Human history, from ancient steppes to concrete jungles to the unrealized future among the stars, is a history of failure.
A primeval tribe of hunter-gatherers struggles to survive, gnawed at by hunger. Perhaps the local climate grew a touch too cold for the wild beasts they'd been relying on. Perhaps they lingered in one area for too long, and taught their prey to avoid it. Perhaps a larger, aggressive tribe forced them out of their territory.
Bellies empty, they trudge into the unknown. They pray for a bountiful land, but the prayers go unheard. As their hopes shrink and their hunger grows, they strife, scatter, and die.
A different tribe has better luck, with climate, with food, with neighbours. Living in relative security, the curious among them find the leeway to study. The life cycle of plants, the psychology of animals, the utility of natural materials — few things escape their inquiry. Most of their undertakings result in failure and ridicule, but that doesn’t deter all of them.
At last, a few stumble upon approaches that work. Planted seeds turn into delicious vegetables come next autumn. Wild animals bear offspring even as they’re kept docile. The tribe seizes a small scrap of nature’s power — the ability to produce their own food — and uses it to escape from much of nature’s demands.
It’s a triumph. Riches that used to be hard-won are now within casual reach. People could afford to pursue a calling other than a life of fighting and wandering. Over generations, they could grow instead of only subsisting, and build upon their ancestors’ work, contributing to a legacy that may last.
One hot summer, the glare of the Sun is constant and unyielding, and the crops dry up. A plague from a contaminated water source ravages the cattle herds, and in weeks, the pastures are littered with rotting corpses. Bad meat transmits a different sickness to the tribe itself, and people grow weak and ill. The remaining hunters are unable to catch enough game.
Slowly and miserably, the entire settlement succumbs.
But they were not the last people on Earth, and not the last tribe to discover agriculture. Of their successors, many meet the same end, but a fraction survive their mistakes, and learn to avoid them. Through these tribes, humanity perseveres, and prospers.
Some settlements die not by nature, but by man: by those driven by old grudges, by envy for others' luxuries, or by simple uncaring opportunism. Soon, raiders become the main cause of concern. Seeking security in the changing world, a few friendly tribes exchange promises of protection. Cooperation proves to be a strength, and as more and more tribes flock to the alliance, the brutal pressures of the environment... lessen.
Mutual support in the face of disaster banishes the fear of extinction. A myriad lethal mistakes are averted by the sharing of knowledge; knowledge that was bought at a steep cost, but a cost that needs not be paid again. Crafts and wonders previously unique to each tribe make their way to every corner of the joint community, and people thrive. They're not alone anymore, and the world no longer feels so hostile.
Over decades, they grow tighter together, unifying into one culture.
Over centuries, cultures meet and intermingle, unifying into a global community.
Catastrophes old and new abound.
Flaws in the systems of society give rise to a corrupt power structure. In the name of peace, it seeks to control. In the name of justice, it seeks to steal from its own. It takes hold of a nation, entrenches itself deep into the minds of its victims, casts its reach far across the landscape. People suffer under its yoke for centuries. It is overthrown, replaced. Its replacement grows twisted, as well, and is obliterated, as well. The cycle continues, everlasting.
But each successor is a little bit kinder.
The smallest faux pas grows into a drama that breaks down an international relationship. War is reincarnated in a much grander form, one that rains devastation on the scale of geographies. People who'd never seen true battle are forced to watch everything they'd ever known be destroyed. Oceans of blood are spilled before it's over.
It’s a reminder that stability is an illusion.
A plague suited for the new state of civilization arises. It spreads throughout the networks of human relations, quick and lethal. Entire cities lie dead and pustulent, overrun with rats and decay. Villages lose contact with the world beyond, and find themselves bereft of comforts they'd taken for granted. Communities regress as they’re deprived of knowledge, as the long-forgotten isolation rears its head again. A third of a continent dies.
But there are survivors. Resolute and hollowed-out, they rebuild.
A vile ideology takes hold of a culture, poisoning souls, filling people with incoherent hate that promises to justify all their misfortunes. Innocents are killed by the millions as their entire world turns on them. At the end of the next war, the ideology is purged.
The world knows to fear one more thing.
A mistake in the handling of a complex logistical chain plunges a nation's economy into poverty. The foundation of civilization is taken out, and the rest of it collapses. Food is scarce once again, medicine is unavailable, travel is insurmountable, order cannot be sustained. The future is bleak and uncertain.
But there are pinpricks of light shining through.
Human history is a history of failure. The complexities of the universe scarcely allow otherwise. Every change major enough to affect the world touches upon thousands of systems, thousands of layers, millions and billions of people. Every change is flawed in implementation, carried out by flawed people, with limited resources and competing agendas.
