Why we should fear the future

The Speculist stuck up an interesting essay recently saying that “pessimism is the new racism”, noting that “we must recognize that the memeplexes that have built up around our fear of the future — pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, misanthropy — are both factually and morally wrong”.

I found this interesting, since I consider myself to be quite pessimistic about certain things. The majority of science fiction I enjoy tends to be dystopian, as does my own personal writing. I have optimism about other things, but that’s rather beside the point.

While an obsession with a fear of the future is probably unhealthy, I probably take the completely opposite point of view: we’re not pessimistic enough. I don’t think we ask enough questions about new technologies, new laws, new wars. We’re too quick to brand people as Luddites, doom-sayers or non-patriots. We don’t spend enough time trying to forecast unintended consequences and don’t pay any attention to our future, and are instead fixated on short-term self-gratification.

Myself, I’m more interested in asking the question, “Why are we afraid?” The author, Phil, makes it quite clear that he sees fear in a purely evolutionary context, and sees our “fear of the future” as “natural”.

I see this as the wrong approach. It assumes that our fear just happens. Of course, there is a good argument that fear is a natural survival instinct, but fear arises from what we experience through our senses. As individuals, if there is nothing to be fearful of, we don’t conjure them up like a cheap magician.

As a personal example, walking around my neighbourhood was never a problem for me; I didn’t feel afraid. At least, not until I discovered that the local kids had formed some gang and were intimidating passers-by. I was fine living in my house in peace and quiet until I learned that a few houses nearby were broken into.

Those things made me slightly more fearful of, say, going out late at night, or leaving the house for long periods of time. The funny thing, though, is that my fear made me take precautions, and I lessened my fear. I’m no unhappier than I was before because of my fear. In fact, I’m probably a lot happier than I would’ve been if something had gone wrong, and I hadn’t taken any precautions at all.

So, why are we afraid of the future then? Where is this fear coming from? It’s not that we, as human beings, are inherently fearful of the future just because it is the future, and therefore unknown. We fear it because our auditory and visual senses are bombarded with messages of fear.

The reason for this is, in my view, control. Goering nailed it on the head that fear is the primary means of controlling the populace, and fear is a cornerstone of the advertising and media industries. I’m not suggesting conspiracy theories of smoke-filled rooms. That’s just the reality of maintaining power over people.

It’s not that these fears are not real. By and large, they are or can be very real fears, and that’s what makes it so effective and powerful. It’s like how all good propaganda does have a strong element of truth to it.

Essentially, we live in a state of fear, because fear sells, and you can motivate people to do what you want if they’re afraid. People have learnt that they can exert power over others by manipulating that “natural” fear. It’s not pessimism itself that should be viewed as the new racism. That’s like saying that the subject of a racist attack should stop feeling as if they’re a victim. It is fear as a tool of manipulation that should be viewed as the new racism. That is certainly a lot closer in analogy. I come from South Africa, so I know what racism looks like. It’s ugly, and in South Africa it was used to deprive others of basic rights. Perhaps my pessimism has deprived myself of a certain level of happiness (ignorance is bliss, after all), but my pessimism has not deprived anyone in the same manner.

One of the more interesting aspects of all this is that so much of the technology, science and progress that are held as examples of how things have gotten better are, in fact, “the fruits of war”. There’s nothing really controversial in this view. One could probably argue that a lot of our scientific progress has actually arisen from a fear of the future; in this particular case, the fear of current and future enemies. The period of the Cold War saw some of the greatest technological progress this planet has yet seen, driven by fear of the Soviet Union (a fear which, by and large was completely irrational, and misplaced, but one that was entirely useful). Most of those fears were based on pure, 100%, speculation.

It doesn’t stop there, however: fears of plagues and disease, famines. All these fears have been used to spur advances in various fields, such as medicine, and biotechnology. I’m not saying that it’s right that this is the case, but that is the reality. I find it highly ironic that the argument against feeling pessimistic and fearful of the future is being posted on a blog dedicated to the ideals of transhumanism, which is rooted in technological and scientific progress.

More worrying for me however was reading the statement that our “fear of the future … is an evolutionary artifact which, by and large, needs to be suppressed.” I see this as a terrible idea. It implies that the wondrous visions conjured up regarding new scientific breakthroughs should be accepted unquestioningly. It implies that when our leaders tell us that they have to go to war in order to reach Nirvana, that we must go along for the ride. It implies that things have been getting better, and will keep getting better.

Phil notes his prediction is that “the world will be cleaner and people will be freer, healthier, more prosperous, and less prone to violence than they are today”. But this is not necessarily correct. For example the world as a whole is not a cleaner place today than it was in the past. There’s a “plastic soup” that stretches across the oceans from Hawaii to Japan. How’s that cleaner than, say, a hundred years ago? The trend shows that we’re getting worse, not better, at keeping the world clean, and it’s likely to stay that way if we keep thinking that, just around the corner, everything is going to be okay.

Also, historically, at the end of WWI there was much talk about it being “the war to end all wars”, and how there was going to be massive prosperity. You could probably even say that it was people at this time not being pessimistic enough to spot the future threat of Germany.

Some may think it hypocritical that I initially said that we’re not pessimistic enough, but at the same time I also think we’re being made too fearful. It seems to me, however, that we tend to be pessimistic of the wrong things, namely those things that we’re told to be fearful of in order for us to be better consumers, or to support wars of aggression.

Despite how it sounds, I’m hopeful for mankind. I’m optimistic that we will eventually free ourselves from manipulation. But I’m not going to stop being fearful of tomorrow, because the battle is not yet won. And if I stop being fearful, or pessimistic, it’s likely that I’ll stop questioning.

I say we should fear the future that people in power are conjuring for us, in order for all of us to try and realise the future we want.


There are no comments for this fragment. Why not leave a message?

Leave a comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.

July 1, 2008