Postindustrial/Information Age Scenarios

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

Postindustrial/Information Age interpretations treat invention as the fundamental driver of cultural change and emphasize the transforming effects that inventions of the future will have on every aspect of our lives. In the end, they make technology the solution. Such views are common in popular culture and academic thought, and find special favor in futurist circles. The digital revolution has given such beliefs a new generation of adherents.

The concept of Cultural Maturity affirms technology’s essential role in future possibilities and applauds many Postindustrial/Information Age ideas. But at the same time it directly challenges much in Postindustrial/Information Age interpretation. Most obviously, it does so in cautioning against the assumption that the consequences of invention will necessarily be positive. It reminds us that inventing is not the same thing as using invention wisely. It also emphasizes that technological solutions will rarely in themselves be sufficient for addressing the tasks ahead.

The most limited of Postindustrial/Information Age thinking contributes little to this inquiry. It simply extends the Industrial Age’s onward-and-upward story. But Postindustrial/Information Age thinking can also alert us to many of the questions culturally mature perspective addresses. Indeed, the best of Postindustrial/Information Age thought can put forward ideas that are nearly as far-reaching in their implications as those we have looked at here.

We see this result for two very different reasons. First, there is the fact that emerging technologies often serve to support and catalyze Cultural Maturity–related changes. Global access to technologies that make possible greater resource efficiency, for example, will be critical to long-term environmental sustainability. And emerging technologies can support not just needed changes in what we do, but also in how we think. For example, decentralized information technologies thrust us into a systemically networked reality that just by its structure transcends conventional expertise and authority.

The second reason we may see related predictions has to do with unwarranted conclusions. Postindustrial/Information Age thinkers can predict outcomes that while accurate and helpful, are not really supported by Post-industrial/Information Age interpretation. One example: Theorists who observe some of the more positive effects of decentralized information technologies just noted sometimes then talk as if the kinds of psychological and social changes needed for the future will follow naturally from them. This conclusion is not supported, certainly not if we are talking about the depth of psychological and social changes required if we are to bring needed wisdom to future decision-making. Indeed, these changes, by themselves, can work to fuel the addiction to artificial stimulation and pseudo-significance that presents Transition’s greatest danger. Certainly, by themselves, they do nothing to counter it.

Culturally mature perspective applauds the contributions made by the more sophisticated of Postindustrial/Information Age thinkers. And, at the same time, it warns even those who make an effort to think in more encompassing ways that they may need to reexamine their explanations if their ideas are to hold up—and, more important, if their ideas are to ultimately serve us as we go forward.

Postindustrial/Information Age interpretation and the concept of Cultural Maturity more explicitly part company regarding the common Postindustrial/Information Age assumption that technological innovation is what ultimately drives cultural change. Culturally mature perspective affirms the importance of technology as a driver of change, but it also emphasizes that this explanation in isolation leaves out much of what is most significant—for understanding change, and more important, for usefully addressing the future. It argues that, more accurately, the causality goes both ways. Invention catalyzes change, but what we are capable of inventing is also always a function of who we are and how we are able to understand and perceive. In particular, innovation reflects our time in culture’s story. With regard to today’s needed changes, invention helps drive and support Cultural Maturity, but it is just as true that invention sufficiently innovative to push us toward needed changes could not happen—and certainly would not be supported—without the new sensibilities and perspectives that Cultural Maturity begins to make possible.

Another way in which culturally mature perspective takes issue with Postindustrial/Information Age assumptions concerns just what needed changes in how we understand, if recognized, entail. I’ve described how the best of Postindustrial/Information Age thinking affirms the importance not just of technical advancement, but also of new ways of thinking, and how there can be similarities in the kinds of conceptual changes proposed. We often see emphasis, for example, on the importance of systemic understanding. But here, again, limiting assumptions about how things work—in this case, a strong mechanistic bias—tend to get in the way of the needed sophistication of conceptual perspective. What we encounter is rarely more than systemic understanding of the engineering sort.

We can miss the strong ideological component that commonly permeates Postindustrial/Information Age conclusions—this for a now familiar reason: Technology includes much that we most mythologize in our time. Postindustrial/Information Age assertions can simply appear smart and logical. The hidden ideological thread becomes most apparent when such interpretation takes a utopian turn—think of science fiction–like prognostications from the middle of the previous century that claimed that we should all by now be living in glass-enclosed cities and flying around in personal transporters. We also encounter this ideological component in knee-jerk conclusions that with any close examination become questionable at best. Consider the common assumption in artificial intelligence circles that computers will soon become more intelligent than we are. In a purely computational sense, they are already more intelligent—indeed much more so. But belief that they might become more intelligent than we are in the ways that are most important to us—and certainly when it comes to the wisdom-related cognitive capacities that will be increasingly important to us in the future—reflects decidedly limited, and ultimately ideological ideas about the nature of intelligence.

Today, the pivotal influence of digital technologies often combines with Transitional dynamics (and the narrow scientism that we often see with such dynamics) to produce particularly extreme forms of techno-utopianism. We see this most dramatically with anything-is-possible special effects imagery in the media. But we also encounter it in views expressed by acknowledged serious thinkers. I think, for example, of recent claims that artificial intelligence will make eternal life finally possible—by offering the option of wholly disembodied existence. Besides being a conclusion that again depends on a naïvely simplistic picture of intelligence, we see a kind of ultimate limits-denying ambition that is a give-away for ideology. Extreme expressions of a technological gospel can titillate, but they are best thought of as Transitional Absurdity.

Postindustrial/Information Age interpretations, while often helpful, most often stop well short of providing the completeness of perspective our times demand. Indeed, because such interpretations tend to leave out so much that needs to be considered as we go forward—in particular, just how fundamental and personal that change must be—they often work to hide from us the depths of what our times require. In the end, too, they stop short at the level of “story”—they fail to provide ultimately compelling images for the future. Technological advancement is wonderful, but it is only part of what we need for a future that is worth living.