21 June 2011

Something positive for a change of pace

A lot of what I see going on in the world tends to grind my gears, and thus inspires many a ranting blog entry to vent my frustrations. The problems of civilization are numerous, tangled, and complicated; it's easy to forget about the good things in life, from simple pleasures and amusements to grand gestures of kindness. It's also easy to take for granted all of the progress our species has made.

It might be stating the obvious, but so are a great deal of my complaints. This post is dedicated to a few things that I think we humans are doing right.

Spreading the wealth (of knowledge)

Every day we're learning more about how the universe works, making new discoveries about everything from the tiniest building blocks of matter to the innumerable celestial bodies in the vast cosmos.  Modern communication and information technology lets scientists share, archive, and retrieve data faster than ever before in human history, and it's going to continue getting faster. Even laypeople have ready access to knowledge they wouldn't have had a generation ago.

Isaac Newton said that we see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants; to follow that analogy, today we're all standing on a veritable human pyramid of giants who came before, a pyramid which will only grow taller.  We're always going to hit snags and obstacles on the way up, but we're still climbing.

Wikipedia might not be perfect, but it enables realtime sharing of information about a plethora of subjects on a scale we've never seen before.  A quick Google search on a topic yields direct links to scientific articles.  NASA's HubbleSite lets any armchair astronomer see amazingly detailed images of objects in the farthest reaches of known space.

Popular entertainment might seem like it's getting dumber by the season, but anyone with internet access today has unprecedented access to much of the collective knowledge our species has compiled.  I find that inspiring.

Helping humanity

South Dakota Flooding 2011
Photo Credit: Gerry Holmes/American Red Cross
When there's a disaster and people need help, humanitarian organizations can get it to them more quickly and efficiently than at any point in the past.  The American Red Cross is one notable entity, not only supplying blood for transfusions but also providing shelter, meals, and essential supplies to disaster survivors.

I donate blood to the Red Cross as often as I'm allowed to.  If you're an eligible donor, I strongly encourage you to do so as well; it's a way to save a life even if you don't have money or time to contribute to their disaster relief functions.

We might not be able to help everyone when disaster strikes, but the logistical infrastructure we have in place allows us to get more aid to more people more efficiently than we could centuries or even decades ago.

Let's be reasonable

In the age of Mythbusters and Penn & Teller, healthy skepticism with a side of nerdiness is finally considered cool.  A growing number of people are finding that they want to know how things work (or if they even work at all) and whether that fantastical story they heard is true, plausible, or outright false.

Vast and stubborn pockets of superstition and gullibility may well always persist in human society, but critical thinkers have never before had the ability to share and debate ideas like they do today. Fact-checking a dubious claim is just a few keystrokes and a click away, and in the age of smartphones one doesn't even need to be at a computer to use the vast research resource that is the internet. As a side effect of this wide availability of information, those who question the veracity of long-held beliefs can readily educate themselves and find the answers they seek.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that magical thinkers and conspiracy theorists can connect and spread their fantasies to a wider audience as well, but that's a small price to pay.  In free debate on neutral ground, the truth usually wins out over time.

Conclusion?  We're getting better.

There's always going to be room for improvement in human society; evolution is a work in progress, and we're no exception.  The better connected we are with one another, the less likely we are to turn to violence to resolve conflicts, and the more likely we are to put our heads together to solve problems no one's ever solved before.  It's easy to be cynical about the follies to which our species is prone, but I have hope for humanity as well.

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Creative Commons License