I spent TechCrunch’s latest Disrupt extravaganza asking questions of various notables onstage, and what struck me most was how fantastically optimistic they were. To pick two examples: Kai-Fu Lee talked about preparing for a world of mass plenitude and abundance 30-50 years from now; Dario Gil waxed enthusiastic about quantum computers simulating life-changing new materials and pharmaceuticals, transforming everyone’s lives for the better.
And then I turned around and returned to the world of hair-trigger outrage, condemnation, consternation, pessimism, gloom and impending apocalypse; which is to say, America and social media, where it sometimes seems an encouraging word is rarely heard without being promptly drowned out by a dozen angry doomsayers prophesying rains of fire and blood. Surely the truth is somewhere in between; surely any rational assessment of the future must include a mixture of both optimism and pessimism. So why do those seem like two entirely separate modes of thought, of late?
Certainly there’s much to be pessimistic about. Our slowly boiling planet; the resurgence of racist nationalism around the global; the worldwide rise of authoritarian demagogues who don’t represent their people. Certainly tech industry folk, and especially investors, are deeply incentivized to be optimistic. If they’re right, they win big, and if they’re wrong, well, there’s no real downside except maybe having their embarrassing pro-Theranos / pro-Juicero tweets paraded out a few years later. Panglossianism is not the path of wisdom.
But neither is apocalypticism. Whisper it, but there is much to be optimistic about. For all of capitalism’s flaws, and there are many, it has reduced the number of people living in extreme poverty by more than a billion since 1990, even while the world’s population has grown by two billion. Fast, far-reaching progressive social change has been proved possible; witness e.g. the attitude change towards gay marriage in America from 2005 to 2015. We’ve connected the planet, put supercomputers in the pockets of a third of the world, made solar/wind power and electric cars both increasingly widespread and increasingly cost-effective, and we’re working hard at replacing most rote human drudgery with robot labor.
Sure, we live with fat-tail risks of various catastrophes of mindnumbing scale; but why do we never speak of the fat-tail chances of benevolent breakthroughs? Why does optimism about the future — not even net optimism, but any optimism — seem so rare these days?
Partly this is social media’s fault. Facebook and Twitter “optimize,” so to speak, for engagement, which is to say they implicitly amplify that which causes outrage, fury, terror, and insecurity, rather than that which prompts a quiet hope for / confidence in things slowly getting better. From this we get the sense that everyone else is appalled by everything that’s going on, and so we naturally grow more appalled ourselves.
Partly it’s that the fruits of the advances which provoke this optimism remain so unequally distributed. It’s nice to talk about a world full of plenitude, but if 80% of the benefits go to 20% of the population, while the 40% at the bottom see their lives actually get worse as a side effect of the disruptive changes, are our collective lives really getting better? And even if your life is objectively improving a little every year, if you seem to be falling further behind the median, you’ll still feel it’s actually getting worse.
But there’s more to it than that. Optimism is dangerously provocative. It implicitly calls on us to do something, to contribute, to join the spreading wave, whereas pessimism is easier. It only calls on us to endure.
It’s true that the tech industry often seems to handwave that because in the long run, our new technologies will make everything better, we don’t need to bother worrying about its short- and medium-term effects. This is wrong and dangerous and (ironically) spectacularly shortsighted; we need to do better. But at the same time, the pessimists need to do better too, by realizing that there is plenty of room for hope and optimism in any reasonable imagination of the future.