Someone once famously asked, “Where we all going? And what are we doing in this handbasket?”
Predicting the future is an old game. It’s popular because it’s fun and frequently profitable, especially if you are sufficiently vague or incomprehensible. The Book of Revelation is a good example. John’s vivid accounts of horn-blowing angels, floods, devastations, numbered beasts, and a harlot riding a 10-headed monster (only to be devoured by it) has been popular for nearly 2000 years, though I wouldn’t recommend it for children’s bedtime reading. People have a great time trying to figure out what he was talking about; they’ve suggested everything from Nazi Germany to Al Qaeda. Most biblical scholars agree that a harlot was actually a reference to the Roman emperor Nero, who was alive at the time Revelation was written, and that the ten-headed beast was the Roman Empire itself. John, they say, was simply writing a prophecy of what he wanted to happen: Nero to be overthrown and Christianity to prevail within the Roman Empire. But where’s the fun in that?
The ArchDruid and Oil
Over at the ArchDruid Report, John Michael Greer posts weekly about the coming apocalypse and what one ought to do about it. His articles are extremely thought-provoking, well reasoned, and informative. He suggests that, with peak oil arriving in the next 10 to 20 years, the myth of the inexorable rise of living standards will be exploded, leading to a painful, if gradual, contraction. When gasoline reaches $20 per gallon, it will no longer be practical to drive oranges across the country in big trucks. Digging coal out of the ground will be more expensive, since we use gasoline powered machines do that, so the price of electricity will also go up disastrously. Much of rural America will be left without power, and large cities will experience frequent brownouts. Local economies based on the value of human labor will become much more important. I’m not sure I agree (see this post for more thoughts), but he makes a good case.
A World of Philosopher Kings
On the other hand we have Steve Pavlina, who suggests that the vibrational energy of humans everywhere is increasing, and we may be headed soon to an ideal, unified world government. Steve doesn’t explain why having one government is what we need — certainly it would be nice to have some world body more effective than the United Nations to resolve conflict, but it’s not clear to me that more government is the answer there. In fact, if people everywhere become kinder, nicer, more thoughtful, more empowered, etc., it seems like we’d need less government, not more.
Rise of the Machines
Then there are those look at the trends in technology and foresee that in the next 15 to 20 years, artificial intelligences will completely take over the world. It is inevitable, they say: the intelligence of the machines is increasing exponentially, and before long it is bound to pass our own. Once that happens, we will not be, cannot be, our own masters. Personally, I doubt very much that this will happen no matter what the economic or technological advantages might be to create machines with powerful, general-purpose problem-solving capability (and, in fact, I’m not sure there are any such advantages). I think humans are just too paranoid to make the things. You can look at how people have treated slaves in the past to predict how they’ll treat intelligent machines in the future. 2/5 of the population of the American South at the time of the Civil War were slaves, and these enslaved individuals might have been viewed as a great source of expendable soldiers; but for obvious reasons, the slaves were never armed and sent into battle.
You Are Normal
One of the more intriguing ways of trying to predict the future is called the “Copernican” method, invented by a contemporary physicist named Frank Tipler (also known for inventing a number of time machines that do not break any known laws of physics). This method, of course, is named after Copernicus, who is most famous for his radical theory that the earth is not the center of the universe. (Einstein later showed that he was wrong — the earth is the center of the universe; and everywhere else is, too.)
The method is this: assume the object of study or speculation is normal for objects in its class. For example, suppose you want to predict how long you’ll live. Instead of trying to learn everything you can about the mechanisms of your body and the rate at which they decay, you can simply look at other human beings and see how long they live. This will give you an answer which will probably the correct within a factor of two. (Maybe you want a more exact answer? Then you can try refining your class. That is, you can compare yourself to other human beings who are the same gender is you, about the same healthiness as you, similar socioeconomic bracket, etc.) Of course, you can do the same thing for other questions: are you going to go to college? Are you going to get a good job? Are you going to get married? You can do a reasonably good job of predicting the answers to these questions simply by assuming that you will be normal within your class of individuals. Of course, not everyone is normal; but you’re much more likely to be normal and not — that’s the definition of normal.
Now try this method with other objects. When will the economic sovereignty of the United States come to an end? Well, one should find comparable empires and see how long they lasted. The Soviet Union last 50 years; the British Empire lasted 100; the Spanish empire also lasted about a hundred years. The ascendancy of the Roman Empire lasted about 600 years (counting from the Punic wars to about 400 CE), so either the Roman empire is a different kind of empire in important ways, or else the lifetime of empires is quite variable. Still, we can confidently predict that the United States is unlikely to last another two hundred years.
Just How Weird Are We?
And now apply this logic to our own industrial civilization. What will be our fate? Here we find a possible weakness of the Copernican method: we have no other worldwide, industrial civilizations to compare us ourselves with. We could compare ourselves with small-scale preindustrial civilizations , but few of them have actually died out — most of them were conquered, transformed, or still exist. So how can we compare ourselves to other civilizations if we don’t know of any?
Actually, we do know something about other worldwide industrial civilizations: either we’re the only one, or we can’t detect them.
Take the first possibility. Using the logic of Copernicus, the fact that we are unique in our class means that we are extremely unlikely and abnormal, and probably very short-lived. In other words, the most likely scenario is that there were many other civilizations like ours, but they have all died out. This means our civilization is likely to die out as well.
Now look at the second possibility. If other industrial civilizations simply aren’t visible to our telescopes, they must be very different from ours. Our civilization is broadcasting radio waves in all directions at high-intensity, and every alien civilization within 70 ly knows we’re here. (Outside that distance, our radio waves haven’t reached them yet.) If the lifetime of a radio-wave-emitting civilization is, on average, a thousand years, then we would expect to see dozens of civilizations like ours. But we don’t; which means that the civilizations are probably either short-lived or they stop broadcasting, for whatever reason. So, using the Copernicus method, we can predict that human civilization will either fall back to preindustrial level or stop broadcasting, probably within less than a thousand years.
Why would a civilization stop broadcasting? There are different possibilities. If the ArchDruid is right, then it might be because spraying radio waves out into space is wasteful of energy, and energy is about to become very expensive. If Steve Pavlina is right, were all going to become telepathic, and radio and television will become obsolete. If the technophiles are right, maybe it’s because robots don’t like to watch television or listen to the radio.
…than You can Possibly Imagine
Fortunately or unfortunately, the most likely thing is that all of these scenarios are completely off the mark. We can actually use the Copernicus method to judge how well people do at predicting the future. We can see immediately that the average — nay, the vast majority of all future predictions are completely wrong. A certain American president recently predicted that the current war would be over within six months, and years later, it’s still going on. A leader of the Soviet Union predicted that his nation would be standing by at the burial of Western capitalist civilization, but we totter on. Thomas Jefferson predicted that it would take a thousand years for Europeans to settle the American continent. Jesus Christ, a man whose words are known to carry some weight in certain circles, said, two thousand years ago, that he would be back “soon”. If even a God can’t predict the future, what hope do we have?
The bottom line, of course, is that the future is completely unpredictable. Thank goodness for that! Tomorrow, the next chapter begins.