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November 20, 2017
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The Last Days of our Lives: Is the Future Flawed?

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The "Tree of Life" stands alone in the 21st century. (Source: Tree of Life XII in Blue Room by PRISTINE CARTERA-TURKUS)

Summer's gone, and she didn't even say goodbye. But that's true of most things in life, isn't it? People. Places. Things. In our childhood reveries, and in our subsequent adult aspirations, did you ever picture your life to look as it does? Or maybe, in magazine speak, you've got it all. And yet life, when we're not too preoccupied with the circumstantial and the uncontrollable, is still a wonderful and curious thing. In the 1800s, Emily Dickinson wrote, "To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." In 2011, the pace at which "living" shifts and changes, for better or worse, is the most startling of all.

We've been washed in a constant stream of change for the better part of the twentieth century: technologically, socially and globally. In simple ways, from the walkman to the discman or flatscreen to touchscreen, and in complex ways, with a fury of changes in monarchies and democracies or social structures from communism to capitalism. I can only look back on my own childhood and wonder how near impossible it was, say, in 1995, for me to even begin to predict what the world would look in 2005; most could hardly look beyond the supposedly apocalyptic Y2K. In 1995, 0.4 per cent of the world's population was on the Internet. That's 16 million people. In 2000, there were 250 million Internet users. By 2011, that number had reached two billion users, 28 per cent of the world's population. When children imagine their future lives now, I can only imagine they're carving out a series of real, but terribly viral and virtual, next big things: the Twitter/Facebook killer they'll be using or what online means will make them a star. When I was 10 years old, the next big thing was the Internet. So now, how impossible does it feel for us to begin to see beyond tomorrow or - if you're especially skeptic or, well, a Mayan - next year? And now, a new documentary will attempt to deconstruct (predict, really) the future of humanity itself. Based on the The Singularity is Near, a book by futurist and New York Times bestselling author Ray Kurzweil, the film (by the same name, and co-directed by Kurzweil) will explore the idea that, with the onset of the twenty-first century, humans "will be both enriched and challenged as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity." Kurzweil believes in concepts like mind uploading and the human body 3.0, and "singularity," he says, will occur when artificial intelligence will reign supreme and surpass human intelligence as the most capable "life" forms. By his analysis, this is slated for 2045.

If resources like WikiLeaks serve as indicators, we have more information than we have time to think through, or think about. And so we're left with everything, and still nothing at all.

Earlier this week on a subway platform, I saw a group of kids, aged about twelve or thirteen. I could hear their conversation for a spilt-minute as the doors opened and even though - at 5 p.m. during rush hour - the train wasn't nearly overflowing so much so that they couldn't possibly squeeze in, they opted to wait for the next one anyway. What beauty, I thought. I'm counting the minutes until I can get above ground, to dash home for newly instilled cocktail hour, or finish this column, or get ready to go somewhere else, to do something else. Undoubtedly, there's an outline for what the future may look like: we know more than ever about what might be possible, and perhaps what might never be feasible. For others, like Kurzeil, there is no limit. For one, life expectancy - the time and space to waste energy because we'll have it forever and ever - seems to be on our side. A recent report out of Canada says that the average newborn will live to be 81. (But, in the words of live-for-today Sally Bowles, "That is, if booze and sex don’t get me first.") And now that we're living longer and more is possible, are we living less? I made it to a quarter century last week - 31.25 per cent into that life expectancy - and I have nothing but an exasperating need to do something and be somewhere not here, to keep searching and probably end up empty handed anyway. I don't crave celebrity or money or power, no. In fact, I don't crave anything more than a fulfilling life, but what's in all that anyway? What is fulfilling when everything worth exploring is at our fingertips, so readily available that it begins to feel unsatisfying? Or, if you believe in singularity, can be easily created? It enslaves, and, of course, oddly motivates. I've wanted to stop, oh god how I've wanted to just press pause on all this sometimes, but the era that allowed us to take the time to live our lives might have already begun to tiptoe out the back door as computer processors gear up to take over the world. Waitress at 25 in 1995? How bohemian and charming and Rachel Greene of you. Straight out of university in 2011? Grow the fuck up and get to work. Traveling around the world instead? Oh how privileged and lucky you must be. Well, it's never really been a question of privilege or a product of luck. I have friends who've traveled Asia on nothing but tips and faith. I have friends who are happy enough to simply chair fundraisers in between pedicures.

Turns out, the joke's on us. McLuhan's concept of a "global village" didn't leave time for being anything other than connected, privy to everyone's every whimsy, accomplishment, and annoyance. Frivolous updates and Twitpics of what you had to eat for lunch? Kim Kardashian's wedding a trending topic? Let's not preoccupy ourselves with the conflict in Libyaor that Japan is still in shambles.  Instead, let's write about places we can go to avoid conflict or if Bhutan really is the happiest place on Earth. Of course, go on and write those stories. We deserve them as much as we deserve Jersey Shore. I'm guilty of it, too. But why can't I change if I so desperately want something "more" out of modern life, something I don't quite know how to define? And if you want to believe in singularity, robots and stuff will fix things like poverty and pollution.

ray-kurzweil-portrait
Ray Kurzweil (Source: futurismic.com).

Sometimes, I have to stop myself from looking for "real-life experiences." Something offline, so to speak. Sounds horrendous, I know, but searching for something tangible and 3D - from people to emotion - can feel like a chore. Particularly in media circles, where your friends are aspiring somethings like writers and photographers, it's very easy for things to feel… surreal, plotted even. The air kisses, the embraces. The silent moments of pseudo-intimacy and blatant over-sharing. "Darling, I mean it, let's get together for a drink." Absolutely. It never happens. In the global village, it's even easier for everything - from your blog to your brains - to feel insignificant. Go on, call me emo. Or existential. Those things may be true, or not. I'm intelligent enough to discern my opinions and my ennui with our collective OCD and the way things just damn are these days. And suddenly, thinking about your life, despite how lucky it may be or feel, just isn't kosher anymore. It's insensitive and bratty. I both love and loathe Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris for very much the same reasons, for telling us why we're obsessed with the past and for making us feel ridiculous about it. I've read Nietzsche and wondered about the death of God and being "who I am." I almost think it's easier to believe in his concept of an eternal return or even singularity. But I'm near obsessed with Isherwood and his tales of Weimar-era Berlin, then to China and beyond. Hell, I've even read Elizabeth Gilbert. But I also read somewhere that the more you know or you're told, the less you think, or think you know. And, if resources like WikiLeaks serve as indicators, we have more information than we have time to think through, or think about. And so, we're left with everything, and still nothing at all.

And we're back to the disposable allure of everything. We don't realize how fast the world is changing anymore because there's nothing left to think about. And people come in and slip out, just like seasons and just like devices, just like that. And we don't think too much of it. Unfollow. Unfriend. Unnecessary. And what if these seemingly unreal experiences - updating Facebook, checking Twitter, living your life so precariously, depending on machines - have actually become the foundation for what "real life" will look like in 100 years; a "Good Morning!" tweet as ubiquitous as morning coffee. I think we're already there. And for that, I'm terribly afraid.


Life, etc.: The world around fashion. On a weekly basis, Paul Aguirre-Livingston takes a break from fashion writing and delivers raw and insightful musings that blend society and culture with self.


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