Friday, July 1, 2005

The noosphere and futurism

I'm looking back over the Journal I kept for a while at Freethought Forum, and this looks good enough to republish! I posted it originally in mid-August 2004.


The name I gave to my particular field of interest is the "noosphere": the sphere of ideas, what according to my definition is the "spiritual" world, everything that exists that is immaterial. (I’ve discovered since that others coined it first; I’m not using it in Teilhard de Chardin’s specialized sense, although his ideas are intriguing.) Regardless of whether a notion is true or not, if someone believes in its truth and acts on that basis, it exists--thus I need to be interested in it. This represents an evolution from my similar childhood magical thinking that even a single person believing in a religion called it into material existence. (I try hard to think about everything coherently, but this stubborn difference between things and ideas remains a challenge to me. It’s one of the few areas of philosophy in which I’m still interested.)

A little reflection on the noosphere will reveal two significant things: one, it has exponentially expanded in size and density, viewed over the last 500 and particularly over the last 100 years; two, that along with this expansion has come unbelievable pollution (thank you so much, Edward Bernays). In fact, in the United States in particular, the ratio of immaterial substance to material substance has grown so astonishingly that to some extent the expansion is itself a sort of pollution; I think that it is partly thanks to the growing labyrinths of the media world’s funhouse mirrors that the United States is able to fool itself into thinking of itself as a world unto itself, with much less justification than an actual subcontinent such as India, or the largest nation built on the ruins of the largest, longest-running civilization, China.

Religion is certainly a significant and long-standing element of the noosphere, but more interesting to me right now is essays in futurism. Even if such documents are utterly bogus, they matter because they represent part of the mindset of key ruling decisionmakers; they’re going to act partly on the basis of conclusions they draw because they think this stuff is true, so it’s good to be aware of it. The point, too, is that there are lots of key people actively working on what’s going to happen next; by their creations, the future doesn’t have to be quite as much of a mystery, since you at least know something about how some leaders are going to react to it, depending on how it actually turns out. (Sometimes, of course, they just tell you what they’re going to do, regardless of what they think the future holds; so if they come to power, you can count on them to do certain things no matter what.)

Anyway, one such document discusses the possible effects long-term demographic trends will have on geopolitics. It’s a (mostly) declassified document, so it doesn’t pack the same juice as stuff like National Security Council Memorandum 68 or Policy Planning Study 23 (yes, I learned about these by reading a Noam Chomsky compilation. What? Stop looking at me like that). However, it is fairly frank, even envisioning a worst-case scenario for the near future in which the “natives will get restless” (yes, the report self-consciously reuses that phrase; p. 96). Among other details, the report sees demographic trends continuing to bolster the United States’ lone superpower status (both through a far more liberal immigration policy than that of almost all other industrialized nations and its seniors’ willingness to continue to work long past the typical retirement age) and a youth population bulge throughout the Middle East that will pose both large terrorist and potential state security threats to U.S. interests. (Duh; still, this was July 2001, so I guess that’s half reassuring that not everybody in government is completely moronic.) Also, the report projects that as of about 2015, for the first time in history the majority of the world’s population will be urban.

Overall, there seems to be a pessimistic outlook for the world’s future overall, but it seems to me that it’s overlaid and obscured by a pretty cheerful outlook for the maintaining of complete U.S. global dominance for the foreseeable future. Hence I was surprised to run across this National Intelligence Council document, which projects four possible future scenarios and sees U.S. global influence waning in all of them. I haven’t fully read that one yet, so maybe the contradiction is only apparent.


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