THE BLOG

Graduating to the Adulthood of the World

I'd like you to pretend with me that you are much older than today and that you are remembering, as if you had already been witness to, what are today only dreams.

The essence of what I want to tell you, about what you can, and should, dream for the future, is that I believe most of what your generation is being told today, about your future, and about yourselves, is wrong.

China will rise, America will fall, you will be the first generation of Americans to have a lower quality of life than your parents, we will run out of energy, environmental catastrophes will ravage the world, and on and on. You probably don't know this, but there are baby boomers who sit around talking about how glad they are that they will be dead before you reach the middle of your lives, in the God forsaken world to come.

And your generation already has a bad reputation among your elders. You're unprepared for competition, it's said, because we gave you all medals in childhood games, just for showing up. You're filled with a sense of entitlement, expecting to start at the top, though you're quite willing to stay at the bottom, living with your parents longer in some cases than far too many people in the poorest nations live at all.

Class of 2013, of course your generation faces mighty threats and challenges, but this doomsday view is nonsense. In fact, the glass isn't even merely half full.

Here's the truth. Yours is the most important generation in all of history. You, who will live most of your lives in the 21st Century, and perhaps even into the 22nd, are the bridge between the adolescence and the adulthood of humanity.

In the last 200 years, humanity was like a growing adolescent, physically capable of more and more adult actions, but emotionally immature to make fully adult judgements.

In your lifetime, there will be a never before seen, or even possible, connectedness of human brain power, which will carry the human race across that bridge to adulthood.

In the laws of physics, the force of evolution -- the constant becoming of ever more complex, efficient and organized structures -- is always at war with the force of entropy -- the constant decay, and even destruction, ongoing throughout all of creation. Likewise, in human affairs, and never more than in the time which you will own, there is a war, often literally, between forces of progress and reactionary forces which oppose all change threatening to their illegitimate privileges or intolerant beliefs.

The real story of your generation, just beginning to be written, is that you are prepared just right for the new world you will mold in your image. You have known only change, and mostly of the sort in which the tools of life get markedly better, year after year, version after version. Progress is your normal and you will demand and defend nothing less, whatever it's enemies may explode to try to stop it.

You were born into a society in which opportunity has been radicalized, and accelerated to the speed of light, a world in which Bill Gates, the Google guys, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, all made miracles of commerce and global innovation from their college dorm rooms. So did the Da Vinci of our time, Apple's Steve Jobs.

Just a couple months ago, one of your allegedly slacker classmates in England sold a technology he created in his family basement to Yahoo for $30 million. He's 17.

Your generation won't expect security, or tolerate stagnant mediocrity. You won't wait for opportunity to knock. You will create an app for flourishing amid uber fast change, and upgrade it throughout unimaginable careers and lives, and in the collective life of humanity.

Yours is the generation in which evolution will most outpace entropy.

When you are old, you will remember a time when people you loved died from cancer, when lots of kids were severely impaired with autism and many of the elderly lost their dignity to Alzheimer's. You will remember these times but you will also remember the days the last person died from cancer and those other terrible afflictions were defeated, and deleted from the human condition.

When you speak of how primitive things were, before genetic flaws could be re-engineered, and before the brain was fully mapped and understood, your grandchildren will think you must be as old as the mountains.

And, at least some of you practically will be, because the first person who will live to be 150 has almost certainly already been born.

Dream, today, of remembering the day the last person was confined to a wheelchair, because regenerative medicine came to be able to heal spine and nerve injuries, and the last day anyone was blind, because bionic eyes could restore sight.

Dream, today, of remembering when we burned coal and oil for power, before nuclear fusion gave humanity limitless, cheap and clean electricity. Dream, today, of remembering how harnessing the power of the Sun on earth meant the last day any child on earth had to be scared of the dark, or lacked for clean water and enough to eat -- because where there is power, it is poverty that goes away in the night.

Dream, today, of remembering the day on which the last dangerous and degrading occupation was taken over by a robot. You will then also remember how it became clear, in your middle age, that it was nuts for people to fear that there would be no jobs, for us humans, in the age of robots, just as it had been nuts 150 years before for people to fear that cars meant there would be no work for everyone who once made horseshoes and saddles.

Dream, today, of remembering the day on which the last brutal and corrupt dictator fell to the last political revolution led by your generation, enabled by the latest in social media, heralding the triumph of the ultimately universal aspiration for freedom.

