“We are locally optimistic, and globally pessimistic.”
The creator of Star Trek Gene Roddenberry did not share this “globally pessimistic” point of view. Instead, he was incredibly optimistic about our future, about the human potential. “We’re just beginning,” he said in an interview shortly before his death. “We have wonders ahead of us. I don’t see how it can be any other way, with the way the future is going. We now have got a telescope up there, photographing the universe. We’re inventing the next life form, the computer. We’re in the midst of it. And it will happen.” According to Roddenberry, the future we see in Star Trek is not just possible but probable. How so? Read on…
The statement, “We are locally optimistic, and globally pessimistic” is a key point in the recent book Abundance: the Future is Better than you think by Pete Diamandis and Steven Kotler. The quote is from one of the many people the authors interviewed, a psychologist who then explains how our brains have developed to be mostly optimistic about our personal lives while we have a mostly negative view on events beyond our immediate control at the same time. This is why so many people think that things are “getting worse” in the world.
The authors of Abundance instead agree with Roddenberry’s outlook, and throughout the book they detail advances in technology and society over the past two centuries, and predict that future advancements will lead to “a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and non-polluting, ubiquitous energy.”
This clip from Star Trek: The Next Generation discusses how humanity “grew out of its infancy.”
Technology: The cause of, and cure for, all of life’s problems
In a previous article I covered many of the technological advances that are bringing us closer to the future tech envisioned in Star Trek. But technology is a double-edged sword – it can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction and it can also be used to save lives and better mankind. The authors of Abundance, like Gene Roddenberry, focus on the latter more “hopeful” application of tech.
The authors recount specific examples of how advancements in science, medicine and computing are (gradually) making people’s lives better. New and cheap technology to help supply the base needs of all people – food, water, and power – is being applied throughout the world. Water desalination tools, genetically enhanced crops that grow in harsh conditions, portable solar-powered generators and power plants – the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago are being rolled out to developing nations. And the computer chips that power these tools are cheaper than they have ever been, and getting cheaper by the day. We can now mass-produce a computer for the same cost as it takes to manufacture a Lego playset!
The Raspberry Pi is a mass-produced, credit-card-sized single-board computer
The world’s problems are not going to be solved overnight, but as economies of scale take place the cost of building and distributing such advanced tools will reduce significantly, improving the quality of life everywhere. More important, many of these world-changing innovations are not being done by large companies who are slow to execute and implement them, but by entrepreneurs and small companies. This “DIY Innovation”, powered by cheap computer power and open-source technology, is making a rapid impact in fields from biotechnology to space travel.
This TED talk discusses how things have gotten markedly better in the developing world over the past fifty years.
A base living standard… and the end of money?
Advances in technology are all well and good, but how can we have the utopian future shown in Star Trek? A future where “there will be no hunger, there will be no greed, and all the children will know how to read” (as Gene Roddenberry once told Trek actor Jonathan Frakes). A future that also had no need of that thing we call “money?”
Gene Roddenberry frequently stated that money would not exist in the future, that instead people work to “better themselves” and to “enhance humanity.” This was one of the “rules” of Star Trek, a rule several of the creative people who worked on the show (notably Ron Moore) disagreed with. While it is unlikely society will ever “do away” with money, the authors of Abundance claim at some point a base standard of living will exist for everyone, whether they have money or not. And this base will be better than the base standard from just two generations ago.
The authors of Abundance point out that the poor and starving in the world have, slowly, become healthier and had improved standards of living over the past fifty years. There are still problems, but organizations and those aforementioned “tech-philanthropists” are working hard to overcome them. They also note that the poorest in developed countries like the United States have more than many families that would have been considered “rich” just two generations ago (heating, air, gas, plumbing, vehicles, cellular phones).
“This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square-feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light-years, nano-meters, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles, and, of course, dollars than any that went before.”
The standards of living in developing countries are still nowhere near that of developed nations. but more and more people are living lives of comfort where just one generation before they struggled to survive. The necessities of life (thanks to technology, capitalism, philanthropy, and innovation) are becoming cheap and accessible to all. We may never see the “end” of money, but with an increasing base standard of living that can be available to all, eventually we may lose the need to work to just “pay our bills” and instead apply our time to have opportunities to grow and “better ourselves”… just like on Star Trek.
Government, free enterprise, and “tech-philanthropists”
One of the primary philosophical arguments of our times is about the role and size of government. Some feel the role of government should be limited, and others feel that government should actively intervene in the lives of individuals to help people in need. The writers of Abundance argues that it isn’t one way or the other… there are things that free enterprise is better at and other things that is more appropriate for government to handle. They also point out a third group, a group that is impacting the world in remarkable ways. They are the “tech-philanthropists,” people like Bill and Melinda Gates, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and George Lucas.
Instead of spending their billions and purchasing luxury yachts (and islands to dock them at), these individuals created foundations to help people in the developing world and to fund innovations that will make a difference in people’s lives. Thanks to these tech-philanthropists, we are on the verge of a new era of privately funded space flight, the end of malaria, and a “laptop for every child”. They, along with “social entrepreneurs” using tools like Kickstarter and Kiva (www.kiva.org), will “fill the gap” that government and free enterprise can’t (or won’t) in an attempt to make the world a better place.
The X-Prize Foundation is another “tech philanthropist” that is offering incentives to innovators around the world
As the authors of Abundance remind us, while there are many groups actively working at solving the world’s problems, we can help too. Individual action and innovation is available to us all, and there is an “abundance” of knowledge and information at our fingertips through the wonderful thing you’re using right now called the Internet – which in and of itself is an amazing indicator of how things have changed from just two generations ago. We now have instant access to information that we can use to make informed decision of how to spend our money and time… and, if we are so inclined, how and where we can make a difference.
The authors of “Abundance: The future is better than you think” take the Roddenberry view of the future
If this all sounds somewhat “Pollyanna”… well, that’s because it is. A catastrophic disaster, a massive global financial crisis or another world war could occur and make much of these efforts for naught. There are still conflicts and strife in the world, and you’d have to be blind to not acknowledge that there are challenges ahead of us as a society.
But we all have a choice. We can be, like the quote at the beginning of this article. “globally pessimistic.” Or we can be hopeful, and make a difference by our choices and actions.
What would Gene do? It isn’t much of a stretch to state that if he was still around he would be a big proponent of the optimistic viewpoint Abundance details, as well one of those “tech philanthropists” donating his time and money to make things better…
To make sure the human adventure IS just beginning.
Joseph Dickerson will be speaking about this topic and Treknology at the upcoming official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas. He writes about technology design and pop culture at http://www.josephdickerson.com