Part 2 of the trilogy “Future of Humanity” describes the possible perceptions and visions of the optimist and pessimist. Based on an interview with two of the greatest thinkers of our time: Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari, a fascinating picture is painted of the crossroads where we now stand: protectionism or international freedom. One thing is absolutely certain: the future is more uncertain and exciting than ever. Our circumstances are better than ever, just as our problems are bigger than ever and may even exacerbate them more than ever….
Trilogy [2 of 3]: future of humanity – for optimists, pessimists and realists
Part 1 of the trilogy painted a picture that in turbulent times we are better off listening to pessimists than optimists. This may be a bold statement that is approached rather black and white in the first part, but I fully support it, for the reasons explained earlier.
In Part 2, I try to give more substance to the views and perceptions of the optimist and pessimist, without trying to subsume the reader into one of the two frames. I certainly generalize for the sake of clarity, not to polarize, nor to pass judgment.
The optimist’s and pessimist’s view of humanity in this trilogy is based in large part on an interview with two great thinkers of our time: Professor Steven Pinker and Professor Yuval Harari, on October 7, 2019. Harari and Pinker are renowned scholars and authors of macrohistory, and the conversation with both men offers interesting insights and implications for how we think about the long-term future.
Both professors were asked the question, “what does the future of humanity look like from the point of view of an optimist and pessimist.”
The vision of optimists, pessimist and realists
Harari and Pinker share concerns about climate change, the renewed threat of nuclear conflict, and technological disruption. Pinker tends to be more optimistic than Harari, arguing that past improvements suggest that humanity could continue to make progress in the future. He is skeptical of the potential speed of technological development, however, and sees human society as robust and progressive.
Harari raises long-term questions and concerns as he believes we approach the potential tipping points of technological disruption. He expresses concern about the loss of individual autonomy, the erosion of our democracy, and the possible rise of digital dictatorships and totalitarian powers.
Of additional concern, according to Harari, is not only governments but also large high-tech corporations, many of which are already more powerful than many a cabinet and sometimes even constitute a larger economic unit and power than a country. Example? Amazon’s sales in 2019 were nearly 900 billion euros, about as much as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Netherlands. The company is now worth more than a trillion dollars, which puts it in a lonely position with Apple.
Since March 10, Amazon has also established itself in the Netherlands and soon the company will also deeply embedded in our society. Optimists see opportunities and benefits for consumers and pessimists fear a bloodbath among shopkeepers, home deliverers and thousands of family businesses that will be suffocated by the power, greed and economies of scale of one company. A company that, moreover, is trying to avoid paying taxes in every way possible.
Amazon’s sales in 2019 amounted to nearly 900 billion euros, about as much as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Netherlands…
Companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google have become an economic power that is larger than, for example, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. Their influence on society and society is also growing. In doing so, we must ask ourselves if these companies have the same intention and vision about the common good than any democracy and society . Or do we already see and know that they use their power and influence to benefit only a very small group of stakeholders. The optimists will say that they are corporations and not countries and that making a profit is their objective and good right. They see only benefits to the economy and point to the jobs they create. The pessimists worry about the erosion of our democracy and the decline of our freedoms through digital surveillance and curtailment of our privacy. By market players who have influence over many more people than the Chinese government. This raises the question of whether we should also start judging companies like Google on its social responsibility and serving the public interest. And not just through services and products. But also economically and financially, by funding global inclusiveness and equality. Optimists will say that this is the job of governments and societies and not of companies. And that companies pay taxes for it. But that’s where the shoe pinches. These companies often pay no or insufficient (profit and dividend) tax, because clever constructions and loopholes help them to avoid it. Pessimists will point out that there is only one general and global interest: 8 billion people and a planet with ecosystems vulnerable to economic and digital powers, who put their interests above the Commons; the common good.
Great uncertainty about long-term future
Pinker and Harari find common ground on several topics, and they especially share a common view about the great uncertainty regarding our long-term future. Steven Pinker praises the amazing achievements of modernity and shows that humanity has never been more peaceful, healthy and prosperous. But in his book “The Blank Slate,” Pinker takes on the established model of thinking of the tabula rasa that is dominant in the social sciences. Pinker believes that there is an innate human nature and that we certainly have darker motives as well. But he refuses to believe that human nature leads to a fatalistic view of our conditioning. According to Pinker, we are certainly capable of preventing wars and resolving chronic inequality. Simply because it is in our DNA. As a kind of evolutionary legacy.
