The Great Stagnation: When Futurism Fails



If you're on Facebook or Twitter you've probably noticed an uptick in messianic science headlines, which seem to imply we're finally on the verge of Jetsons reality. AI, VR, DNA editing, moon bases, asteroid mining, flying cars and all the rest are finally waiting in the wings, getting ready to change all of our lives.

Well, it may be true that robots might soon be putting a lot of people on the unemployment lines (though that too remains to be seen) but these headlines usually don't stand up to much scrutiny. I touched on the endless promises we're bombarded with in a recent post and I've long joked that DARPA consists of a fax machine and a Green Lantern subscription. 

It's kind of amazing to me that all the skeptics out there never give Bigfoot a rest for a minute or two to train their sights on the endless bullshit that emanates from the PR departments of Big Science. And by 'kind of amazing' I mean 'not even remotely surprising'. There is an ideology at work here.

Big Science, controlled and surveilled at every conceivable level by the Military Industrial Complex, has become a kind of substitute god for scientific illiterates who still imagine Science is the freewheeling pursuit of maverick humanitarians. 

Every authoritarian religion needs to allay the doubts of the faithful and Scientism is no different. But there are many who believe that all the low-hanging fruit of the scientific and technical trees have been picked (it's amazing to ponder how many technologies we use are over half a century old, conceptually), that we are actually mired in what is called "The Great Stagnation." This isn't a fringe theory, but it is most certainly something that is not encouraged as a conversation topic, for rather obvious reasons.

So miracles need to manufactured, the pump must continually be primed. It helps when your intended audience is inattentive, ideologically-motivated and worshipful. The micronic attention spans encouraged by social media speed the process along so every headline can become a hammer to wield against those Wreckers, those shadowy agents who are perpetually working to undo our Glorious Deliverance.

Here's a headline that's been getting a lot of shares: Warp drives that let humans zip around other galaxies may no longer belong purely in the realm of science fiction.
Nasa is believed to have been quietly testing a revolutionary new method of space travel that could one day allow humans to travel at speeds faster than light. 
Researchers say the new drive could carry passengers and their equipment to the moon in as little as four hours. A trip to Alpha Centauri, which would take tens of thousands of years now, could be reached in just 100 years.
The system is based on electromagnetic drive, or EMDrive, which converts electrical energy into thrust without the need for rocket fuel. 
The way these press releases are written (and press releases make up a near majority of the crap you see in the news these days) is that the money shots are frontloaded and the cold dose of reality is buried at the bottom, since most of today's zero attention span readers don't make it that far. In this case, the wording for the inevitable disclaimer starts with a "hey, you never know, stranger things have happened" and ends with a slap upside the head: 
However, Nasa's official site says that: 'There are many 'absurd' theories that have become reality over the years of scientific research.
'But for the near future, warp drive remains a dream,' in a post updated last month.
Near future means "conceivable future," but it's still an interesting story in one sense. Why? Because it does put UFO skeptics in a jam, since although warp drive remains a "dream", the science has been done in a laboratory setting. Kind of hard to argue about those impossible distances-- if you believe the story, that is. But that's a topic for another day.

This story got a lot of play, and was stretched far beyond reality by some outlets. Why, I can't say.  The headlines have been reading something like this: Chinese Team Reports Gene-Editing Human Embryos
In an ethically charged first, Chinese researchers have used gene editing to modify human embryos obtained from an in vitro fertilization clinic.
That's all well and good, but I noticed a lot of variations on this report (NPRs, strangely) made it seem like the Chinese were fixing to start designing their babies from this day forward. I linked to Technology Review, since it's more likely to be read by more literate folks and include the inevitable cold water splash:
The team’s report showed the method is not yet very accurate, confirming scientific doubts around whether gene editing could be practical in human embryos and whether genetically engineered people are going to be born anytime soon.
Yeah, I thought so. I've seen this kind of thing for a very long time. Here's another pie in the sky headline: Gold nanotubes launch a three-pronged attack on cancer cells. Here's the lede:
Scientists have shown that gold nanotubes have many applications in fighting cancer: internal nanoprobes for high-resolution imaging; drug delivery vehicles; and agents for destroying cancer cells. 
But here's the inevitable disclaimer.  
The use of gold nanotubes in imaging and other biomedical applications is currently progressing through trial stages towards early clinical studies.
That's PR jargonish for "this technology is not even remotely close to application." How about this then? 'Fountain of Youth' Discovered? Scientists Might Finally be Able to Reverse Aging
Researchers from the Salk Institute in the U.S and the Chinese Academy of Science have discovered the deterioration of a specific set of DNA bundles called "heterochromatin" largely determines how fast or slow a person ages. 
"What this study means is that this protein does not only work in a particular genetic disease, it works in all humans. This mechanism is general for the aging process", said Belmonte.
Wow, really? Sign me up! Oh wait... Here's the "maybe possibly hopefully potentially" part:
"If we are artificially able to play around with these marks, we may be able to alter the process of aging."
Well, OK. I'm going to get old. But I can get old on the Moon! Hey, it's true- they're going to build a Moon colony! It's just around the corner!
Europe's Next Space Chief Wants a Moon Colony on the Lunar Far Side
 The incoming leader of the European Space Agency is keen on establishing an international base on the moon as a next-step outpost beyond the International Space Station (ISS).
 
