In late 2012 HSBC, a large international bank, executed an advertising campaign dubbed “In the future…”. These ads, appearing in business magazines and international airports, featured predictions about technology and economics, and pronouced, “a new world is emerging.” Several of the ads presented HSBC’s accord with ‘green’ technologies, such as one claim that, “In the future, we will all fly organic.” The accompanying image places mushroom gills within an airliner turbine, presenting biofuels as an emerging and profitable investment. Alignment of international banking with alternative energy was always going to require careful analysis, but other components of this ad campaign turn downright disturbing. An image of a fish with a barcode on it proclaims, “In the future, the food chain and the supply chain will merge.”i
Another states, “In the future, nature and technology will work as one,” while depicting a bee with camera lenses for eyes.ii
In fact, implanting microchips in moths is old tech these days – DARPA’s HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems), a project that implanted chips in moths’ pupa stage and successfully guided neural growth into a control system used to ‘fly’ these creatures by remote control, is being supplanted by micro-mechanical spy drones modeled directly on insects (1) (2). Similarly, RFID gets serious use in the fishing industry for product tracking (3). Nature and technology are apparently already ‘working as one’ at the service of the military and global consumption – HSBC’s most sci-fi ads simply reflect the current state of affairs. We have here a bank asking us to follow along in its vision of the future, one that openly repackages dystopia as an insightful investment opportunity.
HSBC isn’t alone in sharing their warm feelings for frightening scenarios. A recent advertisement from the company ManpowerGroup features a DNA molecule unraveling into a dragon and beckons “… China asked us to examine the DNA of their workforce and reshape it for the future. We’re now preparing people for jobs in healthcare, engineering, and IT.” This content appears to float the notion of using DNA profiling or genetic design to sculpt a human workforce. In reality, the company uses the term DNA metaphorically: their way of referring to fundamentals within an economy. Nevertheless, the fact that such a play would be deemed appropriate, or even enticing, reflects the bizarre environment which birthed this advertisement. Taking stock of our current circumstances, it might seem less surprising.
Consider this future: synthetic organisms, self healing plastics, nano machines installed within the human body, universalized surveillance, cloning, autonomous robotic soldiers, sex androids with pre-programmed online-swappable personalities, pervasive GMO pollen contamination (4). These seem like topics for science fiction fantasy but they are in fact just components of ‘news’ in our current world. That the nexus of these new developments is difficult for us to truly accept is easy to see – it’s typical to refer to our emerging paradigm as a science fiction reality, when in fact little fiction remains. The creation of the first organism with a fully synthetic genome in 2010 coincided with a Pentagon investment of $6 million aimed at engineering gene sequences from the ground up for “intended biological effect” complete with a genetically coded kill switch (5). In the private sector, the company Universal Bio Mining is pursuing open release of synthetic micro-organisms as a necessary move to make their remediation strategies economical (6). Back at DARPA, 2013 marked the inception of the In Vivo Nanoplatforms (IVN) program, which seeks the deployment of interactive nanoparticles within a soldier to continuously, wirelessly, and remotely monitor the individual’s health status and also deploy therapeutic medicines without visiting a clinic (7). Writing on robotics, the relatively mainstream magazine Foreign Affairs is reporting that India, Israel, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States are all pursuing fully autonomous robotic soldiers. The question at hand is not the design of these systems, as fully autonomous robots have been used in the field for some time now. Rather, Foreign Affairs discusses whether targeting decisions, the choice of when to kill, should be “out sourced” to these machines (8). For a look at what fully autonomous weapons might look like, we need only check in at the YouTube stream of advanced robotics lab Boston Dynamics for either the 4-legged ‘Big Dog’ capable of regaining its balance on ice, or the PETMAN robot, a spitting image of the Terminator (9) (10). In bio-ethics news, 2013 marked the first published successes of cloning human embryos, peer reviewed and vetted in the journal Cell (11). Checking in with the latest maps, we see that the northwest passage so sought after by explorers for the last several hundred years is now open for more efficient shipping, and better profit margins, due to dramatically increased arctic ice melt attributable to climate change (12) (13). Meanwhile the global environment is filling with persistent bioaccumlative toxic chemicals, a swirling eddy of tiny plastic bits is collecting in the pacific ocean, and the major nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima reactor continues to leak radioactive water into the ocean at rate of 300 tonnes a day; certification specialists and farmers state that most organic corn, soy, and canola grown in the continental United States test positive for transgenic genes from GMO pollen contamination (14) (15) (16) (17) (18).
