I’ve been a fan of Tim Urban and his site Wait But Why for a long time. Urban uses whimsical illustrations, infographics, and friendly, nontechnical language to explain everything from AI to space exploration to the Fermi Paradox.
Urban’s most recent project is an explainer series called “The Story of Us.” It began as an attempt to understand what is going on in American politics today and quickly turned into a deep exploration into humanity’s past: how we evolved, the history of civilization, and the way our psychologies have come to interact with the world around us.
So this, then, isn’t just a conversation about politics and polarization in the present. It’s more fully a conversation about whether the politics of the present are distracting us from the forces that are, even as we speak, deciding our future.
Here’s a lightly edited transcript of part of our conversation, which we released this week on The Ezra Klein Show.
In “The Story of Us,” you take a very big-picture view of human history. When you zoom out and look at the big story arc of humanity and then zoom back in to our current moment, what do you see?
I wish we could all somehow grasp what’s really happening, which is that we all woke up in the climax of a movie without realizing it. If you look at all of human history before the last couple of hundred years, it looks nothing like human history does today.
If you divide the 100,000 years of human history to a 500-page book (with each page being 200 years), on the first 499 pages we had 1 billion people or fewer. Then, on the 500th page, we’ve crossed the 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 billion person threshold. For the first 499 pages of the book, we barely used any energy at all — we got around with sailboats and walking and running and horses; we developed submarines and cars and planes and space travel all on page 500 alone. Communication was just talking — and maybe letter writing — for the first 499 pages; on page 500, we have FaceTime and the internet.
Just pause and think about that for a second: we woke up in an incredible anomaly of a time when we were born. So, we have to ask ourselves: what does that mean about page 501? What does that mean about the future? We’re in the climax of a movie and it’s very unclear if this is the scary part of the movie that has a really great happy ending or if this is the beginning of a very extreme, terrible ending of the movie. I don’t believe there’s a middle ground when this much technology is exploding.
Your language strikes me as pessimistic — the idea of a “climax” seems to imply that we’re nearing the end.
I’m not necessarily pessimistic. But I do believe that if we have the “good” outcome here, what it means to be a human will be radically different a hundred years from now than it is today — so different that we’ll have a much more real AD/BC divide and we will be very much part of the BC that people in the future will look at. I think if we can have an incredibly good outcome, then we will look back at all of the uncertainty and the fear and the instability and the fighting of today and see it as the dark ages.
But there’s a lot of evidence that the pace of technological advancement is slowing down, that we’re moving into a period where limits are going to be worse.
I wonder if there isn’t just a human tendency to believe that our moment in the story is super dramatic, but what’s coming isn’t actually going to be extermination or acceleration but more powerful limitations. For instance, climate change is going to make our relationship to nature more volatile and our exposure to nature worse, which will have downstream political effects. But it’s not everybody dies or everybody goes into utopia.
I do think that we have a tendency to be gullible and always believe that it’s the end of days — whether it’s the Christian rapture or the rapture of the nerds. So we have that kind of credulity.
But we also have a part of our brain that believes it’s naive to believe that person. Fifty thousand years ago, the person who would come and say that everything was about to change because of this comet in the sky was wrong. They were almost always wrong because your life was basically the same as your great-great-great-grandmother’s life.
So, we’re built to assume that our life experience is probably what’s actually going to happen in the future — because that’s what the truth has been for most of history. But when I look at page 500 of the book versus the other 499 pages, we are living in an actual anomaly. That makes me think that the actual naïveté is to think that nothing that crazy will happen because nothing has happened before.