Friday, June 27, 2014

Outrunning the Beast

Does anyone else, like me, feel that somewhere in our short human history we have taken a wrong turn? Some might argue that the rise of agriculture marks that point. It was at this point in time that the land was transformed in such a way that it could produce surplus food, which resulted in a population explosion. It also became impossible to return to the earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

At every stage in human history we have witnessed breakthroughs and technological advances that have made it impossible to wind back the clock. Clearly such advances have brought with them enormous benefits to the human race. Few of us would want to return to an earlier way of being, except, perhaps, during occasional attacks of nostalgia. Nevertheless, many of these advances have also brought with them unintended and undesirable consequences. Would we, with hindsight, now go back and choose a different path? I doubt it.

Our innovations quickly have a way of transforming themselves from interesting novelties, the play things of the wealthy, to everyday necessities. A few years ago, no one had a mobile phone. Somehow, society functioned without them. Today, I doubt it would. We quickly become dependent on these new innovations, to the extent that to take a step back, to press the undo button, becomes impossible. The genie out of the bottle; closing the stable door... We even have firmly established clich├ęs to describe this situation.

As much as we sometimes dream idly of a past golden age, and long for a return to ‘simpler days’, going backwards seems impossible. We are obliged to surge ever forwards, hoping—sometimes with little basis in reality—that we will finally come through the other end into a ‘Star Trek’ universe. Do you, like me, sometimes feel that we are riding the rapids towards a waterfall? Does some of the anxiety with which our society is afflicted stem from the fact that we sense that somewhere, somewhen, somehow, we have lost control? No one seems to be steering or rowing this boat. Certainly not our political leaders.

I am not of the opinion that we can continue to outrun the beast that is about to devour us (to change the metaphor). So far we’ve been lucky (some of us, anyway). But at some point our luck will run out; our ingenuity will fail us. When? I have no idea. What will happen when the moment arrives? I have no crystal ball. In any case, crystal balls have never worked in the past, whether used by seers, priests or economists. I suspect, though, at some point we are going to have to find a different way of being in this world. Or it will be forced upon us. Or else, in the science fiction fantasy future, we will escape the confines of this planet. And take our problems with us out into the galaxy.

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