Assimilated Futures

I’ve long said that it is backwards to worry that technology will change faster than society can adapt, because the ability of society adapt is one of the main constraints on how fast we adopt new technologies. This insightful 2012 post by Venkatesh Rao elaborates on a related theme:

Both science fiction and futurism … fail to capture the way we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives. … The future always seems like something that is going to happen rather than something that is happening. …

Futurists, artists and edge-culturists … like to pretend that they are the lonely, brave guardians of the species who deal with the “real” future and pre-digest it for the rest of us. But … the cultural edge is just as frozen in time as the mainstream, … people who seek more stimulation than the mainstream, and draw on imagined futures to feed their cravings rather than inform actual future-manufacturing. …

When you are sitting on a typical modern jetliner, you are traveling at 500 mph in an aluminum tube that is actually capable of some pretty scary acrobatics. … Yet a typical air traveler never experiences anything that one of our ancestors could not experience on a fast chariot or a boat. Air travel is manufactured normalcy. …

This suggests that only those futures arrive for which there is human capacity to cope. This conclusion is not true, because a future can arrive before humans figure out whether they have the ability to cope. For instance, the widespread problem of obesity suggests that food-abundance arrived before we figured out that most of us cannot cope. And this is one piece of the future that cannot be relegated to specialists. …

Successful products are precisely those that do not attempt to move user experiences significantly, even if the underlying technology has shifted radically. In fact the whole point of user experience design is to manufacture the necessary normalcy for a product to succeed and get integrated. … What we get is a Darwinian weeding out of those manifestations of the future that break the continuity of technological experience. …

What about edge-culturists who think they are more alive to the real oncoming future? … The edge today looks strangely similar to the edge in any previous century. It is defined by reactionary musical and sartorial tastes and being a little more outrageous than everybody else in challenging the prevailing culture of manners. … If it reveals anything about technology or the future, it is mostly by accident. . …

At a more human level, I find that I am unable to relate to people who are deeply into any sort of cyberculture or other future-obsessed edge zone. There is a certain extreme banality to my thoughts when I think about the future. Futurists as a subculture seem to organize their lives as future-experience theaters. These theaters are perhaps entertaining and interesting in their own right, as a sort of performance art, but are not of much interest or value to people who are interested in the future in the form it might arrive in, for all.

It is easy to make the distinction explicit. Most futurists are interested in the future beyond the [manufactured normalcy field]. I am primarily interested in the future once it enters the Field, and the process by which it gets integrated into it. This is also where the future turns into money, so perhaps my motivations are less intellectual than they are narrowly mercenary. …

This also explains why so few futurists make any money. They are attracted to exactly those parts of the future that are worth very little. They find visions of changed human behavior stimulating. Technological change serves as a basis for constructing aspirational visions of changed humanity. Unfortunately, technological change actually arrives in ways that leave human behavior minimally altered. .. The mainstream never ends up looking like the edge of today. Not even close. The mainstream seeks placidity while the edge seeks stimulation. (more)

Yes, I’m a guilty-as-charged futurist focused on changes far enough distant that there’s little money to be made understanding them now. But I share Rao’s emotional distance from the future-obsessed cultural edge. I want to understand the future not as morality tale to validate my complaints against today’s dominant culture; I instead want to foresee the assimilated future. That is, I want to see how future people will actually see their own world, after they’ve found ways to see it banally as a minimal change from the past.

Cultural futurists have complained that the future I describe in my upcoming book The Age of Em is too conservative in presuming the continuation of supply and demand, inequality, big organizations, status seeking, and so on. Don’t I know that tech will change everything, and soon? No, actually I don’t know that.

Added: To be clear, eventually fundamentals may well change. But the rate of such changes is low enough that in a medium term future most fundamental features probably haven’t changed yet.

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  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    I’ve long said that it is backwards to worry that technology will change faster than society can adapt, because the ability of society adapt is one of the main constraints on how fast we adopt new technologies.

    Would have expected a link.

    Anyway, what does “backwards” mean? The strongest you might justify is that it is (prima facie) improbable that technology will evolve faster than society can adapt. [This gives you little purchase in considering a concrete scenario.]

  • Dave Lindbergh

    Future tech won’t change everything, but it will change some things.

    Supply and demand are not a function of technology; that won’t change.

    But status seeking is a function of human psychology. If future tech supports changing human genetics, then human psychology can change.

    And such changes could lead to a recursive, unpredictable chain of further changes (it’s hard to predict what further changes people fundamentally unlike ourselves may choose).

    Whether such changes will lead to people who survive and persist over time will be up to evolution. As usual.

    • IMASBA

      Agreed: once human psychology gets changed all bets are off. And new realities, such as em-societies may interact with existing human psychology in ways that are hard for us to predict.

    • free_agent

      You write, “it’s hard to predict what further changes people fundamentally unlike ourselves may choose”.

      As long as human psychology is molded by evolution, it will be within the range of psychologies that we’ve already seen in the living world. Of course, if we devise technology to get around evolution, then future humans could be very different. OTOH, they’d probably be more vulnerable to extinction, since they wouldn’t be driven by their own propagation.

      • Charlene Cobleigh Soreff

        >As long as human psychology is molded by evolution, it will be within
        the range of psychologies that we’ve already seen in the living world.

