Why do We Step on Broken Glass?

Have you ever stepped barefoot on a piece of broken glass and got it stuck in your foot? It was probably quite painful and you most likely had to go to the hospital. So why did you step on it? Why do we do things that hurt us?

The answer, of course, is we couldn’t see we were stepping on a piece of glass! Perhaps somebody had smashed something the night before and thought they’d swept up all the pieces, but here you are with a piece of glass in your foot. But the leftover pieces are so tiny, you can’t even see them. If you could see them, you certainly would not have stepped on them.

Why do we do harmful things to ourselves? Why do we pollute the planet and waste its resources? Why do we fight? Why do we discriminate and hate? Why do we ignore facts and instead trust mystics (i.e., religion)?

The answer, of course, is we can’t see all the things we’re doing wrong. We can’t see how bombs and drones harm others across the world because their’s is a world different from ours. We can’t see how epidemics spread because germs are invisible, and if we’re sick then we’re too occupied to think about anything else. We can’t see how evolution or global climate change could possibly be real because we only see things on a human lifetime scale, not over thousands or hundreds of years.

Humans use inventions to help overcome the limits of our perception. Microscopes and telescopes help us see the immensely small and the immensely large, levers and pulleys help us move the massive. Books help us hear back in time.

Our inventions can help us learn more about time and space, more about ourselves and more about everyone else, if we choose, but so frequently it seems we choose not to do that. We choose to keep stepping on glass, gleefully ignorant of why it happens. “This is how the world is,” we think, “that’s a shame.”

The most flexible and obvious tool we can use to help make new inventions is of course the computer, but it’s not going to solve these problems on its own, and it’s far from the end of the road. We need to resolve to invent better ways of understanding ourselves and each other, better ways of “seeing” with all our senses that which affects the world. We need to take a big step and stop stepping on broken glass.

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