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Fake Future

By Annalee Newitz

IT'S NEVER too late to be annoyed by stupid futurism. After all, yesterday's irritating images of tomorrow are what helped create the things that piss you off today.

My latest source of consternation is a British neuroscientist named Susan Greenfield, who wrote a book in 2003 called Tomorrow's Children that's a kind of summary of all the worst impulses we bring to bear when trying to predict the future. Her thesis in the book is that technology—in particular, something she refers to as "the cyberworld," which I can only assume is the Internet—is going to change the way humans think and feel for the first time in 50,000 years.

Like many netphobes, Greenfield wants us to believe that humans have existed in some kind of natural, unchanging state for the past 50 millennia--the magic number being 50 because some anthropologists believe that was when humans started using language. It's also the era when we start seeing complex tools in the fossil record that are composites of three or more elements (like stone, sticks and hide laces).

To claim that the Internet's influence over social life is so profound that it's the first big thing to happen to humans since language and composite tools is clearly absurd, and yet Greenfield isn't alone in her assertion. Alvin Toffler, the guy who invented futurism back in the early 1970s with his book Future Shock, felt the same way, though he wasn't as freaked out about it as Greenfield. Both authors believe the Internet will convert everyday life into a virtual world where all needs are met and humans live only to soak up electrostimulation delivered directly to our brains. Predicting brain-computer convergence prompts these futurists to ask, "Will we be human in 100 years?"

Would humans of today seem "human" to humans of 30,000 years ago, back in the days before cities and agriculture existed? How about to humans of 5,000 years ago, who were on the cusp of inventing the nation-state?

Unlikely. We'd probably seem like bizarre creatures who live in a virtual world.

What exactly is it about this virtual world, Greenfield's "cyberworld," that is so terrifying that it's turned futurists into netphobes? Greenfield says it all has to do with the fact that people on the Internet will merge into one giant collective personality that passively consumes stimulation. We will no longer be "individuals," and thus we will suddenly diverge from that 50-thousand-year-long path of perfectly recognizable humanity.

What fucking annoys me about this characterization of the Internet is how much it misses the point of what goes on there. The Internet is not a medium that encourages passivity. Sure, you can consume things online with very little creative interaction, but most people spend their time on the Internet talking with other people, or playing games with them, or publishing long, individualistic rants so that other people can read them. I would hardly call the Internet utopia, but by the same token I think it's a mistake to say that it's any more mind-numbing or de-individualizing than hanging out with the same group of friends at the pub every night.

If Internet culture is going to bite us in the ass, I'm guessing its problems will grow out of rampant individualism and the cacophony of voices contributing to the medium. As the Internet futurist Robin Sloan noted recently in his flash movie EPIC 2014, the Internet is likely to evolve into what he calls "Googlezon," a combination of Amazon and Google where everybody stores all their personal information online and makes it fully searchable. Consumers will get "recommendations" on whose personal information to read, and thus newspapers and other collective media creations will be abolished in favor of individually tailored news searches scraped from the data provided by other individuals.

But in the end, I think all the hand wringing about how the "cyberworld" will deprive us of our humanity is an alibi, a fake fear that hides a more profound truth. And that truth is that the Internet isn't going to deliver us into a virtual world at all. Given the choices we're making about how to deal with issues like war, health care and the environment, our future is looking more real than ever. You know—as in starvation-real, or global-flu-epidemic-real. Futurists like Greenfield are peddling wish fulfillment. If only our future problems were going to be whether cybersex is dehumanizing, or whether to get brain implants to improve our memories. Those difficulties sound positively lovely compared to what we're likely to get, given the realities of the resources we have left.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who just hopes that in the future there will be purple M&Ms.

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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