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by futurist consultant Ersan Seer

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What the “Why Game” Tells Us About the Future of Human Civilization


Face, by Filipe Damaso Saraiva

Photo credit: Face by Filipe Damaso Saraiva @ Flickr. Click photo to see more of this photographer's work.

The Why Game

Ever converse with a child? It sometimes goes like this.

Daughter: Daddy?
Daddy: Yes?
Daughter: Why do ____ ___?
Daddy: Because that’s how they _____ ___ ___.
Daughter: Why?
Daddy: Because ____ ___ ____ __ __________.
Daughter: Why?
Daddy: _____ ___.
Daughter: Why?
Daddy: Because that’s the way things are.
Daughter: Why?
Daddy: Because it is.
Daughter: Why?
Daddy: Because daddy’s getting work done and that’s when little girls have a lot of fun playing in the backyard!

Presumably, the Why Game can go on forever, but it often ends when Daddy can’t answer the increasingly deep and difficult questions.

A Reverse Telescope

The Why Game is also a powerful tool in disguise; a telescope with which to analyze the human condition.

And, as in astronomy, the further you zoom this telescope (the longer you follow one line of questioning), the more revealing the answers become!

Remember learning about common denominators in middle school math? The Why Game unveils our common denominators — our most primal urges, and how they’re today writing the future humanity will one day live into.

Futurists are historicists who love patterns.

My general philosophy is: if you know where human civilization once was, and you know where it is today, you have enough information at your disposal to ascertain where we’re headed.

Past-Present-Future - How a futurist thinks
Note: I know, technological progressions tend to be exponential. That’s why this is a logarithmic graph!!

If the graphic seem too simple to be applicable to real-life, you’re not alone in your skepticism. Life is rarely simple and predictable. Right?

Actually, it can be, demonstrated Gordon E. Moore, when he introduced Moore’s Law in 1965. His law, though it was slightly altered here and there, has proven resilient and true.

As a futurist, one of my favorite things to do is find innovative ways to detect patterns. I seek the Moore’s Law of emotional intelligence, the Moore’s Law of social media, or the Moore’s Law of the decline of racism. It’s like licking your thumb to feel where the wind is headed, to intuit an impending storm. It’s a dumbed-down version of Hari Seldon’s Psychohistory.

The Why Game is one such innovative way to detect patterns.

My methodology:

In this exercise, I am both Questioner and Answerer.

That’s unfortunate, since the results will be skewed by my biases towards life and other people.

But I don’t want Ersan Seer’s patterns; I’m looking for humanity’s patterns. So how can I achieve this?

  • I will do my best to be objective and non-judgemental in my answers.
  • I will reduce “bias variance” by playing The Why Game more than once. Five times at least.
  • I will answer as I think most people would, if they were being objective and non-judgmental.

This will be an interesting romp through existentialism. :)

I think you’re ready. Let’s get started.

Why do dogs bark?

They’re raising an alarm.
Why?
They feel threatened by something out of the ordinary.
Why?
We bred them over thousands of years to be threatened by certain things, so that we may be alerted when those things happen.
Why?
We need every edge we can get when it comes to keeping ourselves and our families safe.
Why?
Life is dangerous.
Why?
We don’t fully control it. The parts we don’t have control over can hurt us.
Why?
Humans are not advanced enough to grok everything.
Why?
I don’t know.

Conclusion:
Is it possible to grok everything? Or is there a true randomness in the universe which follows no laws, which no intelligence—however vast—can comprehend?

Who knows. But we’re certainly evolving towards grokking everything. Humanity groks more and more as time marches on.

Does this mean we’re surviving better, too? I don’t think we’ve evolved much emotionally (war, racism, and narcissistic religions are still prevalent), but today’s medical technology is the most superior it’s ever been.

So I think it’s safe to say we’re better at surviving, too.

Thus, in the future, following our current trajectory, we’ll grok more and survive better than we do now.

Why does my boss treat me like crap?

He looks down on you.
Why?
He thinks you’re lower on the “food chain,” and that his job is more important than yours.
Why?
He worked hard to get there.
Why?
He believes that hard work pays off.
Why?
His parents taught him that people who work hard are more useful to society.
Why?
His parents grew up poor and impressed the importance of materialism on him, their only child.
Why?
They were afraid of him growing up to be poor, of going through what they did.
Why?
Society is obsessed with financial success since it provides food, shelter, healthcare, and other things which help humans survive.
Why?
These basic necessities give us a modicum of control over existence. Our goal is to prolong our own lives and those of the people we care about.
Why?
I don’t know.

Conclusion:
Why is survival so fundamental to life: is it fear of death, a primal urge to progress, or something else? Is survival the dark energy of evolution?

