Our relationship to technology is moving beyond the instrumental to the existential. Is geopolitics the driver of global power relations — or is it really geotechnology?
Imagine a world of skyrocketing commodity prices, morally bankrupt economists, corporate identity crises, gyrating currencies and uncreative political leadership. It hardly requires imagination to envision the present. But that description captures the world of the 1970s as well.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And yet today’s stakes are certainly higher due to overpopulation, ecological stress, widening inequalities and the perpetual misunderstandings of geopolitical maneuvering. The key question therefore is this: Is our capacity to cope any better?
In the midst of turbulent 1970s, one husband-and-wife team saw straight through the uncertainty and laid out with incredible precision the image of where we have landed today: Alvin and Heidi Toffler. The Tofflers turned futurism into a modern profession.
Futurism is a combination of long-term and long-tail, separating the trends from the trendy and the shocks from the shifts, and combining data, reportage and scenarios.
Decades have passed since the publication of the Tofflers’ landmark books, Future Shock (1970) and The Third Wave (1980). Yet these books contain such prescient insights that they ought to be as essential reading for Generations X, Y and Z as they were a generation ago for today’s baby boomers.
The trends and disruptive forces the Tofflers anticipated are now in full bloom: the crisis of industrialism, the demise of the nuclear family, proliferation of private armies, information overload and the centrality of cities in global governance.
They also foresaw the promise and peril of advanced technologies, including ubiquitous sensors and Big Brother, virtual worlds and confused identities, genetic manipulation and designer babies. And yes, right there on page 292 of “The Third Wave,” the very phrase, anno 1980, that Wired can’t get enough of today: “DIY Revolution.”
The Tofflers’ most fundamental insight was that the pace of change has become as important as the content of change — and that the two have become inseparable. The term “Future Shock” was thus meant to capture our intense human anxiety in the face of technology’s seeming ability to accelerate time.
In this sense, technology’s true impact isn’t just physical or economic, but social and psychological as well. Technologies such as mobile phones can make us feel empowered, but also make us vulnerable to new pathologies like “nomophobia,” the fear of being away from one’s mobile phone.
A new socio-technical era
The Tofflers wrote at the dawn of the Information Age. At the time, the original ARPANET comprised just a few dozen government and academic nodes. Today, we stand at the Information Age’s frontier: the Hybrid Age. The Hybrid Age is a new socio-technical era that is unfolding as technologies merge with each other and humans merge with technology.
Information technology’s exponentially increasing power is propelling other fields forward at accelerating rates, allowing them to transcend their individual limitations in scale and speed. This applies to DNA sequencing, 3-D printing and manufacturing, and almost every other technological sphere.
Biologists have made breakthroughs in molecular computing, which uses enzymes and DNA strands to replace silicon chips altogether. Hence, Silicon Valley might soon be something of a misnomer, as ever more companies and universities start investing in research on oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.
The cross-pollination of leading-edge sectors such as information technology, biotechnology, pervasive computing, robotics, neuroscience and nanotechnology thankfully also spells the end of certain turf wars over nomenclature. It is neither the “Bio Age” nor the “Nano Age” nor the “Neuro Age,” but hybrid of all of these at the same time.
The merger of diverse disciplines enables them to fundamentally change the metrics by which they innovate: not just lighter and smaller, but invisible and integrated. Today’s laptops and tablets are certainly lighter and smaller than desktop computers, but they still require us to type with the inefficient QWERTY keyboard.
Yet, with the miniaturization of sensors and advent of bio-sensing gestural interfaces, we could replace typing altogether. Physicist-futurist Michio Kaku argues that the “computer” as an object will physically disappear from our view within a generation, invisibly integrated into our built environment.
At the same time, our own relationship to technology is moving beyond the instrumental to the existential. Technology no longer simply processes our instructions on a one-way street. Instead, it increasingly provides intelligent feedback.
We are moving beyond using technology only to dominate nature toward making ourselves the template for technology, integrating technologies within ourselves physically. We don’t just use technology. We absorb it.
