Fear of the unknown

Millennia later humans have mostly overpowered their surroundings, ripped apart the atom and honed its energy

Farrukh Khan Pitafi March 16, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates


In Denis E Taylor’s sci-fi trilogy, which is now known as the Bobiverse, a von Neumann probe, or self-replicating spacecraft, escapes a devastating nuclear war on Earth, carrying a single replica of human sentience aboard, which we will now refer to as Bob. Bob replicates and continues to do so. Each identical ship assumes a new name even though they all are similar — ergo, the Bobiverse. The primary purpose of these machines is to go back and salvage whatever remains of humanity. But then various replicas go out exploring the universe further. And one day, one of the Bobs discovers an alien proto-civilisation and helps it navigate through the stages of evolution without revealing himself. The juxtaposition of the advanced and the primitive is simply breathtaking.

Imagine if one day, humanity stumbles upon a high-res video record of its entire historical experience; how would it clash with the human recorded history and our assumptions about the past? Now, think about the invention of superstition. Perhaps it would help to distinguish between superstitions, established religions, and the recognition of superstition as a phenomenon. Religions combine complex belief systems with moral codes, while superstitions lack both. And then there is the recognition of superstition. While superstitions are as old as humanity itself, humankind did not become aware of them until much later, or self-aware, for that matter.

While we cannot be sure about the date when superstitions started, it isn’t difficult to safely extrapolate why they were born. Dropped in the middle of a strange and punishing world, the human mind must have been in overdrive to make sense of it all, connect the unconnected dots, and develop some pattern recognition. While this exercise helps in understanding, navigating, and overcoming the surroundings better, not all dots are meant to be connected. They might exist in close proximity to other variables but may not bring any intrinsic value to the explanation. The problem arises when you seek to be thorough and include these outliers in the explanation. In short, superstitions are born out of the fear of the unknown and the awareness of one’s own vulnerabilities.

Millennia later humans have mostly overpowered their surroundings, ripped apart the atom, honed its energy, and begun to explore space. But are they at least as self-aware as their primitive ancestors? The knowledge about one’s vulnerabilities plays a crucial role in one’s survival. If you cannot even be sure of your strengths and weaknesses, you are indeed in for a big surprise.

Modernity and progress were supposed to produce more innovative and better-informed individuals. But it is clear that the makers of the movie, Idiocracy, got our number right. As long as fixing receding hairlines and performance in bed remain mankind’s chief priorities, we are bound to produce dumber and dumber people. So, we will get many gifts in life, but self-awareness is not one of them. In fact, this crisis of producing misanthropes and geeks is becoming such an unmitigated disaster that everywhere, we are advised to undertake mindfulness exercises.

And if you think smart people cannot be dumb, think again. The smarter ones might be self-aware at a personal level, but they are certainly not fully aware of the consequences of their actions for humankind. They built large stockpiles of nuclear weapons and handed the keys to the routinely unstable politicians. They work harder and harder to obscure the human impact on climate change. Improving living standards may have led to a better quality of life and longevity, but that also ensures that our number (8 billion and counting) keeps multiplying and aging. The concern is not that there are some means to keep us alive longer but that these solutions do not go far enough to keep us fit, agile, and happy enough to be a productive part of the workforce. And that is not all. The progress in AI development and automation threatens to waylay this population of the most productive job opportunities. We may tell ourselves that we are ready, but we are not. All these blind-sighted and unimaginative wars over pieces of land initiated in the name of the people but which, in the end, wipe them prove that we haven’t learned much.

Then we have crybabies and drama queens among billionaires who get so jealous at times that they wouldn’t mind risking humanity’s destruction just to defeat their rivals. Look at how Elon Musk has destroyed Twitter and how he behaves whenever someone praises a successful chatbot developed by his rival companies. He goes stir-crazy, and his loyal minions do whatever they can to corrupt the source code of said AIs. The Terminator movie franchise got one thing wrong. You do not need the terrorists from the future to infect and corrupt the Skynet when you have Elon Musks around.

And here lies the fundamental problem. Our societies are organised on two principles, the political and the economic. While politics regulates us it is economics that sustains us. In democratic and capitalist societies, enough checks and balances existed that one did not upstage the other. But as has been proven recently by Trump and now Musk and his likes, these checks are very tenuous to handle such colossal wealth. This fight between the super-rich and the democrats is only beginning. It will continue with increasing noise for many years until something gives. By the looks of it, that something might be the democratic order. And for good measure, the civilisation. Unless all governments wake up to this challenge and find tools to mitigate the abuse, we all are toast. So, keeping in view all the above, it is too hard to imagine that superstitions and all sorts of crazy are on the rise. Didn’t we just discuss that superstitions are mankind’s coping mechanism against the unknown? Or opportunism would bring disparate elements like Joe Rogan, Tucker Carlson, Alex Jones, and Elon Musk together to further the cause of authoritarianism?

We are passing through the most consequential phase of human history so far. Instinctively, rulers in various countries get this. When the crackdown began in Xi’s China against runaway billionaires like Jack Ma, we had a hard time understanding it. But now we see what is going on. Likewise, what Putin said to Tucker about Elon recently also shows he has a clue. Likewise, America is already exploring the limits of what it can do. But because they all are busy fighting among themselves, they do not have time to focus on these existential challenges.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 16th, 2024.

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