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About Designing the Future
The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?
It is a hubristic illusion that the future can be controlled or designed. Indeed, it is a hubristic illusion that humans or their institutions can even perceive, much less vaguely understand, the present – never mind the future.
We now live on a terraformed planet: the Earth has been, and is being, engineered by a single species for its own purposes. Evolved biodiversity may be shrinking, but engineered biodiversity flourishes, and there are no scientific grounds to claim that the amount of information contained in biological systems is diminishing. What is true is that biology is beginning a fundamental shift from being observational – a scientific domain – to being designed, an engineering domain, to much accompanying angst. In all of observable space, bodies are defined by a radiation pattern determined by their temperature; the exception is the terraformed Earth, which augments its black body radiation with, among other things, reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” broadcast to the stars (and, of course, much more). Human activities have changed atmospheric and oceanic physics and chemistry – we call it climate change – as well as virtually all major chemical and nutrient cycles. Virtually no ecosystem on the planet, with the possible exception of deep sea vents, has not been changed by human activity. Pilot plants to grow meat in factories, rather than in animals, are already deploying: the changes such technology could introduce to management of the nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous, water and other cycles, as well as land use and climate change implications, are profound. The planet is a design space, and all our wishing otherwise and fantasies about stopping evolution in its tracks – the model behind human response to global climate change – won’t change that. The relevant challenge is not, as the Kyoto Treaty would have it, “just say no!” – rather, it is “what kind of planet would you like . . . and who gets to vote on that?”
The most important planetary system is, of course, the species that has terraformed the planet, and all its vast institutions, cultures, technologies, ideologies, beliefs, politics, economic behaviors, and tribes. Here, as well, we have crossed the Rubicon already, without admitting it to ourselves: the human, and everything about it, is a design space. For example:
And our response so far? Retreat to ideology, activist over-simplification, and self-indulgent, whimpering tribalism. Anger, fear, and emotion, recharged constantly by social media, creating deeply defensive communities that reinforce their hysteria, myopia, and sense of victimhood by demonizing anything that suggests progress or optimism – and, of course, especially demonizing all other communities that aren’t them. In short, not too good. The spirit of Rousseau, which approvingly hangs above the inchoate emo screaming of today’s academy, calls for return to the noble savage and the defeat of civilization (seen as the original sin and the source of all evil in human affairs). On current trend, that’s where we’re heading.
There are constructive options, but they require an emphasis on resilience, agility, and adaptability – not retreat to verities, or assertions of control which, given the lack of perception of even today’s real challenges, are not only laughable but dysfunctional. Muddling through, with constant shucking and jiving as new data and observations accrue, is not just expedient, but the only ethical process. And, above all, any real effort to help birth an ethical, rational, and responsible future must begin with the determination to perceive the world as it is, for without that, there can be no meaningful response.
About Brad Allenby
At Arizona State University, Brad is President's Professor of Engineering; Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment; and Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. He is also Founding Co-Director of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative; Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; and AAAS Fellow.