Monday, July 6, 2009

A bumpy, wild ride?

"A better life" for ourselves, but especially for our children. That's what humans seem to want most of all. Not fame, not fortune, but happiness and contentment.

Strangely, the definition of what makes a better life, and how we attain it, seems to be constantly changing.

It's all because of a partnership between our brains and the tools we have invented. We create new tools that give us greater powers and automate more of what we do, which helps us create ever more powerful tools. Wheels and portable fuel to drive places that are too far to walk. Electricity to cook our food and light and heat our homes. Instantly accessible libraries of knowledge at everyone's fingertips. Electronics to connect us to other people anywhere on the planet. Planes to fly us half-way round the globe in less than a day. Powers that would seem "god-like" to our ancestors.

Our tools begin as "automatic" mental operations, which are cognitive routines that allow us to perform complex actions unconsciously. No more pushing the porridge up the nose. No more stalling the car. No more living a Groundhog day every day. Parts of our brain, which seem to be involved in the orchestration of speech and gestures - successive processing - do the job for us.

Then one day, some of us discover a way to convert what we do into a "labour saving" device or method. We automate our automatic operations! And when we have invented a complex web of these tools, the tool ecologies and human society undergo a transformation to a higher level of organization. The old tool ecologies and ways of doing things (work) become extinct (think horse and buggy, farriers, saddlers, village scale living), and the new species of tools become widely adopted (think motor cars, freeways, service stations, shopping malls, mechanics).

We don't plan the change, it just happens, simply because humans and our tools are just another complex system that obeys the laws of complexity theory.

Several social and technological revolutions have occurred at regular intervals over the past 10,000 years since we were nomadic Hunter Gatherers. First we made the shift to an Agricultural society of villagers that domesticated plants and animals. We then progressed to an Industrial Age culture when we created machines to do the work of people and animals. Next we happened upon an Information Age world in which electricity and electronic devices allowed us to build and control highly complex organizational systems that spanned the world. Soon thereafter we switched to a Knowledge Age society, where the power to store and create new knowledge became widespread and available to most humans on the planet. The latest change is to a Wisdom Age world in which some of us are acquiring new powers to apply new and existing knowledge wisely.

These changes, or abrupt discontinuities, follow the pattern of a period doubling cascade. Each wave of change is about 1/5 the length of the previous system, and approaches the Feigenbaum constant, 4.669...which is as fundamental as Pi.

We are now at a critical stage of human development. Culturally we have passed through the fourth bifurcation, where systems wide chaos emerges in complex systems. This means we could be in for a wild ride. Each new period, between transitions, is now so short that the dramatic upheavals which used to arrive every few thousand or few hundred years, are now likely to appear in just a handful of years.

The big question is what's next? Is it a series of new cultural waves, but at a higher cognitive level? Or do our tools become part of us and we co-evolve together as a new species? Or does society disintegrate and we reset the clock, like Pol Pot tried to do in Cambodia?

Perhaps we are simply in the process of becoming something more amazing...yet to be imagined and automated. The thinking that we automate then becomes a tool which takes its place in the physical universe alongside or instead of natural organisms or objects, and joins with other tools and our brains in an ever cleverer web of tools that feeds back into the system to generate yet another cycle of period doubling, tool and job extinctions and speciations.

If only we can learn to deal with the blindingly accelerating speed of change. If we can, then the universe might just become a “physical” instantiation of our best past, present and future collective imaginations. The possibilities are both enticing and frightening. But symbiotically frighteningly fantastic, for which the frontal lobes of our “stone-age” brains are perfectly designed.

Some questions:

1. Describe some of the major changes that are taking place in the world today.
2. Thinking about these changes, describe a scenario which you think accounts for the way humans and tools have developed over the past 10,000 years.
3. Describe a scenario that might extrapolate from our past to the future.
4. Looking back over the past, what have we done that has ensured our success/survival?
5. What must we now do to ensure we survive the next few waves of change?

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