Keeping up with what’s known or was known

“I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045. The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.” – Ray Kurzweil

“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.” Alvin Toffler, in “Future Shock”

singularityKurzweil (“The Age of Spiritual Machines”) says in his book “The Singularity is Near” that humans will will soon transcend the “limitations” (as he sees them) of our biology. One can imagine, perhaps, a star child like we saw in 2001: A Space Odyssey or, in a more mechanical sense, bionic men and women who surpass the skills of Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man Lindsay Wagner  in The Bionic Woman.

In his book Critical Path, Buckminster Fuller discussed the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” and, as we see, the more we know, the faster we know more. It was said that up to 1900, the total of human knowledge doubled every century and that by World War II it doubled every 25 years. Now, estimates depend on the field one’s talking about, but it appears that on average, our knowledge doubles every thirteen months.

Back in the early days of Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise occasionally encountered beings who were so “advanced” that they were pure thought, often depicted as pulsating clouds of light. I wonder if this is what we will become.

People from various walks of life often say that today’s youth knows a lot less about science, geography, history, literature and culture than the youth of earlier generations. Some people blame our consumer culture (along with TV and the Internet) for pulling people away from the once-championed liberal arts education into a homogenized world of things–having the latest things that everyone else is having or trying to have.

criticalpathOthers blame video games as early suspects in pulling people away from anything requiring contemplation into short-attention span, high-energy moments. More and more people seem to have less and less patience for anything that takes time to read, to learn, to understand, or to acquire.

Or, perhaps we are not keeping up with the expansion of knowledge, so we find comfort in focusing our shattered attention spans of things of the moment. The thing breeds on itself: we not only have no memory of what happened 25 years ago (our brains won’t hold it or don’t care about it), but it becomes–in the eyes of our peers–a serious defect of character to know about such things.

Alvin Toffler wroter Future Shock in 1970. I want to ask: “Are we there yet?” Too much information too fast, he said, leaves people overwhelmed and with feelings of being disconnected. Perhaps this makes it easy to focus on the trivial of the now rather than on the long-term of either yesterday or tomorrow.

I am not a futurist, so I have no philosophy about where mankind is headed, for better or worse. What I see as I write stories set 15-25-50 years in the past, is seemingly a growing list of things people know less and less about. I’m not talking about the more-trivial things such as today’s youth not immediately knowing what a 45 rpm record was or kids asking their parents why the sound on a land-line phone is called a dial tone even though the phone has no dial on it.

As a novelist, I am more interested in the culture, religion, and prevailing points of view as they were during the times when my novels are set. I lived during those times, but I have a bad memory for details–I should have kept a journal, I suppose, but it hardly would have had the space to define everything that was common knowledge at the time.

According to David Russell Schilling, humankind’s total amount of knowledge will soon double every twelve hours. Depending on a person’s focus, they can be happy about many advancements that make life better and/or easier than it was X years ago. Change is a constant in the universe, as the I Ching tells us. If knowledge is a tidal wave, how–I wonder–does any individual keep up? Do we find niche areas and learn everything we can about them? Do we rely on our ability to find information (as needed) rather than on our ability to remember vast stores of facts? Or, do we resign ourselves to becoming like the BORG in Star Trek, a society in which individuals are basically mindless drones doing chores as part of an electronic or telepathically linked collective?

futureshockI have no answers for such questions. And, I’m not even sure that becoming pulsating clouds of thought is necessary bad. What I personally miss is the idea that we are, in many ways, like flowers being cut off from their roots and stems. If we are, so to speak, drone-like entities who are only interested in the moment, then we have lost our history, our culture, our rites of passage, our metaphysics and, from this writer’s point of view, almost every thing else that makes us human.

Perhaps all that is passe. Maybe all that binds to ancient concerns like a rope holding an ship to a pier. I don’t think so, but then–as I consider the speed of advancing knowledge and how impossible it appears to keep up–I have to say that I really don’t know enough to know what it’s bad for me to know. For now, though, I think the speed of advancing knowledge has the potential for decreasing the value of the individual and the value each individual places on the welfare of every other individual.

Such ponderings are, perhaps, one of the reasons I write fantasy. My writing allows me to focus on imaginary worlds that I (as the author) know everything about all the time.


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My books include “The Seeker,” “The Sailor,” “The Betrayed,” and “Emily’s Stories.”

See the latest great review of “Emily’s Stories”

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