Arthur C. Clark, author of 2001: a Space Odyssey, and inventor of the concept of geostationary satellites for telecommunications, once wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Consider the kinds of changes the boomers have seen: television (and then, colour television, followed by cable and satellite), moon landings, cheap international travel, computer chips, cell phones, the internet and biotechnology.
Barely 150 years ago half the world was home to stone-age culture. Today its inhabitants communicate globally with friends via computer social networking, watch the professional sports on satellite tv, and via internet plan holidays virtually anywhere on the globe including Antarctica.
All this comes with a cost, though, and not merely the cash we put out for our iPods or our flat-screen tvs’ vivid setting. We have become accustomed to experiencing the world through these means an given the extraordinary power exhibited, we are unlikely to be willing to admit that we humans have any limits at all.
Of course, death is the great leveler, and we still watch uneasily as colleagues, friends and family pass away as a result of accidents, or cancers and other medical blights. We dig into our pockets for the neighbourhood collector for the heart fund, and dutifully swallow our vitamins. But overall, our expectation is that like most of the challenges of the last century or so, we’ll beat these, as well.
Contemporary “Edison” Ray Kurzweil believes we will. Given geometric growth in scientific discovery, he argues that we will defeat aging and perhaps even ultimately death (aside from accident) before 2050. He might be right.
However, there is more than one fly in the ointment of his optimism that we need to keep in mind. Despite geometric increases in the amount of knowledge available to society, none of us knows more than a fraction of it. We are better educated than ever, and at the same time we know progressively smaller and smaller fractions of what is available to be known. Despite our best efforts, we’re becoming more ignorant.
We are frighteningly dependent on the expertise of others, and the complexity of socio-economic arrangements keeping our whole social edifice going is staggering.
Our ignorance is exacerbated by our immersion in distraction. Illegal drug production is one of BC’s largest industries. After weapons, entertainment is one of America’s largest exports. We are awash in popular entertainments. Many of us know Rick Mercer or Jay Leno better than our next-door neighbour.
One doesn’t see Hansard at supermarket checkouts; one does see the ongoing saga of Brad, Jennifer and Angelina. There’s always another sports playoff series or championship match to distract us from anything pressing like medical care policy or peak oil.
We’re still a television society, with the average adult Canadian watching 1500 hours per year (about a quarter of our waking lives). Add to this internet surfing (instant new spouse, anyone?), and we spend a lot of time in fantasyland.
We’re spectators entranced by wizardry, skeptical of the supernatural, but happy to soak up its confidence, and primed to believe that any difficulty we face is just a few heartbeats away from its solution. Let’s hope we don’t have to face any real problems.
Al Lehmann teaches school in Terrace, BC.