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.

Future_sessionThe 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 reason 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 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 “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 the 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 by humanity of biology, which has been occurring in stages with each new piece of technology that augments our physical being and cognitive capacity. In this case, the trend is clear – we are gradually becoming more augmented by technology, for which the logical endpoint is that we eventually become technologically-based intelligence. This is the idea of The Singularity.

Finally, Clément spoke about “The Big Future: The next 14 billion years” outlining numerous Thresholds that led to re-engineering, and even “eating” stars – his “starivore” hypothesis – ultimately to re-booting the Universe with a new Big Bang 2.0.

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

Image credit: Group Photo – David Grinspoon’s Twitter stream (@DrFunkySpoon). LtoR: EB, CV, DG, JV.


On examining Preposterous! futures


In my futures work, I use a cone diagram (above,* and again below**) to show how our judgements about ideas about the future tend to fall into a number of categories:

Potential – everything beyond the present moment is a potential future, and it includes the “dark” area outside the edges of the cone that we cannot even imagine (yet), and so we are usually not aware of these explicitly, only implicitly, through an (often grudging) awareness of our ignorance. This category comes from the assumption that the future is not pre-determined, inevitable or “fixed”, which is the foundational axiom of Futures Studies.

Projected – the default, business as usual, extrapolated “continuation of the past through the present” “baseline” future.

Probable – those we think are “likely to” happen, usually based on current trends.

Plausible – those we think “could” happen based on our current understanding of how the world works (physical laws, social processes, etc).

Possible – these are those that we think “might” happen, based on some future knowledge we do not yet possess, but which we might possess someday (e.g., warp drive).

Preferable – those we think “should” or “ought to” happen – normative value judgements, as opposed to the mostly cognitive, above. There is also of course the converse – the un-preferred futures – but we generally don’t tend to use this derived specialised sub-category as much.

And, perhaps the most important of all:

Preposterous! – these are the futures we judge to be “impossible”, or that will “never” happen. This category arose from two main influences: Arthur C. Clarke’s Second Law – “the way to discover the limits of the possible is to move beyond them into the impossible” – and futurist James A. (Jim) Dator’s Second Law of the Future – “any useful idea about the future should appear ridiculous” (i.e., otherwise it is not new enough and not stretching our thinking enough beyond the conventional).

The judgement of “impossibility” or that something will “never” happen usually arises from the crossing of some unspoken assumption(s), so it is useful to examine the assumption base upon which the judgement of preposterousness is being made, and to examine whether that assumption base still holds true.


I’d like to call the Possible/Preposterous boundary the “Clarke-Dator Discontinuity”, or just the “Clarke-Dator Boundary”, in homage to these two fearless futures thinkers (see the image above** or the diagram below, showing the red arrows indicating the expansion of thinking into this zone).


Preposterous! futures will be a category for posts dedicated to trying to expand thinking about the future beyond the merely “possible” and fully into the realm of the (so-called) impossible; in other words, exploring the territory beyond the Clarke-Dator Boundary in the Futures Cone – the boundary of the Possible and the Preposterous! Some of the most important changes in human society and history have arisen from things thought to be totally preposterous. So let us cheerfully explore the vast territory of preposterousness beyond the Clarke-Dator Boundary!

* (Thanks to Clare Cooper [Twitter: @artsguts] for the ‘action shot’ above of my presentation at the Big History Institute Anthropocene conference on 11 Dec 2015)

** (Thanks to Bridgette Engeler [Twitter: @incognitosum] for the image taken a moment later showing the arrows indicating the expansion of thinking beyond the Clarke-Dator Boundary.