Thomas Suddendorf asks "Should We Be Optimistic About the Future?"
by Thomas Suddendorf, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of Queensland.
- Foresight has been key to ushering in the modern world.
- We are now aware of big pictures of our past and future.
- Humanity is facing dramatic challenges but there are reasons for optimism.
After hundreds of millennia of living in small clans armed with stone tools, in the past 10,000 years, humans have gone from turning silica stone into axes to turning it into computer chips. With better foresight and coordination, we have created more and more machines, artifacts, and gadgets that are all around us, some of which are even speeding into interstellar space. This trend has been accelerating since humans discovered the scientific method: a systematic way to build knowledge with foresight at its core.
Glimpses across time
Science has given us a new view of our place in the really big picture of time and space. Just consider that the daylight you see left the sun’s surface about eight minutes before it struck your retina. And when we look at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, we see light that left that star more than eight and a half years ago. Light from the centre of the Milky Way must travel more than 25,000 years to reach us, and when you spy through a telescope on the next closest galaxy, Andromeda, you see light that originated about 2.5 million years ago. Now, if there is intelligent life in that galaxy that happens to be looking back at us, it would see the Earth that much time ago, populated by multiple species of our long-gone relatives—Australopithecines, Paranthropus, and Homo habilis—before anyone had ever left Africa.
Shaping the future
Partly as a result of farsighted efforts to make the world a better place, many of us now enjoy comforts such as motorized transportation and telecommunication that our great-grandparents, let alone prehistoric hominins, could not have even dreamed up. The ebb and flow of the tides is no longer an unpredictable process but a well-understood pattern that seafarers consider to avoid running their ships into the ground. Even a tsunami is no longer a smite from the gods but a predictable consequence of a geological event that early-warning systems can detect, buying people precious minutes to seek higher ground.
Should we be optimistic?
Maybe we can clean up our mess, rapidly replace all the plastics with biodegradable materials, and swap fossil fuels for renewables. Just as advances in information technology revolutionized our world over the past few decades, so may biotechnology advances over the next few decades. Perhaps we can protect diminishing habitats and revitalize endangered animals. We may even bring back species—Tasmanian tigers, moas, and woolly mammoths—that have fallen victim to our successes. It is conceivable that we will be able to sustainably grow what we eat, repair with nanobots what we break, and 3D print whatever else we need without destroying the environment.
But then again, perhaps such optimism is misplaced.
Our new solutions may beget still greater problems. We will certainly continue to make mistakes, from minor deviations that linger within a thin margin of error to gross miscalculations that spell disaster. It is possible that positive trajectories will not continue, wish as we might, and no one will invent the critical transformative technologies we need in time.
Foresight makes us human
Thinking ahead permeates most of our actions and is essential to human affairs. This is not a new insight. In ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus, son of the Titan Iapetus, stole fire from heaven to give humans the powers that would distinguish them from other animals. He brought us culture, farming, mathematics, medicine, technology, and writing. Prometheus means “foresight.”