Wall-E, The Sofalarity, and the Problem with “Super Now” Predictions

The Wall-E vision of the future, or what this New Yorker article dubs the “sofalarity”, is not believable to me. It’s a classic mistake of prediction that I like to refer to as “super now.” When making super now predictions, people simply take things that are happening right now and imagine that the future will be just like now only “more extreme.”

Right now in developed countries we are experiencing a technological trade off where an abundance of fatty foods and cheap entertainment options lure many of us into experiencing poor health outcomes. Obesity is a growing problem. Therefore, the argument goes, in the future we will become formless blobs collapsing under the weight of our own gluttony. What the super now futurist fails to recognize is not only is this particular trade off a relatively new phenomenon in human history but it will also likely be short-lived.

Technological progress tends to create unintended consequences, but then those consequences create pressure to address and defeat those consequences. And so, as technology advances, we will most likely engineer healthier, better-tasting foods and find better ways to encourage exercise. Further down the line, I expect we will master human biology such that it will be possible to eat whatever we want and be stationary all day without becoming unhealthy. Will there be new trade-offs in this future? Almost certainly. But we don’t know what they are yet. And there’s no reason to assume these new trade offs will look anything like the ones we only recently started experiencing in the late 20th century.

3 thoughts on “Wall-E, The Sofalarity, and the Problem with “Super Now” Predictions

  1. Hey, sorry to bother you but I was wanting to respond to your article at IEET http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/perry20140306 Do they actually allow comments? Because I tried several times to register and different email addresses (and sent them and email about it). They are the only site that gives me trouble commenting. But, on the bright side, your blog is now in my bookmarks of regular sites to visit (:

  2. I’m not sure, but you may have the wrong reasons why we would become entertainment vegetables in the future. If we do, there might be four reasons. The fist is basic disinterest. Some people just aren’t particularly enthused, as you and I are, about the workings of the universe. They just might not care about developing themselves. The second reason is that developing one’s self psychologically requires some painful adjustments, such as giving up one’s religion and dealing with one’s pain and abuse. The third reason, is that at some point there may be no meaning to the universe, especially if the universe is relatively simple compared to our intelligence as we enhance it. And the fourth reason is that we may gain the ability to just give ourselves pleasure directly the way they can give pleasure to rats. This may be so addictive to most people that they don’t want anything else.

    • Thanks for the comment! You raise good issues that I think will be relevant in the future, but I still maintain these issues will be very different in kind than the ones we face today. The reason is the lack of consequences.

      Today there are consequences for inaction and lack of ambition: loss of health, loss of economic opportunity, loss of potential experiences. In the future these consequences are likely to be increasingly mitigated. Which leaves us with a completely different kind of dilemma…

      Is it really still meaningful to call someone a “vegetable”, if their health and standard of living are no longer at risk? Or if being a vegetable means being plugged into a virtual world that delivers a wide range of exciting experiences that are safer and more varied and interesting than those available in the “real” world?

      When you remove the traditional biological consequences to inaction the problem takes a different shape. Perhaps the new dichotomy will be between people who will still socialize with others (whether in real life or virtual space) and those who live in isolation in private solipsistic worlds of their own creating. (I wrote about this issue a bit here: http://declineofscarcity.com/?p=2039 and also podcasted about it here http://reviewthefuture.com/?p=69).

      Or perhaps the new dichotomy will be between people who seek novel experiences (virtual or real) and those who prefer to have the same familiar experience over and over again. I don’t know. But this is a very different lens with which to look at the issue of pursuing comfort.

      As for direct stimulation or wire-heading in the manner of rats, that technology also could be improved so that it compresses our level of happiness to an acceptable range of positive emotions, without completely flatlining our affect or ambition. David Pearce is someone who has written and spoken a lot about this sort of thing. (http://www.hedweb.com/)