What will the future be like? What clues are encoded in our present?
Lofty questions-and too big for us, so we asked Jaron Lanier, computer scientist,
Virtual Reality pioneer, and musician, to tackle them as guest editor of
this special issue. His mission: to go boldly where none of us has gone
yet, into the exciting and sometimes frightening unknown of the next 50
This is a special issue about the near-term future, the future you will
actually experience. You've heard about the allegedly bleak outlook for
this generation, the first American generation with fewer prospects than
its parents, a generation supposedly bored by the future. This mythology
is in marked contrast to that of the '60s generation, which loved itself
to an absurd degree, proclaiming itself to be an evolutionary leap, a complete
transcendent break with the past.
The '60s generation got a taste of the joys of technology and abundance
(birth control, psychedelics, amplification, a.k.a. sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll).
They did a valuable service in articulating some positive values as a result
of being able to relax more than previous generations, but they generally
failed to live up to those values.
But it turns out that it is the new generation that is going to be the most
influential one for a thousand years. There are specific reasons for this,
some quite unpleasant, some deliciously pleasant indeed. Here they are:
Reason One If you're in your 20s now, you're going to see the cultures,
economies, and governments of the world get computerized. That means that
you're going to participate in writing something like the Constitution for
the next thousand years.
You see, software can't be written without an opinion. When the world gets
computerized, a bunch of principles like privacy, money, and authorship
will be defined by real mechanisms (computer programs and networks) instead
of pieces of paper. And what makes this scary is that you'll have no practical
choice but to use this software, and software gets frozen once it's used
by other software (that's why we're stuck with Microsoft). Whatever we set
up in the next fifty years will last for the next one thousand.
For example, if the government puts a spy chip in your computer you will
never be able to get rid of it because all the other computers will not
be able to talk to your computer if yours changes. This isn't far-fetched;
the government has actually been trying to do this! But something amazing
has happened: The Internet and the Web are out of control, creating the
first working anarchy in history, unregulatable by governments or corporations.
You are now in charge. The long shadow cast by the next few decades of computerization
will make this generation more influential than the founding fathers of
the U.S., whether you like it or not.
Reason Two You are also going to have to deal with the end of the "trust
fund" we've been living off of: easy-to-plunder but exhaustible natural
resources like oil. You also are at risk to witness the greatest heartbreaks
in history, possibly in the form of vast famines (see page 78). If we survive
these things, we will have learned something. We won't be able to survive
on the excesses of the twentieth century, where the world could afford to
buy "stability" with an arms race.
Reason Three You'll have to deal with the end of science as we know it.
Science has been about increasing human knowledge and power so that we aren't
so vulnerable to the dangers of nature. AIDS and earthquakes are some of
the last dangers that we need more science to face, but all the rest of
the science and technology we do is motivated by our love of it, or by the
problems brought up by previous science and technology. We've become so
powerful that now we are our own worst enemies, and it's our behavior, not
our lack of power over nature, that is the problem.
Reason Four: This generation has the potential to create more beauty, meaning,
and fun than ever before. If we stop thinking of technology as a way of
being powerful, and instead think of it as a form of art, a way of reaching
out to cross the gaps that exist between people, then life becomes newly
adventurous. My way of trying to do that has been with Virtual Reality (but
also check out "The Body Electric," page 26; "Live Wires,"
page 66; and "The Future of Rock," page 88).
I learned a lot from putting this issue together. I think I now have a sense
of what the drama of the next 50 years is going to be like. There will be
a struggle between two competing ways of thinking about the world, and this
struggle will replace the old Left/Right struggle that defined the twentieth
The new divide is between what I'll call Extropians and Stewards. A Steward
is somebody who wants to manage the world as a precious resource, and an
Extropian is someone who wants to let some big, impartial evolution-like
process run wild with it. Extropians differ about which process this should
be, though it certainly can be the more traditional libertarian capitalism
combined with the self-propelled onslaught of new technologies. Extropians
don't worry about natural resources running out, or about poverty, or any
of the other problems that frighten Stewards, because they are convinced
that new technologies will solve the problems if we just give capitalism
and science an unfettered chance. Stewards speak a language of what's already
here, like human beings and rocks, while Extropians believe that everything
here is going to be replaced by new, evolving things anyway.
The new breed of cyber-capitalists, like Newt Gingrich, are mild proto-Extropians.
The new sensualists, like Eurydice (page 101), are futuristic, but they're
really Stewards in disguise because they seek human-defined goals like pleasure
and meaning. Stewards can be either "conservative" or "liberal";
they might want to conserve natural resources (see "Ecology,"
page 106), or to attempt to "control" crime (see "Fear,"
page 102). Extropians believe that in giving in to systemic high-tech capitalism
we become part of a larger organism that might be more important than us
anyway (see "Government," page 110). Extropians don't believe
in any one "natural" order and don't care if it is turned upside
down (see "Freeze Your Mind," page 58).
Extropianism is in my dreams because it is creative and unbounded, and yet
it gives me the creeps. I'll share with you something I've told Extropians,
who ultimately tend to view (other) people as just an evolutionary step
to something greater: Evolution is a terrible thing, something that we should
avoid. Evolution is nothing more than the victor's word for genocide. Every
little detail about you, like the curve of your nose, reflects the countless
horrible deaths of your potential ancestors who didn't survive. The great
mercy of civilization is that it ended evolution. I don't want to bring
On the other hand, I worry that Stewards will want to manage and control
precious things that only exist in their mysteriousness, such as sensuality,
music, and the emerging wilds of the Internet. When it's a life-and-death
issue, like global warming or nuclear disarmament, I would choose the Steward
approach. We should attempt to regulate and control the hell out of everybody
involved. But when there's room to experiment, as in almost all cultural
matters, and especially music, I'll risk Extropianism now and then and brace
myself for the wild ride.
Go back to Jaron's