Terence Mckenna once spoke of a vision he had of the future, in which humans roamed naked, nomadic and free, but when they closed their eyes, they would see hanging menus suspended in the darkness before them. As with so many things the late mushroom guru had to say, it paints an evocative picture that stays with you. The idea of a world in which our values have ascended to a level high enough to leave us naked in the sun, living in harmony with the earth and one another, yet intimately connected to both through a presumably organic, benign technology of an equally elevated nature, is a vision worthy of the grandest sci-fi imaginings.
The reality, however, for anyone paying even the slightest attention to global politics, remains a laughable pipe-dream, regardless of how beautiful the vision itself may be. Unless the relationship between our said values and our technology evolves drastically, we are most likely doomed. Given the current trajectory of either, there are seemingly endless pitfalls, any one of which could spell total disaster for us as a species, yet, as a corollary, would most likely result in complete rejuvenation for mother nature in the long run. A vision that includes both — let alone one in which we have grown into a symbiotic relationship with the natural world — just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.
Yet for those of us excited by such optimistic ideas, however unfounded they may be, Mckenna’s vision remains incredibly enticing. Once one integrates it, they begin to see its possible beginnings everywhere. Yes, we may never reach the specific ideal he spoke of, and numerous other equally bright (and bizarre) possibilities abound — think Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey — but one thing is for sure: something is going to happen. As always, it is juicily impossible to say just what, but there is one particular that remains observably true: things are speeding up.
Since the invention of the lightbulb it’s really been happening. Yes, the printing press had a massive impact, but it wasn’t until electricity made the scene that Pandora’s box was fully cracked open. Before that, things moved at a leisurely pace, and the world was small, and knowable. Trips to other countries and back could take years, and trips to other continents were the things legends were made of. For most, no matter where you were in the world, you could count on a pretty steady diet of digestible and familiar cultural influences — the people, places and ideas you were likely to encounter throughout the course of your life were generally predictable. Exotic really meant exotic, and foreign was truly foreign.
Not so today. Flash forward 100-some-odd years and children are born with the world at their fingertips. Anything we want to know and learn about, we can. We talk to our phones and cars, video conference for free across continents and settle arguments in seconds that would’ve been taken to a hard-backed encyclopedia only 15 years ago. Robotics continue to astound and video games are becoming more and more immersive and life-like by the day. At the same time, the urgency surrounding our most pressing environmental concerns continues to grow, with all manner of disaster scenarios set to reach their zenith anywhere from 2030 to 2050. There are more wars raging in the world than at any other point in history and the utterly shameful and pointless scourge of starvation continues to claim tens of thousands of lives a day. Given this, it would seem that our technology has taken us, in a mere century — an utter blink on the timeline of our existence on this planet — from a world of relative simplicity to an incomprehensibly messy collision of cultures that is now nearing its apex. If it continues on the manner it seems to be, we are indeed doomed.
Yet within it all there are ever-present sparks of possibility, flashing off within the milieu continuously. I don’t know that much about chaos or complexity theory, but just as anyone alive is able to, I can observe the tendency of all living systems to self-organize. This seems to be a natural law. Everything from the micro to the macro is continuously in the act of organizing itself, adjusting to the conditions it is subject to, and adapting to the environment it is a part of. Yet the more factors you introduce — particularly in a short period of time — the more complex the system gets. Introduce a number of game-changing technologies in the blink of an eye and you will inevitably end up with a mess such as the one we find ourselves in today.
But could this not be considered simply a part of the larger rhythm of flow and constriction? Any time the pace of something surpasses its ability keep all the relative factors in check, things get messy. At that point, it either accelerates until it crashes or it catches up with itself and balances out. And that’s the big question here: can we balance ourselves out before it’s too late?
Oddly enough, the key word here is not balance, but ourselves. The main difference between the last century and the current one is found in the definition of this word. One’s self. And how does one define themselves? By their interests, by what they’re passionate about. As I pointed out earlier, it was relatively easy to know oneself in prior periods of history, simply because the scope of choice was so limited. As the world opened up and things grew in their complexity, the choices presented to us began to multiply, moving us all the way through to the nearly infinite variety we have at our fingertips today. Along the way, we were pushed through the terrible gauntlet of mass media propaganda in service of everything from cheap commercialism to major political agendas, and, for the most part, we were none the wiser. People’s entire lives and identities were created, consumed and discarded by monstrous institutions — as many still are to this day — without any of the wider possibilities ever coming into focus. Our ability to define ourselves went from a simple juggling act to a complicated carnival in the matter of a mere century, with the majority of the power landing in the grubby hands of the carnival owners, hiding behind the curtains as they were, and are.
Yet the internet — the newest and possibly most explosive of all the game-changing technologies — has landed the power of self-definition squarely back in our hands. In many ways, it has begun the process of lifting the curtain and calling out the carnival master. Yes, there is an infinite variety of choices now available, but no longer are they coming from a select source with a particular agenda. We are free to search what we will, whatever it may be. Indeed, that is how you’re reading this now: because you’re interested in it. That’s how you found it. That’s how anyone finds anything on the internet. And it is this that stands as the overriding factor that will play the most important role in shaping the new world: passion.
This is my contention: that the future Mckenna dreamt of begins with this ability to organize ourselves according to our passions. Right now, it is possible to make a friend for life with someone on the other side of the planet because we both share a passion for an extremely obscure sub-field in microbiology. The entire internet works this way — through self-organizing clusters of like-minded people, talking and sharing — and as the technology grows, it is logical to conclude that the outside environment will begin to mirror this. Communities will form around these passions, people will gather in physical groups to celebrate their interests, and to create and build from this place of true inspiration. The world as we know it now — the one in which we are packed more closely to our neighbours than ever before, yet equally distant in interests and like-mindedness, doing work we dislike and rarely, if ever, playing as adults — will dissolve under this new paradigm. And it is these new communities that will be our first experience of what it means to have true community.
Of course, there's an entirely new can of worms that can be cracked open with this argument. There are a lot of people interested in some pretty negative and harmful things, so what do we do with these communities as they begin to form? This is a question that moves beyond the scope of this article. I don’t know. There are far too many factors to consider. All I can say for sure is that all of it, everything, is leading us to face ourselves and confront the values that we hold, both individually and collectively. As the internet continues re-shaping our civilization we will undoubtedly be forced to find a common moral foundation on which it can stand, or suffer the consequences. And they surely won’t include a future that finds us naked, nomadic and in harmony with both our earth and our technology.