In his December 10, 1950, Nobel Prize acceptance speech, William Faulkner said:
I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.
He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courasge and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
It's easy to dismiss such optimism. The reason I hope Faulkner was right, however, is that we are at a turning point in history. For the first time, our technologies are not so much aimed outward at modifying our environment in the fashion of fire, clothes, agriculture, cities and space travel. Instead, they are increasingly aimed inward at modifying our minds, memories, metabolisms, personalities and progeny. If we can do all that, then we are entering an era of engineered evolution — radical evolution, if you will — in which we take control of what it will mean to be human.
This is not some distant, science-fiction future. This is happening right now, in our generation, on our watch. The GRIN technologies — the genetic, robotic, information and nano processes — are following curves of accelerating technological change the arithmetic of which suggests that the last 20 years are not a guide to the next 20 years. We are more likely to see that magnitude of change in the next eight. Similarly, the amount of change of the last half century, going back to the time when Faulkner spoke, may well be compressed into the next 14.
This raises the question of where we will gain the wisdom to guide this torrent, and points to what happens if Faulkner was wrong. If we humans are not so much able to control our tools, but instead come to be controlled by them, then we will be heading into a technodeterminist future.
You can get different versions of what that might mean.
Some would have you believe that a future in which our creations eliminate the ills that have plagued mankind for millennia — conquering pain, suffering, stupidity, ignorance and even death — is a vision of heaven. Some even welcome the idea that someday soon, our creations will surpass the pitiful limitations of Version 1.0 humans, themselves becoming a successor race that will conquer the universe, and care for us benevolently.
Others feel strongly that a life without suffering is a life without meaning, reducing humankind to ignominious, character-less husks. They also point to what could happen if such powerful self-replicating technologies get into the hands of bumblers or madmen. They can easily imagine a vision of hell in which we wipe out not only our species, but all of life on earth.
If Faulkner is right, however, there is a third possible future. That is the one that counts on the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor once again wending its way to glory. It puts a shocking premium on Faulkner's hope that man will prevail "because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance." It assumes that even as change picks up speed, giving us less and less time to react, we will still be able to rely on the impulse that Churchill described when he said, "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing—after they have exhausted all other possibilities."
The key measure of such a "prevail" scenario's success would be an increasing intensity of links between humans, not transistors. If some sort of transcendence is achieved beyond today's understanding of human nature, it would not be through some individual becoming superman. Transcendence would be social, not solitary. The measure would be the extent to which many transform together.
The very fact that Faulkner's proposition looms so large as we look into the future does at least illuminate the present.
Referring to Faulkner's breathtaking line, "when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking," the author Bruce Sterling once told me, "You know, the most interesting part about that speech is that part right there, where William Faulkner, of all people, is alluding to H. G. Wells and the last journey of the Traveler from The Time Machine. It's kind of a completely heartfelt, probably drunk mishmash of cornball crypto-religious literary humanism and the stark, bonkers, apocalyptic notions of atomic Armageddon, human extinction, and deep Darwinian geological time. Man, that was the 20th century all over."