What Does the Future Hold?

This is a paper I offered to the Adams County Torch Club on December 15. It prompted a lot of discussion. I found myself reminding people several times, “Now remember I am a Christian.” I have a feeling we shall all be acknowledging that a lot in the coming few years.

I wrote this paper before the election. That version began with the statement, “I suspect a number of you have gathered tonight thinking and perhaps even saying, ‘Anyone who talks about what the future holds is a fool.'” I then, rather dispassionately proceeded, to demonstrate the truth of that commonplace.

After the election I reexamined what I had written and decided I would only make a few changes in the text. However, I found my emotional tenor had changed quite a bit. My presentation was suddenly far more impassioned.

Let’s begin by acknowledging we ARE presumptuous speaking about what the future holds if we are making predictions. My experience in 1970 would seem to bear this out. For some reason, an unusually large number of studies appeared predicting what to expect in the coming decade. As a young pastor, I tried to read them all. The number one forecast in every one was that advances in technology would provide so much leisure that people would not know what to do with all their spare time. Christian trade magazines warned the clergy to prepare for the hosts of people who would fill their churches expecting all sorts of opportunities to learn and serve.

Even more amusing is what did not appear on any list. Not one said anything about two movements that exploded in our midst just two years later in 1972. The first was the feminist movement that began the sexual revolution, a movement whose battles are still being fought in every corner of our nation. The second was the beginning of the obscene separation of rich and poor that has produced our present plutocracy.

Lest we laugh too condescendingly at the inability of scholars 50 years ago to analyze data that might have predicted happenings in the next ten years, we should remember our scientific polls only a month ago had no grasp on what people would do in the next 8 hours. Perhaps the lesson we should learn is to beware of those who predict the future whether they are serving coffee at McDonalds or teaching at Yale.

However, tonight I do not want to talk about predictions but rather visions of the future. Every decision we make involves some vision of what we hope lies ahead. We decide to do this or that on the basis of how it will contribute to the future we desire. This goes for groups as well as individuals. If a community cannot agree on some common goals, it has a difficult time taking creative actions. When people in our democracy cannot share to some degree a vision of its future, they are are unable to manage the long-term, often life-threatening, problems that confront us.

Alastair MacIntyre in his 1981 classic After Virtue claimed this lack of purpose precludes our society from making essential moral decisions. As an Aristotelian, he thinks ethical decisions depend on knowing where we are, then deciding where we want to go, and finally determining how to get there. Although our society has a lot of data to show where we are and a lot of means to get where we want, it is unable to form any kind of common agreement on where we want to go.

Keeping this distinction between prediction and vision in mind, tonight I’d like to present four visions of the future, suggesting each quietly but significantly influences our life together in these days.

The first vision I want to examine could be entitled technological expectation. It believes human progress is inevitable, because our tools and systems will continue to provide more and more data until we can know enough to do whatever we want.

The person who best represents technological expectation is Ray Kurzweil, an accomplished inventor who designed print-to-speech readers for the blind as well as other speech synthesizers and speech recognition machines. He has become even more famous as the epitome of the technological futurist since the publication of his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Indeed, he has been granted a somewhat messianic quality among those who believe technology will solve all of humanity’s problems.

Kurzweil speaks of a Singularity when we will create machines more intelligent than ourselves. Basing his expectations on Moore’s law that claims the processing speed of computers doubles every two years, he estimates this Singularity will happen about 2045, less than 30 years away, when technology will finally enable us to overcome all the natural limitations of human life.

Time Magazine’s coverage of the 2010 summit of Kurzweil’s Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence indicated what his followers expect. The hottest topic, of course, was machine reasoning. More surprising, the close second place subject was life extension. Many at the conference obviously expected technology to overcome death. Some extremists, including Kurzweil himself, work hard to prolong their lives, in order to be around when the Singularity makes immortality available. They take vitamins, exercise, and follow all sorts of the latest health fads.

The third most popular subject that followed closely behind life extension was better sex. I am continually intrigued that better sex appears near or at the top of most futurists’ goals. The assumption seems to be that a robot will perform better than a human partner. One of Kurzweil’s friends, Martine Rothblatt, the highest paid female CEO, has developed a robot to replace her partner in the case of her death. They reportedly take the robot with them on all their travels, so they can perfect its moves.