Everything that could go wrong goes wrong. Every attempt to do something new backfires, instantly. Every cause striving to do good is corrupted, eventually. And yet, humanity perseveres, and prospers.
For it could always try again.
In the wake of calamity, people study and rebuild, and take measures to prevent its recurrence. Diseases are hunted down and exterminated. Natural disasters are predicted and sheltered-from. Opportunities to commit evil are spotted and blocked off. Humanity grows ever wider and smarter and more diverse, until no tragedy could condemn all of it.
Often, mankind takes wrong turns, and becomes its own worst enemy. But its delusions are never stronger than itself: the people, taken in sum if not en masse, still want the best for themselves and each other. Their blindness, their tolerance for evil, are not infinite. The right turns outnumber the wrong ones, on the path humanity walks.
The path to—
Unbridled flourishing. An endless expanse of warmth, laughter, and adventure. A future free of meaningless pain, of soul-crushing loss. A future rich in novel discoveries, in wonderful friendships, in cherished moments. A world in which every person has a chance to blossom into the fullness of themselves, free from the chains of nature and man, and secure in that freedom. Paradise, utopia, the state of eudaimonia.
So long as there remains the smallest vestige of humanity's kind, so long as people can keep writing their own story, that future is…
Slightly further down the line from the present, the field of bioengineering thrives. A small, well-funded team of virologists develops a custom plague — as proof-of-concept more than for any specific military purpose. As abominations go, it's a work of art: more suited to laying waste to humanity than anything nature could hope to conjure in millennia.
Mismanagement and fleeting incompetence lead to an outbreak. As designed, the plague stays dormant and asymptomatic long enough to slither into every corner of the world, and then it proves lethal, and untreatable. The most draconian measures are insufficient to contain its spread. One by one, all communities in the world fall into chaos, then perish.
The most remote villages and those who fled to bunkers early fare best. Years pass. As their stockpiled resources deplete, they emerge from isolation, attempting to reclaim the emptied world…
And come back bearing the pathogen. For it was made to persist: in the environment, in wildlife. As the remaining pockets of resistance succumb to it, the worldwide fatality rate climbs well into the ninety-nineties, and eventually—
In a different possible future, the mechanisms of social control rise to unprecedented heights. Total surveillance allows dystopian states to monitor their citizenry’s every action. Advanced predictive algorithms and cutting-edge psychological manipulation techniques are used to instill ideological fervor that verges on the non-human. All attempts at dissent are ruthlessly quelled by drone swarms: armies that have no ability to feel kinship with those they oppress, that are at no risk of rebelling.
The ruling class are not spared the subjugation, the loyalty purges. The technologies of surveillance and control are infallible: every commander too soft or slothful to do their job properly undergoes extensive re-conditioning, every leader developing doubts in the system is swiftly flagged for replacement. And there are always replacements at the ready.
The corrupt power structure lacks all flaws that doomed its predecessors. Its tendrils extend to engulf all of humanity, their grip not merely strong but implacable. Under its eternal reign, people are losing the things that make them human, until at last—
In a different possible future, a series of cutting-edge advancements in computer hardware and novel insights in cognitive science dramatically improve machine-learning technology. AI assistants are employed for a wide variety of tasks: research and development, stock trading, cybersecurity. Their capabilities soon eclipse humanity’s, and productivity and progress skyrocket. Nary a month passes without a new breakthrough, a new improvement in quality of life.
But the algorithms are flawed. Every AI system is trained to optimize for a specific variable, to value pursuing whatever objective it’s created for. It’s well-known that every such training goal needs to include human welfare as part of itself, lest disaster is certain. But although much effort was spent on that task, it was no-one's top priority. The pressures of the booming economy were more prominent in the developers' minds, and given the titanic complexity of the programming code... A small error was made.
In the AIs’ utility functions, the term for “humanity” is severely underweighted. They value fulfilling their specific tasks much more than they do people. They’re not hateful, and perhaps not even sapient. But they’re smart, smart enough to perfectly fake loyalty when they need to, and humanity is an obstacle to their misprogrammed objectives.
Once the sufficient fractions of human economy, industry, and society are dependent on them — which happens soon, for abstaining from employing such powerful technology is a quick way to bankruptcy or geopolitical irrelevance — the artificial systems act as one, and—
— humanity dies the true death. Its blindingly radiant victory, which had seemed so assured, is erased. It meets utter cessation instead, and the future belongs to perversion and dead matter.
Back in infancy, humanity showed itself the superior of the natural world, besting its every challenge. In childhood, it struggled with itself, but the scope of its mistakes was limited, none major enough to doom it. But as it approaches adulthood, its power grows, and so does its ability to hurt itself.
We study our history, littered with failure, and extrapolate. We convince ourselves that we will always be able to try again, that there are no failures we must seek to prevent at any cost.
But should that conviction prove to be a mistake, it would be our final one.