It’s an oft-quoted fact that we know more about space than the seas. With some qualification (it’s only true of our known and accessible region of space) it’s an accurate and shocking statement. But the seas aren’t the only unexplored territory within our reach.
The reality is that we know very little. Our knowledge of our planet, our bodies, minds, and fellow inhabitants of earth may be vast compared to just a few decades ago. But it remains vanishingly small when measured against the ‘known unknowns’ we can already identify, let alone the ‘unknown unknowns’.
Short term pessimist, long term optimist
When people ask me how I feel about the future, I’ll usually answer that I’m a short term pessimist and a long term optimist.
I find it hard to see how we will crack the challenge of a polarising economic system, where automation seems set to drive a greater wedge between rich and poor, without serious disruption and difficulty. Or how we will avert at least some level of major catastrophe from climate change — a catastrophe that is arguably already happening.
But I believe we will ultimately overcome these challenges. Humanity, and society, will adapt and overcome.
When you get past the doom and gloom, you get to the fun question: what next?
For me the answer is rather Roddenberry-esque. We boldly go.
An inquiring species
We are curious by nature. Tempted by the untravelled road and the unanswered question. If we can solve our economic and ecological problems, perhaps we can turn ourselves to philosophy — literally ‘loving knowledge’.
The much quoted stat that 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the last two years implies that we are already learning at an accelerated rate. Yes, a lot of this is cat pics, but there are also huge advances. Every day, we understand more about our world and our selves. Imagine how much faster this acquisition would be though, were it not for the other distractions that consume so much of our time today — big and small, from wages and war, to selfies and shopping.
Of course, as Aldous Huxley put it, we have an “almost infinite appetite for distractions” — a subject addressed by James Williams in his recent RSA talk. It may be true, as he suggests, that willpower alone may not be enough to keep us focused on the things that really matter.
Personal hunger, or societal goals?
If this is the case, then is our post-crash learning utopia one of free-roaming enquiry, or is it one where learning is an expectation? Where we are free to follow our interests, or where there is a structure of incentives — and perhaps the opposite — to keep people focused on growth and advancement?
Perhaps this doesn’t sound like a utopia at all. It certainly has a whiff of Soviet-era communism about it. But nice as the idea of total freedom sounds, in reality I think we are perhaps at our best when we have shared goals and objectives. When, with a large degree of freedom, we are encouraged to collaborate on achievement.
From the moon to the microcomputer
I thought about this twice recently. First, listening to Brian Cox and Robin Ince speaking to a panel of astronauts on The Infinite Monkey Cage, and being reminded just how incredible were the achievements of the Apollo programme and the International Space Station.
Second, speaking to Andrew Back from the Wuthering Bytes festival, for my own podcast. We spoke about the open source hardware movement and how a global collection of academics and enthusiasts have built a totally open processor architecture that is increasingly competing with the big names. Because it is royalty-free, it could further drive down the cost of computing — already incredibly low.
Given a goal, and encouraged to collaborate, we are very good at turning unknowns into knowns.