Johann-Dietrich Wörner expressed his enthusiasm for a moon colony at the Space Foundation’s National Space Symposium, a gathering of global, commercial, civil, military and "new space" experts that was held here from April 13 to April 16.
Oh, wait: shouldn't they actually, I don't know, send a mission up there before they go and build a base? Maybe a few missions? The earliest we're hearing for that is around 2030 or so, so I guess I better take my vitamins. 

Well, in the meantime we'll be able to enjoy our telepathic Internet! Well, at least according to the article that was originally promising that soldiers would be reading each others' minds with their telepathic helmets:
Forget battlefield smartphones; the future of soldier-to-soldier communication may be electronic telepathy. A group of researchers in Europe have developed what they are calling the first “human brain-to-brain interface,” allowing people to communicate telepathically through the Internet without a surgical implant, bringing us closer to the day when soldiers behind enemy lines exchange information via sensors reading their thoughts.
But sure enough, it turns out maybe this isn't such a hot idea after all. But it probably has great potential for gaming and other peacetime applications. They're working on that, right?
Brain-to-brain communication over the Internet may never be the best solution for the battlefield, despite the millions of dollars of Pentagon research money that’s gone into exploring it (!) But the military may achieve interesting results with direct brain control over machinery, as several German researchers recently demonstrated via an experiment where subjects successfully steered simulated aircraft via an EEG interface. The commercial market for brain-based gaming systems, such as the NeuroSky console, while still small, has grown quickly enough to support multiple conferences and Kickstarter campaigns in just the last three years. 

Wait- this is in the experimental stage? It's funny, I remember hearing it was just around the corner 20 years ago. It was even mentioned in an X-Files episode ("Nisei").

Similarly, Artificial Intelligence is forever just around the corner. But maybe it won't ever materialize, not in the way we've imagined it. At least not according to this Economist article, "The dawn of artificial intelligence."
Powerful computers will reshape humanity’s future. How to ensure the promise outweighs the perils 
Such artificially intelligent beings are still a very long way off; indeed, it may never be possible to create them. Despite a century of poking and prodding at the brain, psychologists, neurologists, sociologists and philosophers are still a long way from an understanding of how a mind might be made—or what one is.
This is just a taste- now that you know what to look for you'll see this kind of thing everywhere. Big headline, small story.

The always-helpful Gordon sent me an article from Gizmodo, of all places, entitled "Why Scientific American's Predictions from 10 Years Ago Were So Wrong." It details some of the predictions made by scientists that never came to pass. 

It seems scientists are just as bad as psychics at predicting the future. 

Aside from a list of failed predictions, Gizmodo offers up a surprisingly sober assessment of the reality of Big Science, as opposed to the pie-in-the-sky fantasy you are subjected to in your Facebook feed:
Number one on the list was a stem cell breakthrough that turned out to be one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud ever. (To be fair, it fooled everyone.) But the list held other unfulfilled promises, too: companies now defunct, an FBI raid, and many, many technologies simply still on the verge of finally making it a decade later. By my count, only two of its 16 medical discoveries of 2005 have resulted in a drug or hospital procedures so far. The rosy future is not yet here. 
No, it's not. It seems that cancer is rampant, that autoimmune diseases are out of control and asthma and allergies and digestive disorders are at record levels as well. Science and medicine are great things in concept and much more problematic in practice. 

