The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
7.4 (Fall 2007)
Space Exploration, Technology, and the Possible Futures of Humanity
Space exploration is often criticized as a waste of money that could better be spent on Earth-bound concerns. However, space exploration may also be seen as a very long-term strategy for human survival.
In the more immediate present, there is undoubtedly a need for some kind of “space shield/asteroid watch”. It is possible that the proposed U.S. National Missile Defense initiative would also be capable of intercepting any especially large incoming asteroids; indeed, that would be a superb argument for its quick implementation.
In the more remote future, it would be helpful if there were a human presence established on other planets and asteroids of the Solar System.
Astronomers know that in about a billion years or so, the Sun is likely to “go nova” (i.e., explode and expand to consume most of the Inner Solar System)—which would probably destroy whatever human (or post-human) life existed on Earth at that time. The Sun would then collapse into a burnt-out cinder.
So human beings should, at the very least, try eventually to establish a significant presence in the Outer Solar System that could survive the death of the Sun—or, for that matter, have some kind of presence on the Moon or Mars that could offer the chance of human survival beyond some kind of massive catastrophe on Earth, which could, of course, occur much, much earlier.
In many science fiction works, there has been some discussion of whether “the stars are not for man”—whether, given the unbelievably huge distances between different star systems, interstellar travel will ever be possible. The portrayals of such travel in most science fiction films and television shows today are clearly unscientific “fantasy”.
The achievement of interstellar travel is also linked to the question of ultimate human survival, in reference to the so-called heat-death of the physical universe which is postulated by most mainstream physics theories to occur in several billion years. Some science fiction writers have postulated that those hyper-technologically advanced species (or perhaps machine intelligences) existing at that time will ensure their survival through the creation of a “pocket universe” of several galaxies, avoiding the destruction of the old universe by “popping into” the newly emerging universe.
The question of what form humans or descendants of humans will survive in has also been asked. It has been suggested that the future of humanity will consist, in the main, of the transfer of individual human consciousness into electronic and cybernetic form. One idea is that a human being, after living out his or her natural life, would have his or her consciousness transferred into some kind of discrete electro-cybernetic construct. An electro-cybernetic construct would presumably retain interactivity with the physical world, whereas the insertion of an individual human consciousness into some kind of virtual reality realm would obviously minimize links to the physical world. A virtual reality realm would, nevertheless, presumably require maintenance and upkeep by physical humans, and hence problems could perhaps arise if certain aberrant personalities within the realm should try to impose their will.
Some science fiction authors have suggested that humans could achieve very long and flourishing lifespans in human biological form, by various forms of genetic manipulation and improved medicine. In regard to various biological manipulations, the question has been raised of whethere there could be bizarre new human “genders” or subspecies created—which would tend to make the conception of “human nature” (already comparatively tenuous and under constant attack today) even more problematic.
One issue concerns what will happen to language in the future. There have been large numbers of dystopias built around issues of language, most notably George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. One of Tolkien’s main points in his creative endeavor was to contrast the profound beauty of the Elven or Elvish languages he created (out of his study of Latin, Classical Greek, Old Anglo-Saxon, Finnish, and various Celtic and Norse languages) in contrast to the nasty speech of the Orcs and other underlings of Sauron. Today, even as it has become the dominant language of world business and computers, English has to a large extent declined into various impenetrable jargons and often vulgar varieties of slang. Linguistic scholars in many of the Continental European countries have noticed almost unbelievable levels of vulgarity, as well as an accelerating intrusion of anglicisms (especially linguistically pointless ones where perfectly fine native words are being rapidly replaced) in their native languages. In a few decades or centuries, it is possible that very many smaller languages on Earth may almost entirely disappear, and that many people will not have anything beyond various English-derived reductive jargons and varieties of vulgar slang in which to express themselves. One may think today of the typical vacuous teenagers or ‘tweens (or whatever one is supposed to call them) chattering endlessly about essentially nothing on their ubiquitous cell phones. It could be seen as our consumerist society’s semi-comic version of Orwell’s nightmare in Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the human voice would be emerging from the larynx without any engagement of the brain.
The future of religion in human societies is lso often seen as problematic. While there were a number of science fiction writers and extrapolative scholars who seriously explored the future of traditional human religions, there were others who have been quite happy to consign them (especially the Christian churches) to oblivion—or to portray them in grossly caricatured form. We are approaching the situation today—so uncannily prophesied in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World—where any robust expression of traditional Christianity in the public arena is seen as virtually “obscene”, whereas gross “porn” and horror, as well as vicious derision of Christianity (as in many stand-up comedy routines), is virtually de rigueur. Another obvious point is that, in America and Canada today, the major career prospects of any new, deeply tradition-minded Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant film director, screenwriter, playwright, popular musician, visual artist, screen or theatre actor, fiction writer (especially in so-called “high literature” and such subgenres as science fiction), or serious opinion journalist are virtually zero. The extent of France’s decline today (a country which once, it may be remembered, virtually defined itself by its fervent Roman Catholicism) is attested by its arid Enlightenment dogma of trying to ban all religious symbols from its public schools—presumably because it cannot bring itself to ban head-to-toe female Muslim attire without simultaneously immiserating Christians and Jews. It is possible, however, that Christianity may find in itself an unusual resilience (as indeed it has many times before) and that it will be able to flourish in and make a contribution to major civilizational advance in the planet’s “South”, even as it largely disappears from many parts of Europe, Canada, and the United States. The large presence of Christianity in the “South”—viz., a humane, saintly African Pope—may indeed be the only thing that will prevent the mass-euthanasia of geriatric Western populations when the West reaches the nadir of its cultural exhaustion.
