Any attempt to guide the future must first understand the future, and to understand the future, one must first reject the “consensus view” of the future. The consensus view, shaped by decades of media visions of technological utopias, and corporate controlled dystopias, is filled with expectations that block any ability to examine future trends based on current technological realities with unrealistic concepts that demand the future conform to these pre-made “ideals”.
Ranging from Gene Roddenberry's 'Star Trek' to William Gibson's 'Burning Chrome', not to mention a variety of religious ideologies, the "accepted view" of the future has become a distorted lens through which the majority of humanity has become incapable of seeing the reality of a future which is not only different in detail from today, but different to such a basic depth that the biggest problem facing society is not technological or environmental, but conceptual.
To understand what I mean, let us examine one of the basic concepts of our current reality. To most people, the basic framework of "existence" is birth, a childhood spent being educated to work for a living, working to provide the fundamental needs for however long you live, and taking time at some point to reproduce offspring in order to provide for your 'replacement'. While this is highly simplified, it is nonetheless a recognizable conceptual framework that has remained 'true' for most of humanity's existence, from our most primitive state to today. The details of how we educate, work and live have changed, but the basic concepts have not changed throughout history.
And to the majority of people, this is such a fundamentally basic concept that they cannot even imagine a future in which it will no longer 'be true'. And therein lies the danger. The true challenge lying before humanity is not one of technology, or environmental hazards, or any of the popular 'threats' to existence so popular in the consensus views of the future, but one of concepts. We are limited in our ability to look towards the future and chart a path because we have bound ourselves to concepts which, no matter how true they are of current reality, will cease to be true at some point in the not so distant future.
We have imposed 'boundaries' on our thought processes which have blinded us to obvious solutions to many of the 'existential' threats we face as a planet. We have embraced ideological limits on many subjects which do not allow for analysis of many solutions beyond a few very basic points, and which bias many into looking only at short term effects, with no thought beyond them to the longer term effects and their changes to many of our fundamental concepts which will be long term benefits to humanity, even if short term they cause disruptions. It is my hope with this essay to illustrate that many of these short term disruptions can be mitigated with concerted efforts to educate the majority to look beyond their limited concepts and understand that those concepts will become outdated and obsolete as we move into the future. I have divided this into three overly broad subsections due to the limitations on length.
The first is 'Morphology', a general look at the physical changes that will be enabled by advancing technology, the second is 'Economy', a look at how technology will change our concepts of work and wealth, and the third is 'Transparency', a brief look at how emerging technology will force both transparency and accountability on our world. The chief focus of all sections is on how our conceptual limits are a critical issue that must be overcome in order to proceed to the future with a minimum of hazard.
The first concept I wish to address is our basic concept of ourselves. I have discussed this topic in numerous articles such as 'Dreams of a Succubus' and 'Total Gender Change within the Decade', but to summarize, the likeliest future facing humanity is one in which we are no longer limited to the genetic heritage with which we are born. Through advancing knowledge of the human body, as well as all other biological lifeforms, we are creating the means to allow humanity to escape from the limits inherent in our biology. Combined with our ever increasing knowledge of technology, and our increasing ability to merge biology and technology, the limits imposed upon us by our biology will grow increasingly fewer.
This does not mean that our 'humanness' will change, as we will likely choose to retain and enhance many of our socially desirable traits, but the divisions created by random genetics will cease to be a factor in our social reality. As I pointed out in my first article 'Virtualization' in the very near future, Universal VR will begin to change how we see one another by enabling individuals to 'appear' as their personal avatar, instead of their 'default' appearance. Rather than being forced to accept the physical appearance created by the genetic lottery of DNA, we will be able to choose how we appear to others.
This will lead to a radical alteration in our social orders, as this ability is likely to be quickly followed by demands for such radical alterations to appearance for our physical bodies as well. With the advances being made in medical and prosthetic technology, it seems likely that within a few decades, the ability to alter ones personal appearance at a whim will exist. The exact mechanics are unimportant. What is important is the social effects that will be forced on humanity by this ability.
