OPTIMISM/PESSIMISM: The Next 50 Years: Why I’m Optimistic Because Everything Will Be Terrible

John Shirley

A while back I did a TEDx talk on the next fifty years. The following contains edited selections of my talk–and some updates.

Two singularities? It’s a contradiction in terms — two singularities. But there are two, there’s the fanciful technological singularity of the imagination, and there is the tech singularity that’s more likely to actually come about. The false singularity, supposed to come between 2030 and 2045, is almost a supernatural event in the minds of many people. With its dream of technologically achieved eternal life, it has the reek of religious mythology; the unconscious fear of mortality. The half-suppressed terror of death that has generated most of our religious myths has also generated the myth that we can create a second machine body into which we’ll supposedly project a copy of ourselves and — puzzlingly — this recording in a three dimensional form is regarded as immortality. But the human essence is a whole that’s more than the sum of the parts. Consciousness still remains mysterious to us, and selfhood is not a series of likes and dislikes recorded into a program.

The second singularity, as we’ll see, is the real singularity — it is more modest, but impressive enough


All technological convergences, revolutions, renaissances, taking place in the next fifty years will happen against the backdrop of social and environmental crises. Multiple simultaneous crises will create shortages, which will further concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, schizming the world, separating the majority of people from the breakthroughs of “singularity” level biotech — this could result in a powerful and eccentric technocrat class with its own elitist rationale for dominance of the technologically underprivileged through control of media and mechanism. Generally, the moneyed class will be the technologically equipped class — and with some exceptions those disenfranchised financially will also be disenfranchised technologically, despite the cell phones we see now in  remote villages.

Let me be clear that I do not foresee the downfall of civilization, I do not expect my sons to have to emulate the Mel Gibson character in Road Warrior. With the entrenched denialists backed by big oil, the intransigence of companies that profit from burning coal, the widespread dependence on internal-combustion vehicles, and the destruction of  forests, we’re not likely to control climate change anytime soon. We will feel the full consequences of global warming. We’ll see more tropical diseases and pests move northward, monsoons  in regions unprepared for them–we recently had a preview in central and southern California.Food stocks will be radically challenged when climate change — as it’s already doing in Africa — increasingly damages agriculture. We may assume famines that make current food shortages seem like the good old days. And you do think western nations are dealing with a lot of refugees now? A drop in the bucket. When radical changes in climate impacts agriculture, causing dust bowls in some areas and catastrophic flooding in others, we’ll see a gigantic surge of refugees, hundreds of millions of people, totaling billions globally, moving away from these areas, desperately migrating toward more protected areas. Toward food and shelter.

Oceans provide much of the world’s food—Global warming contributes to the acidification of the ocean which adds to the attrition of fish stocks. And globally, fish supply 60% of the protein consumed by the human race — we have already harmed fish stocks by  overfishing, destructive methods of harvest, and oceanic pollution.

The social cost of all this will be brutally intimidating. With seven billion people on the Earth we have about a billion going to bed hungry right now and billions more people coming — And it’s been observed that world’s poorest people contribute least to climate change but will feel its hand the heaviest, since they have the fewest resources with which to adapt and respond.

The massive shifts of large populations will put unprecedented stress on infrastructure and social systems, especially food sources, water and housing, and will doubtless result in military confrontations. A Pentagon study concluded that under pressure to find new sources of food and safe housing in harsh climate change conditions, some countries will find excuses for invasion. They’ll accuse their neighbors of provoking war, but the real cause will be a desperate need to obtain food, and logistical stability.

Still, the privileged will find ways to be comfortable. The tech-elite will have access to electronic resources and protected food stocks — some will be synthesized, while  fresher foods will be raised in high-security agricultural skyrises (they’re towering, high tech greenhouses). Feeling threatened by the instability of the rest of the world, technocrats will naturally coalesce defensively against those migrating to seek better conditions. Moneyed, technologically sophisticated elements of society will tend to withdraw from the increasing pressures of the masses of disenfranchised, into the safety of walled, highly protected enclaves, which will be in effect, if not in legal status, technocratic city states.

They will even have access to fantastic augmentation. Nanoengineers at Princeton have developed a superthin electronic skin, that puckers and stretches like real skin: it can be adhered invisibly to your forehead; it could be hidden in the throat and used for subvocal communication. More sophisticated iterations will be able to communicate with the internet, with other people at a distance, constantly transmitting and receiving data — this kind of extreme interactivity will make some cyborgian dreams come true.

Some of this  cyborgian elite will obsess about managing an unmanageable world — and they will come up with some solutions. But other privileged technocrats may well sink into  repellently self indulgent decadence, perhaps virtual reality retreats, where they’ll be sequestered physically and mentally both. Addiction to social media, videogames, cell phones and the internet is now a recognized phenomena and that has implications for our relationship to future tech. Because its addictive capacity will only increase as its experiential quality improves.

It’s strange—most of our technology is about extending our reach… but paradoxically, we’re in danger of a relationship to technology that actually cuts us off from one another. Cartoonists already caricature families who sit together talking to everyone but each other on their plethora of devices. . .


