What are we doing here?
Wizards, prophets and the future of humanity.
There is a dilemma at the heart of the human project. While our intuitions are largely in agreement about the essential properties that would constitute the Platonic ideal of a society - no poverty, no sickness, clean environment, everyone happy, fulfilling work (no work?), elected government etc. - there is a sharp split in our opinions when it comes to the details; beyond the obvious, what would such a society look like? and, perhaps more importantly, how do we get there?
We tend to think “if only we could get our political systems together”, or “if only it wasn’t for corporate influence”, it would be smooth sailing all the way to Utopia. However, such ‘if only’s’ seem rather naive. For regardless of how broken our political systems are, or at least may appear, they nevertheless reflect some approximation of the electorate’s wishes and demands (of course, some more than others). The political division we recognise, in even the most robust democracies, therefore reflects a deeper divide; a chasm that currently separates the body politic (us). This rift between the world is the result of the competing, and often conflicting, visions for humanity; visions that reflect divergent values, beliefs, aesthetics, as well as present circumstances.
In his definitive guide to understanding our times, The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles Mann cleverly classifies these competing visions according to the two archetypes of the title. The “Wizard’s” vision for humanity is to leverage the power of science and technology to solve the world’s problems; to harness human ingenuity to unlock an age of sustainable abundance. As a rule, the Wizard is an optimist, a firm believer in the notion of progress and the reliability of the scientific enterprise as a societal propellant. The “Prophet”, on the other hand, is highly dubious of technology’s ability to better our lot. The way the Prophet sees it, history is the story of how man used technology to dominate and commoditise nature; one long downward spiral away from a golden existence of long ago where man lived in perfect synchrony with the rhythm of the cosmos. The progress the Wizard so proudly claims is but an illusion; whatever measure he or she points to nothing but superficial improvements that merely mask the deeper problems that will be our demise, should we continue along this path. We have overstepped our planetary boundaries, the Prophet protests, and the only way to save ourselves is to cut back; to return to the symbiotic relationship with Gaia (Mother Earth) we once had, before the Wizard bit into the forbidden fruit that is technology.
To be fair to both the Wizards and the Prophets, the caricatures I’ve just sketched are rough and therefore do little justice to the nuance of either position. That said, both archetypes represent extremes, which almost by definition, leave little room for finer details. For both the Wizard and the Prophet, black is black and white is white; grey is mere confusion.
In reality, very few of us are entirely one or the other. Rather than being binary, it’s more like a continuum along which we’re all situated; somewhere between Wizard and Prophet. At the same time, however, very few of us are in the middle. We all lean one way or the other. Hence the tension.
Mann’s insight here is a deep one. The reason being, from one’s Wizard-to-Prophet ratio, a remarkable degree can be reliably inferred; one’s political leanings, professional occupation, artistic taste. Whether one identifies as a Wizard or Prophet thus provides an illuminating clue as to who one is. From this high-level view of reality and our place in it, much else follows.
On one hand, it’s great that we have multiple visions for our future. Instead of viewing the two visions as oppositional, we can view them as balancing forces; what yin is to yang the Prophet is to the Wizard. Independent of one another, they are incomplete; together, they are whole. In this light, we can view the tension between the Wizard and the Prophet as creative, rather than competitive. However, on the other - far less romantic - hand, the disjuncture between these two ideals creates very real troubles for the human experiment. As cosy as the yin-yang notion is, in reality, it’s also a real pain in the ass.
Imagine you were playing a game of football (whichever your preference) and half your team couldn’t agree on which end is the goal. Obviously, it would be a complete mess; after all, half your supposed team would be in opposition. Unless the other team was equally fragmented, loss would be a certainty. Now imagine the stakes were the well-being and continued existence of human civilisation. Well, that’s the game we’re playing. And, like the football team that can’t agree on the goal, nor can we. Sure, we can tell ourselves that disagreement is healthy, diversity a supreme virtue. However, with the stakes as high as they are, contenting ourselves with such platitudes seems foolish. Instead, we should begin to get real about the challenges inherent in directing Spaceship Earth when half its passengers want to steer it one way, and the other half, the opposite. Unless we come to grips with the fact that these twin visions for humanity are in fact divergent, we will never reconcile them; if we never reconcile them, the rift that is currently tearing us apart will only grow deeper and wider.