According to Pinker, the choices we make are mainly determined by the balance between the “Good Angels of Our Nature” and the dark side of our nature. Progress, according to Pinker, is therefore an option and possible, only previous results are no guarantee that we will make the right choices again in the future.
Our circumstances are better than ever, our problems are bigger than ever, and these may get much worse than ever…
Looking at our history, it is fair to say that conditions for humans are better than ever, that problems are greater than ever, and that they may get much worse than ever. Now is this fodder for the optimist or pessimist? We must be realistic and recognize that our history is not determinative and that there is no determining force that determines or demands that our future will be better or worse. It all depends on the decisions and actions we (under)take as humanity in the coming years and decades. Looking at the ten global risks – in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 report – then it means that our future is largely determined by the actions we take on the following major risks with immense impact on how we live now and in the future:
- Climate change and ecosystem destruction;
- Biodiversity loss and water scarcity;
- Geopolitical tensions, economic confrontation and renewed nuclear threat;
- Fragmented cyber access, particularly with respect to artificial intelligence and biotechnology;
- Loss of our privacy for the benefit of governments and especially high-tech companies;
inequality and poverty.
It is abundantly clear that all of these challenges pose a real risk to our prosperity, well-being and perhaps even our very survival. And they can only be addressed and solved in a global perspective. What is problematic is that in recent years we have seen an opposite movement. Hopefully, the corona crisis – and the inevitable recession that will ensue – will stimulate humanity to make the right choices and pool all wisdom and energy globally to do the right thing. Science should take a leading role in this, holding politicians accountable for the consequences of good and not so good choices and decisions. And the media should focus more on things that happen every day and have major implications for our future. Instead of only reporting news that is sensational, negative, topical and about an event that is only relevant today and tomorrow. Like, for example, the number of daily victims of Corona. It is much more important to explain the deeper causes of the crisis and long-term consequences in talk shows, rather than getting bogged down in the topicality of, for example, the expansion of the number of ICU beds to 1800.
As I type this an email arrives with the headline: “dip in housing market is temporary”. Funny, how strong the desire is and remains for old patterns and habits. Or is it bizarre and feeds the pessimist in strengthening his will and scorching hope?
Only when we address the major risks threatening humanity globally can we ensure that no one is left behind and creates new problems….
Listening to conspiracy theories and populists is pointless, because they offer no alternative. The defensible fortresses they want to build “in their boreal home” offer no guarantee of a better world; as our history has shown. And challenges such as climate, disruptive technology and digital fragmentation invade every fortress, even if it is on an island. The aforementioned risks take no account whatsoever of land border controls, and if we do not remain vigilant they even ram right through our barriers and shields of ethics. Our humanity is the most effective shield, provided we have the courage to use it in the right way, namely as a weapon against the inhuman. A corporation or government that puts itself above the common good. Parties and politicians who value winning elections over doing the right thing for future generations. Leaders who dare to make decisions that a society does not yet understand or that are necessary in an interest that convinces the nation. Managers look for compromise and support and will always be behind the times in times of crisis.
The future is positive – from the perspective of progress
If we view the future of humanity as positive, the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, argues for the need to take action to reduce our existential risks. His key beliefs are:
- That humanity could survive for a very long time, perhaps for hundreds of millions of years or more
that the future is overwhelmingly important if its normative assumptions are true;
- That we can potentially better shape the future by making progress central and accelerating, reducing existential risk, and bringing about other positive systemic changes;
- That the most important thing is to shape the distant future by creating positive, energetic transitions* (Thomas Rau).
The best ways to shape the distant future must be very broad or very focused, provided we know – or can at least estimate – which ones are valuable and provide for collective progress. If we assume Pinker is right and the world is getting better, then reducing eminent risks such as artificial intelligence, nuclear threat, and biosecurity is important.
But if we follow Harari in his vision and thinking – that things could get much, much worse than they already are – then we also need to prioritize reshaping and reshaping our democracy and society. With more effective forms of oversight especially of corporations rather than societies. Businesses must be directed and adapted to the needs of society, rather than society being made subservient to the economy. We need to prevent defenseless consumers from being foisted things via smart, self-learning algorithms that we don’t need at all. Or that we already own five of. The real demand and especially the real need must be and remain leading, not the supply.
