Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: futurism (page 1 of 1)

defining immortality down

Digital Eternity Is Just Around the Corner

As these technologies develop and become more accessible, they will increasingly be used in combination, creating “intelligent avatars” of ourselves that continue to “live” long after we have died. We are seeing the beginnings of this with the metaverse company Somnium Space, whose Live Forever mode allows users to create “digital clones” built from data they have stored while alive, including conversational style, gaits, and even facial expressions. 

This sense of immortality may be reassuring, but there is a catch. AI avatars will rely on us feeding their algorithms a huge amount of personal data, accumulated through the course of our lives. If we want our digital selves to live on, this is the exchange we must accept: that the unfiltered beliefs and opinions we express today may not only be archived, but consequently used to build these posthumous personae. In other words, we can have a voice in the afterlife, but we cannot be certain about what it may say. This will force us to reconsider how our behaviors today might influence digital versions of ourselves set to outlive us. Faced with this prospect of virtual immortality, 2023 will be the year we broaden our definition of what it means to live forever, a moral question that will fundamentally change how we live our day-to-day lives, but also what it means to be immortal. 

Notice how the quotes around “live” in the first paragraph disappear in the second. Notice also — this is universal in such discourse — the unexamined “we”: “2023 will be the year we broaden our definition of what it means to live forever.” Depends on who “we” are, I think. I for one am not interested in broadening my definition of what means to live forever in such a way that it isn’t living and doesn’t last forever. But you be you! 

There’s a powerful passage from C. S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy

I had recently come to know an old, dirty, gabbling, tragic, Irish parson who had long since lost his faith but retained his living. By the time I met him his only interest was the search for evidence of “human survival.” On this he read and talked incessantly, and, having a highly critical mind, could never satisfy himself. What was especially shocking was that the ravenous desire for personal immortality co-existed in him with (apparently) a total indifference to all that could, on a sane view, make immortality desirable. He was not seeking the Beatific Vision and did not even believe in God. He was not hoping for more time in which to purge and improve his own personality. He was not dreaming of reunion with dead friends or lovers; I never heard him speak with affection of anybody. All he wanted was the assurance that something he could call “himself” would, on almost any terms, last longer than his bodily life. 

Whenever I read about someone who sees a technological route to immortality I think about this “ravenous desire for personal immortality” combined with “a total indifference to all that could, on a sane view, make immortality desirable.” So you want a digital imitation of yourself to live on after you die. But why

1947 10


Leon Shamroy, writing in American Cinematographer in 1947:

Not too far off is the “electronic camera.” A compact, lightweight box no larger than a Kodak Brownie, it will contain a highly sensitive pickup tube, 100 times faster than present-day film stocks. A single lens system will adjust to any focal length by the operator merely turning a knob, and will replace the cumbersome interchangeable lenses to today. Cranes and dollies weighing tons will be replaced by lightweight perambulators. The camera will be linked to the film recorder by coaxial cable or radio. The actual recording of the scene on film will take place at a remote station, under ideal conditions. Instead of waiting for a day —or days, in the case of shooting with color — electronic monitor screens connected into the system will make it possible to view the scene as it is being recorded. Control of contrast and color will be possible before development.

It is not too difficult to predict the effect of such advancements on the production of motion pictures. Economically, it will mean savings in time and money. Since the photographic results will be known immediately, it will be unnecessary to tie up actors and stages for long periods of time. The size and sensitivity of this new camera will make photography possible under ordinary lighting conditions. Shooting pictures on distant locations will be simplified. generators, lighting units, and other heavy equipment will be eliminated, thus doing away with costly transportation.

words: bashed

Noah Smith and “roon”:

It’s important to realize exactly why the innovations of the past didn’t result in the kind of mass obsolescence that people feared at the time.

The reason was that instead of replacing people entirely, those technologies simply replaced some of the tasks they did. If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a metalworker in the 1700s, a large part of your job consisted of using hand tools to manually bash metal into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of machine tools, metalworkers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more metal with a machine.

Note the planted axioms here — the governing assumptions that the authors may not even know they’re making:

  1. That metalwork is neither an art nor a craft in which humans might take satisfaction but is simply a matter of “bashing” metal;
  2. That it’s better to direct machines to bash than to do one’s own bashing, because working with metal is drudgery but overseeing machines isn’t;
  3. That more metal-bashing is better than less metal-bashing.

