That far shore

I have very possibly lived half my life, now.

I don’t know why birthday #37 has prompted so much reflection on the finite, but it has. In addition to realizing that “young adult” status is now firmly over, it has dawned on me recently that this is probably as close to the midpoint of my life as it’s ever going to be possible to determine, in advance.

Obviously one can’t know with precision, so there’s little point getting into arguments, but the suggestion that I have something like four decades remaining to me does not seem wildly unrealistic either way.

In some ways it’s a relief, too, honestly. When I suggest that the prospect of living through 10 more presidential campaign seasons is horrifying enough that I don’t even want to imagine another 15 or 20, any humor in the remark is incidental rather than fundamental. I’m tired, of many things.

The idea of significantly extended lifespans is usually more a dread than a dream, nowadays… which is why it seems just as well that I won’t see them.

This is something of a shift for me. Up until age 20 or so, the idea that I might live some way into the 22nd century or beyond seemed not only more appealing but quite plausible. Actuarial tables seemed stupid and old-fashioned. Because: technology!! By the time I passed age 70, who could say what life expectancies might be in that mysterious future world of 2048? Living to the century mark might be commonplace, by which point further wonders might appear, and so on, so forth, with science continually moving the goalposts before mortality’s offense could ever quite reach them.

Now, well, no. It’s 2015; more than one mysterious future of my youth is falling into the past, and those goalposts seem not to have moved all that much. Medicine has achieved some interesting and even amazing things, but really the big picture doesn’t look that different from 40 years ago, and certainly not when it comes to the upper end of human lifespan. Life expectancy may continue budging up, gradually, but “the years of a man’s life are threescore and 10” is still a quite accurate guide for something written 1000s of years ago. You may live into your 80s but in so doing you’ll probably outlive most of your peers. Above 100 is still mainly the territory of a few frail relics. Ray Kurzweil can go on believing, but I fully expect to read his obituary with a cheerless smirk, one day.

“But… breakthroughs?!”

Well, also no. Another thing I have concluded, after most of four decades’ firsthand observation, is that the technological “breakthrough” is largely a myth. The lone genius working in his or her garage who stuns the world with an unheralded quantum leap in problem x doesn’t really happen outside of fiction. Sloppy, silly fiction at that, come to think of it.

In fairness to purveyors of make-believe, I suppose this may have been different, once. It seems like around the turn of the last century, remarkable sudden advances really were developed by unknown, lone inventors. Some of this impression is the product of subsequent mythmaking, but not all of it, I think.

Today, however, things seem thoroughly changed. We live in an age of big science and dedicated research programs. In a lot of ways this is good, and is itself one of the greatest advances over the whole long “pre-modern” era of human civilization. But it has taken a lot of the surprise out of technological advance.

Computer processors have evolved so steadily for so long that “Moore’s Law” is almost a pedestrian concept. I have the sense that plenty of other technologies largely follow similar lines of steady, predictable incremental advance.

The closest contemporary analogue to Eastman or Tesla seems to be the Silicon Valley tech startup, and this seems to be an entirely different creature in practice. There’s a difference between introducing a practical technology to capture and play back sound for the first time ever, and introducing Angry Birds.

Sure, the past decades’ advances in information technology are impressive, and it seems beyond argument that in aggregate they are changing the world. But looking back, this too seems to be much more slow-and-steady than sudden breakthrough. On which basis it feels like I can now make a very reasonable guess as to how much change I will see in the second half of my life, based on what has happened in the first half. On which basis my guess is, kind of, “eh.” I no longer take the idea of a “singularity” all that seriously.

“But technological change accelerates,” you say? Maybe yes and maybe no, but even if we grant this for argument’s sake, I would say that we are certainly near and may already have passed the point at which technology is stuck waiting on cultural change. Smartphones may get smarter and smarter, but the users are still biologically the same human beings as those of 400 or 4,000 or 40,000 years ago. I think real change in society is unlikely to be much more rapid 2015-2050 than 1980-2015. America’s politics, at least, were not unrecognizably different in the late 1970s than today, and I expect neither they nor most of the patterns of daily life to be unrecognizably different in the late 2040s.

This, I confess, is disappointing and discouraging in a lot of ways. There is simply so much that, very plausibly, is what it is and won’t advance a lot for the rest of my life.

Obviously, jetpacks, flying cars, etc., seem beyond adult discussion at this point. I sincerely doubt that humans will discover extraterrestrial life, let alone ET intelligence; humans may visit Mars but I’m not holding my breath. To the extent that 2015 is “late capitalism” I expect that 2050 may be broadly similar, rather than “post-capitalist.”

I will not, it seems, live to see that far shore.

Looming above all of this, meanwhile, is climate change. While there are undoubtedly valid cases for other dates, it’s at least valid to suggest that prominent, formal confrontation of the challenge of anthropogenic climate change began more or less the same year as my life. Thirty-six make that 37 years on, progress is… nil. Less than nil, really.

I don’t just mean that the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere is higher, or that it’s growing faster, though that’s certainly an argument for “negative progress” by itself. I mean that a political solution seems quite possibly more remote than 15 or 25 years ago.

I’m not an expert here, and any such speculation is basically idle anyway. But it certainly seems to me that in the late 80s or early 90s, say—when, if memory does not deceive, earnest young Future Problem Solvers were examining global warming alongside issues that now seem obsolete—aggressive leadership by the developed rich countries might have pushed or dragged the rest of the world to low-carbon development. Now, however, whatever chance for this existed seems gone. For all that I believe the United States, e.g., can and should do much more to prevent runaway climate change regardless of who else does what, I’m no longer certain that any adequate international solution can be reached. I have the impression that Asia’s big developing economies have determined to consume a proportionate share of Earth’s carbon budget, as a matter of principle, and just won’t be swayed by the reality that other countries have already used up too much and that, fair or not, that budget is gone and “paying it back” amounts to making an already near insoluble problem vastly more difficult.

