Tag Archives: General

The Aquarian Question, the Alexandrian Answer.

Recently, I’ve come across some of the predictions made by futurists and technologists from the 1960s to the 1970s. Great minds like Bucky Fuller, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson were forecasting space colonies and the beginnings of intergalactic exploration, advances in longevity studies that would extend the human lifespan to multiple centuries, and the automation of labuor, freeing us from needless toil to pursue more meaningful tasks, by the turn of the 21st century. Reading such things now is rather painful; it serves as a reminder of where we were expected to be right now, in stark contrast to where we actually are.

In one episode of Cosmos, another such luminary, the astronomer-philosopher Carl Sagan, walks the halls of a recreated Library of Alexandria, regaling us with the intellectual exploits of the remarkable individuals who walked those halls two thousand years ago. Watching this years ago, I learned that mechanization, and even the steam engine, were developed here millennia before being revived in the last few centuries with the coming of the Industrial Revolution.

If we had discovered such technologies so long ago, one might rightly ask, why were they not used to their fullest potential then? Sagan’s words put it best:

Science and learning in general were the preserve of a privileged few. The vast population of the city had not the vaguest notion of the great discoveries taking place within the Library. New findings were not explained or popularized. The research benefited them little. Discoveries in mechanics and steam technology were applied mainly to the perfection of weapons, the encouragement of superstition, the amusement of kings. The scientists never grasped the potential of machines to free people. The great intellectual achievements of antiquity had few immediate practical applications. Science never captured the imagination of the multitude. – Carl Sagan, Cosmos

I suspect that we’re facing the same problem now. We have the ability to automate most forms of labour, to liberate the majority of us from tedious, repetitive work and allow us to enjoy a more leisurely existence, focusing our minds on that which interests us. We have the technology to visit other planets now, and future developments could bring us further and further out into the stars. Our average lifespans have already increased dramatically across most of the world, and nothing prevents concerted efforts into better understanding how aging works, and whether or not it can be put off, or even eliminated. But, thus far, we have placed our own barriers in front of these great shifts.

In some circles, people are not only ignorant of our scientific and technological potential, but outwardly hostile towards it. Our space programme is being de-funded, with its activities dramatically lessened compared to 50 years ago. The greatest educational tool humans have ever seen is all too often used to play Farmville or to send cat macros to your friends. And where obsolescence of human labour is brought about by machines, it is used as a means of profit, casting off those who depend on that work to survive and sending them into a world that vilifies their idleness.

This is what makes reading the optimism of the previous century’s futurists so painful: the realisation that we have no one else to blame for their aspirations not manifesting but ourselves. We chose to ignore or forsake our potential as a species, to stop searching or to refuse to change our ways, and consequently are far behind where we could be right now.

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The Three Lessons of History

There are three primary lessons that History can teach us. They are:

1) This is where we came from.

No society began by its people sitting down and forming a culture by making up stuff that sounded cool to them. Everything, from our behaviour and social mores, our manner of dress, and our outlook on the world around us, were reactions and elaborations on things that came before. Men’s shirt button left over right because you didn’t want your sword to get snagged on your shirt when you drew it from your left hip. Ever wondered how humans figured out which plants/substances were edible and which were poisonous, an undertaking that would have taken countless generations of trial and error? We figured that stuff out when we were still apes. History has the ability to say to you ‘Hey, you know that thing you do? Well, it comes from this. Neat, huh?’

2) Things have not always been as they are now.

We have an unfortunate tendency to see History as the linear progression from primitivism to sophistication and ‘civilization’. But when we hear about the Egyptians having rudimentary knowledge of steam power and batteries, and the Romans re-inventing things like gridded street layouts and running hot and cold water after the traces of their earlier appearance in the Indus Valley thousands of years previously had all but vanished, that view starts to make less and less sense. Instead, we must look at previous civilizations as different ways of addressing the common challenges of life. Some were more ‘high-tech’ than others, but ultimately what they came up with worked for them, else they would not have lasted very long. What we can learn from this is that, contrary to the commonly-held viewpoint that, when it comes to civilizations, it’s either what we have now or ‘Mad Max’, our ancestors lived well and worked wonders with systems and outlooks that often barely resemble our own. Take comfort in that. It means that there are always other options.

3) Things will not always be as they are now.

Everything changes. The greatest cultures and movements of our species have emerged, risen, and then gradually declined and faded. Nothing could be more natural. To think that our civilization is immune from this process is delusional. Look around you. One day all the people and places that you know and love will be gone. Dust. Ruins. It is for us to decide what we leave behind for future historians. What stories will they tell about us?

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