Reflections on the future
I feel torn between two competing visions of the future, which are well expressed in a pair of recent interviews, both worth watching:
Elon Musk’s conversation with Chris Anderson for TED
Paul Kingsnorth’s conversation with Mary Harrington for Rebel Wisdom.
In the first, Elon Musk presents a compelling thesis: that for human civilization to survive, we must ultimately find a way to become multi-planetary, as life on Earth will not be possible forever. He argues that the power of artificial intelligence will soon be so great that our best defensive strategy will be to merge with AI and co-evolve together (thus his company Neuralink, which seeks to make Internet-connected brain implants). He predicts that within fifteen years, a million people will be living on Mars, and that here on Earth, household robots will be as common as electric cars. His underlying rhetoric is that he “loves humanity” and that we “need to make the future exciting” — and his technological brilliance, iconoclastic irreverence, and fluency with Internet memes are certainly thrilling to witness. He is entranced by the notion of growth — that we must grow our civilization out into the physical galaxy and our minds into the realm of AI, expanding the “scope and scale” of human consciousness in order to, as he says, discover the question to which the universe is the answer.
In the second, Paul Kingsnorth and Mary Harrington (both English writers), offer a radically different perspective. They argue that most of the problems that face us today were brought about by the rampant application of technology and capitalism in the first place, and that it’s insane to suppose that the solution to these problems is yet more technology and capitalism. They argue that what makes life meaningful can never be reduced to salable information: that relationships, families, communities, serendipities, and the beauty of nature will always stand apart from technology as the precious fruits of life. The solution to our problems, they argue, is not more technology, but realizing the wisdom of limits: of our bodies, of our communities, of our environments, of our planet — that by surrendering to these natural limits, we finally experience meaning, as we discover that the world around us is already sacred, just as it is. We “make the future exciting” not by inventing new things, but by seeing with new eyes (per Proust). They posit the esoteric view that technology itself is a kind of unseen force that is using humanity to birth itself into reality, as Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1964: Man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world. According to Kingsnorth and Harrington, this is to be resisted.
When I feel into Musk’s vision (controlling the future through growth and technology), I feel that I’m encountering genius. I feel excited and inspired, but also a little anxious, like I’m being cajoled into believing something by an older sibling who knows much more than me, but who may also have a hidden agenda. I hear myself saying: Really? Do we have to? Isn’t there another way?
When I feel into Kingsnorth and Harrington’s vision (surrendering to natural limits), I feel that I’m encountering wisdom. My body relaxes, I feel intuitively calm and at ease, and I imagine myself enjoying a conversation with them over beers in a warm English pub, or visiting their homes for afternoon tea. At the same time, I wonder if I’m being a luddite, seduced by the siren song of nostalgia, resisting the inevitable evolution of life. I hear myself saying: But how do we solve all the problems? Isn’t it natural for human beings to invent? Do we really just continue with more of the same?
The concept “the future” is important because it shapes what actually happens. When many people believe a particular story, that story naturally becomes our collective reality. Part of that is only practical, as resources and energy are routed to whatever view is currently most popular. Another part is more esoteric, as our beliefs about the world are reflected back to us through what we end up experiencing in the strange perceptual loop of reality. As the Talmudic saying goes: We see things not as they are, but as we are.
I feel that each of these perspectives has something to offer, and that it’s probably not about choosing one or the other, but integrating elements of both — though I don’t quite know what that looks like, as their respective worldviews (growth / limits) and corresponding cultures (technology / relationship) seem to be so at odds.
I can see that through the first one (let’s call it the philosophy of control), we access our abilities to analyze, criticize, invent, improve, and evolve. And that through the second one (let’s call it the philosophy of surrender), we access our abilities to accept, listen, respond, serve, worship, and bless. Too much control, and life becomes stifled and mechanical. Too much surrender, and life becomes chaotic and diffuse. When control and surrender are working together in balance, perhaps the result is aliveness — that exquisite feeling of being in alignment with the natural unfolding of life, doing just the right thing at just the right time.
How can we access this sense of aliveness? How can we balance control and surrender? One framework I find helpful is something called “future magnets”. It’s a paradoxical process of integrating control and surrender as a way of working with the future. You begin by feeling into a vision of something you’d like to experience, the more specific the better. Then you cast that vision like a magnet into the future. From that point on, you simply do “the next clear thing” in each situation, trusting that when something feels clear in your life, it’s because that future magnet is tugging at you, trying to show you the most direct path, which is not always straight.
This practice of discerning “the next clear thing” is described by Christopher Alexander in his final book, The Nature of Order. In each situation, you ask yourself three simple questions:
What is the weakest thing that could be improved?
What is the strongest thing that could be strengthened?
What is the clearest next step to accomplish one or both of those things?
When these questions are asked repeatedly from moment to moment, you begin to have a healing effect on the world around you — your actions come into greater alignment with the natural unfolding of life, and aliveness blossoms as a result. Soon, the process becomes second-nature, and the questions are no longer needed. In this way, we learn to become “natural”.
In this seventeenth ritual of In Fragments, I grapple with my own local dilemmas about the future at High Acres Farm — addressing the energetic blockage of a legal agreement that my mother was convinced to sign in the mid-1990s, limiting all future use of our property to single-family residential and agricultural use only. My personal dream for our land is to cultivate this notion of aliveness — sharing its magic and beauty with others by creating a place of learning and making. But this old agreement has stifled those dreams, applying too much control without enough surrender, too many limits without enough growth, resulting in stagnancy instead of evolution.
In the ritual, I tear up my mother’s original copy of the 1994 Land Use Agreement, and mash it into paper pulp using water from Lake Champlain. I pull new sheets of paper from the swampy slurry, and cut them into smaller strips that I lay on the glass of an arched mirror, forming the shape of I Ching Hexagram 59, Dispersion, which directly follows Hexagram 58, The Joyous, Lake (where five years earlier, this series began). I hang the hexagram in our old wooden boathouse for three days and three nights as an offering to the lake, requesting its support in dissolving this stuck situation, so that aliveness can flow on our land once again.
Though the gesture of tearing up a sheet of paper is simple and childlike, there was something strangely transgressive about doing it here, which felt like another taboo. Legal agreements are usually dealt with by other legal agreements, keeping the whole exchange in the safe and sterile realm of language. But not knowing how else to proceed, I chose to work with the agreement symbolically instead, surrendering the situation to a higher power through an act of prayer.
The hexagram itself symbolizes the unification of a community around a larger collective vision, transcending the old boundaries and limitations so that new inspiration can flow. It’s now been almost a year since performing this ritual. It was done last May, during the full moon lunar eclipse — a rare astronomical event that was repeated (mirrored) earlier this morning. Progress on the vision has been slow, but perhaps that is how new growth always needs to begin. We’ve found some alignment with our neighbors around creating a small-scale residency program for visiting artists and scholars, hosting one or two at a time in an old wooden cottage that we hope to renovate soon.
I suppose that surrender sometimes means surrendering to timelines beyond our control, and finding aliveness in every step of the process anyway.