WHAT SHOULD WE REALLY FEAR? Top thinkers fret about technology's impact on humanity

[ Sun. Jan. 27. 2013 ]


What should we worry about? Scan the headlines, and the answers seem obvious. We should worry about Congress and the debt ceiling, about gun violence and climate change, about terrorism, the euro, schools, taxes, entitlement programs and Kim Kardashian's sunburn.

But how confident are we that we're worried about the right things? History shows that our concerns are often misguided or conditioned on outdated assumptions. Ask 100 motorists the colors of a "yield" sign, and most will say yellow and black, even though they've been red and white since 1971. But if we still believe in yellow and black despite all evidence to the contrary, what other assumptions will lead us astray? Our endless fretting over Y2K didn't stop terrorists armed with box cutters.

So, what really should we worry about? It's the official question John Brockman posed this year to his jury of top intellectuals. Brockman isthe über literary agent, cultural impresario and best friend to the world's smartest people. He runs edge.org, a science/arts salon with lofty ambitions: "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together; and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves."

These are people who, presumably, don't sweat the small stuff. Brockman's question drew 150 short essays from among the salon's 660 vetted contributors. Concerns about runaway viruses and Chinese eugenics made the cut, as did a handful of glib commentaries about the perils of worrying. But the overarching theme was easy to spot:

We should worry about the interplay between humans and technology. ...