“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
– Douglas Adams
Let’s assume for a moment that humans in the next century will continue to learn, continue to build, continue to evolve morally, and continue to develop in roughly the ways we’ve seen in the past 2,000-3,000 years. Let’s also assume that the rate of that directional change continues to accelerate.
Things are going to get weird – and very different – in the next few generations.
We all know how different we are from our elders. We have the luxury of looking back and being amused at their understanding of the world, their ideas, their culture, and their technology. Their moral and political views seem either reprehensible or just quaint and outdated. Their style is passe. Their culture is the butt of jokes on our Netflix series. Their technology is primarily used to decorate the homes of hipsters. We are, after all, the progressive ones. We live on the cutting edge, and all of the new apps are made for us.
Now imagine what it will be like for your children and your childrens’ children to look back at you now. It’s going to really suck for your ego. You’re going to face the same bemused contempt you feel about your elders today. You’ll have to experience the same realizations that your parents have to face about you, and that their parents had to realize about them. These include:
- You are not going to be more intelligent than your children. If the Flynn Effect in IQ measuresments have any value for measuring intelligence, then it’s likely that your children or their generation will be cleverer than you.
- You are not going to be more moral and tolerant that your children. They will look back at beliefs you consider progressive and call you a bigot for holding them.
- You are not going to be more knowledgeable than your children. They will look back at your knowledge and your methods for finding knowledge as if you are a flat-earther. They will know things that we have no idea we don’t know, and they will hold completely opposite beliefs on things we’re quite sure of today.
- You are not going to be more technologically savvy than your children. The technology skills and understanding gap between young people and their parents today will be laughable in comparison to what we can expect when we become parents. Think smartphone usage makes it hard to connect with young people? What about infinite, open source, reprogrammable virtual reality worlds available at the touch of a button? Good luck understanding your future kid’s headspace then.
The list could go on. I think you get the point. The realization that we are not after all the “end of history” or the pinnacle of progress should sober us. The realization that change is moving even faster than it did from our parent’s generation to our own should give us an idea of the disparities we can expect with the next generation.
This phenomenon of “eventually-being-made-a-fool-of-by-time” also raises a few important philosophical questions:
Are we being fair to our elders? Are we letting chronological snobbery – the blanket assumption that new and modern things are better than old and traditional things – influence our judgments about our elders? Isn’t this a pretty irrational way to make judgments? And yet we’re constantly shaming and snarking old things, old people, and old traditions. We rarely extend empathy and understanding to people in older generations who haven’t “kept up” with “progress.” Maybe we can tone down the condescension a little bit, because we will surely be on the receiving end before too long.
Are we over-valuing our present progress? How much of our egos and self-worth do we have invested in being young, hip, progressive, and on the cutting edge? There will come a day when we are none of those things. What will we do then?
Have we considered the future consequences of our present understanding? Are we on the right side of history or not? Should we even be asking that question?
It can be tempting to try to live now in such a way that future generations will consider you more enlightened than your contemporaries. But is that a good way to make moral or other decisions? You’re merely playing a guessing game and pandering to a peer pressure which doesn’t even exist yet. It can also be tempting to say to future generations “to hell with your approval.” This is also a mistake, and it’s not likely to leave a good world for them. For better or for worse, we’re stuck with making decisions about our values, our culture, and our actions with the knowledge and context we have now.
Can we count on progress to continue? At the beginning of this post I asked you to assume that progress will continue over the next century. But after all, progress is not inevitable. It happens when people take responsibility, take chances, and make discoveries that are valuable for the people around them. Is it possible that we are too complacent about progress? Are we just counting on it to carry us and future generations forward into a better world?
An equal and opposite danger to overrating your own generation is overrating someone else’s. No future generation is going to redeem your own. No future generation is going to be able to build unless you leave them tools and a foundation. You have to work really, really hard if you want to raise a generation of people who will be better than you and who will therefore mock your culture, values, and knowledge.
Change will not be easy on you. But you can be more ready for it by acknowledging that it is coming. Don’t stake your self-worth solely on your mastery of the present, take disruption like a man (or woman), and maybe don’t put on as much of an act about being Progress Incarnate.