There can be little question at this point in human history that cleverness is both our greatest gift and the worst thing that ever happened to any species. From life-saving vaccines to nuclear weapons to symphonies to hate crimes to Doctors Without Borders to the Holocaust, we’ve been able to reach astronomic heights at the same time we’ve exposed ourselves as the “most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth” (Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels). What makes us so infuriatingly complicated is that our ingenuity can twist just about any discovery into the opposite of that for which it was intended. Will we ever evolve enough to be able to anticipate the negative applications of the things we want to unleash on ourselves before we suffer the consequences of something we really believed was going to help us out, to make our lives better? Even more difficult yet necessary given our innate curiosity’s leading us ever onward in our new creations, can we figure out how to turn something we’ve dreamed up that’s harmful into something positive? Will we ever learn?
It certainly seems unlikely at this point. Using plants to manufacture drugs which helped alleviate pain was certainly a noble goal, but shouldn’t we have been astute enough to recognize that anything which relieved pain would be abused by those seeking escape life’s realities? Creating an Internet platform which allows friends to share joys and pictures was a great opportunity for people to stay in touch regardless of how far apart they lived, but surely we could have reasoned that volunteering that much information about ourselves to the world would be exploited by those who only wanted to take advantage of that data for their own power and/or enrichment. You could go on with any human creation over the years: Nothing is all good or all bad in the hands of unpredictable, wily, visionary, emotional, psychotic, logical, vengeful, peaceful, angry, loving animals like us.
Smart phones have radically changed our lives in the short time they’ve been available, and we’ve probably only scratched the surface of all the ways they will determine our futures. And shouldn’t it frighten us how that clause—“they will determine our futures”—can be so casually dropped without many of us even noticing? Think about that: It won’t be up to you how your life is altered by some technological invention; to function as part of our society, you will be forced to change yourself to fit the technology, whether you like it or not. I resisted as long as I could being beholden to my cell phone, but I lost that personal war and now readily admit that they are necessities for any person in modern society. But I had functioned quite well, by my own standards at least, for some thirty-five years before the first smart phone (click on “IBM Simon” to read this article) happened in 1992, and was pushing forty before they were widely used in the late nineties (at the earliest), a scant twenty years ago. That’s a quick turnaround for societal change, especially when you’re a middle-aged person before the revolution even starts.
The same happened even more quickly with social media, initially sold to us as a total positive: You get to share with friends and family so easily and immediately that there’s no doubt Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have all made hundreds of millions happy, at least occasionally. But think what a short time span has elapsed from that idyllic concept (“Too idealistic” is how one of Facebook’s spokespeople has been trying to spin it) to recent lapses, which may have led to a government hostile to the U.S. manipulating our most recent Presidential election just enough to swing the vote to the disaster we now endure. On a less consequential but even more widespread level, studies have been published about how addictive checking out feeds can be, but it turns out we are actually becoming more isolated and less happy. Everybody has at least a couple horrific anecdotes about how harmful some inadvertent posts have been to people they know. The longer we live with this “advancement,” the less we seem to like it. But it’s become a social requirement, with the various age levels tending to inhabit similar, but different platforms (“Facebook has become so old, Dad!”); yet all generations feel pressured to respond in certain ways to specific cues—how much hidden resentment lurks in our responses for some meme when it’s prefaced with something like, “Only my true, real friends will comment and share this…”? From issues of national security to creating unspoken yet deep rifts between friends, the pot of gold at the end of the social media rainbow has contained abundant radioactive material as well.
The future offers wonderful and horrifying things for us too since our cleverness onslaught will continue unabated for…forever—we’re never gonna stop, and we all know it! Looming as both possible great leaps forward and traps we will rue ever dreaming up (Can you say, “atomic power”?) are things like artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering (as it becomes more easily accomplished via CRISPR developments). Both have huge benefits and downsides, depending on how we use them. AI robots will do everything more uniformly, more rationally, more quickly, and more cheaply than humans can, dramatically improving productivity. Yet, as any long-time reader/watcher of science fiction could tell you, we’ve already imagined dystopian futures where machines have become our masters. Unless you’re Neo or John Connors, I would suggest, that scenario won’t work out very well for you. Even if the machines never become sentient and declare war on humankind, remaining our humble servants could prove harmful as well when their increasing efficiency and skill coupled with their decreasing costs lead to massive unemployment and human displacement as we struggle to adapt to a standard we are incapable of meeting due to our biological limitations.
