The Big Idea: Steven Kotler
Some famous musicians once said that all you need is love. It’s a nice sentiment, but in this Big Idea for The Devil’s Dictionary, author Steven Kotler might instead recommend a different-yet-related emotional state as the one we all need.
I stopped trying to categorize my writing a long time ago. Still, if I wanted to slot my latest book, The Devil’s Dictionary, into a recognizable genre of literature, I’d call it two parts cyberpunk to one part climate fiction—with a twist.
The twist is this: The Devil’s Dictionary is not a dystopian novel. As a rule, cyberpunk and climate fiction are set in dark, post-eco disaster worlds. Now, for certain, the world I built is dark. There are menacing shadow corporations, creepy genetics experiments, and the occasional Blade Runner reference—it is a cyberpunk thriller, after all. There are also plenty of ecological nightmares with which to contend. Yet, the most familiar nightmare—impending climate disaster—has been avoided.
I wrote The Devil’s Dictionary to provide an alternative vision of our environmental future. If we can’t imagine this possibility, we’ll never create this future. I wanted to bridge that gap, but had no interest in creating a perfect utopian world. I wanted a near-term version of our world where we’ve battled back the worst parts of species die-off and climate change.
Yet my desire to create a non-dystopian future raised the question: How could this eco-friendly world come into existence? What changes in ourselves and society would be needed to create a greener tomorrow? And this brings us to “Empathy-for-All,” which is the big idea at the center of The Devil’s Dictionary.
“Empathy-for-all” is the ability to feel empathy for all beings. Sure, it means feeling empathy for humans. Really, it means feeling for plants, animals, and eco-systems—or what scientists call “cross-species empathy.”
To rise above our environmental challenges, we need a massive shift in consciousness. Technically-speaking, we need to expand what psychologists call “our sphere of caring.” We need to feel about forests the way we now feel about family. We need to love the planet like we love our children. We need empathy-for-all.
There’s no choice really, not if we want this better future. The problem lives in our brain. It’s an information-processing bottleneck.
Every second of every day, our senses gather millions of bits of information. Yet, the conscious mind can only process a few thousand bits at once. As a result, filtration is the first order of business for brains. We constantly sift and sort data, trying to tease apart the crucial from the casual.
So what gets filtered out? Anything not critical to our survival. Anything that doesn’t align with our goals and needs.
And this is an issue in the modern world. Today, we live in boxes. We spend our days staring at other boxes. Sometimes, we live in boxes while staring at inboxes. So the brain believes box-world is what’s most important and filters out all the rest. The natural world gets erased from our field of attention. Plants, animals and eco-systems become mostly invisible. Our values and lifestyles blind us to the web of life. This is to say, if you ask psychologists why we’re in the middle of a giant biodiversity crisis, one common answer: we can no longer see the very things we’re trying to save.
How do we reboot “ecological perception”? Simple. Empathy. This is the tool evolution designed for exactly this challenge. Empathy is perceptual bridge building. Empathy both tells the brain to pay attention and widens our sphere of caring.
If our species is interested in solving the ecological challenges we now face, empathy-for-all is the critical next step. And if you’re interested in what this world might look like, The Devil’s Dictionary is one glimpse of that future.
Also, there are killer robotic polar bears in the book. And, seriously, who doesn’t love a good killer robotic polar bear tale…