5 Scary Questions About The Future (No One Wants To Ask)
The worst people in the world love to phrase their most toxic and ignorant opinions as brave questions. "Look, someone has to be bold enough to ask if women should really be allowed to drive!"
I don't want to be that guy, so I am promising you I don't want the answer to any of these unsettling questions to be "yes." But I do believe fixing the world means confronting them head-on, so ...
Note: The new David Wong book, Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick, is finally out! Click here to order it! Or watch this 3-minute video that explains everything.
Are Humans Smart Enough To Handle Free Speech?
If tomorrow the New York Times ran a detailed article stating that, actually, QAnon is right and only Trump can save our nation's children from a bloodthirsty Tom Hanks, you'd probably demand that article be taken down and that its writer have his typing fingers broken. That's because we all quietly assume two things are true:
A) That we are easily capable of recognizing Qanon as a ridiculous yet highly-destructive conspiracy theory;
B) That certain other people are not capable of recognizing it and that they, unlike us, must be protected from ideas that would corrupt their squishy minds.
That's actually the unspoken tension behind every argument about censorship or "cancel culture." Speech only exists in human brains, so the problem isn't the comedian's bigoted joke; it's the assumption that some segment of the audience will not have the brainpower to know what to do with it. You're giving a blowtorch to a toddler.
And who am I to argue? Hate crimes are rising. QAnon only grows in popularity by the day, and in 2020, that's just one dish in an all-you-can-eat buffet of conspiracy theories (one poll showed half of Americans believe in at least one). Hate groups, cults, and MLM schemes still have no trouble recruiting even when clear debunkings are a smartphone away. So are we just an inherently gullible species?
I hope not, because following that to its logical conclusion takes us to a dark place. It would mean accepting that a good chunk of the population -- maybe even a solid majority -- lacks the basic ability to process information as true or false. That would mean that truth is literally irrelevant, as the boring facts will always lose to emotionally-charged lies, which means getting a majority of people to do the right thing in society is just a matter of coming up with some more compelling lie that points in the right direction.
At that point, we'd have to ask ...
What If Democracy Just Doesn't Work?
This is the perfect example of an opinion that has been ruined by the online shitheads who've turned extreme bad faith arguments into their whole personality. When they say, "Democracy doesn't work!" what they mean is, "Only my tribe should get a vote!"
So when we see that support for iron-fisted authoritarians is rising around the world, it's understood that it's because those supporters think it's only other people who'll get crushed under that fist. Humans hate chaos and complexity, but dictators promise to make things nice and simple -- you know, how they used to be, before "those" people showed up.
But even though I consider myself one of the smart, empathetic folk on the opposite side of the spectrum, there's still an unspoken, "Are we sure democracy even works?" under half of the conversations I have about politics. It usually sounds like:
"We should do !"
"Too bad most people aren't in favor of ."
"Well, our leaders just need to grow a spine and do it anyway!"
And then we just quietly ignore the elephant in the room, which is that we're never more than two years from a national election in America. That's when all of those people you just pissed off will vote in candidates promising to repeal before it even takes effect.
For example, after every mass shooting, my feed is full of celebrities saying "Get rid of the guns" and columns about how it's time to repeal the 2nd Amendment, pointing out that half-measures like background checks and mental health interventions won't stop similar attacks. The problem is that, even without looking at polls, you have to know that Americans really, really like guns. If you do look at the polls, you'll find that only one in five Americans want to repeal the 2nd Amendment and only one in nine feel strongly about it. Yet, when we see a video of sprawled corpses in a shopping center, millions of well-meaning people think, "It'd be nice if we could just, you know, do it anyway."
This is coming to a head sooner than you think. What happens when those exact same voters stand in the way of fixing global warming, aka, the thing that could collapse civilization? In order to curb emissions in time, we apparently have to ban new gasoline cars within 15 years or so, and beef consumption has to drop dramatically even sooner than that. But Americans love their gasoline cars even more than guns (more than 97% of new car buyers still choose gas over electric, with huge gas-guzzling trucks being the fastest-growing market), and they love their hamburgers and steaks even more (Americans average more than a pound of beef a week, only 5% of us are vegetarians).