Another issue would be whether some form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) would ever arise that might be inimical to humans. A further danger would be the emergence of nanotechnology which might create a nanotech “virus” or “plague” capable, theoretically, of extinguishing the entire Earth—the so-called “gray goo” scenario. The idea is that the self-replicating “nanites” would spread over the Earth with immense rapidity, destroying everything in their path.
However, the question of nanotechnology may be a little remote in regard to other possible serious problems facing humanity, such as biotechnological and genetic manipulation dangers, disastrous climactic change, or general environmental degradation.
It is clear that humanity today is facing a number of major crises and unresolved dilemmas, some of which are indeed related to its divisions into various religious, cultural, and ethnic groupings. Certainly, the variety of human religions, cultures, and ethnicities is to be cherished rather than abolished in some “mad scientist” type, universalist Enlightenment project. However, one of the major aspects of the planet today is a dialectic which may indeed be baneful for the future of humanity. It is the unfortunate sense of massive, ongoing resentment against white, Western, Christian civilization. No one can doubt that—for better and for worse—Western civilization has pushed human technological development the farthest. At the same time, its enthusiastic embrace of technology has had the eventual result of corroding its own traditional identities.
It is an open question whether (for example) China, India, and Japan can now lead humanity on the path of technological advancement, or whether the continuing presence of a more robust Western civilization will remain necessary for this to happen.
Perhaps the West today is indeed in a process of terminal, social, political, and cultural decline. Ironically, it is today the opponents of the West that are suffused with the supreme, unshakeable confidence and sense of righteous moral authority that once characterized such groups as the Spanish Conquistadors and British Imperialists. As for the U.S. imperialism of Bush, it is could be considered as that of a multiculturalist empire, whose main domestic policy appears to be “to invite the world” and main foreign policy “to invade the world” (as the controversial paleo-conservative columnist Sam Francis acerbically put it). Insofar as he so blatantly neglects his heartland base, Bush might well be setting up the Republican Party for eventual disaster.
It is possible that some form of “eternal recurrence” is the destiny of humanity. That is to say, the West will invariably collapse, civilization virtually everywhere around the planet may collapse, and there will be a regression to barbarism (a scenario often enough suggested in sci-fi movies like Mad Max and The Road Warrior). During the 1980s, there was much talk of the dangers attending a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union which would push humanity to the brink of extinction (the so-called “nuclear winter” theory). A particularly gruesome example of a post-nuclear-holocaust world was shown in Harlan Ellison’s highly transgressive story, “A Boy and His Dog”. The use of nuclear weapons (or other horrific weapons) clearly remains a constant danger in the human future. There are many ideas for how the use of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction can be prevented in humanity’s future. They range from ideas of a “hegemonic” power stomping on all smaller, upstart, unstable rivals (while tolerating nuclear arsenals among the stable, so-called Great or Middle Powers) to the notion that if almost every country had nuclear weapons, the likelihood of their use would diminish.
It appears that, for the first time in history, human societies have achieved comparatively high levels of technology, reaching some degree of freedom from being at the mercy of the natural elements. Although it should also be remembered that Nature sometimes has a way of “biting back”—such as the increased resistance of insects to pesticides—at those who take her too much for granted. Certainly ecology is a hugely important discourse. Insofar as we become increasingly estranged from “the natural”, the texture of our lives may indeed become “inhuman”. It would be utterly hideous to live in world where Nature had been annihilated—even if, theoretically speaking, human life could continue in some form.
While the excesses of the animal-rights enthusiasts should be resisted, there is certainly something to be said for the notion of “stewardship” of Nature. Wilderness areas and magnificent wild animals roaming free certainly possess some intrinsic value. We do NOT have the right to destroy Nature in order to advance today’s monstrous, advertising- and consumption-addled society. The rises in the GNP that advanced economies are so insistent on may not in fact be producing any positive social or cultural results; indeed, it could be argued that, in terms of many truly meaningful social, cultural, and psychological indicators, life in American society has become considerably worse in last three decades. And the ecological consequences of a compounding rise in the GNP—whose increase is more or less coterminous with increasing resource-use and consumption patterns—are simply frightening. It is also a reductio ad absurdum to argue that ecology is calling for a return to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (it may also be incidentally noted that this lifestyle was sustained by the eating of prodigious quantities of animal meat). There is certainly something “natural” and “positive” in the life of the countryside and its villages, a life which (it could be argued) has changed comparatively little over thousands of years.
