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On the Mayans, the Robots, Our Fears, and Our Future


What do Mayans and robots have in common? Their narratives are driven by fear and distract us from the future. And if we can't overcome our fears, the future is always going to disappoint us.

Fear, the Future, and Fear of the Future

So what is this fear that holds us back from envisioning a new future unlike anything before? Well, I'll let Jaimal Yogis, author of The Fear Project explain it better than I can:
This is because our fear centers are for the most part not under our conscious control. In order to survive in the wild, our early ancestors evolved automatic stress responses to anything associated with pain -- useful for avoiding predators like saber-toothed cats and bear-sized hyenas. Now, however, modern sources of "painful" stimulus arrive via our smart phones, TVs and Twitter feeds with alarming speed and frequency. So, as we review the events of 2012, our brains automatically feel overwhelmed with bad news, accentuating images of storm-ravaged coastlines and funeral processions for innocent 6-year-old children. By contrast, few of us will note simultaneously that violent crime in our country continued to decline for a fifth straight year, cancer deaths decreased yet again (a steady trend since 1999), and teenage drunk driving has been halved in the last decade. In fact, according to the United Nations, the entire world is on average living longer, healthier, wealthier lives than ever before.

By practically every statistical measure, he's right. And if we're living in a new era of abundance, it makes even less sense to let our subconscious stress responses govern our thoughts and emotions. Plus, we and the media are constantly replaying the real estate implosion in our heads and the market crisis and the bailouts that followed, and it creates this negative feedback loop in our heads that we can't seem to break. Actually I should rephrase that: We haven't allowed ourselves to break it yet.

And that's probably because we don't like the alternative right now. What alternative is that? Figuring out our future. If the Mayans were right, figuring out how we restructure fiscal outlays for an aging population won't matter. If the robots kill us after becoming self-aware, we won't have to rethink what we do with our time as collaborative networks and computer algorithms take over the work we used to do. Noah Brand recently wrote:
It's way easier to believe there isn't a future. That lets us off the hook. Events are out of our hands. We can relax and do what we want, because the gods or the nukes or the supercomputers are going to render everything we do moot anyway.

It is a blissfully liberating feeling to be moot.

That's why we'll have another apocalypse next year, and the year after that. There'll be a prophecy or an omen or some damn thing, an asteroid or a threat or a virus… we'll come up with something. We always have. That's also why I can't wholly subscribe to Singularity theory: yes, it's got some good math backing it up, but I don't trust anything that is so effectively serving that same emotional need, the one with the batting average of .000.

It's also easier to say the future we were promised in all of those old The Jetsons cartoons failed to materialize. That somehow, some way, the future let us down and it's OK to be disappointed in it. But the reality is, the future we saw in our minds and those TV screens never arrived because we didn't allow it to. We held ourselves back.

Seriously, the technology for alternatively-fueled vehicles (natural gas, hydrogen, etc.) has been around for decades -- even centuries -- and what are we driving? Essentially the same vehicles Henry Ford and Karl Benz produced over 100 years ago. The easy response is that the other vehicles didn't pass the test of the market, but my counter to that is easy: Who makes up the market for most of this stuff? We do. The innovation we claim to crave starts with us being more innovative and tolerant of the innovations of others. You can only go as far as the ecosystem and infrastructure allow you to.

So what do we do now? The first thing is to free ourselves from fear. That may be difficult to do given all the acrimony you can see and hear with a click of the TV remote or a swipe of a smartphone screen, so maybe the first thing to do is start stepping away from the computer, putting the phone down, and getting outside. The second is to realize some basic truths. The sun will rise in the east and set in the west tomorrow, just like it has since the beginning of time. We also live in a day and age where our children and grandchildren will have a much better chance of living longer, healthier lives than at any other time in history. And lastly, we need to get busy rethinking things like work, and what we think our political economy should look like and how it should function. Because the future will be there for us, regardless of what crisis or apocalypse we think is right around the corner. And it will arrive faster than we think.

Twitter: @japhychron
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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