One of my son’s friends who specializes in studying robotics captures the attractiveness of this vision. When his dinner guests ask why he is so fascinated with robots, he enjoys replying that the answer is easy. He would gladly replace every one of them with a robot. The robot would only do and say what he desired. It would only tell jokes he thought were funny which was more than he could say about them. I suppose that means, deep down, I wish all of you were robots that after this talk would tell me how brilliant I am. I could go home in peace not fretting about how stupid I reveal myself to be whenever I open my mouth.

Kurzweil believes this kind of technological progress is inevitable, because the Singularity is the next step in evolution, a step we by necessity must take. This kind of determinism is evident in a commonplace prominent in technological studies, “if we don’t do it, someone else will.” The question is not “if” but “when.”

Notice that technological expectation is concerned with perfect techniques rather than appropriate ends. It generally bypasses any discussion of societal goals. After all, there is really no need to identify common goals, purposes, or ends, if science-based technology can provide the means to solve any problem whatsoever. The Singularity promises endless opportunities for everybody to pursue their own versions of happiness. Once technology provides enough information, there will be countless options from which to choose. This vision of the future is more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, newer, newer, newer.

Again before we get too condescending, we should acknowledge that a prominent academic model is based on much the same concept. It believes the educational system will provide more and more information until we will eventually have enough to solve all our problems intellectually.

Another collateral vision underlies the current economic model that promises enough money to do whatever you want. Donald Trump articulates perfectly the rationale of that economic system when he claims he has enough money to do absolutely anything he pleases whether that be grabbing a woman’s pussy, murdering a person on a crowded New York street, or becoming president of the United States.

The second vision of the future could be entitled technological optimism. It believes progress is probable but not inevitable. Optimism acknowledges technology might be used for self-centered and evil purposes, but has confidence most humans want the best for each other.

Technical optimism does address societal questions, believing each big technological breakthrough raises our standard of living and consequently leads to solving humanity’s basic problems. If the 1970s studies thought technology would soon provide an abundance of leisure, the optimists believe it will shortly enable the poor to have enough.

The best example of a technological optimist is former president Bill Clinton. In his 2012 essay, “The Case for Optimism,” Clinton argued there are grounds for believing technology is bringing better times. He was trying to assure people recovery was on its way despite the lingering effects of the 2008 financial meltdown. His essay might be considered an exercise in political speech, as it was part of Barack Obama’s second presidential campaign that continually repeated, “Yes we can!” However, Clinton has consistently championed technology being a panacea for all our troubles. Listen to how he put it in this essay.

I firmly believe that progress changes consciousness, and when you change people’s consciousness, then their awareness of what is possible changes as well–a virtuous circle. So it’s important that the word gets out, that people realize what’s working. That where there’s been creative cooperation coupled with a communitarian view of our future, we’re seeing real success. That’s the reason I try to bring people together every year for the Clinton Global Initiative.

The ever-optimistic former president believes if we get people together to let them know examples of measurable progress in overcoming “inequality, instability, and unsustainability,” they will believe change is possible and want to cooperate to make a better world. Experts from the government, the private sector, and nonprofit foundations will be inspired to stop competing and begin working together for the common good.

Every one of Clinton’s examples was in one way or another technological advances that brought economic benefit to some one. Any other societal goal was secondary. His argument always began with new technologies providing opportunities to boost local economies and then went on to claim this helped these societies to address problems like climate change and poverty. The essay was filled with pretentious statements such as, “The fact is, technology fosters equality, and it’s often the relatively cheap and mundane devices that do the most good.”

His primary example was the spread of cell phones that he claimed enabled poor mothers in Haiti and Africa to save money for their children’s educations. Presumably all impoverished African mothers will use a cell phone to bank some of the money they previously used to put food on the table so their children could survive another day. Clinton’s logic might make sense in the boardroom of a financial institution, an academic class room, or a Torch after dinner discussion; however, in the ears of someone who grew up poor that logic sounds like the self-serving rationale of the wealthy.

