At times, say while preparing one’s morning coffee, one can be struck with the unnerving sensation that we are presently living in someone else’s past.

We are surely not the first to experience the feeling. A young man in England around the time of the Renaissance is struck by the same realization as he walks to his class on medicine at Oxford. While most of his professors continue to lecture on the ancient Greek theory of the four humors, a small, rebellious sect within the college advocates for an empirical, observation-based approach to medicine. The young man suspects that in time, careful practice and experimentation will overturn centuries of theory.

It takes nearly two-hundred fifty years before Pasteur and Koch establish the existence of germs and their role in spreading disease. The following century sees widespread vaccination and plummeting infant mortality.

The young man at Oxford, in his moment of epiphany, understands that he is presently living in the past.

I prepare my morning coffee and consider that the field of modern psychology is barely a century old. We believe our technology to be advanced, our pharmaceuticals effective, the foundations of our theories sound. In reality, our understanding of the brain remains faint. We are at sea, squinting at the hint of a coastline through a fog.

Two-hundred and fifty years from now, a young man walks to a seminar at Oxford titled Neuroarchitecture and Rearchitecture. On the way, he feels the distinct sensation of presently living in someone else’s future. He makes a mental note to ask his professor about the phenomenon after class.

There are those that would ask for a summary of The Great Gatsby, yet read every page of whatever business book is en vogue among founders and VCs. The irony is that most books on business can be fully summarized in a few pages, while a hundred books can be written about The Great Gatsby and never capture it in full.

Pay attention to what expands and what contracts.

I imagine a bookstore full of empty shelves. A gallery, no frames on the wall. Spotify searches that return No Results Found. All because we conflated creativity with originality.

As children we happily draw what’s in the coloring book, build what’s on the Lego box, tell the same stories we’ve heard before. At some point, we learn that creating isn’t enough, that we must express ourselves. Great art, we learn, is original. Making a copy is boring. Perhaps even criminal. And certainly worthless.

(Note that our association between originality and value derives primarily from art’s commercial market, not its aesthetic or artistic intent.)

This is how we become creatively timid. We fear to tread in others’ footsteps. And so we stop taking steps at all.

Banish the word originality from your dictionary. Make, make, copy, make. Experiment, or don’t. Keep your brushes moving, your feet tapping, your words dancing across the screen. When we forget about originality, we nurture more creatives. With more creatives, originality will balloon.

Interest is asking questions. Care is attachment to a specific answer.

So when Chuck Klosterman confesses, “I don’t think being interested in something and giving a fuck about about it are remotely connected,” he also describes the ideal state for a journalist: inquisitive and unbiased.

In fact, it’s enlightening to locate our personal and professional lives along these two dimensions: interest and care. Consider these the four quadrants of curiosity:

1. Not interested, don’t care: We are ignorant of these topics. Everything we are easily convinced about falls here. For most, this includes plate tectonics, foreign tax law, the sex lives of the elderly, and plot of the Entourage movie. Common professions of people that don’t ask questions and don’t care about answers: hitmen, political lobbyists.

2. Not interested, but care: Here we hold strong opinions, but don’t have the time or courage or curiosity to question what we believe. Usually includes city planning, contemporary fashion trends, superior pizza locations, how cell phones work, our cholesterol level, books that we buy and don’t read. Common professions of people that care without interest: people more successful in school than out of school, terrible journalists, unsuccessful investors, bad spouses, unethical academics, bloggers.

3. Interested, don’t care: These topics elicit neutral questioning. We ask, and we keep asking, because we’re not partial toward any particular answer. Includes the worlds of astronomy, non-applied (pure) mathematics, neurotic cat behavior, and combat. Here we meet ethical scientists, empiricists, platoon leaders, photojournalists, taxi drivers, strippers, successful investors, and people more successful out of school than in school.

4. Interested, and care: Ugh. These are the topics that inspire passion within us. Exhausting, ideological passion. We research obsessively. Each answer inflames or revolts us. We know every scrap of trivia, and when we run out of questions we invent hypotheticals. We know we’re right; we must be. After all (we say smugly), we ask the most questions. These are our zealots, nerds, bodybuilders, annoying students, fiction authors, and people who want to create new schools.

