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IS THE APOCALYPSE REALLY COMING?

Scott Byars | August 28, 2016

SHIFTING YOUR VIEW OF PEOPLE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD

Are you obsessed or is it just me? I can’t seem to take my eyes off the deluge of headlines proclaiming the impending demise of the human race. I can’t go five minutes without being drawn to some “end of the world porn” story that ends very badly for us. Usually our downfall is due to something stupid we’ve done – from climate change,  financial Armageddon, rude machine AI taking control and cancelling our dinner reservations, to robots eating our brains… or is that the zombies… shit, I get confused.

Are we just determined to off ourselves?

I have enough worries trying to raise two young boys. So to save myself from any more sleepless nights I filter out as many of the apocalyptic scenarios as possible. And I compensate for the ones that sneak in by reading about a more uplifting future where we actually do something right. I recently finished the book Inevitable by Kevin Kelly which provided me with a sanguine view that I desperately needed.

Kelly is a veteran of technology. For decades he has been watching and participating in the technological trends that are shaping our world today. He paints an alluring vision of our future, from customized 3D printed vitamins to on demand access to…well, everything.

While I was digging the positivity, what struck me about the book was his candid admission that even he didn’t believe that some of today’s technology was possible. In his view human nature wouldn’t allow the technological progress we are witnessing. He thought people were too untrusting of others, private and lazy to pull this off.

Wikipedia – nope. Uber – no way. Airbnb – certainly not.

Just so we get this straight, one of the most plugged in guys on the planet gets stymied in his view of how tech will unfold primarily due to his belief about human nature.

It’s interesting and sadly it’s also understandable. Most of us underrate or outright fear our future because of the prevailing view of a negative human nature. So, let’s cut him some slack, because this sort of thing happens all the time.

Our basic view of human nature has more sway in our lives than we realize. In fact it’s the main determining factor in how we treat other people, how we think society should be organized and yes, even what we believe is possible.

For instance, if we think that people are selfish, lazy and generally waiting for any excuse to be bad, then we tend to believe that people need to be controlled. We in turn spank our kids, fill our prisons to maximum density and subject ourselves to malicious bosses and malignant governments. We also relegate ourselves to a future of chaos or ever diminishing freedom as every crisis is an opportunity for those with the power to gain more control. All in the name of protecting ourselves from bad people. This should sound familiar. It’s the chosen path of societies the world over.

@AJ Schroetlin Flickr Creative Commons

@AJ Schroetlin Flickr Creative Commons

If, on the other hand, we do a 180 and believe that people are altruistic, diligent and made of sugar and spice, then we complacently fall into the “Hey man, it’s all cool” trap. We give our kids no guidance, hold no one accountable for their actions and form ill structured communes that try and solve all problems with mindful awareness. We believe in a future of peace and harmony all the while severely underestimating what people are capable of when push comes to shove.

Since the extremes don’t lead to satisfying conclusions let’s look to the middle ground. A thoughtful examination suggest that sometimes we are good and sometimes we are bad. And while this more balanced view is sensible it raises an interesting question. If we can be either good or bad, why do we choose one over the other?

In order to find the middle ground and understand our true nature we have to look at why people behave the way they do and not simply label them for how they are behaving in the moment. We can then move beyond judgement of good and bad altogether and make informed and effective decisions on how to treat others, organize society, and build our future.

We behave the way we do in any situation because we think our actions will lead to our needs being met. We humans all evolved the same needs as a means to ensure our survival and thriving and all of our actions are geared towards meeting these needs. In other words, we help an old lady across the street or steal her purse not because we are angels or devils but because we think it will help us meet our needs.

This distinction may seem trivial but the implications are meaningful in every aspect of our lives.

Knowing that we are all trying to meet the same needs allows us to have empathy for each other in our common struggles. We can then take the focus off of judging others and begin to look at the causes of people’s actions. Instead of simply punishing them after the fact or pretending they aren’t capable of acting shitty towards others we can begin to solve problems.

And problems will arise because … we all have our limits. I know it is a depressing thought. But we will all act selfishly and take advantage of others if our situation becomes desperate enough.

While we are predisposed for empathy and cooperation, as the work of  Paul Bloom and others suggest, there is no guarantee that we will adopt these strategies. For some it takes a lot of hardship to go against these predispositions and for some very little. Where we, as individuals, fall on this spectrum is a function of our genetics and how we were raised. But what’s true for us all, no matter where we are on the spectrum, is that if our current environment is conducive to helping us meet our needs then we are much less likely to act in ways that harm others.

That being the case it would behoove us to focus on creating a society that helps people meet their needs which in turn will eliminate most of the problems that we currently “solve” by putting people in cages.

Two children sharing

And hey, what do you know… that is exactly what we’re doing. Despite the barrage of doom in my news feed and the fact that many believe that our very nature makes it impossible, we are making progress towards shaping a society that fosters well-being. Examples of this can be seen in the new sharing economy platforms and networked business models alluded to earlier.

These peer to peer networks are not only possible but they are thriving because they help us meet our needs more completely than the current system allows. The traditional hierarchies of corporations and governments had their place and have served their purpose. We tolerated them as necessary while trading our freedom and ability to connect with other people in return for safety. And as long as the archetype of humanity was the evil opportunist, then there was a certain rationale to that logic. But as science and our new social platforms disprove the old theories of human nature we realize that we have sacrificed too much. We want our freedom. We want to connect with people. We want to cooperate, collaborate and trust others because it helps us meet our needs and thrive.

What even the most ardent of technological advocates has failed to realize is that the widespread adoption of peer to peer technology and the new levels of cooperation it engenders is occurring precisely because it is our nature. We adopt certain technologies over others and find novel ways to cooperate because it helps us meet our needs.

It’s our nature to meet our needs. And with this more accurate view of human nature our choices in how we treat others and how we structure society become easier. We raise our kids with compassion and demonstrate to them effective ways to meet needs. We stop building prisons and instead build a society that enables people to meet their needs and increase their well-being.

And as for the future? We will find new and inventive ways to cooperate and collaborate. We will continue to flatten out hierarchy and become more egalitarian. We will increasingly self-govern. And no, it won’t be a straight line of progress. It will happen in fits and starts. And each step of the way people will say it’s impossible and each step of the way they will be amazed at what we can accomplish.

I know it’s hard to look away from the dystopian future scenarios but odds are we figure it out. We usually do.

But I do wonder… what will populate the holes in my news feed where all the end of the world stories used to reside?