The Future is Kinda Boring

I’m just about finished with William Gibson’s The Peripheral. I’m at the penultimate scene, the one just before the climactic blowout. Thematically, this is a perfect place to have stopped, because one of the things the book talks about is life before, and after, the “collapse.” Gibson’s work is all about the future, about how the future feels between your fingers. The Peripheral is a reminder that the future is only wonderous to the people for whom it is not the present.

The future is the same as now, except done in a new way. The feeling of the future is the newness of how we solve the same old problems. In the future (not just Gibson’s, but any future) there are still tables, still chairs, because until we stop having to eat food (and stop needing somewhere to rest our meat-shells while we refuel them) there will always be a need for the food to be upraised in front of us.
In our present, “The Future(™)” is depicted as being, shiny, metallic, clean, with glowing engine-exhaust and bright track-lighting and ergonomic corners.

The reality is that the future will probably contain those things, just as our present contains rockets and stealth bombers and hydrophobic spray for your clothes. But it will not be made of those things. It won’t be an everyday life of interplanetary adventure.

It’ll be room lighting that can tell from your body language just how bad your migraine is, and adjust the brightness accordingly. It’ll be machines that know how strong you like your coffee and can adjust the flavor (excuse me, the boldness) or the cream content or the acidity. It’ll be a third-cousin of the Roomba that scurries out from under your bed and collects all the dirty clothes while you’re away.

What makes “the future” isn’t the technology, necessarily. It’s the application. The purpose-built attempt to better handle the stupid, everyday, tiresome stuff about being human. The rest is fantasy with spaceships, but that’s okay too.

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So, hello out there from the future. In my timeline, it is the tenth of March, five days away from the Ides and all the hopes and fears thereof. If you’re reading this back in the normal Everybody Row timeline, it should be about January 28th, or maybe around the first of February - I don’t remember exactly - but this is, of course, a respectable weekly newsletter and there’s no chance at all that I’ve completely let this founder by the wayside.

No chance. None.

Here in the future of March 10th, a lot of exciting stuff is happening. Nature magazine has published (and the blogosphere has echoed) about the collapse of tundra permafrost. That link takes you to the scoop itself, but if you just want the upshot, try this. Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size of Alabama.

There have been reports of sinkholes where structural permafrost has melted and collapsed the ground by elevations of three hundred feet or more.

That seems bad.

When we talk about the future, about Roombas that clean up our laundry and tables that arrange themselves to our height, we’ll also have to talk about adjusting to life in which there are simply fewer humans, too. I think it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the majority of the human species will survive the real catastrophes of climate change. But I do not think it is guaranteed.

One of the things technology allows us to do is replace the need for human labor. Automation technologies of today are rendering millions of human workers redundant to the entire economy. It would be a hateful irony if the very people who profit from their labor and chose to replace them also survived the collapse that kills them. It would close a lot of arguments about whether good people prosper, or whether we live in a ‘just world.’

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