I have, shall we say, some doubts about all those axioms. But let’s move on.

Consider the following, produced in the year 2322:

If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a writer in the 2000s, a large part of your job consisted of using keyboards to manually bash characters into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of AI, writers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more characters with a machine.

What a utopian dream! No one has to write any more — no one has to think of what to say, to struggle for the best words in the best order, to strive to persuade or entertain. You just say, “Hey Siri, write me an essay on why there’s no reason to fear that AI will replace humans.”

Wait — I was being sardonic there but it turns out that that’s what Smith and roon really think:

Take op-ed writers, for instance – an example that’s obviously important to Noah. Much of the task of nonfiction writing involves coming up with new ways to phrase sentences, rather than figuring out what the content of a sentence should be. AI-based word processors will automate this boring part of writing – you’ll just type what you want to say, and the AI will phrase it in a way that makes it sound comprehensible, fresh, and non-repetitive. Of course, the AI may make mistakes, or use phrasing that doesn’t quite fit a human writer’s preferred style, but this just means the human writer will go back and edit what the AI writes.

In fact, Noah imagines that at some point, his workflow will look like this: First, he’ll think about what he wants to say, and type out a list of bullet points. His AI word processor will then turn each of these bullet points into a sentence or paragraph, written in a facsimile of Noah’s traditional writing style.

Behold: an image of the future of writing produced by a writer who quite obviously doesn’t like to write.

What seems to be missing here is the question of why the people who now pay Noah Smith to write wouldn’t just cut out the middleman, i.e., Noah Smith. Maybe that’s the future of Substack: AI drawing on a large corpus of hand-bashed text so that instead of paying Freddie deBoer to write I can just say, “Hey Substack, write me an essay on professional wrestling in the style of Freddie deBoer.” After all, people who write for Substack have limited time, limited energy, limited imagination, but AI won’t have any of those limits. It can bash infinitely more words.

I think Smith and roon don’t consider that possibility because they have another planted axiom, one that can be extracted from this line in their essay: our AI future “doesn’t mean humans will have to give up the practice of individual creativity; we’ll just do it for fun instead of for money.” But we will only do that if we have time and energy to do it, which we will have only have if we’re not busting our asses to make a living. Thus the final planted axiom: AI and human beings will flourish together in a post-scarcity world, like that of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels.


Effective altruism is an admirable movement, and I hope it spreads. But one of my chief concerns about the movement is how obsessively focused it is on financial matters. The question seems always to be “Where should I put my money?” This is not surprising, since the movement is so closely associated with wealthy engineers, and more specifically with Silicon Valley, where “scaling up” is often treated as a necessity. The EA emphasis is always on measurable goods, and on “maximizing utility,” with maximization primarily defined as “numbers of people helped.” If that’s how you orient yourself, then of course you end up with longtermism, because the future gives you the requisite scale. EA is thus the most perfect distillation yet of metaphysical capitalism

So: Imagine a person who is both chronically ill and desperately lonely.

An EAer committed to longtermism would be on principle opposed to paying for the medical treatment of one person living now: that doesn’t scale and therefore doesn’t maximize utility. (I don’t think any effective altruist would disagree with this; the movement places a premium on eschewing sentimentality.) 

The matter of loneliness is more interesting. It would probably be invisible to the EAer because nothing about loneliness or human connection is easily measurable, nor obviously addressable with money. (Not that people haven’t tried.) The ill and lonely person, if given a choice, might prefer illness within a loving community to rude good health in continued isolation; but that’s not something that the EAer can readily factor in. 

But EAers need to think about this. Perhaps their monetary gifts can contribute to a future world in which disease is unknown and lifespans are dramatically extended; but what if those magnificently healthy people are miserable? What if they despise their long lives? It is certainly true that “thousands have lived without love, not one without water” — but have the loveless ones lived well?

What would EA look like if it asked not just about physical well-being but about the human need to love and be loved? For one thing, it would be less tempted by the abstractions and airy speculations of longtermism; for another, it would have to reckon with the limited power of money to address human ills. It would call into question its commitment to what Dickens, in Bleak House, called “telescopic philanthropy.” It would have to consider the possibility that the best way to ensure human flourishing in the future would be to strengthen our bonds with one another today. 

