I’m Not an Optimist
I spent much of life, and my career, looking on the bright side of things. Technology, media, and our newfound power to express ourselves in a digital age once gave me great hope for the future of the human collective. What could we do? What would we do? My books and articles were correspondingly optimistic about our ability to dig ourselves out of the environmental and economic messes we were creating for ourselves and, disproportionately, for the global poor.
Someone on a podcast asked me why I’m not an optimist, anymore. He had spoken with a friend who read the galley of my upcoming book about the tech billionaire “mindset,” and was concerned that my work no longer reflects so much positivity about our fate. And while I think of the book as more of a loving, if biting, critique of their over-the-top fantasies of escape, self-sovereignty, and technosolutionism, the podcaster’s worry got me thinking about optimism as a burden.
Throughout the 90’s and even early 2000’s, I saw it as my job to re-interpret pretty much any negative thing in the world as an opportunity for positivity. The dotcom boom? At least people are recognizing the importance of the net. The dotcom crash of 2000? That just means net has fought off its commercial infection. Trump’s election? Maybe his nationalism is just a primitive precursor to a new era of localism. And so on.
Still, it’s getting harder and harder to recast global events as one form of positive growth or another. And when we look at how much ocean rise is already baked in to our climate impact no matter how quickly we turn off every lightbulb on the planet, it’s hard to contort oneself into an optimistic frame of mind.
But since when is optimism about the future a requirement of happiness, connection, coherence, or even appropriate action? What if civilization is really about to have to deal with a billion or more climate and conflict refugees? While accepting this probability may make me look like a pessimist, I think it’s actually more hopeful — and certainly more effective — to believe we can rise to this occasion than to pretend it’s not happening.
Whatever I think about our likelihood of evading global catastrophe, the steps I would…