Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Future Percept II

In my last column (“Future percept,” February 12), I argued that the burden of Nepal’s long history is such that we are perennially a past-oriented society. We are yet to become what some futurists have called a “time-literate form of civilization”.

A time-literature society, they say, knows how to navigate effectively through the present to a possible vision of the future, while not squandering the precious NOW or losing the valuable past perspective.

Sure, many examples can be cited showing our society’s critical awareness of the past and some important achievements. Despite many odds, chiefly injustices wrought by tyranny and poverty as well as isolation imposed by ignorance and prejudices, the past 50 years have been the brightest in terms of our national awakening, too often traumatic with brief euphoric intervals. In recent decades, the emergence of an enterprising private sector and the expansion of a vibrant public sphere in Nepal have been cited as important achievements in South Asia.

The questions now are: Will the future get brighter and better? How will we look like in 2050, the time our country is projected to reach the developed nation status?

Most public policy considerations in today’s societies, including our own, are clearly based on linear conception of time, the modern notion that time is unidirectional, and does not repeat itself, although events might: we lose today, and we lose it forever. Tomorrow is separate from today; the future is always about progress. There is always more hope. Progress is measured in terms of gains in nutrition and health, literacy and education, money and resources, roads and electricity, access to modern technological gadgets, nature and environment, codified generally in the form of Human Development Index (HDI).

However, in attitudes and values, we are still largely a society rapt in the cyclical sense of time, repeating eternally in kal and yug epochs and in the rhythms of Shiva’s furious dance. Kalchakra is merely an endless repetition. We lose today, only to find it back again sometime in the future. Destruction is another name for creation or sustenance.

I find the famed line from the sci-fi TV series Battlestar Gallactica (BSG) relevant here: “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.” In other words, looking at our largely difficult past from this point, there is nothing much to do because things will happen anyway, on their own. There is little hope that tomorrow will be different. Our politics is a good example. A musical chair is circular too. Sometime back, I met an elderly villager who cited the lines from BSG. He had not watched the TV series, but was trying to explain that humanity is at the mercy of the time-cycle, which controls our life cycle. Life, he said, is doomed to endless cycles of births and deaths, or reincarnations in the form of some eighty-four-thousand species or animals.

Even more, he asserted, time is cruel, each epoch alters our relationships and social roles, a wife from this cycle turns into a daughter or mother or aunt and so on in the next cycle. Anything is possible, and out of our control. Time reigns. Thus, the only remarkable change worth striving for, he stressed, is transcendence over time, in the form of moksha. In other words, leave time alone to take its course; delay, delay. Ignore its existence in order to reign over it. No wonder, for many of us, time, like our waters with rich hydropower potentials, keeps flowing, untapped, unharnessed.

Our reality today, however, is mixed. In fact the two notions of time clash. This cultural collision is becoming more intense as we readjust ourselves to the linear demands of modern education or bureaucracy, while at the same time mulling over the cyclical tradition, or peeking into the emerging aural-visual-tactile environments of artificial intelligence and technologies.

Yet, there is little discourse on Nepal’s long-term scenarios. Annual national plans, or international, bilateral or multilateral targets such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), when realistic, do provide some pointers on the future trends, but they are far off the mark. Searching the Web, I came across a few YouTube postings, collages of photo-elicited pictures, and some music video clips depicting sprawling skyscrapers and super highways across our cities or districts, 30 or 40 years in the future. Kathmandu has the subway system, flyovers, and multilane streets (wider than those recently widened roads!) with no sign of garbage. These posts on social networks capture popular sentiments about our future.

Global projections by leading futurologists provide clues to some plausible trends. These are based on a linear sense of time and an evolutionary approach to development, i.e. something is likely because something of similar nature happened in the past. They basically depict three major categories of scenarios (“the future should and can be better!”) with some room for inferences on Nepal or many other developing countries that aspire to achieve developed status by 2050: science and technologies, nature, and ideas and human associations.

Most predictions about the future focus on the advancement of science and technology and their impact on health, work, entertainment, and the environment. Several dystopian scenarios have been presented in which humans will increasingly become subordinate to machines, privacy will be a casualty and human ethics will be severely tested.

Some of the best minds in the field project optimistic views. The US-based professor of theoretical physics Michio Kaku wrote in the New York Times recently that the exponential growth of technology is doubling the power of computers every 18 months, and in a few decades augmented reality (wearable technology such as internet contact lenses) will be commonplace. We will be able to control gadgets with sheer thought and send our memories and emotions over the internet, by then the “brain-net”. He predicts that robots, working as robodocs and robolawyers and other professionals will offer us instant and reliable advice. Scientists will grow human organs, parents will design their children through genetic enhancement and we will be able to repair our bodies and extend life.

Google’s Chief Engineer Ray Kurzweil makes similar forecasts. He predicted long ago that by 2017, we would have self-driving cars. He says in a few years time, we will no longer have to finger-type to search information on the web. Computers will have “human” online assistants to talk to and to help retrieve information. In 20 years, he says, we will be able to send little devices, nanobots, into the brain and capillaries, and they’ll provide additional sensory signals.

Perhaps the most profound implications of advancements in biotechnology and nanotechnology are for health and nutrition. Kurzweil writes that humans will grow food in computerized vertical factories controlled by artificial intelligence, hence no one will have to go hungry. He predicts that in two decades, humans will be able to extend life. In fact, a recent experiment by UK scientists showed that with correct calorie intake, human lifespan can be extended by 40 percent.

Nepal is no longer a laggard in adopting new technologies. It took over 400 years to introduce a printing press in Nepal since it was first invented in the mid-15th century in Europe. As technological development accelerated, and as we became a liberalized economy, the pace of adoption has also increased. It took only 26 years for us to introduce cellular phones since they were first used in the West. Today, new gadgets arrive here within a few months of their development, if not in weeks.

Fully integrated with the world technologically, in the years ahead, we will reflect many similar trends with cultural and legal-jurisdictional overtones. My next and final piece on this topic will continue on these aspects, focusing more on political, economic and environmental projections for Nepal.

Published in Republica, 26 February, 2014