This alternate-world EA might even take as its model someone I have mentioned in an earlier post, a character from that same novel, Esther Summerson. Esther is trying to avoid being recruited by Mrs. Pardiggle, a Victorian predecessor of EA perhaps, who has a “mechanical way of taking possession of people” and wants Esther to do the same.  

At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. 

P.S. Maybe, given the clear correlation between religious commitment and happiness, even in the absence of robust physical health, the best thing the altruist who wants to be truly effective could do is support religious institutions. Making them stronger today would help them to be stronger in the future, so even the longtermist could sign on to such a project. Yay utilitarianism! 

End-Times Tales

Venkatesh Rao — End-Times Tales:

We are drowning in a sea of reboots, reruns, and recycled stories on television and movie screens for the same reason dying people supposedly see their lives flash before their eyes. The story is ending. Despite living through arguably the greatest era of storytelling technology in history, we have no new stories to tell ourselves.

Now this is not entirely true. I’ve found the occasional fresh new story. Station 11 is an example, a lovely recent TV show, but rather tellingly, set in a post-apocalyptic world where for some reason the survivors perform budget Shakespeare reboot productions in a slightly nicer Mad Max world (really? the world ended and Shakespeare is still the source of the most interesting stories you can tell yourself?).

Yep: really. Anyone who’s ever seen a good production of a Shakespeare play — budget or otherwise — can confirm. Possibly the most powerful evening of art I have ever experienced was a performance of Measure for Measure, by a small company of actors on a bare stage surrounded by folding chairs. (Also, FYI: new performances of a play are not “reboots.”) 

Also, w/r/t this: “Despite living through arguably the greatest era of storytelling technology in history, we have no new stories to tell ourselves” — replace “Despite” with “Because we are” and the sentence makes an important point. 

forking paths

Deepfake audio has a tell and researchers can spot it — yes, there’s a tell now, but will there always be? Deepfake audio, deepfake video, DALL-E image generation — all of this will be getting better and better, and it’s difficult to imagine that tools to identify and expose fakes will keep up, much less stay ahead. 

I think we’re looking at not one but two futures — a fork in the road for humans in Technopoly. (In many parts of the world it will be a long time before people are faced by this choice.)

A few will get frustrated by the fakery, minimize their time on the internet, and move back towards the real. They’ll be buying codex books, learning to throw pots or grow flowers, and meeting one another in person. 

The greater number will gradually be absorbed into some kind of Metaverse in which they really see Joe Biden transformed into Dark Brandon or hear Q whisper sweet nothings into their ears. In the movies the Matrix arises when machines wage war on humans, but I think what we’ll be seeing is something rather different: war won’t be necessary because people will readily volunteer to participate in a fictional but consoling virtual world. 

I know which group will have more freedom, and more flourishing; but I wonder which will have more power? Not everyone who stays in the real world will do so for decency’s sake. 

quote unquote

I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it. 

— W. H. Auden, 1966

How to prevent the coming inhuman future – by Erik Hoel:

There are a handful of obvious goals we should have for humanity’s longterm future, but the most ignored is simply making sure that humanity remains human. […] 

… what counts as moral worth surely changes across times, and might be very different in the future. That’s why some longtermists seek to “future-proof” ethics. However, whether or not we should lend moral worth to the future is a function of whether or not we find it recognizable, that is, whether or not the future is human or inhuman. This stands as an axiomatic moral principle in its own right, irreducible to other goals of longtermism. It is axiomatic because as future civilizations depart significantly from baseline humans our abilities to make judgements about good or bad outcomes will become increasingly uncertain, until eventually our current ethical views become incommensurate. What is the murder of an individual to some futuristic brain-wide planetary mind? What is the murder of a digital consciousness that can make infinite copies of itself? Neither are anything at all, not even a sneeze — it is as absurd as applying our ethical notions to lions. Just like Wittgenstein’s example of a talking lion being an oxymoron (since a talking lion would be incomprehensible to us humans), it is oxymoronic to use our current human ethics to to answer ethical questions about inhuman societies. There’s simply nothing interesting we can say about them.

