The Future of
There is an old analogy about an ancient emperor of China and the inventor of chess that is often used to help understand the speed of technological growth. According to the story, once the emperor became aware of the game of chess, he sent a message throughout the kingdom seeking to reward its inventor, offering anything within his power to give for such an exceptional game. Upon meeting him, the inventor, who was a poor peasant farmer, thanked the emperor for his generosity, and proceeded to place a single grain of rice in the first square of a chessboard. He then placed two grains in the second square, four in the third, eight in the fourth, etc., doubling the number of grains for each of the chessboard’s 64 squares.
At first the emperor was fairly amused by the farmer’s request—after all, these were mere grains of rice, how much could he possibly lose? So he allowed the farmer to continue. It wasn’t until they got about halfway through the chessboard that the emperor began to notice what was really going on. After 32 squares—32 successive doublings of a single grain of rice—the farmer was up to about four billion grains of rice, the equivalent of a few acres of rice fields. If they were to continue all the way to the end of the board, the farmer would be owed about 18 quintillion grains of rice, which would require a rice field twice the size of the surface of the planet to produce, oceans included.
From a single grain of rice to a quantity that more than quadruples the total biomass of the Earth, in just 64 steps—this is the nature of exponential growth. Because we are largely linear thinkers living in an exponential world, this sort of growth can be very difficult to comprehend, or to even perceive—at least until we are plunged headlong into the second half of the chessboard. Visually graphing this sort of exponential curve [y=2^(x-1) for the mathematically inclined] gives us some insight as to why this acceleration can be so easy to take for granted. For the first half of the curve, progress seems to move almost parallel to the horizontal x-axis, and the frequency of change can seem fairly negligible: from a few grains to a few bushels to a few acres, not amounting to much at all. But once we begin moving into the “elbow” of the curve—about 32 squares, in the case of our increasingly anxious emperor—we begin to see progress truly taking off, eventually becoming more closely parallel with the vertical y-axis.
So what does this anachronistically agrarian metaphor of rice, Chinese emperors, and peasant farmers have to do with today’s digital scurry?
According to Moore’s Law, computational power is doubling every 18 months. Which means that the year 2000 marked 32 consecutive doublings since the invention of the transistor, while 2006 marked 32 doublings since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958. We are now living on the second half of the chessboard—and from here on out, things get really crazy. Turing-approved artificial intelligence, cyborg brain/computer interfaces, nanotechnology, even the possibility of uploading consciousness to digital substrate—all of this “post-human” technology is now becoming increasingly feasible, and there is a very good chance we could see this (and more) achieved within most of our lifetimes.
This rate of acceleration currently shows no signs of slowing anytime soon. If anything, the rate of acceleration itself seems to be accelerating. Some critics of Moore’s Law believe that there must be a hard limit at the upper-end of this growth, as defined by the number of transistors you can physically fit upon a single slice of silicon, but others argue that our current technology will eventually be subsumed by a new computational paradigm, such as quantum computing, which will break through this “silicon ceiling.” Within the next 30 years we will be able to manufacture $1000 computers that are capable of as many calculations per second as the human brain. Following this trend as far as we can, we are taken to the limits of imagination itself. The sheer magnitude of our imminent technological progress is almost impossible to grasp, the implications and possibilities are too far beyond our experience to make any meaningful sense of, at least from our current coordinates in history.
Like a black hole in time, the technological singularity represents a point in our not-too-distant future beyond which we simply cannot imagine. And there is no going back, there is no slowing down—there is only tomorrow’s unfolding, a future pressing into the present through this thin veil of time, a world well beyond the visions of the world’s most inspired mystics, prophets, and science fiction writers. But while some may rhapsodize about the approaching technological Singularity as some sort of mythic rapture, a kind of digital utopia in which the struggles that have long been at the core of the human condition find instantaneous resolve, there are many others who aren’t so quick to think that we will all “go up in light” with the simple flip of a switch.
And while we could make the argument that technology is the single most influential arbiter of human development, technology does not actually determine human development. The internet, for example, while representing the legacy of some of the most cognitively advanced minds the world has ever seen, can be used by anybody—in fact, it has become a megaphone for everybody, including Nazis, religious fundamentalists, left-wing alarmists, and Donald Trump supporters. The same can be said for splitting the atom: anyone smart enough to actually build a nuclear bomb would be the least willing to detonate it, assuming their values are on somewhat equal footing with their cognitive intelligence. At every moment our world bears witness to the cruelties that occur when the inventions from higher altitudes are used by people at lower altitudes, whether that invention is a computer, an AK-47, or a democracy.