Worse, these kind of pseudo-stories might generate some fake excitement but the cumulative effect will eventually sour people on science and technology, associating not only with the many problems they leave in their wake (economic dislocation tops that list) but with silly, broken promises. The propagandists don't see that as a possibility or aren't thinking that far. 

Either way, unmaterialized miracles will eventually wear most but the most brainwashed  dripstain. I still follow science and technology news but I do so with an extremely jaundiced eye, having lived through decades of wonders that never seem to arrive.

As to the The Great Stagnation, it may be a reality. But I don't think it's a problem necessarily. There are other aspects of the human experience that have been shunted aside in our technocratic age, pursuits we'd do well to rediscover.

 If that means getting off the treadmill of false progress, then so be it.



43 comments:

  1. The Spaceport south of here in New Mexico sits vacant.
    Sir Richard and his seventy two Virgin Galactics are elsewhere, apparently.

    Management is working on booking Lady Gaga for revenue. I am not making this up.

    The future is bright. And if that is a repurposed movie set, then so be it.

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    1. Yeah, I was wondering about that. Makes you wonder, no?

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  2. Chris,
    Wondering what your take is on the "breakaway civilization" and what that implies in terms of high technology.

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    1. I'm not sure what my take is. These stories give you a sense of what lies behind some of the hype they try to foist over.

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    2. that's the big question, isn't it? Is there a breakaway civilization, secret technology etc, or is it all just another way for the elite to use our hopes and desires to take our money?

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    3. In my opinion there is something akin to a breakaway civilisation. But even military-grade spook tech that's 40 or 50 years ahead of commercial tech still isnt neccessarily "technology indistinguishable from magic". Its only recently that touchscreens became commercially viable, for example. My money is on the real black ops stuff being research into high weirdness and the weaponization of consciousness, and any tech that stems from that is a bonus. After all, we're a culture of war. War is primarily psychological. Technology is psychology made useful, and repeatable. If that makes sense.

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    4. I think in economic terms there certainly is a breakaway civilization. Look at California and how a feudal elite lives a life totally unrelated from the poor majority. As to the theories of Dolan, Farrell, etc- I'd need more data.

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  3. Oh, my sweet summer child! That's just the way grant proposals have to be written. You have to hype up the significance of your project (and your recent pubs) if you have any hope of getting future funding.

    The heterochromatin thing, as well as the CRSPR/Cas9 gene editing system, are real and the progress is steady (if by "progress" you mean increasing ability to control the results). They are, right now, nowhere near the stage where they will bear fruit in terms of practical utility, but that has always been the case. You still gotta sell your research. Whether they are good ideas in terms of effect on society is a whole other question, but you can sleep soundly at night knowing for certain that these technologies will be deployed only in ways that consolidate wealth and power in the hands of those who already have it.

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    1. Exactly. This is the 1930s World of Tomorrow all over again. Which is kind of frightening when you think of the ramifications...

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  4. That news item about the telepathic future soldier indeed seems to be a cyclical one. I remember reading about similar reports in the early nineties in kids science magazines.
    Complete with illustrations of the future solidier with full combat gear and integrated technology.

    And around that same time period media depictions of the futuristic year 2000 complete with flying cars. Unbelievable by then that in rougly ten years the world would do a futuristic 180.

    Media headlines and contrasting content are deplorable.

    Well it fits in perfectly with the mechanical linear clockwork thinking.

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    1. It's the carrot they dangle for the plebes. But as Andreas says, it's not as if we'll get our hands on any of the really cool stuff...

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  5. I always get the Dark City vibes when the hype of new technology seems to mask the reality of the four walled world surveillance state. Those flat earthers and Gnostics starting to make more sense every single moment! Yet as for results in any type of advancement I find myself having to constantly cleanse my body and mind to get where I feel I can observe all I can without much expectation or resentment. Not letting blockages build up gives the chance to see obstacles before they become permanent parts of the landscape. Hard path when health is at stake but as humans most have little to no choice but to forge new ways or renew long forgotten processes while the others participate in mega corps methods.

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    1. Well, like I say, Gnosticism wasn't made for the First Century, it was made for the Twenty-First Century. It seems no accident it burst back into consciousness when it did.