The world runs on the bias from the 17th and 18th centuries
Harari believes that our current world runs primarily on philosophical ideas and beliefs from the 17th and 18th centuries. These were arrived at then from a completely different understanding of human nature than we have today. And despite all the progress we have achieved and knowledge and wisdom we have accumulated, it appears that our philosophical views and ethics have hardly changed (at all). Harari even speaks of philosophical bankruptcy, because our new, great challenges and risks are hardly recognized, let alone addressed. This is partly because many – and especially our world leaders – deny or do not (want to) understand these problems. The dreams and ambitions of Google and Amazon are the nightmares of many philosophers, sociologists, educators and local shopkeepers.
If we continue to think that we are all at war with everything and everyone, then no one will be open to allies. Also, then we won’t have to convince anyone of anything and we can sit back and relax. Waiting until we become complete psychopaths. We treat everything and everyone like a fire to be put out quickly. All appeals to the heart to be gracious and forgiving will prove and remain fruitless.
So we must travel beyond our 17th and 18th century beliefs, now that we know much more about concepts such as evolution, entropy, information, and even wisdom. We now know that conceptions and dogmas of Hobbes and Descartes are partly dated and no longer seamlessly fit the humanity and problems of today. We need to quickly develop new concepts that three centuries ago would have been just as unmentionable as incomprehensible. Example: effective altruism may now include doing what the data tells us is the most effective way of improving human well-being.
The practice now is that an external system like Google and Amazon knows us better than we know ourselves. And that they even know the masses better than the masses think they know them….
We are no longer as ignorant as we were three centuries ago, nor can we afford to be. Thanks to Facebook and Google, politicians and corporations know how we think and how they can influence the way we think and consume. This is the reality in the 21st century and it casts a very different light on our free will and the possibilities of manipulation. The reality now is that an external system like Google and Amazon knows us better than we know ourselves. And that they even know the masses better than the masses think they know themselves. Descartes’ demons have become machines that seriously threaten our humanity in the 21st century. Harari and consorts are therefore not exclusively optimistic about advancing technology and warn the optimists and preachers of singularity about the ethical implications and consequences. On the other hand, Harari favors genetically modified crops because they are resistant to disease and pests. As a result, we do not need, or at least need less, pesticides, which are harmful to our environment and health. According to Harari, the benefits far outweigh the potential adverse effects of genetic engineering.
Deterioration of democracy
We should not expect a super race with super humans for the time being, and we should not take too seriously the technology gurus, trend watchers and other singularists who predict it.
But the threat of visually and digitally driven dictatorships and totalitarian regimes is current. We are seeing almost everywhere the massive adoption of surveillance technology and rampant analysis of data and information that is doubling every 18 months worldwide. And as stated earlier, we must consider that it is not just governments that are using these technologies. Corporations are also massively deploying these technologies against humanity, and thus threatening our democracy and humanity by eroding both from within. So we need to find new, effective answers to new and old issues. And we must develop new, ethical and philosophical concepts that safeguard our progress and humanity. Freedom of speech and press are crucial. So is hearing, seeing and valuing the minority and voiceless.
At the same time, society should become much more critical of the dregs spread on social media. A clear response to fake news and misleading news that is not news at all is important to regain trust in each other. Polarization is as simple as it is purposeless. It is often a deep-seated fear in the person who polarizes. A fear that no longer knows where it came from, because we can’t separate ourselves from two basic fears that all people share, namely, “I’m not good enough and I’m not loved enough.
If we recognize these fears and dare to look them in the eye, then we can dance with them, instead of resisting them. That only leads to paralysis and even more polarization. When you embrace fear as an ally, it becomes an energy that lets you do things you wouldn’t dare without it. Like connecting with an uncertain future and letting go of your craving for illusionary certainties; like a house, a job and even a relationship. The most important trait of leaders with character is that they know who they are and therefore are connected to their presented selves. What they want to mean to other people so that they too will lead rather than follow. Letting go is an art that makes happy dying possible and it is an art we can all understand.
Back to Pinker and Harari.
If we replace people writing on paper with self-learning algorithms in machines, then totalitarian regimes can gain a technical advantage and an unbridgeable lead over democracies in which we in the West have grown up. Then the risk arises that doing the efficient thing no longer automatically means doing the ethical thing. This discussion is also relevant when we talk about diversity. Example: in our society and organizations, are we in favor of inclusiveness because it has been proven to be efficient or because ethically we have no other choice?
Optimists vs. pessimists and realists
Pinker and Harari offer other interesting reflections on optimism and pessimism.
