The Stars Above The Sea

Hubble Captures View of

It is a fascinating thing to look at predictions of the future that come from the past. And revealing too – because there is a hidden quality to many of these predictions which speaks to the very core of the limitations of the mind, and the ability of time and possibility to change and surprise us.H. G. Well’s brilliant War Of The Worlds was written in 1898. In that piece the weapons of war that invading aliens use are imagined as enormous tripods, equipped with poison gas and death rays.A modern (and perhaps somewhat less worthy) reimagining of that scenario, the 1996 film Independence Day, gives the aliens huge carrier ships that release fighter aircraft, and have city- destroying powers.

It seems a simple update, almost. But there’s something else to see here. In 1898, what was the most effective weapon of war?

The answer is, more than anything else, armed, armed and mounted cavalry. And if you look at Wells’ imagining of ultra-advanced alien technology, it’s the technology of his time, extrapolated forward in a linear way.

Why do the tripods have legs? Why not fly? Because horses have legs, and the tripods are a futuristic imagining of an advanced race’s cavalry.

The cutting edge of the present often constrains our imagination of the future. We are always keen to extrapolate in linear terms.

Independence Day? Huge ships carrying fighter aircraft? City-destroying weapons? It’s just contemporary military technology extrapolated forward. And the linearity is fully present.

This linearity both characterises and confounds predictions of the future, both the future of technology, and humanity itself. But understanding why that linearity doesn’t happen in reality allows a new dynamic to be seen. Because there is another process, something hidden from us, that overwhelms and subsumes the predictions we make.

Far greater than changes in raw speed, or scale, or power are changes in kind. Changes in terms. Not just a bigger and faster version of what we have, but something fundamentally different in nature. And these changes, although they are utterly unpredictable, are not – in themselves – random.

This is the unseen frontier, and here’s just one example from history. When Johannes Gutenberg put his final touches to his off-beat adaptation of the wine press, the first book he printed was the Bible in Latin.

In his time that was the book on which all of European society was based. And not just that book, but one accepted translation, and one accepted interpretation of that translation, officially sanctioned, rigid, controlled, and made safe and tame for those in power.

While a brilliant inventor, the revolutionary shattering of that iron consensus was not on Gutenberg’s mind. His was a linear goal – the same book, but more of it. Just a linear augmentation to the existing machine.

More Latin Bibles for a culture that had long learned that questioning deeply meant the Inquisition and the stake.

No bomb, no weapon and no medicine has ever had such a seismic impact on humanity as that simple wine-press, adapted to hammer out prose.

Because all of a sudden, the terms changed. The possibilities for all knowledge changed. Dissent and questions could spread and grow, and more than this – they could compound. They could build on top of other dissent, become refined and honed, and this was the key to the sundering of Europe during the Reformation.

It wasn’t enough to burn a person anymore, you had to burn their ideas, and no matter how many pages were consigned to the blaze, the Inquisition fast made a discovery of their own.

Ideas were fireproof.

A shattering followed, and after that shattering, a flowering of new things that we know as the Renaissance. An incredible rebirth of art, insight and culture that exploded from Italy and still resonates today.

And the rediscovery of intellectual freedom made possible by these changes, and the culture of letters that was made possible by that wine press gave birth to the Age Of Reason, and science.

And science gave birth to the industrial revolution, and as insight compounded and the old ways collapsed, a new kind of world was born, and we were born into it.

Now when you look back it seems as if there is a march of progress, and of linear change. This is the common view, the easy view. It’s what most people believe, and never question, because it even now it is not common to question too deeply.

Linear change is an optical illusion of human memory.

None of this was linear. Iron chains of cause and effect are rightly held in sceptical regard by professional historians. And yet we are so eager to leap to this and make a simple narrative out of something far more subtle, and more powerful, than many have considered.

What is missing from that linear view is the power and influence of an invisible, yet monumentally powerful force. Possibility. And to get a clearer view of the road behind – and the road ahead – this force is one you ignore at your peril.

Gutenberg stuck letters to the bottom of a wine-press. He did so with no greater revolutionary desire than to make more money from his business. But what he did was open up a whole new sea of possibility. The possibilities for insight, ideas, dissent and innovation changed utterly, and with that simple, single invention, Gutenberg changed the future.

Not in a linear way. In a non-linear way, by opening up a new horizon. No longer did ideas have to go through the cogs and gears of vested interests and rigid assumptions. They could do something else, instead. They could find others, and grow.

The opening up of these unforeseeable gulfs of possibility, and the ways in which the brave and the bold in each new generation set themselves on their journeys of exploration, conquest and discovery – this is the power of science, technology, and the human spirit.

Ask not what capabilities a new advance will give you. Ask instead what unforeseen things that new capability makes possible that was not possible before. That is where the future is headed, if you, or someone very much like you, is brave enough to take it there.

And when we look at all the amazing capabilities we have already gained, and the amazing new capabilities just beyond the horizon, it seems to me that the mere addition of capacity is a dull and simple thing. An order of magnitude more dangerous and thrilling is to ask: “What vast oceans of new possibility do they open up?”

And even – what new oceans have already been opened up, and lie as yet unexplored and untouched by curiosity, adventure or daring?

Because never before has humanity been gifted with such radical advances in possibility in such a short space of time.

For many, this is a fearful thing. But for a few, a different reaction will rise. Because for those few, the oceans call. And beyond those vast and trackless seas, great continents await us, and above those continents, an infinity of unknown stars.

And if you listen really carefully, you can almost hear them calling. Make me real. Find me. Find me.

Ciaran Healy is an independent philosopher who uses the scientific method to chart the contour of human suffering and pain.  He works to discover new ways to undercut these things at source.  His aim is to bring these hidden dynamics to light with clarity and force for the general reader, and anyone up for looking at things in a new way.  He has been working at this for about 17 years, and amazingly, still loves it.  He lives in Edinburgh with his wife, and as he is unable to keep goldfish alive for long, it’s just them for now.
You can check out his work at


2 Responses

  1. Yosarian says:

    Your last comment is a very important one. I think that we haven’t even come close to the limits of what fundamentally new types of ideas that modern technology is capable of. Even if computer hardware technology stopped advancing tomorrow, it might take 200 years before we fully grasped the possibilities of the modern computer and the internet. Right now we’re still mostly just using the computer as a replacement for older technologies, but eventually with a new technology you get to the stage of changing our culture to best use the new technology the way we eventually did with printing and the industrial revolution, and we’re not even close to that yet with computers.

  2. David C Coles says:

    I hereby coin the word “deimpossiblizing.”

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