Mystery

Let’s start with a pitifully trite quote.

Yesterday is history
Tomorrow is a mystery
Today is a gift
That’s why it’s called the present

It’s a cool play on words, but on the other hand the fact that it is possible just shows how ludicrous English is as a language. Okay, I digress.

I really hate long car rides. If I’m lucky I can sleep for three-quarters of the trip and either talk awkwardly with my family or stare randomly out the window for the rest of the time. If I’m unlucky it’s an instant shortcut to existential panic mode. Thinking about life, the universe, and everything is like poking at a scar; it hurts, I know it’s not healthy, but once I notice it I almost don’t have a choice. So the only counterstrategy I have is to actively restrain myself from going there in my mind, which is about as effective as consciously trying not to lose the game. I lost, by the way.

Something has changed, though, recently. Suddenly, I can smile, shrug nonchalantly, and turn away from the thoughts when I want to. I have no idea. It’s about as unmotivated as finding a double-jump powerup on a floating block above a small yet rapidly fluctuating pot of lava. Press H to activate your Existential-Resistance ability for 50 mana points! It feels natural, but objectively like it should be slightly unsettling… to me in panic mode, a stone’s throw from people spending their whole life in machines that just inject nutrients and mood-elevating drugs all day long.

Also on the “recently” table, in school: we watched Life is Beautiful, which is, as briefly as possible, a strangely-named Oscar-bait Italian movie with two parts, the first being a simple romantic comedy and the second involving the entire family shipped off to a concentration camp during the Holocaust. The current big project on the table is a comparison essay based on it, but the reason I’m bring it up is for the father’s shocking performance to his son: laughing and slapping his thighs while exclaiming how fun the games he had (not) played in the camp, while in the other scenes the heavy anvils are almost killing him. And while I’m considering this and being skeptical of the immense cognitive dissonance that would be required for such an act, wondering if a human could really pull something like that off for one child’s innocence, I consider whether I’m doing the same.

A large part of me thinks I’m being alarmist in so often wondering exactly what happens when we start genetically engineering our offspring, creating cyborgs, uploaded consciousnesses, or artificial neurons. Nobody else keeps imagining this stuff on a regular basis. Do they? But the majority of people deciding to ignore this stuff altogether, as faraway as it is, doesn’t prove to me that that choice is the most rational one at all.

I come up with plenty of justifications defending the same idea. Regardless of what sufficiently advanced technology may be able to do to our brains, minds, and identities, things are going to continue the way they are for a decade or two, at the very least. There will be plenty of time to make refined arguments when society knows more about life and our brains. And among those scientists and philosophers, well, some have to share my vaguely-defined fears, and they’re smarter and more experienced and they are trying to avoid the dystopian futures as I would if I had the power. I am not the only guy who wonders these things; ten minutes on any technological-singularity site will tell you that. I keep up with science’s updates, but not more zealously than the next person. The world is tremendous, and in many regards I am really normal.

And suppose something sneaks up on us, something does radically redefine our life and existence in a way that the present me can’t imagine, cope with, or empathize—maybe transforming my life against my will or better judgment or making everything I want to do obsolete, in the worst case—well, chances are it beats everybody getting blown up. So I can only live as if everything operates well within the limits of my cognitive abilities. What other choice is there? Since everybody loves repeating “carpe diem”, why not?

Yet already this hope is being corroded — see that article I experimentally linked to, about science discovering how to allow somebody to selectively forget something. I try to persuade myself: humans have been messing with ourselves for millenniums. Clothes decorate us and grant us unnatural, one could say, ability to keep warm. We’ve got artificial hearts and people who live their entire lives with a daily appointment with a dialysis machine. We use mnemonics, visual cues, all sorts of techniques and gimmicks to make the most of our hunter-gatherer memories. We study people for subconscious cues and habits that let us identify potential employees, marketing targets, or terrorists. None of these are really scary now that we’re looking back on them, are they?

Maybe a little? It seems to us that our species has deep inherent flaws, not morally but as processes of intelligence, because our society developed so quickly compared to what evolution did. And instead of fixing them, we come up with workaround after workaround, because fixing people is ethically rather problematic. But does that reasoning really not apply to the workarounds?

Whatever mind-blowing transition may come up, it won’t be different in a radically different way. Humans will keep living their lives — the nice ones being nice, the creepy ones being creepy, the people who love writing books, arguing, gambling illegally, watching TV, or bungee jumping continuing to do so… because they want to. Will they?

At the end of the day, I have to remind myself that the only thing I can confidently state about these things is that I don’t know! I am making a lot of assumptions about potential futures, when I know predicting the future has not been easy for people much smarter than me. I don’t know, so I can only keep smiling and live my life as it is now. It’s a good strategy so far.

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