Or is our genetic destiny capable of being altered for the better? The amazing strides we could make in preventing many inherited disabilities or diseases will make it impossible to resist the CRISPR promise to help vulnerable people, but O Brave New World that has turned such technology into a means to create more “stable” humans in order to keep us from harming ourselves. It’s also even easier to imagine how rich people could make use of genetic manipulation to continue and further their advantage over the masses, leading to a worsening class divide, which has already become a huge issue in developed economies throughout the world. (Of course, Sci-Fi’s already been there, too, in Gattaca, as well as the aforementioned Huxley work. And is it fear-mongering to worry about biological experiments going awry and creating some form of superbug which causes a pandemic, killing millions before our cleverness (?) finds some defense?
So, yeah, it’s pretty easy to envision both gloriously sunny utopias and repressive, dark hellscapes in our near futures. The pace of that change is ratcheting up as well, impossible as that sounds, which makes it even more difficult to make carefully reasoned choices on how any new by-product of human cleverness will alter the world. (Solar power into a solar weapon? Nanotechnology injecting millions of tiny machines into our bodies to attack tumors or instill mind control? Opiate-based pain relief mutating into a crisis of drug addiction and overdose deaths? Wait, that one’s already happened.) And you know as well as I do that some hitherto unknown idea or technology or technique or guru will soon present us with something we never would have dreamed of before it was suddenly available, leading to its rapid transformation into something we are unable to imagine living without. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t want anything to do with Siri or Alexa. And I’m afraid to admit I know I’m doomed to be entrapped by some other disembodied voice sooner or later. And, sure, they know why Alexa was randomly emitting an evil laugh; she was amazonized at how easy it was to take over our world, is my theory.) And that pattern will repeat in ever-more-rapid cycles. What’s to become of us?
I guess the good news is that we’ve made it this far. We’re quite adaptable, after all, and it would appear that there is little humans cannot endure, even the things we mislead ourselves into believing are advances which turn out to be drains on our psyches. Maybe one day all those promises and guarantees will hold up; we’ll reach a perfect blend of science and humanity, of spirit and logic, of imagination and fact…And then we’ll develop a resistance to all medications because we ate hormone-treated baloney when we were six, only to become infected with some human-manipulated germ gone horribly wrong which leads to a gruesome painful death unless sufferers consume the brains of a blood relative—Zombie family apocalypse!—or (probably more likely) some idiot President will start a nuclear war to cover his collusion with Russia because his ego was bruised and the pee tapes are about to be released. Sorry for the pessimism, but our history has shown over and over that we can screw up just about any situation, find a solution for that screw up, adapt quickly, and then discover a significant negative outcome from the solution that nobody had ever contemplated or intended initially. We’re just that smart.
But our cleverness implies the capacity to learn, to understand, to climb higher on the rubble of our failures. Ultimately and tragically, every day we greet a new opportunity to choose differently than we did the day before. We’ve incorporated our collective belief in progress into almost every part of our lives: education, careers, families move upward and onward as reassurances to us that we are in control, that we do know what we’re doing, despite all evidence to contrary.
Theologians and philosophers tend to see humanity’s life approaches in one of three ways: Some of us believe humans are innately evil or flawed, despite having been created by a perfect being/entity/god. We accept teachings which have been told to us by alleged human representatives of those perfect beings; those teachings are generally ideals we probably can’t achieve. We accept (often grudgingly) that these judgements of moral behavior might not be the same across the various faiths humans follow, but we are certain our version is the right one; we gamble our eternal after-lives on that presumption since we believe there’s a place where those who have performed appropriately on Earth reside forever after their deaths. But since following those teachings is very hard and maintaining a belief that our souls will live eternally is reassuring, we tend to embrace a goodly amount of daily hypocrisy so we can ignore anything we find difficult or inconvenient in the teachings, especially in wealthy countries like the U.S. This tends to explain why so many of the most outwardly “godly” people tend to be concealing the most significant sinful behavior. Some also prescribe a post-life place of eternal punishment for those who fail to follow or accept those teachings—and we’d like to believe the really bad hypocrites among us will go there too, but not those who were only a little bit disingenuous: You know, people like us.
