I try to pick up a different magazine at least every other week. About a month ago, I picked up the New Philosopher for the first time. If I’m totally honest, I’d never even heard of it – it was the glossy cover and the subject of this edition, ‘Future thinking’, that had caught my attention. It’s easily the best magazine that I’ve ever picked up.
The article that I found most interesting was about something called ‘The Fermi Paradox’. I won’t go into the minute details of the paradox (because I can’t remember), but basically it asked the question: given that space is so very big, so very old and so crammed with possibilities, where are the alien intelligences such an environment might have given rise to over the course of fourteen billion years? One of many answers to this paradox goes along the lines of ‘because they’re all too busy getting addicted to video games’.
Bear with me, it might be hard to believe but there is legitimate philosophical reasoning behind this answer. The point is that by the time a species becomes advanced enough to start deep-space travel, they have also become so good at entertaining themselves that they don’t need further scientific, social or political progress. They forsake reality for environments of their own devising.
That might be hard to believe, but it shouldn’t be – because it might very well be happening to humanity right now.
Think about it. Your average person gets most of their news, gossip, event information and social interaction from social media platforms. When they’re not scrolling through Twitter; TV, YouTube or computer games will provide a large source of their entertainment. With the developments in virtual reality technology, we’re not far off a stage where we could potentially create our own virtual utopia where Trump wasn’t elected president, and the president of Iceland actually had the power to ban Hawaiian pizzas internationally.
But that’s a good thing, isn’t it? How many of us would take a better world right now, even if it was virtual? Why bother to travel through space if you can do it with a VR headset on in the comfort of your own home. As tempting as these utopian ideals might be, they could be incredibly dangerous.
Kids are spending less time outdoors than prison inmates, trade union membership has been in terminal decline, communities are becoming fragmented and loneliness is at an all-time high. I decided not to read the news on my phone whilst walking to work last week (something I would normally do every day) and I realised how many people hunch over their phones whilst they walk around with absolutely no interaction with their surroundings. Some might say we are entering the “age of individualism”, where the individual has taken precedent over the collective.
I don’t believe individualism is to blame for all society’s ills, but it is time to get real. We are currently living in a world where equality is a pipedream, the plague of ethnic nationalism is once again tightening its grip, a global nuclear conflict isn’t inconceivable and if we survived that, then climate change will surely finish us off. If there has ever been a more pressing time for collective human endeavour, it is now.
Hopefully, it isn’t too late – we have already lost much of our political power. Public figures can openly lie to their electorate without any repercussions, heads of states disregard protests as minor inconveniences, and billionaires like Robert Mercer can determine the outcome of elections and referendums by analysing our online data. The running of the world is being left to a corrupt, wealthy few whilst we all live in relative apathy in our virtual worlds.
If more people rejected individualism, joined together in collective causes to hold the corrupt and powerful to account, then we might be able to restart the wheels of social, economic and political progress. We still need scientists, philosophers and engineers to come up with new ideas and inventions that inspire people. We might even be able to invalidate The Fermi Paradox by exploring deep space and finding aliens ourselves. Anything is possible if there are enough people willing to work together to make it happen (unless there aren’t in fact aliens out there). And after all, it is our interactions and cooperation with each other that makes us human.
So, it’s time to put down the remote controller, turn off the PS4, join a trade union, join a political party (not UKIP though), fight for a cause you believe in, engage in civil disobedience, hold your government to account and prove that we aren’t destined for a life of political apathy and we do still want to make the world a less awful place.
Once you’ve done that, I’ll ask Alexa what the next step is …