Future Perfect

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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Many futurologists - professional (Toffler) and less so (Naisbitt) - tried their hand at predicting the future. They proved quite successful at predicting major trends but not as lucky in delineating their details. This is because, inevitably, every futurologist has to resort to crude tools such as extrapolation. The modern day versions of biblical prophets are much better informed - and this, precisely, seems to be the problem. The cluttered information obstructs the outlines of the philosophically and conceptually most important elements.

The futurologist has to divine which - of a host - of changes which occur in his times and place ushers in a new era. Since the speed at which human societies change has radically accelerated - the futurologist's work has become more compounded and less certain.

It is better to stick to truisms, however banal. True and tried is the key to successful (and, therefore, useful) predictions. What can we rely upon which is immutable and invariant, not dependent on cultural context, technological level, or geopolitical developments?

Human nature, naturally.

The introduction of human nature into the equation which should yield the prediction may further complicate it. Human nature is, arguably, the most complex thing in the universe. It is characteristically unpredictable and behaviourally stochastic. It is not the kind of paradigm conducive to clear-cut, unequivocal, unambiguous forecasts.

This is why it is advisable to isolate two or three axes around which human nature - or its more explicit manifestations - revolves. These organizational principles must possess comprehensive explanatory powers, on the one hand - and exhibit some kind of synergy, on the other hand.

I propose such a trio : Individuality, Collectivism and Time.

Individuation is the Separation principle, the human yearning for uniqueness and idiosyncrasy, for distinction and self sufficiency, for independence and self expression.

Collectivism is the human propensity to agglomerate, to stick together, to assemble, the herd instincts and the group behaviours.

Time is the principle which connects both. It is the bridge linking individual and society. It is an epiphenomenon of society. In other words, it arises only when people assemble and can compare themselves to others. This is not Time in the physical sense, which is discernible through the relative positions and physical states of physical systems. Every human - alone as he may be - is bound to notice it. No, we are discussing the more complex, ritualistic, Social Time. This, admittedly, is a vaguer concept. It corresponds to human individual and collective memory (biography and history) and to intergenerational interactions.

An individual is devoid and bereft of any Social Time notion and feeling if he has no basis for comparison with others and no access to the collective memory or, at least, to the memories of others.

In this sense, humans are surprisingly like subatomic particles. The latter also show no Time property. They are Time symmetric in the sense that the equations describing their behaviour and evolution are indifferent to Time.

The introduction of negative (backward flowing) Time will not alter the still accurate results. It is only when masses of particles are gathered that Time is discernible and important in the description of reality. In other words, Time "erupts" or "emerges" as the complexity of physical systems increases (see "Time asymmetry Re-Visited by the same author, 1983, available through UMI. Abstract in: http://samvak.tripod.com/time.html).

Human history (past) its present and, in all likelihood, its future are characterized by an incessant struggle between these principles. One generation witnesses the successful onslaught of individualism and declares, with hubris, the end of history. Another witnesses the "Revolt of the Masses" and produces doomsayers such as Jose Ortega y Gasset.

The 20th century was and is no exception. True, due to technological innovation, it is the most visible century, more exposed to scrutiny and reactions of shock or elation. Still - as Barbara Tuchman pointedly entitled her masterwork, we are merely a Distant Mirror of other centuries. Or, in the words of Proverbs: "Whatever was, it shall be again".

This century witnessed major breakthroughs in both technological progress (a word which should be denuded of its value content) and the dissemination of existing and newly invented technologies. This tended to encourage the individualistic camp in this permanent battle.

But people tend to confuse cause and effect. Man has not turned individualistic because of technology. The latter assisted, in past centuries, in forging alliances and collectives. Agricultural technology encouraged collaboration, not individuation, differentiation or fragmentation. We give direction and meaning to our technologies, not the reverse. The human race opted for increasing isolation and invented TELE-communication. It fostered the illusion of on-going communication without preserving important elements such as direct human contact, replete with smells, noises, body language and facial expressions. It reduced communication to the exchange of verbal or written information, the bare skeleton of any exchange.

