My friend Salil Naik asked me to write a letter to his daughter on her birthday. Hence you can say that this is a commissioned post. So in the style of “A Letter to Abhishek“, I offer this letter to Aalisha.
The world that you will live your life in will be a remarkably different world from the one in which you were born. In what ways will it be different and how you should face it are the subjects of this short letter to you on your first birth anniversary.
It is impossible to foresee the fine-grained structure of that future world but the broad outlines are clearly visible even through the fog of rapidly accelerating change. You will live in a world of increasing complexity, of unprecedented material prosperity, and most important of all, a world of unimaginable choice.
Material prosperity is guaranteed by the exponential increase in technology and innovations. The global average living standard will increase more in your lifetime than in all of human history. Poverty, until now a constant companion of human society, will finally part company with humanity. But inequality in all its dimensions – material as well as non-material – will increase, keeping pace with the increasing change. The poor will always be there but there will be no poverty, and the chasm between the poor and the rich will widen phenomenally. Inequality and progress are twins.
Technological progress and complexity form another set of twins. All processes in nature – starting with the birth of the universe itself – lead to systems of increasing complexity with time. At the largest scales, what began as a featureless uniformity has evolved into galaxies, stars, planets and whatnots.
At much smaller scales, complex life forms such as you and I have evolved from extremely simple primitive forms. Analogous to those processes, human technological progress inevitably increases the complexity of human society. Positive feedback loops between technology and society ensure exponential technological change.
Complexity has costs: complex systems take sophisticated skills to manage and when failure occurs (as is inevitable in any system), it could be catastrophic. Human evolution is not as rapid as the evolution of technology that humans create. We are not naturally morally, ethically, cognitively and intellectually endowed to meet all the challenges that the technologically advanced complex human society of the future will present. We have to find some way to artificially speed up human evolution along those dimensions if humanity is to survive.
In a sense, like you, human society is in its infancy. Like you, human society has a short period in which to rapidly learn a lot so that it can face the uncertain future.
All human progress can be seen as an expansion of choices. Our choice set today would have been unimaginable to our ancestors. Advances in biotechnology, for instance, will allow you to choose your and your children’s future with less uncertainty. You would be able to choose what to consume, how much to consume, where to live, how to live, what to do for a living – and a million other choices – from a choice set that is beyond my imagining.
Your choice set will be as much larger than ours as ours is compared to that of people living in the Stone Age. That brings me to the point of this letter: what matters for you is to learn how to choose wisely.
We humans can be called “general purpose machines.” Like computers, we are “programmable.” Depending upon our programming, we can choose to become anything we like, from architects to zoologists. However, unlike computers, we program ourselves. We get the ability to self-program through the process generally called education. What you have to
do is learn how to learn and how to choose.
As you are a general purpose entity, your basic education has to be general purpose. That is, your education must not be directed to any specific narrow purpose. The goal of your basic education has to be such that it allows you to survey the entire set of choices available to you and to freely choose to specialize in whatever suits your talents and temperament.
Nearing the end of this letter let me get down to some specifics that I want you to pay attention to.
First, learn a few languages. Language distinguishes us from all other terrestrial life. You have to be as good as you can be in at least one language. This will give you access to the accumulated knowledge of the world. Try to learn at least two languages well. Important hint: Memorize well-written long pieces of prose and poetry.
Second, learn how to use arithmetic and logic. Learning them is not difficult but the habit of using them is not all that common. This ability to use logic and arithmetic will help you be rational and good.
Third, read, listen and watch widely but select from only the best. There is too much good stuff out there to waste your time on anything but the best. By casting your net wide, your chances of picking up treasures improve.
Fourth, be curious, skeptical, and open-minded. Don’t believe in anything without sufficient evidence. Be tentative in your conclusions and be aware that you may be mistaken about any idea that you believe to be true.
Fifth, know that life is a random draw. Who you are and what you have been given is only accidental: you have done nothing to deserve neither the good nor the bad. Therefore cultivate compassion towards all living beings, as they too are in the same situation as you.
Sixth, be gentle and kind to all, beginning with yourself. Kindness wins you friends but it goes beyond that instrumental value: it makes you appreciate what life has to offer more keenly.
Seventh, be honest with yourself. Face the truth boldly even if you decide that you don’t want to share the truth with others. If for some reason you have to lie to others, be careful that you never lie to yourself.
Eighth, learn how to be lazy. Figure out the easiest way to get something done and only then do it. It is stupid to work hard at something that does not require hard work. Most things can be done with little effort.
Ninth, learn to appreciate music. The ability to appreciate music can be acquired, if you don’t naturally have it. It takes a bit of time but it is a source of indescribable joy.
Finally, search for a passion. If you are fortunate enough to discover something that lifts your spirit, you would have found an anchor that will help you weather many storms.
Good luck and best wishes for a long and happy life.