Three Futures

21 December 2010


In many posts I have discussed what others call the technological singularity and what I call extraterrestrialization. Both are visions of a particular possible future. And just yesterday I discussed pastoralization, which is the process of social transformation in the direction of pastoral institutions. Since we are talking about the future, and since the future is history that has not yet happened, and because history is a process, not (contrary to Jaspers) an end or a goal, I prefer to always speak in terms of processes wherever it is coherent to adopt this idiom. For that reason, just as I write in terms of extraterrestrialization — the process of off-world migration — and pastoralization — the process of the emergence of a society based on pastoralism — so I will also write in terms of singularization.

One of the exponential growth curves beloved of singulatarians.

Now, to speak of a process of singularization would already mark an individual as a heretic as far as the singularity cult is concerned. Although singulatarians market themselves as being secular, technocratic, and fact-based, a close reading of enthusiast literature will easily reveal the movement as an eschatological hope; that is to say, the technological singularity represents an eschatological conception of history. It is interesting in and of itself as a contemporary variant of eschatological hope, but in terms of grasping humanity’s most probable future, it is a misleading guide, at least in the form given by its advocates. There very fact that there are “advocates” of the technological singularity ought to already put us on notice that this kind of thinking does not embody methodological naturalism. A futurology of methodological naturalism would have no part of advocacy.

Nevertheless, and against the singulatarians themselves, we will here think in terms of singularization as an historical process. That is to say, we will simply expropriate what is of value in their vision, dispense with the eschatological dimension, and content ourselves with a secularized technological singularity. A secularized vision of a future of exponential technological growth, escalating to the point that human beings are marginalized by their own creations would seem to me to better embody a cataclysmic conception of history, but I will not consider this further today.

As soon as we see extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, and singularization as historical processes, we can see that this processes can achieve different degrees of the transformation of the society, depending upon how long the process continues, how pervasive it is, and how many people are affected by the transformation. The Industrial Revolution, for example, began about two hundred years ago and is still continuing today. This is a robust historical development that has endured and has been sufficiently pervasive that few peoples in the world are untouched by it. Such an enduring and pervasive historical process eventually issues in an integral paradigm.

People who think in eschatological and theological terms tend to think in absolute terms: either the Millennium arrives or it does not; either the Second Coming occurs or it does not; either you go to Heaven or you go to Hell; either you are saved or you are damned. Contemporary psychotherapists call this black and white thinking, and warn their clients of the dangers of insisting upon all or nothing. People who think in historical and naturalistic terms do not (hopefully) invoke the kind of absolutes that are rarely if ever realized in their pure form in human experience. To think in historical and naturalistic terms means to think in terms of degrees and gradients, of processes within processes, of more or less, and of qualifications and conditions attending every generalization.

Each of the historical processes mentioned above could issue in an entire continuum of different degrees of transforming human society. For purposes of simplicity, however, instead of considering the infinitude of potential degrees that might result from these historical processes, we will limit ourselves at present simply to a few gradations, and we will continue to think in demographic terms (which I have emphasized is the perspective of integral history), so we can use natural language quantifiers to formulate the degrees of the historical process: all, most, many, some, few, and none. All persons being affected by an historical process is the strongest possible formulation; no persons being affected by an historical process is the weakest possible formulation. Since these absolutes are not likely to be realized in actual fact, we will be most interested with most, some, and few. We can call the respective formulations the strong, the lukewarm, and the weak.

In a strong formulation of singularization, the lives of most individuals are strongly shaped by the historical process of singularization. In a lukewarm formulation of pastoralization, the lives of some individuals, perhaps nearly half, are shaped by the paradigm of pastorlism. In a weak formulation of extraterrestrialization, the lives of only a few individuals are shaped by the historical process of off-world migration. The reader can easily extrapolate on this basis these three formulations for all three futures mentioned above.

Seen in terms of process and degree, these three futures are not mutually exclusive; two or three historical developments might emerge in parallel, and they might mutually influence each other, or they might alternate in fits and starts. We can think of each development in isolation, and the method of isolation — the preferred method of thought experiments — has certain virtues. Almost all visionaries think in this way. But history is never woven from a single thread. The metaphor of a tapestry is often applied to history, and I assume this is because many different threads of many different colors are woven together in a pattern, and the pattern can only be seen from a distance after the tapestry is completed. Individual elements may be clear from close up, but the story illustrated by the tapestry is only seen whole.

