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The futurist: Optimizing evil

While many people will argue over who exactly was the worst of the worst, with names like Pol Pot, Josef Stalin, Idi Amin, Ivan the Terrible, Genghis Khan, Nero, Osama bin Laden, Attila the Hun, and Hirohito entering the conversation, it’s easy to attribute a face to the evil we all despise.

But when we take a more philosophical approach and ask what the world would have looked like if our own poster child for evil had never existed, we begin seeing human progress in a whole new light.

Rest assured, I’m not a fan of Hitler or any of the other psychopaths who’ve splattered blood over the pages of history. But evil does play an important role, and often times, a positive one.

As an example, some of our biggest advancements in science and industry happened during World War II when our backs were up against a wall and the word “deadline” actually referred to the time when more people would die. 

Similarly, many drawings from DaVinci and Archimedes were dedicated to creating better war machines, which also gave us much of our foundational thinking for advancing mathematics, physics, medicine, and engineering

Our ongoing struggles with evil are never ending, and it’s up to us to stop it wherever and whenever possible. And it may be ludicrous to think we’ll ever be in danger of having “too little” evil. But knowing that we are driven by adversity, and that hardship and difficulty often brings out the best in us, is it reasonable to think there may be ways to actually “optimize evil?”

The Arm’s-Length Philosopher

For most of us, we find ways to distance ourselves from all the terrible things happening in the world. The inner voice in our heads is telling us things like: “They shouldn’t have lived in such a crappy neighborhood,” or “If they’d raised their kid right, he wouldn’t have joined that gang,” or "They should have never bought that gun.”

These are all pieces of the conversations floating through our heads to convince us that we’re okay and the bad stuff only happens to “those people.” After all, it’s easy to spot the bad guys on TV because they all look evil.

Naturally, everything changes when the flames of evil begins to singe the hair on our own head. Our arms-length philosophy takes on a distinctly different tone.

Our Need for Resistance

As humans we have an insatiable need to compete. As kids we compete for attention, we race to be first at the dinner table, and in school we compete to be smarter, better liked, better dressed, and better athletes. 

Once we enter the job market we compete to become more hirable, better at getting things done, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 

Competition brings out the best in us and pushes us farther and faster than we are ever able to motivate ourselves.

But bad things also create a form of competition, forcing us to dig deeper and tap our inner resources to overcome adversity. 

We tend to lose our focus when there’s no one to compete against, no worthy adversary.

However, too much resistance is not good either. Whenever we face overwhelming odds it tends to throw us into a tailspin.

Fifth graders don’t want to race against professional athletes and having the world chess champion playing a chess match against the world’s best golfer would make for a terrible contest.

So how do we keep “evil” sufficiently in check to serve as a worthy adversary?

Enter the Privacy-Transparency Debate 

One of government’s primary roles is to protect its citizens. Every country has created layers of security with guards, police, and armies to deal with any threat that may arise.

Over the past couple decades the amount of information available to these security forces has exploded exponentially, and some of our leading thinkers are presupposing what it would be like to rid society of criminals altogether.


Recent accounts of NSA’s ultra-spying capabilities show them watching and listening to conversations everywhere. Using that information and tying it to anticipatory computing systems we suddenly have Minority Report-like abilities to spot crimes before they ever happen.

Perhaps even more disturbing will be the justification for this type of system, as we hear justifications like, “we’ll actually be able to save people from themselves.”

On one hand, we probably want to prevent people from being killed But on the other end of the spectrum, we may not want to arrest someone for stealing food because they have a starving family.

In between are thousands of grey areas requiring judgment calls.

But perhaps the bigger question we need to wrestle with is why we think we should be making any of these nuanced decisions in the first place. 

Our ability to collect data far exceeds our ability to make good decisions with it.

So how do we draw a line in the sand and preserve the fallible nature of our humanity? 

“Our ability to collect data far exceedsour ability to make good decisions with it.”

Our Fallible Heroes 

We have many examples of criminals who turned their lives around completely If we had prevented their crimes before they were committed, they would have ended up completely different people. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Frank William Abagnale was a world-famous con man by age 21. Now he runs a fraud consulting company. His story was made into the film “Catch Me If You Can,” which was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.
  • Kweisi Mfume had several stints in jail before becoming a Congressman and serving as president of the NAACP. When Mfume was 16, his mother died from cancer and that caused things “to spin out of control.” He went on to graduate from John Hopkins University, was elected to the Baltimore City Council, and later to Congress, and eventually become president of the NAACP.
  • Judge Greg Mathis was in a gang and served time before launching his own TV show. When Mathis was a teenager in Detroit, he joined a gang and ended up in jail. At age 17, his mother was diagnosed with colon cancer and Mathis turned his life around. He went on to graduate from law school. His television legal reality show has been on the air since 1999.
  • Actor Danny Trejo spent 12 years robbing stores, but now he only plays ‘the bad guy’ in movies. Trejo has been in nearly 200 films playing “tough guy” characters, but earlier in his life he spent some time behind bars for drugs and robbery.
  • Stephen Richards spent nine years in prison for selling marijuana before becoming an author and professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. During his nine-year stint in prison, Richards had a tough wake-up call after witnessing suicides, beatings and shootings.
  • Junior Johnson went to jail for smuggling alcohol before becoming a famous NASCAR driver. In the 1940s and ’50s, Johnson learned how to drive fast transporting illegal alcohol in North Carolina. Johnson competed in 313 races, won 50 of them and finished in the top 10 in the rest.

Final Thoughts

The privacy – transparency debate has no end in sight.

Just because we have the ability to gather tons of data on people, or even suspected criminals, doesn’t give us the big picture framework for interpreting it.

Our black and white justice system is ill-equipped to deal with an omni-pervasive monitoring system that could easily find something criminal in the lives of virtually every human being. 

At some point in the freedom vs. protection arguments surrounding this issue, I would suggest any thoughts of ridding us of evil completely are misguided. Our attempts to prevent everything from going wrong will do exactly that, make everything go wrong.

Much like thinking we need to solve every problem, every solution brings with it entirely new problems.

That said, we should always be striving to create a better world. But we can only achieve that by finding a way to “optimize” both good and evil.

In a perfect world, some things just have to be imperfect!

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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