A defense of optimism
Many are understandably pessimistic about platforms and technology. This year has been a tough one, from Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls to the implementation of GDPR and data breaches galore.
Those who think about the world, about the problems that we see every day, and about their own place in it, will quickly realize the immense frailty of humankind. Fear and worry makes sense. We are flawed, each one of us. And technology only seems to exacerbate those problems.
But life is getting better. Poverty continues nose-diving; adult literacy is at an all-time high; people around the world are living longer, living in democracies, and are better educated than at any other time in history. Meanwhile, the digital revolution has resulted in a glut of informational abundance, helping to correct the informational asymmetries that have long plagued humankind. The problem we now face is not how to address informational constraints, but how to provide the means for people to sort through and make sense of this abundant trove of data. These macro trends don’t make headlines. Psychologists know that people love to read negative articles. Our brains are wired for pessimism.
In the shadow of a year of bad news, it helpful to remember that Facebook and Google and Reddit and Twitter also support humane conversations. Most people aren’t going online to talk about politics and if you are, then you are rare. These sites are places where families and friends can connect. They offer a space of solace – like when chronic pain sufferers find others on Facebook, or when widows vent, rage, laugh and cry without judgement through the Hot Young Widows Club. Let’s also not forget that Reddit, while sometimes a place of rage and spite, is also where a weight lifter with cerebral palsy can become a hero and where those with addiction can find healing. And in the hardest to reach places in Canada, in Iqaluit, people say that “Amazon Prime has done more toward elevating the standard of living of my family than any territorial or federal program. Full stop. Period”
Three-fourths of Americans say major technology companies’ products and services have been more good than bad for them personally. But when it comes to the whole of society, they are more skeptical about technology bringing benefits. Here is how I read that disparity: Most of us think that we have benefited from technology, but we worry about where it is taking the human collective. That is an understandable worry, but one that shouldn’t hobble us to inaction.
Nor is technology making us stupid. Indeed, quite the opposite is happening. Technology use in those aged 50 and above seems to have caused them to be cognitively younger than their parents to the tune of 4 to 8 years. While the use of Google does seem to reduce our ability to recall information, studies find that it has boosted other kinds of memory, like retrieving information. Why remember a fact when you can remember where it is located? Concerned how audiobooks might be affecting people, Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education, compared them to physical reading and was surprised to find “no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously.” Cyberbullying and excessive use might make parents worry, but NIH supported work found that “Heavy use of the Internet and video gaming may be more a symptom of mental health problems than a cause. Moderate use of the Internet, especially for acquiring information, is most supportive of healthy development.” Don’t worry. The kids are going to be alright.
And yes, there is a lot we still need to fix. There is cruelty, racism, sexism, and poverty of all kinds embedded in our technological systems. But the best way to handle these issues is through the application of human ingenuity. Human ingenuity begets technology in all of its varieties.
When Scott Alexander over at Star Slate Codex recently looked at 52 startups being groomed by startup incubator Y Combinator, he rightly pointed out that many of them were working for the betterment of all:
Thirteen of them had an altruistic or international development focus, including Neema, an app to help poor people without access to banks gain financial services; Kangpe, online health services for people in Africa without access to doctors; Credy, a peer-to-peer lending service in India; Clear Genetics, an automated genetic counseling tool for at-risk parents; and Dost Education, helping to teach literacy skills in India via a $1/month course.
Twelve of them seemed like really exciting cutting-edge technology, including CBAS, which describes itself as “human bionics plug-and-play”; Solugen, which has a way to manufacture hydrogen peroxide from plant sugars; AON3D, which makes 3D printers for industrial uses; Indee, a new genetic engineering system; Alem Health, applying AI to radiology, and of course the obligatory drone delivery startup.
Eighteen of them seemed like boring meat-and-potatoes companies aimed at businesses that need enterprise data solution software application package analytics targeting management something something something “the cloud”.
As for the other companies, they were the kind of niche products that Silicon Valley has come to be criticized for supporting. Perhaps the Valley deserves some criticism, but perhaps it deserves more credit than it’s been receiving as-of-late.
Contemporary tech criticism displays a kind of anti-nostalgia. Instead of being reverent for the past, anxiety for the future abounds. In these visions, the future is imagined as a strange, foreign land, beset with problems. And yet, to quote that old adage, tomorrow is the visitor that is always coming but never arrives. The future never arrives because we are assembling it today. We need to work diligently together to piece together a better world. But if we constantly live in fear of what comes next, that future won’t be built. Optimism needn’t be pollyannaish. It only needs to be hopeful of a better world.