Michael Chabon (2006):

I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television — some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it. Meanwhile, the dwindling number of items remaining on that list — interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened) — have been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.

the unpundit

In what has become a famous passage, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “At any street corner we may meet a man who utters the frantic and blasphemous statement that he may be wrong. Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one. Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” My view of this matter, which is of course the correct one, is that GKC wasn’t in fact encountering people who were modest but rather people who wished to be polite. And in such circumstances “Of course I may be wrong” is easy to say — whether you believe it or not. 

Our moment is not a polite one, so rarely do I encounter even the pro forma I-may-be-wrong kind of statement. All of our politicians evidently believe that the problems they want to solve have simple solutions, solutions to which only the stupid or wicked could be blind. Whatever it is, they have an infallible plan for that. And partisans and pundits follow in the politicians’ train. (Though perhaps the politicians occupy the caboose rather than the engine.) 

What’s missing in our whole political discourse is something that Edmund Burke understood: “The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity: and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature, or to the quality of his affairs.” Prudence is therefore required, and discernment, and a wise balancing of acts and policies, and an awareness of how often the best-laid plans go awry. “The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught à priori. Nor is it a short experience that can instruct us in that practical science; because the real effects of moral causes are not always immediate; but that which in the first instance is prejudicial may be excellent in its remoter operation; and its excellence may arise even from the ill effects it produces in the beginning. The reverse also happens: and very plausible schemes, with very pleasing commencements, have often shameful and lamentable conclusions.”

Politicians and pundits alike believe that it’s in their interest not to know this; and it may well be the that the series of echo-chambers that many of us live in have ensured that they genuinely don’t know it. You get the sense when you listen to Bernie Sanders that he hasn’t reflected on views other than his own in at least half-a-century. He just waits for the other person to stop talking and resumes his habitual harangue. And in this he’s not unusual. Any regular reader of any major political columnist can predict that pundit’s views on any subject — and can probably anticipate the details of how those views will be expressed.

Ross Douthat is the unpundit. You know the general tendency of his thought, of course, but you don’t know what he’s going to emphasize at any given time. That’s because he’s the most temperamentally Burkean of our political writers, always aware that “the nature of man is intricate” and that “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity.” This makes him self-reflective and self-doubting to a remarkable degree. For instance, in his new book The Decadent Society, Douthat argues that our society is far more likely to continue a long slide into acedia than to suffer a cataclysm. Then, having made that argument, he concludes: 

I think it is precisely the history-as-morality-play element in all these narratives that makes me skeptical that the catastrophe will come, or that it will come in the semipredictable high temperatures plus population imbalances plus migration equals fatal political and economic crisis that this chapter has described. But perhaps that is my own fatal participation in decadence at work — the extent to which, as a member of a decadent American conservatism, I have imbibed too much climate change skepticism over the years, and the extent to which, as a member of a decadent society, I cannot lift my eyes to see the truth: that “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” is already written on the wall. 

The interesting thing about this, to me, is that Douthat doesn’t just say “I may be wrong” but says “If I am wrong, then here are the likely reasons.” Which suggests that he has actually thought it over. Again: the unpundit. 

There are basically three stages to Douthat’s argument in The Decadent Society, and three corresponding levels of confidence. 

  1. He is quite confident that our society has descended into a decadent period. 
  2. He is pretty confident that he knows the primary causes of this decadence. 
  3. He is unsure how, or even if, we might at some point emerge from our decadent state. 

This distribution of confidence seems about right to me. 

I think everything about this book is worthy of serious consideration and debate, but I find myself meditating especially on an idea that Douthat raises near the end: 

But I would be a poor Christian if I did not conclude by noting that no civilization — not ours, not any — has thrived without a confidence that there was more to the human story than just the material world as we understand it. If we have lost that confidence in our own age, if the liberal dream of progress no less than its Christian antecedent has succumbed to a corrosive skepticism, then perhaps it is because we have reached the end of our own capacities at this stage of our history, and we need something else, something extra, that really can come only from outside our present frame of reference. “Fill the earth and subdue it,” runs one of the earliest admonitions ever given to humanity. Well, we have done so, or come close; maybe it does not fall to us to determine what comes next. 

Note the diffidence: perhaps, maybe. I can’t help thinking that this is how a conservative keeps a job at the New York Times — a more assertive character wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place, and if he had gotten it, wouldn’t have kept it — but any speculation about divine interference in human plans has to be tentative to be worthy of our attention. It’s something I hope to be discussing with some intelligent people in the coming months: What might religious revival in America look like? “Mentally modest” as always, I have to admit that I’m not sure, but I’ll say this: Given the choice between the most likely options and decadence, I’ll take decadence. 