A few moments of thought should show what some of these effects will be. Many of our cultural expectations are based on the outcomes of the genetic lottery. Various abilities are 'hard coded' by our DNA at present, and they affect how we interact socially. Athletic ability, physical beauty, and exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics will create a far different 'reality' for many than will intelligence, non athletic bodies, and lack of beauty. Other aspects such as race and gender also play large roles in an individual's 'social success'.
So, what happens when these 'certainties' cease to be 'certain'?
To be blunt, as these 'social markers' cease to have meaning, it will likely mean mass disruption to our entire social reality. The overwhelming majority of society has been led to see a future in which the details have changed, but humanity itself is completely static. No matter which media vision they choose to accept, they all basically include a future in which the genetic lottery has remained intact. There are very few 'visions of the future' which include the basic assumption of morphological freedom. Even those rare instances which include the possibility, such as Masamune Shirow's 'Ghost in the Shell', these abilities are shown to be used quite rarely or are shown as aberrations, while personal experience on the internet, in Secondlife, and numerous other venues indicates that the reality will be far different.
The rise of various subcultures able to communicate and organize via the internet has increased enormously over the decades. The cosplay industries have grown from small groups in countries such as Japan and the United States to entire communities worldwide. The same goes for such 'fringe' groups as furries, goths, vamps, neko's and lycanthropes. These are all groups who will eagerly embrace the abilities of VR to enable them to escape from limited virtual spaces into the larger society. With the emergence of portable VR units integrated into smartphones connected to increasingly sophisticated HUD glasses such as the 'Meta', these groups will refuse to remain confined to the internet, and will instead join with the various already existing minority groups seeking equality within the larger society.
It should be obvious that this will play havoc with existing social structures. The one thing that all these groups share in common is a rejection of the limits imposed by the genetic lottery. They refuse to be constrained by their biological appearances, and have instead chosen to embrace a radically different self image. That these self images exist 'outside the norms' of 'consensus society' and are presently beyond technical feasibility are all that have prevented them from already demanding recognition as distinct subcultures. As the technological ability to enable a virtual emergence - and eventually a physical emergence - from the web is reached, these subcultures will challenge the existing social paradigms.
But they are not the only challenge to our concepts of 'self'. In addition to such radical cosmetic alterations, we must also face the challenge of coming to grips with the ability to alter almost any physical characteristic, including the ability to overturn limits of physical and mental capacity. We must come to understand that no limit which we currently accept may apply in the not very distant future. Even gender and race are likely to be rendered meaningless except as personal choices. Cybernetics are likely to make physical abilities so vastly different than those currently possessed by humanity as to render many of our social diversions, such as sports, unrecognizable to a person of today.
There is far more that I could discuss, but this summary should be sufficient to illustrate that the average person is ill equipped with the conceptual tools that will be needed to cope with a reality that is being altered in such a fundamental way. So many assume that we will travel into the future with almost no alteration to the social reality we accept today.
Indeed, many difficulties have already arisen due to refusal of many to accept the small changes to the social landscape already able to be observed. The changing demographics of societies all across the world away from traditional ones is creating tensions in our political and economic structures, and is being resisted by many factions unable to accept that their concepts of 'reality' are flawed at best. Regardless of how 'fanciful' some of the factors I have discussed in this section may sound, they are very real issues that will have to be faced over the next few decades. I have spent years discussing these topics with members of these subcultures, and their numbers and determination have done nothing but increase the closer we get to the technical ability to make their desires reality.
So that is the first recommended course of action I see as necessary to guide humanity to the future. We must equip ourselves with the concept of a radically different definition of humanity, one which has removed most of the limits we presently take for granted, and which embraces a far wider range of possibility than commonly envisioned.
We must abandon the notion of "unchanging-ness", that any given individual is defined by the accident of their birth, and instead must be defined by who they choose to be at any given moment. We must be taught that 'humanity' is not a matter of appearance or genetic heritage, but is an emergent phenomena of our interactions with the greater social environment, and that as such, it is an inherent right for all sentient beings to be able to choose who they are, and what they present themselves as to the rest of society.