Today's post has a somewhat stream of consciousness flavour to it, and I offer apologies in advance. But it is on a topic which, for very good reasons, is rather important and not widely discussed. This is because it is both nearly impossible to discuss without slipping into the field of fantastic speculation and has little to no practical value to most academic fields. I am talking about the field of futurology, predicting the future based on humanity's trends. The field is both notorious for being widely inaccurate (flying cars, fashion, computers) and, very rarely, eerily spot on (nuclear bombs, geosynchronous satellites). Nevertheless, It is widely embraced in defence and consumer fields, but both focus on short term predictions, which is not what I'm talking about here.
The whole thing germinated in my mind when I had an interesting conversation with a colleague of mine recently about the progress of mankind in a technological sense. The conversation meandered through much meaningless speculation, and as I in general view the entire field of futurology with skepticism, I was hesitant to be too vocal in my opinions. What we kept coming back to, though, was the recent resurgence of biotechnology and virtual reality (VR). Material for speculation is ubiquitous: bionic eyes combined with Google Glass technology? Artificial human skin and gesture control? The VR world of Oculus Rift combined with a sensory suit? For the horrors possible from that last idea, read "Tea from an Empty Cup" by Pat Cadigan. But as much as I dread the idea of people staring blankly into space around me as Facebook feed (or whatever replaces it) floats in their vision visible only to their bionic eyes, a zombie hoard not unlike the human sloths of Wall-E fame, we must all concede that it is an inevitable fate. But what if we propagate it ever so slightly forward?
It is not a particularly large leap of imagination to predict that in not too distant future human kind will connect to the internet on a biological level. I am not going to get fantastical here and try to predict how this is going to happen or even attempt to discuss the myriad ways it can go all wrong. Aside from my realist leanings, I am rather an optimist when it comes to technology and have certain faith that we'll overcome whatever hiccups this development will produce. Yet a realist I still am, and as such hold close the realist belief that human nature never changes. But what if this technological change goes so far that it does?
Science fiction has long explored the idea of humans changing on a fundamental, mental, level due to biological and technological progress (Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space series is a particular favourite of mine). What is a concern for me is that with futurology's consistent failure to predict revolutionary developments in humanity's technological progress (i.e. computers!), and science fiction being science fiction, when that change happens, the so-called 'singularity', and humans embark, for good or ill, on their next stage of evolution, will we be ready? As I read about nanotechnology, quantum computers, biotechnological advancement, and countless other technological breakthroughs, I'm afraid that academic world of humanities can no longer relegate these topics to the science fiction section of their literary departments. More specifically, what happens when we can no longer look to history to predict human behaviour and Plato's, Machiavelli's, and Locke's works become historical curiosities concerning what we once were, but no longer are?