Everything Is Awesome -- And It Still Sucks

Published in Online Spin, July 20th, 2018

It’s a good time to be alive. If you don’t believe me, try subscribing to the Future Crunch newsletter.

Here are just a few tidbits from the latest edition:

Future Crunch’s general premise: Despite how you may feel, the world is actually way more awesome than it is terrible.

They’re not alone in this. Peter Diamandis, author of “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think,” said, “Today 99 percent of Americans living below the poverty line have electricity, water, flushing toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 percent have a television; 88 percent have a telephone; 71 percent have a car; and 70 percent even have air-conditioning. This may not seem like much, but one hundred years ago men like Henry Ford and Cornelius Vanderbilt were among the richest on the planet, but they enjoyed few of these luxuries.”

If you could choose any time in history to be born without knowing in advance where or to whom you would be born, you should definitely choose today. Globally, violence has been trending down for decades, as has poverty. Healthcare is going in the opposite direction. In many ways, a middle-class person today lives better than a king from a couple hundred years ago.

Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels Of Our Nature,” puts it succinctly: “We're living in primate heaven. We're warm, dry, we're not hungry, we don't have fleas and ticks and infections. So why are we so miserable?”

Like many, I spend a lot of time concerned about the world. These are some of the things I’m worried about:

  1. Technological unemployment. Hundreds of millions of people could be put out of work due to automation.
  2. Increasing inequality. We’re already seeing this. As technology gets better, wealth increasingly concentrates with capital and away from labor.
  3. Algorithmic bias. Algorithms increasingly control every aspect of our lives, and yet, in many cases, we’re embedding into them systemic and historic biases and injustices. We’re building them to reflect who we are rather than who we could be.
  4. Cybersecurity. Everything is connected means everything is vulnerable.
  5. Undermining of trust. From Cambridge Analytica to deepfakes, it’s becoming harder and harder to know what to believe.

Faced with all this, it’s easy to feel a sense of despair. Recently, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Internet, reportedly described himself as “devastated” with how the Web is unfolding.

There are plenty of possible reasons why, despite a large body of statistical evidence, we don’t feel happy about how things are going. And for some people, the solution lies in the kinds of comparisons I made above: “How could you not feel happy? We’re doing so much better than we used to!”

But if we’re miserable when we compare ourselves to how we feel we should be, comparing ourselves to how we used to be might not help. Max Ehrmann shares a key insight as to why in the wonderful poem Desiderata: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

The problem is not whether we’re doing better or worse. The problem is that we’re always comparing. Everything is awesome, and it still sucks. And all we have to do to feel better about it is to release ourselves from the desire to compare. In short, to become enlightened. What could possibly go wrong?

Kaila Colbin