The Wall-E vision of the future, or what this New Yorker article dubs the “sofalarity”, is not believable to me. It’s a classic mistake of prediction that I like to refer to as “super now.” When making super now predictions, people simply take things that are happening right now and imagine that the future will be just like now only “more extreme.”
...Technological evolution has a different motive force. It is self-evolution, and it is therefore driven by what we want as opposed to what is adaptive. In a market economy, it is even more complex: for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for. As a species, we often aren’t much different from the Oji-Cree. Comfort-seeking missiles, we spend the most to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. When it comes to technologies, we mainly want to make things easy. Not to be bored. Oh, and maybe to look a bit younger.
Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility. If we’re not careful, our technological evolution will take us toward not a singularity but a sofalarity. That’s a future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.
The sofalarity (pictured memorably in the film “Wall-E”) is not inevitable either. But the prospect of it makes clear that, as a species, we need mechanisms to keep humanity on track. The technology industry, which does so much to define us, has a duty to cater to our more complete selves rather than just our narrow interests. It has both the opportunity and the means to reach for something higher. And, as consumers, we should remember that our collective demands drive our destiny as a species, and define the posthuman condition.
Right now in developed countries we are experiencing a technological trade off where an abundance of fatty foods and cheap entertainment options lure many of us into experiencing poor health outcomes.
Obesity is a growing problem. Therefore, the argument goes, in the future we will become formless blobs collapsing under the weight of our own gluttony. What the super now futurist fails to recognize is not only is this particular trade off a relatively new phenomenon in human history but it will also likely be short-lived.
Technological progress tends to create unintended consequences, but then those consequences create pressure to address and defeat those consequences. And so, as technology advances, we will most likely engineer healthier, better-tasting foods and find better ways to encourage exercise.
Further down the line, I expect we will master human biology such that it will be possible to eat whatever we want and be stationary all day without becoming unhealthy. Will there be new trade-offs in this future? Almost certainly. But we don’t know what they are yet. And there’s no reason to assume these new trade offs will look anything like the ones we only recently started experiencing in the late 20th century.