UPDATE: Just after posting this, I came across Farhad Manjoo’s new column, which says: 

Now, I’ve been a pundit for a long time, and I learned early on not to sweat being occasionally wrong about the future. I figure if I’m not wrong sometimes, I’m probably thinking too small. What I do regret about my virus column, though, is its dripping certainty. I wasn’t just pooh-poohing the virus’s threat; using the history of two other coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, as my guide, I all but guaranteed that this one, too, would more or less fizzle out.

In retrospect, my analytical mistake is obvious, and it’s a type of error that has become all too common across media, especially commentary on television and Twitter. My mistake was that I hadn’t properly accounted for what statisticians call tail risk, or the possibility of an unexpected “black swan” event that upends historical expectation.

A projection of certainty is often a crucial part of commentary; nobody wants to listen to a wishy-washy pundit. But I worry that unwarranted certainty, and an under-appreciation of the unknown, might be our collective downfall, because it blinds us to a new dynamic governing humanity: The world is getting more complicated, and therefore less predictable.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s been too complicated for us all along, but we took great pains not to admit it. 

futurity: an Advent thought

It seems to me that most of those who don’t think Christianity is true believe that it will soon disappear from the world, or all but disappear; that the solvent of liquid modernity really is universal and will inevitably come to all the places where Christianity is now strong, from Nigeria to South Korea. Most of the Christians I talk to about such matters are naturally more hopeful, at least about the Global South. (They tend to be resigned to the marginalization of Christianity in the West.)

But what strikes me about all such expectations (hopes, fears) for the future is how short-term they are. But that’s appropriate for one of those groups only. If you think that Christianity will soon be dead then there’s no reason to think about its long-term future. But if you think Christianity will be around as long as this world lasts, then what’s your excuse for short-term thinking? 

For Western (especially American) fundamentalists that excuse has tended to be: We’re in the end times. Jesus is coming soon. People obsessed with end-times thinking see Christianity as having an even shorter lifespan than the more skeptical atheists do, though that’s only because they’re expecting the whole shebang, “the great globe itself,” to go up in flames. But if you don’t see any reason to believe that Jesus is returning in the immediate future — though of course no one knows the hour — then wouldn’t it be a useful exercise to stretch your imaginative capacities a little bit? Whatever frustrations we Christians are experiencing right now would surely look rather different, and considerably less significant, if we thought in terms of what Mikhail Bakhtin called great time. Someone should write a book called Christianity: The Next Ten Thousand Years

futurists and historians

Martin E. P. Seligman and John Tierney:

What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future. Our singular foresight created civilization and sustains society. It usually lifts our spirits, but it’s also the source of most depression and anxiety, whether we’re evaluating our own lives or worrying about the nation. Other animals have springtime rituals for educating the young, but only we subject them to “commencement” speeches grandly informing them that today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

A more apt name for our species would be Homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects. The power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered — rather belatedly, because for the past century most researchers have assumed that we’re prisoners of the past and the present.

I wonder what evidence exists for the claim that “What best distinguishes our species is an ability that scientists are just beginning to appreciate: We contemplate the future.” What if we are more clever and resourceful readers of the past than other species? What if it was our singular power of retrospection that “created civilization and sustains society”? After all, while it’s true that we homo sapiens alone give commencement speeches, it’s also true that we homo sapiens alone build things like the Lincoln Memorial and inter our distinguished dead in places like Westminster Abbey. Why should the former count for more than the latter? 

In the preface to his translation of Thucydides (1629), Thomas Hobbes wrote that “the principal and proper work of history [is] to instruct and enable men, by the knowledge of actions past, to bear themselves prudently in the present and providently towards the future.” That is to say, validity of prospection depends upon accuracy of retrospection. Those who do not understand the past will not prepare themselves well for the future. Even if they read fizzy opinion pieces in the New York Times

our airport future


Two quotes from this interview with Stéphane Degoutin and Gwenola Wagon. One:

SD: The airport is where different promises of the modern world are concentrated: the promise of moving freely around the globe, the promise of unlimited shopping, the promise of a completely rational organisation and the promise of a perfect surveillance. It embodies the desire of mastering the world. Yet, it is also the place where these promises meet their limits and their contradictions.

