I have some bad news and some good news for you about the future. First, the bad news. The future is not coming at us any faster than it ever has. We will not become immortal cyborgs with superintelligent computer friends in the next twenty years. The good news is that means we have a lot more time to get our shit together, and possibly to save the world. Welcome to the slow future.
Sculpture by Christopher Locke
One of the big mistakes that futurists make today is suggesting that our future is accelerating because science is operating at a fever pitch. We’re churning out so many magical devices that in twenty years we’ll have transcended death, disease, and poverty. Whether they’re wild-eyed Utopians like Ray Kurzweil or pessimistic doomsayers like Bill Joy (who popularized the idea of a “gray goo” apocalypse), they’ve made the error of assuming that all aspects of our lives will change as quickly as microchips do under Moore’s Law. When you consider that our technology has advanced from the first telephones to smart phones in roughly a century, it’s easy to understand why it seems like tomorrow is arriving faster than it ever did.
Geological Time and Species Time
The problem is that very few things in our lives are like technology. Indeed, most things on the planet — including many subjects of that supposedly accelerating scientific research — are operating on a geological timescale. Evolution, climate change, and the construction of the physical universe down to its atoms are processes that we measure in millions or billions of years. To understand the future properly, it’s crucial that we listen to geologists as often as we do computer scientists. Scientists like Peter Ward and Lynn Margulis, who study billion-year changes in life on Earth, have a much better perspective on tomorrow than someone who has only studied the past century. Earth-shattering events such as climate change are almost never visible from the tiny flash of time allotted us as individual humans.
Because of this observational challenge, it is hard to speed up the process of geological discoveries, whether they relate to climate change, or to materials science that could one day give us fine control over molecules. Unlike computers, which we invented, the Earth’s processes are something we can only understand through observation. And we need time to do it. Maybe not millions of years, but certainly not just a century either.
There is another kind of slow time that we often ignore in our rush to hurtle into tomorrow at light speed. This is called species time. It is the amont of time that a species, like say Homo sapiens, is likely to exist. Most species are only around for about a few million years at most — then they die out or evolve or a little bit of both. Often you hear about organisms like sharks or algae that have lasted for tens of millions or billions of years, but those numbers apply only to a general description of these creatures. Specific species of shark and algae evolve and die out over the millennia, though the same forms re-evolve over and over. In this chart (via Wikipedia) you can see what the typical lifespan of a species is. Note that mammal species like ourselves tend to last about a million years.
Most evolutionary biologists believe that H. sapiens evolved about 200 thousand years ago. So we’re pretty early in our species life cycle. I know we like to think of ourselves as special creatures, and to be fair it does seem like we are the only superintelligent life that’s ever existed on Earth. But it’s worth keeping in mind that despite all our accomplishments, like electric blankets and cities and videogames, that we are still part of a species whose lifespan is measured in tens of thousands of years.
This is particularly important when you start to think about a reasonable timeframe for the development of space travel and solar system colonization. There is strong evidence that humans first began exploring the oceans by boat about 50 thousand years ago. Reed boats are the technological advance that helped us reach the shores of Australia from Asia at that time. Now, there is mounting evidence that these same kinds of boats, lashed together with simple tools, bore our ancestors from Asia to the Americas about 15,000 years ago. But it was only about 500 years ago that ocean exploration really started to transform our civilizations. Thanks to new shipping technology, buttressed by international trade, we have begun to form a global society. Airplanes have helped too, as has instantaneous communication. But looked at from the perspective of species time, our interconnected world was 50 thousand years in the making.
What if our space probes and the Curiosity rover are the equivalent of those reed boats thousands of years ago? It’s worth pondering. We may be at the start of a long, slow journey whose climactic moment comes thousands of years from now.
In Your Lifetime
Let’s return to the one timeframe that we can all grasp easily: the length of a human lifespan, which under ideal circumstances is around 75-85 years. This is also the lifespan of our computer technology, whose development appears so rapid to us in part because we actually witnessed it in real time. Unlike the development of our climate, or of our species’ ability to travel the planet in miraculous vessels of our own making.
I think it’s obvious why we want to measure the pace of the future using technology, and make computer scientists our guides. Technological change is both familiar and easy to observe. We want to believe that other scientific and cultural changes can happen in similarly observable way because generally we think in human time, not species or geological time. Put another way: We all live in a hyper-accelerated timeframe. Slow time is essentially inhuman time. It is what exists before and after each of our individual lives.
That said, it’s undeniable that technological change and fast human time can profoundly affect events unfolding in slow time. For example, we must act now, in our lifetimes, to prevent climate change from destroying our food security, our livelihoods, and the millions of species who share the planet with us. We must act now to keep our space programs alive. And of course we must keep innovating new computers to help us analyze everything from genomes to carbon atoms more quickly and efficiently.
Still, we can’t expect all the efforts we make in our short lifetimes to pay off in our lifetimes, too. You will not live to be 200 years old. I repeat: You will not live to be 200 years old. Life extension like that is not going to happen in our lifetimes because quite simply it takes time to analyze our genomes, then it takes more time to test them, then it takes more time to develop therapies to keep us young, and then there is a lot of government red tape and cultural backlash to deal with too. Maybe our grandchildren will have a chance to take a life-extension pill. But not us. And that has to be OK. Making scientific promises we can’t keep will do a lot of harm. Ultimately it undermines the public’s trust in both science and people who prognosticate about it.
Many Timelines, All At Once
We need to think about the future as a set of overlapping timelines. Some events take place in human time. Others exist in the slow time of Homo sapiens or the planet’s carbon cycle — or even the Milky Way’s collision course with Andromeda. Problems arise when we believe that all time is human time. We lose sight of long term goals like species survival on a constantly-changing planet. We fail to prioritize projects like food security and instead focus on curing aging. Both are very worthy goals. But one needs to happen now, in human time. The other will take generations.
In a sense, we are trapped in accelerated time. We cannot feel or observe the slow future because we will not live to see it. But it exists, in a way that is more vital and important than any one of us. The slow future is our best hope if we want to steer humanity toward a tomorrow where our species survives.