Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Future Imperfect

Jörg Friedrich:

We don’t always strive for perfection. To the contrary: as a species, we often embrace imperfect conditions instead of attempting to better them. A desire for perpetual progress isn’t encoded in our genes. Large periods of human history were relatively static. For many generations, our forefathers lived contently without desiring radical change. We also know of contemporary tribes in inaccessible regions of the earth that appear to be quite happy with the world as it is and with their place within it. These tribes don’t necessarily aspire to “be different” or to be more like us.

In the modern West, many people are similarly sceptical of radical change even if it promises great technological, social or medical benefits. As Shakespeare already knew, it’s often easier for us to endure existing hardship than it is to aspire to an unknown future.

Why does this matter? Because attempts to develop new technologies and to propel engineering forward often fail to account for the diversity of views on progress. We are presented with shining examples of scientific possibilities that will change our everyday lives whether we desire it or not. Yet from the perspective of an objective observer, the introduction of many new technologies is unnecessary. Their development isn’t driven by some innate need for progress and survival but by our own curiosity and enthusiasm for new gadgets and by economic interests.

This is something I think about a lot. It's only been in the last few hundred years that knowledge and technological prowess have begun to exponentially increase, but we've quickly become accustomed to thinking of this as something inevitable. As is often the case, Hume is there wagging his finger at us, reminding us that we ultimately have no solid foundation upon which to rest our blithe assumption that tomorrow will be a teleological improvement upon today. 165 million years of dinosaurs existing as a species ultimately meant nothing. Whatever we might hope or think will happen to a species of hairless ape that has only been around for a fraction of that time, we don't know. There is no precedent here. And so, what might it be like if humanity were forced to reacclimate itself to such a static, cyclical way of life?