Every idea, every event, every subject, every app, every meme, every possible conversation, every person we meet, every history and every future fall somewhere along these two dimensions for you.

And should you be dissatisfied with any of these, consider moving to a new quadrant.

Take a prediction about the future that we might all agree on: our general opinion about which 20th century musicians are the least important, influential, or talented will be different 200 years from now than it is today.

Sure. Makes sense. Attitudes are always changing.

What if I told you it will be Michael Jackson?

Perhaps I should have started out with a trigger warning.

To drive someone crazy, be specific about the future.

Chuck Klosterman argues in But What If We’re Wrong? that a central bias in how we view the present day stems from our inability to imagine it as the distant past. We agree that we think about the world differently than people living a century ago, and we can also imagine that people a century from now will view the world quite differently than today.

Until we get specific. As Klosterman observes in his interview with Marc Maron:

“Everyone in the abstract sort of accepts this, but as soon as you start talking about specific ideas that we might be wrong about people are very uncomfortable. They need to feel a degree of certitude about specifics even if they can accept in a general sense that they might know nothing.”

We accept in the abstract. We disagree in the particular. The need for certitude casts a shadow over the sea of our beliefs:

Our moral and political opinions, the durability of our fondest memories, our affection for friends and family and total strangers, the virtue of technological progress, the safety of genome hacking, the stability of national borders, the superiority of science to mysticism, diversity to homogeny, The Beatles to The Monkees.

Yes, you say, I know these are all subject to change. Of course they are. Except, except, except.

On days when I need a pick-me-up, I remind myself that the first extraterrestrial life we encounter will be likely be indifferent to us, just as fish and grasshoppers and ducks are broadly disinterested in human swimming, jumping, and quacking.

Of course, when we meet our aliens we can’t assume that. Of course, we are scientists, so we will demand a rigorous examination of the alien-hopping-fish-duck’s capacity for intelligible conversation.

Carefully, thoughtfully, the eggheads will concoct an elaborate light and music show in an attempt to communicate without language. We’ll spend months crafting the proper message and two of the lead scientists will get into a fist fight over the use of a diatonic rather than pentatonic scale (with some implications of racial bias). They’ll later apologize to each other over email, both agreeing that they were very tired and have been put into a stressful circumstance with a very tight deadline, that this is water under the bridge as far as each party is concerned.

Following twenty long, tense months of deliberation, composition, and review, we play our light and music show for the hopping-fish-ducks. Then we hold our breath.

They seem to just be hopping more-or-less in place, like they always do. Wait, did one do a little dance just there? It was quick, but it looked like it perhaps shimmied slightly before its little hop. The lead zoologist leans in: Yes, there is a possibility that the shimmy was an intended response. We will require a follow-up investigation.

An application is submitted to concoct an elaborate dance routine for the hopping-fish-ducks. We can’t rule shimmying out. We can’t rule anything out.

We tend to think of the word inspire as an active verb. We believe a person intends to inspire: “She inspired me to speak up at our executive meetings.” “He inspired me to tutor at the local high school.” “She inspired me to start a side business selling my vintage dresses.” “He inspired me to tell my friends that I needed help.”

The truth is, inspire is almost always a passive verb:

“I was inspired, by that person…” (…who did not intend to inspire, who simply acted kindly, authentically, gracefully, selflessly, heroically – and I was watching.)

Artificial intelligence will not kill us all. Instead, it will ground us like an angry parent, send us to our room.

David Krakauer suggests that the threat of technological progress is not existential, but volitional. He asserts that algorithms that curate, like the one that recommends our next movie on Netflix, erode the concept of free will. To the algorithm, the tendency of humans to surprise, to contradict themselves, to act unpredictably is an inefficiency. By constraining our set of visible and viable options, artificial intelligence effectively negates the possibility of freely-made choice.

Krakauer provides an analog example in our choice of dress:

“I am a Western male, you are a Western male: you are probably wearing trousers and a shirt. The sartorial options available to you are extraordinarily small. If you look at world culture, and historically look at Persia or the Roman empire, or China, the way we have chosen to adorn ourselves is incredibly diverse and fascinating. And yet, now as Western men we all look like clones. I would claim you are not exercising your judgment, you’re being told precisely how to dress. And when you get to exercise your judgment, it is a very, very low dimensional space around texture and color that the manufacturers of clothing, based on purely economic efficiency, have decided to give you.”

