I have thought a lot about this analogy that Tim Urban shares on the YCombinator Podcast. It is a bit of a long quote but bare with me:
I use this analogy. If human history’s a thousand centuries, about 100,000 years. There’s 500 page book telling the story, and every page is two centuries, if you’re an alien, and you pick up this book and you’re trying to understand what the human history is like, so the first 450 pages, the first 90,000 years gets us to just hunter gatherers, that’s it. Migrations and hunter gatherers, and very, very slight biological changes. You are bored as an alien reading that book. Page 450 of the agriculture revolution, and you have cities, and you have the first wide scale cooperation, this Colossus takes a huge leap forward. Things start to get a little interesting. And that’s just the last 50 pages of the book. And things do develop in a kind of interesting cool way. Page 490, you have Jesus, you have A.D. starts at 10 pages ago, and you have Islam starts at page 493, and around page 497 you have imperialism gets rolling, then you have the enlightenment the next page. And right at the beginning of page 500, the very last page, you have the industrial revolution, and you have the entire Colossus kind of like goes on steroids. The Colossus grows up very quickly and becomes far more powerful. The populations balloons from less than a billion to seven billion on page 500 alone. And every other page before page 500, transportation meant walking, running, sailboats. Page 500 we’re going to the space station, we’re flying around planes and cars. Communication on page 499 and earlier meant talking to people and writing letters with your hand. Page 500, we have FaceTime, we have internet. If you’re the alien reading this book, suddenly you’re on page 500 and you’re like, you just can’t believe what you’re reading, and you’re so riveted that you’re saying, “Oh my god, this is the story, this is what this has all been leading to. What’s about to happen?” You turn to page 501, and you’re just like something big is about to happen here. We all were born right then, it’s crazy.
He goes on to say:
Part of what I can do is just take humans that are every bit of smart as I am, and every bit as curious, but it’s not their job to think about this stuff, and kind of shake them and say, “Hey, we’re about to turn to page 501.” It’s either going to be the coolest story for humans or it’s the end. It is a 501 page book, and that’s it. Or this is the beginning of the new paradigm. We have a new B.C./A.D. situation. We have a B.C. which is like before something which is on page 501 when we all became immortal and all the suffering stopped, or whatever that is. And the B.C., this’ll be the real B.C., much more important than any religious thing. It’ll be the thing before humans came into their own. That’ really exciting. Or it’ll be the end, and there’ll be no more book.
Will this be the most anti-climactic finish of all time…or are we just warming up? Are humans about to accelerate or is the world going back to where it has been for the past 498 pages?
I think us humans tend to think we are entitled to being here on earth and that we are inevitably important to the ecosystem. Perhaps we are not. Perhaps the 500th page is boring and humans just disappear forever. Why are we special?
Also published on Medium.