In an age where smart phones are visibly evolving to become a part of our hands, and during which we carry more knowledge in our pockets than we can hold in our heads, we must take pause and ask ourselves: What is the real meaning of natural selection? What will our species become in the next 100 years? 500 years? Are we turning science-fiction into science-fact? Will the future be less about building robots and more about building ourselves into robots?
I was listening to popular futurist, Ray Kurzweil, speak about the exponential growth of humanity as it relates to technology, and he posed an example regarding books. His idea is that books and learning take too long (a fact I have always recognized). Soon, we will be able to link our brains to the cloud and access every book we ever wanted to read but didn’t have time to do so. The information will just be stored in there for us to reference while at work or during casual conversation. Imagine the pattern association involved in having so much information readily available. Imagine the infinite possibility that would result from such exponential growth of knowledge. The 1980’s hit, Short Circuit, may have gotten it wrong when Johnny Five blazingly flipped through book after book, absorbing “input”, as he so famously called it. There will be no need for turning pages. We will simply plug in and connect to input. No longer will there be issues surrounding a lack of information, but only the problem of deciding which information to use and how best to use it. This, of course, is just one mind-blowing example from the utterings of futurists like Mr. Kurzweil.
Oddly enough, at least once a day, I look at my 12-year-old students at school as they obsess over their smart phones, and I fear the years ahead. As I watch them, my predicting mind envisions a future that looks more like Mike Judge’s Idiocracy than that of the one imagined by Ray Kurzweil. My inner-monologue goes something to the effect of: “Our devices make us dumber because they do all the work, and do it so fast that careful thought is rendered unnecessary, and we are left with too much time on our hands and not nearly enough productive ways with which to fill it, meaning we will end up spending our days eating junk that rots our guts and watching rubbish that fries our brains…” Okay, I just became my mom between the years of 1987 and 1997 (I was a part of the MTV generation, after all).
Perhaps Kurzweil’s vision will play out in the reality of those who are driven, and Judge’s vision will play out in those who are not – thus creating the largest ever divide between those who are smart and those who are stupid (I am purposely avoiding the use of politically correct language in order to avoid confusion). Sooo… should extremist egalitarians stop supporting technology in order to prevent any such divide and revive the hippy-communal movement of the Sixties where everyone gave up their technology and their possessions (and their jobs), and spent their days in Golden Gate Park indulging in Timothy Leary’s chemistry experiment which turned hate into love, love into confusion, and confusion back into hate? I digress…
The truth is, like it or not, technology is growing at an exponential rate and is shaping our lives in the same way. Tools are meant to extend our reach, and if used appropriately, do so. When we imagine extra-terrestrials from some far-flung galaxy in deep space being so far ahead of our own evolution that they have mastered interstellar travel, a little piece of us smiles inside at the sheer wonderment of what could be. Much of what is impossible today will become the reality of tomorrow. And the astonishment of our imaginings will not be so astonishing when such dreams come true because they will do so as part of a natural and practical process. When I think back to being 8 years old, imagining the day I might hold a phone to my ear in a red, white, and blue corvette (it was definitely the 80’s), I laugh because we have actually reached the point where holding a phone to your ear in a car is not only possible, but has been for so long that we have learned it to be dangerous, and thus, have made it illegal. What a big thing I thought I was dreaming at the time, but when the day came that I could actually drive and talk on a phone at the same time, I wasn’t so astonished because the change occurred gradually and in a way that made good sense. When I was 8, my imaginings were more magical, more fantastical. An emotional letdown perhaps, but it doesn’t change the fact that my wildest childhood dreams became child’s play reality in less than 20 years. If the curve continues as it has, who knows what I stand to see as an old man.
When I think of what is natural, however, technology and its astronomical progression does not immediately seem to fit the mold. After all, natural, we are taught, is that which is not man-made. But is it not natural to evolve, to build tools that allow us to build more tools, and to use anything we have at our disposal to see as far as we can at any given moment? Yes – the tools, like the times, they are a changin’ – but the more things change, the more they tend to stay the same. Apart from the tools themselves, is anything we are doing really so different at the core? Two-hundred years from now, there will be an entirely new population of people on earth, all with better tools that will allow them to build even better tools, and my mind lingers around the idea that they, too, will be dancing around the same thoughts that I have today. Perhaps the new natural is building devices that aid us in becoming more assured in our health and more advanced in our minds – more “man-made.” Of course, this all assuming that we as a people do not suddenly decide to settle where we are with the tools we have and stop moving forward.
Matthew Thornton is an Austin-based artist and a history teacher. Originally from Corpus Christi, his wide-sweeping artistic interests range from writing and film-making to photography and painting. His work and studies explore patterns within the endless nuance of life as he remains constantly in search of the so-called, “big picture”.