===== ASTRONAUTICAL EVOLUTION =====
The monthly newsletter of the 21st-century Enlightenment,
space and society
Summary of Enlightenment Themes
by Stephen Ashworth
This is a broad outline of the major themes and trends of the 18th-century and 21st-century Enlightenments. Obviously at a level of greater detail one sees how many ancient civilisations partly anticipated the modern world in particular aspects, e.g. in Classical Greece, Rome, China, Japan and India.
But the modern world required for its genesis a complex and unforeseeable pattern of simultaneous progress in all the areas sketched out below.
This sort of broad-brush overview of both past history and prospective future history is an essential aid to getting one's bearings and placing current events -- war, terrorism, pollution, fears of new technologies -- into their historical perspective.
- Before the 18th century: autocratic totalitarian rule by monarch and church.
- From the 18th century: representative democracy and human rights, political power held in check by public opinion.
- From the 21st century: electronic democracy must extend the power of an increasingly sophisticated mass of people at the expense of individual power-holders.
Science and Thought:
- Before the 18th century: in Europe, dogmatic acceptance of Aristotle and the Bible, and the supremacy of God; in other regions, similar domination of thought by traditional scriptures and rituals.
- From the 18th century: the mechanistic Newtonian universe, later complemented by the origin of the species by chance and natural selection, the whole apparently devoid of meaning or purpose, and far vaster in space and time than anyone had suspected.
- From the 21st century: quantum and chaos theories reveal the unpredictable progressive evolutionary complexity inherent in nature, leading to a new, post-materialistic appreciation of the value of humanity in the cosmos.
- Before the 18th century: only muscle, wind and water power available for mechanical work; three information revolutions in the successive inventions of language, then of writing, then of printing.
- From the 18th century: fossil fuels used to power the steam engine and the electric telegraph, later the internal combustion and jet engines.
- From the 21st century: nuclear power, the digital computer and the space rocket, while direct harvesting of solar power allows a major new burst of extraterrestrial industrial growth.
- Before the 18th century: only local and regional organisation possible.
- From the 18th century: intercontinental technologies allow global exploration and global unification.
- From the 21st century: rocket and computer technologies allow solar-system exploration and unification.
- Before the 18th century: no more than a few hundred millions supported by pre-industrial agriculture and medicine.
- From the 18th century: world population surpassed 1 billion around 1825, now several billions supported by industrialisation.
- From the 21st century: the resources of the solar system are known to be able to support a human population of several billions of billions for several billion years, based on the use of totally synthetic agriculture.
- Before the 18th century: human impact on Earth's biosphere little greater than that of other prolific species.
- From the 18th century: the age of pollution, as a reckless attitude towards waste products and other species causes general environmental stress.
- From the 21st century: growing public sensitivity towards pollution and species preservation issues, coupled with cleaner, more efficient production methods and abundant solar power, reverse the trend of environmental stress on Earth, while the high cost of space colonisation ensures efficient extraterrestrial industrial practice from the outset.
- Before the 18th century: man already sharply differentiated from non-human species by his ability to use tools to make better tools, notably resulting in high craftsmanship of swords, jewellery and buildings.
- From the 18th century: scientific instruments, industrial factories and the telephone begin a crude man-machine unification, such items as musical instruments or ice skates brought to a pitch of perfection.
- From the 21st century: a convergence of medicine, genetics, computer networks and nanotech manufacturing can be expected to progressively blur the man-machine distinction, ultimately transforming humanity into a new type of life form altogether -- the technobiota.
It is important to realise that the projections I have given above as occurring "From the 21st century" are not inevitable, but are an optimistic reading of the future course of industrial civilisation.
A pessimistic outlook is also possible, in which the Earth goes to hell and everybody dies horribly, whether through nuclear war, pollution, artificially induced climate change, natural climate change, supervolcanoes, asteroid impact, variation in the solar output, alien invasion, or an epidemic of pessimism which swells to self-fulfilling proportions.
Stabilisation of any of the above areas at its current level is not an option: we are living through an unstable period of rapid change, and can only go forward or back.
If I thought that a progressive future was inevitable, I would not bother to raise a finger to try to help it on its way.