Then there are the nice small towns of the typical countryside in Europe. The notion that there can in fact be truly meaningful cultural diversity between different villages and regions of a virtually mono-ethnic and unreligious society, or for that matter at a major university whose staff and student body consists almost entirely of one nationality, ethnicity, and religion, is alien to today’s dominant sensibilities. Indeed, a given society’s or university’s pleasant and subtle diversity within comparative unity is largely devoured by the introduction of radical “multiculturalist” diversity (which also usually operates within a tight, quasi-totalitarian framework of “political correctness” where there is no diversity of thought permitted—except perhaps in regard to rather dubious (and sometimes truly hideous) aboriginal and Third World customs and attitudes, whose all-out defense is seen as a “politically correct” badge of honor).
And it may be noted that the life and the architecture in most cities until the most recent period certainly has had an “organic” quality to it. Many European cities were extremely diverse and unbelievably rich in cultural for centuries or millennia while registering only the most minute presence of “exotic” peoples from outside the usual European historical experience. It is a profound mistake to confuse the concept behind magnificent, traditionally multi-ethnic European cities such as Vienna with the ideas driving today’s radically disintegrated, multicultural urban agglomerations, with their often maximally ugly, “late-modern” pop-culture, art, mores, and architecture. Tolkien’s creativity indeed celebrated rootedness in the village (typified by the hobbit’s Shire), in the noble, ancient city (typified by Minas Tirith), and in the nation (Gondor and Rohan).
One can see today, as well (among some persons), a profound understanding of unfolding historical and social dynamics. It is possible that there exists enough historical and social knowledge today to allow serious, perceptive critics to at least suggest the lineaments of what aspects of social, political, and cultural existence may be salvific for the future evolution of humanity, and what elements should probably be reduced in influence or discarded. Certainly, the nightmares of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union should have taught us critical lessons. Let us consider the possibility, however, that a new nightmare, which could be called the managerial-therapeutic regime—the union of big business and big government, a social environment of total administration and near-total media immersion, has now arisen. As Tolkien put it most clearly, “evil always takes on another shape, and grows again…”
Perhaps it should be the current human societies, after embracing certain healing directions, that transcend various historical and natural cycles, and move straight along an upward path of technological advance that might eventually take us to the stars. There may not be any necessary contradiction between the embrace of ecology on Earth and the eventual hope of outposts in the Solar System, and possibly interstellar travel—and even the possible survival of humanity’s descendants beyond the projected death of the current physical universe. Perhaps we may indeed become the only species that can follow that long road. Perhaps, as Carl Sagan suggested in the 1980s, virtually every intelligent species reaches an evolutionary impasse, and destroys itself through an event akin to a nuclear war. This is clearly something which, at least for now, has been happily avoided—although Reagan’s aggressive strategy in regard to the Soviet Union was pretty well the opposite of what Sagan had been advising at the time. Ultimately, it may indeed be a question of societies that will establish a proper balance between ecological and real technological considerations when allocating and conserving resources. It may be noted, for example, that today’s consumerist/consumptionist society is indeed devouring vast planetary resources toward the production, enhancement, and support of what amounts to little more than massive, idiotic, stultifying, social and cultural garbage.
The central question concerning technology may be whether a given society’s enthusiastic embrace of technology is not ultimately corrosive of its culture, politics, religious traditions, art, architecture, and mores. Every society must face the issue of to what extent it can integrate technology within its pre-existent national and cultural traditions. Certainly, some of the attempted “syntheses”—for example, Nazi Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union—have been absolutely horrific. Today’s America, as well, is close in many ways to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—especially in regard to its ever more outré outlooks on sexuality and forms of entertainment. It must be said that China, India, and Japan, have all retained a greater measure of traditional outlook, while—without question—becoming extremely proficient in technology. A possible issue which arises is whether social and cultural decadence can ever lead to technological decadence—a decline in technological advance. So far, America seems to have avoided the latter outcome.
It would be reassuring to believe that the various nations one cares about and identifies with will be able to carry on with a more or less similar ethnic and cultural composition almost literally ad infinitum, eventually settling some of their population on remote outposts of the Solar System or the habitable planets of distant stars. However, this appears to be becoming less and less likely for many of the Western and European nations.
The scenario painted in David Wingrove’s monumental, eight-volume science fiction series, Chung-kuo—which portrayed a worldwide, highly technologically-advanced Oriental empire (albeit with some European presence)—may indeed not be the worst of the outcomes facing humanity today (although the author himself clearly intended it as a dystopia). Authors such as Samuel P. Huntington have speculated that another possible “culture sphere” is a (sub-Saharan) Christian Africa. Indeed, the conflict between Christianity and Islam in Africa may become one of the most important in human history.
In a world of massive technological flux, those nations and peoples that retain a tough and unshakeable sense of their own ethnic and cultural identity, combined with a sense of critical intelligence about the world, the natural environment, and human social relations, as well as a highly necessary degree of generosity and tactical flexibility in regard to others, are likely to dominate “the deep future”.