For people who like words, “apocaholics” is a new and ingenious one. It instantly conveys the impression that those with a dystopian view of the future have a neurotic compulsion that is unhealthy and unfounded. The word is instantly dismissive and pejorative, suggesting an irrational fear, a baseless apprehension, an addictive dependence on pessimism that needs therapy, like those who are debilitated by alcohol. It’s a word that garners immediate attention.
Apocaholics made its debut in the popular media in a conversation Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine (Oct. 22/12) had with Brian David Johnson, the chief futurist for Intel Corporation, one of the world’s largest makers of computer chips. Johnson, of course, is optimistic about Intel’s prospects and is promoting the use and value of “putting chips into all sorts of different devices…to enrich people’s lives.” Bethune replies by noting the pessimistic mood that is so common these days. “…You do not like our current dystopian attitude toward the future. You want to change the narrative.” Johnson’s reply warrants its full paragraph.
“I do. I do,” he says. “There’s been some research recently that human beings seem to be ‘apocaholics’ — always seeing something right around the corner that’s going to kill us all. I understand it. As human beings, we’re hard-wired for a world where, if you heard a twig break behind you, you jump and you have a physical fear reaction. That was okay when that snap was a sabre-toothed tiger, but we don’t live in that world any more. Now that reaction blocks us from coming up with the really great ideas, so I’m on a crusade against fear, because being afraid of the future means we’re giving up our power. You can’t let the future happen to you, you can’t sit back and be passive — you need to be an active participant. We all, as human beings, personally build the future, whether it be our own, our family’s, the world’s. We have to own that fact and we need to do something about it.”
Johnson presents a convincing argument for the power of trust, optimism and volition, for the merit of taking control of our destiny and believing in our ingenuity. Indeed, considering our accomplishments to date, the prospects for tomorrow should be bright and promising. So, why the gloom? Perhaps the best reply to Johnson’s argument comes from Surviving Progress, a recently released documentary distributed by Canada’s National Film Board.
As a sequel to anthropologist Ronald Wright’s brilliant book and Massey Lecture series, A Short History of Progress, Surviving Progress reminds us that the very brain that is managing our computers, nuclear bombs, fossil fuels, global finances, and the full suite of our modern technological complexity, is the same brain that responded reflexively to Johnson’s example of the breaking twig. Our brains are virtually unchanged in 50,000 years. The ingenuity that is determining our future is the same electro-chemical hardware that met the sabre-toothed tiger. This mismatch between our inner capabilities and our outer challenges does not exactly warrant confidence in the outcome. Indeed, a dash of fear and caution might be precisely what we need. If the same visceral intensity that attacked the sabre-toothed tiger with clubs and spears now operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, the mechanism of international economics, the ethics of transnational corporations and the processing magic of computers, then this is legitimate cause for apprehension.
Surviving Progress also makes the poignant point that progress is not synonymous with improvement. The ingenuity that could kill a mammoth was probably useful. The ingenuity that could kill two mammoths might have been better. But the ingenuity that stampeded whole herds of mammoths over cliffs was an excess that may have caused the extinction of a valuable food source. Arrows might have been an improvement over clubs but thousands of nuclear warheads poised to obliterate most life on Earth hardly seems like the progress that induces confidence in our ingenuity.
Indeed, our reflexive response to the breaking twig may be the human failing that has prevented us from anticipating consequences and restraining the impulse to extremes. A succession of best first responses doesn’t necessarily lead to a desirable ending. Agriculture fed more people than hunting-gathering but this innovation, that occupied only 0.2 percent of human history, has left a legacy of local ecological disasters and a population of seven billion people responsible for global ecological problems. The automobile eliminated the tonnes of horse manure littering city streets but a billion cars now clog the world’s roads, filling the air with toxins and spurring the quest for ever-greater amounts of oil — another extreme of its own. And the essential goods we need for survival and comfort have morphed into an epidemic of consumerism that is polluting the planet while burdening our lives with excesses.
True, as Brian David Johnson says, we “can’t let the future happen” to us. We “can’t just sit back and be passive.” We have an obligation to “personally build the future…”.
How much future we can “personally build” is a mute point these days. A corporation such as Intel doesn’t consult with humanity about the life-enriching benefits of “putting chips into all sorts of different devices”. Monsanto doesn’t ask people about the need for genetically modified crops. Pharmaceuticals don’t solicit from citizens a priority of diseases to be cured. Television stations don’t design their programs to elevate the collective wisdom of society. Advertising invents wants and then indiscriminately elevates them to the status of needs. Petrochemical industries design exotic concoctions that subject living organisms to calculated risks. Global financial traders wreak economic havoc by playing loose with monetary prudence. This might be progress but it is not necessarily improvement. And, for most people, it isn’t choice.
As Brian David Johnson proposes, we each “must personally build the future”. Then, for emphasis, he adds, “We have to own that fact and we need to do something about it.” Apocaholics are simply people who are taking his advice, are assessing our present situation, and are reaching their own conclusions.