Quo vadis Humanity?

I mentioned last year that I had made a presentation at the Big History Anthropocene conference held in December 2015 at Macquarie University and organised by the Big History Institute. The presentations from that conference can be viewed on YouTube, with the full playlist available at this URL. They are almost universally terrific — it was one of the most engagingly informative conferences I’ve been to, so I encourage you to dip into the playlist.

The final session — Session 6 — was themed Humanity’s Long-Term Prospects, and included talks from astrobiologist David Grinspoon, philosopher Clément Vidal, Big History Institute PhD candidate Elise Bohan, and, naturally, a futurist: me. The actual order was: David; myself; Elise; and Clément, and the organisers had a very clear and well thought-out rationale for this sequence.

David’s talk — Cognitive Planetary Transitions: An Astrobiological Perspective on the Sapiezoic Eon — laid out some of his thinking, developed and refined over the last several years, on the nature of different types of planetary changes — a taxonomy that includes four kinds:

  1. random (think asteroid or cometary impacts, such as the end-Cretaceous event ~65 Ma);
  2. biological (think the Great Oxygenation Event ~2.3 Ga due to “those irresponsible cyanobacteria” polluting the atmosphere with oxygen and leading to a mass exinction of species);
  3. inadvertent (think anthropogenic climate change as but one clear example of the many changes we have made to the Earth system); and
  4. deliberate (an existence proof of which is the Montreal Protocol formulated to reduce the hole in the atmospheric ozone layer due to chloroflurocarbons).

This last notion — that we could actually get our act together well enough to make positive changes to Earth with some wisdom, rather than the negative changes we’ve made so far by being mostly clueless — led David to suggest that the Anthropocene, which is being proposed (hence the conference) as a possible new epoch in Earth history, might in fact be the first stage of a new (much larger time-scale) eon, the Sapiezoic Eon, wherein wise long-term sentience becomes a key factor in the history of the Earth. This is a quite wonderful idea, and one that I find great resonance with, probably because we both grew up reading science-fiction that imagined a “grown-up” humanity expanding into the Galaxy. In fact, we can then immediately wonder whether there has been the equivalent of a Sapiezoic on other planets elsewhere… More recently, David has wondered — in his terrific book Earth in Human Hands — what other sentient beings (“Exo sapiens“) might get up to, once they crack the nut of the existential risk posed by what Carl Sagan called “technological adolescence”.

My talk sought to take a futurist perspective on the Anthropocene, viewing it as the place where Big History and the Big Future meet — where our increasing agency as a species has bumped up against the physical limits of the biosphere. In this view, also, sentience plays an important role — we are where information about the (very long cosmic) past meets anticipations of the (expanding and hopefully sentient) future. This observation is an homage to Erich Jantsch who noted, in his 1980 masterpiece The Self-Oganizing Universe, that with the emergence of consciousness as a part of cosmic evolution comes an ability for the universe to not only be aware of past information through the usual processes of causality, but also to imagine future information via imagination, hence: anticipation. I view Big History as our specific (idiographic) instance of the broader (nomothetic) process of Cosmic Evolution, as the latter has played out here on Earth. Therefore, astrobiology and its subset, SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) are supersets of Big History, and all are sub-sets of Cosmic Evolution. Consequently, the talk looked at two main futures – the “nearer” future of “Threshold 9” (i.e., extending David Christian’s eight-threshold view of Big History to the “next” threshold, also based around energy and energy flows), and the “much further” future of astrobiology/SETI, imagining what we might do as part of our, or what “someone” else may have done as part of their, post-Anthropocene analogue future – in this case a post-biological species re-engineering its own galaxy.

The idea of post-biological intelligence linked nicely to Elise’s talk about trans-humanism and the transcension of biology by humanity, which has been occurring in stages throughout human history with each new piece of technology that augments our physical being and/or cognitive capacity. In this case, the long trend is clear – we are gradually becoming more and more augmented by technology, for which the logical asymptotic endpoint is that we will eventually become technologically-based intelligence. This is the idea underpinning the well-known concept of The Singularity, and it was the starting point for my own imaginings of post-biological beings undertaking galactic renovations…

Finally, Clément spoke about “The Big Future: The next 14 billion years” outlining numerous further Thresholds, which led to re-engineering, and even “eating”, stars – his “starivore” hypothesis – and ultimately all the way up to “re-booting” the entire Universe with a new Big Bang 2.0 – a kind of Cosmic Ctrl-Alt-Delete! A very fitting bookmark ending to the historical view we have of the first 14-odd billion years of cosmic history…

In all, it was a really great conference, and our session in particular was obviously a total blast, if you like wide-open thinking at the very edge of possibility, and even of preposterousness … 😉

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