This all naturally begs the question, who’s got it right? The Wizards or the Prophets? Well, obviously the Wizards. Or is it the Prophets? Ah, who knows. In truth, there is of course no ‘right’ answer. Neither is True in any real sense, but both have something to say. Which camp one finds themselves within hinges upon answers to wholly unanswerable questions. The big ones. For instance, ‘what is the good life?’, ‘what is the meaning of this all?’, ‘what is our Purpose?’, ‘do we have some kind of cosmic responsibility?’, and ‘how will all this play out?’ To name a few. The best we can hope to do with such lofty questions is a good stab in the dark. We can conjecture, pontificate, philosophise, even reason a little, but ultimately, there are no absolute truths, no correct answers (at least none that we are yet capable of comprehending). The deepest questions of our existence thus lie beyond the purview of scientific inquiry. No such questions can be confirmed or falsified by experiment. They are inherently philosophical, metaphysical, ontological, and aesthetic. That is, non-scientific.
While the subjective nature of these existential questions precludes the possibility of objective answers, that doesn’t mean we should run from them. After all, these are the questions we must wrestle with, if we are to continue (ever, if you’re a skeptic) to move the ball forward. That we cannot know the answers we seek should not discourage us from taking them seriously. Instead, we should allow ourselves to be humbled by their inherent subjectivity. For unless the Wizards and Prophets come to appreciate that their perspective is as much a matter of personal taste as anything else, they will never learn to reconcile their differences.
Though each is reluctant to admit it, perhaps understandably so, there are wrinkles inherent in both the Wizard’s and the Prophet’s approach. As with any rigid philosophy, there are drawbacks; certain implications that seem to entail sacrifice or shortcomings of various kinds. And so it is with these two. Understanding them is therefore pre-requisite to having an honest conversation about the future we’re creating.
When we look around, for the most part, we see the work of Wizards. We see the products of science and technology; roads, cars, planes and trains, high-rise buildings, digital devices, and the like. In other words, we see magic. The Wizard’s magic has become so deeply enmeshed in the fabric of society that it’s hard to imagine things any other way. Accordingly, we take it for granted that we live in a wizarding world.
The magic that surrounds us has carried us worlds away from our ancient origins. Because of it, we have transformed our relationship with space and time. We can now move and communicate further and faster than ever before. Thanks to the work of the Wizard, we have transcended the burden of scarcity and given rise to an age of abundance. Unparalleled freedoms afforded by technology have enabled us to do and be more than was ever previously conceivable. However, the magical powers that have transformed our lives, far from a free lunch, have exacted a substantial price. The tools and technologies invented and deployed by the Wizards of this world have given us increasing command over the natural world, for better and for worse. The ingenuity that led us to combust fossil fuels for energy gave us modernity, but it’s also given us widespread pollution, climate change, and immense biodiversity loss. Similarly, our ability to manipulate the finest structures of matter gave us computers, but also weapons of mass destruction. The agricultural Green Revolution of the 20th century enabled us to meet the demands of a rapidly growing population, however, not without significant environmental impact. And more recently, the devices that have made accessible the world’s information and rendered communication instantaneous, have also upset our mental health, created new political vulnerabilities, and fragmented society in the process. Good with the bad, I guess the Wizard would say.
While the Wizard might be quick to dismiss such problems as a fair price for progress, before proposing more technology as the solution, such responses are becoming increasingly hard to stomach, for even the most Wizard-sympathetic folk. Why? Because, by now, the nature of the scientific and technological enterprise has come into clearer view. If nothing else, we have learnt that science and technology is neither inherently good nor bad. Neither cares what it is used for. There is no law of physics that prevents their misuse. They are merely our best tools for understanding and manipulating the natural world; tools that can be exploited for harm as readily as they may be leveraged for benefit. Indeed, they do not affect our nature as much as they reflect it.