But is his premise accurate? If, as Krakauer implies, free will is exercised via deliberation over a complete data set, then even nature itself is a kind of curator. After all, our environment constrains the availability of flora and fauna we might choose to consume or wear or convert into shelter. Does the height of trees and the tensile grip of our fingers limit our choice of recreation any less than Amazon’s recommendation engine? Are we truly exercising free will when our habitat and biology provide only a narrow band of easily-accessible options?

Of course we are. Free will is not at stake, but heroism. Heroism is finding, then crossing the boundaries of conventional wisdom and curated options. It is grasping for the uneasily-accessed branches.

Religious theocracies curtail choice, but not free will. Authoritarians build fences, heroes hop over them.

Algorithmic curation suggests we choose from a small set. Heroes venture beyond recommendation.

Artificial intelligence draws from the oldest human tradition. Every society places borders around what constitutes normal, responsible, civilized, sacred. So do our psychological biases and intuitions. If artificial intelligence further shrinks our set of choices, then the opportunity for heroism has never been greater.

The reveal: a neutrally-dressed young woman lifts a gray box from the table. Beneath, a particular brand of soda.

“You’ve actually been drinking Diet Pepsi!”

Across the table, a man’s jaw drops. “No way!” He laughs loudly, stumbles back in awe.

Cut to: The man, speaking to the woman, to the camera, to us, the national viewing audience, “This is it. WOW. You got me. I’m drinking DIET PEPSI! This is my jam!”

We’re stunned by our preferences when a box conceals the brand.

A vision of democracy:

In the year 2020, the U.S. presidential election takes place via web app. There are no candidates on the ballot. Instead, a series of questions pertaining to how you would like a hypothetical candidate to resolve ambiguous moral and political situations. How you would prefer they respond to stressors and insults. How they’ve spent their free time and their professional energy to date. How long their longest friendship has lasted. What they eat for breakfast, how frequently and intensely they deadlift.

The nation answers the questions.

Each candidate enters their own responses to the questions, which are supplemented by the evaluations of a physician and psychologist and audited by an independent legal counsel.

The app matches each voter to a candidate, based on the percentage of overlap between voter’s preferences to candidates’ responses.

The votes are tallied. On network television, a neutrally-dressed young woman walks to the center of an LED-bright stage and stands behind a star-spangled folding table. On the table, a gray box.

The reveal: she lifts the box from the table. Beneath, a particular brand of candidate. Our new president.

Thousands of red, white, and blue balloons spill from the ceiling. Bruce Springsteen wails over the loudspeakers.

Get rid of foreign language classes. Recycle every copy of introductory Spanish, Japanese, and Russian. Grant those tired textbooks a second life as something more useful, like origami or moving boxes.

We marvel at the infant’s ability to acquire her native language. The truth is, it’s not her brain that holds the advantage, but her environment. With this in mind, our institute will train speakers to native proficiency with the following method:

  • We relocate each student, regardless of age, to a town in the country of their target language.
  • We place each student in the home of a loving host family that does not speak the student’s language.
  • The student takes nothing with them: no possessions, no clothing, no paleo-friendly snacks.
  • The student is now the child of the host family. Not metaphorically. They will rely on their family for every need, including eating, bathing, and extemporaneously philosophizing. The student is prohibited from taking any action on his or her own without requesting it in their target language.
  • The host family will seek to meet every apparent request that the student makes, as well as teach the student to speak and read as quickly as possible.
  • The host family will talk to the student constantly, often using a simplified form of the target language.
  • Students will receive immediate feedback and correction when they make mistakes, and astonished, tearful praise when they construct their first basic words, sentences, and statements.

Our institute guarantees that the student’s language proficiency will surpass that of a native-born baby at 12, 24, and 36 months**.

** Guarantee does not apply to student’s pronunciation abilities. As it turns out, our sensory and neuromuscular systems are most malleable in youth. Simply, babies’ ears and tongues are more impressive than their brains.