Visions of Utopia go back to the year 1516, when Thomas More literally wrote the book on the subject — but is it an outdated idea to envision a world where today’s biggest problems are solved?
Michael Rogers, who styles himself as a “Practical Futurist,” doesn’t think so. His day job is to lay out visions of the future for audiences ranging from startups to Boeing, Microsoft and other Fortune 500 companies. In a new book called “Email From the Future,” he describes a future world of 2084 where ideas that may seem impractical today end up taking care of climate change, wealth inequality, culture wars and other ills that afflict today’s society.
“Going toward the future is a little like sailing upwind,” Rogers says in the latest episode of Fiction Science, a podcast that focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “You have to tack back and forth around the obstacles, but every once in a while you have to raise up your head and look, and make sure you’re still going in approximately the right direction.”
If Rogers’ vision comes to pass, we’re in for a big course correction: His tale incorporates moves to limit executive pay, institute a tax on robots (first suggested by Bill Gates in 2017), cut carbon emissions to zero by 2040 and create a climate reparations fund. Along the way, ultra-rich tech titans become as extinct as the titanosaurs.
“In my book, there is a realization specifically around climate change and the fact that it’s going to cost trillions of dollars to fix the planet,” Rogers told me. “So there’s again a big social shift in which the ultra-rich no longer look like heroes. They actually look like people who are withholding resources that could be saving lives.”
“Email From the Future” doesn’t focus on the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The book is cast as a series of emails sent back from 2084 by a middle-class roboticist who takes advantage of a sci-fi time travel twist.
In the classic utopian novels, the narrators encounter their Shangri-Las because their ship is blown off course, or they get lost in the jungle, or their plane crashes in the Himalayas. “That was easy until we had a complete globe of the world, in which case you couldn’t do that anymore,” Rogers said. “We did time travel starting in the 19th century, so I needed that as a plot device.”
The narrator in the novel, named Aldus, figures out how to use quantum physics to transmit messages to Rogers’ email account. “Note that it’s only at the quantum level,” Rogers said. “It only involves electrons, so I’m not asking too much here.”
In a series of emails, Aldus tells the story of his life, beginning with his birth in 2010 and documenting the dramatic changes sparked by the climate challenge. By 2029, the floods, windstorms and wildfires get so bad that the younger generation organizes a Greta Thunberg-style general strike — which forces global leaders to see the light.
Rogers doesn’t consider that scenario to be mere science fiction.
“I think it’s going to take a fundamental shift of humanity to meet this threat, because it is a global threat,” he said. “And I suggest in the book that as the internet becomes stronger and better at translating languages, we begin to create more of a global mind. There will be a point at which humans take a major spiritual shift and say, we have to fix this planet. And I do believe it’s going to be younger people. I think Gen Z and their younger siblings are the heroes of my book.”
Rogers manages to weave a wide array of futuristic technologies into his tale. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to get the full rundown, but here’s a sampling:
- Digital twins: Scientists will figure out how to blend genetic profiling and sensor data to develop a computerized model for each person’s health. Your digital twin will be detailed enough to give advance warning of future medical problems, in time for healthcare providers to head them off. “If, 30 or 40 years from now, medical science doesn’t create digital twins of every patient, that will be a huge loss,” Rogers said.
- Digital tutors: Children will be routinely provided with personalized AI agents that guide them through the educational process and advise them throughout their training and career.
- TruID: Each person will be given an unhackable identification profile, and although it’ll still be possible to be anonymous, people would have to reveal their TruID in most digital interactions. “People will in the future say, ‘Why would you trust information from someone who is hiding their identity?'” Rogers said.
- Genetic modification: Rogers’ book presumes that recombinant DNA technologies will eliminate deadly sins like greed: “The thing that makes that possible is the discovery that greed is in fact a disease … a little like alcoholism, or earlier, it was epilepsy that was thought to be a moral failing. Now we know that that’s the result of some genes going bad. It’ll turn out greed is the same thing.”
Rogers’ vision of the future incorporates some controversial social policies. For instance, universal basic income is a given. “If we don’t do that, we’re not going to have the kind of flexible workforce that we really need,” he said. “I think this also ties back into the question of automation, and the fact that if we truly automate much of society, we’re in a sense becoming much richer as a society.”
A tax on robots would provide a way to share that wealth.
“We may be running into a situation where the people who own the robots and the people who own the software — in other words, the ones who have the capital — are actually making all the gains,” Rogers said. “And where does that leave the workers?”
Rogers picked up on Bill Gates’ suggestion that a tax could be levied on companies that make and install robots, to replace the income tax that would have been paid by human workers.
“He meant that sort of figuratively, but there needed to be some way that the riches of total automation got recycled back into society rather than into the pockets of the ultra-rich,” Rogers said.
Another means of putting the brakes on the ultra-rich would be to limit executive compensation. In Rogers’ book, total compensation for management types can’t exceed 20 times the average employee’s salary. (In comparison, Equilar says the median CEO Pay Ratio for the 500 largest U.S. public companies was 245-to-1 in 2021.)
Not everyone would look upon Rogers’ fictional world as a utopia. The ultra-rich, and those who aspire to be ultra-rich, might feel especially threatened. But Rogers sees his world as one he’d love to live in.
“Just the notion of a more equal society in which technology functions not to create winners and losers, but functions to make everyone their best self — that, to me, is very attractive,” he said.
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
One of the farthest-out themes of “Email From the Future” is that the internet deepens the connectedness between people to such an extent that a sense of cosmic consciousness begins to emerge. In Rogers’ book, that consciousness is called Nous, and it sparks weird phenomena such as dream-sharing and “promnesia,” which is the feeling of experiencing future events.
Rogers’ references to Nous were inspired by the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French paleontologist and Jesuit priest who ran into trouble with the Catholic Church in the mid-20th century.
Teilhard was a proponent of Darwinian evolution, and incorporated evolutionary concepts into his philosophical treatises on what he called the noosphere, a global spiritual web analogous to the biosphere. In “Email From the Future,” Chardinism is one of the dominant religions.
Rogers says he’s already seeing some early signs of the noosphere’s rise in the evolution of the internet.
“One first step is simply the globalization of entertainment, the globalization of memes, so that we begin to share more and more of a common vocabulary, a common set of images,” he said. “It’s not a big leap to say that in a sense, this is an extension of our own intelligence and an evolutionary step in many ways.”
That’s in line with Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas. “Although the church didn’t like him to do this, he was a great fan of evolution, and felt that evolution was, in fact, a spiritual kind of function,” Rogers said.
Teilhard de Chardin happens to be one of my favorite theologians. If you want to sample his writings, there’s no better place to start than “The Phenomenon of Man,” published posthumously in 1955.
“The Phenomenon of Man” is a perfect choice for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up in libraries and secondhand book shops. You can even find it freely available online — which seems fitting for a treatise about a future stage of evolution that may be facilitated by technologies invented long after the book was written.
Check out Michael Rogers’ website for more about the Practical Futurist and his work. Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.