Not only was fire always dangerous as well as beneficial, so was the wheel. A spear could injure or kill your friends, not only your dinner. With clothes came not only protection but also body lice. With farming came not only a more reliable food supply but also hard, repetitive work – and plunder by hungry bandits.
Every solution creates new problems. But they can be better problems. Lesser evils. More and greater delights.
That’s what progress is. That is what is most visible today. And that is what cynicism must therefore besmirch, obfuscate and argue away if it is to make itself, and pessimism, superficially plausible.
Saturday, February 19th, 2022
Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018
I’m going to discuss Avengers: Infinity War without spoilers, unless you count the motivations of the main villain as a spoiler, in which case you should stop reading now.
The most recent book by Charles C. Mann—author of 1491 and 1493—is called The Wizard And The Prophet. It profiles two twentieth century figures with divergent belief systems: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. (Trust me, this will become relevant to the new Avengers film.)
I’ve long been fascinated by Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. It is quite possible that he is responsible for saving more lives than any other single human being in history (with the possible exception of Stanislav Petrov who may have saved the entire human race through inaction). In his book, Mann dubs Borlaug “The Wizard”—the epitome of a can-do attitude and a willingness to use technology to solve global problems.
William Vogt, by contrast, is “The Prophet.” His groundbreaking research crystalised many central tenets of the environmental movement, including the term he coined, carrying capacity—the upper limit to a population that an environment can sustain. Vogt’s stance is that there is no getting around the carrying capacity of our planet, so we need to make do with less: fewer people consuming fewer resources.
Those are the opposing belief systems. Prophets believe that carrying capacity is fixed and that if our species exceed this limit, we are doomed. Wizards believe that technology can treat carrying capacity as damage and route around it.
Vogt’s philosophy came to dominate the environmental movement for the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s something I’ve personally found very frustrating. Groups and organisations that I nominally agree with—the Green Party, Greenpeace, etc.—have anti-technology baggage that doesn’t do them any favours. The uninformed opposition to GM foods is a perfect example. The unrealistic lauding of country life over the species-saving power of cities is another.
And yet history so far has favoured the wizards. The Malthusian population bomb never exploded, partly thanks to Borlaug’s work, but also thanks to better education for women in the developing world, which had enormously positive repercussions.
Anyway, I find this framing of fundamental differences in attitude to be fascinating. Ultimately it’s a stand-off between optimism (the wizards) and pessimism (the prophets). John Faithful Hamer uses this same lens to contrast recent works by Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari. Pinker is a wizard. Harari is a prophet.
I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War, but there’s no getting around it—Thanos is a prophet.
Very early on, we learn that Thanos doesn’t want to destroy all life in the universe. Instead, he wants to destroy half of all life in the universe. Why? Carrying capacity. He believes the only way to save life is to reduce its number (and therefore its footprint).
Many reviews of the film have noted how the character of Thanos is strangely sympathetic. It’s no wonder! He is effectively toeing the traditional party line of the mainstream environmental movement.
There’s even a moment in the film where Thanos explains how he came to form his opinions through a tragedy in the past that he correctly predicted. “Congratulations”, says one of his heroic foes sarcastically, “You’re a prophet.”
Earlier in the film, as some of the heroes are meeting for the first time, there are gags and jokes referring to Dr. Strange’s group as “the wizards.”
I’m sure those are just coincidences.
Friday, March 9th, 2018
I think our destination is neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo, but protopia. Protopia is a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.
Kevin Kelly’s thoughts at the time of coining of this term seven years ago:
No one wants to move to the future today. We are avoiding it. We don’t have much desire for life one hundred years from now. Many dread it. That makes it hard to take the future seriously. So we don’t take a generational perspective. We’re stuck in the short now. We also adopt the Singularity perspective: that imagining the future in 100 years is technically impossible. So there is no protopia we are reaching for.
Saturday, November 11th, 2017
I have to keep reminding myself that I do have some control. I can build The Medium I want. I can cling to what’s good.
Wednesday, November 1st, 2017
Nobody can afford to volunteer to be extra virtuous in a system where the only rule is quarterly profit and shareholder value. Where the market rules, all of us are fighting for the crumbs to get the best investment for the market. And so, this loose money can go anywhere in the planet without penalty. The market can say: “It doesn’t matter what else is going on, it doesn’t matter if the planet crashes in fifty years and everybody dies, what’s more important is that we have quarterly profit and shareholder value and immediate return on our investment, right now.” So, the market is like a blind giant driving us off a cliff into destruction.
Kim Stanley Robinson journeys to the heart of the Anthropocene.
Economics is the quantitative and systematic analysis of capitalism itself. Economics doesn’t do speculative or projective economics; perhaps it should, I mean, I would love it if it did, but it doesn’t. It’s a dangerous moment, as well as a sign of cultural insanity and incapacity. It’s like you’ve got macular degeneration and your vision of reality itself were just a big black spot precisely in the direction you are walking.
Saturday, March 18th, 2017
Hope is a belief that what we do might matter, an understanding that the future is not yet written.
Rebecca Solnit’s piece reminded me of something I mentioned a couple of year’s back when I referred to Margaret Atwood’s phrase “judicious hope”:
Hope sounds like such a wishy-washy word, like “faith” or “belief”, but it carries with it a seed of resistance. Hope, faith, and belief all carry connotations of optimism, but where faith and belief sound passive, even downright complacent, hope carries the promise of action.
Sunday, October 9th, 2016
The Rational Optimist
As part of my ongoing obsession with figuring out how we evaluate technology, I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. It was an exasperating read.