This fact alone is hardly cause for concern. A shovel can be just as easily used to fertilise a garden as to smack someone in the face. So what? “We cannot be blamed for human nature”, cries the Wizard. It’s a fair enough point, too. However, human nature is not the trouble per se. The problem is, technology is growing increasingly powerful, arguably exponentially so. Thus with human nature being what it is, combined with the moral ambivalence of technology, it would seem almost inevitable that something would eventually go existentially wrong. Whether it’s AI, an unstoppable synthetic pathogen, or a more powerful and accessible variety of atomic weapon, the dystopic nightmares are not hard to envisage. To be sure, that such scenarios are easy to picture means relatively little. What’s troubling is, just how probable - given the close calls already - it seems. By simply doing science, however benign the act may seem, it appears as though we may very well be rolling the dice with our future.
“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”
- Robert Oppenheimer
The Swedish philosopher, Nick Bostrom, of Superintelligence fame, brings this idea to life with his Vulnerable World Hypothesis, which centres around a metaphor he employs to depict the nature of the scientific enterprise. Bostrom visualises the process of scientific discovery as a kind of lucky (or very unlucky) dip, where scientists pull out balls from a jar, never knowing what exactly they will draw in advance. The jar from which scientists draw their discoveries Bostrom refers to as the “urn of invention”. Within the urn, he imagines three different colours of balls, each representing a certain class of invention: white, grey, and black. The white balls represent the best kind of invention; those that are wholly beneficial without any real catch. They’re the holy grail of science, the reason the well-meaning Wizard gets out of bed in the morning. Penicillin would be a good example of a white ball. Grey balls, however, are more complicated; they’re “mixed-blessings”, good and bad. Most technologies are grey balls; some just have a slightly darker shade of grey. The quintessential grey ball is our ability to split the atom. It gave us cheap, reliable, zero emissions energy, but also an unprecedented capacity for destruction, as we’ve seen with Fukushima, Chernobyl, and of course, Hiroshima. And then there’s the black ball: a “technology that invariably or by default destroys the civilisation that invents it”. So far, by sheer luck it would seem, we are yet to draw such a ball. What Bostrom goes on to consider is whether there is in fact a black ball in the urn, and if so, how society should respond should we happen to draw one.
Bostrom’s metaphor is as illuminating as it is sobering. It highlights, in arresting fashion, the random and fundamentally mysterious process of human invention, and its inherent dangers. As Bostrom points out, our civilisation has proven impressively capable at picking up balls. What we cannot do, however, is put balls back into the urn. Once the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, it’s out of the bag for good. In his words, “we can invent but we cannot un-invent”. Thus our current strategy is to hope that there is simply no black ball in the urn. Now of course, it is possible that no such black ball exists. However, that seems highly unlikely. Instead, it seems almost inevitable that we will one day draw a black ball. Sharing this sentiment, Bostrom goes on to outline a number of potential strategies we could adopt in such an event. Unfortunately, however, none of them offer much assurance. Thus the conclusion is that, by virtue of our scientific and technological inclination, we live in a most “vulnerable world”. Sobering stuff.
The silver lining to this idea, if you could call it that, is that it offers what is perhaps the most compelling explanation of the mysterious Fermi paradox: “where are all the aliens?”. Perhaps every technological society the universe over eventually draws a black ball from the urn. And so, before such societies ever reach the level of technological sophistication required to communicate or travel across distant galaxies, they cause their own extinction. Thus it’s not that we’re necessarily the only ones around, it’s just that we’ll never last long enough to find out otherwise. It’s not the most uplifting thought but it does seem plausible enough.
