Envy of the Future

I recently watched the following video on the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies.

I would summarize the basic ideas of the video as follows. We often have negative views about the future, but perhaps that’s because we resent how good it might be. To better understand this consider going back in time and telling a grieving mother that her lifeless child will be easily saved in the future with antibiotics. She might be resentful of the future, realizing that human misery is an accident of the times we live in.  Moreover a visitor from the future would pity the suffering and death we endure because of the era in which we live.

Perhaps then our apocalyptic views of the future arise because we can’t stand to think how much better the future will be, and how absurd and meaningless our current suffering will seem then. The solutions to so much of our physical and psychological suffering lie just around the corner, but we won’t be there to enjoy them. (How often I have joked in my own college classes that news of the cure for aging will arrive on my 80th birthday, but the anti-aging vaccine will only work for those less than 80 years old!) Thus we should feel pity for how difficult our lives are compared to the lives of our descendants in the future; our lives are probably poor indeed compared to the lives of those who will live in the future.

But let us not be jealous. Instead let us create a more glorious future. We may not live long enough to share in it, but we can take some comfort in the role we play in creating it. For suffering and death are neither inevitable or noble.

2 thoughts on “Envy of the Future

  1. Nietzsche’s interpretation of amor fati offers some comfort: the idea of complete acceptance of every event in one’s life – including the sad ones – because they are a precondition for the good times. Humans mainly perceive change and as a result suffering is “required” in order to experience joy. For our descendants though, I hope Nietzsche wasn’t entirely right. When, one day, all suffering is removed from human lives, I hope they’ll still be able to live joyful lives.

  2. I honestly think that this approach to comparing the future with the past is completely misguided, and i also think it’s deeply unfair to the people who lived before us, as without their effort, we wouldn’t be here today.

    For example, it seems clear that we are going to achieve the technology of self-driving cars very soon. It’s almost sure that every persons who is today working on any position which implies exclusivily driving a car, bus, truck, etc, is going not to only lose his job, but according to the perspective shown on the video, all the years “wasted” on the job are going to been felt as “meaningless” by this people.

    But i think this is not a fair conclusion, because his work, as part of our modern societies, is completely indispensable right know, and without it, we wouldn’t achieve those self-driving cars: let’s suppose that tomorrow, EVERY human being working as a driver decides that driving a vehicule is meaningless due to how near is the automatizacion of the task, and so every bus driver, evert truck driver, etc etc just stopped working on it. Our civilization will literally collapse in like 24 hours. Those people are not doing something meaningless because it is completely and truly meaningful right now, and someone has to do it.

    Let’s imagine those mathematians, physicist and engineers from the past, who spent days, years, working on and using things like logarithm tables, an ardous task that nowadays is trivial if you use a pocket calculator. Let’s suppose that those people somehow knew that a few hundreds years later those calculators are going to exist.. The truth is, those pocket calculators are going to exists literally thanks to the work of these people from the past, who were advancing the sciences, the math, the enginering; who were preserving and improving civilization by being essential links of the chain that we humans have been making since the day we learned to use fire, the same chain that later lead us to creating the internet, and that would lead us to whatever wonders the future might bring! That’s what make their work, and their lifes, absolutely meaningful.
    In conclusion, all that work that is NOW obsolete it is so because we as humans, keep doing it until it was no longer necessary thanks to the advance that is possible precisely because that work people kept doing (because sure, we need engineers and physicist to continue with “Progress”, but we also need all that jobs who may seem less glamorous but which are equally esential to keep civilization going, from bus drivers (or galley rowers!) to plumbers, to thousand of others jobs which deserves all our respect in the grand scheme of things).

    So, if i’d get the opportunity, like the man in the video, to go to the past to show a pocket calculator to some ancient mathematician who has spent most of their time doing calculations which are know, and only know, trivial, what i would do is to honestly hug him, and sincerely say “thank you” to him. Thank you because without your effort, without your hard work and talent, we know have this little machine which work for us, and we can use our time and attention to keep making the world a better place. We have it because you, as a scientist, even as a mere good citizen from your time, which helped and did your best to keep thing going, were an essential link on the chain of human progress, because you helped to make the world a better place for a lot of people, who are no long needed to do this hard calculations by hand. I can’t think about anything more meaningful than that.

    Also, when the guy from the future come to see me, to show me some wonderful technology that i can’t even imagine right now, i will also be honestly happy for him, and i would even tell him that i hope that not only they are enjoying the wonder of the future, but also improving and enlarging that chain that all humans have been making until him, a chain made in the past, in the present, and in the future. We are all conected in our uplifting as a species, even our uplifting as a sentient part of the universe itself, and we all share the deep meaning of that task, no matter how small is the grain of sand which we are contributing with to the whole, is equally essential and meaningful in the end.

    (Sorry about my english, is not my main language).

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