A Thinker on the Era of New Optimism


David Mattin, Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching, recently wrote a very deep, albeit abstract piece on rethinking "optimism." In it, he says now is the time "to reclaim the word from techno-utopians — and build a more nuanced model of optimism that really does help us make the world a better place."

It's worth reading the entire article, but to pull out some key thoughts, Mattin writes that optimism is "the most pressing conceptual problem facing the entire global technology community today."

Why is optimism the problem?

The early web was founded on optimism, by a generation of 1960s Californian hippies high on the idea that they could come together to make the world radically better. Those early pioneers dreamed a vivid dream of individualism, liberation and self-expression. They saw cyberspace as the unsullied utopia in which those counterculture values could find their most perfect expression. And those values fueled the people who wrote the Whole Earth Catalogue, founded Wired magazine, founded Apple, and wrote the first tracts about the open web. ...

But along the way, something has happened to that early, counterculture model of optimism. Something important, and wrong. Over the last 20 years, the TED crowd have replaced that human truth with a McVersion of optimism. A version that says progress is inevitable, that human affairs inevitably improve over time, and that people are essentially good and all we have to do is set them free to be their true selves and everything will be fine. We can call this very recognisable set of Silicon Valley ideas the New Optimism.

The tech giants that now surround us have made the New Optimism their religion. And why wouldn’t they? In their hands, these ideas present themselves as apolitical and universal human truths (and hey, who wants to be seen as a pessimist?). In fact they are a covertly self-serving ideology that is helping a new global elite class gain unprecedented power over our shared future. ...

The idea that ‘people are essentially good’ is empty to the point of meaninglessness. We need to manage these new freedoms. It’s great we can now all share ideas online. It also creates some radical new problems for our democracies as they are currently constituted. And this is just the beginning. We’re still in the early days of a profound technological awakening. The new technologies that we’re building have the potential to do immense, borderline-miraculous good. They will also imbue us with new capacities for irrationality, violence and destruction.

Mattin describes the early tech pioneers as having matured in the aftermath of the "most violent, destructive event in human history." Assumedly, he means World War II, but shortly thereafter, free enterprise and the opening of markets - along with the actual embrace of the allies' defeated enemies - created the greatest human growth spurt ever achieved, bringing 2 billion people out of poverty. These early techno-giants evolved out of the greatness of the open market, not merely the shell-shock of destruction.

Are today's generation of techno-giants the victim of an unarticulated shell-shock, and if so, how do we treat it before it causes grave damage? One actualization technique may be that these techno-giants pay respect to the perceived barbaric era that laid the path for their incredible innovations. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and the failure of today's big eggs to inspect the messiness of their births or acknowledge the barbarism that their future creations may inspire is unsettling. It sets them up for a rude awakening.

To get to the next level means we probably need to understand the messy path to enlightenment because messy is the nature of our humanity.