDANCE and TRANSPARENCY will be a defining dynamic of the 21st Century.
Existing cultural, economic and political systems will become increasingly stressed and ill-suited to emerging realities. Some will evolve, others will not. Human society a century hence will be quite different than those which have evolved over our past 10,000 years. This transition from scarcity and opacity to abundance and transparency will be a defining dynamic of the 21st Century.
Abundance and Transparency, NOT Utopia
Much is being written about abundance, most notably by those associated with the Silicon Valley institution, Singularity University (full disclosure— I am an investor through a syndicate). While often sanguine, even boosterish, they are directionally correct. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of Singularity, and Stephen Kotler make a compelling case in their book, Abundance: The Future is Better that You Think. They explore dozens of examples, from ultra-low cost portable water purification technologies to vertical farming. Within this century, energy will trend toward free.
Humans are notoriously bad at making good decisions when faced with plenty.
While I am an optimist, I am not a utopian. Immense challenges await. Humans are notoriously bad at making good decisions when faced with plenty. Witness our worldwide epidemic of obesity. This condition emerged in large part because we’ve evolved in a context of scarcity— desiring sugars and fats to avoid starvation-- whereas now many of us exist in a context of plenty. We have yet to understand how to cope.
Regarding transparency, technology will enable us to sense, assess and act on data at ever more granular levels, already manifesting through technological concepts such as social media and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Companies and governments with access can in a sense “brainscan a billion people.”
David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute, suggested to me that our posts, tweets, clicks and purchasing decisions create artifacts of our digital existence, reflections of our interests, desires and behaviors. Companies and governments with access to these data can in a sense, in Krakauer’s words, “brainscan a billion people.” Greater visibility into the real-time operating realities of any system, a core promise of IoT, coupled with machine learning-enabled predictive analytics, will enhance transparency in both space and time. The benefits will be enormous. What will be the costs, broadly defined?
Scientists have already visualized an individual’s dreams, real-time. Imagine what another decade might reveal.
This is just the beginning. As research by my colleague Moran Cerf and others has described, even our innermost thoughts are at risk of being revealed and shared. Scientists have already proven able to visualize an individual’s dreams, real-time (e.g.-- Jack Gallant or Horikawa et al). The results are still clunky. Imagine what another decade might reveal.
Call this radical transparency. Technology will offer invasive capabilities dreamt of only in science fiction. But transparency does not suggest infallibility. People will continue to fabricate and share false information. The “false news” developments of the 2016 US election illustrate that our emerging transparency extends beyond ‘facts’ to fabrication. Long before Virtual Reality came of age, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard presciently coined the term “hyperreality” in his 1981 work, Simulacra and Simulation. Radical transparency will parry with efforts to obfuscate and fabricate. Our concepts of reality will need to become more dimensional rather than binary (true vs. false).
Radical transparency will parry with efforts to obfuscate and fabricate.
In a world of abundance, there will be no excuse for any human to lack life’s necessities. But will they anyway? How will our economic and political systems allocate benefits, and what will be each individual’s responsibilities? While our long-term future looks blindingly bright, our paths through the next couple of generations will be fraught with peril. Technology will likely enable greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands. Automation will remove humans from ever wider realms of human activity. Exponential technology expert and social commentator Vivek Wadhwa cautions, “The future of work is no work.”
Vivek Wadhwa: “The future of work is no work.”
How will our engine of material prosperity, the capitalist economic system, evolve? Within a capitalist system, profits are generated through privileged access to scarce resources such as capital, labor or data. Abundance and transparency impact these relationships. Will viable alternative or complementary economic systems arise? Modern capitalism and socialism had precedents, but didn’t manifest in their modern form until the nineteenth century. We are in the early stages of multi-generational changes in political and economic organization, with implications for fields from political science and economics to ethics and psychology.
Hercules rescued poor Prometheus from his torture. Who will rescue us, if not ourselves?
Extraordinary opportunities and challenges face humanity-- and more broadly life on Earth. With ever more potent capabilities will come ever greater responsibilities. By some accounts, Hercules eventually rescued poor Prometheus from his torture. Who will rescue us, if not ourselves?