Comprehending the interaction of these complex, man made phenomena is overwhelming. Theory or collective knowledge built up over thousands of years of human experience simply does not apply. Certainly the arrival of the industrial revolution and subsequent transformation of the surface of the planet by war and industry is mind numbing enough, but the rate of disruption is only expanding and with nearly incomprehensible consequences. Who except a science fiction author is truly equipped to theorize against the interaction of subtle radiation sickness with transgenic mutations in our food supply and massive climate change induced wildfires (19) (20)? And what will robotic armies owned by corporately influenced governments in 3rd world countries stricken by side effects of GMO crops actually look like when they are guarding fiercely coveted water supplies or rare mineral mines? After a certain point, the complexity simply becomes too great – many, many new variables and not enough time to understand them. HSBC is actually right, a new world is emerging – a world of sheer insanity piloting itself directly into a long period of gruesome unmaking. Yet for those that don’t see dystopia as a potential business opportunity, where is the place of power in this madness to speak from, to begin a critique, or to build an alternative?
One response to unacceptable circumstances is to clamor for political revolution, but something more fundamental is at stake here. To make a plan of action, it is necessary to be able to imagine a future that will be feasible. It’s become unclear whether this is a future to even be discussed. In what terms are we to think of the future at all? With blinders off, let’s consider a few of the more common approaches.
Versions of the Future
Disengagement: There’s no way out. One relationship to the future is simply to let the machines grind away – a cold and bitter analysis that lays a sick world to its final rest, or at least one in which humanity plays little part. Some simply recommend not focusing on the deconstruction at hand, or apprehending the consequences of their actions and technologies, yet unwilling to disrupt their status quo. It’s hard to avoid this dissipated vantage point when confronting the tragedy of history. From the corporate employee aware of the negative outcomes of the larger body but willing to continue as cog in the wheel, to the media star who delivers an entertainment product with no real teaching, here is an unwillingness to engage the question. The yearning for an endless party in the face of disaster is a similar disconnect, just a different way to close down, turn off, and surrender. This unifying experience is simply despair. It might make an emotional relationship with the news easier to deal with, but it’s not a basis for operation. You can’t avoid the future just because it’s unpleasant to consider – engagement is the only option.
Vision Tech: Antipodal to despair is the full engagement of technology as our savior. Sometimes called vision tech, some hold that technological development is the path to utopia. Here negative consequences are mere bumps in the road leading to an expansive existence filled with ultimate freedom. Vision tech, with its classic manifestations in transhumanism and extropianism, at least has an ideal it’s aiming toward (21). Ray Kurzweil, one this future’s major proponents, foretells a coming ‘singularity’ when technological advance will reach such a blinding pace that reality will be transformed around us in a matter of minutes (22). Kurzweil doesn’t see this as a business opportunity nor as negative end, but rather the final ascendency of humankind into a virtual world of cloud computing that is endlessly backed up and indestructible, or an existence filled with nanomachines that cure our every illness and give us complete control over reality. The cracks show when we consider how messianic this perspective is, a reliance on prophecy of a particular way technological development could play out to solve all our problems in an instant. We can easily imagine many non-utopian futures, on what grounds do we determine the utopian one will win out? Douglas Hofstadter, another major explorer of cognitive science and AI, wasn’t convinced of Kurzweil’s claims and took him on directly in the mid 2000s (23). Perhaps Hofstadter’s most profound reflection was that even if our entire reality, including ourselves, is in an instance scanned into a virtual environment, and we changed into a surrealistic substrate of endlessly reconfigurable nano-machines, we would have hardly solved the existential or societal issues we set out to confront. Kurzweil’s utopia solves the world by annihilating it, which isn’t so much of a future after all. Perhaps a less extreme version could work in theory, but it all comes down to a faith that everything will in fact turn out right. Leaning hard on belief is almost understandable since the alternative is terrifying – rather than a final ascendency our technology will probably hand us a chaotic trip in catastrophic unknowns.
