A cloudy day in Paris made Henri Becquerel put his uranium salts and photographic plates back in the cupboard. Upon later retrieval, he discovered the plates had developed. The phosphorescent crystals were not reemitting light, but producing their own. Half a century and several billions of dollars later, humanity crossed a point of no return. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, quoted Robert Oppenheimer — the de facto CEO of the Manhattan Project.
We can never put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, but we have so far managed to keep it hostage. The second half of the twentieth century was marred by nuclear paranoia, but in retrospective, the greatest invention of man was quietly underway, a “Manhattan Project two point oh”: The Internet. The idea that humans would be able to communicate remotely and instantaneously, at scale, was utterly inconceivable for almost the entire history of humanity. The discovery of radio waves was as momentous as Becquerel’s.
Here is the problem: while technology has been developing at an exponential pace — because progress breeds progress — the human brain has stayed the same. Our never-changing hardware is forced to process more and more complex software. We spend more time in formal education to perform highly specialized tasks. Beyond our (very narrow) areas of expertise, it is becoming impossible to keep up with the state-of-the-art in economics, politics, science, technology, and the arts; which means it is becoming more and more possible — and probable — that we are being misled, manipulated, and lied to.
We are all building a new tower of Babel, and one day we will cease to understand each other.
How will democracy survive when more nuanced decisions will need to be made, and policy making will be increasingly delegated to experts? I conjecture that the spread of conspiracy theories, while partially related to formal systems of education that are lacking, are also caused by the mounting intricacies of the problems we face. We cannot expect the average person to understand the inner workings of viruses, 5G waves, vaccines, and climate change; and when they don’t, we cannot reasonably expect them to blindly “trust the experts”, even if they are the best bet. One misstep can compromise the trust in an entire field, and the next pandemic might be our last one.