The Optimism Delusion

What do you think the future looks like?

When I was growing up, the future was shown either as something bright and shiny where technology has saved us from everything except ourselves or as some post-apocalyptic wasteland where, deprived of our technology toys and our access to coffee and wifi, we descended into barbarism in which men got to be men and women got to shut up and do what they were told.

I was never convinced by either set of images. People endure. Technology doesn’t make them better. Disaster doesn’t make them worse. All that changes are their choices. But choices are important.

It seems to me that our choices are becoming fewer and more challenging. I think it’s time to start imagining those choices in realistic terms so that we can make the right calls, even when they’re the least pleasant options.

I’m sixty-four and for most of my adult life, I’ve assumed that the future would get better, slowly, as people were given more choices about who they wanted to be and became more tolerant of who other people wanted to be. Life was not a zero-sum game. It was generative. With good science and a respect for human rights, all our boats could rise on the technology tide.

It was nonsense of course. I was living in a bubble of Western prosperity that most of the world didn’t share and, although I could see that climate change would mean an end to having enough water and enough food and perhaps even enough land for everyone, I just assumed we’d sort it out. Only now do I see how dumb that was.

I spent most of my working life helping people identify and plan the implementation of new technologies. Inevitably, that took me to Palo Alto, where most of the world’s venture capital is given out, start-ups are a way of life and optimism is ubiquitous. One saying that was constantly offered to me by the people whose livelihoods depended on pitching The Next Big Thing was a quote from William Gibson:

‘The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.’

They would then say that if the latest fad – self-driving cars, 3D printed chocolate, robots that can run Parkour courses, was feasible in California then, if enough money was spent, it could become the future of the entire world.

I came to think of these people a the Priests of The Optimism Delusion. They proselytise the belief that, if we try hard enough and believe hard enough, we can become whatever we can imagine ourselves being. They run ‘Visioning Workshops’ so that you can invent yourself and your world anew, far from the constraints of day-to-day reality. Then they run ‘Innovation Workshops’ which start by confidently asserting ‘The seven steps to innovation are…’ They are charismatic, passionate, creative, enthusiastic and either rich or convinced that they are going to become rich once they’ve imagined it fully and found a way to disrupt the market in their favour.

It seems to me that the Optimism Delusion appeals most strongly to people who’ve never been poor and never expect to be. They are the congregation the Priests of the Optimism Delusion preach to. They are relatively wealthy people who believe that they deserve what they have, that their wealth is the product of their hard work and their talent and not a product of social and economic structures that ensure that they remain some of the most privileged people on the planet. They believe that if they want more wealth and a better life (which is a truth they hold to be self-evident) they can have it if they work hard enough and have enough talent and enough imagination. They are often obsessed with how much better, more fun, cooler things could be. They want to use technology to maximise their experience. VR is heaven because it’s where they already live, filtering out the unpleasant truths of the present and imagining more glorious futures.

For the most part, I found that they were nice people with whom I enjoyed spending time. They were filled with hope and belief and completely innocent of irony or sarcasm.

I’ve never been like that. I’ve always looked for the LIE in the middle of beLIEve. I was also much older than most of the people I met in Palo Alto, so I was usually the only person in the room who had read Gibson’s cyberpunk novels as they were published in the 1980s. I enjoyed them because Gibson’s vision of the future was not a The Future’s So Bright, I Have To Wear Shades shiny version but a dark, grungy version of the future where technology mostly gave us new ways to do bad things to each other.

I think Gibson was right about the future being already here but I don’t think it’s the future that’s being dreamed of in Palo Alto. I think it’s the future that’s being lived in authoritarian regimes where the richest live in luxury and the rest scramble to survive. I think the future can be found in the people displaced by famine, drought, floods and wildfires that have destroyed their ability to feed or house themselves. I think the future is making itself known in the rise of various forms of slavery, ranging from indentured service and company towns through to human trafficking.

I see a future where, for most people, things will get worse. Technology is as likely to be as much a part of the problem as it is the solution: automation, drones, military robots, facial recognition, the removal of cash, and ubiquitous surveillance all offer opportunities to contain, control or replace the poor, and almost all of us are poor.

The wealthiest people in the world, the men with more wealth and power than most countries, have been thinking about this version of the future since at least the beginning of this century.

In 1997, two high-profile wealth advisors, James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg published ‘The Sovereign Individual’ in which they set out the arguments for what has become Disaster Capitalism. It’s a view of the world where the rich grow richer by anticipating and riding the waves of disaster-driven disruption. It’s a world where the interests of the very wealthy, the Sovereign Individuals, conflict with the interest of Sovereign States who try to prevent and dampen the impact of disaster and thus reduce the opportunities for wealth creation.

This is the book that stands behind the work the world’s wealthiest billionaires are funding Bannon to drive: attack the ‘Deep State’, destabilise international collaboration, minimise the regulation of wealth and the commerce that produces it.

The dreams of the rich are not like your dreams or mine. They tend to come true. Unless we stop them.

I believe that when the richest people in the world look to the future, they don’t deny climate change, they plan to survive it. It seems to me that they dream of a world with most of its population gone but their wealth maintained and their power increased by controlling the access to water, food and viable habitats, supported by high levels of automation and protected by privately owned security. To them, this isn’t a dystopia, it’s just privilege writ large.

The cartoon above, which shows the challenges about to hit my country, the UK, would be funny if it were not so true.

When I look at the waves of disease, engineered division, and inexorable climate disasters that are going to his us over the next ten years, it is tempting to give way to despair. The only thing that keeps me from it is sheer bloody-mindedness. Our despair is a weapon the very wealthy are trying to wield against us. They spread hate and anger and distrust and division so that we get weaker and they get stronger.

So how do we prepare for the future that is coming?

Firstly, we must set the Optimism Delusion aside. Things are not going to get better, Technology will not save us. To survive, we must save each other.

We need to be ready, not for revolution, nor for a last-minute fight to make everything better, It’s already too late for that. We need to be ready to struggle to preserve kindness and community and dignity in a world where brutality will always be the easiest answer.

Now is the time to protect human rights, to set nationalism aside, to work together to secure supplies of food, water, energy and medical services.

Now is the time to tax and redistribute wealth so that what we have benefits as many people as possible.

Now is the time to accept that we will not be able to live tomorrow the way we live today and to embrace that future and make it into a life worth living for as many of us as we can.

One thought on “The Optimism Delusion

  1. Thanks Mike, as a Brit of similar vintage this post resonates loudly with me. My work is also across the spectrum of society, engaged in the struggle so eloquently described. Challenging the worn narrative may be vital, but as we have seen recently, crises may provide cover for closing down debate and directive ‘solutions’, sold under the banner of ‘leadership’.

    Liked by 1 person

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