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It’s the end of the month, so it’s once again time to talk about the end of the world…
When I was a boy I couldn’t imagine anything beyond the year 2000. I’m not sure how much of it was due to the perceived importance of a new millennium, how much of it was due to the difficulties of extrapolation, and how much of it was due to my religious upbringing. (Let’s get that out of the way up front. I’m a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or what most people call Mormons.)
I think, even had I been able to imagine something past the year 2000, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. It seems not enough has changed. The common complaint is, “Where’s my flying car?” Because instead, we’ve ended up with something very different, as this observation I came across on Reddit illustrates:
I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man.
I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers.
People still talk about the wondrous technology that awaits us, things like artificial superintelligence, fusion reactors, and an end to aging—any one of which would dramatically change the world. But none of that is the stuff we did get. Instead, we got things like social media, which has gone a long way towards enabling those “arguments with strangers”.
Technology has always had the capability of causing huge harms as well as bringing huge benefits. But in the past these harms were obvious, things like nuclear weapons or pollution, but increasingly the harms are more subtle. People talk seriously of a second civil war, and if such a calamity comes to pass social media will have played a large role. This is not the role people expected social media to play when it first entered the scene. Most expected it would be a way to connect the world and bring us all together—not tear us apart.
From all of this we can draw three conclusions:
- Certain technologies, like fusion power or immortality are so great that when they arrive we will pass into “The Future”—the end of the old world and the beginning of the new.
- Other technologies like nuclear weapons or fossil fuel extraction could be so bad that we also pass into “The Future”, but rather than a utopia it’s an apocalypse.
- It may not be obvious which category a technology falls into until significant time has passed, enough time that it may be difficult to undo the harmful effects.
I mentioned my religious background and in religion they have a whole discipline around discussing the end of the world. It’s called eschatology, and I’ve decided to be an eschatologist. But rather than view things through strictly a religious lens, I intend to engage with the entire universe of potential endings, some good, most bad, many subtle—with a focus on the subtle, bad ones.
Technology allows us to move with greater and greater speed, but it’s not always clear where we’re headed in such a hurry, and the road ahead is treacherous. When I first started writing on this topic, back in 2016, I was inspired by a verse in the Book of Jeremiah, chapter 8, verse 20:
The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.
My hope is that none of those three things are true. My worry is that all of them are.
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