The Twin Tides Of Change

News stories are by their nature ephemeral. Whipped up by the media (whether mass or social), they soon dissipate, like ripples on the surface of the sea. More significant and durable are the great tides of social change and technological progress on which they ride. It is these that will continue to matter in decades and generations to come. Fortunately, like real tides, they are more predictable too.

One such inexorable trend is our changing relationship with the natural world—most vividly represented by the ongoing debate about whether humanity's impact has been so profound as to justify the christening of a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Whether or not a consensus emerges in the next few years, it will do so eventually, for our effect on the planet will only grow. This is in part because our technological capabilities continue to expand, but an even more important driver is our evolving collective psyche.

Since Darwin showed us that we are products of the natural world rather than its divinely appointed overlords, we have become reticent to fully impose our will, fearful of our own omnipotence and concerned that we will end up doing more harm than good. But however determinedly we draw such red lines we might as well be trying, Canute-like, to hold back the sea. For whatever is beyond the pale today will eventually come to seem so natural that it will barely register as news—even if it takes the death of the old guard to usher in a new way of thinking. To future generations, genetic engineering of plants and animals (and humans) will seem as natural as selective breeding is today, and planetary-scale geoengineering will become as necessary and pervasive as the construction of dams and bridges.

As for our place in nature, so too for our relationship with technology. Recent progress in artificial intelligence and bionics, in particular, have led to a great deal of soul-searching about who—or what—is in charge, and even what it means to be human. The industrial revolution saw machines replace human physical labor, but now that they are replacing mental labor too, what will be left for people to do? Even those who don't fear for their jobs might be angry when they discover that their new boss is an algorithm.

Yet since the invention of the wheel humans have lived in overwhelmingly happy and productive symbiosis with the technologies they have created. Despite our ongoing appetite for scare stories, we will continue to embrace such innovations as the primary source of improvements in our collective well being. In doing so we will come to see them as natural extensions of ourselves—indeed as enablers and enhancers of our humanity—rather than as something artificial or alien. A life lived partly in virtual reality will be no less real than one viewed through a pair of contact lenses; a person with a computer inserted in their brain, rather than merely into their pocket, will be seen as no less human than someone with a pacemaker; and stepping into a vehicle or aircraft without a human at the controls will come to be seen not as reckless but as benignly reassuring. We are surely not too far from the day when Edge will receive its first contribution from a genetically enhanced author or an artificial intelligence. That too will be big news, but not for long.

Thus, humanity is subject to two inexorably rising tides: a scientific and technological one in which the magical eventually becomes mundane, and a psychological and social one in which the unthinkable becomes unremarkable. Individual news stories will continue to make noise, but will come and go like breaking waves. Meanwhile beneath them, inconspicuous in their vastness, the twin tides of technological and social change will continue their slow but relentless rise. For generations to come they will go on testing and extending the boundaries of human knowledge and acceptance, causing both trepidation and wonder. This will be the real story of our species and our age.