One of my favourite quotes, which I think came from Jaron Lanier, goes something along the lines of:
True optimists talk about problems because they think we can do better.
Let me be clear, I am optimistic about what humans can achieve. Zooming out on the history of homo sapiens, we have made some significant progress over our relatively short existence. Through collaboration and technology we have been able to improve health equality, create some sense of purpose— something no other species has been able to do. But we also have a lot of problems which we haven’t made any progress on, and others on which we are going backwards.
Before we dive into some of the specific problems we are facing — let’s propose a hypothesis. Is there a common denominator that explains most of the self-inflicted issues of humanity?
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. — Edward Wilson
Let’s break down this really important concept.
- Paleolithic emotions 🗿 : the vast majority of the evolution of the human brain has equipped us with emotions, biases, instincts that helped us live efficiently in stone age times. These are not so useful (and can be a cause of irrationality) in the modern world.
- Medieval institutions 🏰 : slow and old governments and regulatory bodies who cannot keep up with technology. Plus they use old school economics that cant see past GDP (gross domestic product).
- God-like technology 🔮 : with the power to drastically change lives and change the course of history.
Let’s think about how this concept could explain 3 of the biggest problems in our current ecosystem.
- 🗿 : humans find it difficult to see much past the short term. Even if we can see past it often we’re too greedy to change.
- 🏰 : governments that are too slow to understand and act on the issue (and sometimes corrupt enough to ignore it completely).
- 🔮 : such powerful tools like trains and cars that enable a massive shift in energy consumption and human behaviour.
The attention crisis
The business model underlying the entire attention economy which now consumes the world is to answer for a whole host of issues including: widespread distraction, polarisation, a destruction of common sense-making, declining mental health in teens.
- 🗿 : our minds are not designed to cope with highly frequent external stimuli. Our biases are quite easy for technology to hack at scale.
- 🏰 : again governments way too slow to understand the problem and do anything meaningful about it.
- 🔮 : exponentially increasing technology usage and power of technology is accelerating the impact on our lives well beyond we can even comprehend.
This isn’t entirely a self-inflicted problem. All animals are in poverty. Poverty is our natural baseline. But we definitely aren’t doing enough to support those of us who are in poverty.
- 🗿 : the world is what one sees day to day and it is difficult to see beyond that. We also prefer to hear about positive news or news that makes us angry rather than what which makes us feel sad or guilty.
- 🏰 : there aren’t enough financial or political incentives for most governments to put solving poverty at the top of their to-do list. To some extent those paying taxes demand government spending that improves their lives, not others. And there is some evidence poverty may actually be increasing.
- 🔮 : media determines the flow of information to everyone around the world and therefore what people perceive.
There are more problems such as oppression, disease, etc that deserve mentioning too, which I think can also be explained using this concept.
What about the risk of these catastrophic threats?
- 🗿 : preventing nuclear war in the face of conflict is complex when there are multiple parties acting in self-interest. Also, the act of a world leader pressing a button makes the decision easier than killing millions of lives should be.
- 🏰 : politics is hardly philosophical, but perhaps it should be when so many lives and the future of humanity is at stake.
- 🔮 : more countries are getting access to nuclear warfare which has greater range and the capacity to be incredibly destructive.
I won’t go into more detail but you it could be interesting for you to do your own thought experiment on if similar emotional, institutional and technology factors are at play in the following:
It’s unlikely AI will result in a Terminator style situation but it is definitely possible that huge programs could cause catastrophic secondary effects while trying to achieve the goal they were designed for.
Highly contagious pathogens could be engineered as biological warfare or we could have pathogens that simply evolve to evade the protection of our current medicine.
So what does the future hold?
One of the biggest trends we are experiencing right now is in technology, as it advances and it enables more god-like powers. This trend is critical as technology shapes the way we all view the world and are able to act in response to these problems. As technology makes the whole world more interconnected, we also become more fragile in the event of a catastrophe.
Following this trend, each of the above problems and risks are compounding in severity with time.
What we can do…
I’m optimistic that human ingenuity can find some solutions and better ways of doing what we’re currently doing.
The goal of any solutions should be to make us less distracted, less polarised, and equip us for better sense-making and better collaboration.
There is no one easy solution but we will likely require a combination of: deeper understanding of these problems, better products and more meaningful movements.
More on those another time though…