For example, both optimists and pessimists have the ability to think in solutions and share them with each other through a common language. And especially by first understanding the other, because we realize that the other can and will only understand us when we understand the other (Stephen Covey, Seven Habits).
Our life expectancy and development as human beings has increased impressively. According to researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute, our hunter-gatherer ancestor can be better compared to current wild chimpanzees than to humans in the 21st century. The race of death and war has declined and is still declining. So are the rates of suicide and violence against women. Humanity has made tremendous and important progress in the recent past. This is also evident in the realization of the Millennium Goals formulated at the beginning of this century. The number of school-age children has increased by 43 million. The number of HIV infections has dropped by more than 50%. Over two billion people now have access to clean drinking water. Extreme poverty has been roughly halved. All good news for the optimists among us. But why stop halfway, the pessimists think?
We have achieved an incredible amount and the world’s prosperity has increased enormously. But we should not say that this is reason for optimism. And so we should certainly ignore the prophet of doom. After all, no one knows.
Perhaps things will get much worse and the corona crisis, recession and climate change will cause our problems to transcend us as a species in an integral and long-lasting way, but they don’t have to. Especially since we have solved problems in the past that no one thought possible.
If our desire is strong enough and sustained long enough, we can do almost anything. In doing so, we have the assurance that if it still fails, an immense crisis will help us to do the impossible and to even perform a miracle. Provided that this crisis is bigger than we are as a species. The climate crisis is such a crisis, one that is bigger than we are as a species. This crisis transcends every continent, just as Corona does now. The climate crisis also transcends every political belief and religion. It is a gift from Mother Nature, and it will take us many generations to unwrap it. So there is every room for optimists to remain optimistic, provided they also learn from the pessimists. And understand them by listening to them and doing something with their reality.
And visa versa of course.
Times of crisis are the best times
Our world stands still and the COVID-19 virus shows us that an epidemic or crisis neither recognizes nor acknowledges our borders, cultural origins and political beliefs. If Iran gets into serious trouble because of US pressure, then all countries in the region will be in serious trouble. If it soon becomes clear that the US will be the biggest victim of the corona crisis, then the economic problems will rock the whole world. The Great Depression at the beginning of the last century will fade to child’s play. It will convince Republicans and Democrats, and thus almost all Americans, that they have been living in a neo-democracy that has taken good care of the rich while keeping the health care system inaccessible to more than a quarter of Americans. Most countries in Africa are better off, making a stark contrast to the call “Let’s make America Great Again.” Because that was mostly about creating jobs and shaming the rest of the world.
Corona shows us that for a government – which has spent decades misleading its citizens and abusing trust by making corporations, jobs and economic growth more important than its citizens and the planet – payday has now literally and figuratively arrived. All the tax breaks bestowed on corporations in recent years, which have come at the expense of the public system – such as education, welfare and (youth) care, for example – are now coming back like a boomerang and costing these governments many times over.
It is now a prime opportunity for politicians in and outside Europe to regain the trust of its citizens. This will not prove easy, as the challenges are great, particularly in the areas of inequality and climate.
So we must quickly and globally resolve the dilemma of globalization, democracy and national interest. A distinction must be made between the level and interests of a country and the level and larger interests of the international and ecological system.
Pessimists fear a boost of totalitarian entities, such as Donald Trump’s “great America,” which has completely lost its leading position and exemplary role in the world.
Deglobalization, closing borders, canceling trade and nuclear treaties are opposite movements from what the world needs now. In the second half of this century, we need to take in more than a billion climate refugees and provide access to our economies, education and health care system. We are not going to do that if we shift the focus now to isolationism and protectionism.
The best cure and only effective antidote to a crisis, is global cooperation and listening better and more often to science and our hearts, rather than to politicians and shareholders.
Fodder for breed optimists and pessimists
In the final part of the trilogy, Pinker and Harari’s look through to the future is given even more context and substance. There will then be a substantive discussion of the greatest risks to our prosperity and well-being mentioned in this part and how we can contain them. Great food for thought for breed optimists and pessimists.
Homo Deus, Yuval Harari – ISBN10 9400404972 (15.95 euro) | LINK
Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker – ISBN10 9045040468 (14,50 euro) | LINK
Once Upon A Future, Ruud Veltenaar – ISBN10 9461562640 (19,95 euro) | LINK
Trilogy – the other two parts
Link to Part I of III
Link to Part III of III