I have to confess I wonder if Clinton really believes what he says publicly. His words sound as if he has been hiding since 1972. His vision of the future completely denies all the historical evidence that economic decisions are based on what brings the highest returns to existing wealth, that wealth begets wealth, that wealth uses technology to better its own lot. I find it difficult to believe he really assumes adjunct professors will soon be making as much per year as he and his wife do for a 50-minute talk.

Technological optimism seems to be simply a dressed-up version of the old trickle-down economic theory advocated by the entitled at the top of the system, people like me who have found success. The marvel is how modern technology has enabled us to convince the poor that this Ponzi scheme will magically bring them up to speed with us.

My third and fourth visions of the future take a different track, based on hope rather than expectation or optimism. Hope as I am defining it is not the opposite of expectation or optimism. It in no way disparages technology. However, it acknowledges the role of human nature in its use and believes we have to rethink profoundly what we want to do with our technological ability. Hope calls for transformation, acknowledging that the first two visions I have examined have led to exploitation and entitlement.

The third vision is biblical hope based on the promises found in scripture. The Bible offers three versions, each continually corrupted in popular theology: the peaceable kingdom, the just society, and the beloved community. The first is Isaiah’s beautiful picture of the Peaceable Kingdom.

No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. (Isaiah 65:20-24)

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid… The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord (Isaiah 11: 6-10).

Of course, the prophet is not talking about wolves who walk on four legs or snakes who slither on their bellies. He promises a future in which the poor shall be cared for and the meek respected. People will use words not weapons to overcome violence and make sure everyone is safe and has enough.

The second biblical version of hope is exemplified by the Last Judgment when Jesus returns to bring justice to the earth. It is frequently misread as destroying this earth and with it any meaningful future for our world. The prophet John’s picture of a flourishing Ecological City in Revelation 22 makes clear that this is a corruption.

In the spirit he …showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God… Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb through the middle of the city’s street. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 21, 22)

This vision pictures heaven on earth described as a healthy environment. Unlike the pollution associated with cities down through the ages, a crystal river runs through this one, watering trees of life that line it on both sides. The boughs of these trees bear fruits of the month for the inhabitants and leaves that heal the broken nations. A Last Judgment precedes the healthy future, acknowledging the need for purging immense injustice. As we all know, one evangelist after another has gained power and made wealth by focusing on the judgment and ignoring the blessing.

The third biblical vision is the Beloved Community, epitomized by a marriage feast. The Church embraced this one when she chose a meal as her main act of worship. At the Eucharist, she remembers Jesus shared food with all kinds of people even his enemies and claims this is a “foretaste of the feast to come.” The vision features God and all people around a table, sharing food, conversation, and everything else they have.

All three of these biblical visions invite people to participate now in the divine project that guarantees peace, justice, and love. Participation, however, demands transformation, repentance in terms of rethinking what we have been doing. All three critique our present society by judging how it practices nonviolence, respects the weak, and cares for the poor. All regard actions such as sharing wealth or healing the environment as givens based on biblical vision rather than scientific information.

Those who find this Bible stuff far too parochial might consider my fourth vision. It is the American Dream as envisaged by Martin Luther King Junior. Dr. King combined the biblical vision of the beloved community with Abraham Lincoln’s picture of an egalitarian society in his magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech. I am going to cite at length the words he spoke in 1963 on the Washington Mall, because I think we need to hear them now more than ever. Listen to how he masterfully structured this address that has justifiably become a part of our national heritage. He began describing where we are now by remembering the Emancipation Proclamation.

This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

After stating where we are now, Dr. King then went on to offer his vision of the future.

Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today! I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

That vision of the future still inspires many Americans, divided in so many ways, to join hands and sing together “We Shall Overcome.” I suggest if you asked those singing what they want to overcome, it will not be lack of money or lack of knowledge or lack of power, but lack of justice. You hear that clearly when Dr. King moves from where we are now and where we want to be to what we have to do to get there.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now… Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Many of us presently share the urgency that Dr. King expressed when he wrote from the jail in which he found himself for nonviolently resisting the laws of our land.

