Rather than a retrospective on the past year, I thought I'd kick off the new year in its wee hours with a look forward at the wider world.
In The Princess Bride, Fezzik the Giant says to Inigo: "I hope we win."
It's my favorite line from that movie. A small, whimsical hope uttered by a character who knows that he can't possibly comprehend the size of the challenge in front of him--a challenge to which he is, nonetheless, committed.
The childlike courage of that line slays me every time. Every time I watch the film, a film that wants nothing more to make people laugh, I choke up just a little bit at that moment.
You see, I have a little secret. I think, in that moment, Fezzik is the whole human race, a small, determined voice in a big universe, beset by challenges too big to imagine, whispering to itself "I hope we win."
Win? Yes. In a cosmic sense. Winning means that we become a multiplanet species. It means that we end the waste of creativity that typifies any civilization, because power is too concentrated, and resources too scarce, and conformity is the only sensible survival strategy. It means, ultimately, that we learn how to extend opportunity and participation to everyone alive, with enough latitude that they can make their own way--and enough technical sophistication that they can continue making their own way during an indefinite lifespan.
That's a tall order, but I hope we win.
I've commented from time to time about how rapidly the world changes nowadays. In my less-than-forty years, I've already lived through two entire global political reorganizations (both of them largely peaceful--unheard of even a generation before my birth).
As I'm sitting here enjoying the early morning quiet and writing time in the pre-dawn hours on the west coast of North America, with the last of an incredibly intense year behind me (in senses both global and personal), I can't help but notice how the world has changed, again, in the last three years.
Dissent is cool again, after a decade-plus of universal timidity in various flavors. This is very healthy for the state of humanity. (See Snowden, Manning, et.al.)
"Poverty" now describes the smallest portion of the world's population ever in history. Extreme poverty is now on course to disappear by 2030. (check out gapminders.org)
Even in areas of the world where such concepts are anathema, the fight for civil rights for all people is an issue of public discourse. Let's not kid ourselves, we still have a LONG way to go in the US and Europe and everywhere else in the world, but keeping that reality firmly in mind, for the first time in history there are more than just a few pockets on the planet where our grotty old species at least pays lip service to the notion that all humans are human first and all other considerations second, and entitled to the dignity due humans. If you doubt this, try counting on your fingers the number of groups that it's universally okay to reflexively hate--you'll find that it's between two and four items long. When I was born, there was a list that took up several pages. When my grandparents were born, the most progressive and liberal-minded governments on the planet enforced that hatred with pogroms and forced sterilizations--and that was an improvement over what came before (i.e. routine slavery and genocide). (see gapminders.org, the progress of gay rights just this year, and Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Natrue).
We have finally entered the space age. China's got probes *right now* headed for the moon. Sweden's got a nutty billionaire trying to go to Mars. Virgin Galactic is now selling tickets. SpaceX and Bigelow are doing commercial supply trips to the ISS and have their sights set on the moon. Planetary Resources is aiming for the asteroids. The Google Lunar X-Prize is in its final months. A plurality of nations now recognizes the need for meteor defense. And we now know there are habitable planets out there--and we know *where they are*.
Regenerative medicine is finally here. Gene therapies are finally here. The genes for aging (or, at least, some of the big ones) have been identified.
Hunger is at an *all time* low. And it's headed lower.
Population growth is at an *all time* low. And it's headed lower.
Energy use per capita is in free-fall in the west, while value extracted from that energy is up up up. CO2 production per unit of energy is falling. Solar power is now on a Moore's Law curve. Even China is starting to tackle its pollution problems.
3D printing can happen on your desktop for the same cost as a mid-range Macintosh from just six years ago--and the technology (granted, not all at the low end) is now suitable for food, trinkets, weapons, rocket engines, and just about everything else.
Where the establishment fails, the Internet of everything has enabled people to solve problems from transportation to lodging to recycling cast-offs, to the benefit of all (except for entrenched players that don't want to adjust their business/political models to keep up with reality).
The Internet itself is changing shape, shifting away from a hierarchical to a mesh topology. It will take too long to explain why, but this also will have far reaching effects (some very negative, many more extremely positive).
Anyone, anywhere, can now publish a book, song, game, or film and make money from it. Culture is no longer the domain of scribes, priests, academics, and connoisseurs.
For the first time in six thousand years of recorded history, governments (fair or foul) and churches (fair and foul) have finally lost the battle to control of the flow of information.(see Moises Naim's The End of Power for this and many of the other points in this essay)
Public opinion has turned against the militarization of policing. Police opinion is beginning to follow. Public opinion in the US has turned against capital punishment, against prosecutorial overreach, and against the criminalization of everyday activities.
Literacy is now universal in the West, and increasingly common everywhere else. For the first time in history, almost everyone can read--and the majority of the people who can read, do read.
In other words, we are now on the brink of victory, on all fronts (environment, poverty, liberty, medicine, mortality, space travel, long-term survival). For the first time in history, the worst really is over. We actually can *win.*
Don't mistake me. We still have a long way to go, both morally and technologically. As a species that is both apex predator and prey of all, we tend to panic and do stupid things. In order to cope with uncertainty, we exaggerate some real threats and ignore others. We sometimes invent completely imaginary ones, then do ourselves great harm attempting to fix problems that don't exist. When our dogmas break, we look for someone to punish instead of looking for better dogmas. We get cynical and dour because we can always imagine a world that is more beautiful, just, fair, prosperous, moral, and intelligent/intelligible than the one in which we find ourselves. We even frequently imagine that, as individuals, we are uniquely capable and our fellows are all utterly stupid and will, at any moment, undo all the good things in the world.
But we have always been this way. Stupid, scrambling, greedy, small-minded creatures that we are, we have still made our way to the brink of victory. I do not think we can win because the best of us will show the way if the rest would only shut up--I think we will win because in our stupid, scrambling, greedy small-mindedness, we are relentlessly creative and experimental. It is in our nature to fail upwards. The very thing that distinguishes humanity from all other great apes is this: We can learn from the mistakes of our friends, our enemies, our parents, and ourselves.
Thirty-six years ago, when I was born, humanity's endgame was obvious: overpopulation, nuclear war, famine, and then a final decay back into the dust, just like the dinosaurs (but with better weapons). The notion that we might actually do better than a long decline was something only Star Trek geeks believed.
But today? So few years later? We have reached the point in our history when it's not a fool's dream to imagine humanity as a race of beings that, more often than not, does a good job honoring the liberties, dignities, rights, aspirations, and creativities of even its least members. Even a race that, while doing all that, finds its place among the stars.
At the start of 2014, we stand upon the brink of victory. All humanity must do to win is to hold our nerve.
I hope we win.
I think we will.
-J. Daniel Sawyer
Jan 1, 2014
near San Francisco, CA