A look at how humanity will change as we go into the future and face the rise of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and automation. Many thought-provoking ideas, but occasionally fails in its delivery.
For generation after generation humans have prayed to every god, angel and saint, and have invented countless tools, institutions and social systems – but they continued to die in their millions from starvation, epidemics and violence.
What are the projects that will replace famine, plague and war at the top of the human agenda in the twenty-first century?
One central project will be to protect humankind and the planet as a whole from the dangers inherent in our own power.
When the moment comes to choose between economic growth and ecological stability, politicians, CEOs and voters almost always prefer growth.
The flagship enterprise of modern science is to defeat death and grant humans eternal youth.
The writing is on the wall: equality is out – immortality is in.
The physicist Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time. He meant that only when one generation passes away do new theories have a chance to root out old ones.
People increasingly believe that the immense systems established more than a century ago to strengthen the nation should actually serve the happiness and well-being of individual citizens. We are not here to serve the state – it is here to serve us. The right to the pursuit of happiness, originally envisaged as a restraint on state power, has imperceptibly morphed into the right to happiness – as if human beings have a natural right to be happy, and anything which makes us dissatisfied is a violation of our basic human rights, so the state should do something about it.
After all, what do people want? They don’t want to produce. They want to be happy.
When Epicurus defined happiness as the supreme good, he warned his disciples that it is hard work to be happy.
We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon.
If pupils suffer from attention disorders, stress and low grades, perhaps we ought to blame outdated teaching methods, overcrowded classrooms and an unnaturally fast tempo of life.
Even Nobel laureates in economics make only a tiny fraction of their decisions using pen, paper and calculator; 99 per cent of our decisions – including the most important life choices concerning spouses, careers and habitats – are made by the highly refined algorithms we call sensations, emotions and desires.
If you want to launch a revolution, don’t ask yourself, ‘How many people support my ideas?’ Instead, ask yourself, ‘How many of my supporters are capable of effective collaboration?’ The Russian Revolution finally erupted not when 180 million peasants rose against the tsar, but rather when a handful of communists placed themselves at the right place at the right time. In 1917, at a time when the Russian upper and middle classes numbered at least 3 million people, the Communist Party had just 23,000 members.
The power of human cooperation networks rests on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will weaken you, and you will not be able to compete against more clear-sighted rivals. On the other hand, you cannot organise masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to pure reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people would follow you.
Since there is no script, and since humans fulfil no role in any great drama, terrible things might befall us and no power will come to save us, or give meaning to our suffering. There won’t be a happy ending, or a bad ending, or any ending at all. Things just happen, one after the other. The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens’.
On the practical level, modern life consists of a constant pursuit of power within a universe devoid of meaning. Modern culture is the most powerful in history, and it is ceaselessly researching, inventing, discovering and growing. At the same time, it is plagued by more existential angst than any previous culture.
There are three kinds of resources: raw materials, energy and knowledge. Raw materials and energy are exhaustible – the more you use, the less you have. Knowledge, in contrast, is a growing resource – the more you use, the more you have. Indeed, when you increase your stock of knowledge, it can give you more raw materials and energy as well. If I invest $100 million searching for oil in Alaska and I find it, then I now have more oil, but my grandchildren will have less of it. In contrast, if I invest $100 million researching solar energy, and I find a new and more efficient way of harnessing it, then both I and my grandchildren will have more energy.
The greatest scientific discovery was the discovery of ignorance. Once humans realised how little they knew about the world, they suddenly had a very good reason to seek new knowledge, which opened up the scientific road to progress.
If previously it was enough to invent something amazing once a century, today we need to come up with a miracle every two years.
Too many politicians and voters believe that as long as the economy grows, scientists and engineers could always save us from doomsday. When it comes to climate change, many growth true-believers do not just hope for miracles – they take it for granted that the miracles will happen.
After centuries of economic growth and scientific progress, life should have become calm and peaceful, at least in the most advanced countries.
Despite all our achievements, we feel a constant pressure to do and produce even more.
The modern world positively requires uncertainty and disturbance.
Yesterday’s luxuries become today’s necessities.
Since capitalism dominates our world, we should indeed make every effort to understand its shortcomings, before they cause apocalyptic catastrophes.
The modern deal offers us power, on condition that we renounce our belief in a great cosmic plan that gives meaning to life. Yet when you examine the deal closely, you find a cunning escape clause. If humans somehow manage to find meaning without deriving it from a great cosmic plan, this is not considered a breach of contract.
We are not actors in a divine drama, and nobody cares about us and our deeds, so nobody sets limits to our power – but we are still convinced our lives have meaning.
The primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.
In ethics, the humanist motto is ‘if it feels good – do it’. In politics, humanism instructs us that ‘the voter knows best’. In aesthetics, humanism says that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.
The Scientific Revolution proposed a very different formula for knowledge: Knowledge = Empirical Data × Mathematics.
No amount of data and no mathematical wizardry can prove that it is wrong to murder. Yet human societies cannot survive without such value judgements.
However, humanism offered an alternative. As humans gained confidence in themselves, a new formula for attaining ethical knowledge appeared: Knowledge = Experiences × Sensitivity.
