Historiography

I have slightly expanded a theme of this blog, and turned it into a proposition about this period in history. The proposition is that we can view the past, present, and future of Earth as passage through three ages: the age of nuclear cold war, the age of global warming, and the age of singularity.

What defines an age is the dominant factor, actual or potential, in the events of that period. There will be many other things happening and the dominant factor may have nothing to do with them; the dominant factor is dominant because it transcends everything else. It can affect other things, but other things cannot affect it (much). While dominant, it evolves according to an internal logic of its own.

The age of nuclear cold war was the period in which the threat of unrestricted nuclear warfare between America and Russia was the dominant factor. I can’t say exactly when it began or exactly what preceded it. Perhaps what came before it was a “European world order” dominated by relations among the European maritime empires. Perhaps the nuclear age began in 1945, or only when the superpowers began to accumulate thousands of nuclear weapons. But it’s clear that the possibility of mutual nuclear war loomed over many other world events, like decolonization, the population explosion, the space race, and the spread of television.

Those other processes had their own logic and momentum, but if the superpowers had actually nuked each other in an atomic World War Three, it would have been a divide in history like few others. Much of the northern hemisphere would be radioactively poisoned. There might have been a “nuclear winter” lasting for months. The postwar world might have been dominated by big neo-medieval Third World states.

Anyway, that never happened, and after the Soviet Union abolished itself at the end of 1991, even though the nuclear arsenals still existed, the odds of massive nuclear war became so low, that it’s fair to say that the dominant factor in Earthly events became something else.

I say the new dominant factor was global warming, even though the high point of global warming as a political concern didn’t arrive for another fifteen years, because the physical process of accumulating excess carbon dioxide was already happening in 1991 (and for years before), and it already implied an upward change in the atmosphere’s equilibrium temperature, that was far beyond humanity’s ability to affect. So even as the population explosion continued, and the Internet spread, and a peculiar world war against terrorism took shape, and the economic balance of the world shifted… the most decisive thing happening was that steady increase in CO2 parts-per-million; decisive, more for what it implied about the future, than for what it was causing in the present.

But just as planetary nuclear war never actually happened – and not because the nuclear weapons were actually abolished – my thesis on this blog has been that the true global warming apocalypse will never arrive, and not because of political action (at least, not in any form currently considered). Instead, the progress of technology will eventually produce, in some place and time, a concentration of technological power which will become the new dominant factor. For that event I have used the name “singularity”.

The technical capacity which would decisively indicate the end of the age of global warming, and the beginning of the age of singularity, would be the ability to draw down all that excess CO2, in a relatively short time. That would imply that the shift in climate equilibrium caused by more than a century of coal- and oil-burning, was no longer beyond reach, that now some other factor could dominate over that process. (In that regard, a false dawn could come about through aerosol geoengineering, but that is simply a palliative cooling that masks the spike in temperatures, which would come back quickly if the population of cooling aerosol particles was not regularly replenished.)

However, such a radical capability is not going to come about in isolation, just as a biotech revolution would not provide the ability to rejuvenate the human body, while leaving all else unchanged, and just as an artificial intelligence revolution would not merely produce the capacity to imitate human nature with silicon chips. Sustainability, longevity, and computers we can talk with, look like they would merely be side effects or symptoms of a much broader explosion of possibilities, and that broader context is what would truly characterize the next age.

I don’t have the time or energy to develop significant new thoughts about that next age today. I will say that Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation may still be the most important single statement about what that age could be like, and the quest for “friendly artificial intelligence” may be the best single idea so far, for those who want the age of singularity to turn out well rather than badly. I definitely have differences, to put it mildly, with some of the details contained in those manifestos, and it may be that other visions and impulses will end up having a stronger influence on how events unfold, anyway. But they still have value as a starting point for anyone wanting to come to terms with the future that we face.

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