After more than three years of blogging, I took a break at the end of April. Frustrated by technology issues that were interfering with delivery, I also needed time simply to think about where I was going with this.
I had really enjoyed writing on anything that struck my fancy; however, every successful blogger has a niche. Standing on the threshold of my 70th birthday, I eventually realized that my perspective as an elder was the niche I needed. My generation is in what we call “the long shadow” time of life. The image we cast as the sun sets at our backs has an amazing reach, and the head leads. It is an image to ponder.
For those of us born in the 40s, life to date has been like a very long train ride behind an engine that continually accelerates. An extraordinary number of momentous historical events have flown past the window, and now we are moving so fast that landmarks disappear in a blur. Where is this train going, exactly?
This seems the moment imaginatively to disembark and contemplate the direction of travel. Where is our ticket taking us? Can we change the destination if we want to?
So I offer this blog as symbolic time on the station bench to consider three prospects down the tracks. One has to do with international conflict, the second with technology, and the third with the condition of the planet. In each case, we’ll get our bearings on the future by first going back in time.
Let’s begin with 1945, my birth year. It was the year World War II officially came to an end and also the year that the United Nations was established. One of the stated goals of the latter was to prevent future wars. The following chronology tells the tale:
- Korean War 1950
- Vietnam War 1965
- Gulf War 1990
- Iraq War 2003
As I write this, we have been in a combative mode in the Middle East for about 12 years. We’re all wondering: Will this be the ground of World War III? Or will Russia, China, and North Korea be key players in a conflict that spreads worldwide? Nine nations now have nuclear weapons that could serve to devastate the entire planet. Is this inevitable, or is there some chance that we can evolve beyond the ancient tradition of resolving differences on the battlefield? Surely this is possible. After all, look at our amazing advances in other areas.
For example, America has been the ground of stunning progress in the field of computer technology. When I went off to college in 1963, I didn’t even have a typewriter, borrowing one from a friend when I needed to write a paper. The following markers ensued:
- Computer giants Apple and Microsoft were both established in 1976. By 2015, they had a market capitalization (based on share price) of about $700 billion and $350 billion respectively.
- In 1995, the Internet was formally introduced as a “global information system.” The amount of data it now transports boggles the mind. By the end of 2016, it will probably carry over a Zettabyte of traffic. As a comparison, a Zettabyte can store two billion years of music.
- Facebook was founded by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 when he was 24 years old. Active membership is approaching 1.5 billion; at age 32, Zuckerberg has a net worth of about $34.8 billion.
These are just a few of the amazing developments we now expect to manifest regularly. There is a bright side in access to information and ease of communication, but a dark one in the ways in which this new reality has made us vulnerable to everything from mischief-making to international sabotage. Ironically, all the innovations in connectivity are in some ways also undermining our ability to relate to each other in intimate, civil, and meaningful ways.
Alarming predictions have surfaced. One is that computers may take over half of the nation’s jobs within the next 20 years. Another is that artificial intelligence will soon embody and then transcend the capacity of the human brain. A thing called “superintelligence” looms on the horizon, technology so advanced that it can take over its own evolution and render humans obsolete.
We are deservedly proud of all our advances that initially constituted progress, and most have been inspired by the desire to improve the quality of human life, to create a better world from our own perspective. Unfortunately, our ambitions have taken a heavy toll on the planet.
The publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962 was my introduction to environmental problems. It was through her work that we learned how powerful pesticides were killing birds and countless harmless insects. In 1972, the United States responded by banning the agricultural use of DDT.
A few years later, we discovered that compounds called CFCs were damaging the ozone later. Used in the manufacture of aerosol sprays, solvents, and refrigerants, CFCs were destroying the ozone layer’s protections against ultraviolet rays that can cause cancer. The United States acted promptly, banning them in 1978. Production was phased out worldwide by 1996.
It was Silent Spring, which Al Gore had read as a teenager, that inspired his lifelong interest in the environment. His documentary on human-caused global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, came out in 2006. Unfortunately, the issue here became political and economic rather than scientific, and effective action has so far been forestalled.
So where are we, planet-wise? An article published last month in Science Advances is not encouraging. Very complex statistical analysis provides evidence that human activity, including our role in global warming, is causing the extinction of other species at an accelerating rate. The authors conclude that mass extinction is underway, “the sixth of its kind in Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history.” If we don’t act quickly, we may lose a degree of biodiversity that could not be restored for hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Whether humans will be part of that biodiversity is unknown.
At the current age of my generation, we typically begin to get in touch with our mortality. It is ironic that a growing number of us are also getting in touch with the mortality of the human species. We may not see the outcome of the risks I’ve summarized, and the subjects are distressing, so why think about it? Well, we are privileged in some respects by the time to do so. And since it is the power of intellect that has advanced the human species as well as imperiled us, perhaps we can rely on it to secure our survival.
As a foundation for this undertaking, it may be interesting–and humbling, perhaps–to consider how we came by this ability to think. In that light, my next blog will be devoted to an intriguing theory.