And what is ‘sensitivity’? It means two things. Firstly, paying attention to my sensations, emotions and thoughts. Secondly, allowing these sensations, emotions and thoughts to influence me. Granted, I shouldn’t allow every passing breeze to sweep me away. Yet I should be open to new experiences, and permit them to change my views, my behaviour and even my personality.
Wilhelm von Humboldt – one of the chief architects of the modern education system – said that the aim of existence is ‘a distillation of the widest possible experience of life into wisdom’.
Who exactly are these superior humans who herald the coming of the superman? They might be entire races, particular tribes or exceptional individual geniuses. In any case, what makes them superior is that they have better abilities, manifested in the creation of new knowledge, more advanced technology, more prosperous societies or more beautiful art. The experience of an Einstein or a Beethoven is far more valuable than that of a drunken good-for-nothing, and it is ludicrous to treat them as if they have equal merit. Similarly, if a particular nation has consistently spearheaded human progress, we should rightly consider it superior to other nations that contributed little or nothing to the evolution of humankind.
Socialism, which was very up to date a hundred years ago, failed to keep up with the new technology.
If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.
The more sacrifices we make for an imaginary story, the stronger the story becomes, because we desperately want to give meaning to these sacrifices and to the suffering we have caused.
Liberals uphold free markets and democratic elections because they believe that every human is a uniquely valuable individual, whose free choices are the ultimate source of authority. In the twenty-first century three practical developments might make this belief obsolete:
The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking. The current scientific answer to this pipe dream can be summarised in three simple principles:
Liberalism will collapse on the day the system knows me better than I know myself. Which is less difficult than it may sound, given that most people don’t really know themselves well.
People might abandon their own psychological judgements and rely on computers when making important life decisions, such as choosing activities, career paths, or even romantic partners. It is possible that such data-driven decisions will improve people’s lives.’
The third threat to liberalism is that some people will remain both indispensable and undecipherable, but they will constitute a small and privileged elite of upgraded humans. These superhumans will enjoy unheard-of abilities and unprecedented creativity, which will allow them to go on making many of the most important decisions in the world. They will perform crucial services for the system, while the system could not understand and manage them. However, most humans will not be upgraded, and they will consequently become an inferior caste, dominated by both computer algorithms and the new superhumans.
Twentieth-century medicine aimed to heal the sick. Twenty-first-century medicine is increasingly aiming to upgrade the healthy.
Modern Western culture is therefore unique in lacking a special class of people who seek to experience extraordinary mental states. It believes anyone attempting to do so is a drug addict, mental patient or charlatan. Consequently, though we have a detailed map of the mental landscape of Harvard psychology students, we know far less about the mental landscapes of Native American shamans, Buddhist monks or Sufi mystics.
How come we have a remarkably detailed atlas of the sick mind, but have no scientific map of the prosperous mind?
We have also been losing our ability to dream. Many cultures believed that what people see and do in their dreams is no less important than what they see and do while awake. Hence people actively developed their ability to dream, to remember dreams and even to control their actions in the dream world, which is known as ‘lucid dreaming’.
The modern world, in contrast, dismisses dreams as subconscious messages at best, and mental garbage at worst. Consequently, dreams play a much smaller part in our lives, few people actively develop their dreaming skills, and many people claim that they don’t dream at all, or that they cannot remember any of their dreams.
Once we understand the biochemical system producing all these voices, we can play with the switches, turn up the volume here, lower it there, and make life much more easy and comfortable. We’ll give Ritalin to the distracted lawyer, Prozac to the guilty soldier and Cipralex to the dissatisfied wife. And that’s just the beginning.
The humanist recommendation to listen to ourselves has ruined the lives of many a person, whereas the right dosage of the right chemical has greatly improved the well-being and relationships of millions. In order to really listen to themselves, some people must first turn down the volume of the inner screams and diatribes.
Capitalism won the Cold War because distributed data processing works better than centralised data processing, at least in periods of accelerating technological changes. The central committee of the Communist Party just could not deal with the rapidly changing world of the late twentieth century. When all data is accumulated in one secret bunker, and all important decisions are taken by a group of elderly apparatchiks, you can produce nuclear bombs by the cartload, but you won’t get an Apple or a Wikipedia.
As both the volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, parties and parliaments might become obsolete – not because they are unethical, but because they don’t process data efficiently enough.
Precisely because technology is now moving so fast, and parliaments and dictators alike are overwhelmed by data they cannot process quickly enough, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. In the early twenty-first century, politics is consequently bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but it no longer leads it. It makes sure teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.
History in a Nutshell
From a Dataist perspective, we may interpret the entire human species as a single data-processing system, with individual humans serving as its chips. If so, we can also understand the whole of history as a process of improving the efficiency of this system, through four basic methods:
People really want mobility rather than a private car.
Writing a private diary – a common humanist practice in previous generations – sounds to many present-day youngsters utterly pointless. Why write anything if nobody else can read it? The new motto says: ‘If you experience something – record it. If you record something – upload it. If you upload something – share it.
Ideas change the world only when they change our behaviour.
In ancient times having power meant having access to data. Today having power means knowing what to ignore.