“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” George Orwell said in a well-known futurist novel. He didn’t claim that who controls the past controls the present, but if we like to believe that strenuous efforts today will make a difference to the future that we, collectively, must one day suffer, then why not strive to imagine a past that would alter the present we live in? Why should the future be privileged as a realm of speculation? Thus the mode of modern storytelling called “alternative history” or “the counterfactual,” a mode that Philip Roth (who reads no fiction these days) seems to feel he invented in The Plot Against America. It’s actually of course common, not to say ubiquitous: the idea that with only a tiny drift of events in one direction or another the present would not be as we see it; the butterfly effect of chaos theory, the law of unintended consequences, makes the present seem as unlikely, even marvelous, as any future. Charles Darwin couldn’t help but see evolution as a mode of one-way progress, no matter how he cautioned himself and us against it, but the more we study the earth’s past the clearer it is that our present resulted from a continuous branching of long-past possibilities, a process describable neither as chance nor as necessity, going on forever, a process we perforce inhabit, facing both ways. It could have been different, and somehow still seems it might. The past is the new future.
Given all this, it’s unlikely that many writers would now be tempted to employ seriously the heuristic I developed and believed (probably wrongly) was original with me. But suppose that we—well, I—were to succumb to the temptation to apply it, see what might be descried in the dark forward and abysm of time. Science fiction may have ceded the future, but the imagineers are still busily working out what’s certain to come, giving us fresh projections that might be reversed.
There is what the technophile and inventor Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity, rapidly oncoming, in which human minds become powerfully knitted together as the wetware of the human person is integrated with the software and hardware of digital systems, thereafter evolving as one being to who knows what heights or breadths. It’s possible to point to current work wherein a wired person is able to move a cursor on a computer screen, just a little, by thought alone; it will get lots better than that, and at an accelerating pace.
But no, that’s not happening. Will the mind be integrated with the machine? Yes it will, and already is, just as a hammer is integrated with a hand and able to do things neither is capable of by itself; but just as a hammer is not a hand, a machine is not a mind. Will we all exist together in a humming matrix of common culture and language, communicating so thoroughly and constantly that we will form a Hive Mind of undifferentiated permeable consciousness? No, or rather yes, just as in limited ways we are that now: there is no such thing as individual human consciousness existing without culture, without the minds and symbolic activities of others living and dead, and there never was or can be; but even so we are still, and will be still, individuals with consciousness. Increased digital capability will not in itself change our nature, no more (though perhaps no less) than did agriculture, steam, the telegraph, or printing; we will still recognize our old selves way back in nowadays, just as today we recognize ourselves in the Romans and the Six Nations. The idea that “social media” will wipe out a sense of history and submerge everyone in a froth of presentness is illusory. Even today anyone with a passing interest in the history of anything can learn far more than was wanted with a mouse click or two, and scholars face data mountains that can take years to climb; I can’t believe there will be less information to be found when mouse clicks are as redolent of a simpler time as fountain pens are now.
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