Absent Optimism

For a society in the midst of accelerating, rapid, and evident technological progress, public discussion and attitudes show a surprising lack of optimism for the future. Optimism of course exists, but nowhere near as widely as it should. It seems self-evident at this point that a golden era lies ahead in which we defeat disease and aging, colonize the solar system, and expand the limits of what it means to be human. We and our descendants will discard pain and suffering along the way, just as we have already discarded so much of the pain and suffering that our ancestors bore.

The visible future is by any sensible measure nothing less than science fiction. Any given snapshot of that future is made up of countless trillions of ageless humans, sophisticated machine intelligences, and yet to be categorized hybrids of the two, spread throughout the solar system in palatial standards of living, and beginning to drift beyond to the nearby stars - a vast thistledown of intelligence and culture, a million times greater and more diverse than today's world, just beginning its explosion into the winds.

The upward ramp of the necessary underlying technology is within our grasp. But you wouldn't think this from listening to the public. Much of the world seems convinced that nothing but collapse and catastrophe lies ahead: their view of the future is the ever-mistaken Malthusian collection of beliefs revolving around static resources that are exhausted. They fail to see the dynamism of resource generation and progress that proved past Mathusians just as wrong as the present crop.

Looking back, I grew up in a culture whose mainstream was convinced that the destruction of nuclear war was inevitable. That was the lesson we ingested from fiction, news, what was taught in schools - it was the zeitgeist of the 70s and 80s, that on the one hand progress was right there all around us, while on the other we looked ahead to nothing but catastrophe. Talking to Russians of my generation in more recent years, those who grew up on the other side of the iron curtain, I get the impression that this part of the cultural indoctrination ran in much the same way for them.

One might argue that the feared exchange of warheads never happened because humanity had finally constructed a methodology of waging war that visited actual and immediate consequences upon the ruling class. Incentives matter. But I digress - the point is that in that period of life prior to establishing one's own ideas on how the world works, my generation largely thought the future was not at all golden in the near term.

Now it seems that this pessimism, lacking an outlet with the collapse of the Soviet Union, has sloshed over into the environmentalist bucket. Is pessimism for the future a cultural thing, or something that we humans just tend to do regardless of era? You might look back at the various apocalyptic panics (usually religious) in earlier times, for example, which seem to bear similar characteristics to both the past widespread belief in the certainty of nuclear war and the present widespread belief in the certainty of environmental collapse.

On the one hand, we seem to have managed technological progress at a fast rate over the past four centuries despite these manifestations of our collective human psychology. On the other hand, one can't help but feel that it would all run that much faster if more people believed in a better outcome.


Part of it is "learned pessimism" (term coined by Gregg Easterbrook) which is indoctrinated into students by university professors, which is a group filtered for negativity. Listening to academics can be bad for your health.

Posted by: Will Nelson at August 29th, 2012 8:25 AM

We are near the singularity, nobody knows how it will play out.

On one hand I agree there will be a lot more resources to be shared. On the other hand unequality is increasing and computer resources are being centralized again. After the PC era we are going back to the mainframe era where we only own a client to huge global servers like google.

The people running this entities, being big technology companies or global finantial institutions are soon going to be in a position to decide what will happen to the rest of us.

It is quite clear to me that hugely important decissions will be made by a small group of which I won't be a part.

So it all comes down to trusting human nature and also trusting that the superhuman things that come after the current elites will be good natured.

In any case all this means uncertainty. Human beings like to feel in control. I think this is the reason for the current pesimism.

Posted by: Javier at August 29th, 2012 9:00 AM

I think increased pessimism about the future began as ideological in nature - a product of the counter-culture, anti-war sentiments, environmentalism, and feminism.

But decades later, it's now supported by the apparent stagnation of technological change in developed nations. This site focuses upon continued progress in biotechnology, but for the average person - outside of computers - life is not improving at the same rate as it did in the period from the 19th century to 1970.

Posted by: Ranjit Suresh at August 29th, 2012 10:25 AM

From what I see, it is a common thing for people to teach things like sarcasm, and to "just be you, dont change you", "you have to stand for something or youll fall for anything", and "dont sugar coat things just say it how it is". That last one which translates into, "say the first thing that comes to your mind no matter how appropriate or fitting to that particular interaction it may or may not be". This behavior, it seems, has become trendy, or maybe it has been a standard of society for a long time, Im not sure.

Then on top of that, how would tactful, thoughtful, contemplative, problem solving people combat that? We've seen the Bertrand Russell quote that, "The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."

I think we can see a change if we find more ways, like through grade schools, news, and a greater awareness toward personal accountability in this way, to teach things like critical thinking and positivity to the world.

Posted by: Eric Schulke at August 30th, 2012 8:47 AM
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