Sunday, July 02, 2006

Don't Panic

Someone I regret that I will never meet is the late, brilliant writer Douglas Adams, who died just over five years ago (11 May 02001). Adams was an extraordinarily original, funny and humane author best known for his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy -- which ultimately expanded to five parts ... or was it six? Either way, it was a helluva trilogy. Adams was at least as inventive and eclectic as Neil Gaiman is, but without being the slightest bit self-important (no offence to Gaiman, also an excellent writer, but his chosen mythological subject matter does present certain hazards).

Not having read Adams at all in the last year or two, this week at a great second hand bookstore just around the corner from Long Now, I picked up a copy of The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul, featuring his marvellous character Dirk Gently, the holistic detective. Then today, serendipitously, I ran across an essay by Adams from 01999 entitled "How to stop worrying and learn to love the internet". It's terrific. I'll certainly look out for more of his non-fiction. An extract:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

Adams is highlighting the way that real change occurs between generations, as each successive one assimilates and builds on the inventions and achievements of the one before it. Shades of media theorist Marshall McLuhan: "We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us." Thus does the history of technology compound into a shapeshifting cultural force, a medium for the human race to act upon and transform itself, and by extension the planet as a whole.

Now, I have a passing familiarity with the Strauss and Howe theory of generations, which argues that over centuries they cycle predictably from political conservatism to radicalism and back again, through a pattern in four stages. But without having any reliable way -- prospectively as opposed to historically -- to determine when a sociologically relevant "generation" ends and the next begins, or to determine what significant unpredictable events may prove to be formative of a cohort's experience of the world, even if the character of their reaction could be forecasted; as I see it, such an approach can't help but be redolent of horoscopes writ large. How, looking forward, can this afford anything useful in the way of concrete analytical application? (Not a rhetorical question; I'd welcome some responses on this.)

A more limited, but useful approach to analysing generational change is to consider how the presence of existing and emerging technologies may form part of what's taken for granted, and will be built upon, by the children of today. (Further out than that, any generation-based analysis seems highly unlikely to help, because there are basically no raw materials -- read: people with experiences -- to work with, as yet.)

In principle, what we can say is intriguing about this transgenerational, technological baton-passing, is the way that incrementally, through progressive naturalisation of layers of technology-driven change, society ends up in places far removed from what anyone ever imagined, let alone intended. In his 01984 book What Sort of People Should There Be?, an early and very thoughtful contribution to the debate on genetic engineering, the English ethicist Jonathan Glover points out that part of the problem with (what we'll call) compound technological change is that there are conceivable future worlds that would make folks today recoil, but which wouldn't seem at all objectionable to the people living in them; their values having adjusted by baby steps to accommodate most of the changes that got them there.

This is a fascinating philosophical point. It poses a serious problem for long range thinking, let alone actual planning, which is that if we won't have to live "then and there", then who are we to judge this or that scenario, and try to avoid or pursue it? (It's analogous to the ethical conundrum concerning "lives not worth living".) There's an implication here of some kind of inherent limit to the responsibility we can reasonably expect ourselves to take, perhaps mitigating what Jaron Lanier has called "karma vertigo", which unfortunately is a common affliction for long-term thinkers. (Long-term thinking itself, fortunately or not, is a far less common affliction.) And it may induce us zealous futurist types to put a little more stock in the ability of future generations to deal with their own era's problems in their own way, perhaps even accepting a zen-like element in our forward thinking that Douglas Adams surely would have endorsed: Don't Panic.

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