What Are You Worried About?

Over at Edge.org, its impresario John Brockman poses an annual question to his assemblage of scientists, scholars, writers and other insightful people. This year's (suggested by George Dyson), was this: "Tell us something that worries you (for scientific reasons), but doesn't seem to be on the popular radar yet—and why it should be." The result was an interesting array of anxiety. My own worry, which I didn't realize was preying on me until I focussed on this question, is the ongoing astonishing rise in the average age of the human race. It's here.

Among the other responses, I noticed a number with the post-rational theme that we ought to worry about the ways we worry—because of the way our minds are organized, these writers think, we can't fret about the right things, even as we wear ourselves into a frazzle about the wrong ones.

For instance, Dan Sperber worries that we generally worry in ways that are futile but wasteful of our limited time and energy. Similarly, Gary Marcus worries that are incapable of worrying about the right things, because we're (a) compelled by (darkly or positively) thrilling information, (b) discount the future, (c) tend to see our immediate troubles as our biggest, and (d) tend to think that the world is just (so we can't conceive that things can get as bad as they in fact can). Specifically, he thinks we're congenitally incapable of evaluating the risks involved in biotechnology, nanotechnology and the arrival of machines that are smarter than we are.

Another "meta" theme this year is the unexamined consequences of the human race's process of taming itself. For instance, Scott Atran worries that the rich variety of human experience is turning into one homogenized global beige, the way that the planet's rich diversity of edible plants has been crowded out by a few monocultures. And Nicholas Humphrey worries about the ease with which people now access any knowledge they seek. (Writing this blog has made me wonder about that myself. Years ago, if I dimly recalled reading something about people taming themselves the way we have tamed animals, I would have had to find a book on my shelves or go to the library and hunt or call up someone whom I might hope would be knowledgable. Now I Google. I still need to have some idea of what the hell I want to know, but the passage from cloudy notion to precision can feel weirdly unearned. I think that's what's on Humphrey's mind, when he writes that "we are in danger of becoming mere knowledge tourists, hopping from attraction to attraction at 30,000 feet without respecting the ground that lies between."

Internet dependence also came up in another way among several contributors, who worry about what happens, given our dependence on the Internet, when the machine stops.

I was also struck by Alison Gopnik's worry about our misplaced notions of childrearing, which causes people to worry about inconsequential things (which way the stroller faces, which form of "sleep training" to use) while missing the consequential ones (like the fact that so many American children grow up in poverty, thus missing out on the "long, protected, stable childhood" that best serves a developing human being). That one ties together the threads of misplaced anxiety, reliance on technology, and the effects of today's experiences on tomorrow's people. It also is one of those mind-altering posts which causes you wonder "how could I have not seen that?"

All in all, it's a stimulating collection. Well worth a look.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby

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