Have you ever dared to ponder what our society would look like 100 years from now? Perhaps, not in the same context as some environmentalists like Al Gore who collaborated with Hollywood directors to give us a startlingly graphic account of annihilation in the block buster movie, 2012, would prefer. Rather, I choose to ask that question in the light of science and technology… and maybe even the arts too. I do get some astonishingly imaginative responses from people who I’ve posed this question to. Many envisage a world of ease: mobiles that make toast bread; robots that do our fine arts home work; cars that fly (personally, I consider that hackneyed); and, clones that live for us while we sleep away our days in some esoteric resort – the latter you’ll agree does take the biscuit. Most respondents miss the action word in the question: society. We now live in a world where there is an inextricable blend of human existence and technology. Hence, our homo sapiens society is commonly defined by the innovation of ICT such that we are hard put to draw a fine line between what is real and surreal. We sometimes even feel threatened by artificial intelligence, a theme constantly recurring in the pictures. Recently, we were all dazzled – appalled, I daresay – at how Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, masters of Jeopardy, a game of intelligence, were both trounced by Watson (I’m not sure of his surname and I’m not sure why I use the masculine pronoun) an IBM supercomputer that could assimilate data and give feedback with reasonable speed and accuracy. While I do choose my words carefully – ‘data’, ‘feedback’ – the argument ended there: Machines can comprehend. So how should one visualize society in 100 years time? My response: Don’t go there! I’m sure even Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922), inventor of telephone, would be hard put to predict a contraption like Skype, less than a century after his mammoth invention! So how dare we try to predict what telecommunication, transportation or education would be like in 2111! Granted then that we are a little myopic on the future of the gizmos, I do know that to a certain measure we can postulate what human beings would look like. They would still have two eyes, two ears and they would also have the flu when they stay too long in the cold. It’s human beings – whatever that would mean by 2111 – that make up society whether there is a crooning robot changing diapers while simultaneously doing the dishes or not.
So I ask again: Have you ever dared to ponder what our society would look like 100 years from now? I draw a lesson from Clifford Stoll’s speech at TED Talks in 2006. Being a physicist he is often asked that same question. His response: “Asking me about the future is bizarre. If you really want to know what the society would look like don’t ask the person writing codes, go ask the kindergarten teacher!” So there! Society should not be defined by things but by people. Fortunately for us most of the people that will make up that society – the presidents, the CEOs, the policemen, the hair-stylists, suicide bombers, phone hackers, flying car thieves – haven’t been born yet. Hence, contemporary humans owe their unborn descendants the duty of crafting the path to follow with respect to everything but particularly to human relationships.
If there is anything our present world can be defined by it would be pressure to succeed often at the peril of all else. Children grow up not knowing their mothers, let alone their fathers who are too busy building a career. If they aren’t too busy building a career then they are busy being bad parents. The kids also find themselves in a world of decay were all that matters is what matters to you. Good and bad behaviour is relative to the person concerned. Television and internet, both readily available in hand-held gadgets, are replete with lurid attestations of society’s declining moral codes. This is not a didactic sermon but a clear illustration of what portends for our tomorrow. Our kids, as we know it, own this tomorrow and how they will act then depend on what we imbibe in them today. It does not matter what side you stand with in the nature versus nurture argument the broad-faceted truth is that a child reacts to how people around him or her act. So fundamental a gospel truth that Newton had to write a law on it! Human behaviors are always traced to the immediate society namely, the immediate family. It is commonly assumed that a child decently brought up will behave decently in society while an ill-brought up child will act badly. Of course, there are exceptions but it does illustrate a point which rings true in every part of the world and is well resonated even in the Holy Writ: Train up a child in the way that he should go and when he is old he shall not depart from it. Can my message be any clearer? We need cords of human relationships especially with our parents to guide our offspring and consequently our future.
Statistics does show a trend in levels of crime amongst teenagers who grew up without a father figure or who grew up to know only their nanny and the PSP. Statistics are figures and figures can be manipulated. What matters is an overwhelming dearth of parents who are present to attend to the everyday cares of their children as they totter through a confused world of paparazzi, peer pressure, planking, play station and Paris Hilton. We certainly do not need statistics to persuade a mother to be there when her teenage daughter needs someone to talk to about boys. The nanny can do it but the nanny is not mummy. The result of such absenteeism is that children miss out on what matters in their formative years, one of which is an appreciation of motherly nurture. And the cycle continues. So whether we have a nanny or a multi-tasking robot we must be there for our kids because they define the future. Hence we can assert to a reasonable level that we can tell how the future will look like based on what the toddlers appreciate currently. Whether they will value virtues like love, faith, tolerance, perseverance depends on what the status quo is right now. Whether they will value human life depends on whether contemporary society values human life. If that is the case then I fear for the future! After all, the overriding ethos of our world right now is success at whatever cost. The corporate world typically exemplifies the subtle bestiality of our lives, a vestige of Darwin’s assertion that life is survival of the fittest and indeed it is. Nobody cares for the other whether you live in the remote villages or the urban towers. It’s all about who wins. Microsoft versus Google for the ideal search engine. Facebook versus Google + for the best online community. Apple versus Blackberry in the smart phone rat race. Our world has become too choked, competitive and – yes, it wouldn’t detract from the truth to pattern your thought after Al Gore’s theatricals – threatened! Our world is threatened by what I call the speed of death! With Formula one-like revving we are all trying to catch up but many scarcely know where this will end: Nihility. Our grandchildren will be the ones to attest to that but we can reverse the trend – and we should!
Society must reprioritize. Technology should not define us. It makes life easy but comes with the price of unease: Ringing, buzzing, reminders chat lists, pinging, latest trends, status updates, conference calls, networking and so on. We have certainly plodded on, unheedingly in misstep these many years. Changing mindsets or set minds is a heavy duty task but it must begin with you and I. We must make a difference in our personal lives. Forfeiting a promotion for quality time with a suckling child might be difficult to swallow at first blush but remember that you owe that child more than you owe yourself. If not the child then the rest of humanity. Neglecting your parental role might just be the nestling ground for the next Adolf Hitler or Idi Amin, characters who obviously grew up well-bred on hatred, carnality and evil. We all pray that there will be no repeat of the Scott Peterson episode which shocked the world at the level of human depravity. Shall I recount the Casey Anthony case to push my point? Your child will be eternally grateful that she had a mother or a father who was there when it mattered. If this is done collectively by parents all over the world then I envisage a 2111 where kids still skip ropes in the parks, blow soap bubbles in spring, run to hug daddy when he comes back from work, can count on mummy to sing a midnight lullaby and kiss them to sleep – maybe with an i-robot lurking in the dark who knows? Compared to all of the world’s current problems this might seem awfully irrelevant. I wonder what Caylee Anthony would think of that sentiment assuming she survived. Dare to ponder that too.