If this should happen to be our fait, it would seem all we can do is cross our fingers and hope we have a few good years left up our sleeves. To hedge our bets, it may also make sense to begin spreading our reach across the galaxy, while we still have the chance. Alternatively, as the Prophet might suggest, we could try and roll back the rate of technological progress and retain only what technology is absolutely necessary to return to the paradisal existence we once had but let slip. However, even if such a paradise did exist, and that we could somehow return to it, such a world would not be without its fair share of existential risk. While the Prophet’s utopia would be free from the threat of a black ball, having restricted access to the urn of invention, it would be highly vulnerable to the threats inherent in nature. Whether it’s the complexities of agriculture, the occasional yet dramatic fluctuations of the biosphere, or the inevitability of a catastrophic asteroid impact, without the necessary technology in our quiver, human civilisation is a fragile vase balancing on the tip of a turbulent universe.
Either way, whether the Wizards or Prophets win the day, the human project is a risky endeavour. With or without wizardry, we are a vulnerable species. This much is clear. And in the absence of a crystal ball, we cannot know where either path leads; we will always be fumbling our way through the dark. Such is the way of our world. Therefore, since we can make little headway on the deep philosophical questions that seperate the Wizards from the Prophets, we must resign ourselves to the more practical ones. First and foremost, in the face of an unknowable future, how do we reconcile our competing visions? To begin with, we should acknowledge that the Wizards and the Prophets will never see eye-to-eye, and that this is perfectly fine. Although the divergence between the two creates very real difficulties, the tension is in all likelihood positive. Left unchecked, the Wizards would likely blow things up quick enough. Given the reins, the Prophets would probably soon find themselves in trouble of their own, too. As corny, and as much of a cop-out, as it may sound, it really does seem as though the one needs the other. To each, they are tempering influences, balancing forces, healthy skepticism, and yes, yin and yang.
If hard-nosed purists on either side of the divide find this notion distasteful, it would do them well to remember that, like it or not, we are all in this together. Unless we can learn to tolerate opposing views, we will remain destined to repeat the mistakes of our past. To the Prophets: the genie is out of the bottle, for better or worse, and we cannot put it back; we discovered the urn of invention and there is no returning; we will continue to reach for scientific and technological progress until there is either nothing left in the urn or we’re no longer here. But more importantly, if we are to solve the problems of our time, we have no option but to continue to reach into the urn. We have become a technological civilisation and technological problems will not be solved by abandoning technology. This time, fire really must be fought with fire. To the Wizards: science and technology is an exciting, dazzling, highly fulfilling domain of human life. However, it’s also an unpredictably dangerous game we’re playing. Knowledge is power and power will always be used for good and evil. As our knowledge grows, so does our power, and so too do the stakes. But that is not all. Regardless of how clever we become, we will always underestimate the complexity of nature, for she is a lady of immeasurable depth. Thus, even when they are deployed with the best of intentions, there will always be unexpected consequences of our technology. Accordingly, the Wizard would always do well to retain a healthy dose of humility in the face of our limitless and invisible ignorance. The technology we already wield feels like superpowers. And thus it is easy to mistake ourselves for gods. But of course, we are not. We are mere monkeys with thumbs, and iPhones. And yet, that is enough.
As we turn our attention to the future of food, it’s impossible to ignore the contrasting approaches to the problems at hand. In one corner, we have the Prophets proselytising the virtues of regenerative agriculture; an ecological approach to land management and food production that emphasises the role of plant-animal-human symbioses. The kind of touchy-feely stuff one might expect from the Prophets, but an approach that shows considerable promise nonetheless. In the other corner, the Wizards are brewing a range of technological potions - genetic engineering, lab-grown meats, vertical farming; the kind of stuff that gives Prophets’ goosebumps and Wizards wet dreams. As we’ll see, whether one likes it or not (this one does), the Wizards and Prophets are equally shaping the future of our food. Although they’re coming from radically divergent places, their solutions are converging on the same set of problems. And while the two camps are often at each others’ throats, there’s a healthy dialogue between the two that gives one hope, not only for the future of food, but the future of humanity.