You, your generation, will have living memories of such days of transformation as have been only wild dreams for every generation before you.

What will make these grand things happen?

Simple -- the technology we already have in our pockets -- and its grandchildren -- will create a unified human intellect.

It's already begun. In 2011, many thousands of people, from around the world, doing what looked like an online game, "Foldit", became humanity's first science flash mob. These gamer scientists solved the structure of a retrovirus enzyme, the configuration of which had stumped conventional scientists, for more than a decade.

The connected community solved the problem in three weeks. Because of this new phenomenon, the last day anyone will die from AIDS is closer. Another day you will remember, for sure.

And the connected intellect will demand freedom. Again, look at how this is already happening.

On June 4th this year, the anniversary of the day in 1989 when Chinese tanks literally crushed democracy protestors in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese censors -- the most powerful and sophisticated censors in history -- thought they were ready to stop the Chinese people from learning about this ugly event. They blocked the one in six humans who is Chinese from searching the date or the place on the Internet and they blocked access to images of that day, especially a globally famous photo and video of an unnamed individual, known to history only as the "tank man", who stood in the way of a column of armored vehicles and, for a brief moment, was stronger than all the steel and weaponry on earth.

But the people of today's China are as resourceful and unbowed online as was the tank man himself. They posted a photoshopped picture of the tank man, in front of a line of big yellow ducks, so the censors scrambled to block searching the phrase, "big yellow ducks". Then they posted a version of the photo made from Legos, then a version made from the angry birds.

In the Internet aided cat and mouse game, between freedom and censorship, yours is the generation of Tom and Jerry -- the mouse will keep on winning.

Only a handful of prior innovations, from the dawn of time, come close to the significance of the revolution we carry around in our pockets, the revolution you will carry on. None of these prior breakthroughs happened to nearly everyone, nearly everywhere, at nearly the same time, and so none had nearly the potential to unleash the totality of human potential.

Just like a great sculpture already exists inside a big chunk of stone, waiting for an artist to reveal it, the ways to prevent and cure physical and mental illness and injury, the key to nuclear fusion electricity, and many other discoveries and inventions which will define your world, already exist.

It's just that no one has figured out yet how to carve them from the stone.

There was always oil, but it was human brain power that made it into fuel. There was always mold, but thinking made penicillin. There was always a right shape to be a wing, but only creativity made humans fly.

In your generation, someone -- really, many someones, adding a digital chisel here and a cloud-based chisel there, will figure out the answers to disease and hunger, how to dethrone dictators, and so much more.

Until now, a greatly disproportionate amount of human progress has been propelled by a very few people, and most of them were white men.

Only in the fantasies of people both evil and moronic is this because white men are intrinsically smarter or better people.

It's because some white men, have had the best access to the best ingredients for progress -- education and communications, in a culture that permits and protects a greater than typical degree of liberty, and therefore accepts and assimilates change.

Now, in what will be your time, there will be billions of minds connected by smartphones, some before they have toilets, leapfrogging two centuries of the previous model of development. These are the seeds of liberation -- physical, political and intellectual liberation.

There WILL be grief and anguish on this road to the victory of the good, and the fulfillment of the unique promise of your time to reach the adulthood of humanity, but the connected world WILL end the waste, from forever until even today, of far too much of the ½ of human brain power which is female and of the much more than ½ which is not white. There will be so many more Einsteins and Edisons, Shakespeares, Molieres and Tolstoys, Michelangelos and Rembrandts, Lincolns and Churchills, and most of them will be women and Asian and African and Indian and Latino.

Because of the connectedness of human intellect -- the ultimate resource on Earth, the only one which really matters -- the incalculable waste of talent visited on humanity by and throughout all the centuries of racism, sexism, homophobia, religious extremism, and every other form of tyranny, together with the brain crushing weights of poverty and solvable suffering, will cease in your time, for the incalculable benefit of all time to come.

Dream, today, of remembering all this, at the other end of your adulthood, when people will speak with awe of how your generation created the adulthood of the world.

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Craig Snyder is President of the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. This post is excerpted remarks prepared for his commencement address on 6-19-13 to the Bodine High School for International Affairs, a Philadelphia public school. These are his views, not those of the Council as an organization.

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