Celebrate the human
It’s pretty easy to feel gloomy about the world at the moment which is why there’s never been a more urgent time to remind ourselves what an imaginative, brave, generous, thoughtful, bonkers, brilliant species we can be when we put our hearts and minds to it.
Just over a year ago, I crouched around a campfire in a field bum-cresting the Atlantic, while a gale that hadn’t let up for forty-eight hours whipped around us. We were two days into a week of camping. There were plenty of reasons to feel gloomy. Not least because it was the annual family holiday and I wasn’t allowed to go home.
And it was in these circumstances that my physicist brother-in-law, with his hood up, wearing sunglasses to protect his eyes from the relentless onslaught of wood smoke and burning spits, unfolded to us his vision of the looming apocalypse.
In short, he was convinced that the computers were going to take over.
At any moment now.
This isn’t a new idea, of course. Science fiction has been full of it ever since HG Wells learned how to hold a pen. Recently, the finest academic minds of the western world discussed what most worried them about the fate of humanity. And from a cheery list (and this was before Trump, mind) that included irreversible climate change and incurable pandemics, they were mostly unanimous in agreeing that the biggest threat is Artificial Intelligence.
The post-apocalyptic world of The Terminator seemed all too real as my family and I sat in that dark bleak field in soggy shoes, choking on smoke and patting out burning embers on our legs.
But then, my brother-in-law – official rationalist of the family and always willing devil’s advocate – led us down a surprising rabbit-hole.
The post-apocalyptic world of artificial intelligence, he proposed, need not result in a terrible dystopia. It didn’t have to be an inevitable conclusion that computers would destroy humanity and the world as we knew it.
Indeed, it was entirely within the realms of possibility that computers could well end up saving humanity from itself. Having access to the sum of the world’s knowledge could mean they would be able to solve such seemingly hopeless problems like climate change and poverty.
It’s a compelling argument (especially when, like a perfect ghost story, it’s delivered in a storm sitting around a campfire) and it struck a very deep chord with me.
Deep down, I know I would probably be among the first wave of humans that any sensible computer would purge (this is why I never go through the e-checking of a passport control).
But I’m still desperate enough to consider any sign of hope that the world I have fecklessly brought two children into is not irreversibly churning into a sodden ashtray before my very eyes.
Because it’s pretty easy to feel we’re living on the edge of an apocalypse right now and it’s pretty easy to feel overwhelmed by the horrors unfolding before us. It’s easy to feel hopeless and helpless; it’s easy to feel depressed and despondent.
It’s easy to feel that we’re sliding into hell and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Compassion is becoming a dirty word. Hatred is no longer shocking. Prickliness is to be expected. Intolerance is encouraged. And indifference is cultivated as a matter of survival.
And in apocalyptic times like this, sometimes only religious language can capture the full extent of what we’re feeling.
Arthur Miller was talking about drama when he said: “Generalisation is the death of art. It’s in the details where God resides. If I could pray for anything, it would be to get more details.”
But couldn’t this just as usefully be applied to people?
Because sitting round that campfire with my family, laughing and ranting and nattering away, made me realise, rather than focusing on the general hell of the storm, it might actually be better to just appreciate the details instead.
And the details being, in this case, the humans I was with.
The details that make us stick out the crappiest of conditions for a holiday just so we can continue to spend some time with them.
The details that the rich demagogues fail to recognise as having any worth.
The details that cannot be measured and quantified but nonetheless get our hearts racing and the hairs on the back of our necks prickling.
The details that make us proud and joyful to be human, rather than just ashamed and angry.
Because surely when we read the news and end up feeling ashamed and angry all the time, no wonder we’re willing our way to destruction. No wonder it feels so hopeless and pointless to resist the inevitable. No wonder we’re hoping that computers might have a better plan than us.
So, why not, instead, celebrate the details of the human and remember why we are worth saving.
The details which transform us, uplift us, inspire us and ultimately transfigure us.
Because time and time again, humans do keep proving they are brilliant and luminous and able to rise above the crappy situation they’ve been placed in.
Time and time again, humans do keep proving they are worth celebrating.
And Celebrate the Human is a series of blogs that aims to do just this – remind us why we are worth protecting. Because, in fact, we are surrounded by brilliant people everywhere we look. We’ve just forgotten to see them in this way.