Insights · February 25th, 2007
A number of the futurist email lists I belong to have been full of questions about how optimistic we should be about the future. Some of the discussion is about whether Ray Kurzweil’s predictions will come true as soon as he thinks (will we have artificial intelligence in 2030 or 2050 or 2070?). Others are about whether or not humanity will have the medical breakthroughs necessary for long, healthy lives before it is too late for us as individuals.
I don’t think these questions matter much. I mean, they are intellectually interesting. The answers will matter in the future, but can’t be seen clearly in the present. Perhaps there is a more fundamental question: Will the future be better than the present?
First, let’s start more simply. Is this time, February 2007, better than the past? I think so. I like a time when much of the world’s knowledge is at my fingertips. I like being able to travel around the world, and the ability to send an email to almost anyone in it. Oh, today’s not perfect – I don’t like wars, for example. But I can’t easily pinpoint a past where there weren’t any. It feels like they are getting more dangerous. But really, World War II was worse – imagine being a soldier on the Maginot line. We haven’t had World War III, and maybe we won’t. I hope with all my heart we’ll have less and less war, and then none. The light of a world full of little privacy shines on most ill deeds, whether done by governments or individuals. And that might bring peace, someday. So yes, I think today is better than yesterday.
I talk to a lot of audiences about a lot of topics. As a people, we’re not very sure about tomorrow. We worry about what we will leave our kids. Deficits. Dangers inherent in genetic engineering (of people and food). Global warming. Pollution. I could make a bigger list, but we all know the bogeymen of today, and we all know some are real. We even know yesterday’s fears (such as nuclear proliferation and eventual war) are still partly untamed. Our famous scientists (like Stephen Hawking) talk about the need to flee before we destroy our home. So we’re at least a little afraid of the future.
Being afraid of the future will help make it better. It keeps us cautious. The things we have today that make the world small (the internet, the light of accountability) may help keep it safe. Knowledge is growing, and so is access to knowledge. In the past, as knowledge shone on various civilizations, they generally got better. Recently, knowledge and education have helped third world countries develop stronger economies and more social equalities. India’s rise is at least partly related to a commitment to education. Education is one of the biggest tools, worldwide, in the fight against AIDS. I’m willing to bet connectivity and knowledge will continue to increase, and to create better places and lives. So my hope – no better than that, my expectation – is that the future will be better than today. There is reason for optimism to temper our fear and lift our hearts.