Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2102nd Meeting

Speaker: Joseph N. Pelton, Institute of Applied Space Research, George Washington University
Topic: “The Next Billion Years.”

President Garavelli called the 2102nd meeting to order at 8:15 p.m. on March 5, 1999. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2101st meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2102nd meeting was Joseph N. Pelton of the Institute of Applied Space Research at George Washington University. The title of his presentation was, “The Next Billion Years.”

With such an awesome time scale in the title of his presentation, Mr. Pelton began by putting things in proper perspective for us. The pace of modern innovation and technological change has gone from swift to super-exponential. If one were to pretend that, the entirety of human civilization were only one day long, we would see a remarkable image of the development of man. The early phase we know as hunter-gatherer would consume virtually the entire day except for the last three minutes. The last three minutes, the time for a properly cooked egg, would represent the time of agriculture, towns and cities, and the birth of technology. The last nine seconds of our artificial “super day” would start with the Renaissance. The last four seconds would be the industrial age. And lastly, our own time of television, lasers, satellites, biotechnology, super computers, robotics, artificial intelligence, and spandex would occupy only 600 milliseconds of this super day of human existence.

A telling point of Mr. Pelton's presentation was a comparison of the expansion of the population and the corresponding expansion of global information. Consider the time period from Ancient Greece to the present. The population expanded 57 fold, from 100 million people to 5.7 billion people. On the other hand, in this same time period, global information increased 10 million fold, from 10 to 100 million. Thus, the amount of information has markedly increased 200,00 times faster than the population. Consequently, the challenge for communication and information systems is not faster throughput, rather it is coping with information overload and creating new ways of learning and sharing information.

Mr. Pelton also stated that the thrust of his presentation was really the next century, and not the next billion years. However, the 21st century is more than the start of a new millennium. It is the time wherein the survival of our species will be decided. New approaches to planning, healthcare, economic production and consumption, and education will be needed for Homo sapiens to last an eon. However, our potential is enormous. We might terra-farm Mars within another century or two, or even colonize our Galaxy in a mere 50 million years. But the dangers of global warming, the ozone hole, changes to the ice cap, and desertification threaten our biosphere, and current economic systems do not highly value survival of our species. In addition, educational systems are ill equipped to cope with information overload, interdisciplinary teamwork, or even the issue of “deskilling” as occasioned by expert systems and artificial intelligence.

The real challenge in the area of educational systems is massive improvements taking the form of drastic reform and restructure in the 21st century. Without such improvements, we can continue down some roads we've already started on. For example, we can create enormous holes in the ozone layer and mutate ourselves entirely out of existence; or we can establish a steady global population, but not adapt our economic systems to limited growth; or we can allow desertification to continue unabated with the corresponding destruction of our wetlands and rain forests, thus raising the levels of carbon dioxide to dangerous levels; or we can continue our levels of energy consumption with hydrocarbons to ever higher levels until the cost of such fuels reaches disastrous levels. We have a lot of learning to do and a short time to do it in. To this end, Mr. Pelton outlined an agenda for educational reform. The agenda includes: deregulation of our educational systems and stimulation of competence at the institutional level, instilling concepts of teamwork and critical thinking at the student level, and experimentation with new education systems and learning at all levels.

Mr. Pelton then closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Garavelli thereupon thanked Mr. Pelton for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2102nd meeting to the Social Hour at 9:38 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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