Printed: 2020-01-23

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





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Why Slow Matters

Mike Treder


Ethical Technology


http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/IEETblog

June 15, 2010

If we are on a slow, winding, and undependable road to tomorrow, as I assert, how does that change things?


Visions of a Radically Different Future

Over-promising of future change is a venerable and lucrative practice.

Since the origins of speculative fiction in the 19th century, authors have found that a surefire way to rev up your readership and get positive reviews is to offer a plausible but startling vision of an exciting future that is just around the corner—near enough that you and I will live to see it!

This operates not only in novels, of course, but also in non-fiction books, such as these:

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Perhaps the most influential works of the last half-century that skewed our way of envisioning the road ahead of us were Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970).
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Toffler’s book, which was widely read and discussed in the halls of academia and government, as well as in college dorm rooms all around the world, predicted that change would happen so rapidly over the next 30 years (i.e., from 1970 to 2000) that average people would be left in a state of shock, suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation.”

It’s arguable whether that has actually happened to any great extent, but it’s not arguable that the meme persists and that the cognoscenti—especially the transhumanist cognoscenti—very much still expect such disorientation to occur.

The most obvious demonstration of future shock would, of course, be the Technological Singularity, a concept that did not have that name when Toffler wrote his book, but which fits quite nicely into his thesis.

Speaking of the Singularity, let’s remember that the first line of the famous 1993 article by Vernor Vinge, which spawned the modern concept of a rapid and disruptive discontinuity, was this:

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

“Within thirty years” means by 2023, if not before.

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And for predictions of drastic change happening even sooner than that, we need look no further than the movie 2001 and the novel that followed it, as well as Clarke’s SF sequels (2010, 2061, and 3001).

A huge hotel-like space station in Earth orbit along with thriving scientific outposts on the Moon, all by 2001 (nine years ago). No, it didn’t happen, and almost certainly could not have happened, no matter how much money and effort was poured into it. Science and technology just don’t move that fast.

But we think they do, and that’s the point.

These books and movies have got us believing that change occurs much more rapidly than it does in real life—or at least, we are sure that even if it doesn’t happen that fast now, well, you just wait until tomorrow!


Why Slow Matters

So, why does all this matter?

When I point out to people that the visions they have of tomorrow are only yesterday’s mistaken visions of today, recycled, they usually have one of two reactions. Either outright denial (“don’t confuse me with the facts”) or else questioning the relevance of my observation (“so what? who cares? what difference does it make?”).

It does make a difference, a big difference. Here’s why.
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If the road we are on is not fast, smooth, straight, and brightly lit, but actually slow, bumpy, winding, and hard to see, then that changes not only how we should think about where we might be going, but what we ought to be doing now.

1. The big problems that exist today cannot be blithely ignored.

Poverty and starvation will not vanish in the next two decades as we waltz happily into a post-scarcity society. Pestilence and disease will not disappear as magic gen-eng fixes are applied. Global warming will not be simply and inexpensively reversed with exotic nanotech solutions.

These problems, and many others, will persist and likely get worse while we sit around waiting for science fictional technologies to materialize and make them go away. No, sorry, if we want to do something about them, if we truly want to make the world better, then we have to get to work today using today’s technologies.

2. We are not the last generation, and thus we have responsibility to those who will follow us.

While we wait passively for the Rapture of the Nerds to overtake us, children are being born and growing up. Species are dying out. Injustices are being done. Rights are being trampled. Stuff is happening.

The world will not stop and wait for our dreams to become reality. Future generations may have good cause to look back at us and ask why we did not do more, why we chose not to act when we had the opportunity. Are we really going to tell them it’s because we were convinced that Toffler and Clarke were right? That all we had to do was pause a moment longer until the shiny exciting plastic utopian future arrived?

3. Other problems will increase before our magical tech emerges to solve them.

If we think that the troubles we face today are the only ones that will have to be addressed in the future, we are wrong again. All signs point to mounting difficulties in the decades ahead.

Peak oil. Peak water. Peak soil. Climate change. Environmental refugees. And the worst challenges of all may be those we are not yet even aware of.

This is not to say we are doomed, necessarily. Dystopian outlooks are ultimately as unhelpful as utopian wishes. But it would be unrealistic for us to assume that we already know all about the biggest problems we will have to solve in the future. Life doesn’t work that way. Surprises occur and we have to expect that.

Such surprises will in part be responsible for preventing our progress from moving forward as fast as we would like. Ray Kurzweil’s double-exponential acceleration can and will get sidetracked.

4. Politics will not disappear.

Those who yearn for the time when current-day political arguments will be made irrelevant are going to have a long wait. Just as the poor will always be with us, so will left, right, and center debates. It’s not going away, and it shouldn’t.

As the IEET’s Jamais Cascio has said, “Politics is part of a healthy society—it’s what happens when you have a group of people with differential goals and a persistent relationship.”

And since we now can see that those theoretically transformative, transcendent, uplifting transhuman technologies are not going to arrive any time soon and sweep us away to a wonderful land where all politics are forgotten, then we have to face reality. If we want to work on solving problems, if we want to work toward making the world a better place both today and tomorrow, then politics will be a big part of that mix. It’s not irrelevant, it’s necessary.

It does make a difference how we think about the future. It does matter if we expect change to occur quickly or slowly, because our attitudes and our expectations will influence our actions.

Acknowledging that our marvelous visions of the next world may not arrive quite as soon as we once thought means we might have to rethink what we can do to get from here to there.

And since ‘there’ appears now to be a lot further away than it did before, we may want to orient ourselves to working in the here and now—not surrendering our dreams or abandoning our goals, but recognizing that dreams and goals don’t solve problems. Real work does, in the real world.


Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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