True optimists talk about problems because they think they can do better.
This is one of my favourite quotes, which I think came from Jaron Lanier. We need to keep this mindset in mind when talking about such big problems.
I am incredibly 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. Nonetheless there are a lot of problems which we haven’t made any progress on, and in some areas we're creating more problems than we're solving for.
Before we dive into some of the most pressing specific problems we are facing — allow me to borrow a hypothesis from the late Edward Wilson - that there is a common denominator which 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
To reiterate - the biggest problems in the world are not climate change and pollution, but our paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and god-like technology. These are the core problems which generate the surface level problems that we see on a day to day basis (like climate change and pollution).
The world's biggest problems
Let's break it down to understand what he meant.
- 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 cause lots of irrationality) in the modern world.
- Medieval institutions 🏰 : slow and old governments and regulatory bodies - systems with perverse incentives and lots of corruption. The best example is how governments use economic growth as the measure of success for their country and their people.
- God-like technology 🔮 : exponentially growing power of technology that can drastically change lives and change the course of history.
How does this concept explain 3 of the biggest problems in the world today?
- 🗿 : 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.
Countless more pressing problems such as oppression, disease, etc deserve mentioning too. I am yet to find an example that cannot be at least partially explained using this concept.
What about the risk of these future existential 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 to determine 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.
What about unknown existential threats?
This problem statement can explain and predict many of tomorrow’s problems that we can’t otherwise see today. It's incredibly important for understanding the areas of society we need to work on before these problems become too big to handle.
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 innovating, with a constantly evolving understanding of these problems, better products and more meaningful movements.
I'll leave you with some highly impactful goals to think about: helping us as a species be less distracted, less polarised, and equipping us for better sense-making and better collaboration.