On optimism

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2011

My good buddy Jeremy Tolbert has a searching and honest post about optimism, both within the context of science fiction storytelling and the wider context of the world itself:

… I used to believe in the power of sci­ence to make the world bet­ter.  And I’ve spent my entire life watch­ing peo­ple in power reduce the public’s opin­ion of sci­ence to the point where more peo­ple in the U.S. ques­tion evo­lu­tion than believe in it, which to me is basi­cally on par with dis­be­liev­ing grav­ity. The wealthy have attacked the public’s faith in sci­ence because it would have cost them money for us to believe that the planet’s cli­mate is being changed by their indus­tries.  An entire polit­i­cal arm of this coun­try dis­trusts the notion of experts.  The only sci­ence they care about is that which allows them to wring more money from the world.

[…]

Where’s my opti­mism?  Where’s my abil­ity to write sci­ence fic­tion like “The Kansas Jayhawk vs. The Midwest Monster Squad?”  Where did I leave it?  And would it be delu­sional of me to even try and adopt it again?  That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re a pes­simist and your pes­simism doesn’t come true, you get to be happy along with the opti­mists.  But if you’re an opti­mist whose pre­dic­tions prove false, then there’s lit­tle to be happy about.  The pes­simist at least gets the grim sat­is­fac­tion of being right. Even if they’re no hap­pier about the out­come than the optimist.

Jeremy mentions a video (clipped from a rather good documentary on stats from the BBC which I watched late last year) which was linked to in the comments thread of another post by Mike Brotherton; it covers (in a flamboyant data visualisation style) the sort of points I try to make a point of repeating to myself like a mantra on a regular basis: yes, on a day-to-day level, life seems pretty tough and the world looks to be high-tailing it to hell in the proverbial handbasket, but when you look at the aggregate experience of the human species over a comparatively short span of time, things have consistently improved, and show every sign of continuing to do so (paradigm-breaking Outside Context Problems or existential risk events notwithstanding). Indeed, sometimes I think our capacity to worry about the future is the strongest indicator that the here-and-now isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could be.

[ To pre-empt the rejoinder that life hasn’t improved for everyone to the same degree, and that there are still places that progress – however defined – has yet to make much of a showing, and that we in the Anglophone West have by far the best deal of them all: this I understand, and I’m not trying to downplay the suffering of others. On the contrary, I’m trying to show why we should push forwards with hope and aspirations of a better life for everyone. ]

These things are observable, measurable. Why, then, as Jeremy asks, is it such a struggle to be optimistic? Is it as difficult for everyone? (As shocking as regular readers may find it, my peacenik globalist optimism is something I have to work at rather hard, and sits very much at odds with a lengthy history of depression; I know other people who seem to just bubble over with optimism, but I have no idea what effort – if any – they expend to achieve such a state.)

And the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that optimism isn’t just hard work, it’s scary: it invites disillusionment, it openly courts the up-ending and down-throwing of one’s conceptions of the world. To maintain optimism, one must keep picking oneself up after the arrival of a disappointment, rebuild a new theory of the world, adjust and amend it as new data comes to light. By comparison, pessimism is easy: sit back, shake your head stoically as you predict bad things to come, and then just open a newspaper or web-browser and pick out the evidence to prove you were right. People are a lot like electricity, in that we tend to follow the path of least resistance. Pessimism has a nice fat copper cable strapped straight to the psychological earth-point; the gratification of being proved right, gained with minimum emotional expenditure.

As a result of that, pessimism seems to be the more popular stance, at least at present; it therefore follows that optimism is unfashionable, not to mention easily undermined by pointing to all the short-term badness in the world. Hence optimism becomes harder still to maintain: you’re flying in the face of popular opinion, and that’s rarely a fast route to popularity and choruses of agreement.

Furthermore, I think optimism contains a component of agency – a feeling that things can be changed, and changed for the better, by doing stuff. Pessimism is predominantly fatalist, as the responses to my post about the Giffords shooting demonstrate very clearly: thinking that we can change the tone of political discourse is naive and condescending! The corporations and politicos have got it all sewn up, and there’s nothing we can do but ride it out and hope the powers that be fix it so we come out a bit better than Those People Over There (whether Over There is the next neighbourhood along, North Korea, or any other strawman enemy-of-the-moment; doesn’t matter, really, so long as there’s some way to make it look like you deserve better than they do).

