WHAT WILL THE FUTURE HOLD?
At the of Barack Obama’s election-night speech, he had a beautiful bit of oratory in which he remembered an elderly woman and spoke of all the things that she saw in her lifetime. What will we see if we live as long as her, he wondered. That, in essence was the question posed to a distinguished group of artists, writers and thinkers at The Edge. The responses here are of the quality that you want to bookmark the page and read one a day for the next month or so.
Formally, the question posed by editor and publisher John Brockman was: “WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” Among the respondents are Richard Dawkins, Richard Foreman, Freeman Dyson, and Douglas Ruskoff. Brief excerpts from some of the answers are below.
For the first time, it should be possible to delineate the nature of talent. This breakthrough will come about through a combination of findings from genetics (do highly talented individuals have a distinctive, recognizable genetic profile?); neuroscience (are there structural or functional neural signatures, and, importantly, can these be recognized early in life?); cognitive psychology (are the mental representations of talented individuals distinctive when contrasted to those of hard workers); and the psychology of motivation (why are talented individuals often characterized as having ‘a rage to learn, a passion to master?)
John Brockman’s question is dramatic: What will change everything? Of course, no one knows. But the fact that no one knows may be the feature of our lives and the universe that does change everything. Reductionism has reigned as our dominant world view for 350 years in Western society. Physicist Steven Weinberg states that when the science shall have been done, all the explanatory arrows will point downward, from societies to people, to organs, to cells, to biochemistry, to chemistry and ultimately to physics and the final theory.
I think he is wrong: the evolution of the biosphere, the economy, our human culture and perhaps aspects of the abiotic world, stand partially free of physical law and are not entailed by fundamental physics. The universe is open.
In the 1960s movie “The Graduate” a young Dustin Hoffman is advised to go into plastics, presumably because that will be the next big thing.
Today, one might well advise the young person planning to pursue a degree in medicine or the biological sciences to go into brain plasticity. This refers to the fact that neurons are malleable throughout life, capable of being shaped by external experiences and endogenous events.
What would change everything is not even a thought. It’s more of a feeling.
Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better. The world was rich compared to its human population; there were new lands to conquer, new thoughts to nurture, and new resources to fuel it all. The great migrations of human history grew from the feeling that there was a better place, and the institutions of civilisation grew out of the feeling that checks on pure individual selfishness would produce a better world for everyone involved in the long term.
What if this feeling changes? What if it comes to feel like there isn’t a long term — or not one to look forward to? What if, instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise and hazard, we start to feel that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water?