Principia Cybernetica Web

Popular Visions of the Future

Given the acceleration of change, it is clear that predicting the future has become more difficult than ever. If we try to look ahead more than a decade or so, the crystal ball gets cloudy. Yet, people have always felt the need to know where they are going to. Every culture has its own stories and myths about the future, whether it is the coming of the Messiah or the Last Judgment. In our own technological society, this role has been played mostly by the science fiction genre. Since Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, scientists, writers and artists have tried to imagine the world of the future. Their visions fall in between the two broad streams of optimism and pessimism. The optimists believe that progress, fueled by scientific research, will continue to make our life better, conquering all problems. The pessimists, on the contrary, believe that problems are intrinsic to humanity itself, and that science can only aggravate them, unleashing dark forces that may forever escape control. An early and classic example of the latter view is Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's novel "Frankenstein". The scientist Frankenstein, in his investigations of life and death, creates a monster which he cannot keep under control. The monster ecapes and, after terrorizing the neighborhood, finally comes back to destroy its creator.

Naive techno-optimism

The optimistic visions have undergone several changes during the past century. The oldest ones are simple extrapolations of technological progress. They assume that all material things will just become bigger, faster, more powerful and more efficient, while culture and society remain basically the same. A typical naive prediction is that after the quick spread of private cars there would be a quick spread of private planes or helicopters. The 1950's vision of the future pictures a traditional family living in a hi-tech flat, high up in a towering skyscraper. Father goes to work in his personal plane. He calls Mother from the office on the videophone to tell her when he will be back. Mom stays home and cares for the house and children, helped by an anthropomorphic robot, that fulfills the functions of cook, cleaner and babysitter. The children play with futuristic toys, including a robot dog and a weightless top. For vacation, the family goes on a trip to the Moon. The Hanna and Barbera strip, "The Jetsons", neatly summarizes this naive picture.

This view is outdated in several respects. On the one hand, it ignores the material limits to growth, which make things like private airplanes and trips in space prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, it fails to appreciate the unlimited capacity for change on the mental and organizational level. Rather than just enhancing or mimicking existing functions like cleaning and telephoning, technological progress will completely redefine the underlying problems. We have already learnt that it is easier and more efficient to build intelligence into a washing machine, than to build an intelligent, humanoid robot that would operate the machine the way we do it. Similarly, we would rather use enhanced telecommunications to work from home, than to travel to the office by plane, and communicate with those who stayed home.

The "New Age" movement

The simplistic belief in purely material progress brought about a strong reaction in the 1960's. The hippie movement focused on spiritual development, shunning most forms of technology. With the spread of less "materialistic" technologies, such as computers and networks, in the 1980's, their original vision of "back to Nature" was broadened to encompass new scientific developments. This led to a novel, optimistic picture of the future, the "New Age" vision. Marilyn Ferguson, in her book "The Aquarian Conspiracy", clearly describes the emergence of this movement and its ideas. The main metaphor is the "age of Aquarius", the new era that we are entering according to the astrological calendar. This era will be characterized by a more harmonious and loving psychological climate.

From the new sciences, the "New Age" prophets have adopted the emphasis on networks, synergy, self-organization and holism. To this they add ideas from various mystical traditions, including Buddhism, yoga, and shamanism, and from different "alternative" approaches, like parapsychology, tarot, crystal healing and homeopathy. (Frank Capra is one of the best known authors to develop this world view combining science and mysticism.) Their main message is that humanity is quickly moving towards a higher level of consciousness. It will transcend individual awareness and its selfish concerns, and replace it by the "transpersonal" experience of belonging to a larger whole (cf. the "Global Brain" concept). The resulting synergy between previously competing individuals will release a lot of pent-up energy and creativity. This will solve all the problems of present society, which are caused by interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts and by disregard for Nature.

Although the optimism of the "New Age" movement is appealing, and they certainly have a point when noting that many difficulties are caused by needless conflicts and contradictions, the methods they propose for transcending these problems appear rather naive. Their approach seems characterized by the absence of healthy scepticism. From science and technology they merely import metaphors, ignoring the hard work that goes into developing, testing and implementing new ideas. Basically, they propose that if people have enough goodwill, and sufficiently engage in consciousness-raising activities, like meditation and different forms of psychotherapy and "healing", the transition to the higher level, where all problems are solved, will occur automatically. This looks like wishful thinking more than like a concrete model of future developments.

Big Brother and the environmental holocaust

The pessimistic scenarios too have undergone transformation. Until recently, the most powerful metaphor for the bleak future imagined by the pessimists was "Big Brother", the all-seeing eye of the totalitarian state. The theme of a technologically controlled, bureaucratic society, where there is no room for freedom or individual expression, returns in numerous novels and movies, from the classics, Zamyatin's "We" and Orwell's "1984", to Terry Gilliam's satire "Brasil". These visions were merely extrapolations of existing political systems, like Stalin's Russia or Hitler's Germany, with added technology, such as closed camera circuits and computer databases, that increase the control of the regime over its citizens. The last decades have convincingly shown that totalitarianism and technological progress don't support, but rather oppose each other. On the one hand, communication and computer technology promotes individual expression more than it facilitates government control. On the other hand, the collapse of virtually all police states has made it clear that technological innovation stagnates in totalitarian regimes, making their economies uncompetitive.

A slightly more recent version of the doomsday scenario is the environmental holocaust. The main idea is that nuclear war, the uncontrolled proliferation of pollutants, and/or the exhaustion of natural resources have made the Earth all but uninhabitable. Civilisation has collapsed together with the ecosystem. The recurring image is that of a few gangs of survivers, together with mutant rats and cockroaches, fighting for the last remaining resources amongst the ruins of once proud cities. This pessimistic view too has recently become less popular. The reason is the much diminished likelihood of nuclear war, and the awareness that environmental problems, though serious, are being tackled more and more forcefully.


The most recent pessimistic vision is perhaps the most realistic one. The "cyberpunk" picture combines a focus on increasingly sophisticated cybernetic technology with the desperate anarchism of the 1970's punk movement (as reflected by their slogan "No Future"). It can be found in the science fiction novels of authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in movies like Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner", or in a TV series like "Wild Palms". The society they describe is an extrapolation of unbridled capitalism rather than totalitarian communism. Everybody competes with everybody, and the gap between "haves" and "have nots" has become much wider. The inimaginable wealth of top business executives contrasts with the abject poverty in which most of humanity lives. Technology is omnipresent, both as a means for control by multinational corporations and as a tool for different forms of theft, sabotage and fraud by criminals and anarchists. Direct brain-to-computer interfaces, global networks and mind altering drugs have become commonplace. Everybody is either vying for control, or trying to escape the harsh reality in computer-generated fantasy worlds. But no one is in control: the technology-driven society is simply too complex for anybody to grasp. The continuing uncertainty and fight for survival have eroded any sense of justice, values or ethics, replacing them by a high-tech variant of the law of the jungle.

Copyright© 1998 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Mar 20, 1998


Metasystem Transition Theory

The Future of Humanity

Prev. Next


Add comment...