Given that, in all fairness, American politics is still substantially in the grip of an irrationality virus known as modern conservatism… and that even enlightened Europe has recently revealed a resurgent capacity for woodenheadedness… well, even without people saying in all seriousness that “[the 2015 summit in] Paris will not be the end of the road but merely a beginning,” it’s obvious to me that this problem can easily stick around another 37 years.

This, above all, is deeply depressing. I will very probably live the rest of my life without seeing this problem, which has already cast a shadow over most of my life so far, ever meaningfully “solved;” very possibly without even any convincing progress toward getting there.

I will see things change, of course, but change seems as likely to be negative as positive. Climate change isn’t something that happens, and is then over, and we just get on, after all. Instead it’s a problem that keeps getting worse until proportionate action to make it better. As I wrote a few years ago, some day the great masses will look up from ESPN and Angry Birds and TPS reports and say “uh, we don’t like this, please turn it off now.” When this happens I don’t know, but this much I may live to see. Thirty years perhaps? Complete guess, but “by mid century” seems like a broadly agreed estimate for “when the really big bills start coming due.”

Unfortunately, there is not really a “turn it off now” with climate change, and there probably won’t be one 37 years from now either. I suspect that—if only because it seems that humanity will fail to make any other response—relatively swift and drastic responses will happen whenever we pass that tipping point where the consequences of inaction terrify politicians more than the consequences of action. Unfortunately by that point the atmosphere will probably be stuffed full of greenhouse gasses. While removing them (or achieving some other geoengineering feat to “turn it off now”) is conceivable, I’m not certain how fast even a highly motivated humanity will make progress in doing so. My guess is “not fast enough that I will live to know when or if it works.”

I will not live to see that far shore.

I am probably underrating the potential for surprises, at least a little, but… again, at what may well be 50%, it feels like I now have a large enough sample size to make a good guess about what the remaining portion of my life holds in store. And my conclusion is that the unexpected is easily overrated, as a factor. “What about gay marriage,” one might ask, “look at how fast that has shifted.” Well, yes, that’s impressive in its way and certainly a fine thing, but without downplaying how important it is to many people and how difficult a struggle it has been, this isn’t really major innovation. (That, indeed, was arguably the point.) Two adults commit to spending the rest of their lives (pending reevaluation) in personal partnership, and this is known as “marriage.” Objectively, not that much seems to have changed since 1980 despite which the modest evolution toward same-sex marriage approval has been the subject of a generation-long opposition, whose bitter-enders will probably carry on for many years to come.

What’s more, so far as I can tell, acceptance of same-sex marriage does not involve anyone really losing out materially in any way. Broader equality of race and gender doesn’t seem to involve a lot of direct material sacrifice, either, but it does involve loss of privileged status for some; notably, even as same-sex marriage has seemingly zoomed to popular acceptance, the long struggle for rights for women and African Americans has remained frustratingly far from a happy ending.

Meanwhile, almost all of this falls under the heading of changing cultural attitudes, and seems (feel free to correct me) to be essentially “free” in that no one has to be taxed or see his or her investments devalued, etc. In comparison, the prospects still seem awfully dim for any relatively fast, substantial advance on economic and environmental reforms.


For what it’s worth, after all this I remain something of an optimist about the long term. This could just be the product of bias, or, remarkable as it may seem, of a limit to how much even I can worry about. But life experience has not so much dissuaded me of belief in all the science fiction scenarios I read about as a lad, as it has pushed out the speculative timeline.

For all of my pessimism, I do not believe that the story of humanity ends here on Earth. It may take another thousand years or even longer, and “humanity”—in the biological sense of me and everyone going back to our common African ancestor—may not be involved. But I believe some descendant of human intelligence will eventually colonize other worlds.

There are any number of reasons to question this. The Fermi Paradox alone is a good reason to consider that some “unknown unknown” may pose an obstacle to this scenario. But, again, I guess there’s a limit to what I can feel bothered by. The prospect of nuclear war is a known threat, and logically I would probably still rank it as greater than climate change in terms of existential peril; a single thermonuclear mistake could potentially end the human race with no second chance, whereas for all the misery and death that will result from delay it seems that humanity actually has plenty of time to make reforms before climate change becomes a literal existential danger. Meanwhile, I still don’t really worry that much about nuclear war because 70 years have gone by since the Manhattan Project, and while the capacity to begin such a war seems to keep spreading, it isn’t spreading very fast any more. If only because it’s becoming more and more obvious that nuclear force doesn’t really confer much of an advantage.

Seventy years isn’t all that long in the long run, and in some ways I think our record so far is a fluke, but the trend ultimately makes it very possible to believe that humanity will avoid self-annihilation by this means. I also figure that, if we aren’t exactly ready right now, we’re to the point where our odds of avoiding the obvious peril from space (comet or asteroid impact) are respectable, given that the next time might be 20 years from now or a million.

I don’t really worry that much about robots or “gray goo,” etc.

Really, looking around, for all that I’m discouraged about the short- and medium-term, the long-term prospects for humanity feel promising. I can even believe that some future generation will, eventually, be able to regard “the long term” as something other than a synonym for “when we’re all dead and gone.” That’s some glimmer of a consolation, I suppose.

But not much.

Note: If somehow any remote future intelligence acquires knowledge not only of my existence but of these comments, and considers reviving me by means of some quantum magic I can barely conceive… Thank you, I have only one request. If you haven’t already done so, please revive Ray Kurzweil, as decency would seem to demand that I permit him an “I told you so.” Cheers.

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