The Future: Utopia or Dystopia?

I once read a quote about how any advanced enough technology would be indistinguishable from pure magic if you go back enough. And we can see this today as well, just by going back a few centuries. Who could have imagined that you could converse with anyone across the globe in a matter of seconds, and not just hear their voice, but also see them in extremely high fidelity video?

To someone living a few hundred years ago, this would be considered absolute magic. The ability to communicate with people in real-time that are not in your immediate shouting distance.

Or let’s consider the fact that we are now able to fly, and in a relatively short order of time commercial space travel will become a possibility, and eventually trips to visit nearby planets will be holidays.

From the very first flight in the early twentieth century by the Wright Brothers, it did not take so long to be able to land someone on the moon, something that most probably was not even thinking of when they were attempting to get their rudimentary machine off the ground for long enough to be considered “flying”.

And yet, there are many things that funnily enough do not change, even after millennia. People still love each other, get jealous, and have an entire range of human emotions. Teenagers and young adults are still unsure of what they want to do in their lives and everyone yearns for something better than the present.

Reading the books of philosophy of the ancient Greeks, I am always surprised how the advice of someone writing 2,500 years ago can be so applicable — and perhaps more applicable? — today than when it was written.

Those philosophers could not have possibly known how the world they knew would become thousands of years later, and yet the problems they identified, along with some of the solutions, are applicable and relevant across dozens and dozens of generations.

So it is always an interesting thought experiment to look forward to and think about what will change, and what might just end up staying the same.

Obviously, technology will have an increasingly more important and invasive effect on our lives, bringing a significant amount of convenience and choice in some matters, but not without negative effects.

The option of not being connected will eventually disappear, and you will be forced to have some type of digital identity and to use certain devices, otherwise, normal life will increasingly become more and more difficult – if not impossible.

The day when the basics to survive, food, water, shelter, and clothes, are only purchasable via digital means, whether that is some type of credit card, digital wallet, or crypto-currency, is when we will truly have lost that last bastion of freedom, where you can remain fully anonymous in your choices and preferences and just do what you like.

You will have to participate in society. The only other choice will be a cabin with food somewhere far far away from everyone else.

On the positive side, we already have access to the entire knowledge of the world at our fingertips, something that would have been a dream only a few decades ago, and yet most people waste this incredible opportunity, Iand I imagine this is not something that will continue to change.

But this is more a reflection of the average person than technology by itself. The delivery methods of the internet, currently fiber optic cables running under the sea, and in the future constellations of satellites, do not care about the content that they serve, they just care that they are serving it.

And so it is about the individual choice to shape how we use technology and the power it gives us. Will we waste our days endlessly being “entertained”, or will we use it to forge deeper connections, works more efficiently, and educate ourselves and others to a greater degree?

Perhaps, as technology continues to advance, society will really split into two, the ones that have the discipline to use it wisely, and those who just give us and become passive consumers of information and entertainment.

In some ways, this is already the case. Each and every individual has a significant amount of possibility. Not the same, but each person can be 10x of what they are now, but it is about grasping the opportunity and thinking with a long-term mindset in place. It does not matter if you’re in a third-world country and have lost your legs, or if you’re privileged enough to come from a wealthy family and have access to money, connections, and a great education. Life is what you make of it, and you always have the ultimate control over your own mindset and how you decide to approach things.

Plenty of famous and wealthy people commit suicide, and plenty of financially poor people are quite content with their lives.

Over the next few hundred years, we will eradicate almost all of poverty around the world, but of course, our definition of poverty will change. Not having access to air-conditioning, internet, TV, and great healthcare, will be the new poverty line, which is amazing to consider that just a few hundred years ago these were things that even the most powerful king could not have, and this will soon be available to everyone.

One question that I have asked myself is what happens to Capitalism once population growth stops? Eventually, the number of births and deaths each day will approximately equal out, and we will not see a growth in population and perhaps even a decline or stagnation.