The advent of each new technology was preceded by the development of a social tendency or trend. Computers packed more and more number crunching power because people wanted to make other people redundant.

The inventors of the computer explicitly stated that they wanted it to replace humans and are still toying with the idea of artificial intelligence, substituting for humans. The case of robotics is even clearer.

These innovations revolutionized the workplace. They were coupled with "lean and mean" management theories and management fads.

Re-engineering, downsizing, just in time inventory and production management, outsourcing - all emphasized a trimming of the work force.

Whereas once, enterprises were proud of the amount of employment which they generated - today it is cause for shame.

This psychological shift is no less than misanthropic. It manifests itself in other labour market innovations: telecommuting and flexiwork, for instance - but also distant learning and all other distant interactions.

As with all other social sea changes, the language pertaining to the emotional correlates and the motivation behind these shifts - is highly euphemistic.

Where communication is all but minimized - it is called telecommunications.

Where it is abolished (human to machine communication) it is amazingly labelled "interactivity"!

We are terrified of what is happening : isolation, loneliness, alienation, self absorption, self sufficiency, the disintegration of the social fabric - so we give it nice names, negating the horrific content. Computers are "user-friendly", when we talk to our computer we are "interacting" and very lonely typing opposite computer screens is called "chatting".

We need our fellow humans less and less. We do not see them anymore, they become gradually transparent. Bodiless voices, incorporeal typed messages. Humans are thus dehumanized, reduced to bi-dimensional representations, to functions. This is an extremely dangerous development. Already people tend to confuse reality with its representation through media images. Actors are thought to be the characters that they play in a TV series, wars are fought with video game - like elegance and sleekness.

Even social functions which used to require expertise - and, therefore, the direct interaction of humans - can today be performed by a single person, equipped with the right hardware and software.

The internet is the epitome and apex of this last observation.

What is the Internet I discussed at great length in my website: http://www.focus-asia.com/home/samvak/internet.html

Still, here I would like to discuss an astounding revolution that goes largely unnoticed: the personal publishing.

Today, anyone, using very basic equipment can publish and unleash his work upon tens of millions of potential readers. Only 500 years ago this would have been unimaginable even as a fantasy. Only 50 years ago this would have been attributed to a particularly active imagination. Only 10 years ago, it cost upward of 50,000 USD to construct a website.

The consequences of this revolution are unfathomable. It surpasses the print revolution in its importance. Ultimately, personal publishing - and not information or commerce - will be the main use of the internet, in my view.

Still, in the context of this article, I wish to emphasize the solipsism and the solitude entailed by this invention. The most labour intensive, human interaction: manuscript, editing and publishing - will be stripped of all human involvement, barring that of the author with himself.

Granted, the author will more easily correspond with his audience but this, again, will be the lonely kind of contact (no contradiction in terms).

Transportation made humanity more mobile, fractured and fragmented all the social units (including the nuclear family) and created malignant forms of social structures. The nuclear family became the extended nuclear family with a few parent and non-blood-related children.

Multiple careers, multiple sexual and emotional partners, multiple families, multiple allegiances and loyalties - seemed, at first, to be a step in the right direction of plurality. But humans need certainty and, where missing, a backlash develops.

This backlash is really the human to find stability, predictability, emotional dependability and commitment where there is none. This is done by faking the real thing, by mutating, by imitating and by resenting anything which threatens the viability of the illusion.

Patriotism mutates to nationalism, racism or ethnicity. Religion is transformed to ideology or sects. Sex is mistaken for love, love becomes addictive or obsessive dependence. Other addictions (workaholism, alcoholism, drug abuse and a host of other, hitherto unheard of, obsessive compulsive disorders) provide the addict with meaning and order in his life.

The picture is not rosier on the collectivist side of the fence.

Each of the aforementioned phenomena has a collectivist aspect or parallel. This duality permeates the experience of being human. Humans are torn between these two conflicting instincts and by way of socialization, imitation and assimilation, they act. Herd-like, en masse. Weber analysed the phenomenon of leadership - the individual which defines the parameters for the behaviour of the herd, the "software", so to speak. He exercises his authority through charismatic and bureaucratic mechanisms.

