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Posted: December 03, 2013

The futurist: Optimizing evil

Bad times can inspire creative solutions

Thomas Frey

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.

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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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