curiosity across disciplines

The magic wand question

I’ve been thinking far too much about my answer to “the magic wand question.”

The thought experiment I’m referring to is the, “if you had a magic wand, what would you do about <blank>?” one.

It’s an innocuous question with surprisingly prickly answers.

Prickly because of the hidden “be careful what you wish for” clause.

Reality is complex, interconnected, and making a small change in one place affects many other areas, often in unforeseen ways. Think: anything in nature, foreign policy, or too much hot sauce.

Enduring, sustainable solutions are maddeningly difficult.

At minimum, they require us, as individuals, to forgo short-term gratification in favor of long-term payoffs that we may never receive!. It’s the “Marshmallow Test,” but at like…a whole-ass[1] societal scale.

However, I should quit burying the lead.

If someone were foolish enough to give me a magic wand, but I still have to abide by the "careful what you wish for” clause, I'd allow everyone to be 10% more curious.

Yep, not an underwhelming typo: 10% more curious.

Curiosity feels in short supply lately, as if our innate penchant for “why?” has been stifled by the machinations of everyday systems.

And 10% feels like a tidy, arbitrary number; not too big as to make everyone straight-up creepy, but big enough to have an immediate impact.

Now, since I said this fictitious doohickey had to abide by “real world” rules, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m such an asshole for ignoring world peace, solving hunger, or ending bigotry.

Fair point.

But before you muster the guillotines, let me make my case.

First off, anyone that doesn’t want peace, for everyone to have a home, be well-fed, and for bigotry to evaporate, is more disappointing than a soggy, unsalted pretzel.

But, let’s humor said direct solutions for a moment.

To wit: we wish for an end to child hunger. Fantastic! The wand poofs all the children out of existence, thereby eliminating minor hunger pangs. Or maybe it shuts off every everyone’s ghrelin production and calls it a horrifying day.

We wish for “world peace,” and without knowing exactly how the mechanics of the magic wand work[2], we conjure trillions of nano-robots that infiltrate our brains and turn us into placid zombies incapable of both conflict and fun.

Such are the [un]predictable rules of the “careful what you wish for.”

No, in this goofy, hypothetical universe, I’ll place my bet on something that nudges the aforementioned, wonderfully-utopian outcomes on as byproducts.

Being pedantic, I said I’d use the wand to “allow everyone to be 10% more curious.” The allow part is critical. It’s in italics, duh.

Creating a world in which people can be more curious means the 10% difference has to come from somewhere. We’re not just cranking up the “curiosity dial” to 11 and hoping for the best. It’s all in the wording, yo.

Maybe said difference comes from magically-less-divisive media coverage[3] that presently saps our brain RAM for pointless CPM metrics. Or, more of the fruits of automation-related labor go increasingly towards the working people that created it, reducing workload and fostering additional time for creative pursuits. Financial precarity caused by the genetic cancer lottery? Poof! A novel, unknowable system emerges in which people don’t have to pay for medical care, and can now paint more tabletop miniatures.

You get the idea.

Sure, a passably creative writer could fashion a scenario in which my brazen magic wand’ing inevitably screws over humanity. You’re thinking of something right now, purely out of spite, you curmudgeon you.

But these scenarios are, at least, harder to imagine.

It’s not as if curiosity is the primary driver behind the fixation on quarterly earnings, where 10% more curious corporate ad executives (lol) hatch nefarious plots to squeeze even more advertising dollars out of consumers. They’re like…already doing that? It’s a banal incentive of the systems that exist now.

With all that said though, I hope that in addition to the random, hypothetical fun we’re intimately sharing, you’re gathering that “the magic wand question” isn’t about the magic wand question.

I’m poking at the idea that while many of the societal norms we have were hard-fought campaigns with a singular purpose from the start, e.g., child labor laws or suffrage, many emerge merely as byproducts of the systems we create; often in unexpected ways.

So, we should be ruthless about designing efficient, sustainable technologies and systems, but we must be equally as ruthless in cultivating optimistic, rallying narratives.

Stories are humanity’s operating system, and severing ourselves from envisioning currently-unrealistic scenarios to exclusively worship at the altar of efficiency is as unrealistic as earnestly wishing for magic and genies.

  1. I was going to omit such foul language, until I realized that Cambridge added it to their dictionary. Then I couldn’t resist. Just don’t cross-check my logic with other foul-mouthed words in their digital tomes please. Thank you! ↩︎

  2. You could make that movie, but I doubt the reality that is the boring, tireless work of building cool things would make for good cinema. ↩︎

  3. Translation: tell me we’re in make-believe land without telling me we’re in make believe land. ↩︎