        Really? Human short term memory has been described as “the magic number seven, plus or minus two”. Expanding that, even by a factor of two, would confer a big evolutionary advantage, but would be outside of the range of psychologies we’ve already seen.

      • free_agent

        You write, “Expanding that, even by a factor of two, would confer a big evolutionary advantage”

        How do we know that?

      • Charlene Cobleigh Soreff

        There are a lot of economic activities that are limited by short term memory. Even things as simple as dealing with locations of files in a directory structure often bump up against memory limits. In a complex technological society, I’d expect that doubling short term memory would give a substantial economic advantage to someone, and this could potentially be exploited as a reproductive advantage (that, admittedly, is much iffier).

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Everything subject to variation and selection is molded by evolution. There’s no “getting around” that; it’s a fact of nature.

        But I don’t see any reason to think evolution has already explored all viable psychologies.

        Humans are adapted to life in small tribes. Lots of our current problems stem from traits that were adaptive in that environment, but which are inappropriate to today’s “big society” full of millions of strangers.

        If and when we get to experiment with different psychologies, I expect that we can find better ones (for example, eliminating the many well-known irrationalities of human thinking), better adapted to today’s and tomorrow’s world.

        This is my own best hope for the future survival of intelligence. I fear we’re so poorly adapted to handling the technologies we already have (let alone what we’ll have soon), that without such changes we’ll self-extinct soon.

        In that process of adaptation there will be lots of failures of course. That’s how evolution works.

      • IMASBA

        “But I don’t see any reason to think evolution has already explored all viable psychologies.”

        “If and when we get to experiment with different psychologies, I expect that we can find better ones (for example, eliminating the many well-known irrationalities of human thinking), better adapted to today’s and tomorrow’s world.”

        Being bothered by irrationalities is part of human psychology as well (and it’s possible changing that aspect will turn out to be easier/more viable than removing the irrationalities themselves). When we can change our preferences we can also change our ideas of what is “better”, so there really is no telling what the end result will be. And if this stuff takes off I expect groups of humans to branch off into what will be practially different species, so the end result won’t be the same for all of our descendants.

  • IMASBA

    “I’ve long said that it is backwards to worry that technology will change faster than society can adapt, because the ability of society adapt is one of the main constraints on how fast we adopt new technologies.”

    It may constrain 99 out of 100 technologies but the one that gets through can still cause a lot of change. Rao already provides the example of obesity and with the possibility of externalization of costs any number of technologies we can’t cope with can still be adopted by a minority who benefit from it in the short term. That doesn’t mean technology will lead to our extinction but it could very well lead to periodic decimation.

    • free_agent

      Quit true. There can always be change that some subset of the population fails to adapt to. E.g., the introduction of smallpox into the new world. Or within a market context, the introduction of modern transportation (containerization and interstate highways) made it possible for factories to locate in most places in the US rather than just the center cities. This change was avidly embraced, but was in no way “normalized” for the consumption of the big, old cities or their working-class populations (much of it black).

      Hmmm, this really is the definition of “disruptive change” as that term is used in biz-speak.

      It seems like the crux is “Who are the population whose permission is needed to adopt the change?” The change must be sugar-coated for *that* population.

  • free_agent

    This article was a wonderful grab-bag of shrewd observations!

    You write “the continuation of supply and demand, inequality, big organizations, status seeking”.

    I can imagine most of those going away, since they’ve only been around since the invention of agriculture. But our ancestors have been status seeking since before they were human, and our descendants will likely be doing so after.

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  • MPS17

    I think if we opened our eyes we’d also see that the fundamentals are changing right before them.

    People’s behavior today is quite different than it was just ten years ago. Today, something like half of the industrialized world spends something like an hour a day looking at their mobile phone. It connects them to all of their friends and to most of the services in the world — and governs a major fraction if not most of their interactions with people and businesses — and it’s with them all the time. You can talk to it and it talks back. Soon, it will not only give you answers, it will interact with others on your behalf to complete non-trivial organizational tasks for you.

    How futuristic does it sound to tell your phone to plan a trip to Barcelona for you and you tell it a date range and price range and it gets it done? That’s gonna happen, and I expect most people would shrug and say “yeah that seems likely,” and yet consider how amazing it is!

    Eventually, I think we will turn a corner were we will want to be more intimately plugged into these devices. How futuristic does it sound to be able to communicate with others telepathically through a device connected to your head? That’s quite a bit down the road, but I think when it comes, it will feel like the next natural step in convenience.

  • Riothamus

    Given that society is not homogeneous, what prevents a segment of it from adapting more quickly than the general rate? The question would then be whether the segment in question is a large enough market by itself to continue development of the relevant technology.

    This seems relevant because the influence of technology on my life isn’t chosen chiefly by me, but rather by a series of specialized groups. My life is chiefly the consequences of their decisions.

  • http://invariant.org/ Peter Gerdes

    I think people who worry that, “technology will change faster than society can adapt” have something like the following in mind:

    There are always ways that people can defect from social good in ways that hurt others and benefit themselves. For instance, theft, identity theft, selling defective products, misleading consumers about science, even political attack ads that undermine beneficial ways of deciding on our leaders.

    Society has evolved ways of curbing these harmful behaviors. Sometimes in a top down fashion (law enforcement) and sometimes in a bottom up fashion (community norms about gossip or sexual fidelity). People who worry that technology will change faster than society can adapt really mean that societal corrective forces can’t keep up with the social changes technology brings about.