Will our Future be a Utopia, Protopia or Dystopia?

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

According to Hollywood humanity is headed for a dystopia and we’re as done as burnt toast. Most of the top digerati like Diamandis, Musk et al say it’s going to be a utopia. A Brave New World but actually happy. To the more pragmatic, we may be headed for a protopia, some fine mix of the above.

The questions that arise then, in our advanced (well, to us, maybe not to the aliens, wherever “they” are) are; how do we keep our humanity and then, what does it even mean to be human? Deep questions.

Our digital technologies are advancing at an exponential rate. Just look at where the smartphone is today compared to 2007 when the iPhone launched and before that the much missed, Blackberry. The quality of cameras, the speed of the devices, the screens and storage. And tablets. For most of these devices, they’ve largely plateaued in terms of capabilities. Each year, small advances in storage, processing power and capabilities.

It is other technologies however, that are advancing at an exponential rate that will have the greatest impact on humanity. Artificial Intelligence, internet connected devices, blockchain (if it can scale), genetics and other biotechnologies. All are advancing faster than we as a species, society and culture, can seem to absorb.

This all means adaptation. At a scale humans have never had to adapt to before. The timeline below is just a high-level visual of the speed of change. The adaptations that we face this time around however, are cognitive. Until recently, technologies were largely analog and augmented our physical capabilities. Digital technologies are augmenting our cognitive capabilities.

We might include in cognitive activities we perform, our societies, cultures, knowledge work, creativity. Because we are connected unlike ever before in our roughly 200,000 years as a species, we are learning about one another’s different cultures, societies, behaviours and values at an unprecedented pace. To do anything as a species, to just survive, we communicate. In the distant past there were often “shatter zones” between dominant cultures and societies. These were the geographical spaces with lower human occupancy, where some societies would mix and match cultural and social behaviours from the dominant societies between them. In effect, they enabled a more measured adoption of what would become dominant tools and technologies adopted as societies grew and merged. With digital technologies today, we have shattered the shatter zones. Buffers that benefitted us no longer exist in many ways and areas. This, in part, contributes to the divides we see in society today, amplified by digital technologies like social media.

All of this means that we are facing a time of new adaptations. Physical adaptations, such as growing more articulated fingers, larger heads and such, will continue slowly. Evolution takes a very long time and it is messy. Even the re-wiring of our brains is a natural evolutionary process, although who knows, maybe that part will speed up? It is how we think, what we think, how we process and manage information that impacts us the most cognitively right now. Perhaps in time, our brains will leave storage to physical computers and become more advanced processors?

Which leads us to asking those two key questions. What does it mean to be human and how do we keep our humanity in the digital age we are already entering? Definitely not a question that can be tritely answered in a blog post!

But we may find some answers in past ages of human development, such as the Neolithic, where we saw hints of farming and also resounding rejection of farming (anthropologists and archeologists are changing much of what we know of this era). Where societies began to form and humans played with very sophisticated political systems. Keep in mind that today, our view of history is largely based on Western European ideas arising out of the Enlightenment. And evidence suggests much of what Western Europeans think was their invention actually came from Native Americans like the Mi’kmaq and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).

What of the three futures lie ahead for us? Predicting that would be ridiculous at best. What we can say is that we are getting more technological, not less. Technogenesis (how humans and technology co-evolve) is poorly studied and understood. Which is odd, given the role technology plays in human development and societies. To suggest we just stop is ridiculous too. We must push through, but as we push through, we should always be asking ourselves what it means to be human and how do we keep whatever that means?

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious