In brief: We believe our modern society is advanced, yet it seems to me that we live in the awkward middle ground between a truly advanced society and a primitive before-life-was-good era. I arrived here by considering how far humanity has come in the last 10,000+ years and how far we have to go to achieve our shared ideals. We need a new way to find our place in history. I propose a game – Advanced Yet Primitive – to better perceive the triumphs along with the need for more progress hiding in plain sight all around us.
As a scientist I am constantly looking to advance understanding of the world. Looking out from this perspective on a daily basis has led me to a “thought game” I like to play: Advanced Yet Primitive.
This game involves looking at a thing – such as the train I was sitting in when I first thought up this game – from two perspectives. First, does this thing seem advanced, based on what I know of history? This is a chance to revel in how far humanity has come and our place in that vanguard by simply being here to witness it. Certainly the train I was on is highly advanced from a hunter-gatherer or 18th-century perspective. Most fundamentally, it meets a human need (efficient transportation) that would have seemed impossible to a hunter-gatherer. It also builds on various scientific discoveries and engineering advances to be possible.
Second, does this thing seem primitive, relative to our ideals? This is a chance to see how far we have to go, and to get inspiring glimpses of possible futures. In fact, that train ride was rough and cramped and slow. So, we are actually very primitive relative to what could be.
Glimpses of the future come from playfully exploring in what ways we are primitive. With regard to trains we are primitive relative to both other existing modes of transportation (e.g., a nice car) and absolute ideals. The absolute ideal in this case could be split into pie-in-the-sky and realistic ideals. For a pie-in-the-sky ideal I would place instantaneous (or speed-of-light) transportation anywhere in the universe. Clearly we are very primitive relative to this ideal. More realistic would be self-driving cars, providing many benefits of trains with fewer downsides. Some downsides corrected by self-driving cars include the general benefits of cars over trains (privacy/roominess, freedom to go almost anywhere rather than just train stops) along with the benefits of train travel such as not needing to control the vehicle and limited traffic concerns (if everyone used a self-driving car).
This Advanced Yet Primitive game comes with some things that are intellectually and emotionally useful: Gaining perspective on how things are (learning about the world) and gaining hope for how things might become one day. This hope can be the impetus to action toward the advanced world we imagine during the game.
Cynicism is pervasive in our society, and seems like the rational response to having so many problems in the world. Rational hope comes from the juxtaposition of a problem and plausible solutions, or at least the plausibility that solutions will be found with enough hard work. An honest look at history since the Enlightenment began (in the 1700s) demonstrates that social and technological progress is now the norm .
Hope is the rational response to the Advanced Yet Primitive game, by placing us within the larger trends of history and calling on us to conjure a future with the things around us improved beyond recognition.
During the current COVID-19 pandemic it seems that hope is in short supply. Perhaps Advanced Yet Primitive can put things in perspective. We have a clear contrast with history here: the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Relative to then we are quite advanced, able to identify that the culprit is a virus (viruses weren’t well understood until the 1930s), sequencing the virus’s genome and developing tests based on that genome, among other major feats of scientific understanding and technological development. The possibility that we may develop a vaccine over the next year (there are now multiple COVID-19 clinical trials) is amazing, since vaccines have historically taken 10-15 years to develop.
And yet we have also been extremely primitive during the time of COVID-19. As a species we were caught unprepared for a global pandemic, despite modern life making pandemics much more likely than in the past (due to international travel, billions more humans, etc). Starting from the ideal, we should already have a universal vaccine for all major classes of viruses (e.g., coronaviruses). Regarding completely novel viruses, perhaps in the far future as soon as we sequence a virus genome we will be able to instantly create a vaccine to eradicate it. The economic impact of social distancing has been difficult to even comprehend, such that investing, say, a half-trillion dollars per year into virology research would be worth arriving at a future in which vaccines can be developed almost instantly. This makes sense not only to reduce human suffering (534,000+ deaths from COVID-19 so far) but also to save the economy in the long run. We might even develop nanotechnology that could have more widespread benefits than just fighting viruses, such as nanorobots that could fight viruses and provide targeted treatments for things like cancer or stroke recovery. Certainly we’ve made progress as a species on battling viruses, but we remain primitive relative to what is possible.
I mentioned social progress alongside technological progress because Advanced Yet Primitive works there as well. This reflect the same juxtaposition between the reality and the ideal – such as pay gaps between individuals of different groups doing the same work. It is immediately clear how we are primitive, since the ideal is so clear. It is so clear (and we are so far from it), in fact, that progress can seem hopeless.
And yet it is also clear that we are advanced relative to the 1950s (and certainly the 1850s), where there were substantial barriers to members of many groups even being hired for those jobs. This should put wind in our sails, pushing us forward to get us closer and closer to our ideal as it is clear it really is possible to make progress on this problem.
It is both a travesty that we have not reached our ideal (and that it is taking so long to get there), and hope-producing that we are closer now than before.
Perhaps calling Advanced Yet Primitive a game makes it seem trivial. I choose to think of it as a game because it is more fun for me personally than most other intellectual exercises. So, it is serious and fun at the same time. Serious in that it changes how you think about the world, but fun in that it allows for exploring the world and creating new versions of that world as you paint pictures of its future.