One possibility, of course, is that we become a space-faring civilization, and of course, then growth should essentially become unlimited for thousands of years, as the only things stopping an intergalactic civilization will be the physical limits that we are aware of now. For instance, it will be difficult to trade with a colony that is 10,000 years of travel away from us, let alone communicate with them.

But taking a standpoint of just an earth-based economy, what will happen? Eventually, with no population growth, the only way for a company to grow will be to introduce a new service or product that is needed and required by many people or to steal market share from other companies, but there won’t be tens of millions of new people joining the population (additionally, that is) as is the case now.

So for instance, let’s take Coca-Cola. At some point, they will produce enough Coca-Cola to fill up the stomachs of each and every man, woman, and child that is alive.

Then what? How can they grow beyond that?

There IS a limit to the theoretical stomach capacity that the entire world can have, and no company can hope to sell more than this amount of food or carbonated beverages.

At this point, Coca Cola can just become a monopoly and enjoy monopoly profits (something it already has, to be fair) but with no growth, then their stock price will already have factored in their future cash flows and profits, as it should be very easy to forecast, assuming no large new competitors, and then there is no point buying their stocks as all information literally is publicly available and there is not much of an opinion in regards to the maximum stomach capacity of the world’s population.

As of 2022, the current thinking goes that the world’s population will max out at around 15 billion in the year 2100, but of course, this precludes any significant technological advancements that make feeding and providing goods for this large number of people feasible.

Productivity growth is likely to continue at an average of 3% per year as noted by Alan Greenspan, and this means that a society in 80 years’ time will be significantly more productive with the same raw materials that we are now. In fact, in the last 80 years, the USA has not been consuming a significantly larger amount of resources compared to its economic growth, and this is because what is valuable now is not the number of physical products shipped, but intellectual property and ideas.

In an all-digital world, perhaps the number of resources required may actually go down. Do you need to travel across the other side of the world in a cramped airplane if you can have a perfect tour of the country you intend to visit in a virtual format that does not just feel real but is even better than reality? You can stand in St Mark’s Square in Venice and be completely alone. You can climb to the top of the pyramids and gaze across ancient Egypt, you can visit the Amazon without any fear of poisonous animals.

So we may end up a population that rarely goes out anyway, and enjoys the world in a virtual format. In some ways, this process has already started and is accelerating. A  lot of our work is done in front of screens and devices instead of having real human interaction, and the pandemic of COVID-19 accelerated this trend enormously.

Taken far enough, this may radically alter what we currently think of the human experience, and we may even consider not exploring space when we can have any adventure we want in the comfort of our own bedrooms.

We may eventually not really need our bodies so much, and they will be connected to medical devices that keep them running while we stay permanently attached to a digital world, and all interactions and experiences are done via this type of interface.

I assume that newborn babies would still need to develop in “real life” first, but perhaps there is a scenario where you are plugged in directly at birth, and humans essentially become these weak blind creatures that are absorbed by a digital world.

There will probably be some requirement for a small % of us to stay in the real world to ensure that things are working normally to keep the simulation running well for the rest of us. Whether these are highly paid positions or menial jobs is not something that I am sure of. They may be highly paid because of the responsibility and also the fact that life will be quite mundane and normal in the real world, or it may literally be what we consider cleaning and collecting trash nowadays.

I’m not sure about the reader, but for me, this seems a rather dystopian version of the future, but a likely one that is coming up in the years ahead. It feels like corruption of everything that it means “to be human”, all the good, all the bad.  It would be a sad end to see the same animals that created symphonies, beautiful works of art, poems, and so on, relegated to being entertained 24/7 in a digital world without a care in the real world at all.

From an individual point of view, of course, this means that you can live your wildest dreams and be “happy” in a way that you could not aspire to be in real life. But is that what happiness is? Getting everything that you want, instantly? I believe we are more grown up to believe that this is the case.

However, a well-designed simulation of earth or society may be extremely satisfying to an individual. Things that are not physically possible would immediately become possible. For instance, if we have to work in this simulation, we could instantly teleport to work and meetings instead of having to do conference calls. Things like showering, shitting, and eating would not technically be required, but may well be set in the simulation purely to make it feel more normal to the brain…but perhaps someone who has never had to take a conscious shit in their life if they have been hooked up as a baby would not miss it or feel strange that they have not had a shit in the simulation.

