When the problem and solution are the same
On human nature, and an existential threat that perhaps should be prioritised above all others.
A brief history of us
The first chapter in the story of humanity began with simple herd animals co-existing and working for the collective good. Recent chapters depict self-motivated, technology-led individuals wanting to escape the herd. Consequently, the collective is being damaged. Irreparably so? Impossible to tell, but it’s hard to see how our story ends well with so many challenges up ahead.
As our species evolved, humans learned to protect themselves, separating from the dangerous and beastly natural world, by using institutions, governments and technology to shape the environment to our advantage. To predict the unpredictable, and create order where there was none.
For example, money facilitated hierarchies of exchange, commerce and trade. Religion arranged systems of obedience, collaboration and charity.
Before we entered the first chapter of the human story, there was nature and nothing else. But by evolving as a collective, we freed ourselves from the bonds of biology and allowed us to master the animal kingdom, creating an environment where we were no longer enslaved to the natural world. We redefined what it meant to be a herd animal. Observing our diverse, complex skills and specialities, we formed networks and built new knowledge on top of knowledge, and so on. The skills and structures we developed have all-but-lifted us up and out of nature.
This is how we subjugated the natural world to serve our goals, only to seemingly create a new world of the unpredictable and uncontrollable yet again.
History should rhyme, not repeat
It is with some concern that we’ve created a new environment above the natural order which is, in some respects, returning us to the beginnings of our story. Again we find ourselves plagued by forces that are both beyond our control and explicit understanding, for where the governing hands of order and civilisation cannot reach, grows a new kind of wild and untamed nature, a consolidated projection of what lies beyond our own rational limitations and control.
Until now, the evolutionary machinations of government and society have served us well. The effectiveness of the synergies and networks we built have brought us to this place of relative prosperity, harmony and health. But trusting the guidance and norms facilitated by central entities of influence needs to be justified, which requires re-evaluation in times of rapid change such as now.
Agriculture, industry, medicine, technology, are undeniably great achievements, made possible only by collective collaboration and organisation, catalysed by how deeply networked the world has become.
But. The danger is to mistake ‘networked’ for ‘united’.
Counterintuitively, this closeness and connectivity interacts strangely with our herd nature, reinforcing bubbles, increasing friction between us, making society more divided, with all the risks it entails.
It is imperative society becomes equipped with the means to adequately evaluate and respond to these risks and changes. This is a goal that can never come too soon, and at the pivotal moment where decentralised alternatives to conventional institutions of authority and governance are becoming possible, (due to technological advances Decentralised Ledger Technologies, AI, Cryptocurrencies), this seems an ideal time to prioritise these efforts.
A strange new world
We may be, or once were, the architects of society, but we long lost the role of its steward. The organisational bodies we once deferred the responsibilities to, are revealing the limited possibilities in safeguarding stability effectively and providing the radical change we need.
The metaphor of organisations and institutes as entities has become a dangerously accurate one in their self-(pre)serving functions, which has led to an unsustainable concentration and inequality of power and wealth. Naval Ravikant — prominent blockchain evangelist — likens them to titanic, godlike entities. Most problematically is that their goals rarely align with those of the people their very power depends on.
I contend that this is the common denominator in much of today’s societal problems. Pervasive politicisation, power and wealth inequality, the counterproductively zealous social justice, the stifling of nuance, individuality, and free speech — these are symptoms of a dangerously unstable civilisation. And we have yet to recognise the full extent of these problems.
Take climate change for example. Awareness of and understanding the problem, not to mention only the beginnings of a solution, only came when we realised that we couldn’t blindly rely on someone or something else, no higher power — be it a deity, nature itself, or governments — that would solve the problem for us.
It’s a form of the bystander effect on a large scale; we just always assume someone else, better fit to do so, will fix the problem. The solution is a true sense of responsibility, personal involvement, with no room to rely on others.
It’s time to step out of our comfort zones. Empathy alone does little good without intention. Thoughts and prayers are proof for hope and empathy, but without real action it won’t save or help victims. Demonstrations and zealous activism are powerful in their own way, but rarely are the appropriate means to the desired goal. And to close the circle — even with the right tools available, will they be available to the right people?
Empathy. Intention. Instruments. People need them all. That is the kind of centralisation we do need.
We are only as strong as we are united, weak as we are divided
The collapse of legitimacy in news. The ‘millennial’ sense of lacking purpose.
Untamed polarisation and division. Politicisation pervading society far beyond where politics have a rightful place.
These are forces that destabilise civilisation. Individually, they are very unlikely to be an existential threat on the scale of climate change, nuclear disaster, or a malicious Artificial Super-Intelligence. But forces can converge and synergise to become far more powerful than its sum. If they haven’t already, the convergence of the forces above are a considerable threat to civilisation, the vehicle of our continued evolution.
Somewhere here, there are questions and perspectives of dire relevance, that I’m not able to fully clarify. But I can say what they are about.
It is about effective altruism, combining pragmatic action with empathy, for without the former, even the most good-hearted empathy does very little.
It’s about empowering people to make that crucial step from empathy to the right actions.
It’s about critically evaluating our modern advances’ full consequences on society, both today and tomorrow.
It’s about experimenting with new ways to reinvent society’s machineries.
It’s about taking in serious consideration the confronting possibility that the greatest challenge of today lies with ourselves, and solutions may only come about through radical experimentation, unhindered by long-standing conventions.
It’s about how we each should try to answer the collective responsibility in finding out how to build a better society.
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