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    2. I can't find the quote and I can't even remember which blogger wrote it (maybe Ran Prieur), but it went something like this: the slaves of Ur understood more about civilization than we do now in the 21st Century, and there is a reason all of the old Gnostics and seers seem so uncannily prescient. The trajectory has one and only one shape, and it was far more visible in its crudest forms then than it is now, even though we moderns pride ourselves sometimes on our ability to describe it in articulate detail.

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    3. Ahh yes, some very articulate detail

      Sometimes I think we just need a few more down to earth solutions to our problems. Never mind eh, as long as the science gets done, now where has that long promised cake got to?

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    4. Spoiler alert: the cake is a lie. :-)

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    5. I had no idea this End of Science theme was so prevalent. Now I understand where all the IFLS mania is coming from. Things always get a little crazy when the ship hits the rocks.

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  6. I grew up when the Jettisons were primetime but we knew it to be a satire on the expectations of the masses and a parody of futuristic fantasies put forth starting in the 20s. Although seldom stated, one generation’s rosy future is generally a rejection of the past generation’s future, but still rooted in the past, making the future paradoxically a forward-looking antiquarian’s dream. How ironic. “Modern” twaddle was pushed by publications such as Popular Mechanics, with old ideas made new again. But you are right that the pipe dream of an easy future is part and parcel to Modernism, but then again the pessimism of Post-Modernism is just as lazy, if not a bit more messy. I guess whatever sells movies and books will do.

    Yes there is some stagnation in invention, simply because most of the fundamental, exploitable discoveries were made and implemented 1848 to 1948, the century of invention and progress. More had been invented and produced than in the past two thousand years. Most that came later were permutation of those ideas or at least ideas dreamed up (but not executed) during that period. The collapse of the idea of a constant upward swing of endless inventions and convenience gave birth to post-modernism, which is perhaps less naive, but not less bogged down with presumption.

    The most amazing thing is that they promised a fundamental change in humanity, not only in form (see Olaf Stapledon’s Last Men and First Men, pub 1932) but in personality. Eugenics, now discredited in conjunction with selective breeding, programs promised perfect humans with perfect control – how Vulcan of them. BTW Last and First Men is available for free download on Project Gutenberg: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601101h.html

    The term, Military Industrial Complex made popular by none other than outgoing president (and five star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower in his outgoing address on 17 January 1961. He probably was also familiar with the book Fascism and Big Business (1936) by Daniel Guerin. Although I have seen it cited, I haven’t read it myself. Somewhat on the subject of futurians and SF writers, a good book is Fredrik Pohl’s (1919-2013) memoir, The Way the Future Was.

    Anyway the subject is way too huge to explore too deeply in a post, but thank you for starting the discussion. Remember, humanity’s future is rosy, if only they could get rid of all those darn humans!

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    1. Well, maybe the Silicon Valley millionaires will be living the Jetsons lifestyle while the rest of us live the Flintstones. Or Thundarr the Barbarian.

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    2. You may be right on that account. The tech wizards and the ultra wealthy are building their remote high security castles and fuhrer bunkers right now. Maybe the stories, The Hunger Games and the City of Ember is not too far off beam after all.

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    3. Well, California is pretty much there already.

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  7. Slamming stuff. Encapsulates the exact reason why I shut down all social media participation (except for the reading of blogs by erudite writers such as yourself.). It was the endless cheerleading that lacked any historical understanding, even when voiced by very well spoken people. It was baffling. Walking away and then after a rest stepping towards the intersections of silence, real life community, and physical health/maintenance is something that ultimately became more real, more human, more authentic than what was offered by the Digital or "THE FUTURE". We have to "find the others", but not at the expense of our critical thinking ability, situational awareness and sanity.

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    1. I'm shocked by the conformity out there. It's a byproduct of real fears. I think you have it right- turning off the noise machine is good for the soul.

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    2. That was excellently well said. I've noticed when people try to be themselves how others attack them. So yea, many will stay fearful instead of open up what's really going on in their minds. Nevertheless, waiting for that to happen is not even like molasses flowing. You first have to tip the bottle for that to begin. So yea, social media = garbage.

