Coded gray.

Tuesday 26 March 2002

Mandelbrot fractal

Pic of the day: Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a black hole? No, just a harmless little Mandelbrot fractal!

Utopia vs Dystopia

The one thing we know about the future is that it will surprise us. Or do we even know that?

For our ancestors in the stone age, the surprises were very local. A mad bear might suddenly attack, or the herds of reindeer might change their routes. But usually things stayed pretty much the same. Yes, the climate changed; species disappeared. But this was a slow process - a glacial process, quite literally sometimes. Mostly, things stayed the same.

In the early stages of civilization, things were quite stable too. You planted the same crops that your grandfather had planted. You probably got a little less than he got from the same field; presumably you had sinned and angered the gods. But apart from the occasional war and plague, thing remained mostly the same as the generations marched by.

For as long as any of us here has lived, change has been the main constant. Technology has changed; if not from one year to the next, then certainly from one generation to the next. And the winds of change have been blowing harder and harder, till they swept away entire empires and ideologies and changed the face of the earth itself.


Througout my life, there have been two competing views of the future, sometimes overlapping, yet at heart incompatible: Utopia and dystopia. The utopian future was an extension of the trends we saw in the western world: Ever higher technology made ever more cheaply available to ever more people. Gleaming spires, free energy, flying cars, and pretty girls everywhere. We would tame the weather, we would conquer space, we would seed the universe with human life. The American way of life, most likely.

We cross the bridge to the silver bird
and say goodbye to the ones that we loved.
No skies or oceans in the place we are going -
like seeds on the wind.
The time has come; we shut the door.
We are ready to go in the name of the Lord.
A world is waiting for a new destination.
We are ready to go, we're going home.

And the rivers of Abraham
are running free,
with the dawn of a waking man
and destiny:
to the garden of Eden
and Paradise!
We will never be broken,
and we will never die.

Chris de Burgh: Rivers of Abraham.


But along with the utopian future there was always the opposite. A world where all nature had been eradicated by the ever multiplying hordes of humanity. A world without grass or trees or birds, a world of steel and concrete, cities covering entire continents and reaching far into the darkness underground. A life of standing in line, a life of inactivity or meaningless work, a life in prison. A future where science finally reaches a limit to how many people can be fed, but only after the world is ravaged. A world where people are sent off to the recycling chambers as soon as they leave the workforce. Other worlds, ravaged by plague. And more often than not: The nuclear war, leaving only a few scattered survivors fighting for humanity's future.

These images continue to haunt our collective consciousness today. Scientific American recently threw away almost a whole issue on bludgeoning to death a book by some Danish statistician who claimed that things were just getting better and better.

The guy was right. Despite the increased population, almost all countries have seen higher and higher standards of living. The exception being those who have descended into war or civil war; and this is usually their own choice. More and more nations become democracies, and democracies continue to generate and distribute wealth far better than any other form of government commonly in use today. So people live longer and healthier lives and enjoy more toys than ever before, on average and independent of race and creed - unless they choose otherwise.

But while all this goes on, species go extinct at a rate that can only be compared to the mass extinctions that ended whole geological epochs in the past - the one that closed the door on the dinosaurs, or the one that ushered them in by killing off most of the amphibians, and so on. It would be hard for future geologists to believe that they did not see a similar event today, from the sheer number of animals (and some plants too) going extinct. And while the forests expand on the reasonably rich northern hemisphere, they disappear just as fast in the south ... which is where most of the undiscovered or less known plants and animals are. Smallpox, a scourge of the western world, is gone from the face of the Earth; but AIDS is spreading like wildfire among the poor nations, threatening to wipe away entire generations on a scale not seen since the Black Death.

While science reaches further and further through time and space, pilfering God's toolbox, religious fundamentalists murder women and children in the name of God. And while I enjoy a long warm shower, others walk for miles to fetch a pail of muddy water. Utopia and dystopia are here already, both of them at once. And I suspect that the future, for as long as we can foresee, will contain them both. Because as long as we remain humans, we have inside us the kingdom of Heaven ... and Hell.

Yesterday <-- This month --> Tomorrow?
One year ago: Standard, plus or super
Two years ago: Family values
Three years ago: Opera 3.6 is out

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