Cooperation is the Path to Thrive

We are as one. We are united by our common fate. We are all passengers on the same ship and will, whether we like it or not, arrive at a common destination. (Along with much of the rest of life on Earth, which will follow the course we set, for better or for worse.)

We are as one. This states an objective reality in the simplest possible way. It is true whether we recognize it or not.

We can still thrive if we understand our situation quickly. We will share a common fate. We, all of humanity, are united by this shared fate, by our common destiny. If we come to understand this too slowly, however, our future is likely to be nasty, brutish and, quite possibly, short.

Different Visions but a Common Fate

People who think about our future often see that future very differently. Just about everybody, however, agrees that we want a future we can look forward to and be proud to pass along to our kids.

When some look to the future, they see an enormous tragedy unfolding like a slow motion train wreck. These people are understandably very upset. Many are already deeply engaged in anticipatory mourning for their kids' spoiled lives and stolen futures.

Others have a more hopeful vision, one in which humankind rises to successfully meet the most critical challenges we face. These people are guardedly optimistic, but worried nonetheless. As time has passed, they have become increasingly worried and have had to work harder to sustain optimism.

Still others who look to the future see an altogether different vista, one in which opportunities and positive outcomes feature much more prominently. They see a future so different from today that most of us must struggle simply to imagine it. Universal access to unlimited information and communication, artificial intelligence, robotics, unlimited clean energy, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and much more. These people may at times succumb to untethered optimism.

Three visions, three pathways. Many variations can be imagined. Broadly speaking, most of these futures are neither inevitable nor impossible. Choices we have yet to make will shape our future path.

The Sad History of Predictions

Sports fans can take their lead from that great baseball legend, Yogi Berra. He made many wise statements over the years, but it is hard to top his take on all this: "Predicting the future is hard because it hasn't happened yet." So simple. So true. So perpetually forgotten. By so many.

No matter how often those who predict the future are proven wrong by events, they somehow keep missing the obvious conclusion.

The future is not hardwired, not inevitable. We are not the mere passengers of history.

We Have Power (But Only If We First Have Hope)

We possess what fancy talkers sometimes call "agency." That means that it isn't crazy to think we might be able to make stuff happen. Or, for that matter, stop stuff from happening. But how do we muster the motivation, the belief in ourselves, to rescue our future from the collectively self-destructive path we appear to be so resolutely following?

Most of you reading these words already well understand that humans face a daunting array of problems and have both limited time and limited resources with which to address those problems. You already understand that if neglected for too much longer, some of our problems may become so acute that they overwhelm our limited capacity to cope.

And yet this spreading understanding appears to be inadequate to motivate an effective response. It seems that while avoiding disaster may be compelling, it is not inspiring.

To pull history toward more positive outcomes, we must visualize and describe what could be in our future if we were able to survive the very turbulent waters ahead. Positive visions are needed. Carrots complement sticks. Opportunities give hope in a world already too suffused with fear.

Hope is the key that will unlock the power we need. If we feel hopeless, it is most often because we feel powerless. We must turn this destructive dynamic upside down. To the extent we can rally around a hopeful vision, to that same extent we can grow our agency, our power to save ourselves.

Hope: The Dream of a Better World

On the far side of the challenges directly ahead lies the possibility of creating a wondrous world. Fantastic opportunities could open before us. We could defeat most of the age-old sources of human suffering. We could even colonize the cosmos and found a civilization that could survive into the far distant future.

Thinking about - imagining - the up side possibilities of making it through is immeasurably more exciting and inspiring than mere survival could ever be. Merely avoiding disaster won't be enough to motivate the changes we need. We could have a glorious future, but we must believe that we could.

To do that, we must generate plausible descriptions of the world we could create that inspire us to rise to meet the existential challenges we face right now.

Everything Depends on Understanding

If we truly understood that we are as one, we could revolutionize the human prospect. The vision of a future of adventure, exploration, discovery, invention, and victory over many of the age-old sources of mass suffering could help inspire us to muster the unity and will required to surmount the challenges ahead.

And integral to all of this, the scientific understanding possible if we survive could open the door to self-discovery and self-understanding. Finally, the dark curtains that shroud the human psyche in mystery could be drawn back and we could know the truth about ourselves. And that truth would at long last set us free.

It could all still turn out this way. Of course, nothing good is likely to happen unless we can first imagine a positive future and then find our collective self-confidence that we could bring that future to pass. Without faith in ourselves, nothing will be possible.

In the Eye of the Beholder?

When some people hear the list of technologies included above as part of the most hopeful vision of the future, they see mostly opportunities. Others, however, see mostly threats. Both factions envision technology futures that might come to pass. But what will actually happen as events unfold depends on choices that have not yet been made.

If future technology development decisions are shaped by the short-term profit maximization requirements prevailing throughout current corporate governance, many resulting technology development strategies could fail to incorporate goals broadly beneficial to the many. Such goals would not be sufficiently profitable to warrant corporate attention, let alone actual investment.

Just as concerning, short-sighted technology development choices, while achieving the largest possible immediate profits for the corporations making those choices, could result in very significant and broadly shared harms, just as the technology critics fear.

The fairly obvious conclusion is that many technologies could be developed in ways that mainly benefit the few while often harming the many, or those same technologies could be developed in ways designed from the outset to benefit everybody.

In light of the many opportunities, but considering equally the downside risks the critics so compellingly explain, the only way to secure and hold public confidence and support for aggressive technology development is to have a decision process that is fully transparent and guided actively along the way by democratically established values, goals and priorities. Entities engaged in technology development must be held measurably accountable for their choices within this democratically established framework.

If we fail to establish a functional and rational process to win and hold public trust, the management of technology development could become an even more divisive and politicized issue, perversely feeding back in to reinforce the very polarization that already obstructs or at least complicates desirable technology development.

A democratically accountable process will prove to be the only effective way to develop technology. Without wise and far-sighted guidance, technology development will certainly produce huge problems and huge controversies. Our prospective inability to resolve such controversies in a fractured and polarized political environment seems clear.

The conclusion is straightforward. Those who see hope for a better world through continued human discovery, invention, and technological development would be frustrated in achieving the future embodied in their vision if our political system continues to be dysfunctional.

If we don't have an effective democratic process, the default position will be unilateral and unaccountable corporate control of technology development decisions in the interest of short-term profits. For the few.

This is a future in which technology is more part of the problem than part of the solution.

Replacing pretty much unilateral corporate control of technology development with a system in which the voters (or their representatives) play a significant guiding role is simply impossible to imagine in today's polarized, hostile, and dysfunctional environment.

More Cooperation is Key (to Everything)

"We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Abraham Lincoln

Growing our capacity for cooperation emerges as a kind of common denominator. No matter which prospective future you think is most likely, and no matter what you personally believe is most desirable, in every future scenario our actual situation (on the ground, day-to-day) would be greatly improved by a much higher level of cooperation.

This is an absolutely critical point. Promoting greater cooperation is truly a no-regrets strategy. Whatever your best-case future, greater cooperation would almost always be helpful, and would often be vital.

It is the key to opening up a positive future if you are mostly focused on fighting off threatening problems. Less obviously, but no less importantly, it is the key to developing our opportunities in ways that increase broadly shared benefits while reducing risks and minimizing collateral damage.

For combating problems, that's pretty easy to see. But most of the more optimistic among us base their hopes on technological innovation, and realizing those hopes will utterly depend on the same capacity for cooperation that solving our problems will require.

Published: July 2019
Revised: June 2023

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