The Unexplored Implications of Accelerating Change
Warning: The following challenges one of our deepest held paradigms—our view of humanity’s future and place in evolution. As a human being with an investment in the future of our species, you may find yourself profoundly disturbed and resisting its conclusions.
That humanity and the planet are in crisis is clear to just about everyone. Moreover, the severity of the crisis is now beginning to hit home. Recent reports suggest we are in the early stages of the sixth major mass extinction in Earth’s history—this time caused by one of the planet’s own species rather than an asteroid or comet impact—and if we do not change our ways radically and very fast, then we, along with many other species, will become extinct in a century or so. And it is our own fault.
At least that is the story we are told. Here I propose a new story of human evolution—not the sort of new story that many people are calling for in which the transformation of human beings and society allows us to avoid immanent extinction and move on into a sustainable long-term future. In this radically different new story, there is no long-term stable future ahead of us. We are coming to the natural end of our evolutionary journey, spiraling faster and faster into an evolutionary singularity. And there is no blame for this. Nowhere did we go wrong. It is the inevitable fate of any intelligent technologically-empowered species.
The real roots of our ever-deepening crisis lie not in human behavior, but in the acceleration of evolution. This acceleration is inevitable. Positive feedback processes in any evolutionary process lead to a steady increase in the rate of change. Each new development lays foundations for future development. We can see this in the history of life on Earth—the development of nucleated cells, multi-cellular organisms, sexual reproduction, each pushed the rate of evolution ahead. Today we can see the same pattern in human development as we moved from hunting, to agriculture, to civilization, to industry, and now to information technologies. The pace of change is winding up faster and faster. However fast we find the pace of life today, one thing is sure, twenty years from now it is going to be much faster, and twenty years after that much faster still, and twenty years after that… almost unimaginable.
Many today focus their sights on where this acceleration is taking us in terms of technology, most notably to the so-called singularity that futurists such as Ray Kurzweil imagine, when computers surpass human intelligence. We then move into a new era of development unlike anything we have seen so far, or can even imagine. However, whatever may transpire after we pass this point, one thing is certain. The acceleration in the rate of development will not stop. Quite the opposite; it will take another huge leap forward.
Any notion of a long-term human future with relatively modest rates of development is a rosy delusion. The inevitability of acceleration is winding us up faster and faster in a whirlwind of change from which there is no way out. This is our first bind spot on the future.