I view Extropianism as a response to the Malthusian movement, the "doomsayers" of the years when I was growing up (roughly, the 1960's and 1970's). Here are some examples of "doomsayers":
- Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798): Population will ultimately increase faster than food supply, the price of food will go up, and starvation will ultimately become the greatest problem mankind faces. (Actually, the price of wheat has steadily fallen for the last 200 years, while the population has gone up from 5 million to about 250 million, and the U.S. is still a big exporter of wheat. In 1997 the primary food-related problem in the U.S. is obesity.).
- Paul Erlich, The Population Bomb (1968): We would run out of food by the year 1977, and hundreds of millions of people will starve in the 1980's.
- Paul Erlich, "Eco-Catastrophe!", Ramparts (1969): Most of the people who are going to die in [the coming ecological cataclysm] have already been born.
- Air pollution in the U.S. will continue to increase. In fact, if you look back at these predictions and see where they went wrong, the universal common element is that they didn't anticipate technological progress, on the level that has in fact come to pass. Particularly notable are the predictions that seem to assume that "more people is worse", i.e. the common notion that as we get more and more people on the planet life will get worse because we'll have more people sharing less of the planet's resources.
In fact, what has been happening is that as the population increases, there are more people to invent things, and more and more problems become solved. As the population increases we continue to create new problems for ourselves, but our ability to solve the problems is increasing, apparently at an even faster rate.
This page shows how the same principles explain the GNP/overcrowding paradox (the crowded countries have higher standards of living, and vice versa).
Another associated phenomenon is the misapplication of the "exponential growth" model to human population. It is commonly believed that the human race has been multiplying at some constant percentage rate (like 6 percent a year, or whatever) and that today's rate is the same as the rate in (say) the 1800's, and that it's more noticable now only because the total population is so large now. Expressed as a mathematical formula, we have:
population = C * eK * year
In fact, if you estimate the current world population growth rate and then extend the curve back into the past, you quickly discover that any reasonable value of the current growth rate would correspond to very low misestimates of past population. For example, if the population is doubling every 25 years, then in the the year 1200 there was less than one person alive.
The actual world population growth rate is most closely modeled by an inverse linear (hyperbolic) model:
population = C / (K - year)
This model fits quite well, in fact, and the values of C and K are (about) 2*1011 and 2027, respectively.
The inverse linear model also gives the rather unbelievable prediction that the population will be infinite at some point. Of course, we all know that we can't do that, not in our physical universe, even if we find a way to separate the human mind from the physical body so it's not limited by its physical size and energy requirements.
Nevertheless, we can imagine this hypothetical future point in time given by the population model and Extropians call it the Singularity. A "singularity" is a break in the continuity of something, like a sudden jump in the value of a function, or a black hole, a place where the laws of General Relativity break down. The "singularity" anticipated by Extropians will occur around the year 2027, and it represents a point in our future beyond which we cannot make any predictions of what life will be like. That is the extent of the transformation that Extropians imagine.
This number 2027 is actually an average of several different predictions, of which the population model is one example. There are several other measures of human development or progress that also seem to predict an infinite value or some other sort of paradox, and remarkably they all predict a point in time about 30 years in the future. It is the belief of the Extropians that this coincidence is actually the result of a common cause, that the human race is indeed headed towards a sudden transformation of some kind.
If you take the rate of increase in computer speed (which is an exponential function) and extrapolate forward to the year when an average-priced home computer will be powerful enough to simulate a human brain through explicit modeling of all the neurons, you get 2025. If the necessary software has been developed too (an almost-certainty) then we'll be dealing with the slavery debate all over again.
Occurrence of major "revolutions" in human potential:
Language (about 5 million BC?)
Agriculture (about 30000 BC)
Writing (about 10000 BC?)
Versatile printing (about 1450 AD)
Mass production (about 1900 AD)
Mass-produced Computers (about 1950 AD)
You might disagree as to which events should be on the list or what date is assigned to a specific event, but the basic principle is that each of these events is very important and their frequency of occurrence is increasing. If you imagine more similar events in the future, and if (as would seen logical) their frequency of occurrence continues to increase in the same way, then you could fit some sort of mathematical function to the known (past) events and predict the future; the best fits are given by functions that predict a point of "infinite" progress. The dates given by this vary widely depending on what past events you pick and how you choose to fit a function to them.
Other coinidental facts (which don't actually prove anything but are interesting anyway):
The Mayan calendar "ends" (actually, completes one precession cycle) on December 21, 2012.
Why do you say BE ST SO DO IT?
The five Extropian Principles are most commonly abbreviated/remembered via the acronym sentence "BEST DO IT SO". I encountered this sentence and considered all of the different implications and interpretations it had. I realized that BEST SO DO IT would work a lot better for me because it happens to be what I need, so I decided to alter the standard for my personal use.
"It is best that you do it, so that ..." which implies Dynamic Optimism
"do it so" implies Picard's "make it so", and therefore: "Best do it so" implies "this is the best course of action. Make it so."
"It is best that you do it in that way." which implies "you'd better do it that way, or else something bad might happen." Reminds me too much of immutable dogma.
"This is the best thing to do, so do it!" which implies Dynamic Optimism
"BE, ST, SO, DO, IT": First we acknowledge that we can Expand without Bounds. Then (since everything begins within the self) we accept and embrace Self-Transformation. Empowered by groups (or united into them by our commitment), we experience Spontaneous Order. The group helps us and we help the group effect change through Dynamic Optimism, and gradually steadily and finally we achieve Intelligent Technology.
This exactly matches the order in which I experienced and incorporated the five principles into my life.