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Blessed are the doomsayers
George Dvorsky   Jun 30, 2007   Sentient Developments  

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”—Woody Allen

Back in 2000 Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy published his now famous (or is that infamous?) warning cry, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Soon thereafter philosopher Nick Bostrom published his seminal paper on existential risks and Sir Martin Rees released his book, Our Final Hour. Even thinkers like Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock chimed in, warning that human civilization is headed in a bad way.

And it was only recently that the Doomsday Clock was once again moved foward.

Indeed, doom mongering has suddenly crept back into fashion. A new breed of Chicken Littles has emerged. But these aren’t your run-of-the-mill street corner nut jobs warning that the end is nigh. Rather, these are serious thinkers with excellent credentials.

And in my own small way I have also contributed to this burgeoning neo-doom culture. A good portion of my thinking and writing is devoted to the topic. It’s an important issue for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (where I’m on the Board of Directors). I’m also advising for the Lifeboat Foundation, an organization dedicated to foresight and disaster prevention.

I settled into this vein quite unintentionally and unwillingly; the more I delved into the issue, however, the more I became convinced that looming catastrophic risks were indeed a problem.

Needless to say there has been considerable negative reaction to what is perceived as unjustified fear mongering and hyper negativity. Doomsayers are often scorned and put to task on their grim prognostications. Many critics contend that today’s catastrophists are no different that those from the past. For them, it’s deja vu all over again.

Popular targets

Doomsayers are often ridiculed or ignored altogether mainly on account of the fact that an existential catastrophe has yet to actually happen. Catastrophism evokes images of apocalyptic religions and doomsday cults—Book of Revelations type stuff, end of the world, judgment day, and so on.

Observation tells us that the worst predictions rarely, if ever, come true. Humans, after all, are still alive and kicking 60 years after the development of the atomic bomb. Moreover, despite localized violence in many parts of the world today, conditions for human existence have never been better. And the problems that do exist, like climate change, do not appear overwhelming intractable.

The human psyche is repelled by despair; it flees from it like the plague. Few want to associate themselves with the fear mongering doomsayers. It is a position that is inherently unattractive, with all its pessimism, defeatism and paranoia.

Catastrophists have been accused of using their position to increase social status. Worse, doomsayers are seen as providing fodder for advantageous politicians who use scare tactics in their politicking. There’s no better way to control and manipulate a populace by exploiting their fears.

Enter the new doomsayers

Doomsaying went out of style thanks to the euphoria caused by the end of the Cold War. An idealistic complacency settled in, and much of society lived in utter denial of humanity’s ongoing apocalyptic potential.

These days, in our post 9/11 world, disaster scenarios have once again regained currency. The fall of the bi-polar geopolitical arrangement has led to a much more unstable multi-polar global regime, while the United States exhibits a hegemonic attitude despite not actually being one.

Further, an entirely new generation of apocalyptic threats have been uncovered by scientists and technologists. Theoretical possibilities include catastrophic devastation in the wake of deliberately engineered pathogens, self-replicating molecular nanotechnology run amok, run-away global warming, and poorly programmed artificial intelligence. There are undoubtedly many more. Humanity will in short order have access to a growing arsenal of apocalyptic technologies; we’ll soon be spinning plates—and eventually one of them is going to fall.

Adding insult to injury are philosophical and observational indicators suggesting that humanity does not have a very promising future. These include the Doomsday Argument and the Fermi Paradox.

Confronting the grim and bitter truth

Intelligence, which has in the short run been the most powerful evolutionary trait ever witnessed, may ultimately prove to be a fatal adaptation. It may very well be that civilizations eventually extinguish themselves under the weight of their untenable technological complexity.

Our past success as a civilization does not guarantee future gain. Yes, we survived the Cold War, but as an apocalypse wielding species, we are now perpetually living on borrowed time. In our militaristic, real politik world, the notion of abolishing and containing these weapons is a pipe-dream.

Off the mark?

Of course, I and many other doomsayers may be wrong; my view of the future may be considerably off the mark.

A number of scenarios come to mind. A quasi-totalitarian and planetary wide police state could be imposed; the nation state may die as a political entity resulting in the significant lessening of geopolitical tensions; ongoing memetic homogenization may alleviate the pressure exerted by radical non-state actors; democratic institutions may prove to be successful in how they manage the development, application and proliferation of apocalyptic technologies; effective prophylaxis may be developed to counter the effects of catastrophic technologies (e.g. space-based defenses and Active Shields).

Don’t blame the messenger

More to the point, however, none of the doomsayers are saying, “abandon hope all ye who enter here.” On the contrary, despite the seemingly impossible odds, the purpose of the doomsaying exercise is to raise awareness. Human civilization needs to work to prevent catastrophe—and prevention cannot happen without foresight. These threats are a call to action. Failure to properly assess and elucidate these threats could quite literally result in human extinction.

Societies need doomsayers to eliminate passivity and indifference so that a safe future can be engineered.

Even if that may be an impossible task.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.

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