Wegierski: Space exploration, technology, and the possible futures of humanity

In honor of the Moon landing 50th anniversary, Mark Wegierski tries to predict the future of humanity in space.

Despite the various vicissitudes of the economic development of the planet, it may be that this is only a small detour on an ongoing path of humanity’s technological development.  Space exploration is often criticized as a waste of money that could better be spent on Earth-bound concerns. However, space exploration may be seen as a very long-term strategy for human survival.

In the more immediate present, there is clearly a need for some kind of “space shield/asteroid watch.” What is termed a “major asteroid event” could be enormously devastating to all of humankind. It is possible that the proposed U.S. National Ballistic 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. It would then collapse into a burnt-out cinder.

So – if one takes the long view of things — human beings should – at the very least – try to eventually 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, or in underground shelters or the deep oceans, that could offer the chance of human survival beyond some kind of massive catastrophe on Earth, which could, of course, occur much, 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) that are in existence at that time, will ensure their survival by creating a “pocket universe” of several galaxies, that will avoid the destruction of the old universe, and “pop-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 – or into a specially prepared artificially-grown human body.  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 – or artificially-grown human body. An electro-cybernetic construct, or a purely biological android maniform, would presumably retain interactivity with the physical world. The situation of the insertion of an individual human consciousness into some kind of virtual reality realm (presumably shortly before the person was expected to physically die), would obviously minimize links to the physical world. A virtual reality realm would, nevertheless, presumably require maintenance and upkeep by physical humans, and there could perhaps arise problems if certain aberrant personalities within the electronic realm would try to impose themselves on others. The reliability of the physical humans to safeguard the virtual reality machinery would also have to be counted on.

Some science fiction authors have suggested that humans could achieve very long and flourishing lifespans in their more-or-less original human biological form, by various forms of genetic manipulation and improved medicine. In regard to various biological manipulations, the question has been raised if there could be bizarre new human “genders” or subspecies created – which would tend to make the conception of human nature – which is already comparatively tenuous and under constant attack today – even more problematic.

Enormous issues would be raised if there were to be robot servants with some form of artificial intelligence created (as seen in the writings of Isaac Asimov, such as I, Robot), or “vat-grown” biological androids that were “more human than human” (in the words of that classic dark-future movie, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) It has also been suggested that subspecies of human slaves for more unpleasant physical labor, could be created by genetically dumbing down a certain percentage of human embryos in their “decanting” – the “Epsilon Semi-Morons” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

While the future typically posited in works of the so-called cyberpunk subgenre such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (or Blade Runner) might appear in some ways as exciting, the social and cultural ambience of this extremely heterogeneous milieu – which could be termed as “hyper-urban” – would likely be intensely subversive of any earlier norms of tradition and social and cultural stability. Both human nature and physical nature would tend to become a highly attenuated, residual presence in what has sometimes been described as an “air-conditioned nightmare”.

The import of a world such as that posited in Blade Runner for traditions of nation, religion, and family, is dire indeed. It may also be remembered that one of the main points of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was the abolition of family, history, and traditional religion in that posited society.

It’s an interesting question whether a “gritty future” on Earth such as that of cyberpunk, or one of a sterile supposed “utopia” like that of Brave New World, would be undertaking space exploration at all. The chance of escaping to the “offworld colonies” seen in Blade Runner, does not seem to be a very likely possibility in combination with a world apparently in the throes of massive resource scarcity. An earlier movie, Outland, posited the moving out of a “gritty future” to, for example, a mining colony near Saturn.

Whether the leaders of the society seen in Brave New World would wish to carry out space exploration is also doubtful. They believed they had achieved the near-permanent stability of their society. It’s obvious, though, to the typical reader of the book, that this is a highly sterile stability. The world-settings posited in Blade Runner as well as Brave New World are both in many ways at war with human and physical nature. Whether there could be such a thing as a sense of continuing human history and a desire for space exploration on some kind of idealistic grounds of desire for human achievement, or national endeavor, in either society, seems doubtful. Also, since space exploration would probably appear highly economically wasteful to both a cyberpunk world, and to the Brave New World society, it probably would not get undertaken under those scenarios of the future.