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  8. Your anti(not anti?) technology stance dumbfounds me. I see roughly 3 things here particularly puzzling:

    1. You criticize the length of time these things happen don't happen in. X-Files predicted psychic soldiers 20 years ago, and we still say that technology might be 20 years away, ergo, it won't happen. Maybe it will or it won't, but this length of time stuff is baffling. It took nature hundreds of millions of years to figure out how to photons, oxygen, and hydrogen as sugar cells. It took nature a billion years to figure out how to convert that stored energy into an electrical current to power protein machines. Humans have been at it for an absurdly short amount of time as far as the planet's concerned, and our entire world is the result of less than 200 years worth of development. In fact, every single element of everything in my room (except probably the record player) is the result of NASA, a project younger than my uncle.

    2. You talk about it being micromanaged by the military industrial complex. I have no doubt that a significant portion of it is (again, my microwave, hi-def TV, and this fancy internet on a shitty computer), but at the same time, they don't have a total strangle hold on it. A lot of the more pie-in-the-sky futures fail to happen because dickholes with money stop it. Electric cars are a hundred years old. Solar power is a hundred years old. They've only received substantial development in the last 20 years because of guys 100 years ago that put serious legal barriers in front of developing those things. Look at something as "city wide wi-fi" which the FCC SUGGESTED something cities should do. But it hasn't happened because cities have failed to even let it cross the dim scope of their cave man brows. Nevermind the legal barriers that get thrown up when someone mentions stem cells or net neutrality.

    3. I guess just related to the first is a failure to take technological progress in scope of geologic time. Even if you're a young earther, going from "no computers" to "computers that beat people at chess and Jeopardy" is amazing and unprecedented in the history of this planet (as far as we can tell). Sure, AIDS and cancer still murder the shit out of us, but small pox, polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis (some), tetanus and rabies (to name shots I know I have received) don't.

    I love your blog. It's the only blog of its type I subscribe to because all the others I've encountered are full up to their eyeballs of wide-eyed-believe-anything gullibility that I can't stand. I shared two posts with my friend earlier this week (the one about the sun being the source of consciousness, and the last 3 seasons of the X-Files being a retelling of the Osiris myth - that one blew my brain. Such awesome exegesis) because this blog is so great. But whenever you talk about technology, I can't wrap my head around what you're talking about. We live in a world that people born a hundred years ago can't wrap their heads around. The ideas might be old, sure, but when we're flying to Mars in 2 hours, is the response going to be, "Well, this idea's just as old as Star Trek"? Like, sure, things should be different, but to say they aren't and pretend that's the nature of things and technology is at fault is... naive?... dishonest? Technology was ready 60 years ago to give every American a 10 hour work week, but business wasn't. Technology was ready 100 years ago to start the process of giving us free virtually unlimited energy from the sun, but because there's money to be made from oil, Exxon said no. Technology is ready at this very moment to give me every single film shot, song sung, book written, and game developed for free. At this moment, the internet swells with websites aching to give me every thought expressed by humanity for free... but human economics isn't ready for it, so... no.

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    1. While I appreciate your kind words about the blog I'm a bit disappointed that you completely missed the point of this piece. Re-read it please. It's about hype and BS masquerading as news. By the way, technology isn't sentient and isn't autonomous of the economic interests that finance its development.

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    2. I guess I misinterpreted it. I think the title of the post lead me to believe it was a criticism of science/technology themselves, but when I read it without paying attention to the title, it read completely differently.

      And you're right, technology isn't sentient (at least yet, probably, even if that "yet" isn't for another 150 or 3,000 years) and independent of economic interests, but it still means that technology's failure to progress as fast as it could isn't the fault of science and technology, but of companies that can't imagine a world in which they aren't making money by selling us gas-fueled cars and don't get to constantly bombard us with thousands of advertisements every second of every day.

      Final unrelated note: I thought this whole time you weren't approving my comments, but somehow my Blogger notifications got turned off. I feel like there are some missed opportunities there.

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    3. I don't know. I think there are the Great Fits and Starts and then long, long periods of stasis. Maybe all these sci-fi writers were just selling us fantasies for emotional reasons of their own.

