Musing on the World of Tomorrow

I enjoyed a wonderful juxtaposition this week.  While halfway through reading Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray, I had an opportunity to attend a lecture by Michio Kaku who was promoting his recent work, Physics of the Future.   Each man offers so much for discussion.  I am sure I will pry into their ideas in greater depth sometime soon, but today I mean to dwell on the intersection of their work.

Murray works at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.  He holds degrees from Harvard and MIT, and has courted controversy throughout his career.  Most famous for The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life of 1994, Murray presents his arguments on culture and social policy with voluminous quantitative research.  The implications of his conclusions are unavoidably pessimistic.

Theoretical physicist Kaku is the co-founder of string theory and a popular “futurist.”  Educated at Harvard and UC Berkeley, he currently holds a professorship at the City University of New York.  One of the greatest scientific minds of our time, Kaku makes the impenetrable empirical research of his profession understandable and applicable to the non-initiate.  His energy and optimism are infectious.

Both Murray and Kaku give us a glimpse of tomorrow.  Their visions are seemingly at odds.

In Murray’s future, cognitive ability and material wealth aggregate in fewer and fewer individuals.  It is a dreary future, reminiscent of the movie Gattaca.  Through de facto eugenics the elite pull further away from the broader community.  This has grave policy implications marked by condescending paternalism, diminishing personal freedom, and restricted opportunities.  Teased far enough along and not only is the American dream ended, but so too the individual dreams of the average imagination.

With rapidly unfolding scientific advances and dropping cost barriers to widespread technology (see Moore’s Law), Kaku describes how the everyman will be empowered.  Access to information, expanding health care options, and participation in a world where computer technology is as omnipresent as is electricity in our world, offers each man the ability to have experiences Jules Verne could not conceive.  Science is the great equalizer of the future in Kaku’s description.

The two visions are in apparent conflict.  Each supported by evidence and formed by a great mind.  Each plausible and consistent with a knowledge of history.  But which is correct?

I wager that both men are correct.

In the romanticized wild west, every man has extraordinary personal freedom.  Free of authoritative institutions – like a functioning criminal justice system – any man with a firearm was as equal as any other, regardless of material wealth or cognitive ability.

Complete liberty, which can be scary, has been sacrificed as we move towards the space frontier presented in the animated WALL-E.  There, personal freedom is absent but the fat, happy, entertained population live free from responsibility in a digital wonderland.

Franklin Roosevelt in January of 1941 addressed Congress and presented his “four freedoms.”  This was a new conception of freedom, as it marked a moment of divorce from responsibility.  The natural rights of the American founding were limited only by one’s ability to pursue them.  Over time, artificial barriers to the pursuit of liberty were removed through abolition, suffrage, and the like.

Roosevelt promised the unattainable.  Freedom from want, and freedom from fear.  Through the innovations described by Kaku, these things are now tantalizingly within reach.   At the same time, as Murray describes, we have created subtler devices, such as what he calls the “college sorting machine,” that segregate our communities, injecting dystopian realities into our utopian achievements.

Roosevelt’s utopianism, like any perfect ideal, is worth pursuing.

But there is a price.  The cost of outrageous long life spans full of comfort and security – an earthly immortality – may well be our mortality.  As ever, there comes time to pay the piper.  When that moment comes will we want to return to the place from where we have been led?  Would it even be possible?

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