Positive vs. Negative Futures

March 26 2008 / by Alvis Brigis
Category: Other   Year: General   Rating: 7

When considering the future, is it more important to focus on the extinction risk posed by advancing technology or the massive potential for social advancement enabled by the same?

Futurist blogger and core Lifeboat Foundation member Michael Anissimov argues that calculating and combating existential risk is the moral imperative of our time.

Anissimov writes, “In less than a decade, humanity will likely develop weapons even more deadly than nukes – synthetic life, and eventually, nanorobots and self-improving AI. Even if we consider the likelihood of human extinction in the next century to be small, say 1%, it still merits attention due to the incredibly high stakes involved.”

Jamais Cascio, founder of worldchanging.com and a popular futurist blogger in his own right, concurs that existential risk is a most valid concern.

In a recent Nanotechnology Now column he explains, “[S]ome technologies may enable individuals or small groups to carry out attacks, on infrastructure or people, at a scale that would have required the resources of an army in decades past. This is not an outlandish concern by any means; many proponents of the “super-empowered angry individual” (SEAI) concept cite the September 11 attacks as a crude example of how vulnerable modern society can be to these kinds of threats. It’s not hard to imagine what a similar band of terrorists, or groups like Aum Shinrikyo, might try to do with access to molecular manufacturing or advanced bioengineering tools.”

But then Cascio turns things around a bit and points out that “angry people aren’t the only ones who could be empowered by these technologies.”

“As a parallel, the core of the “super-empowered hopeful individual” (SEHI) argument is that these technologies may also enable individuals or small groups to carry out socially beneficial actions at a scale that would have required the resources of a large NGO or business in decades past,” writes Cascio, “They would rebuild towns or villages after a natural disaster, or provide health care to refugees; they would clean up environmental toxins, or build renewable energy systems. ... They would carry out the kinds of projects that humanitarian organizations do today, but be able to do so with smaller numbers, greater speed, and a far larger impact.”

So where does that leave us when deciding how much of our future simulation(s) to devote to one or the other?

To me, this seems like a “chicken or the egg”, “yin and yang”, “day and night” situation where it’s clear that we, as a species, need to focus on both, as I’m sure Cascio and Anissimov would agree, and establish the broadest spectrum of future scenarios. That being said, my hunch is that on an individual level generalism is probably not the best way to go.

Yes, it’s important for futurists and thinkers to understand as much of the system as possible, but at the same time we need people to excel at imagining very thin slices of the future—positive-futurists, risk-focused futurists, targeted domain futurists, and futurists with unconventional styles. Like dogged entrepreneurs or focused athletes who are blind to all else but their goal, the futurists who can zone-in on a particular scenario or vision will likely advance that idea set farther than a more balanced generalist whose simulational capacity is more distributed across different areas.

We need to reward futurists for how far their ideas and models can stretch and expand our vision of the future, so that collectively we can grow out the largest, most comprehensive and versatile simulation of what’s coming next. To accomplish this, IMO, we need to keep pushing the envelope with new and better prediction markets and social media applications that can further amplify the mass computation underlying all of the individual futuring by allowing individuals to contribute in their preferred modes and styles. As the our future gets increasingly complex, only by coordinating our imaginations and research efforts can we hope to optimize our foresight.

There’s never any guarantee that a given person will solve any huge piece of the puzzle, but it’s likely that together we’ll solve a great deal more of it. Foresight facilitated by social media that lets each “agent” offer something unique may well be our best way to effect the most socially desirable outcome.

Whether you find yourself on the dark or bright side of futurism, what matters most is that you bring your A-game and encourage others to do so as well.

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