Carl Sagan, Circa 1995

Like a lot of people I have a certain obsession with the future. It’s nothing abnormal beyond the obvious stake I have in surviving, but it’s more that most of the things I am interested in try to gauge what cannot be known. Part of why I enjoy sports so much is because the information you get by following on an everyday basis allows you to better handicap what happens tomorrow. Betting on sports allows you to see what Las Vegas — the most objective observer — thinks will happen tomorrow. It’s fun.

So I was struck when I saw a tweet earlier today quoting the late Carl Sagan, the guy who did the original Cosmos series, who in 1995 predicted quite presciently a world he hoped not to see. It’s all from one paragraph but I’ll break it up to be a bit more palatable:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.

The dumbing down of America is most evident in slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. 

The quote is good because the quote is so true; I challenge anyone to point out even one aspect of it that Sagan is wrong about. The only thing he sold short, or didn’t account for enough in 1995, is that 10-second attention spans are now closer to three or four seconds due to the velocity of information nowadays. I’ll give him a pass on that since you don’t know what you don’t know, and there’s no way in 1995 a person could account for social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat and Instagram.

The most poignant lines, to me anyway, come at the end of each stanza (which I took creative license to alter). It’s hard to deny that the United States is falling back into superstition and darkness, because it’s almost like a game plan for our corporately-owned government to make it harder on people to be educated. Public, taxpayer-funded education (like most of us received) is getting cut at nearly every turn, and attending a solid four-year university has turned into a perk for the wealthy rather than a way of life. Working class families don’t have tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to throw around for their kids to receive a higher education.

If those kids and families want to borrow against their future they can (like I did despite going to a university for only one year), but what they almost invariably come to realize is that in this economy there aren’t enough good-paying jobs to supplement the tens of thousands of dollars they owe to the banks, who by the way are also collecting interest on that money. I know several people who graduated from four-year schools, even collected a master’s degree on top, and are now in their late-20’s or early-30’s working as hosts at restaurants. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a job, but I will say it’s a bitch to try to pay back student loans only making 10 or 15 bucks an hour.

The second bit, or paragraph, I guess, ends much more powerfully. Some would argue that half of America is a celebration of ignorance. A healthy percentage of the population wants to believe in what makes them feel good, not what is necessary or factually right. These are the same people who are suspect of science, math, and anything vaguely intellectual. I don’t hate or dislike these people, because some are my relatives and immediate family members, but I can’t deny that it’s disheartening when I feel so optimistic and enthusiastic about the future that these people wish for a world closer to what we would have witnessed two thousand years ago in an illiterate part of the desert in the Middle East.

I get kind of a bang out of every time someone earnestly post a horoscope where “Mercury is rising,” or when it’s “Scorpio season,” or whatever, only because there’s nothing concrete or substantive out of following the zodiac. It’s just a trick that doesn’t mean anything. I guess it’s worth something, to someone, when your horoscope says “a new acquaintance will change your outlook,” or however those things go, but I suppose that’s probably the same reason why people take scripture to heart. It makes them feel better.

Personally, I think this is all random. I think it’s a mistake that we’re here, in the universe, and I don’t believe anything is out there or anyone knows we’re here. We’re just… here. So with that worldview I find the best way to operate is to just be nice to people, and even though my words can sometimes come across as condescending or like I know everything the truth is I don’t know shit and I just want what’s best for people. That’s why I advocate for a brand of politics that taxes the shit out of billionaires such that poor and working class people can get more back from their tax dollars.

That’s all besides the point, since this post is about Carl Sagan and the future. The greatest irony of social media is that it’s supposed to bring people closer together. The truth is it personalizes everything so much that you can filter out what you do and do not want to see. You can create your own world, where the only people you follow are those you agree with. And at the end of the day it makes you feel even more alone, in an echo chamber of what makes you feel good — the complete opposite of what was intended.

So even though I often disagree — even with people on my own “side” — I never block anyone out because I’m always interested in seeing how the other half lives. In some way, no matter how small, seeing and listening to people I disagree with helps me better myself. It gives me added perspective, and helps me the next time I argue or debate. That’s a worthwhile tradeoff when talking about the future.

Carl Sagan was apparently neither an atheist nor a theist, but I still think it’s fair to say that God did not influence his premonitions. His foundation was deeply rooted in science — both astronomy and biology — and in those types of fields the only bias can be what’s verifiable or, day I say, truth. I’d guess that’s why math and science are so important to me, because even though I’m not an expert in either field it is as close as I can get to predicting the future.

It’s also why (as I mentioned earlier) I use Vegas odds as a reference to which teams are and aren’t expected to be good in a given sport. It doesn’t mean they are always right, it just means with all the information available it’s the best guess we have. You probably already know, but money has no emotions. It doesn’t go to the people who pray the hardest for their team to win; it simply ends up in the hands of those who make the right bet.

25 years ago Carl Sagan saw the direction the United States was headed in, and he didn’t care for what he saw. He envisioned a world where we shipped off our good-paying American jobs to places where American billionaires could pay the labor pennies on the dollar; he saw education going in decline to the point where individuals can’t distinguish between what’s true and obviously false; he saw the fake news before it was so damn fake; and he saw us, slowly but surely, fade into what we want to see and believe rather than what is true and makes us so uncomfortable.

I don’t need anyone to be an astrologist or biologist, or believe in God or not. All I’m saying is the things that take us out of our comfort zones do so for a reason. It’s supposed to be a challenge, something that either changes our perspectives or makes us reinforce our own beliefs.

I’m not a scientist, which is why I choose to follow the scientific consensus over what some random idiot anti-vaxxer tells me he saw on a YouTube video. I’m not a fucking genius when it comes to sports or betting on sports, which is why I follow the odds. I don’t know anything about anything, so I’m going to choose to follow those who have come before me and have more experience than I do over what makes me feel good and tucks me in at night.

I’m a regular 30 year-old jagoff white guy. I’ve been around and seen some of the country and gone through some shit just like anyone else. But what I will say, all I’ve been trying to say, is that the only great personal leaps I have ever made have been due to the times I have felt most uncomfortable. I don’t have to prove or explain what Carl Sagan was talking about in 1995, because it’s true, and we’re now living it. All I’m saying is there’s a big difference between telling somebody what to think and telling them a way to think.

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