Oct 29 2012

Butterfly Dreams — Everything Connects


When I was young, I heard an old Chinese proverb that told about a man who dreamed he was a butterfly, and when he awoke, he could not say if he was a man who dreamed of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man.

I always liked that story because it illustrated for me the uncertain nature of reality. No matter how much we learn about our world, no matter how certain some things seem, no one can ever really know what the future will bring, if the butterfly will ever awaken.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m trapped inside a dream, just on the verge of waking to a world I’m not certain I can understand.  My writing is, in part, my way of trying to create a lens to see into that world outside of sleep.  We are at the verge of a future that has undreamed of possibilities, and there is truly no way to say for certain what it will be.  All we can do is use our knowledge of the past and the present to make our best guesses as to the future

Many writers have attempted to envision the future, and over the years, some of their visions have emerged as reality, some haven’t.  Heinlein saw a future where massive clunky analog computers drove ships across the stars, and people traveled across the country on slideways.  Asimov saw a world where robots were often more human than their makers.  Clarke envisioned an elevator to the stars.  For their time, these were plausible futures, and as the future has taken more definite shape, some of these futures have come closer to reality and some have fallen by the wayside.

Obviously, future forecasting is never going to be 100% accurate, but many of our best minds have spent considerable thought on how it might develop; numerous books have been written on the subject and many stories told about Futures Past.  I’ve read so many that at times my head spun. But I gradually realized that there was something that bothered me about them all.

Every book that attempted to predict the future always seemed to be more of the same old same old.  Yes, there were a few new items, a few strange quirks, some new technologies that had revolutionized something… but it was all very hit and miss.  A few elements might be touched on while others might be completely ignored; or some mumbo jumbo would tell about such and such being a pivotal technology that changed this and this, but everything else would be alone.  Serious books on the future were even worse at being single minded.  They all seemed to miss three things that historical perspective shows are some of the most important things that should be considered for any real concept of the shape of things to come.

The first thing that gets missed is the fact that Everything Connects.  It’s actually a very simple concept, but it’s one many futurists have utterly failed to take into account.  We’ve divided knowledge into so many separate categories for so long that very few people look outside their field of specialization to see what else is out there.  Physicists see a future that’s all about quarks and nuclear forces, biologists see a world of biotech, Engineers see cybersystems.  They’re all possible futures, but none of them really take into account the concept of Everything Connects.   No science is truly separate from any other science, and every advance is tied to a score of prior advances, and can lead to a score more.  Technology begets technology.  And with every advance there is a social impact and an adjustment to the new technology.  Everything ties together.  Some of these can be so small that they are never noticed while others are so overwhelming that they warp our entire concepts of who and what we are.  Case in point… take the Apollo program.  The goal was to create a rocket that could go to the Moon, but what we got was far more.  From the Apollo program, we got miniaturized electronics. This led — small step by small step — to improvements in medicine, engineering, biology, physics, and so many other sciences that I could write a book just on the fallout developments from this one advance.

This leads to another concept that many writers overlook: The Law of Unintended Consequences .  It’s an economic principle that when applied to technology essentially states that every invention will have uses and effects unforeseen by their creator.  I seriously doubt Alexander Graham Bell ever envisioned cell phones or the World Wide Web.  Many writers out there quite accurately show what some technologies can do, then fail utterly to go beyond that first bright idea to extrapolate what other uses might develop.  Star Trek is a prime example. The show tosses in such technologies as teleporters, replicators, and nanites and then ignores all of the implications of these very same technologies.  Face it, for every technology, there is a use, and there are abuses, and only time will tell which is which.

This leads us to the last element that often gets forgotten — One Man’s Evil is another Man’s Good.  So many writers seem to possess a skewed vision of the future that completely ignores human nature.  Cynical as it sounds, you have to anticipate that people are going to misuse, abuse, and destroy with any technology, no matter how beneficial it may seem.  For everyone who drives according to the speed limit, how many others break it?  For every person who drives a stock model, how many customize?  Any true picture of the future can’t ignore the fact that not everyone will follow the most conservative path; the most minimalist uses of new technologies.  The bad has to be observed side by side with the good, and until we look back with hindsight, no one will truly know which is which.

Three ideas that sound simple, yes?  But put them together, and you can make a lens to see, however dimly, into the possible futures that await humanity.  It may not be pretty; it may not be nice; it may even scare some people half to death. But I think it results in a clearer prediction of what may come than the sterilized visions so common in other books on the future.

Because, it’s time for the butterfly to wake up.