What this tells us about the future of human civilization:
Sometimes I’m pessimistic about the survival of the human race. (Eh, I have my up days and my down days…)

I dread the arrival of a real-life version of Kurt Hendricks — he’s the sociopathic genius in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol who gets shockingly close to wiping out most of humanity.

The Powerful Sociopath seems to be one of pop culture’s greatest fears — ranking right up there with Climate Apocalypse, Alien Invasion, and World War.

But pop culture isn’t real! It only describes fears and desires. I can’t think of any Powerful Sociopaths in human history who actually wanted to obliterate every last one of us. Even Hitler, the supreme Powerful Sociopath of our time, didn’t want to kill everyone. Just the folks who weren’t in his clique.

The urge to survive is deeply ingrained in humans. From now on I’ll be more optimistic about our future.

Why are Americans stereotyped for being fat?

An abnormally high percentage of Americans, compared to recent history and people from other countries, are fat.
Why?
Processed foods, lack of exercise, a general indifference towards health…
Why?
Instant gratification attracts us (mmmm cheeseburger) more than long-term stability (screw the diet, health and longevity).
Why?
We’re hard-wired to covet gratification.
Why?
It wasn’t always instant. It used to be more rare and valuable than it is now. Food was hard to come by. Hunger impelled us to work hard to find food.
Why?
If we didn’t work hard to find food, we would die.
Why?
We need food to survive.
Why?
I don’t know.

Conclusion:
Consumption is required for survival. Never thought to question this, because it’s a tenet of life, so basic that we all automatically accept it as true.

Every plant, bacteria, fungus, mammal, and insect — everything that is alive — has to consume something else in order to stay alive.

But why?
Why is consumption required for survival?

Why can’t we live without consuming something else? Why doesn’t there exist a closed system, that’s alive, that doesn’t consume energy from another source?

It may not be possible. Maybe what distinguishes life from non-life is consumption.

Regardless — what does this tell us about our future? I think it means consumption will continue to be just as important for survival as it is now. Consumption will not lessen in importance. We’re simply not evolving that direction.

Thus, if we want to “cure world hunger”, we have but one choice: find sources of food faster than our population grows to consume them.

Why don’t I have more time to do the things I want?

Because you don’t make enough time to do those things.
Why?
You’re trying to be “responsible” in life.
Why?
Society likes responsible people.
Why?
Responsible people have the ability to do things for the “greater good”, for civilization, even when it means sacrificing personal gain.
Why?
Civilization keeps us alive better than anarchy does.
Why?
We rely on civilization to help us in times of need: to protect us from danger (police), to stop our shelter from burning down (firefighters), to educate us for free (libraries, school), to provide for us (welfare).
Why?
Civilization buffers us against the variance of life. Civilization is important.
Why?
It helps us survive.

Conclusion:
There it is again: survival. Certainly a common denominator here. I’m beginning to wonder how much we do is ultimately attributed to survival.

Why was that stranger rude to me?

He acted in a way which made you think he was angry with you.
Why?
He had something on his mind which may or may not have had to do with you. His emotions about those thoughts were conveyed through his actions.
Why?
Humans display their emotions through action.
Why?
We’re social beings, so when we have emotions, we communicate them.
Why?
Communication means working together. Working together means better chances for survival.

Conclusion:
Survival.

Why is Facebook so addictive?

It’s fun for all walks of life.
Why?
We like getting quick updates on all the people in our life.
Why?
Feeling connected to other humans is comforting.
Why?
It’s safer than being alone.
Why?
Being part of a group means better chances for survival.

Conclusion:
Survival.

Sheesh. Am I biasing the results here, or am I really onto something?

Why wasn’t I gifted with good looks?

You don’t have facial symmetry and other markers of beauty.
Why?
Not everyone is beautiful.
Why?
Genetic diversity is better for humanity’s survival as a whole.
Why?
If we were all so genetically similar that everyone was perfectly good looking, humanity would be as fragile and susceptible to certain diseases as the genetically-modified crops of today are.
Why?
One parasite or disease could wipe out the entire species because we’d all be weak towards it; whereas with diversity, that weakness would only take a portion of us out.

Conclusion:
Don’t feel so bad. Your imperfections are why humanity has survived thus far, into the most intelligent species on earth.

Survival, survival, survival…

You know, in a few generations we’ll have weapons so destructive that atom bombs will seem as scary as water balloons.

One bad apple, one Kurt Hendricks, will have the technology to eradicate us all.

He may be a natural genius, with the bad luck to be born with emotional instability and horrifically abusive parents. In his teenage years, he may become one of the pioneers of nano-hacking. He’ll experiment with synthetic viruses, subtly at first, on the testosterone-overwhelmed males who chronically bully him at school.

This character will certainly exist one day.

And he may be infatuated with retribution, on a mass scale.

It may not be the T-virus, exactly. It may be worse.

Scary.

But I’m not that worried.

