Doomsday narratives

When discussing the formation of ideas for the Society of the Future, a most important element of the synthesis is prophecy. Prophecy is an important contributor to the development of the western thought. Although elements of ritualistic foretelling can be found across many cultures, it is in the West that foretelling was historically institutionalized, whether one refers to the Oracle of Delphi, or the Prophets of the Bible. The underlying theme of prophecy is the juxtaposition of teleology with moral conditioning. In other words, do what you must do, for if you do otherwise you will be lost in the whirl of upcoming events. Therefore, prophecy frames the ethical debate of today by stressing the daunting onslaught of a frightful tomorrow. Redemption is offered only if one falls back.

The idea of prophecy has transformed into the idea of predictability, as the western world moved away from a mostly metaphysical explanatory model towards a materialistic one. Science and engineering succeeded in the social arena because they offered consistently predictable results. Indeed, it is in the core of scientific ideology that experimental results must be verified by their independent repetition. This means that a prediction made by a theory – a mini-prophecy in disguise if you will – must be verified in various labs to hold any water.

Prophecy in the pre-scientific Christian world was dominated by the Book of Revelation, which in turn expressed pre-existing ideas of “telos”, a word meaning both “end” in the temporal sense, as well “end” in the purpose sense. As science takes over, the prophetic narrative transforms and gradually finds its way into science fiction. In turn, science fiction not only nourishes the imagination and aspirations of scientists-to-be (most scientists were sci-fi fans when they were children), but also fuels the media debate whenever ethical issues on science and technology are raised. The latter happens because contemporary media is primarily a narrative-transformation machine that recycles stories and threads of stories by adding sensationalism, in order to attract attention.

I think that there are three distinctive “doomsday stories” that haunt us today. The first I label “the post-apocalyptic primitivism”. It implies an ecological catastrophe. This could happen either as a result of a nuclear war, or change in the climate, or a run-away virus, or a hit by a meteorite, etc. The result is prophesied as a collapse of civilization and the regression of the human race (providing anyone survives) to a primitive state. Post-apocalyptic primitivism is the logical extension of the Book of revelation (or the Nordic myth of the twilight of the gods, if you prefer another context).

The second doomsday narrative for the future I will label the “AI Singularity”. This is the assumed point in the future when machine intelligence surpasses the human one. At this point the narrative is broken suddenly. Nothing can be further predicted. An impenetrable discontinuity appears. The “event horizon” of the AI Singularity implies the end of the power of prediction, the nullification of prophecy and, to my mind, suggests the absolute negation of science.

The third doomsday narrative may be referred to as the “post-human scenario”. This implies a more controlled process for history, where technology fuses with humans and transforms the world and society. Humans become Cyborgs, either as independent units incorporating a variety of mechano-electronic and biochemical paraphernalia, or as interdependent units hooked up in a grid, a kin of super-organism that fuels progress. This third narrative is the most optimistic of the three, mainly because it is inspired by utopian (or dystopian, depending upon your emotional inclination) ideas.

But I must return to these narratives later and analyze each in turn.