But just look at history: we have changed the tone of politics, many many times over, and we will do so again. And those who change it will be the ones who didn’t just sit back and sigh, imagining the inevitable dystopia just around the corner. This is not a partisan point, either: activism works. But it’s also work. I’m reminded of the apocryphal slogan of Generation X (the source of which escapes me): “Can’t win, so why try?” Maybe that’s why being optimistic is a struggle; perhaps it’s just generationally out of fashion.

Of course, this is all easily portrayed as conjecture and hypothesis on my part, mixed with a generous handful of self-justification… and maybe that’s what it is. Perhaps pessimism really is the more rationally valid and sustainable attitude: after all, the universe is a machine for creating entropy. But I’m going to struggle on being optimistic as best I can, regardless: for one thing, my mind needs the exercise.

And for another, I’ve never been one for following the herd. 🙂


Rejoinders to Coupland’s pessimism

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2010

Another guest-article in list format from Gen-X prophet of gloom Douglas Coupland has appeared, this one at The Globe & Mail; cue the sort of bleak “it’s all uphill from here” head-shaking that appear to be the man’s stock in trade of late. Some samples:

1) It’s going to get worse

No silver linings and no lemonade. The elevator only goes down. The bright note is that the elevator will, at some point, stop.

Gee, thanks, Doug. I needed that. We all needed that. More coffee, anyone?

14) Something smarter than us is going to emerge

Thank you, algorithms and cloud computing.

The transhumanist lobby see that one as a net positive, provided we’re steering things in the right direction; on days less fraught than this one, I’m usually inclined to do the same.

20) North America can easily fragment quickly as did the Eastern Bloc in 1989

Quebec will decide to quietly and quite pleasantly leave Canada. California contemplates splitting into two states, fiscal and non-fiscal. Cuba becomes a Club Med with weapons. The Hate States will form a coalition.

Old news, whether you listen to sf authors or sociopolitical pundits. Or both.

28) It will become harder to view your life as “a story”

The way we define our sense of self will continue to morph via new ways of socializing. The notion of your life needing to be a story will seem slightly corny and dated. Your life becomes however many friends you have online.

Harder? I think it’ll become easier, because our definition of “story” will shift; indeed, it has already started. At this point I’ll bring in a guest rejoinder from Jeremiah Tolbert’s own responses, which are well worth a read:

Narrative struc­ture didn’t invent itself, you know.  We’ve been struc­tur­ing our expe­ri­ences as story since we could paint on cave walls, or even before.  The idea that our life will instead be how­ever many friends we have online, I just don’t buy it.  It sounds like some­thing Facebook would pitch to ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, not a real futur­ist pre­dic­tion.  Yes, your social net­work will be impor­tant.  But we’ll define our sense of self by it?  Is there going to be a fun­da­men­tal alter­ation of our brain chem­istry at the same time?

I’d add that Coupland seems to be buying into the persistent but poorly-argued riff about how online ‘friendships’ are devaluing the meaning of friendship itself; again, I think we’re just moving to a point where the spectrum of friendship is becoming wider, more granular. I think we’ll have a similar number of friends to what we’ve always had; ‘friends’ in the Facebook sense are something different entirely, something that people under the age of thirty seem to understand quite instinctively. Don’t let the kids freak you out, Doug.

Back to Coupland:

34) You’re going to miss the 1990s more than you ever thought

Again, I’m with Jeremy – I already miss the nineties a whole lot, and pining for the rootless and jagged freedoms of one’s adolescence is hardly a new development. One suspects Mister Coupland is projecting somewhat. He closes with:

45) We will accept the obvious truth that we brought this upon ourselves

And here, Jeremy hits it out of the park:

I thought this was sup­posed to be a pessimist’s guide?  That’s the most opti­mistic pre­dic­tion about a fun­da­men­tal change in human nature I’ve read yet!

Exactly; if there’s one thing that could really pull our civilisational arse out of the fire, that’s it. It won’t be pleasant while it’s happening, granted, but I’ve long suspected that it’s the key to surviving the crescendo end-phase of the planet-bound stage for intelligent lifeforms.

This is probably old news to people who’ve followed Coupland’s output for longer than I have, but man, he really likes to wallow in that existential angst thing, doesn’t he? Which isn’t to claim that I’m not prone to moping myself (again, the nineties are never far away in this household), but this list is saturated with the same “everything sucks, not least of all being aware of how much everything sucks, and so there’s nothing to do but constantly remind ourselves of how much everything sucks” attitude that so repelled me while reading JPod. In my most secret of hearts* I pride myself on being more cynical and both-sides-of-the-story than most people, but there’s an odd relief in finding that I’m not actually the biggest pessimist on the planet. Perhaps it’s the easing sensation of realising I never had a crown to cling on to?

