The future isn’t what it used to be.
Armed with powerful “Big Data” systems, go-anywhere mobile apps and more knowledge than at any time in human history, we can now evacuate entire cities before storms come aground, anticipate the collapse of a foreign country’s economy, foresee the outcome of sugar – and fat-laden diets, and predict when the batteries in our flashlights need to be replaced. We know that sociopaths often get their start torturing small animals, that we are born with genetic propensities for Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer, and we can foretell the long-term consequences of burning fossil fuels, overfishing the oceans and burying nuclear waste. Everywhere we turn, there is evidence of humankind’s growing ability to anticipate.
And with that, our ability to preempt.
It’s this ability – to look ahead and avoid negative outcomes – that offers humankind our greatest hope for continuation. From an evolutionary perspective, there can be no greater advantage than accurate anticipation.
That said, years from now, when scientists and historians look back at you and me, how will they describe this period of opportunity and consternation?
According to Harvard naturalist, E.O. Wilson, they will observe a convergence of “paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technology,” a frightful time when technology surpassed our slow-changing emotions, brains and institutions. Evolution lagged behind the pace of human progress, producing bonobo monkeys armed with nuclear weapons and pharmaceuticals.
One day our descendants will refer to this epoch as the Technolithic Era, a period when the rate of change began accelerating at an unmanageable, unsustainable pace, a time when technology began its intrusion into every aspect of life, joining continents, races, and religions with the sudden force of a tectonic shift, a time when unresourceful, slow adapters were cheerfully manipulated and pillaged.
Every 48 hours we generate as much data as we created from the dawn of humankind to 2003.
Recently, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, warned that every 48 hours we generate as much data as we created from the dawn of humankind to 2003. And as the velocity, volume, variety and complexity of information continues its onslaught, predatory conditions amplify. Only those with the wealth to acquire experts, and gain access to the data needed to foretell and shape future events, will prevail. Today, a profitable corporation has the ability to hire hundreds of skilled tax attorneys to avoid paying taxes legally. The person on the street, who is relegated to self-filing, pays the highest bracket they fall under. The underlying culprit is complexity. As the U.S. tax code surpasses a whopping 75,000 pages, more regulations are on the way.
Complexity is an invisible, heartless adversary. One which makes facts unattainable, indiscernible and inactionable – except to a few.
Today, there is growing evidence that complexity has started its assault: 8-10 percent of Americans indicate they prefer the Affordable Care Act over “Obamacare,” and 60 percent believe climate change will have no effect on their lives; it has become impossible to distinguish foreign rebel factions from future potential allies; we grapple with complex issues such as warrantless surveillance in the name of national security, caring for an aging population, an education system which can no longer keep pace. Every day we, along with our leaders, grow more gridlocked, more incompetent.
Millions of years of human evolution have brought us to the brink.
After all, if a Neanderthal were alive today, they would have little ability to navigate our fast-paced world. Similarly, if we were transported a million years into the future, the practice of cutting off breasts and testicles to cure disease, or burning dinosaur remains to heat our homes, would appear no less primitive. At any point in time humanity is a work in progress. And today, thanks to lightning-speed technologies, we are on the verge of becoming the first “predictive organism.” Never before has the relationship between the actions we take in the present been so clearly united to future outcomes.
Yet, trapped by paleolithic emotions we continue to allow debt to climb, depression to reach pandemic proportions and deny the coming drought. We squander the greatest evolutionary asset which has ever been bestowed on a life form, the gift to look ahead and to circumvent known tragedies.
So, as future generations characterize the period in which we live as a time when the tools to manifest future outcomes arrived on the scene, while prehistoric instincts prevented us from benefiting from our newfound advantage, they will look upon us with pity for having squandered foresight in favor of the ninth-inning save.
They will wonder, with bewilderment, why we made heroes out of those who – when given the opportunity – failed to preempt. The 98 percent of genetics we share with our nearest relative, the bonobo monkey, will perhaps offer the biggest clue to our quandary.