And two: 

GW: The airport is an archetypal place, in terms of both space and behaviour. In the book, we have a chapter about what we call “Cultural LCD”, which can be defined as the Least Common Denominator of world cultures. A universal code that would be as neutral as possible, a standardized interface that allows different individuals or cultural groups to communicate with each other. However, the airport model is expanding further and further and contaminating railway stations, institutions, monuments, stadiums, concert halls, museums, international hotels, malls and urban duty-free shops, restaurants, museums, schools, universities, offices, motorway service areas, etc.

This is fascinating and … horrifying. 

the church in Imminent America

My colleague Philip Jenkins:

So just as an intellectual exercise, let’s make a bold prophecy for the 2040s or so. Imagine a near future US where a state’s population corresponds to its degree of urbanization, and thus to its relative secularity. Imagine the most thriving regions of church loyalty being concentrated strongly in The Rest, those 34 states containing thirty percent of the nation’s people, especially in the Midwest and the Upper South. The metroplexes, in contrast, are very difficult territory indeed for believers of any kind, a kind of malarial swamp of faith. A situation much like contemporary Europe, in fact.

Catholics, of course, face special issues in this Imminent America, and all depends on how far they can retain the loyalty of that very large Latino presence.

Hmm, planning a church for the hyper-urban future ….

These are enormously complex demographic issues that every thoughtful Christian should be considering. I wonder whether the existing national structure of Christian denominations can survive a future in which the 16 states of Metroplex America and the 34 states of The Rest experience greater and greater cultural divergence. It might be that the forms of faithful Christian living in the one context look very different than those in the other, even when there is substantial theological agreement. 

I’m inclined to think that every church that wants to live into the urban future should read the work of Mark Gornik, especially his book on African Christianity in New York City — an amazing tale. Very few people would believe just how many Christians there are in New York, especially (but not only) from the African diaspora. There are wonderfully thriving Christian communities that fly wholly under the radar of our cultural attention, and will probably never be noticed by the culture at large. But Christians who want to bear witness into the future ought to notice them. 

And City Seminary, of which Mark was a founder, should be observed also, especially as a model for how to train bivocational Christian leaders for a world in which full-time ministry will, in all likelihood, be rarer and rarer. 

The Event

An eye-opening post from Douglas Rushkoff, describing what happened when he was asked to give a talk about “the future of technology” — and ended up instead being peppered with questions by five high-powered hedge-fund managers:

They had come with questions of their own. They started out innocuously enough. Ethereum or bitcoin? Is quantum computing a real thing? Slowly but surely, however, they edged into their real topics of concern.

Which region will be less impacted by the coming climate crisis: New Zealand or Alaska? Is Google really building Ray Kurzweil a home for his brain, and will his consciousness live through the transition, or will it die and be reborn as a whole new one? Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”

The Event. That was their euphemism for the environmental collapse, social unrest, nuclear explosion, unstoppable virus, or Mr. Robot hack that takes everything down.

This single question occupied us for the rest of the hour. They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

What a world we live in.

Most of our political leaders are not engineers or scientists and do not listen to engineers or scientists. Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years. I am not aware of a single political leader in the U.S., either Democrat or Republican, who would cut health-care spending in order to free up money for biotechnology research — or, more generally, who would make serious cuts to the welfare state in order to free up serious money for major engineering projects. Robert Moses, the great builder of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, or Oscar Niemeyer, the great architect of Brasilia, belong to a past when people still had concrete ideas about the future. Voters today prefer Victorian houses. Science fiction has collapsed as a literary genre. Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost. Today’s aged hippies no longer understand that there is a difference between the election of a black president and the creation of cheap solar energy; in their minds, the movement towards greater civil rights parallels general progress everywhere. Because of these ideological conflations and commitments, the 1960s Progressive Left cannot ask whether things actually might be getting worse. I wonder whether the endless fake cultural wars around identity politics are the main reason we have been able to ignore the tech slowdown for so long. However that may be, after 40 years of wandering, it is not easy to find a path back to the future. If there is to be a future, we would do well to reflect about it more. The first and the hardest step is to see that we now find ourselves in a desert, and not in an enchanted forest.