Shining a light on the future

and Freaky Facts

Taranaki Daily News | Virginia Winder | April 30, 2008

The end is nigh, but not in a doomsday kind of way, according to Taranaki scientist Michael Fenton. He believes the world is poised to emerge from the Second Dark Age, which began at the start of the 20th century, and enter the Age of Understanding.

“Just as people were ignorant in the first Dark Ages – they didn’t have knowledge – I am suggesting that people in the 20th century have been obsessed with gathering knowledge, but have no understanding.”

He points to genetic engineering as an example of gaining knowledge without considering the long-term effects on the environment.

“Now we are talking about sustainability, hybrid cars, carbon footprints.”

Other indicators of this looming change could be:
  • Swifter conflict resolution.
  • Sharing or donating of resources.
  • A willingness to sacrifice desires to meet needs of others, i.e. downsizing cars or cycling to cut down on worldwide petrol consumption.
  • Humans taking on a guardian role to protect the planet and its many species.
  • Debates and discussions based on evidence and the desire to avoid past mistakes.
  • Understanding that cultural diversity is as important as genetic diversity.
  • Empathy.
  • Providing for future generations is seen as equally important as providing for the current generation.

Unlike the doomsayers of our society, Fenton believes humanity will survive and even thrive in the future.

“We’re here for the long run.”

The Inglewood High School teacher’s theory is based on maths, physics, historical analysis, creative thinking and optimistic crystal ball gazing.

You see, Fenton has been given time to ponder, to calculate and theorise, thanks to a Ministry of Education eLearning Fellowship.

As well as developing his mobile sensor technology, RIGEL, plus interactive games, Fenton has been considering the impact of information communication technology (ICT) on, well, the whole of human civilization.

To understand Fenton’s theory, we need to look at a world timeline.

“We had the Dark Ages up until the Renaissance era of the 1600s,” he says.

In that first age of “darkness”, the word of Greek philosopher Aristotle and the church were gospel. There was a lack of individual knowledge and people relied on a few authorities, including the bible, for answers.

“If you wanted to know how many teeth a horse had, you would consult the books – you wouldn’t go out and look at the horse. That’s why so many wrong theories persisted.”

Then along came Sir Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727).

The English scientist spent a couple of years locked up in his country home to avoid the Black Death, so had plenty of time to think, Fenton says.

“I think he was just bored and started playing around with stuff and discovered gravity.”

And more.

“Newton’s radically new ideas were to use mathematical models to describe the real world. He used standard units of measurement and decided mass, time and distance as fundamental quantities.”

But 300 years later, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) challenged Newton’s clockwork view of time with his many discoveries, including his famous Theory of Relativity.

His discoveries were made during the Second Dark Age, a time epitomized by a lack of individual understanding and a reliance of government policy and academics for wisdom, Fenton says.

The internet is now allowing people to express themselves on blogs and websites like Facebook, Myspace and YouTube.

Because of this we are all able to, virtually at least, follow what that old Joe South song suggests: “Walk a mile in my shoes.”

Fenton believes development of more advanced technology, including virtual reality, will lead to even greater understanding and allow people to experience what others feel.

The father of three also has dreams for his own sensor system, which allows people to record anything and everything, including body temperature, heartbeat and respiration rate.

“What if you could input back into our body my heart trace, the way I felt, my fear, my anxiety?” he says.

“You could literally experience for real what it felt like to be in World War II trying to dig your way out of a tunnel or being a guard on duty having to shoot at people you really didn’t want to shoot at, or what it feels like to be starving,” he says.

Then there are those inspirational moments to explore. Imagine being able to experience what Peter Snell felt when he won his Olympic gold medals.

Fenton believes that the ability to feel other people’s emotions and bodily responses will lead to greater understanding and wisdom – all on a global scale.

He envisages this will lead to a whole new career pathway.

“Ethics will be the new growth industry.”

This is already happening in business, epitomized by phrases like fair trade, eco-friendly, organic, GE-free and carbon credits, which are becoming all-important tools for marketing. Fenton sees ethicists playing pivotal roles in the Age of Understanding.

But all this theorizing comes with a modest man’s caution: “This shouldn’t be seen as anything else than an idea.”

He also doesn’t want to be seen as an individual with all the answers.

“We have to come together and come to a collective wisdom, because this is what this is predicting.”

He is talking of an emergent property, or a new, suprising behaviour that arises from a situation. In this case, he’s talking of the internet and a rising global consciousness born from the ability to read thousands upon thousands of viewpoints.

“We’ve had 100 years of an immense spurt of knowledge and of rapid change and now we’re due for a change in understanding and we seem to be heading there.”

While not necessarily leading the charge, Fenton is shining a light to show the way.



1. Michael Fenton makes palm-sized robots and programmes them to follow light and also to back away if they touch something, so they don't get stuck in a corner. "One robot behaves exactly as I programmed it - it's only got a reflex," the Taranaki scientist says. "But when I have eight of them, weird things start to happen - they start to take on this complicated, more organised behaviour than I put into them." This is called an emergent property.


2. Humans will migrate into space, Fenton believes. He also suggests space travel and the spread of life could be the way the universe remains balanced. "Is man the single most important species enabling the spread of life and its inherent complexity and rich information across the universe?" And here's the poser: "Black holes are destroyers; is life the balancing creative 'force' in this cosmic balancing act?"


3. Sir Isaac Newton knew he was just at the beginning, as revealed in this quote: "I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

4. Quotes from Albert Einstein show that he knew the importance of wisdom. "Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage - to move in the opposite direction." And: "Concern for man and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."


5. Fenton is all for learning from the past. "Why keep trying to come up with more technology to deal with the effects of the misuse of earlier technology? Didn't someone say we should work smarter, not harder? If nothing else, history has demonstrated time and again that wisdom rather than knowledge is the key to survival and happiness."


Taranaki Daily News | Virginia Winder | April 30, 2008

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