It is in this Hybrid Age that something else of a very fundamental nature happens: human nature ceases to be a discrete or immutable truth. Evolution doesn’t have to be accidental and contingent, it can be directed and technologically assisted.
Uniting genetics, neuroscience, synthetic biology and other fields, a systematic effort is under way to break the codes of gene-behavior relations and accelerate our ability to augment ourselves.
The seeds of almost everything that will occur in the Hybrid Age have already been planted and are germinating worldwide. Rapid evolution in our physical selves and in social relations, an explosion of choice in all aspects of our lives and new opportunities for collective activism beyond our traditional institutions — these are some of the hallmarks of the Hybrid Age.
In the Information Age, real-world objects acquired a digital “shadow,” but as the Information Age sunsets into the Hybrid Age, the shadow becomes a life form of its own. We increasingly control our own evolution, but do we control the technologies that have given us that power?
A new vocabulary
The Hybrid Age is the transition period between the Information Age and the moment of technological singularity (when machines surpass human intelligence) that inventor Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, estimates we may reach by 2040, if not sooner.
The Hybrid Age is a phase in which we cross the threshold toward a new mode of arranging global society. The philosopher Karl Jaspers saw such times as both destructive and constructive, because our “unquestioned grasp on life is loosened” and we “ask radical questions.”
MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte — whose seminal 1995 book Being Digital foresaw the Internet as a “global social fabric” — now argues that the Internet is only a transitory instrument that facilitates the far deeper shift already under way.
A new era requires a new vocabulary. Will we still talk about the “mobile” phone when all phones are mobile — or when they are implanted within us? Does “evolution” really capture our deepening entanglement with technology today or should we instead speak of human-technology coevolution?
More broadly, is there any point in using the term “globalization” so mind-bogglingly often once it truly encompasses all of us? Is geopolitics really the driver of power relations, or is it rather geotechnology? Does intelligence quotient (IQ) or even emotional quotient (EQ) matter more than technology quotient (TQ)?
This Hybrid Age will unfold in the first truly global era. East and West, North and South — all are now talking, trading and competing with each other on increasingly equal terms. For many it feels as close to a fresh, if sobering, start as one could imagine.
For the United States, centuries of exceptionalism and hegemony are usurped by a world of ever-shifting alliances. (Or are they really mere dalliances?) Today’s China grasps for global influence far greater than any of its previous dynasties.
Meanwhile, the Arab world’s stable of conspiratorial legacies gives way to the sober reality of self-reliance. Africa and Latin America are for the first time players rather than pawns on the world’s chessboard.
In the 1970s, the Tofflers estimated that several million people around the world were “living in the future.” They were the ones to fly intercontinentally, traded on capital markets, used fax machines and were becoming post-national “Davos men” (and eventually women).
By those same standards, today several million people in the Tokyo metro area alone “live in the future.”
As Generation Z comes of age, its worldview might be described as a new kind of “end of history” — not a teleological progression toward liberal democracy, but a much more systemic rupture with the past altogether. The future may resemble the past so little that interest in the latter will be considered obsolete.
For Generation Z, the technological trappings of the future already hold far greater allure than any history lesson. Neither Cold War nor 9/11 books will be best-sellers. “Soviet” won’t resonate any longer as either a noun or an adjective.
Historical memory will be sacrificed in the belief that all meaningful lessons of the past have been digitally coded into our present structures. But our world is not self-correcting: We do not yet control the complex feedback loops between technology and sociopolitical economic fabric.
It would be a perverse irony of the Hybrid Age if, in its obsession with the future, Generation Z repeated the past without even realizing it.
Managing Director’s note: This article was co-written with Parag Khanna. Published by arrangement with the authors. Copyright © 2012 by Ayesha Khanna and Parag Khanna.
Ayesha Khanna is Managing Partner of Hybrid Realities, a consulting firm specializing in scenario analysis, technology trends, future cities, and geostrategy. She is also Founder and Principal of the Hybrid Reality Institute, which explores human/technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics.