The Future is not a Hollywood Disaster

I was recently in Vienna after attending STARMUS Festival.  Founded by Stephen Hawking and Queen’s legendary guitarist, Sir Brian May, this annual event brings together some of the world’s brightest minds on the planet to connect, exchange ideas, and brainstorm solutions for pressing global issues. It’s not every day you get to have drinks with a former US Secretary of Energy, a Nobel Laureate, a former CEO of Europe’s largest nuclear company, and one of the most influential contemporary performance artists, all in one evening.

Walking through the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace, a remnant of the Habsburg Empire, I found myself reflecting on Vienna’s history—its rise and fall, its invaluable contributions to music and intellect, and the tragic killing of tens of thousands of innocents. Despite these setbacks and tragedies, Vienna has remained a cultural, economic, and political hub of Europe. One might walk its streets today, unaware that just 80 years ago, during WWII, the city was bombed 52 times, resulting in the destruction of 37,000 homes and 25% of its entirety. To put this into perspective, in New York City, that would include everything below 34th Street; in Los Angeles, it would encompass Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Marina Del Rey, West Hollywood, and Culver City, in totality.

Vienna, or the area it occupies, has existed for thousands of years, serving as many things for many people. It was first the Celts, then the Romans, followed by the Babenbergs, the Habsburgs, the innovators, the socialists, the Nazis, and finally the liberators. Despite its tumultuous history, the city has remained a beacon of survival and transformation. Throughout its existence, many have predicted its downfall and forecast its collapse. I try to imagine how, during its times of hardship, one might have written about its impending demise, painting a bleak vision of its future. And yet, here it stands, a city stronger than ever and a testament to a species that when faced with an ultimatum, rises from the ashes to soar to new heights.

As a solo wilderness explorer, I’ve learned to negotiate perception, realism, and optimism, without becoming naive—naivety will kill you in the wild. During COVID, I wrote an essay about perceiving and dealing with danger: “There is a big difference between danger and fear. Danger is real and tangible. You can quantify, measure, analyze, and find solutions. Fear is conceptual. It is an interpretation of danger. And those interpretations are rooted in cultural and personal perspectives, from past experiences and what is our own definition of a comfort zone.” Now being a realist means recognizing the dangers and challenges around you, while being an optimist means understanding your ability to overcome them. I am fully aware the world is not rosy, but I am equally conscious of my own agency. When I look at the state of our planet, I find no arguments against all the problems we have and the need to deal with them urgently, but I refuse to accept the hopeless reality many seem to paint.

This leads me to reflect on the belief our society has that we are on the brink of collapse and barely holding on to our civility. Ask anyone about the future, whether they are the neighbor, a top scientist, a friend, or a CEO, and ninety percent of them will tell you they think the future is bleak and that humans are experts at screwing things up. If they had to bet on our survival, they would most likely stake against it. Beyond our evolutionary predisposition to focus on the negative around us, part of the blame is due to this new reality where fiction and non-fiction have merged into a single entity. Looking at today’s news headlines, it can be difficult to distinguish between the latest Mission Impossible movie and the 6 o’clock news. It’s not just the similar apocalyptic narratives, but also the people delivering the news. Two decades ago, names like Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, and Barbara Walters were synonymous with investigative journalism and could only be found on dedicated news networks.

Now, you see the same faces on CNN as you do in the latest superhero blockbusters. On IMDb, the go-to online database for film and television information, news anchor Anderson Cooper is listed as a producer, writer, and actor with credits in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Batman v Superman, and Dawn of Justice. Wolf Blitzer appears in Shazam!, Fury of the Gods, House of Cards, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and Skyfall. Katie Couric has roles in The Boys, True Memoirs of an International Assassin, Zoolander 2, and Austin Powers in Goldmember. It seems the economic allure of entertainment has become irresistible for some. While this may boost their public recognition and wallets, it has negative implications for society. Their involvement in both the real and fictional worlds subtly contributes to blurring and distorting reality, where fear is the lead character.

Keeping you on the edge of your seat, the story is always the same – the world is only a button away from total destruction. Forget about the eight billion others living on the planet and the countless working relentlessly at making the world a better place. In the end, the fate of humanity is on the shoulders of one selfless hero with its evil counterpart lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. It is all or nothing in a zero-sum game with everyone on the sideline watching powerlessly. Listening to these stories, you’d think the only thing preventing us from reverting to cavemen is a super fragile thread barely holding and guarded by a secret society. So how about we ditch the Matrix crystal ball and dust off those history books that can teach us about the past; guide us in the present; and lay the first stone in planning for the future? It’s time to return to reality and remember that life is not a Hollywood movie.

A little of context first.

This binary narrative is nothing new; it has been with us since the beginning of our evolution. It originates from two small, fleshy structures called the amygdala, remnants of our humble and primitive origins. Think of them as the simplest transistors, using minimal energy to categorize information into fight-or-flight responses. Is this good or bad? Will I live or die? This is where we revert whenever we encounter new stress or danger. And there’s certainly no shortage of perceived threats. Or is there? If we consider the rising global population, and the increasing life expectancy, or read Steven Pinker’s, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, it becomes clear that from an evolutionary perspective, the world has never been safer.

Understanding this fact about ourselves and therefore our vulnerability to react or our lack of control under stress, fear becomes unfortunately too much of an attractive incentive for commanding attention and enforcing order. Our parents use it when we misbehave. Religion promises eternal damnation if we don’t follow the scriptures. The environmentalists preach the end of life if we don’t fix climate change. And now the tech world is afraid of total extinction if we don’t slow down AI. The rationale behind this is not totally wrong. There are consequences for everything and if we lived in a world where there were none, it would be utterly chaos. But when fear goes off the rails and becomes the only lens we process the world with, then we lose all concept of normality and turn into a giant herd of buffalo heading for the precipice. Unfortunately, when stuck in that panic mode, the individual is lost to a group blinded by fear, with its common sense stripped away, not realizing it is the end until it is too late. But if we pause, take a deep breath, and look around, we realize all that is needed is to step aside and get out of the herd, with the understanding that falling off the cliff was the stupidest of all the possible outcomes.

In all those futuristic predictions we assume humans are a) the worst and/or b) powerless. We dismiss our species’ history of resiliency and replace it with a 2-line Hollywood plot featuring a tyrant at the helm of a secret army. Forget the past. Forget the fact that we have risen from the worst tragedies, that we can and have accomplished the impossible, our future is just a bleak world of abuse and slavery. (Hunger Games, Divergent, Rebel Moon, etc) That is until, if we are extremely lucky, a hero rises! (In Dune, the Bene Gesserit manipulated societies for thousands of years with the hope of creating a savior).

From the sample of headlines in the image above, the word “extinction” is found six times. When it is not used, it is replaced by “Destroy Humanity’ or “Destroy the Planet”. The definition of EXTINCTION according to the dictionary is: dying out, disappearance, vanishing, death; extermination, destruction, elimination, eradication, annihilation – zero, nada, nothing left. Just for the record, not even the giant asteroid that killed the dinosaurs annihilated life on Earth. In fact, it cleared the way for the mammals. Even WWII, which killed tens of millions of people, paved the way to the most productive and non-violent era humans have faced. I don’t want to dismiss the atrocities the past has produced but we have to stop throwing the word extinction around as if it was the latest fashion trend.

A.I. (calling it Artificial Intelligence is part of the problem but that discussion is for another time!) is not going to destroy us. It will be challenging for sure. It will transform the world in good and bad ways. It will be used by some Machiavellians and by others with great genius for the benefit of society. It is time we ditch the Hollywood perspective and remember what we are and who we are – a messy, complex, ugly, boring, pretty, rich, inspiring, and above all, a resilient species (just like nature). We are moving forward always in unchartered waters, trying to do our best. We work at finding solutions, understanding the only difference between innovations and mistakes is hindsight. All we need is the right incentive to accomplish the impossible.  We don’t do well with concepts. But we are great at adapting and figuring things out. Look around you. Yes, our world is saturated with negative noise but choose what to see. It is not easy, but if you look for it, you will find the good and plenty of it. You will realize then that betting against our survival and getting on the wagon of pessimism is the most unproductive and naive option to choose from.

Recommended reading:

We are the Best and Worst of Nature