Because of what the Why Game has uncovered:

Humanity as a whole is not only infatuated with survival—we’re good at it. And we’re designed to survive at a genetic level.

The same genetic diversity which produced the sociopathic nano-hacker will protect humanity from his synthetic viruses. Some of us will live, and thrive.

And when an asteroid looms over the earth, our civilizations will collaborate to divert it.

And when food shortage combined with overpopulation threatens us all, we will find a way to overcome it together.

Here is what the Why Game has uncovered, succinctly:

We are human, therefore we survive.

Ersan Seer

Ersan Seer is a futurist consultant, coolhunter, market researcher, strategic advisor, and concept artist. Ersan hungers to make the future world a more peaceful, survivable place.  → Read More & Book Ersan Seer

6 Responses to What the “Why Game” Tells Us About the Future of Human Civilization

  1. Jae Lim says:

    Reading your article reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how it this triangle can potentially become up-side-down in future.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs

    • Ersan Seer says:

      The similarity was unintentional, but I can definitely see the connection. I’m really curious about the upside-down bit. Please explain…

  2. Sam W. says:

    I love the why game too. I have also used it many times, and I always come up with ‘optimizing chances of survival’ as the answer. So, if survival is the ultimate intrinsic motivator, it stands to reason that we should adopt that as our ethic. The implications of this is incredible! We’d have to live sustainably, which is a truly incredible goal in of itself, we’d have to abandon technological progress–something civilization instead too keen about, and we’d have to do other actions that almost always goes against to what most people are accustomed.

    • Ersan Seer says:

      Sam, I love your enthusiasm. Are you a futurist too? :)

      So…. you believe that technological progress and survival can’t exist together?

      FYI, I struggle with this concept regularly. If only people knew how much danger we’ll face in the next few decades as a result of technology… Let’s just say atom bombs are wimpy in comparison. But technology in the hands of good people will also save us from technology in the hands of bad people. Well, that’s my hope anyway.

      Do you advocate abandonment of technology? Please share your ideas….

  3. Sam W. says:

    Yes, I would call myself a futurist.

    Yes, I think technological progress and survival are mutually exclusive. Survival requires us to consume resources. When those resources are infinite in supply, we can survive forever. When those resources are limited in supply, we will eventually not survive when we consume all of them. Since current and future technology uses and will use resources that are limited in supply, we will eventually run out of those resources.

    Plus, technology causes so many issues today that negatively impact our health, and thus, survival. Destruction of nature caused by mining of metals, depletion of water and soil caused by modern agricultural practices, contamination of air and food caused by pollution, etc. While its negative effects are being reduced all the time, I wonder whether or not its negative effects can ever be eliminated completely.

    The solution to the problems above is to abandon as much technology as we possibly can. I have already begun doing this with my own life (no cellphone, no indoor artificial lighting, solar cooking, sponge bathing, etc.), but I have a ways to go.

    I hope that actions such as growing your own food, simplifying your life, optimizing health, living in tiny houses, practicing permaculture, etc. gain more traction in areas where they are needed. These are a few solutions we can utilize that can help perpetuate our own survival.

    Man, I want to know what Jae Lim meant by the upside-down hierarchy of needs! It sounds like an interesting idea.

  4. Brian says:

    Ersan, thanks for the great read and sorry for getting to the party so late. :) I by no means am a futurist or even a modern philosopher, but do enjoy the sport of considering the trajectory of humanity just for fun. Generally speaking I agree with your approach and outcomes to your whys (although, IMO there are other/more layers of “why” required to achieve your “survival conclusion).

    Where we diverge is in your assumption that because we are good at survival we will overcome: “And when food shortage combined with overpopulation threatens us all, we will find a way to overcome it together.” I am not saying this is not possible, only that there is no clean/neat way to accomplish this, and quite possibly an unprecedented selective barbarianism may be inevitable, unless we resort to and rely on technology to overcome this fate.

    Assuming survival is one of the primary objectives of humanity and survival is defined by (or comprised of): consumption, autonomy, community, self-preservation and procreation isn’t it then conceivable, in fact impossible, to separate selfless from selfish? And, if you agree with this, is consensus really possible at the primal level? IMO: this is the beginning of the crumbling of community as it as at this point that factions and fractions are introduced; and once this happens it is irreversible. Call it a version of differentiation and specialization, although I think this is being too kind…

    Anyway, I don’t mean to be a doomsdayer, but history also shows us a few examples of some localized unspeakable atrocities that play out when resources become limited. I will give you that so far we (all of an earlier disconnected humanity) have overcome, but this was largely due to low global census/available resources ratio, and the overcoming was passive, not organized, just good old blind luck. IMO: the squirreling mentality will be inevitable at every level of society, even if it is at our own greater demise.

    Until then, and I hope I am wrong, have great days all! :)

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