My friends, we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now, and it has led inexorably to deeper confusion and chaos. Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. …When Jesus says “Love your enemies,” he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies-or else? The chain reaction of evil-hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars-must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Well, there you have my feeble attempt to lay out four visions of the future that affect the way we act in the present. As many of you know, I have been examining an issue that has engaged human beings throughout civilization. An ancient Greek creation myth involving Prometheus and Pandora has fascinated poets and artists down through the ages. Prometheus was the titan who created men and then stole fire from the gods so his creatures could forge tools. Infuriated by this challenge to his authority, Zeus unleashed his wrath, binding Prometheus in iron chains of his own making while an eagle continually ate his liver.

Zeus extended his retribution by giving the first woman, Pandora, to be the wife of Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus. She brought with her the famous jar that the gods warned her not to open under any circumstance. As we know, her curiosity got the best of her. She lifted the lid letting loose all sorts of evils and sufferings. Relevant to my talk, she was able to replace it before hope could get out.

The myth has long prompted scholars to ask what the retention of hope means. If Prometheus’ endeavor and Pandora’s curiosity epitomize technology, “Is hope another evil prompting humans to think they can achieve impossible goals and bringing unforeseen consequences that only create more suffering?” Or “Is hope the only good gift, the only thing that enables humans to endure all the various evils that were released?” Or is hope a vision that inspires actions that will overcome evil and suffering?

It seems to me in the classical Greek context hope is utopian, leading to false expectations. The myth reveals the way things are, how human nature inherently refuses to accept natural relationships and consequently brings suffering onto itself. To base your visions of the future on technological expectation or optimism is then evidence of hubris.

Hope has a more positive role in the Western religions, the other foundation of our civilization. They include similar myths. The first woman Eve convinces the first man Adam that he can do whatever he wants, even tasting a forbidden apple. And as we know that sets evil and suffering loose in the world. The Tower of Babel deals explicitly with technology when it describes God’s anger being aroused when nations try to build a tower into heaven that will enable them to steal divine powers and make a name for themselves. His wrath disrupts their languages preventing them from speaking intelligibly to one another.

However, the biblical story places these myths in the context of God’s determination to restore the harmonious relationship between humanity, nature, and God. God’s love overcomes his wrath. He sets out to overcome evil with love, and at Pentecost shares his Spirit so humans can join his mission. Significantly, the primary feature of this holy day is the healing of Babel that enables God’s people to use technology appropriately. In this context creative action is possible if it is based on the visions of the future that God promises to fulfill.

W. H. Auden beautifully illustrated what this means when he presented the Christmas story as a vision of the future in his poetic drama “For the Time Being”. As the Wise Men pursue the star, they describe for what they are searching. The first says, “To discover how to be truthful now is the reason I follow this star.” The second, “To discover how to be living now.” And the third, “To discover how to be loving now.” Then all three in unison, “At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners, that this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners, and miss our wives, our books, our dogs, but have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star.”

It seems to this old sinner standing before you tonight that this nation desperately needs to learn how to live, how to be truthful, how to be loving, how to be truly human.

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  1. Derek Halverson says:

    I’ve found that technological optimism to be one of the few kinds of optimism remaining in recent times. Out of all my sources of news, almost all of them had a very negative view of 2016, and really have had very negative views of the ways things have been going for a long time.

    The exception is Popular Mechanics, where their reporting convers a lot of amazing things that 2016 had brought. For example a high effective Ebola vaccine and advancements in letting the blind see and the dismembered regain limbs.

    But I’ll agree that it would be wrong to think technology will solve all our problems, particularly equality. Old publications talking about how all our needs and wants will be met by technology seem to invariably underestimate how much our wants can expand and how many of those will be turned into needs.

    It’s interesting to walk through some of the agricultural history type attractions that are around, or to read letters from that time and those places. These families lived in tiny, nearly one room homes, and their lives were much more dangerous and their future extremely uncertain. But they seemed to feel they had enough, or at least pretended so in their letters.

    I suspect the concept of “enough” will be one we’ll have to grapple with on many levels and in varied ways if technology is to bring about a more optimistic future. As it is, I fear automation may indeed lead to there only being 20 hours of work per person, but instead of three people at ease we will have two impoverished and one putting in sixty stress filled hours.

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