The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Cathy O’Neil is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a mathematician who has worked as a professor, hedge-fund analyst and data scientist.
Lately I’ve been thinking about Sarah Connor and motherhood. She’s the Los Angeles waitress in the “Terminator” film series who, upon learning that her as-yet-unborn son must survive in a dystopic future and save humanity from destruction by artificial intelligence, dedicates herself to preparing him for the terrifying role.
As a natural-born citizen of what I believed to be a largely benign and prosperous democracy, I have prepared my two sons for nothing of the sort. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should reconsider.
In “Terminator,” it takes only a few minutes for a traveler from the future to convince Connor that she’s the mother of the savior of the human race. She’s like, OK what next? Gullible as this might seem, it’s the most believable part of the movie for me. She’s ready to do anything to protect her kid. She goes on to teach him how to become a fearless leader and to fight like hell for his beliefs.
In a sense, Sarah was lucky: She knew what was coming. The real world is less certain, but looking increasingly ominous. The past year has brought a global pandemic, life-threatening shortages, ugly hoarding, violent clashes between protesters and police, the spectacle of a U.S. president seeking to undermine the peaceful transfer of power and, most recently, a mob invading the Capitol.
Even if vaccination conquers the virus, the country seems woefully unprepared to address the problems that were festering before it arrived. We’re deeply divided by race, income, resources and the realities in which people choose to believe.
Where will Americans find common ground when, with the help of social media, it will be all too easy to ignore people waiting in food lines and be glad to finally get back to the opera? Who needs an evil AI when we intentionally program computers to deliver the news we want to hear and the outrage we have become addicted to?
Having kids is an inherently optimistic act. Parents want to believe in a bright future. We tell them tales about studying hard, going to college, getting a good job, and having a good life. We train them to expect reasonable rewards for reasonable work, and to expect others to adhere to shared principles. But that’s hardly responsible if we think there’s even a small possibility that they will encounter civil unrest, widespread economic strife or even war. In that future, they’d be better off knowing how to use a handgun, build a fire or forage for edible weeds.
My father actually prepared me pretty well for today’s world, albeit unintentionally. He was a narcissist, so he bestowed upon me an intuitive understanding of Donald Trump. (Short version: If everyone’s talking about him, he’s winning his particular game, which is all about attention. Stop looking for deeper meaning.) I predict that the malaise of Trumpism will persist even after the president leaves office, because he’s more a result than a cause of our national narcissism — of our relentless pursuit of unenlightened self-interest. This particular personality disorder is really hard to treat, and I’m worried that I haven’t prepared my kids for the arbitrary cruelty it inflicts.
Does that mean I’m going to fill up a hangar with automatic rifles, to collect after my son and a robot break me free from the asylum? No, I’m not there yet. I’m not even willing to go pandemic bean dad on my kids. I still hold out hope that the world I’ve been conjuring their entire childhoods can somehow still exist — that if they do what’s expected of them they’ll end up OK, with a decent chance at a happy life. I’m not as quick as Sarah Connor was to accept a new vision of the future. I hope I’m not making a mistake.