If industrio-technological civilization continues mostly unimpeded in its development, we should expect that weak formulations of all three futures will be realized: at least a few lives will be shaped by the exponential growth in technology; at least a few lives will be shaped by the de-population of the countryside; at least a few lives will be shaped by off-world migration. These are trends we can already see in the present.

If we insist that the labels of futures in isolation are only legitimately applied to absolute and unconditional realizations, then almost none of these scenarios is likely to occur. For example, if one maintains that one can only properly speak of a technological singularity if the machines take over, human beings are powerless, and the future is so altered that we can no more see beyond the event of the technological singularity than we can see beyond the event horizon of a gravitational singularity, then we are almost certain not to see this come to pass, and we ought to avoid the use of the term.

The most interesting question, from an historical standpoint, is not whether or not some earth-shattering event will take place in the future, but what historical process will dominate and perhaps even drive the others. Will any of the three futures sketched above shape the lives of many or most individuals? It is this question of the middle ground that is most likely to be decisive in our future history.

The reader will note that, of my three futures here discussed, none of them are apocalyptic scenarios, except indirectly. Any new division of integral history will certainly bring about the dissolution of the old order so that the institutions of the new order can emerge. Western history gives us two textbook examples of one age giving way to another, and these examples, also in pure textbook fashion, are dialectical opposites. The end of Roman power in the West was, in historical terms anyway, a rapid collapse of institutions that had lasted for a millennium; the end of the medieval world was a long and gradual process that was so incremental that no date can be fixed, even as a convenience. Or, rather, any date that is fixed will be arbitrary. Perhaps future historical processes will also realize a middle ground — a development that is rapid, but not too rapid, or gradual, but not too gradual.

I have written several posts attempting to demonstrate the bankruptcy of apocalyptic thinking; I hope to return to this theme in more detail in the not distant future. At present, I will say only that even if our society experiences a rapid collapse of its institutions as occurred with the decline of Roman power, any such institutional crisis will only be a transition and a prelude to another form of order. Some historical development will take place — whether extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, singularization, or something else — as a trend of the development emerges. In so far as I have been defining the trends of integral history in demographic terms, it follows by definition rather than by deduction that the greater mass of humanity will coalesce around a particular paradigm or paradigms of social organization.

The one exception to this is apocalypse that results in extinction. We are vulnerable at any time to an asteroid impact that could render humanity extinct, unless or until extraterrestrialization makes us less vulnerable to cosmic catastrophe. Anything less than outright extinction will issue in some kind of modus vivendi for the greater part of humanity, and this modus vivendi will be the historical trend that culminates in an integral paradigm and, eventually (if that integral paradigm endures), in axialization.

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3 Responses to “Three Futures”

  1. abder said

    extraterrestrialization and singularization are not mutually exclusive and example of that would be the world described inside Greg Egan’s novel “Diaspora” where the world combine Transhumanism, speciation, extraterrestrialization and moderate (process) singularization
    in the form of three (post-human) subspecies:

    Fleshers: various biological bio-engineered post-humans at various level of transhumanism

    Glesners: uploaded human “souls” living in robotized forms living in real-time and planning a huge extraterrestrial expansion

    Citizens: Human-software intelligence in simulated reality based on a constellation of network-satellites and probes in the solar system they learn an interact in accelerated time and their perception and philosophy diverged from the “normal” humans but they are more numerous than the other groups

  2. xcalibur said

    It always seemed to me that the Singularity was overblown. I see a great deal of potential in technology, but I don’t see a runaway cascading effect changing life as we know it. In particular, there are too many limitations on AI for it to eclipse human intelligence, except at certain technical skills. It really is the Second Coming framed in modern terms, another example which shows that human nature is consistent.

    I’d personally argue for a weak singularity, lukewarm pastoralization, and lukewarm extraterrestrialization. I see too many limits on technology in spite of its potential. As for pastoralization, I can clearly see a future of increased urbanization with skyscraper farming and a depopulated countryside. I might’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but nomadism is an attractive lifestyle, and I think it would make a comeback in this circumstance – especially with technology to make it more convenient. As for extraterrestrialization, I hope it will become increasingly important as we mine asteroids for rare-earths, and social forces cause migration to space colonies. With that said, considering the challenge of space, the level of infrastructure on earth, and what I call social inertia, I don’t see the earth becoming depopulated even with launch loops and active colonies. And as you said, there’s no reason there can’t be metropolises alongside neo-nomads in the hinterlands.

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