Every technology and every wrinkle of a technology has a dark side. There is intelligent collaboration with technology — you’re reading this with the aid of a technological interface — and then there’s a risk of mindless dependence on it. A biomedical engineer has already designed an Ecog chip that does not disrupt brain tissue, it floats atop the blood brain barrier, sensing the output of neurons and transmitting them to prosthetic devices, to machinery we wish to control, and so on… and some researchers expect the ecog chip to make electronic telepathy possible. How dependent might we become on such interfacing? How trapped, how lost will we become if our access to it suddenly breaks down?

The real singularity will be simply an unprecedented cybernetic intelligence explosion to many orders of magnitude, combined with astronomically improved interactivity—but the Kurzweilian singularity that allows us to interface with machines until, in his words, “there will be no distinction between human and machine” , will not come about sustainably because the psychological and social consequences would be so dire.

People who are quadroplegic have noted that they feel less emotion than they did, when they could still feel their entire bodies. The projection of the self into electronics reduces our relationship to the body, the seat of our emotions, and for several reasons that might lead to an increase in psychopathology.

And empathy may be a precious commodity in the future. Most people unconsciously cut off their empathy when they’re feeling endangered — when the population increases to 8 and 9 and 10 billion, we may instinctively become, as a race, proportionately less empathetic unless, with self-observation and cognitive therapy, we actively struggle against that kind of degeneracy.

The super rich may become strikingly more elitist and detached when they get exclusive access to rejuvenation. It’s fairly evident that some form of rejuvenation, and certainly extensive life extension, will soon be possible. It’s thought that the first person to live three hundred years has recently, somewhere, been born. With a probable ability to grow new replacement organs to suit an individual’s DNA in a lab; with Sandia labs’ specialized nanoparticles that blast problematic micro organisms and cancers with precise micro applications of drugs; with methods for teasing stem cells into regeneration, and regenerative drugs like Sirolimus, and other innovations… we will effectively have rejuvenation… for those who can afford it.

Let’s be honest. Rejuvenation is sure to be a tremendously expensive process and it’s possible that only the super rich will regenerate — some people now in their twenties, may in eighty five years be tottering around, quite ancient — and see a Donald Trump still walking around. I suspect it will be infuriating.

But we can avoid that fate by making laws requiring that rejuvenation for the most part goes to people who deserve it — you’ll get points for art, for science, for good works, add them up and then get rejuvenated. (Full disclosure, that idea was borrowed from a Jack Vance novel.)

Mastery of technology must include acknowledgement of its dark side. Mastery of technology means accepting of limitations. Limitations have value, eg limiting electricity to what will work for a particular power line means electrical flow isn’t wasted. Water is good; a flood usually isn’t. Technology too needs limits.

An invention which pollutes is only partly invented. And a lot of the time we rush into technology so quickly we don’t realize it’s going to pollute… It was recently discovered that every time a garment made from synthetic fabric goes through the wash, it lets go of thousands of tiny plastic fibers which end up fouling coastal environments throughout the globe. No one expected that. No one thought that form of manufacture through. PFAS, toxic forever chemicals, are now everywhere–because they were undertested, rushed into production.

It’s time for a new philosophy of technology—one that acknowledges its dark side and thinks pro actively about the consequences of new technology so that technology can be tweaked and negative consequences prepared for. Technology needs to evolve a conscience.


The real singularity will offer us some great advances — including a redefinition of what money is, and how it will flow, propelled by a computerized awareness of every financial transaction. Paper money will be obsolete and thus money will be thoroughly trackable. As things stand now, money is treated like meteorology. Its mysterious ebbs and flows are predicted rather like the way weather is; people forecast recessions and bubbles. The new computing power will make it possible to track almost every movement of monetary units in the world and will bring a complete rethinking of not only economic probability but also the usage of money. Money is purely conceptual but we act as if it’s got a life of its own. We forget that it is merely a device we use to monitor transactions, and it can be modified.

And I envision a computer that would have access to a large pool of funds that it would use selectively, with precision and nuance, to prevent crises.

But yes — there will be catastrophe between here… and there. I believe that catastrophe will spur social transformation. I’m optimistic for the long term… because everything will be terrible in the short term. We’ll have astounding technological advancement against a backdrop of grievous social inequity and quite possibly increasing barbarity, for a period, until we are forced by waves of crises to come to terms with the consequences of developing a civilization blindly. Wars, plagues, radical separation of privileges, famines due to climate change and other environmental consequences, will force humanity to reassess, simply to survive, and accept Buckminster Fuller’s “spaceship Earth” concept as very real. Toward the end of the 21st century the world will move toward a framework of consensus, on some basic rules regarding population growth, the environment, and access to technology. Empowering third world people with education and technology will give them a step toward the resources and coping ability they’ll need to survive.

I believe we’ll achieve a collective progressive consciousness as a result of the revelatory shocks we’ll endure in the next fifty years. We’ll learn… we’ll come to understand that we can’t treat Spaceship Earth as a party cruise ship.

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