One of the most prominent settings linking a very “gritty future” and interstellar space travel, occurs in the extended science fiction/horror film series which began with Alien in 1979. It may be noticed that the setting is one dominated by the mostly nasty future corporations. The state and the military (the Colonial Marines) are shown as being mostly subordinated to the nefarious schemes of the corporations.

Language is an extremely vital aspect of human existence. Issues of what will happen to language in the future have been central to many speculations about 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 J.R.R. 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) – as opposed 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 crude varieties of slang. Linguistic scholars in many of the Continental European countries have noticed almost unbelievable levels of vulgarity, as well as an accelerating process of ever more 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 crude slang, in which to express themselves. One may think today of some of the shallower people chattering endlessly about essentially nothing on their ubiquitous cellphones. 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 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 Brave New World dystopian novel — where any more 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 in pop-culture.

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 rather nugatory. The extent of France’s decline today (a country which once, it may be remembered, virtually defined itself by its fervent Roman Catholic faith) 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” – such as a humane, saintly African Pope – may indeed be the only thing that will prevent the mass-euthanasia of geriatric Western populations, if there ever arrives the baneful point when the West reaches the nadir of its culture-exhaustion.

Another issue would be whether some form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) would ever arise, that might be inimical to humans. Two spectacular scenarios of malevolent AI were seen in The Matrix film trilogy, and in the Terminator film series. One thing to be considered is that the threat of the rise of the machines allows one to somewhat downplay the fact that humans have usually been the most ferocious enemies of other humans.

Another danger would be the arising of nanotechnology, which might create a nanotech “virus” or “plague” – which could theoretically extinguish 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 out-of-control 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 varieties of human religions, cultures, and ethnicities are 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 that may indeed be baneful for the future of humanity. It is the unfortunate sense of massive, ongoing resentment against Western civilization. It cannot be doubted 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 massively 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 who 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 someone like George W. Bush, it could be seen as that of a multiculturalist empire, whose main domestic policy appears to be “to invite the world,” and whose main foreign policy appears to be “to invade the world” (as the paleoconservative columnist Sam Francis acerbically put it).

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 might indeed be a regression to worldwide 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 of 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 notions that if almost every country had nuclear weapons, the likelihood of their use will 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 a world where Nature had been annihilated – even if, theoretically-speaking, human life could persist in some form.

While resisting the excesses of the animal-rights enthusiasts, there is certainly something to be said for a notion of at least the “stewardship” of Nature. There is certainly some intrinsic value in wilderness areas and magnificent wild animals roaming free. We do not have the right to destroy Nature in order to advance what many traditionalist and ecological critics would see as today’s monstrous, advertising- and consumption-addled society. In fact, the rises in the GDP that advanced economies are so insistent on, may not in fact be producing some more 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 the last three decades. And the ecological consequences of a compounding rise in the GDP – 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 way of life was sustained by the eating of prodigious quantities of animal meat). Ecology would hope for a “saner” and more truly rational management of the situation as it currently is. Also, certain elements in ecological conservation have only become possible as a result of continuing advances in technology.

In current-day societies, life in the countryside is frequently devalorized. It is often enough remarked that, through the mechanization of agriculture based on cheap energy, the number of persons who need to produce food in the countryside has been reduced to about one percent of the population. But, can the social and cultural consequences of this massive “de-agrarianization” be looked upon as unqualifiedly felicitous? One can certainly see something highly “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, towns, and regions of a virtually mono-ethnic and unireligious 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 indeed 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 culturally rich for centuries or millennia with 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, outlooks, 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 in regard to the future evolution of humanity, and what elements should probably be reduced in influence or discarded. Certainly, the nightmare regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (especially under Stalin) should have taught us certain 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, “…for evil always takes on another shape, and grows again.”

