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What to be Scared Of

Every year, the online magazine Edge (allegedly the smartest website in the world) asks a series of “smart people” (scientists, technology experts, writers, etc) what we should be most afraid of, in an effort to establish what issues should cause the most concern. Their responses are interesting in some cases, but rather innocuous and superficial in many others, so let’s have a look at some of the answers.

Many of them sounded a little bit fatuous. In some cases they sounded like the same sort of things that your elderly parent or grandparent might mention. Obviously I found these very disappointing. Others were extremely thoughtful and presented intriguing ideas. I must admit I haven’t had time to read through the details of every idea so I apologise in advance if I have underestimated any of the ideas here. Anyway, here is a selected list of some of the answers (remember these are answers to the question “What should we be worried about?”)…

First there were the “clever” answers, like: “That we worry too much – Joel Gold, psychiatrist.” and “That this year’s Edge topic has been poorly chosen – Kai Krause, software pioneer”. Many people tried to “get cute” about the question and gave answers like this. This is pretty disappointing for a group which are supposed to be the smartest in the world. I doubt whether this is really the type of answer anyone would give after giving the idea any reasonable amount of consideration.

Then there were the “technophobic” answers, such as: “That the internet is ruining writing – David Gelernter, Yale computer scientist” and “That digital technologies are sapping our patience and changing our perception of time – Nicholas G. Carr, author” and “That we will spend too much time on social media – Marcel Kinsbourne, neurologist”. These all sound like people who just don’t get it, and they sound like similar warnings which have appeared in history every time a new technology appears. I think these are hardly worth commenting on.

On a similar theme there is: “Augmented reality – William Poundstone, journalist.” Really? That’s your biggest concern? Surely there are bigger issues than this to worry about. I’m not even sure which aspects of AR this person is specifically concerned about, although he talks about AR users being too easily distracted in his comments. That doesn’t sound all that bad to me.

And then there were the really general answers with no obvious meaning: “Humanity’s unmitigated arrogance. – Jessica L. Tracy, professor of psychology”. Is this true? Even if it is true what specific issues are the source of the concern? Apparently she thinks there is an increase in lying and cheating in various human domains. I really don’t see that and even if it was true I can’t see it being such a big concern.

There’s this one: “An underpopulation bomb – Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large, Wired.” What evidence is there that this is likely? Actually, what is an “underpopulation bomb” anyway? It seems that his main concern is an ageing population not being able to be supported by the smaller numbers of young people when the global population peak is passed and the population starts declining. I think long term forecasts like this are very doubtful but I also think we will need to redesign society to fit the new profile. It’s a concern but is it really the biggest problem we face?

This one could belong in the inane or bizarre category depending on your preference: “Men – Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist”. Interesting. Apparently she is suggesting that men are misunderstood and are actually far more sensitive and complex than the stereotypes tell us. Maybe she has a point to some extent, but I’m not sure how this can be seen as a major worry.

This one is enigmatic: “The coming fight between engineers and druids. – Paul Saffo, technology forecaster”. Here he is referring to the battle between those who favour sticking with the past because it was “good” (druids) and those who prefer to move ahead to something which is (supposedly) even better (engineers). So the idea is quite simple despite the interesting way of stating it. I think he does have a good point, especially when you look at the divisions between conservatives and liberals in countries like the US.

Here is one which I think is a genuine worry: “The diversion of intellectual effort from innovation to exploitation, the distraction of incessant warfare, rising fundamentalism may trigger a Dark Age – Frank Wilczek, MIT physicist”. This is starting to get into the area of genuine concern. More and more it seems that two big negative factors are holding back progress: the first is rampant capitalist environmental and social exploitation, and the second is increasingly desperate fundamentalist religion. Wilczek thinks the triumph of barbarism and religion, and rising fundamentalism has triggered a Dark Age before, and could do so again.

On a similar them is this: “The rise of anti-intellectualism and the end of progress. We’ve now, for the first time, got a single global civilisation. If it fails, we all fail together – Tim O’Reilly, CEO and founder of O’Reilly Media”. Again the theme of conservatism and backward ignorance standing in the way of progress. Some sections of society see scientific progress and liberalism as a threat rather than a way ahead. Look at the incredible stupidity of the far right in the US. This is a very concerning trend because as backward beliefs like religion become more marginalised they become more desperate to survive at any cost.

And again on that theme: “The growing gap between the scientific elite and the vast scientifically challenged majority – Leo M. Chalupa, ophthalmologist and neurobiologist” and “That the gap between news and understanding is widening. – Gavin Schmidt, NASA climatologist” When people don’t understand something they tend to reject it. Maybe that’s why there is so much science denial (for example, against global warming, evolution, and genetic modification) around the world today.

And partly for that reason we have this concern: “That Idiocracy is looming. – Douglas T. Kenrick, psychology professor”. Kenrick is concerned about populations of lower intelligence reproducing in greater numbers and pushing the average IQ down. It’s difficult to dispute the idea in general although it does sound rather elitist. Still, it’s the intellectual elite who have given everyone the advantages they have today, so this is a genuine problem.

And here’s the real problem with the world today in one sentence: “That smart people – like those who contribute to Edge – won’t do politics – Brian Eno, musician.” I would take this further and say smart people tend to stay out of many positions of power, not just politics. I also see few smart people in management and other areas which have greater influence. There really is a trend towards stupid, immoral, and ignorant people making a lot of the big decisions for everyone else.

So after looking through all the concerns expressed in this article I have to say that I think the biggest potential source of disaster is a new Dark Age brought on by a reaction against progress and rationality by those who have worldviews contrary to that supported by progressive liberals and rationalists.

As religion becomes more irrelevant we should expect those who still choose to accept it to employ increasingly extreme and dishonest measures to protect their dying worldview. This is most obvious in some western countries where fundamentalists are trying to sneak ridiculous nonsense like creationism into science classes, and in the fundamentalist Islamic world where violence is used in an attempt to stifle anything contrary to their backward ideas.

And conservatives of all sorts will continue to fight against progressive issues such as equality, free speech, diversity, and technological progress. There is no real justification in their attempts to halt these moves forward because the changes have no real direct effect on the detractors, but conservatives not only want to live in the past themselves, they want the rest of us to share their miserable and pathetic outlook as well.

Yes, these are real concerns. They are more harmful even than excessive use of Facebook!

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