All of those car-lovers and meat-eaters vote. As do coal miners in key swing states like Pennsylvania, and oil workers in Texas, and tens of millions of struggling people who, for some reason, don't like paying higher taxes or a premium for green food, fuel, and construction. Polls show 80% of Republicans strongly oppose the Green New Deal even before they've had to pay a penny for it (and among all voters, only 24% are strongly in favor).
"So we're just going to let the planet die so shortsighted morons can keep eating quarter-pounders?" Well, what's the alternative? "We have to change people's minds!" Okay, but I never hear it phrased that way -- we always pretend the obstacle is some evil special interest group (the NRA, the oil lobby) and not the deeply-held beliefs of tens of millions of swing-state voters. Also, did you read the last entry?
If society can't be saved without a strong majority of citizens on board, and we secretly believe that most of them are immune to both reason and empathy, then what are we suggesting be done? This isn't a rhetorical question! We literally will have to answer it! Shit!
All right, this is upsetting me, let's switch to something less controversial ...
Are Men Really Becoming Less "Manly"?
First, a warning: Don't ever google "testosterone levels dropping worldwide" unless you want to find yourself in a deep pit of pale YouTubers ranting about how allowing women to play video games has shriveled the collective Western scrotum. Everything from feminism to soy milk is all part of the left-wing conspiracy to ruin men. If Fight Club was real, Tyler Durden would be on the cusp of parlaying his popular podcast into a successful run for Congress.
But put aside all of the toxic, insecure nonsense about how there are no more "real men" in the world, and you may find that we have a very real health crisis brewing. Testosterone levels do seem to have dropped across multiple countries over the last few decades (though data is sparse and hard to nail down since hormone levels vary based on lifestyle, environmental factors, and even time of a day). Meanwhile, sperm counts do, in fact, appear to be dropping dramatically in the Western world.
As for why, theories range from an increase in obesity and other generally unhealthy habits, to chemicals in plastic containers that jack up the body in all sorts of alarming ways (no, it has nothing to do with soy consumption). This is a problem because low testosterone is linked to a bunch of maladies, from heart disease to depression. Even if sperm counts remain high enough to keep the species going (the average is still well above that level), low sperm counts are often the sign of other health problems. It's a sort of canary in the coal mine situation, where trouble in the body is often felt dong-first.
But it's all but impossible to discuss in 2020 because masculinity (and everything tied to gender roles) has been reduced to schoolyard taunts for right-wing influencers to hurl at male feminists. That is, in fact, the larger problem -- our addiction to antagonism has made us even worse at processing information than we already were. When every spoken word is seen as a shot fired in some goddamned culture war, then facts are useful only as ammunition. Hell, I lost five IQ points just sorting through the garbage to write this entry.
Will Automation Tear Society Apart?
Here's a survival tip for you: Don't ever let yourself get into a position where others think they don't need you. In your job, relationships, in society in general, if others think you have nothing to contribute other than your adorable charm, at some point, they'll decide your needs, wants, and opinions just don't count. The guy crashing on the sofa doesn't get to adjust the AC, and the moment things get tight, he'll be the first one chucked overboard (related: If you're finding less and less stuff in your work inbox as time goes on, start looking for another job now).
But we're told that automation is going to eventually turn most of us into the proverbial unemployed roommate who never does the dishes. This is painted as an impending dystopia, the economy hurdling itself into a brick wall. Soon, they say, corporations will fire all of the workers and make stuff with robots, stuff which will collect dust on store shelves because the customers have no jobs. Then we'll all just ... lay down and die, I guess? Do corporations have a chart on the wall with a declining line showing exactly how much money they can make before their customers starve?
