Why this isn’t the “most important century” (#173)

There’s a whole blog post series arguing for why we could presently be living in the “most important century” for humanity ever. This piece is a critique to exactly that fundamental idea of this being the “most important century” of all time.

The author is trying to point out that this century will most probably see the emergence of some incredibly powerful technologies that will make this century the “most important” one of all time.

The blog post series argues that there’s a high probability that the coming decades will see:

It is claimed that a few profound technologies will shape the future in the coming decades. And it seems to have been simply deduced that the deployment of those—however profound technologies—will make this century the “most important century” of all time.

The author does a fine job explaining why he thinks those technologies will be made possible sooner rather than later and how they might astronomically affect future centuries. But it does not follow from this that we are living in the “most important century” of all time. At best the author is ambiguous about what is meant by that momentous tagline. It seems as though he is claiming it is the “most important century” period. If it is so, then that’s a very pessimistic thing to say unless he provides an explanation for why progress needs to stop or why things cannot go wilder or be even more significant in future centuries.

Saying this could be the “most important century” ever is degrading history and ignoring vastly infinite future possibilities due to a lack of hindsight and imagination respectively. And the idea is quite a pessimistic one that stems from prophesy of the future.

Since the discovery of our ignorance (aka the dawn of the Enlightenment era or the scientific revolution), each new century is the “most important century” of all time so far. Rapid change allowing humanity to extend beyond its inherent, mediocre limitations through the creation of earth-shattering technologies—the Enlightenment let things happen.

Yet every century could be and is the most important century for humanity. Humans are the biggest threat to themselves. We face a risk to our entire species’ extinction by the mere presence of us. Yes, due to relatively recent events, this does refer to nuclear weapons and humans using it to destroy civilization. But “humans are the biggest threat to themselves” even hints at something much deeper. Since ultimately human survival depends on human progress, if there’s an asteroid heading our way (or the metaphorical equivalent to an asteroid) then it’s really on us to save ourselves. One way to view the problem is the asteroid heading our way. Another perspective is seeing the lack of human knowledge (or progress) as the problem. A lack of human knowledge that, as of yet, does not allow us to safeguard ourselves from an existential asteroid impact. But that knowledge to save ourselves can be attained through cultivating progress in that field. No matter what is out there coming to get us, if it succeeds, we shall be at fault. Hence it is we who are the biggest threat to humanity, though in an optimistic fashion. Choice is perhaps the most wonderful characteristic of a person.

Unimaginability is no proof for impossibility. But it seems as though in the blog post series, it has mistakenly been assumed as one. Similar thought patterns also account for why every now and then we hear someone complaining of a problem being “impossible” to solve. A lack of imagination, or more aptly, a lack of on hand solution is what’s the real cause and not a lack of possibility. Of course, history has continually been proving seeming “impossibilities” wrong. Here, the author seems to think, “Things are so wild and awesome right now that I cannot imagine them being even wilder and more significant tomorrow (or next century). This proves that this is the ‘most important century’ of all time.”

Well, it doesn’t. Although the author makes it explicit his views are neutral,
it seems that he tends towards the pessimistic end. The “most
important century” suggests that things are not going to be even better
and even more important than they are right now. And that something might go
wrong in all the wildness that calls for extra vigilance in this “most
important century”. That this era will probably predetermine the entire
future chain of events for the human race. That we may not be able to steer the
boat any longer after the deployment of these technologies. That we might go
extinct (because by definition, the “most important century” should also be the worst possible one). That things might not be even wilder than the current state of things in our parochial circumstances and that the significance of the choices we make will never hold any more weight than they do in this century. 

The “most important century” simply misses out on the significance of
every other century and quite myopically assumes the present as  the “most important” ever. Whereas in truth, the present is incessantly the “most important”. It is all there is.

Imagine human history as a chain, each act building upon the preceding (like in a blockchain). It seems as though then that our acts are predetermined by our past. This is true to an extent. But “to an extent” really makes “true” lose its power. Yet till the extent to which it is true, the past determines the future. So what makes the present so special that we can call it the “most important century” of all time? Wasn’t the last century, and the one before that, and the one before that, the “most important century” too, at the time? Without the significance of those centuries we wouldn’t be where we are here today.

But beyond the extent to which this (the idea that our future is predetermined by our past) is true, it breaks down. Beyond fundamentality, we are not predetermined by our past. We cannot undo mistakes but we can break the chain. We can, in the present, do something extraordinary. If there’s a seeming trajectory carved out by the past, our present choices can change that trajectory. Not by undoing, but by doing—using our creativity to abandon the seeming trajectory set out by our past. I say “seeming” because there really is no such fixed path already determined by past choices. So in a sense perhaps it’s misleading to use the chain analogy.

Below is a quote from the post series:

“When I talk about being in the “most important century,” I don’t just mean that significant events are going to occur. I mean that we, the people living in this century, have the chance to have a huge impact on huge numbers of people to come – if we can make sense of the situation enough to find helpful actions.”

But doesn’t every century have the chance to have a huge impact on huge numbers of people to come?

Even during less “wild” times in history whatever happened in a century still impacted greatly the huge numbers of people to come. Perhaps significant events didn’t occur. But the effect remained. And as we have already said, human choices can steer away from the seeming trajectory drafted by the past by present choices.

The “most important century” would also be the worst possible century—the end of it all—if there is one; this is pure prophecy. What if a giant supernova explosion kills all of humanity (or any other kind of people we would know of)? Won’t that by definition make it the “most important century”?

Just a few—however profound—technologies springing into emergence does not make the case for this being the “most important century”. It does make the point for the necessity of being vigilant as the author points out. And why, of course—vigilance is key now as it was when humans were hunter-gatherers in the Savannah, as it was when our ancestors began to grow crops, rulers started kingdoms, men fought wars, the Enlightenment made way for exponential technological progress—people have always required to stay vigilant to solve their own problems in howsoever parochial situations.

The “most important century” is prophecy and not prediction. There is no explanation for why this is the “most important century”. It seems to be assumed that human choices will not affect future generations but how can one know that? [1] Instead of prophesying this as the “most important century” ever we can think of it as the amazing century it itself is and how much better it still can be if we stay vigilant and progress into a greater civilization. 

The author doesn’t make the case well for the “most important century” specifically. Though this critique doesn’t really change the call to vigilance still very necessary for us to make, I hope it does eliminate misconceptions and clarify use of prophesy where it happens.


Thanks to Brett Hall for reading and commenting invaluably on an early draft of this post.

This post was written for Effective Ideas’ Post Prize for July 2022.

Footnotes

[1] – Learn the difference between prophecy and prediction and why prophecy is biased towards pessimism in this brilliant post by Brett Hall

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