Perhaps it should be the current human societies, after embracing certain healing directions, that should 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 eventual physical 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 of resource-allocation and -conservation between ecological and real technological considerations. 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 modern 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 eventually face the issue of to what extent it can integrate technology within its pre-existent national and cultural traditions. Certainly, some of the attempted pseudo-“syntheses” – for example, Nazi Germany, or Stalin’s Soviet Union, have been absolutely horrific.  Today’s America, however, is seen by some critics as close enough, in a considerable number of ways, to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – especially in regard to its ever more outré outlooks on sexuality and its forms of entertainment.  It must be said that Japan, China, and India, have all retained a greater measure of socially traditional outlooks, while – without question – becoming extremely proficient in modern technology. A possible issue that arises is if social and cultural decline can ever lead to technological decadence – a decline in technological advance. So far, America seems to have avoided the latter outcome.

Nevertheless, some have argued that the post-2008 financial and economic crisis in America is largely the outcome of an over-fixation on consumerist satisfactions rather than hard work, savings, and thrift. One can perceive a deeply ingrained culture of entitlement stretching from the highest levels of Wall Street and the boudoirs of Hollywood, to the apathetic recipients of welfare, and to those (albeit abetted by government and the financial industry) acquiring “McMansions” far beyond their real means.

By contrast, China – which has developed huge industrial production — is in a position today to dictate terms to America. The vast Chinese reserves of American dollars are likely to be the main source of the money that the American government now needs to borrow (now estimated at two trillion U.S. dollars). It’s almost frightening to contemplate the contrast, as far as economic sovereignty and self-sufficiency are concerned, between America in the 1950s — when virtually everything was “made in America” – and today, when most commercial products available in the U.S., are made overseas – and America has become a “debtor nation.” Some have said that the economic or pseudo-economic theories that resulted in such an outcome are not being subject to enough sharp criticism today.

Barack Obama’s first Inaugural Address indeed drew vital attention to the importance of production, hard work, and responsibility for a successful society, but it may be a little too late for such invocations.

For example, it’s possible that many of the younger people in America have become so enamoured of various forms of entertainment and easy living, that many of them will simply be unwilling to put in the very long hours needed for attaining real scientific and technical expertise – even in those cases where they have manifested significant intelligence and an aptitude towards science and engineering.

In his address, President Obama obviously embraced what is called the creedal definition of American identity, i.e., as a political creed.  While the idea sounds very noble and idealistic, it is difficult to imagine that any society that has ever existed could continue without being built around some kind of ethnic, or in some cases, religious, core. Such rhetorical celebrations as by the former President Clinton, of the impending day when whites become a minority in America, tend to gloss over the matter that such an American society would likely find it ever more difficult to function as a “United States of America” While Obama did not strongly embrace Christianity as a possible basis for American unity, he did appear to outline a rather robust and well-thought-out vision of the American founding documents and republican institutions as a basis for America’s future.

But it could be argued that the very positive image of America put forward on Obama’s Inauguration Day occurs only in the foreground of a backdrop of a very deep-seated climate of social and cultural decline, and of a regime that may indeed be, in a considerable number of ways, near the end of its tether. The social textures of lives for many people today approach the surreal. Many are absorbed by the plethora of often very vulgar entertainments and amusements. The intellectuals who should be doing some serious thinking are often captured by ideas that are probably leading to even worse outcomes for society as a whole. And it could be argued that the so-called “conservative” administration of George W. Bush has squandered the nation’s resources in the futile Iraq War and through the so-called “financialization” of the economy – while manifestly failing to confront multifarious social and cultural crises at home.

It would be reassuring to believe that the various nations one specifically cares about and identifies with, would 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 Chinese 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). Scholars 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, human social relations, and the cultural preconditions for economic success — as well as a highly necessary degree of generosity and tactical flexibility in regard to others — are likely to dominate “the deep future.” Neither self-hatred nor hatred of others is the path forward for a real future.

Mark Wegierski

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