The obvious solution, among the people in my Twitter feed, is a Universal Basic Income. To make up for paychecks lost to automation, the government taxes the corporations and gives us a monthly check just for existing. This would apparently mean that a skilled and ambitious minority will continue to do the tasks too advanced for robots, but the hundreds of millions displaced by self-driving cars, delivery drones, and retail kiosks will just become full-time consumers, I guess? Planted on the sofa, staring at a screen and getting zombified by social media dopamine drips?
If you don't think there will be literal violent tension between these two groups, then I don't think you've thought it through. Imagine a nurse waking up at 5 AM to change diapers in a nursing home (not exactly a task you can hand off to a robot without terrifying millions of seniors). He or she then passes by a porch full of stoned, giggling UBI neighbors, still up from an all-night gaming session (it doesn't matter if this characterization of the neighbors is unfair -- what matters is the perception). You're saying this person won't feel any resentment toward them? That they won't feel like their own vote should count for more, that the system shouldn't be geared more toward the needs of the "producers?"
This is why that whole scenario scares me; if you're telling me that mass unemployment is inevitable due to automation, then you're telling me that society is a ticking time bomb. It'll turn out the robots didn't need a Terminator model line to do us in; they'll have just convinced us to kill each other. The only dumber version of the robot apocalypse I can imagine is if, say, inscrutable social media algorithms brainwashed old people into thinking Tom Hanks is kidnapping children to harvest their fear hormones.
What If Our Collective Idea Of Happiness Is Just Wrong?
If you hear somebody lamenting that society is descending into "degeneracy," you now know what an asshole sounds like. To that guy, everything that doesn't fit into his specific tastes and values, from furries to vegans, is a sign that civilization is in decline. How fortunate for him that the behaviors that make civilization work happen to align perfectly with his own personal preferences.
But while I'm disagreeing with his specific examples, behind them is the unspoken question that keeps me up at night: What if the things that make individuals happy, and the things that help a culture survive long-term, are not the same things?
This was the undercurrent of the Red Scare ("What if the Soviet method of crushing dissent and restricting economic choice is just more efficient in the long run?"), the War on Terror ("What if religious zealotry is more powerful than secular indifference?") and our fear of a rising China ("At the outset of COVID they just physically locked citizens in their homes by force and it totally worked!").
What if it turns out that oppressive traditions like arranged marriages, blind patriotism, and blasphemy laws actually give a culture an advantage over an enemy that has abandoned them? What if all of the morals we value most today -- freedom to choose your fate, to follow your dreams, to fall in love -- are, in fact, the product of Disney screenwriters, feel-good junk food crafted to sell merchandise? What if we really have, as a culture, grown soft? I can't prove otherwise. Can you?
And to be clear, I'm not pointing the finger at anyone but myself here. I don't have children, even though I have a yard, a spare bedroom, and a penis that almost works too well. Shouldn't I be forced to raise at least two replacement kids and train them in some high-value task? Shit, am I even doing a high-value task? I make a good living writing escapist novels with increasingly stupid titles. Isn't that a frivolous inefficiency in the system? Shouldn't somebody be forcing me to write patriotic propaganda or cautionary tales about climate change?
I spent thousands of dollars on vet bills when my dog got cancer; would that be allowed in a perfectly just and efficient society? In fact, should people capable of treating cancer even be allowed to waste their talents on dogs?
It's entirely possible that a century from now, the dominant superpower will look back at our movies and TV shows and cringe just as hard as we do when watching racist old cartoons. "Look how they gave food and shelter to the unemployed artists, instead of simply exterminating them and freeing up resources for military conquest!" Maybe everything I'm doing, from this article to my stupid book to paying for doggie daycare, is just one more example of the shameful excess made possible by a wayward and doomed society. Anyway, the buy links are below.
You can pre-order Jason "David Wong" Pargin's book Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Bookshop, or any place books like this are sold. You can also follow him on Twitter, his Instagram, or Facebook, or YouTube or Goodreads, or any of the many accounts he's forgotten about.
Top Image: Andranik Hakobyan/Shutterstock