What’s the future of human civilization?
Cosmic Revolutions has looked at a lot of big questions, but this one’s as big as they come. Indeed, everything I’ve posted so far has tried to fill in a piece of the answer. But today, I want to step back, way back, and try to catch a glimpse of the forest rather than the trees.
I’m inspired to do this because I just read a mind-blowing article by the thinker Venkatesh Rao. He has an idea about the way complex systems evolve over time, and it suggests a future where human intellect and inevitable disorder battle each other to a kind of deadlock.
Be warned, this is a pretty abstract idea, and it’ll take us a while to put all the pieces together. But if you stick it out, you’ll come out with a whole new perspective on the future, and on what human civilization actually means.
Still with me? Okay! First of all, most of the futurist discussion I’ve seen focuses on one of two possibilities. One, that civilization and technology will continue improving, until we achieve positive-feedback acceleration, sending us off into a glorious techno-utopia. This type of future is sometimes called the Singularity. The other common idea is that our civilization will succumb to the weight of climate change, oil depletion and/or human folly, and eventually collapse, plunging us into a new stone age (or perhaps into oblivion). This is sometimes called “collapsonomics.” I’ve touched on both before.
Unfortunately, we can’t test either of these hypotheses, since human civilization is an experiment with a sample size of only one. But Rao’s suggestion is that there may be a middle ground he calls hackstability: keeping our civilization stable by constantly hacking it.
What does that mean?
What is hacking?
People of my generation probably picture someone sweating over a computer keyboard as they break into a bank account. But in the last couple of years, the word hacking has expanded far beyond the programming world. Consider LifeHacker, a website that gives you tips on how to make your life easier. Or the organization Hacks/Hackers, who are “toying with the future of technology and journalism.” Or the Cloud Robotics Hackathon, a competition to make something cool using robot parts and cloud computing.
Rao looks at this trend and puts together a more comprehensive definition of hacking. Roughly speaking, it means using human intelligence to improve a system or to overcome unforeseen deficits or bugs. In that sense, using the phrase “C U l8r” is a hack of the English language – it’s not an officially accepted construction, but it’s more efficient than what the rules allow. Likewise, a shortcut through a back alley in the Bronx may not have been part of the city planner’s original design, but someone has figured out how to “hack” the city and derive additional functionality.
So why would we need to “hack” civilization? Well, civilization is an example of a large, complex system. The problem with large, complex systems is that they’re usually either emergent (the English language, for example, was not designed by anyone), or they’ve expanded beyond the scope of their original design (like New York City).
Either way, any major system, including civilization, is likely to have flaws or inefficiencies that we couldn’t have planned for. What we do about it depends on what happens next, and Rao looks at three scenarios.
Three Possible Paths for a Flawed, Complex System
- We can fix all the flaws at once by throwing out the system and redesigning it from scratch. Unfortunately this isn’t a practical solution for our most important systems – can you imagine dispensing with the English language or New York City just because you figured out a better way to do it?
- If the singularity happens, then we don’t have to worry about anything. Artificial intelligence will be so smart that it can design a nearly flawless system for everything. While I certainly believe this is possible, I’m not about to bet the farm on it.
- Under a collapse scenario, we don’t fix the bugs, or we don’t fix them fast enough. Flaws continue to accumulate, adding stress to the system until it finally fails. In thermodynamic terms, a closed system is bound by the law of increasing entropy.
Apply these 3 futures to human civilization: Obviously, we can’t toss it out and start over. The singularity is more attractive, but we can’t count on it. And if civilization follows the “collapse” route, we’re all in trouble. So what’s left?
Why, hacking, of course.
Hacking the Future
In short, we may not ever see exponential systemic intelligence (the singularity) but we may not face total collapse, either: maybe we’ll just patch our way to a kind of muddled middle ground. Seen this way, “hackstability” is hardly utopian, but nor is it especially pessimistic. I can’t say it any better than cosmologist Adam Frank, who described it this way:
We are a resilient lot and the concept of hackstability does some justice to the reality of our tenaciousness. A hackstable culture might not be pretty but it might be able to last.
Rao himself actually does seem fairly pessimistic about such a future, describing it as “increasingly brittle” and suggesting that at best, hacks may only delay or soften a catastrophic collapse. He seems to be saying that hacks themselves introduce additional entropy into the system, weighing it down and contributing to its eventual failure. A constant uphill slog against the relentless demons of chaos does sound pretty bleak, I’ll admit.
My thinking on this hasn’t fully evolved, but at first blush I think Rao’s pessimism is unfounded. It seems to me that hacks can sometimes be investments rather than patches, strengthening the system rather than weakening it. In fact, hacks can eventually be incorporated into the system itself, a possibility he seems to dismiss.
For example, a shortcut through the city starts as a hack. But if it becomes popular, then gets streetlights and signs, and is finally added to a map, it’s no longer a hack but part of the system. We didn’t have to throw the system out, and we didn’t introduce any entropy (locally, anyway). But we did get a more effective system.
In fact, most of the complex systems we have are already more hack than deliberate design. Consider the agricultural revolution, which was the very first planet hack, if you will. It laid the foundation for the first human settlements, and life continued to improve thereafter thanks to applied human intelligence. In other words, the very civilization we’ve been discussing all this time is itself nothing but layers and layers of accumulated hacks.
So if anything can keep our civilization going, it’s more hacking. To be clear, the fact that it’s worked so far doesn’t guarantee our future one way or another. Civilization could still collapse, or coalesce into a singularity. What it does mean is that a future of endless hacking actually looks a lot like our past.
So look at the hackstable future this way: We’re about as prepared as we can be – we’ve got thousands of years experience at hacking civilization. And it’s brought us this far! Think of all we’ve accomplished since the very first hacker thought to press a plant seed into the soil, and wonder how much further we could go.
I, for one, have faith in the future.