“What is this phenomenon, you ask? Well, beloved, it is that which we want to call the secret growing. How often have we heard you say that everything is futile, that nothing comes of all your labors. Yet like amorphous buds your endeavors sprout in all directions. You see everything as formless and you forget that this is a sign of life. Gradually the formless takes on more precise contours and the steadily growing roots feed an ever stronger plant, which will one day explode with an abundance of leaves and flowers.”
~ 1903, Spirit voice recorded in the notebook of The Five (a group of five mediums including the painter Hilma af Klint)
One of the great abilities of human beings is known by cognitive scientists as mental time travel. By this, they don’t mean some kind of Back-to-the-Future time machine, but instead the ability that we all have to simulate the past and future in our imagination. In the past, we travel to memories, and to historical pasts which we ourselves never experienced, but which we know through the stories and testimonies of our culture. As for the future, we mentally time travel not just to a single future, but to countless branches of future possibility.
2023 was certainly a year that shook up our outlook on the future. It showed us a future with increasing regional wars, rapid climate change and a continued rise in extremist and delusional political ideologies. Amidst this flood of bad news, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by concerns about where the future may be taking us. On the other hand, at least with problems such as these, we have points of reference for understanding. We know from history all about horrific wars, political despots, and ecological disasters. We can imagine these future possibilities as variations on phenomena we know from the past even while recognizing that the past doesn’t repeat exactly.
In addition to these many pressing global issues, 2023 brought to the fore an entirely different sort of challenge for mental time travelers. The launch of ChatGPT in late 2022 brought us into a new era of increasingly powerful and life-like AI technologies. More significant even than the social effects of today’s AI chatbot assistants is the race-like dynamic they triggered among the major tech companies to build bigger and better AI systems. The progress in AI capacities is so rapid that nobody can realistically predict what AI will be able to do by 2025 much less 2030. However, while there is huge uncertainty around the exact path of future developments, we can confidently predict continued rapid increases in AI capabilities. For many, including myself, it seems likely that AGI (AI with human level capacities or beyond) will be here within the next decade.
My own need to imaginatively engage with the coming future has been heightened by the fact that my wife and I are expecting our first child in February. As the reality of my soon-to-be parenthood has slowly been sinking in, I’ve found myself day-dreaming about what it will be like for my son as he grows up. I wonder how I can prepare him to live in a future that will be so radically different from the present. For my own sanity, I try not to dwell on the many doomsday scenarios and focus on trying to imagine the best worlds that may emerge.
I imagine my son entering adulthood two decades from now, ready to make his way as a new adult in society. In this world, human beings co-exist alongside millions or billions of artificial general intelligences – each of which is far more capable than even the most skilled and talented human. However, since I’m imagining this as a good world, these super-intelligent AIs are benevolent, intrinsically motivated to help human beings. It’s a bit like each of us walking around with a flock of guardian angels of god-like ability tending to our every need.
Yet, as vividly as I try to enter this world, there are still so many unknowns which cloud my imaginal sight. Will my kid grow up to work at a job for money or will work-for-pay have become obsolete? Will he have human friends or will his closest relationships be with non-human intelligences who are ideal companions for his unique personality? Will we regard our AGI helpers as conscious beings or will we treat them as mechanical servants? If the latter, how will such an attitude distort our capacities for empathy and moral concern? Will it bother my son that there is nothing he can possibly accomplish, nothing he can think or create that could not be effortlessly done by an artificial mind? Will he see my fears about him finding purpose in such a world as hopelessly quaint and old-fashioned?
As I’ve been struggling to integrate these new developments by traveling imaginatively into the future, I’ve found comfort and insight by looking towards the beginning of the 20th Century. This too was a time of radical change and upheaval. As much as we think of ourselves as living through a time in which technology is transforming the world, the turn of the last century brought electrification, telephones and radio. These changes went hand in hand with a huge wave of popularity for occult spiritualism. At a time when speaking to someone on the other side of the world was experienced as pure magic, perhaps it was only natural to hear the voice of a spirit of a dead loved one “on the line” or to “tune in” to the frequency of a higher being.
Today, we often use the term “modern” to just mean whatever is up-to-date in culture or technology. However, in the first three decades of the previous century, modernism referred to a distinct attitude among artists, thinkers, and visionaries. It was rooted in a pervasive sense that the age-old traditionalism of Europe was crumbling, and it involved an optimistic response to this transitional moment which was the attempt to bring forth entirely new ways of being into the culture. The ironic, detached stance of postmodernism or “deconstruction” had not been invented yet, so the modernists were earnest and sometimes grandiose. They felt that since one age was clearly ending, it was of utmost importance to discover and create the new culture for a “modern” age.
In the modernist era, there was an unprecedented multiplying in the number of imagined futures. After millenia where the future appeared relatively similar to the past, there were suddenly a myriad of proposals, manifestos and theories about the future, all struggling to be brought into being. I can’t help but feel that the era we’re entering now may be similar. We may have more to learn from the visionary confidence of those early 20th century artists and thinkers than we do from the familiar and played-out cultural dynamics of the second half of the 20th Century.
Perhaps there is no more singular prophet of this new relevance of the early-20th century sensibility to our rapidly changing future than the artist Hilma af Klint. As a spiritual medium and pioneer of abstract painting, she received instructions, in 1906, from her spirit guide Amaliel to create works called the “Paintings for the Temple”. In less than a decade, she painted 193 works which collectively expressed her spiritual vision. During her lifetime, they were appreciated only by a select few friends and admirers, but in spite of this lack of recognition from her contemporaries, her faith in their lasting worth to humanity did not falter.
At the end of her life, she arranged for all her paintings and notebooks to be sealed to the public, leaving strict instructions that they were not to be shown to anybody for at least 20 years. Her family respected her wishes, and so af Klint’s masterworks sat invisibly packed-away in her nephew’s attic for many decades. In 2018, the Guggenheim museum in New York launched a massive retrospective of her work which was titled, “Paintings for the Future.” The public’s response to the exhibit exceeded everybody’s expectations and in the end it was the most popular showing the Guggenheim had ever held. Overnight, Hilma af Klint went from being an obscure figure to being appreciated as one of the great artists of the 20th Century. Art historians even began to speak breathlessly of the need to re-write the whole history of abstract art by putting this queer woman artist and occult medium at the very heart of it. The seeds of vision that Hilma had imagined and planted through her paintings had at last ripened and burst a century later.
The surprising emergence of ChatGPT may not seem to have much in common with Hilma af Klint’s magnificent time-capsule paintings, but I think they both nudge us towards a shifted awareness of the oncoming future as being one of profound mystery and potentiality. The more we try to control the future by pinning it down using our well-worn concepts, the more blindsided we will be as the future keeps manifesting the new into reality. In contrast, when we enter into the future with our imaginations, rather than trying to predict it or bend it to our will, we seek a balance between channeling that which wants to be born into the world and using our agency to actively shape this new creation towards the good. In this process of participatory knowing, we become intimate with the many folds and ever twisting threads of future possibilities and through such intimacy we attune ourselves moment-by-moment to the endless blossoming of the future into the present.