In previous posts I have talked about the policy challenges as we enter an era of accelerated technological change—change that threatens employment in sectors that have long appeared impervious to automation. The need for new redistributive mechanisms and flexible education and training to help people adapt will be critical if we intend to achieve and maintain anything close to full employment in the coming decades.
Equally profound are the changes just around the corner in what it means to be human. Our entire existence has been predicated on resource scarcity, and the struggle to survive and improve our material lot. We evolved with family structures based on lifespans that were much shorter than we experience now, and those lifespans are about to get much longer. Within a couple of generations we could well be able to not only end material scarcity and radically prolong life, but to manipulate our environments in ways beyond the imagining of even science fiction authors.
This podcast on NPR, for example, describes advances in the field of synthetic biology. It could give us trees that grow into houses, or bring back extinct species, or perhaps even resurrect creatures from the dead. Synthetic biology is real and happening right now, but we haven’t even begun to grapple with its implications for society.
Out-of-home advances by women, more education, and longer lives have combined to erode the nuclear family of old. We have more singles, more unmarrieds, and more divorced men and women than ever before. We have more people who follow the nuclear model more than once, having families when young and doing so again later in life. Imagine what will happen to family relationships when lifespans reach 150 to 200 years. What are the chances that people will remain with one person their whole life? What if the reproductive ability of both sexes could be extended into our 50s, 60s, even 70s? Obviously, many of our current socio-cultural norms will no longer be valid. We might, for instance, look forward to a century of retirement after working to age 70.
And when technological innovation renders most work obsolete, how are we going to occupy our increasing amounts of free time? How are we going to forge our identities? So much of who we are today is based on our work roles; when these are reduced or taken away, we’ll be forced to define ourselves in new ways. All of human experience has been characterized by struggle and the continuous need to overcome obstacles. This may not always be pleasant, but it defines us. So much of our art, music, and literature is based on how humans cope with this lifelong struggle. What happens when material prosperity is so readily available that struggle, for most of us, is no longer necessary?
Of course, the world faces serious existential threats—primarily from environmental catastrophe or WMD terrorism—and these could derail our march to an era of abundance. Technology in the hands of evildoers or the ignorant could cause havoc. But if we address climate change and manage the terrorist threats, humanity’s material future is increasingly bright. We’re only beginning to realize exactly how bright; our children and grandchildren may well experience it—and even some of us if we have good genes, good luck, and the foresight to take care of our health.
The next waves of technological innovation will conquer our energy and food needs and make starvation and hunger a footnote in history. They will greatly improve public safety and dramatically decrease physical misery and suffering.
They will also change us in ways we have yet to fully appreciate. It will require us to redefine what it means to be human and what type of society we want to inhabit. There’s also a chance that all of this will make us no happier, and that material well-being and leisure will prove too much to handle; in the end we might be actually be worse off.
As always there are no easy answers, but plenty to ponder.