The future, as we’ve all noticed and someone, surely, has already said, ain’t what it used to be. At least not in the West, that one-time inventor of the notion of progress. Elsewhere around the globe, where hundreds of millions have been raised from abject poverty in the past generation, people may believe that even better days lie ahead, but in the developed world the dominant cultural narrative is that the future will look more like The Hunger Games than The Jetsons. The outliers in this gloom are, of course, the professional futurists, optimists by nature, many of whom will gather in Toronto this weekend (July 27 to 29) for the WorldFuture 2012 Conference, discussing everything from quantum computers to new means of crime prediction (and prevention). And worrying over the prevailing zeitgeist.
Take John Smart for one. The founder and president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, whose name isn’t at all ironic, will deliver a talk entitled Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live Forever. Reasonable people can certainly debate the science involved: an Emergency Glutaraldehyde Perfusion process (circulating a molecule in the body of a recently deceased person) effectively embalms the brain; afterwards another chemical (osmium tetroxide) fixes all the fats in the brain cells; and then a series of baths in acetone-like solvents effectively fossilizes, and keeps ready for future reanimation, the key aspects of who we are, our memories and identity.
But as intriguing are Smart’s motives. Even if none of it works (Smart has no doubt it will though), the expected costs are small and the change he expects in what he calls “our value set” will be worth it. “I foresee a more science-oriented, more reason-dedicated population,” Smart says. “We’ll be able to cut down on all the end-of-life craziness, all the hopeless heroic measures, and be able to think more calmly and sanely.” The result, he hopes, will be a less violence-prone, more sustainability-prone population dedicated to preservation of everything from the environment to disappearing languages and cultures. “Brian preservation,” Smart remarks matter of factly, “is the most powerful social lever I can think of.”
For many people this is impossibly utopian thinking, resting on an impossibly slender reed, but it’s hard to argue with the ultimate point. Unless humans believe they can make a better future for themselves and their children, and dedicate the thinking and effort required to bring that about, our current anxieties will become self-fulfilling.