To Shape the Future

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Does the world of science offer us a view of human society in the future?

Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed a scale to rank the development of civilizations going from 1, to 2, to 3. Type 1 civilizations utilise energy from the star at the centre of their solar system; type 2 civilizations can harness the entire energy of output of that star; type 3 civilizations can tap into cosmic sources of power, probably the black holes at the centre of their host galaxy.

Everyone agrees that human civilization is currently type 0 (don’t be downhearted!), but may attain type 1 status in around 200 years if we’re still going. What might that type 1 civilization be like though?

A staple of science fiction writers’ view of humanity’s type 1 status usually involves some kind of planetary culture. That doesn’t mean individual countries subsumed into some dedifferentiated mass (Communism, arrrrgh!), although more often than not it tends to look a lot like a federated union of some kind (Merkel’s real goal?).

Could the world of science provide a plausible model for that planetary culture of the future*? There’s the rich mix of nationalities and cultures, promotion of openness and cooperation, and a lingua franca (currently English) to be used for business occasions – conferences, publications, formal communications, and the like. It’s also one of the closest approximations to a real meritocracy where success is on the basis of aptitude rather than insider connections.

It’s the international aspect that’s arguably one of the most inspiring things about science, and the one that makes it feel the most futuristic. What other professions are there where you can walk down a corridor and go past a knot of people talking in Spanish, then another group talking in Chinese, and then another group talking in Croatian, and not even register it as unusual? What other professions are there where those disparate nationalities are unified in pursuit of a common goal – the generation of knowledge? And what other professions are there where cultural differences are continually compared and celebrated?

*Of course, a more cynical view can be found in Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” series, in which it takes the threat of impending annihilation by an alien invasion to make the superpowers stop thinking about nuking each other. It’s bleak, but brilliant, and acknowledges that a shared external antagonist may be more likely to catalyse political union than more noble and altruistic means.

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