30

May 6, 2016

On two birthdays.

In the early hours of this morning I turned 30. I don’t feel all that different, of course. And even if I did, any apprehension about my age would be outshined by the supernova of a fact that within a week or two, I’ll be a father. More than any birthday, the decision to bring new life into the world, my world, has compelled me take stock of it.

It’s been fascinating and frightening to watch both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders ride a tsunami of public dissatisfaction to prominence. Both have called our political system “rigged,” and in many ways it is. But political legitimacy isn’t something to question lightly—in The Book of History, the pages in which legitimacy dissolved are always written in red ink.

Then there’s climate change. As we continue to muse uncomfortably about the unseasonable weather, it’s been revealed that the loudest voices denying climate change knew about it half a century ago. Yet as island nations sink into the sea, our species seems politically incapable of solving this problem, a fact which bears weightily on the paragraph above.

But where politics has failed, corporations are succeeding. Like many, I was heartened to see so many corporations come out against the recent discriminatory laws in North Carolina and Mississippi. And yet, is this not a troubling shift in the balance of power? Most Americans support equal rights for our LGBT friends and family, yet it’s now the people who want our money defending them, not those who ostensibly want our votes.

Speaking of rights, this year I read two brilliant books—Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me—which have opened my eyes to the chilling realities of racial caste in America and the injustice of mass incarceration. In an era of historically low violent crime and professed color-blindness, we here in the land of the free have managed to build the most expansive prison system in human history and populated it according to demonstrably (if no longer explicitly) racist policies. Our children and grandchildren, if we’ve raised them well, will ask us how we let this happen in our name, on our watch.

And then there are the robots. Nick Bostrom’s magnificent Superintelligence makes the troubling case—with the rigor of an Oxford philosopher—that the most immediate threat to our species’ survival is artificial intelligence. Climate change is slow and will only kill most of us, whereas the first artificial human-level intelligence might, within seconds of its inception, evolve as far beyond our comprehension as we are to insects. Let’s hope we’ll have given it good instructions, though as a philosophy student-turned-programmer, I’m keenly aware of the immense difficulties both of formulating clear ideas and of encoding them in machine language without bugs.

Given all there is to be concerned about, why again did I think it was a good idea to have a child? Because despite all that, there has never been a better time to be a human. For the first hundred thousand years of our species’ history, you had a good chance of being eaten alive by an animal. For the past several thousand, you were more likely to be killed by one of our own, though at a dramatically falling rate. Now, if you’re more likely to die at an old age from cancer in a hospital bed, your family bankrupted by medical bills, that’s an awful thing we need to fix, but it’s still a kind of progress. By nearly any measure—homicide, child mortality, poverty, human rights—things are a good deal less horrible now than ever before. Even the fact that this is surprising—that the world seems so broken so much of the time—is, in a funny way, a sign of hope. It means many of the ugliest problems we face are beginning to see the light of day, and that as relatively not-horrible as things are, we still have hope—we expect, even—that they can be better.

And then there’s the internet—Skinner box and Pandora’s box, to be sure—but it’s also an archive of human knowledge, freely available in any public library (and probably in your pocket right now). Consider that for most human history, the average household had zero books, one (the Bible) if you were wealthy, and even the privilege of reading that was a relatively recent development. Now you get pretty much all of the books, plus dozens of videos of turtles eating every variety of fruit. And in my case, I both met my wife and learned my profession thanks to the internet. So there’s that.

Listen, our species has a long way to go. Ten thousand years ago, we’d barely learned to grow our own crops instead of just walking around looking for them on the ground. A few hundred years ago, we were still burning each other at the stake. Even today, we’ve yet to learn to properly clean up after ourselves. And we’re still struggling with this crazy idea that those of us with the least money—with the fewest tokens with pictures of dead white men on them—maybe these people don’t deserve to suffer and die. This idea’s been around at least two thousand years, yet even today many of us who claim to follow a man who professed it are like “Yeah, I don’t think so. That’ll cost too many tokens.”

We are children. Homo juvens. Children with some very dangerous toys, too, but we are no longer monkeys1 and no longer babies. We’ve come a long way. If this species is going to make it through the next hundred, thousand, ten thousand years, we’re going to need more of us who are kind and curious, with enough of a sense of justice and few enough manners to call bullshit when we see it. I have the audacity to think I can maybe raise someone like that.

Wish me luck.


  1. Technically we never were—thanks, internet.