Stop Worrying


Transparency Revolution has devoted a lot of attention lately to some pretty serious problems: everything from long-term unemployment to uncertainty about the future of the middle class to PhD’s on food stamps to the chronic and utterly baffling avoidance of hat-wearing on the part of the general public. Okay maybe that last one is not quite as serious, but we’ve also spent time talking about automation leading to systemic unemployment and the elusive goal of providing equal opportunity across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Whew. Heavy stuff.

And speaking of heavy, over on my future-related podcast we did a show this week reviewing some of the items from Edge.org’s annual question, pithily summarized at Motherboard as The 150 Things the World’s Smartest People Are Afraid Of. It’s an impressive list, including such crowd-pleasers as the end of science, Chinese eugenics, unmitigated human arrogance, looming idiocracy, and — perhaps scariest of all — our inability even to imagine what our most serious problems are.

No doubt, a person could get pretty depressed reading this stuff. But as I was going through the list, preparing for the podcast, I noticed something. Item 5 on Motherboard’s summary reads as follows:

5. That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist

Now that’s kind of interesting. Technology is making us good at everything else, why not worrying? In fact, as I read through the list I noticed that ten of the 150 summaries included the words “we worry too much” or “we will worry too much.” In fact, “we worry too much” was by far and away the most prominent answer!
There are many useful alternatives to worrying, the most important of which is to take constructive steps towards eliminating or preventing the things we consider worrying. Another alternative is to focus if only for a while not on how terrible things are but rather on how good they truly are. Over at dashes.com, Anil Dash does exactly that by giving a quick read-out of his recent dialog with Bill Gates. A few highlights:
  • Children are 1/3 less likely to die before age five than they were in 1990. The global childhood mortality rate for kids under 5 has dropped from 88 in 1000 in 1990 to 57 in 1000 in 2010. The global infant mortality rate for kids dying before age one has plunged from 61 in 1000 to 40 in 1000. Now, any child dying is of course one child too many, but this is astounding progress to have made in just twenty years.
  • In the past 30 years, the percentage of children who receive key immunizations such as the DTP vaccine has quadrupled.
  • The percentage of people in the world living on less than $1.25 per day has been cut in half since 1990, ahead of the schedule of the Millennium Development Goals which hoped to reach this target by 2015.
  • The number of deaths to tuberculosis has been cut 40% in the past twenty years.
  • The consumption of ozone-depleting substances has been cut 85% globally in the last thirty years.
  • The percentage of urban dwellers living in slums globally has been cut from 46.2% to 32.7% in the last twenty years.
No, none of these wonderful trends erase any of the problems we’ve been writing about here or that 150 of the world’s smartest scientists wrote about over at Edge.org. But they do start to provide a little balance, now don’t they? Even when asked what there is to worry about, a good share of those thinkers  came back with a great answer — quit worrying all the time.

I wonder what the results would be if we asked that same group what there is to be happy and excited about concerning the future? That’s the list I want to see.

(Cross-posted from Transparency Revolution.)

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