From Chapter 53 of Future Rising: A Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow
For most of us, our vision of the future is uniquely human. It’s driven by the skills, attributes, and perspectives we’ve evolved to be capable of, and it’s intimately connected to who we think we are, and who we aspire to be. And yet, what it means to be human, or to be imbued with “personhood,” is surprisingly elusive. In the words of author John Green, “the deeper I dig, the harder it becomes to understand what makes people, people.”
Biologically, we’re merely a by-product of a constantly evolving environment. And genetically, we’re not that different from many other organisms. But of course, it’s the differences, deceptively small as they may seem, that help define us as a unique species.
These differences have led to us emerging as animals with an exquisite sense of the future. More than any other organism living on Earth, we are capable of imagining a future that’s different from the past, and actively charting a way toward it.
Humans are, in a very real sense, architects of the future. We live in a present that is dominated by our perception of the future and what it might hold. Our every action is determined by what’s coming down the pike, and how we can ensure that it’s good for us—often, it has to be said, to the detriment of other people and other organisms. Despite our future-oriented ambitions, we’re also short-sighted.
Of course, we’re not the only evolved organisms that can anticipate and respond to the future. But we’ve taken it to a level beyond anything seen anywhere else. Through our intellect, our creativity, and our ability to innovate, we are crafting new technologies, new societies, and new worlds. We’re on the cusp of designing new organisms, even brand- new forms of biology. And if we crack artificial intelligence, we could be heading toward designing a future in which we are, for all of our capabilities, redundant.
This in-built ability to envision the future, combined with a compelling desire to change it, is part and parcel of what it means to be human. And yet it’s only part of the story. Our humanness extends to less tangible qualities that include how we feel and how we behave toward others. And sadly, it includes a tendency to exclude from the future that we’re building those we consider to be in some way less valid, less entitled, even less “human” than us.
Up to now in this exploration of the future, I’ve been rather loose with the term “we.” I’ve implicitly assumed that there’s a homogeneous “we,” where “we’re” building a future that “we” will all benefit from as “we” work together to make it so. And yet, the reality is that the “we” of humanity encompasses a diverse collection of individuals who all have their own ideas of what the future should look like. And the danger is that, as we come into conflict with those who threaten our particular vision of the future, we delegitimize their claim by undermining the very validity of their humanity.
This is a particularly ugly and insidious part of being human. It draws a tight circle around our conception of “we” that conveniently excludes those who don’t look and think like us, or don’t share our views and our visions, or who otherwise threaten what we value—whether that’s our worldview, or our greed for a future that’s just about us and our desires.
This is a deeply selfish and destructive approach to building the future. Instead, we should be striving for this “we”
to be as big and inclusive as possible. And we should be collectively building a future where everyone has the right to thrive, as long as in doing so, they don’t deprive others of this selfsame right.
Here, I deeply appreciate John Green’s perspective when he says, “I believe that when we acknowledge each others’ consciousness and complexity we lead better lives, and feel less alone in our grief and in our joy…I believe that we’re human because we believe in each other’s humanness and because we can listen and we can work together to alleviate each other’s suffering. And in that sense I guess that being human is both something that we are and something that we must always aspire to be.”
This is a vision that inspires us to build a future that’s inclusive, that puts others first, and that is designed for the benefit of the many, not just the few. It’s one that opens the door to understanding what it means to be human and to have “personhood” long after we’ve outgrown the constraints of our biological heritage. And it gets us thinking about the why of future-building, as well as the how.