putting the caution in cautious optimism

The future is often painted as a utopian landscape of amazing inventions and entertainment. The reality is often a lot messier and a lot of promises never come to pass.

fantasy space city
Illustration by Joseph Barton

Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the challenges involved with building a warp drive using some of the more conventional means that might be available to a fairly advanced alien civilization. Well, that is if you think of complex nuclear weapons and giant matter/antimatter reactors as conventional means. The results weren’t all that great since the amount of time and effort involved seemed to be pretty staggering, and I got a fair bit of critique for assuming that an alien species which decided to try and build a warp drive wouldn’t have invented shortcuts of some sort, or discovered a loophole in the laws of physics. Yes, it’s true that we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future and things we consider amazing or impossible today may become a part of our humdrum routine. But we really do need some caution in our optimism for the future and for alien civilizations.

The previous century gave us television, modern medicine, computers, aircraft, spaceflight and our academic knowhow has grown exponentially. We constantly cite that as living proof that the future holds amazing things and that doubts about a sophisticated piece of future technology is like being one of the naysayers who said that powered flight was a fanciful dream or that human spaceflight is utopian insanity. At the same time, how quickly did we forget about all the promises of the 20th and 21st century which haven’t come true? How many promises given to us by overzealous scientists and CEOs have fallen through when they found that research into a very promising area turned out to be a lot more complicated than they thought. We’re supposed to have cures of cancers and use stem cells to grow new organs but we’re still many years away from both. Ditto for space tourism, lunar vacations, interplanetary colonies and cheap, efficient power from nuclear fusion. One of these days, we just may get all of them, but they were a lot harder to make into reality than we thought.

Likewise, all our newly invented communication tools were supposed to expand our knowledge, exchange an immense amount of profound information, make our lives more convenient, allow us to work less and enjoy our lives more. Instead, while we do exchange a lot of very important information on the web and our work is a great deal easier and more convenient, the web and our instant communication technologies hit us with a fair number of very unpleasant surprises. We have to worry about spam, which unfortunately makes up 97% of all e-mails sent every year, hackers, identity theft and rampant viruses. The average user spends a lot of time to defend a computer from the internet instead of simply enjoying it. And as for all those smart phones and tools that let us work anytime, anywhere? Employers quickly figured out that they’re a great means of continuing the work day long after the usual shift is over. Instead of working less, we’re working more than ever. Oh and what happens to be most popular stuff on the internet? Random videos, porn and funny pictures of animals.

Another major hurdle towards the kind of future we keep hoping to see are we and our governments. For every inventor, designer and visionary who wants to make the world a better place there are thousands of incurious, glib bureaucrats who care nothing about the future and politicians who only care about how to repay favors in office rather than fund the kind of research and development that will make out world a better place. That’s why we have a space program decades behind where we hoped it would be today and all the technology it could provide us through high tech gadgets and materials is also nowhere to be found. Just like the spammers and hackers eagerly turned the web into a double edged sword and filled it with hidden dangers, there are hordes of those who are just waiting to screw up the Next Big Thing for fun and profit or even worse, want to use it and benefit from all it has to offer without lifting a finger to help.

So just like we have to soberly assess our world and realize that the promises of the future don’t always come true and that our utopian dreams often come with, or develop, many caveats, we have to look at the probability of alien life the same way. For an alien species to survive, thrive, develop intelligence, build a civilization, crawl from its cradle and explore space is already an impressive feat. And it’s very likely that they’re already out there and searching for other intelligent beings across the cosmos much like we do. But to assume that they’ll be a species of demigods free from the problems that plague us, with unlimited resources, wisdom and the drive to do everything we want to do with technology we’d call magical following Clarke’s Third Law, seems a bit like wishful thinking. When we do that, we’re essentially projecting our hopes and dreams on the aliens and hope they’re going to do what we lack the knowledge, money, vision and willpower to do today. Real aliens may be every bit as fallible, aggressive and narrow-minded as we are because they’re under no obligation to live up to the utopian potential we set for them. They just have to survive. Everything else is secondary.

I know all this seems like a major downer and trust me, I’m not having much fun admitting how far is left for us to go and how far behind some of our most promising projects have fallen. But unfortunately, we need to keep in mind that dreams only get us so far and reality can be a very harsh mistress. Building a world of hopes and dreams in which clever aliens will make up for all our lost time and push us into space, or that some new law of physics will fall into our laps sometime next century and make warp travel a breeze ultimately doesn’t make it happen. Sometimes, you have to take a long, skeptical look, roll up your sleeves and get to work on building the future you want rather than just dreaming about it and dismissing concerns about the feasibility of a novel idea as simple naysaying of someone who doubts the potential of the future.

# space // alien civilizations / future / futurism


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