Why We Do What We Do

By | October 15, 2012

The Human Imperative is the relentless drive to improve the human condition. This is the one commandment obeyed by virtually of all humanity for all of human history: Thou shalt improve thine own circumstances, the circumstances of thy family, the circumstances of thy tribe, or the circumstances of thy species.  

This commandment is pervasive; it is written directly into our DNA. In fact, it is the reason our DNA is what it is. When we grew large brains, when we developed a bipedal stance, when we positioned our thumbs opposably to the rest of our hands, we were carrying out the human imperative through the slow and deliberate process of evolution.

The commandment is also embedded in our language, our fundamental thought processes, and virtually everything we do, both consciously and unconsciously. It’s at the heart of day-to-day activities like preparing dinner or putting gas in the car, and is also the principal driver behind those great multi-generational projects called culture, science, technology, and civilization itself.  All improvements, great and small, derive from the Human Imperative.

Industrial Revolution? Check.

Polio vaccine? Check.

Recycled cardboard sleeve that keeps you from burning your hand on your tall skinny soy mocha? Check.

The Human Imperative is universal and therefore we are all, unavoidably, participants.

Some people are focused only on improving the circumstances of others, while others are focused exclusively on improving their own circumstances. Most of us are somewhere in between, devoting some measure of our energies to improving the lives of others (whether those “others” be our own friends and families, our communities, or humanity as a whole) and devoting the rest of our energy to improving our own lives.

Whichever way we focus our efforts, it’s important to note that many of us are pretty bad at carrying out the Human Imperative. Some of us do little or nothing to make things better, while others move the needle in the wrong direction — actually making the human condition worse. However, the vast majority of both the ineffectives and those who cause real damage are at least trying to improve the condition of at least one human life — if only their own.

And as we’ll see, there is more value in any attempt to make anything better — no matter how callous or wrongheaded or even downright evil the approach — than we might otherwise think.

When we set out to improve our own personal circumstances, we can do it one of three ways:

* At the expense of others
* Without regard to the circumstances of others
* By way of improving the circumstances of others

Everybody likes that third way of improving their own lives because it’s the nice way. It’s the win-win scenario.

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley argues that trade is a key driver of progress because it’s a means of improving one’s own circumstances while improving the circumstances of others. Obviously it’s much easier to get people on board with your plan to improve your own life if that plan involves some means by which they can improve their lives. And every offer to do business of any kind involves just that — a proposition to the other person about something you think will be of value to them.

The more trade that takes place in the world, the more lives that get improved — theoretically, at least. Of course, not every deal is a good deal. Sometimes the unscrupulous take advantage of the unsuspecting — leaving them with less money (or less of whatever was being exchanged) and no improved circumstances to speak of. Plus we’re often wrong about what will represent a true improvement in our lives; that is to say, sometimes we just don’t know what’s good for us. Moreover, individual acts of improvement often lead to unforeseen (or ignored) negative consequences that outweigh the benefit of the improvement that we were seeking.

No big surprise, but it has to be said: well-intentioned actions often lead to negative results. Rabbits are introduced as a food source in Australia and, lacking any significant predators, become a major feral pest. Prohibition of alcohol is implemented in the US to create a decent, clean, and sober society, leading to rampant lawlessness and the empowerment of organized crime. Or, as we’ve discussed recently in some detail, student loan programs are introduced as a means of making college education widely accessible, leading to skyrocketing tuition costs and college graduates (and worse-yet, non graduates) saddled with decades of debt and the overall reduction of options and quality of life that goes with it.

It’s called the law of unintended consequences. It lies behind virtually all of the man-made challenges we face. Pollution of and damage to the environment, overpopulation, depletion of resources — these are all direct results of human success. They represent the downside of the Human Imperative.

Now here’s where the story gets kind of strange. Sometimes when people act in spite of the interests of others, or with no regard to the interests of others, or even in willful opposition to the interests of others, they end up making improvements that one day improve the circumstances of others anyway. Simply put, bad behavior sometimes leads to positive results.  For example, when you do a search that uses Google satellite view or when you use the GPS function on your smartphone, do you ever stop and think about the tremendous debt these technologies owe to Nazi Germany? The satellite age was ushered in with rocket technology based on rockets developed by the Nazis in the hopes of raining destruction down on Great Britain and (eventually) the United States.

