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by Thomas Wagner | Jan 1, 2016

The calendar has changed again, the numeral moved on a notch, to 2016. What should one think of as regards the 16 that from now on will for 366 days follow on from the 20? The numerologists reverently teach us that 16 is a number suffused with moderation and perfection, and a symbol of wholeness into the bargain. Is the 21st century possibly growing up? At sixteen?

That said, does the charm of a 16-year-old millennium suffice to allay our existential doubts? Or does not much remain imponderable as with all post-adolescent zest? Since everyone has been talking permanently of the future, do we not now and again find ourselves suspecting we made not have one, given our homemade risks such as climate change or artificial intelligence. Not as individuals, as at some point we all reach our expiry date, but as a species. Even if probably no one in the infinite range of cosmic space will notice.

The ancient Indians were more modest in this regard. As for them: humans consisted of, you guessed it, 16 parts. And for them: the ideal woman had 16 beauty symbols, and there were 16 pieces of jewelry for her. Bollywood could not have come up with a better spin on things! Is 16 then more a matter of Sweet Little Sixteen? ... For all the wares everywhere, the refugee crisis and the usual political shenanigans? ... all the Cats wanna dance with / Sweet Little Sixteen?

As regards the existential risks, Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom (a sober utilitarian thinker, it bears stating) has devised a maxim for action and given it the simple name “Maxipok”. It reads: “Maximize the probability of an ‘OK outcome’, where an OK outcome is any outcome that avoids existential catastrophe.” Without going into what Bostrom considers an “existential catastrophe” in any greater depth, suffice it to say that the probability of increasing the fact that something goes well and to consider everything that ends up halfway good as better than an existential catastrophe, is something which applies no doubt not just to the species as a whole. Whether Sweet Little Sixteen knows that? And whether we do with her?