Sustainability: In calmer waters from apocalypse or transcendence, we find the future proposed by sustainability theory. Riding a major wave of ecological concern over the last decade, sustainability has found considerable traction in both academic and business landscapes. This version of the future extols a balance between economic, social, and environmental needs, with the most commonly referenced outcome being sustainable development: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (24). A good hearted conception for the future, re-imagining of business, society, and ecological awareness with an in-built critique of millenia of human overuse of natural resources. But will it work? Sustainability requires intense oversight of abusers, and so necessitates that those in power be themselves mainly concerned with sustainability. Since those in power are quite often those that are powerful, and not necessarily those with particularly grounded value systems, sustainability may be in trouble. And then also we might ask, sustainability of what? Figuring out how to maintain our current way of life, including Walmart and Burger King, probably is not sufficient to avoid dystopian outcomes. The sustainability in question often seems to reference sustaining business, including profits and exploitations, rather than a fundamental shift in perspective. If green energy programs make a company less competitive, or if a disruptive company or nation-state wants to fight its way into the marketplace, deep shifts away from resource over-utilization don’t appear to be incentivized. Sustainability is clearly a matter of perspective. In 2013, Monsanto’s international homepage bears the title “A Sustainable Agriculture Company”iii.
Sustaining our current rate of energy use is the justification for environmentally destructive hydrofracturing and tar sands oil extractioniv.
The Primitive: As we run out of options in our exploration of the future, it becomes attractive to bet it all on the downfall of civilization. As Derrick Jensen argued in his 2 volume work Endgame, the fundamental problem might be civilization itself. Jensen argues for a shift in strategy in radical environmentalism, which should focus on dismantling civilization and a return to an agrarian communal life (26). Sadly, conflict between communal agrarian societies and highly militarized, technologically advanced civilizations has normally ended in the consolidation of control by the latter. An aggressive de-evolution of technology seems unlikely to succeed expressly because complex civilizations have access to superior, deadly weaponry of many kinds, and huge incentive to deploy these technologies. Jensen’s focus on communalism is a ground point for a more balanced human societal structure, but bringing this about through the flag of primitivism will never succeed. In a sense, the ‘downfall of civilization’ is much like Kurzweil’s singularity, an almost religious delivery with many less optimistic, and more likely, endgames.
Hypercapital: A future where all aspects of life become economies, where all interactions on all levels of society are regarded as producer/consumer exploitations with revenue as the common goal. While other versions of the future attempt alternatives to this formation, they share a common problem: they are abstract concepts rather than realities. Just as HSBC so clearly points out, hypercapitalism is the real future, because it’s the one that is already happening. A completely unacceptable world that is already taking place, we live more and more in a repackaging of Phillip K. Dick’s dystopia as the next mainstream commercial product, a promise of new resources, ideas, and industries that in reality maps to an ever more fine grained life out of balance. This future we have is actually no future at all.
Seeing a Path
Those that desire a radical break with an unacceptable world are faced with an intractable problem: as a consequence of the speed, complexity, and scale of planetary transformation, visioning a workable alternative future has become unfeasible. We are blockaded by novel, chaotic interactions between biochemical compounds, genome splicing, autonomous robotics, climate disturbance, and synthetic organisms influencing everything from geopolitics down to the substrate of our own bodies. There are enough unknowns in this scenario to overwhelm any theory or conception; strategy is deconstructed to tactics, and tactics are deconstructed to resignation. In spite of being left with little basis, some of us still demand a different reality; our imaginations refuse to lay down their quest. Radical or post media operator, we reach for a common future. Indeed, we require a common vision to coordinate our actions. But when we reach, where is that future? Where is that shared dream?