I compiled a list of innovations and technologies that will most likely be coming down the line over the next few decades, which Ken Wilber drew from in his keynote presentation at the 2012/2013 What Next conference. Although it is impossible to predict what exactly will emerge from all this (emergence, by its very nature, is unpredictable, which is precisely why it can be so disruptive to the status quo), this list helps us to see the general shape of things to come.
It seems clear is that we are seeing a general pattern of accelerated returns in at least four irreducible dimensions of our lives—a singularity in all four quadrants—which I have come to know as the “four posts” (or the “Four Postmen of the Apocalypse” if you like):
- Post-Humanism: The Future of the Body
- Post-Scarcity: The Future of Technology
- Post-Irony: The Future of Culture
- Post-Metaphysics: The Future of Consciousness
Let’s take a brief look at each of these dimensions.
The Future of the Body
As Julian Huxley famously noted, “As a result of a thousand million years of evolution, the universe is becoming aware of itself.” But not only is the universe becoming self-aware, it is just now beginning to understand, manipulate, and augment its own source code.
There are a number of biological and technological trends now emerging that promise to fundamentally alter and expand our definitions of the human organism, integrating organic and inorganic materials to enhance our physical, perceptual, and intellectual capacities, in pursuit of a better, faster, stronger human being. Many of these are already beginning to change the way we see the world (sometimes literally so; see Google Glass and Oculus Rift), while others remain just on the horizon of our collective imagination, promising to dramatically alter our lives in the decades to come.
Some examples include:
The Future of Technology, Manufacturing, and Economics
Over the course of human history, one of the primary drivers of civilization has been to find new and better ways to overcome scarce access to resources—water, food, energy, labor, precious minerals and metals, etc. There seems to be no limit to our various wants, needs, and drives, yet we live in a world of exceptionally limited resources. There is a massive gap between the infinite abundance of the human spirit and the finite scarcity of the human condition, and within this gap lies the very best and the very worst of us, driving both warfare and innovation, both competition and cooperation, both tribalism and globalism.
Every major stage of technological and economic growth (from foraging to horticulture to agriculture to industrial to informational) has represented a bigger and better way to overcome scarcity, an incremental advancement of civilization toward more and more abundance, drawing us closer and closer to an evermore integrated global society. But what would the world look like if we could transcend the confinement of scarcity altogether? How might we re-imagine our newly globalized civilization if, at the very least, all people had easy access to the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—food, water, shelter, and medical care? What implications would this have for economics, property (both intellectual and physical), class distinctions, and social justice?
We are already seeing a range of exciting innovations that seem to be leading to new possibilities of a post-scarcity world, including:
The Future of Culture
The first two singularities (Post-Humanism and Post-Scarcity) are very well-documented patterns of technological innovation that in a sense represent the “hardware” of the future. Now we will turn to the interior singularities, the all-important “software” of culture and consciousness, without which these technologies remain dead artifacts. These technologies, after all, do not exist in a vacuum, and their implementation and possible alleviation of human suffering depends entirely on how we value and relate to them as a culture.
Alongside the exponential acceleration of human technology, we have also seen an ever-quickening unfolding of human culture, taking us through several fundamental stages of beliefs, values, and worldviews. About 50,000 years ago we saw the rise of magical cultures, correlated with the foraging stage of techno-economic development. Mythic cultures began to emerge about 5,000 years ago, made possible by advancements in horticulture, and ripening alongside agriculture during the Axial age 2,500 years ago. The first stirrings of modern rational culture began to emerge about 500 years ago, beginning with the Renaissance and exploding with the industrial revolution. Postmodern pluralistic culture began to emerge just 50 years ago as the media age exposed us to new perspectives and new value systems from around the world, finding its fullest expression through the information age. These are very loose approximations, of course, but they do reveal a general trend of cultural acceleration (50,000 years to 5,000 years, to 500 years, to 50 years), each new stage emerging and maturing an order of magnitude more quickly than the last.
All of these cultural worldviews are alive and well in today’s world, the conflicts between them have never been more pronounced, and the future of human civilization is now caught in the crossfire between them. It now requires a radically new stage of intersubjective evolution in order to relieve the enormous tension between these massive cultural blocks, a new set of shared values that can actually embrace and engage all previous values, rather than trying to eradicate them altogether.
We could say that human evolution has pushed us from cultures of authority (traditionalism) to cultures of autonomy (modernism), to cultures of self-authorship (postmodernism) and now heading toward cultures of authenticity (integral). More than anything, “post-irony” points to one of the defining features of this newly emerging culture of authenticity: a cultural expression that deliberately reaches beyond the layers of cynicism, irony, and self-referential impotence that seems to define so much of our mainstream culture—the shadows of postmodernism that are particularly rampant within those societies where technological sophistication is the most prominent.
This new post-ironic culture understands that:
- All previous cultural expressions are both valid and valuable.
