In this column, I tend to zero in on different aspects of technology that bring negative consequences to we who are all too human. Frankly, it’s exhausting. I’m getting depressed by it. I’m sure you are too. So today, I’m trying something different – optimism.
I’m currently plowing through Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature. Plow is the operative word here. It’s 832 pages long. Pinker exhaustively supports his optimistic view of human kind with reams of empirical data. To save you many, many hours of reading, I’ll give you the gist in about 7 words: We’re better than we used to be. Yes, right now – today – we humans are kinder, gentler, more moral, more peaceful, more rational and more caring than we have been in our entire history. It’s a trend that can’t be denied. When it comes to our empathetic track record as a species, it’s been overwhelmingly up and to the right.
Pinker cites six driving trends, including the Humanitarian Revolution, the Civilization Process and the Pacification Process. I realized as I was reading that all of Pinker’s trends have been made possible – directly or indirectly – by the advance of technology. The more advanced our tools become, the more peaceful we become. That seems to bode well for the future. Sure, there are some anomalies. Two world wars come to mind. But if you keep a macro focus – which Pinker does – the trend is undeniable. Our world is less “red in tooth and claw” than it used to be.
Let’s take the most obvious example. On July 16, 1945 we tested the most powerful weapon ever invented. If we wanted to kill people in unfathomable numbers, the nuclear bomb was the way to do it. In the words of Robert Oppenheimer, we had become “Death, the destroyer of worlds”
In the 73 years since then, this power has been used twice, both by the US in World War II. In that same time, deaths by all types of warfare worldwide have decreased dramatically. The technological ability to inflict death and our actual track record in doing so have gone in two opposite directions. Of course, it’s not just weapon’s technology that has improved dramatically. Technology has been advancing faster than ever on all fronts. And I think it’s dragged the “better angels of our nature” along with it.
Speaking from my own experience, I’m probably a better person than I was 40 years ago. I’m less prejudiced, more tolerant and more aware of all types of horrible human behavior. And it’s not just me. I still know plenty of bigots, but they’re not as bigoted as they were 40 years ago. I can’t think of anyone who has gone backwards in their social attitudes in that time. People of my parent’s generation used to say things back in the 1950’s and 60’s that are unacceptable today. If they do say it, they generally get an elbow in their side.
We tend to look on the dark side of things. Humans have been making apocalyptic predictions for as long as we’ve been human. Recently, technology has been increasingly fingered as the cause of our collective demise. But if you look at the evidence over the long term, the opposite has been true. We have been consistently improving our lot and ourselves thanks to technology. Technology not only increases our capabilities and connection but it also appears to increase our compassion. This correlation is not universal. It’s definitely not guaranteed. When we talk about collective behaviors, we have to aggregate and average. And when you do so, our behavior nets out to be gentler and kinder than it even has been before. I have to believe the advance of technology has a lot to do with it.