We speak from the time of the gathering storm. Humanity is beginning an experience unlike anything in its millennia of history, more dangerous and more bizarre than even the havoc of the 20th century. Humans and their planet will come out the other side dramatically altered in completely foreign ways. Any opportunity to completely arrest this process has been lost – many effects already seen do not have straightforward negotiations. The most dramatic of changes may happen during the current generation, or it may take 100 years. But the storm is coming, that is clear. A complex confluence of completely new phenomena a bit like Kurzweil’s singularity, but with utopia replaced by fragmentation and mayhem. The terrain of this future world is unknowable, and yet we need to accept its existence. What’s more important than frantically modeling this new world in supercomputers or attempting clairvoyant access is understanding what we can still do to influence it. The problems we see for tomorrow may not be solvable in this day, simply because there are too many vectors still in flux. Yet in the complex future interleave of technological overrun, resource scarcity, climate disruption, and serial confusion, there will still be new minds coming into being. Awarenesses will see this world, and together they will make a culture. The question is not if a culture will develop from the storm, but what it will be. A culture rising during a rapid recombination of agrarian, industrial, and information society, combining spirituality with spiritual machines, bio-mechanical medicines with ancient traditions. A culture experiencing radical self reliance and radical oppression, warlords and social media, space travel and ever more ubiquitous surveillance. There are many directions culture can develop within disruption, some are expansive and some are horrible. In this regard the counter culture wave of the 20th century is the counterpoint to the Weimar Republic’s slide into the Third Reich. Our contribution today is to make a demonstration. We might not have a connection to “the future” but we can have a connection to its people, we can help this future culture in its coming into being. The path is not in detailed ideology or rigid conception, but in practices and principles. Our words, critiques, actions, and stories converse with the future. What matters is collaboration across time. Our powerful vantage is our locus in history, recognizing and reflecting the paradox of a future without a future. We might not stop disaster, but relaying our intention is crucial. The minds of the future may be even more lost than we are. We must speak to the storm from our place of power, so that the future can be found when it is once again available.
(1) Page, Lewis. “DARPA to create brain-chipped cyborg moths.” The Register, May 31 2007. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/05/31/cyborg_chipped_terminator_moths_aiee/
(2) Bumiller, Elisabeth and Thom Shanker. “War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs.” New York Times, June 19th 2011.
(3) Wessel, Rhea. “Swedish Fisheries Board Expected to Issue Fish-Traceability Framework in Mid-2012.” RFID Journal, December 27th, 2011.
(4) Salton, Jeff. “Roxxxy the US$7,000 companion/sex robot.” Gizmag, Feb 3, 2010. Web Magazine. http://www.gizmag.com/roxxxy-us7000-sex-robot/14063/
(5) Drummond, Katie. “Pentagon Looks to Breed Immortal ‘Synthetic Organisms,’ Molecular Kill-Switch Included.” Wired, 2010. Web Magazine. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/02/pentagon-looks-to-breed-immortal-synthetic-organisms-molecular-kill-switch-included/
(6) STIP IdeaLab. “Patrick Nee, Universal Bio Mining.” Online Video Clip. YouTube, July 31st 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-STafFuwCY, http://www.synbioproject.org/news/project/6666/
(7) DARPA, Microsystems Technology Office. “IN VIVO NANOPLATFORMS (IVN).” n.d. http://www.darpa.mil/Our_Work/MTO/Programs/In_Vivo_Nanoplatforms_(IVN).aspx
(8) Carpenter, Charlie. “Beware the Killer Robots, Inside the Debate of Autonomous Weapons”. Foreign Affairs, July 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/139554/charli-carpenter/beware-the-killer-robots
(9) Boston Dynamics Website. Boston Dynamics .http://www.bostondynamics.com/
(10) Boston Dynamics Youtube Feed. Boston Dynamics. http://www.youtube.com/user/BostonDynamics
(11) Tachiban, Masahito et al. “Human Embryonic Stem Cells Derived by Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.” Cell (2013).
(14) PBT and vPvB substances. Risctox. Web August 30, 2013. http://www.istas.net/risctox/en/index.asp?idpagina=613
(15) “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Wikipedia. Web. September 7, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch
(18) “Organic farmers report increasing GMO contamination with corn.” The Organic and Non-GMO Report. April 2010. http://www.non-gmoreport.com/articles/apr10/organicfarmers_gmocontamination.php
(19) “Fighting GMO contamination around the world.” Grain, January 28, 2009. Web.
(20) “Why Big, Intense Wildfires Are the New Normal.” National Geographic Daily News. August 28, 2013. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130827-wildfires-yosemite-fire-firefighters-vegetation-hotshots-california-drought/
(21) Check http://humanityplus.org/, http://www.extropy.org/, http://singularity.org/
(22) Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Penguin Books, 2000.
(23) “Moore’s Law, Artificial Evolution, and the Fate of Humanity.” In L. Booker, S. Forrest, et al. (eds.), Perspectives on Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003
(24) United Nations General Assembly (1987). Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. Transmitted to the General Assembly as an Annex to document A/42/427 – Development and International Co-operation: Environment. Retrieved on: 2009-02-15.
(25) Jensen, Derrick. Endgame. Seven Stories Press, 2006.