The Case for Optimism


sunriseFor­eign Pol­icy blog­ger Rosa Brooks wrote a rather head-scratching col­umn last week, in which she called for pes­simism about the future.

I shared some of these thoughts with my col­leagues. Shouldn’t we, I sug­gested, stop kid­ding our­selves about “find­ing solu­tions” to the chal­lenges posed by tech­nolo­gies that evolve faster than our brains? Shouldn’t we instead rec­og­nize that his­tor­i­cally speak­ing, humans really suck at man­ag­ing rapid tech­no­log­i­cal and social change (c.f., the Thirty Years War, World Wars I and II, and so on), and rec­og­nize that devel­op­ments that rein­force human dig­nity are often pre­ceded by really crappy peri­ods in which mil­lions suf­fer and die? Shouldn’t we just accept that the tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic changes to come will likely cause mas­sive and painful dis­lo­ca­tion, per­haps sim­i­lar in order to the above-mentioned cat­a­stro­phes? Shouldn’t we aban­don quixotic projects geared towards “find­ing solu­tions” and instead focus on sim­ple risk mit­i­ga­tion — on try­ing to find ways to keep things from becom­ing as cat­a­strophic as they may poten­tially become?

She goes on to, even­tu­ally, ref­er­ence intel­li­gent robots, Jews in Europe, Jared Diamond’s obser­va­tions about trees falling, Steven Pinker, and basi­cally a long list of books and stuff.

I was think­ing about the Sin­gu­lar­ity, and whether law pro­fes­sors will become obso­lete before I reach retire­ment age (Magic Eight Ball says: “Signs point to yes.”), and the prospect that we will all soon be enslaved by intel­li­gent toasters.

This sounds like an almost Star Trek-like future: post-money, post-labor, and so on. To a degree, Brooks is right: we are most likely head­ing for a period of almost painful read­just­ment, and we’ll be bet­ter off if we try to plan for it rather than fer­vently wish­ing it won’t come true.

But Brooks was so focused on what amounts to sci­ence fic­tion that she missed the far big­ger prob­lems star­ing us in the face.

Long before robots replace law pro­fes­sors, we’re going to run into a rather fun­da­men­tal clash between banks and the state: namely, between the demands of Big Finance and the need for gov­ern­ments to pro­tect the rights of their cit­i­zens. This is not a cri­sis that is based on machine learn­ing, or on robot­ics, or even on anthro­pogenic cli­mate change. It is stress built into insti­tu­tions devel­oped 60 years ago, played out to their penul­ti­mate extreme.

There are other dis­as­ters approach­ing us: most built into the fab­ric of our soci­ety, rather than grow­ing in some uni­ver­sity research lab (list­ing them is fun but not really con­struc­tive for this argu­ment). The point being, we have already engi­neered our own cat­a­stro­phe — and it prob­a­bly won’t come from the tech­nol­ogy Brooks seems to find so nauseous.

About seven years ago, the Cana­dian geo­g­ra­pher Thomas Homer Dixon pub­lished The Upside of Down, which was an his­tor­i­cal look at how soci­eties are actu­ally renewed and invig­o­rated by cri­sis or even col­lapse. Unlike Jared Diamond’s habit of appeal­ing to hunter-gatherer soci­eties for his insight into post-industrial mega-cities (or what­ever), Dixon looked at ancient, com­plex soci­eties to see how they responded to sud­den cat­a­strophic change.

And guess what? If soci­ety sees col­lapse com­ing, it can take smaller, early forms of col­lapse and use them to reform itself. If the country’s finan­cial cap­i­tal gets bat­tered and shut down by a cli­mate change-induced megas­torm, caus­ing $60 bil­lion in dam­age, that’s an early warn­ing that you need to start adapt­ing now.

Like­wise, if soci­ety sees finan­cial col­lapse approach­ing — with some com­mu­ni­ties cop­ing by opt­ing out of the money sys­tem entirely — that’s an early warn­ing that you need to start chang­ing the sys­tem to avoid cat­a­strophic fail­ure now, rather than post-collapse.

So while Rosa Brooks is kinda sorta right about how Big Change also results in Mis­ery, she’s wrong that we should just be ready to accept it. Big Change can also result in Big Good, espe­cially if we look at the early warn­ing signs around us as oppor­tu­ni­ties for con­struc­tive change rather than klax­ons of impend­ing doom. It just takes a lit­tle bit of vision… and a hearty dose of perspective.

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