Dionysus Powell

Invoke the Tools of the Present

There are many problems that we can reasonably expect to confront in the future. Climate change, growing old, a big hurricane hitting the gulf coast, and your car eventually breaking down are all good examples.

I often hear people invoke hypothetical future assets or technologies to solve these types of future problems. Invoking the tools of the future as a problem-solving strategy is often used as justification for not to attending prevention or mitigation using the tools of the present, and I think that this reasoning is usually fallacious. Instead, invoke the tools of the present to solve the problems of the future.

Here are a few examples of invoking the tools of the future, along with example-specific counter-arguments. Some of these examples are more mainstream than others, so if you sympathize with some of the arguments I’m presenting and not with others, please interpret that as me arguing against a view you don’t hold, and not as me misrepresenting your views. The key point is the general mode of thinking that can be applied across these examples.

One of my friends had a hard time finding a job when he graduated from college. After six months of living paycheck to paycheck working part time and submitting job applications like crazy, he finally got a verbal offer. He went ahead and bought some furniture for his apartment, figuring that he’d be getting a good paycheck soon and thus wouldn’t feel the dent it put in his checking account.

As it turned out, that verbal offer never materialized as a formal offer, and the job went to another applicant. He tried to solve the no-furniture problem using the resources of the future, and those resources turned out not to exist. He later had to sell his car in order to afford some unexpected expenses a few months later. He could’ve kept his car if he’d kept that furniture money in his checking account. He knew that unexpected expenses happen sometimes, but chose to count on solving that likely future problem using the money he was going to be paid, and not with the money he actually had.

The result was that he wound up with no car and still under-employed.

We often act as though we dont need to live healthy lifestyles. We also collectively spend an enormous ammount if money on devising new medical technologies. People dont necessarily think of it this way, but we act as though we can avoid our lifestyles catching up with us by creating new tools for when the problem becomes more acute. Maybe so, but right now it costs billions of dollars to bring each new drug to market, lifestyle-related diseases like type 2 diabetes cost hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and healthcare costs are already so high as to represent nearly a fifth of the entire economy and yet still growing.

Knowing the above, do you really want to bet your own flesh on hypothetical future advances that you hope will emerge from the dysfunctional healthcare system I just described?

In the meantime, eating less food will reduce your odds of developing a chronic disease, help you lose weight, and save you money (remember, food costs money). Best of all, how much you choose to eat is already completely within your control. These same considerations also apply to exercise (with the arguable exception of saving money).

Future medical advances may well happen. I’m one of a whole bunch of people who are going to work every day to help make those hypothetical advances into a reality. But we could fail you, and wouldn’t it be better to be fit and healthy in the meantime anyway? Future advances in medicine are no less beneficial to people who choose to take good care of themselves.

Some people argue that we don’t need to worry about climate change because soon green energy will be cheaper than fossil fuels, or else we’ll find good ways to “scrub” greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Maybe green energy sources will naturally out-compete fossil fuels in the coming years, and maybe they won’t. Maybe a greenhouse gas-scrubbing invention will become economically feasible in the coming years, and maybe it won’t. If you think you can actually make one of those things happen, please do. We could really use those tools. But is it wise to bet the stability of our civilization on hypothetical future advances?

In addition, developing those high-tech solutions to climate change is entirely compatible with solving the problem using existing solutions. It’s still a good idea to live in denser, more pedestrian friendly cities and drive smaller, more fuel efficient cars, for example. If we solve the climate change problem using the tools of the present and simultaneously develop better tools for future use, we’ll have a variety of options to choose from.

Having several options makes it much more likely that we’ll find a really good one in the long run.

When the premise behind the movie “Idiocracy” is brought up, I’ve heard people say that we don’t need to worry about uneducated people having more babies than educated people because soon we’ll be able to edit people’s genes.

That’s a plausible solution to an entirely different problem. Even if I fully accept the proposition that we’ll soon be able to edit people’s genes (and to be honest, I’m a bit skeptical of how soon we’ll be doing that), there are still downsides to uneducated people having lots of babies that have nothing to do with genetics. For example, there’s still the much more immediate problem of lots of children being born into poverty.

Plus, we don’t need gene-editing technologies to mitigate this issue. Providing sex-education and contraceptives to low-income people is much cheaper than subsidizing their procreation with welfare programs (which is effectively what we do now). This approach better helps to mitigate the issue of too many children born into poverty, and we can do it now.

If we actually do develop gene-editing technologies in the near future, there will be lots of benefits, and those benefits might even include making some people smarter and/or more ambitious. Those will be good ways to prevent dysgenics and childhood poverty in addition to the options that are already available.

I’ve heard a few people say that learning to drive is becoming obsolete because soon there will be self-driving cars.

Maybe self-driving cars will be the market standard in another few years. But what if it takes 10 years longer than is currently expected to get them working well enough for mass market? What if a whole bunch of them are hijacked to commit some sort of horrible terrorist attack, and then either they’re outlawed or heavily restricted? Is it worth risking the inability to get around town to avoid putting some effort into learning to drive now?

Even if we assume that self-driving cars do become the norm in the near future, I think it’s very likely that they’ll need to have some sort of manual override as a safeguard against any malfunction. You’ll still need to know how to drive, in that case. I also think that self-driving cars are likely to be very expensive for the foreseeable future. Wouldn’t you prefer to have the option to buy a cheaper traditional car?

In each of the examples that I just discussed and in many others that I could discuss, betting on the hypothetical tools of the future to guide risk management in the present is a bad idea. Futurists, for all their many virtues, often make this mistake.

Invoking the resources of the present, on the other hand, ensures that you’ll have at least one option for solving the problems you encounter down the road.

Invoking the tools of the present is good risk management.

We don’t necessarily know if the tools of the future will come through for us. Even when it seems certain, there’s always some room for doubt. What if that job offer you’re expecting actually goes to somebody else? What if the NIH gets hit with massive budget cuts? What if there’s a major epidemic that wipes out a huge chunk of the population in the next decade? What if we go to war with China? There are all sorts of potential disruptions that the future may hold.

Even if nothing major changes, what if you predicted the tools of the future accurately, but they don’t actually work how you expected them to? There’s a very real risk of failing to solve the problem if you rely your ability to predict the future to do so.

In addition, there’s very little downside and lots of upside associated with invoking the tools of the present. On the costs side, an inefficient solution to a big problem is still a lot better than no solution. On the benefits side, having several solutions allows you to choose the best one, and creative solutions often apply to more than one problem, so you may wind up solving additional problems that you weren’t even necessarily thinking about.

In the face of uncertainty (I’m assuming you don’t own a crystal ball here), invoking the tools of the present to solve the problems of the future is good risk management. Don’t count on that disease getting cured, don’t count on that job offer coming through for you, don’t count on the experts to find a novel solution for you, and don’t count on the future to look anything like how you’ve been told it will look.

You should, on the other hand, rely on your ability to solve big problems with the tools that you actually have at hand. Invoke the tools of the present, and you’ll be well situated to withstand -or even gain from- the uncertainties of the future.

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