Likeable futures are meaningful, not just materially comfortable. Bringing one about requires imagining it. I invite you to do that!
Cozy futurism is great, but I want to go a step further.
In the same way many people dismiss or are oblivious to the possibility of material progress, many dismiss or are oblivious to possibilities for social and cultural progress. Yet the society and culture of America today are quite different from the ones I grew up in, half a century ago. It’s hard to say whether on balance they are better or worse, but having lived that long makes it obvious that change is possible.
This goes unnoticed by many, who tacitly assume the world in a few decades can be little different from now. I can see no reason it can’t be much better, if drop our hip cynicism.
If we knew we’d never get flying cars, most people wouldn’t care.
If we knew for sure we’d never get a society in which people mostly get along, and a culture in which mostly people had mostly interesting, enjoyable, meaningful lives, we would care. We can’t be that oblivious and cynical.
Meaning is interactional; it’s social and cultural; purpose and value are mostly about what you and other people are doing together.1
What role can information technology—including AI—play in creating a more meaningful future?
The actually-existing tech industry is mostly about social interaction and cultural consumption. Technology-mediated interaction constitutes increasingly much of our social lives; and the internet delivers most cultural products. In significant ways, that makes our lives richer; but it also leaves many feeling empty, or even nihilistic.2
Meaning has been in crisis for the past few decades. Traditional and modern sources both shattered; we live their fragmented, irrational, incoherent wreckage.3 That has left many of us confused, lost, or even hopeless; others cling to delusional absolutist belief systems.4
The culture war feeds on people hungry—desperate even—for meaning and purpose. We find ourselves pursuing tantalizing illusions of belonging and value created by Mooglebook’s malignant alien demigods; or doom scrolling in hope of finding meaning in chaos.
I invite you to imagine, in as much detail as you are able, a future you’d like better—and to share your vision, in person and online. This may be the among the most meaningful things we can do.
If you are an AI enthusiast, I especially hope you make a specific case for how AI will lead to a better future. I have looked, and not found any of those—but I am open to the possibility!
Positive visions for AI most often consist of a list of the greatest human complaints, with the unsupported assertion that “AI would fix all these”—somehow. Can you instead imagine how superhuman AI will coexist with humans in a likeable future?
I’ve sketched a future I would like better in “Desiderata for any future mode of meaningness.”5 It’s complicated, yet still short on details, but maybe you will find aspects you like in it too. I suggest a social and cultural mode that provides:
- tradition’s sense of secure meaning in community, without its narrowness and material poverty;
- modernity’s elegance, effectiveness, and nation-scale institutions, without its oppressive rigidity;
- countercultures’ positivity, cultural thickness and breadth, without their anti-rational foolishness;
- diverse and creative subsocieties, without their typically parasitic relationship with the mainstream;
- and our current internet-enabled “atomized” mode’s appreciation of nebulosity, and its provision of universal access, without its mindless triviality.
Will AI help with that? (I wouldn’t rule it out… but I’m asking you.)
While I was writing this section, Sarah Constantin tweeted a remarkable thread of several dozen “things I’d like to see more of.”6 I’d like to see more of most of them too. I think probably most people would. They are meaningful things people do together. They are not dramatic, controversial, or particularly difficult; but they are mysteriously scarce.
Publicizing positive visions most people would like seems the way forward. Here are some of the things she’d like, which I’d like too, and maybe you would:
- Group singing (for fun, not by trained singers.) Caroling, ceilidhs, campfire songs.
- Fireworks. Model rockets. Chemistry sets that actually have highly reactive chemicals in them. Just, more recreational explosions.
- Appreciation of normal eighth grade-level American civics. Rule of law, checks on abuse of power, unenumerated rights.
- Hot and cold saunas. Long walks in nature. Moderate use of intoxicants. Spending the afternoon under a shady tree talking with your friends. Juggling, slacklining, frisbee, stuff you do in the park in summer.
- Stories! True, funny, strange stories! Case studies! Anecdotes! All the stories!
- Craft projects. Homemade Halloween and cosplay costumes. Homemade mead and jam. Woodworking.
- Emotional intimacy. Talking about “deep” stuff, how we feel, how our minds work, what we most care about. From a frame of “we’re all special snowflakes in different ways and that’s fascinating”, not necessarily fixing something broken.
- Affection for traditional things (myths, old books, crafts, nature) that doesn’t come with constant culture-war zingers about how modernity is terrible.
- LED art, glow sticks and glow-in-the-dark paint, fairy lights, hanging lanterns, candles. Expansion of lighting technology.
- Abundant time to work on passion projects, for kids and adults.
- Way more industrial automation. More sensors. More robots. No more jobs that ruin anyone’s joints or lungs.
- Social groups where you can trust a casual acquaintance with the password to an account full of your money and never worry about it being stolen.
- Archaeology. Only 5% of Mohenjo-Daro has been excavated! We are missing so much information about the ancient world!
- Exciting vehicles. ATVs, jetskis, gliders. Things that make you go “wheee!”
- Stargazing. Treehouses. Even treehouse “cities” like Lothlorien.
Will AI help with those? Maybe! What are the obstacles to our having more of these seemingly pretty easy things?
- 1.“Rumcake and rainbows” in Meaningness.
- 2.“Atomization: the kaleidoscope of meaning” in Meaningness.
- 3.I wrote about this in How meaning fell apart, on meaningness.com.
- 4.“Preview: eternalism and nihilism” in Meaningness.
- 5.At meaningness.com/fluidity-desiderata.