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.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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