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  9. Consider the strong possibility that the reason none of this stuff ever 'enters production' is that the Powers That Be can't figure out how to put a meter on it and make it serve the rentier economy.
    Runesoup's Gordon White points out aptly that people into weirdstuff never display any interest in deep politics (and I'd add to that political economy) and vice versa.
    The power structure of the West has been shot through with hard core Neoliberal ideologues of the Mont Pelerin flavor and the ultra right wing flavor of Zionism. Until this changes, the reigning ethos will be Roman Empire meets Idiocracy.

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    1. I know people think there's some conspiracy to keep all these tech from us but maybe the conspiracy is to make us believe the tech actually exists outside of a theoretical paper.

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    2. No, no, nope. There IS technology that has been created, (Wilhelm Reich, "Orgone", and many others) but they send in the military to destroy the lab once the technology has been created, steal the invention, then either put the person in jail for some idiotic reason, or find a way to murder them where they aren't found out. So, yea, there is technology already in use, but not for society, who they like to keep dumbed down, filled with GMO's and living by their Georgia stones declarations...

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  10. Great work again Christopher. It is interesting to note that some scientist are saying that Moore’s Law is actually slowing down. I wonder if all the gains of exponential technology, somehow coming together to form the “singularity,” will just get tossed aside if that is the case. I think it is amusing to see that lots of people who have dreams of the nerd rapture, fail to see the disconnect in this technology actually being available to them. This tech is and will be for the billionaire elite. I find it hard to believe this imagined immortality will be like going out and buying a new I-phone.

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    1. I feel like we hit a brick wall and didn't realize it. Like we've been running towards a future that wasn't actually ever there. It was just a myth we all decided to believe.

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  11. NASA's challenge was on the news today in the UK, '“Reducing Exposure to Galactic Cosmic Rays through Active and Passive Shielding,” will pay $29,000 to the individual or group who can come up with a written proposal for reducing radiation exposure from galactic cosmic rays during deep space missions, specifically to Mars.'

    Radiation hey! It's a tricky one. How they intend on growing plants there I just don't know, I struggle here on Earth.
    The British Gut Project have just come to the conclusion this week that junk food makes people fat and causes cancer and other illnesses. Just great. Not what anyone wants to hear but knows really. Then we have satellites scanning populations for health risks which I find odd because I thought scanning was bad for people's health; I may be wrong but in any case it seems like a weird thing to do, did they get board of monitoring penguins? We live in an odd world and it seems to be getting weirder by the day; I try not to look because it makes no odds if I do. Predicting the future means very little generally from what I've seen, maybe because it's proved to be inaccurate which is an indication in itself that nothing is set in stone.

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    1. $29K is a pittance. I've asked for (and received) far more to do far less.

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  12. Maybe it's a sign how unseriously they take it all. And you gotta love bureaucrats- we need more money spent to prove junk food makes people fat and causes disease? I can't help but wonder how much of what we hear is just plain hype- thanks for the info, Cindy.

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    1. Very well said...when in actuality CERN is doing the exact opposite. Blocking the sun's rays from reaching the consciousness of humanity. (Or so Andrew Bartzis says-- http://missmaryblack.blogspot.ca/2015/05/dna-described-by-galactic-historian.html )

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  13. Something I've noticed is that while western media is focusing more on virtual reality on the one hand and space colonization on the other the cities and lifestyles of tomorrow are being developed in Asia and the Middle East. It seems to me that the science fiction speculations the media is selling here is a function of the nihilism griping our society. People here mock the idea of building canals and pipelines to transport Canadian water to the US as an untainable goal. Dubai wants to air condition their cities. We are getting left behind and are falling back into virtual reality escapism and wishful thinking. It took us 10 years to build a skyscraper in New York city for goodness sake...

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  14. Warp drive theory has already been developed. The biggest hurdle at the moment is a power source. Nothing we have currently id even nearly capable of generating the necessary power,

    Gotta say though - naysayers of all stripes are puzzling creatures. It's as if people being excited by possibilities is anathema to you. A quick search will produce articles like this one written about many thing - from flight to spaceflight. So very silly.

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  15. Just the power source, eh? Well, if you actually read these articles you'll understand it's not a question of gas versus electric, it's a question of focusing more energy than humankind can even conceive of now in fairly small piece of real estate. I've been reading about the topics I cover here for many, many years and it's always the same hype.

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  16. Great article! Hopefully this situation is becoming increasingly obvious to everyone.

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  17. What if it happens though? It seems like they're not joking around.

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