- No particular culture, worldview, or set of values is more or less legitimate than any other.
- Different cultures may be more or less adapted to particular challenges facing civilization.
- More recently developed values tend to be more significant to civilization while previously developed values are more fundamental to civilization.
- Each of these cultural patterns have allowed for remarkable advancements in meaning-making and the alleviation of human suffering.
- Each has a shadow side that creates problems that only the next cultural orientation can begin to resolve.
The Future of Consciousness
Just as our technology is helping us to move beyond scarcity, we find a similar analogue in psychological growth to integral stages of consciousness: a momentous leap away from fear-based motivations, derived from perceptions of personal scarcity and lack, and toward motivations of increasing freedom, abundance, and fullness. The vision and values of integral consciousness are naturally inclined to seek a “bigger picture” view of the world, to include and defragment the entirety of our own interior experience, to embrace the totality of existence in a seamless union of opposites: subject and object, individual and collective, part and whole, emptiness and form, etc.
It is interesting that, at a time when our technological achievements have never been greater, our understanding of consciousness remains a complete and total mystery to the vast majority of the world’s leading philosophers, scientists, and engineers, most of whom attempt to explain away our subjective consciousness as the epiphenomena of objective material processes.
The spiritual traditions, meanwhile, have much to say about the nature of consciousness, but much of this understanding remains embedded in a pre-rational understanding of the universe and our place within it, and is overly laden with mythologies and metaphysics that cannot possibly survive modern and postmodern scrutiny. Thus, the conscious singularity refers to both the emergence of a new psychological stage of consciousness (integral consciousness) , as well as a more comprehensive understanding of consciousness itself, based on an elegant integration of science, psychology, and post-metaphysical spirituality.
Why is this important? For one, if we want to create a better future, we need to understand what motivates people—why we make the decisions that we make, and how we can be helped to make better, more compassionate, more sustainable decisions for the sake of us all. The world is currently facing a series of crises that only a truly global perspective can begin to respond to, and integral consciousness offers the most accurate global understanding of our world and the mess we currently find ourselves in.
As we work on potentially revolutionary projects like artificial intelligence, it is usually taken for granted that these intelligent machines will somehow automagically achieve some degree of interior consciousness. But as it currently stands, while a computational intelligence may be able to beat me in chess, my laptop is not actually aware of the fact that it has beat me in chess. It is one thing to create artificial intelligence, and quite another to create digital consciousness. Are mathematical algorithms sufficient to produce the “inner light” of perceptions, impulses, emotions, symbols, and concepts that act as vehicles of interior consciousness? Perhaps, but first we need to know what consciousness actually is.
Interior consciousness cannot be reduced to the chaotic commotion of exterior processes. Subjectivity is as fundamental to the universe as objective mathematics (which, interestingly, can only be seen through the medium of interior experience).
It is not an accidental byproduct of evolution.
It is not the fever dream fantasy of a twitchy nervous system.
It is not a ghostly hallucination within the machinery of space/time.
It is the empty and eternal expanse at the center of this and every other moment, where space and time slide effortlessly across its frictionless sheen.
Consciousness is the ultimate and inescapable singularity at the beginning and end of all things—a singularity so fundamentally singular, its plural remains forever unknown.
If anything, the Singularity promises to bring as much rupture as it does rapture. As technological evolution continues to accelerate, our identities, ideals, and values struggle to keep pace, increasing the gap between the hardware of technology and the software of consciousness and culture. Make no mistake: if it is to truly become the denouement of human evolution, a jumping-off point for an entirely new conception of human existence, the technological Singularity must be accompanied by a cultural Singularity and a conscious Singularity—a Singularity of “I”, a Singularity of “we”, and a Singularity of “it”.
Otherwise it will not be a Singularity at all, but a world-devouring monster at the end of history, threatening to send evolution in this tiny corner of the galaxy back thousands, if not millions of years.
We are now seeing a new stage of culture and consciousness beginning to emerge—a markedly Integral stage, capable of viewing the world through a meta-paradigmatic and multi-perspectival lens, holding all the world’s knowledge, wisdom, and insight as a single living jewel. And as more and more Integral individuals come together, a powerful cultural force begins to sweep across the planet, one that is inherently more whole, more balanced, and more capable than anything the world has ever seen.
And to the extent that you are even vaguely interested in conversations like these, you are actually enacting and participating with the Singularity, at least in its conscious dimension. Today’s Integral pioneers are the living ancestors of tomorrow’s post-humans, standing in the convergence of all that is Beautiful, Good, and True. You are the singularity, every breath rippling out to the edge of our shared future, echoing back as tomorrow’s possibilities.
About Corey deVos
Corey W. deVos is the proverbial "man behind the curtain". He is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996.