Does this mean that Nazi Germany was really okay deep down, and that no one should think badly of them because, after all, they gave us the V-2?  Of course not — it was an evil regime that committed acts of unspeakable evil. That’s why it seems surprising (at first) that we should be enjoying the fruits of Nazi military R&D all these years later.

But it’s really not surprising at all. Nazi rocket technology represents the flipside of the law of unintended consequences. Just as unforeseen negative consequences arise from what were intended to be good actions, unforeseen benefits arise from evil and despicable actions. The difference is that benefits are good and tend to persist no matter where they came from, whereas the problems that arise simply demand the development of still more improvements.

All of which explains why, in spite of the very real problems we’ve faced and continue to face, the evidence is clear that the human condition has improved vastly over the millennia and is continuing to do so. (Anybody who thinks otherwise is welcome to try to adopt the lifestyle of people from a previous era. I think most of us are more dependent than we realize on things like electricity and running water, never mind the Interenet.)  Apparently there’s enough cumulative good in the improvements we’ve made, the ones that really are improvements, to outweigh all the mistakes we’ve made and sins we have committed.

And that’s a staggering thought when you consider just how horrifying and appalling  some of those mistakes and sins have been.

The simple observation that the human condition has improved (and make no mistake, it’s an observation, not a hypothesis or bit of wishful thinking) — combined with the logical projection that the trend of improvement will continue — constitutes a complete departure from the conventional wisdom surrounding what’s happening in the world and what’s likely to happen next.

The story of the Human Imperative is the story of rapidly expanding human understanding and capability, of improvements to the human condition run wild. Our world is getting better all the time. We are getting better all the time. And one of the things we’re getting better at…is getting better.

We’re talking about a virtuous cycle — a truly virtuous cycle if we take into account research showing that human beings are becoming less violent and more cooperative over time, as documented in Stephen Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Improvements to the human condition continue to reinforce each other with greater impact and at a higher rate of speed with each new iteration. Where can such a cycle possibly be leading us?

That, my friends, is the question that The Speculist and FastForward Radio are here to ask, the question that we’ve been asking for more than nine years on the blog and that we have been asking weekly for the past five years on the radio show. And of course, we’re not just here to ask the question; we’re here to try to answer it. If you’d like to hear the full answer as we have articulated it so far on FastForward Radio, all of the shows are archived and, as we calculated a couple of weeks ago, 10 days of non-stop listening will get you more or less caught up.

Over those 10 days you will hear the thoughts of some of the most brilliant people alive — often in their own words. You’ll hear about driverless cars, 3-D printers, universal assemblers, artificial intelligence, utility fog, vat meat, life extension, abundance, alternative energy, virtual worlds, the death of employment, the coffeeshopification of everything, space travel, time travel, the Simulation Hypothesis, the Omega Point, the Technological Singularity, and — of course — sex with robots.

You’ll hear about a relentless and accelerating wave of technological, cultural, and social change that is driving the next stage of human evolution. You’ll get a glimpse of a world where the boundaries have been reset — or removed — where the possibilities are so vast that it’s intimidating, dizzying, even to try to contemplate them. And maybe you’ll get a glimpse of a future version of yourself: happier, smarter, more capable than you ever thought possible — a Sexy Immortal Billionaire with Superpowers (in the making, at least.)

Or if you prefer to try the short version, it is simply this. We are witnesses to a world transformed. (For those who don’t know, the word “Speculist” means one who observes.) But as human beings we are called to be — no destined to be — more than witnesses. The Human Imperative impels us all to be participants in the transformation of the world.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” The question of what comes next, of what we do next, of who we may yet be, that is a question worth pursuing. And we’re in pursuit. An unimaginable future lies before us. Our challenge is to try to imagine it anyway, and then to try to make it real.

If we can imagine it and we can make it real, then there’s only one thing left to do:

Live to see it.