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.