Then there are those who reject the concept of a supreme being/creator, instead following the teachings of the natural world. Things which can be observed, tested, and replicated repeatedly become the basis of learning more about our physical surroundings and how things work. As our depth of knowledge has grown, we have been able to find ways to manipulate, control, and exploit our world to the point where we now see ourselves as complete masters of this planet. Unfortunately, all that knowledge and manipulation has had adverse effects on many humans as well as trillions of other creatures which share this space with us. The faith this group has, then, is in human scientific skills to save us from the dangers many of our other scientific discoveries (Oil burns!) have wrought upon our world. It’s hard to exaggerate the selfishness, ignorance, callousness, and greed which have led to the current state of our environment; yet, many of this philosophical clan still believe that humans are basically good and will ultimately figure out the right thing to do. If nothing else, they have faith that the scientific method can lead us to ways out of our current challenges into better days. (Bill Gates is one of the chief proponents of this, as only a multi-billionaire can afford to be.) Oddly enough, this non-deist approach is probably more optimistic than most religions.
Needless to say, the members of the third group see themselves as in both camps, at least some parts of each. (Which parts? Why, the good, correct parts, of course. What a silly question!)
I’m not sure what all this says about our species nor do I have any better suggestions for how to proceed other than we should try to understand how our world is changing, even though it’s a hopeless task when things change so rapidly and in such complex ways. We should exert as much rational thought possible on how changes in our world might impact us, both good and bad, despite the impossibility of knowing what those changes could lead to ten years from now. We should show good judgement on how we use our time in ways that grow our souls and improve our thought, even though every other generation besides our own will consider the things we choose as pointless, stupid, and harmful. (We, of course, will react to their choices precisely the same way.) We should recognize a higher calling, even though we’ll never agree on exactly what god, religion, philosophy, or rules for life represent the true way.
Ultimately, then, anyone can make a strong case that the human race is doomed, that the radical changes our cleverness endlessly produces will one day inevitably lead to our destruction. (Most religions foretell this, and even atomic scientists keep a Doomsday Clock, currently set at two minutes to midnight—midnight being when we destroy Earth. That ain’t much time, friends.) Until our last second, however, we can at least accept responsibility in our own lives for being moral in our actions, especially as family members and friends, toward each other. That’s got nothing to do, by the way, with your political, religious, ethnic, or socio-economic group; I think Bowling for Soup sums up what I mean very clearly in their song, “Don’t Be a Dick.” It’s difficult to behave in just, fair, loving ways when we are bombarded with examples of the opposite so often in the news, on the street, or in any comments section online. It’s infuriating how poorly so many of us behave since we should be clever enough to know the difference between that which is reasonable and good as opposed to that which is irrational and abasing. Fortunately, at least, we do regularly witness the human capacity to shift from the petty and spiteful to our better selves when devastating crises occur. From pitching in during hurricanes, to fighting deadly contagious diseases, to saving rabbits from fires, it’s amazing how many laudable acts humans perform. I’d like to hope that we don’t need disasters destroying our neighborhoods before we act decently, and I guardedly assume that maybe our kindness often goes unnoticed in the land of Trump and Circumstance. I have no idea how our cosmic ledger of good deeds versus heinous crimes currently stands; it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the next mean, thoughtless, stupid, hurtful, or grasping human act would cause a higher power to shrug in disgust before wiping us out in order to try again.
But every day, some of us odious vermin work at food pantries, give blood, and donate our efforts in Pads programs. We clearly can’t control if or when our cleverness will cause our destruction, so we can assume we’re in for quite a few bumpy nights; however, there’s no reason why we can’t individually focus on other human traits like empathy, compassion, and generosity. Cleverness might get most of the attention, but our world does a lot better when we don’t think too much.