In fact, we may also not need to look like ourselves, or even humans…although it is likely that whichever organization or government (most like central and global) designs the simulation would make every one of human shape, even if generally speaking far better looking than the average.

We would also be interacting more and more with computers. So if there were virtual restaurants, most if not all of the waiters would actually be AIs, not “real” human beings playing that part in the simulation. Or, perhaps every single person has their own individual simulation with AIs, and so there would be billions of worlds played out separately in a digital space. This is a possibility, but an extremely lonely one to think about.

There is the paradox, known as Fermi’s Paradox, about why we have not been contacted or noticed life in the universe. It should be teeming with life out there, and yet it’s not. Perhaps all significantly advanced civilizations end up on this path? Instead of exploring and settling across the Cosmos, they decide to stay at home and take part in a virtual game. IT’s easier, safer, and less hassle.

This merging of humans and machines is very likely to happen, and eventually, there may be no humans left whatsoever, everyone will have been fully uploaded to the digital world, and there is literally no need for their physical bodies. People will “live forever” in their digital playground, and have different mental abilities than when they were humans. Advanced maths would suddenly be elementary, and crystal clear memories of everything that was said and experienced would be available instantly on-demand. We may even become a type of hive mind, with no real communication required between individuals, and even the concept of an individual may no longer be applicable.

Again, it is difficult with our current understanding of the world to see this as a positive development, and I do wonder if there are any alternatives or if this is essentially the only long-term way forwards.

Some sci-fi writers have imagined futures where bodies are actually cyborgs or robots and it is the mind that can shift between them, and while this seems less of an extreme version of what I’ve discussed above, it would probably be just a temporary stopgap before going fully digital.

So if technology will lead to the destruction of humans in the long term, is there a happy medium? Is there a way where we settle with what we have, we are happy with the convenience of technology without causing too many downsides? A world where everyone was tracked 100% of the time, and perhaps could be sent to sleep at any given time in case a crime was committed, would essentially be a crime-free world, especially if that sleep (or kill!) switch could be activated prior to a crime taking place. Locks would become pointless, and so would passwords or any other type of security. YOu could simply log in to something just because you are on that particular platform. The system would “know”: it was you.

We would be giving up a significant amount of personal liberty and privacy to live in a world where there is no crime and where many other things are more convenient. Production planning could be globally centralized and actually more effective than the current market-based forces that drive supply and demand.

For instance, I am writing this on a machine called a FreeWrite, which is an interesting and mannered approach to new technology. It attempts to place the best of the old-fashioned typewriters (a great typing experience, lack of distractions) with the convenience of modern technology (relative portability, creating of editable documents, and cloud backups).

It is better than typing at a traditional typewriter, with nothing to replace except the charge on the battery, and it is better than typing on a laptop because of the key travel and also the lack of distractions available on this machine compared to a laptop. True, you could actually turn WiFi off on a laptop or remove all the distractions, but this takes willpower and discipline, while a tool like FreeWrite completely removes willpower from the equation. You simply sit down, and you write, and there is nothing else that you can actually do!

This is an example of good use of technology, and if we can come up with ideas like this, that actually aim to improve our lives without taking over the world completely, we will be far better of both individually and as a species.

I can imagine a world where total surveillance is quite useful. For instance, I could access a food diary to see precisely what I have eaten and how many calories I have consumed (and burned!) without having to do anything. Just the access to this information could drastically improve the health of tens or hundreds of millions of people who suffer from obesity.

Conversely, centralized production planning would obviously ensure that food and clean water were evenly spread across the world to ensure that everyone has access. It is crazy that we have swimming pools across the world, and that there are countries with shortages of water. It does not make sense from a moral or logical point of view.

However, such a system would need extremely strong safeguards in place and would need to be created by highly ethical groups of people, and probably large groups of people.

Is this something that we can trust governments to do?

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