And just to complete the spectrum, BoingBoing has a guest-post counter-list to Coupland from one Jim Leftwich, whose treacly animated gif of an outlook makes me feel like I’m inhabiting the rational and considered middle-ground for the first time in my life to date.

3) Memes are going mainstream Every day new memes will appear, others will be repeated, remixed, and amplified, and others will fade. Cultural in-jokes will abound. Your grandma will send you image macros for the lulz.

My mother already does; sadly, spending twelve hours a day connected to the internet hive-mind means that I’m about five years ahead of her comprehension thereof. She’s just discovered LOLcats; I now understand how I managed to piss so many people off with them back in 2005**.

5) It’s going to get fresher and tastier The growth in farmers’ markets will make locally grown fresh produce more accessible to more people all the time. Neighborhood and backyard gardens and greenhouses, with heirloom varieties, chickens, and beekeeping combined with a more fun cooking culture will increasingly supplement and in some cases replace processed and commercially prepared foods.

Actually, I’d much rather this worked out than Coupland’s requiem for lettuce. Fingers crossed.

10) You’ll get by and make the best of it Because after all, that’s what most of us do. You can help by connecting to and sharing with the people around you, both locally and in your virtual common interest circles. The stronger we are socially and otherwise interconnected, the more effectively we’ll take on and respond to challenges. Shit happens, but remember to reach out to help when you’re able and receive when it’s necessary. We really are all in this together, regardless of how they slice us up into groups and categories.

Again, agree with the basic premise (“we’ll get by”, I mean – it’s what we do as a species), but I suspect the global village will have to get a lot more fragmented before we reach the point that we realise we’re all the same (ref. item 45, above). But maybe Leftwich is spot on when he says we can make things better if we reach out and help when we’re able to. So, let’s start right now: let’s all think happy thoughts in Doug Coupland’s direction before bundling the poor guy into the office hug machine.

[ * Well, that’s that cover blown, I guess. ]

[ ** Only kidding, Mum, you know I love you. But seriously, forwarding chain emails; not wise. ]


Polyanna

Sarah Ennals @ 19-07-2009

Polyanna - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


The dystopians are out of step: humans are naturally optimistic

Edward Willett @ 26-05-2009

Democritus_by_Agostino_Carracci At least, that’s according to a new study from the University of Kansas and Gallup presented over the weekend at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science in San Francisco (via ScienceDaily):

Data from the Gallup World Poll drove the findings, with adults in more than 140 countries providing a representative sample of 95 percent of the world’s population. The sample included more than 150,000 adults.

Eighty-nine percent of individuals worldwide expect the next five years to be as good or better than their current life, and 95 percent of individuals expected their life in five years to be as good or better than their life was five years ago.

“These results provide compelling evidence that optimism is a universal phenomenon,” said Matthew Gallagher, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas and lead researcher of the study.

At the country level, optimism is highest in Ireland, Brazil, Denmark, and New Zealand and lowest in Zimbabwe, Egypt, Haiti and Bulgaria. The United States ranks number 10 on the list of optimistic countries.

Demographic factors (age and household income) appear to have only modest effects on individual levels of optimism.

Now, has anyone actually conducted a scientific poll of science fiction writers to see how they stack up by comparison?

(Image: Democritus by Agostino Carracci, from Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]public opinion, polling, optimism, dystopia, pessimism,psychology[/tags]


Solar pessimism

Jeremy Eades @ 19-10-2007

Lots of advances have been made in solar energy, as we’ve reported recently.  But solar energy may not be all dandelions and sunflowers, and there are worries not just about efficiency.  Simple production capacity dictates that even if we wanted to, we couldn’t produce nearly enough to meet our current energy needs.  A post by scienceblogger James Hrynyshyn over at the aptly named The Island of Doubt has some more information of solar pessimism.

Just like at that business seminar you attended, constructive criticism is best.  These add a dose of realism and keep us from wondering in five years why we’re still being told we’re just around the corner from a breakthrough.  As Mr. Hrynyshyn said, "Don’t get discouraged guys. Just keep plugging away…."

(image from Rob!)