Surviving the future – with computers…

A recently aired documentary about the future from CBC is now accessible on the net (there isn’t a YouTube link to the whole thing which I can find, but someone cleverer than me has embedded it here).

Surviving the Future a fascinating document, beginning with a focus on the tension which grabbed me when I first started thinking about the Rough Guide to the Future – rather a long time ago. That is, isn’t it strange to live at a time when the two opposed discourses of apocalypse and utopia are both so prominent. Sure, they are both perennials, but in their current forms – climate catastrophe versus techno-optimism which will both solve global warming and usher in an age of abundance and, possibly, unlimited lifespan or even computer-mediated paradise – the opposition seem especially pronounced.

It is short (40-odd mins) and packs a lot in, so there’s plenty of TV-doc compression to make fun of. But to do these topics more justice you’d need something much longer, like a book (even). The first half, at any rate, does a pretty good job of laying out the futures landscape, emphasising the stark polarity of views, and with the likes of Jamais Cascio and Paul Saffo giving good soundbite – Cascio in particular on screen quite a lot.

Once it has you hooked, it even allows Saffo to say that “visions of the future are always more dramatic than reality”, which sounds hopeful in the context.

The narrative unravels a bit in the second half, I think. Having dealt rapidly with climate change, regenerative medicine, and in vitro meat (uncritically in all three cases – again no time), it turns to computers as both the harbingers of bad news and the potential saviours.

How does that work? Well, the computers, not the people who wrote the models, “began to bring us bad news” around the time of The Limits to Growth. Now, they have got more powerful, natch, so they can give us “ever more detailed models of the coming ecological catastrophe”.

We deal with “evidence gathered by the most powerful computers”, again – rather oddly – granting them agency – and this is what makes the “new futurism” all about survival.

There is a whole progamme here on the topic they canvas in brief, namely predictive simulation as an extension of the human mind. I’m sensitised to that because I’ve just been trying to write a feature piece for a UK newspaper on modelling and policy-making, and been reminded just how much of it is going on., But even without digging around in flood control, epidemic planning, climate models or even economics it is pretty clear there is a lot of computer simulationhappening in crucial areas of science and policy.

The doc then  takes a slightly odd turn, though, after a good bit on the Chevy Volt, by arguing that the change which will really matter is something called the “cognitive computer”. This will, apparently, “give us the best chance of survival”. And it will go along with sensor networks which mean “the planet itself will function as a computer interface”. That will just give us better information, surely? No doubt that is a useful adjunct to better handling of global problems, from managing ecosystems to more efficient agriculture and monitoring and perhaps charging for carbon emissions – maybe even a prerequisite, But here it ends up sounding like a straghtforward technical fix. I suspect that is because the demands of a major channel documentary in North America call for an upbeat ending rather than because there is any very persuasive logic to it.

Still, an interesting document, and well worth watching all through. I see the same outfit have just made one on geo-engineering but not sure if that is available outside Canada…

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Explore posts in the same categories: extinction, fear of the future, growth or what?, optimism

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One Comment on “Surviving the future – with computers…”

  1. Ryan Says:

    Hello, I stumbled upon your blog today and I must say, I enjoy it. I will add it to my reading list. =_)

    Marvelous Minutia


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