From Here and Back Again: We are in Information Overload [1]

[ Tue. Mar. 2. 2010 ]

Some of you surely read and remember Alvin Toffler’s 1970 bestseller, “Future Shock.” Although he remains in the background, Toffler is often noted as one of the world’s greatest futurologists and influential men. His main thesis in “Future Shock” was encapsulated in his saying we face “too much change in too short a period of time,” and that we are unprepared for it individually or as a society.

Today we still are, and we call it “information overload.” I often see it as a form of trivial pursuit; mindless talk on cell phones, mindless games on computers, and mindless drives for trivial things, while important things are unsaid or ignored.

Toffler anticipated the computer revolution, cloning, family fragmentation, cable TV, VCRs, satellites and other things we take for common or create controversy today. He had some interesting recommendations, only one of which I’ll mention here. That is, he believed the needed reformation of the education system could not be made by tinkering but be doing away with what existed – and exists still – and starting from scratch so as to teach preparedness for change.

He said, “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

So what have we done? We tinkered and tinkered and tinkered, and its still broke.

I’m currently reading a 2009 book that reminded me of Toffler’s work, and if he foresaw change 40 years ago, the new book should jolt us with excitement and worry with its anticipated future. The new book is “This Will Change Everything: Ideas that will shape the future,” edited by John Brockman.

It is a compilation of short essays, usually about one-and-a-half to three pages long, by 125 of today’s leading thinkers. They were responding to the question, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

Their answers are seen more as speculative than predictive, but they certainly continue Toffler’s work by bringing us up to date. As I mention just some of their ideas, consider this a book review and an urging of you to read the book, because even more change is coming.

Robots are popular in science fiction, and the essayists don’t ignore them. They don’t just foresee simple robots that will clean the house, make dinner and take out the garbage. Some see “relational” robots, humanoid in shape and feature, but with an artificial intelligence that allows them to act human, to learn, grow, develop and enter into relations, all at a rate of change much greater than humans are capable of.

Some foresee humans will want to marry robots.

With the current controversy about same-sex marriages, imagine the ethical and legal questions of human-robot marriages! Of these and other changes in robotics, one essayist says, “If we are lucky, our new mind children (the robots) will treat us as pets. If we are very unlucky, they will treat us as food.”

Some foresee quantum computers with power far beyond our current computers. One author suggests computers will be so powerful, and brain scanning so advanced, that brain scans will be taken of humans, mapping the billions of neurons and trillions of synapses and saving them, so that the essence of you will be kept in a computer, even suggesting that “you” will be able to watch yourself die if you choose to, since the saved “you” will be able to continue full mental activity.

Others foresee life spans of 200-1,000 years and even immortality. More ethical and legal questions. Are we ready for them?

Work on the human genome and the genomes of other animals will make it possible, as one essayist describes, to break the species barrier. If we could, should we?

Personalized medicine, based on our individual genomes and physiology will be possible. No more Prozac for all with depression, but individual treatments and medicines, specific just for you, and you, and you. How will we deal with the question of who can afford such treatments? Talk about our current health care controversies!

We have searched for extra-terrestrial life for decades (and again, science fiction has been written about that, too. Toffler recommends reading science fiction as a way of learning of change). Essayists believe that we will eventually find extra-terrestrial life, and its form and chemistry basis will have the impact of totally changing our view of who we are and where we fit in the universe.

We know that if extra-terrestrial visitors came to Earth, they would be much more advanced than us. How would you react one day waking up to the morning news that such aliens had landed on earth? Would the people of the Earth finally come together as one humanity? Or would they seek to curry favor with the aliens as separate human nations? Would such an event truly be “The Day the Earth Stood Still”?

Geo-engineering, nuclear applications, cryo-technology, bioengineering, neuro-cosmetics, and many other topics are covered. A philosopher whose name is now forgotten, once suggested that whatever humans can conceive of and invent, they will use.

Think A-bomb. Does this have to be so?

Another essayist said, “We keep rounding an endless vicious circle. Will an idea or technology emerge anytime soon that will let us exit this lethal cyclotron before we meet our fate head-on and scatter into a million pieces? Will we outsmart our own brilliance before this planet is painted over with yet another layer of people? Maybe, but I doubt it.”

As for the book, try it; I don’t know that you’ll like it, but it’s important and real.

Change is coming!

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