Thus, the Internet has a collectivist aspect (see my website). It is really the beginning of the realization (or the nightmare, depending on the point of view) of the collective brain. It maintains the memory of the race, conveys its thought impulses, directs its cognitive processes (using its hardware and software constraints as guide posts).

Telecommunication and transportation did eliminate the old, well rooted concepts of space-time (as opposed to what many social thinkers say).

There was no philosophical or conceptual adaptation to be made. The difference between using a car and using a quick horse was like the difference between walking on foot and riding that horse. The human mind was already flexible enough to accommodate this.

But what telecommunications and transportation did do was to minimize the world to the scope of a "global village" as predicted by Marshal McLuhan and others. A village is a cohesive social unit and the emphasis should be on the word "social". Again the duality is there : the technologies that separate - unite.

This Orwellian NewSpeak is all pervasive and permeates the very fabric of both current technologies and social fashions. It is in the root of the confusion which constantly leads us to culture-wars. In this century culture wars were waged by religion-like ideologies (Communism, Nazism, Nationalism and - no comparison intended - Environmentalism, Capitalism, Feminism and Multi-Culturalism). These mass ideologies (the quantitative factor enhanced their religious tint) could not have existed in an age with no telecommunication and speedy transport. Yet, the same advantages were available (in principle, over time, after a fight) to their opponents, who belonged, usually, to the individualistic camp. A dissident in Russia uses the same tools to disintegrate the collective as the apparatchik uses to integrate it. Ideologies clashed in the technological battlefields and were toppled by the very technology which made them possible. This dialectic is interesting because this is the first time in human history that none of the sides could claim a monopoly over technology. The economic reasons cited for the collapse of Communism, for instance, are secondary: what people were really protesting was lack of access to technology and to its benefits. Consumption and Consumerism are by products of the religion of Science.

Far from the madding poles of the human dichotomy an eternal, unifying principle was long neglected.

Humans will always fight over which approach should prevail : individuality or collectivism. Humans will never notice how ambiguous and equivocal their arguments and technology are. They will forever fail to behold the seeds of the destruction of their camp sawn by their very own technology, actions and statements. In short: humans will never admit to being androgynous or bisexual. They will insist upon a clear sexual identity, this strong the process of differentiation is.

But the principle that unites humans, no matter which camp they might belong to, when, or where is the principle of Time.

Humans crave Time and consume Time the way carnivores consume meat and even more voraciously. This obsession with Time is a result of the cognitive acknowledgement of death. Humans seems to be the only sentient animal which knows that it one day shall end. This is a harrowing thought. It is impossible to cope with it but through awesome mechanisms of denial and repression. In this permanent subconscious warfare, memory is a major weapon and the preservation of memory constitutes a handy illusion of victory over death. Admittedly, memory has real adaptive and survival value.

He who remembers dangers will, undoubtedly live longer, for instance.

In human societies, memory used to be preserved by the old. Until very recently, books were a rare and very expensive commodity virtually unavailable to the masses. Thus humans depended upon their elders to remember and to pass on the store of life saving and life preserving data.

This dependence made social cohesiveness, interdependence and closeness inevitable. The young lived with the old (who also owned the property) and had to continue to do so in order to survive. Extended families, settlements led by the elders of the community and communities were but a few collectivist social results.

With the dissemination of information and knowledge, the potential of the young to judge their elders actions and decisions has finally materialized.

The elders lost their advantage (memory). Being older, they were naturally less endowed than the young. The elders were ill-equipped to cope with the kaleidoscopic quality of today's world and its ever changing terms. More nimble, as knowledgeable, more vigorous and with a longer time ahead of them in which they could engage in trial and error learning - the young prevailed.

So did individualism and the technology which was directed by it.

This is the real and only revolution of this century: the reversal of our Time orientation. While hitherto we were taught to respect the old and the past - we are now conditioned to admire the young, get rid of the old and look forward to a future perfect.