On the one hand, it’s a history of the progress of human civilisation. Like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, it piles on the data demonstrating the upward trend in peace, wealth, and health. I know that’s counterintuitive, and it seems to fly in the face of what we read in the news every day. Mind you, The New York Times took some time out recently to acknowledge the trend.
Ridley’s thesis—and it’s a compelling one—is that cooperation and trade are the drivers of progress. As I read through his historical accounts of the benefits of open borders and the cautionary tales of small-minded insular empires that collapsed, I remember thinking, “Boy, he must be pretty upset about Brexit—his own country choosing to turn its back on trade agreements with its neighbours so that it could became a small, petty island chasing the phantom of self-sufficiency”. (Self-sufficiency, or subsistence living, as Ridley rightly argues throughout the book, correlates directly with poverty.)
But throughout these accounts, there are constant needling asides pointing to the perceived enemies of trade and progress: bureaucrats and governments, with their pesky taxes and rule of law. As the accounts enter the twentieth century, the gloves come off completely revealing a pair of dyed-in-the-wool libertarian fists that Ridley uses to pummel any nuance or balance. “Ah,” I thought, “if he cares more about the perceived evils of regulation than the proven benefits of trade, maybe he might actually think Brexit is a good idea after all.”
It was an interesting moment. Given the conflicting arguments in his book, I could imagine him equally well being an impassioned remainer as a vocal leaver. I decided to collapse this probability wave with a quick Google search, and sure enough …he’s strongly in favour of Brexit.
In theory, an author’s political views shouldn’t make any difference to a book about technology and progress. In practice, they barge into the narrative like boorish gatecrashers threatening to derail it entirely. The irony is that while Ridley is trying to make the case for rational optimism, his own personal political feelings are interspersed like a dusting of irrationality, undoing his own well-researched case.
It’s not just the argument that suffers. Those are the moments when the writing starts to get frothy, if not downright unhinged. There were a number of confusing and ugly sentences that pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder where the editor was that day.
The last time I remember reading passages of such poor writing in a non-fiction book was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the foreword, Taleb provides a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect by proudly boasting that he does not need an editor.
But there was another reason why I thought of The Black Swan while reading The Rational Optimist.
While Ridley’s anti-government feelings might have damaged his claim to rationality, surely his optimism is unassailable? Take, for example, his conclusions on climate change. He doesn’t (quite) deny that climate change is real, but argues persuasively that it won’t be so bad. After all, just look at the history of false pessimism that litters the twentieth century: acid rain, overpopulation, the Y2K bug. Those turned out okay, therefore climate change will be the same.
It’s here that Ridley succumbs to the trap that Taleb wrote about in his book: using past events to make predictions about inherently unpredictable future events. Taleb was talking about economics—warning of the pitfalls of treating economic data as though it followed a bell-curve curve, when it fact it’s a power-law distribution.
Fine. That’s simply a logical fallacy, easily overlooked. But where Ridley really lets himself down is in the subsequent defence of fossil fuels. Or rather, in his attack on other sources of energy.
When recounting the mistakes of the naysayers of old, he points out that their fundamental mistake is to assume stasis. Hence their dire predictions of war, poverty, and famine. Ehrlich’s overpopulation scare, for example, didn’t account for the world-changing work of Borlaug’s green revolution (and Ridley rightly singles out Norman Borlaug for praise—possibly the single most important human being in history).
Yet when it comes to alternative sources of energy, they are treated as though they are set in stone, incapable of change. Wind and solar power are dismissed as too costly and inefficient. The Rational Optimist was written in 2008. Eight years ago, solar energy must have indeed looked like a costly investment. But things have changed in the meantime.
As Matt Ridley himself writes:
It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased.
And yet he fails to apply this thinking when comparing energy sources. If anything, his defence of fossil fuels feels grounded in a sense of resigned acceptance; a sense of …pessimism.
Matt Ridley rejects any hope of innovation from new ideas in the arena of energy production. I hope that he might take his own words to heart:
By far the most dangerous, and indeed unsustainable thing the human race could do to itself would be to turn off the innovation tap. Not inventing, and not adopting new ideas, can itself be both dangerous and immoral.
Friday, June 10th, 2016
A wager on the web
Jason has written a great post about progressive web apps. It’s also a post about whether fears of the death of the web are justified.
Lately, I vacillate on whether the web is endangered or poised for a massive growth due to the web’s new capabilities. Frankly, I think there are indicators both ways.
So he applies Pascal’s wager. The hypothesis is that the web is under threat and progressive web apps are a solution to fighting that threat.
- If the hypothesis is incorrect and we don’t build progressive web apps, things continue as they are on the web (which is not great for users—they have to continue to put up with fragile, frustratingly slow sites).
- If the hypothesis is incorrect and we do build progressive web apps, users get better websites.
- If the hypothesis is correct and we do build progressive web apps, users get better websites and we save the web.
- If the hypothesis is correct and we don’t build progressive web apps, the web ends up pining for the fjords.
Whether you see the web as threatened or see Chicken Little in people’s fears and whether you like progressive web apps or feel it is a stupid Google marketing thing, we can all agree that putting energy into improving the experience for the people using our sites is always a good thing.
Jason is absolutely correct. There are literally no downsides to us creating progressive web apps. Everybody wins.
But that isn’t the question that people have been tackling lately. None of these (excellent) blog posts disagree with the conclusion that building progressive web apps as originally defined would be a great move forward for the web:
- Yet another blog about the state and future of Progressive Web App by Ada Rose Edwards
- Progressively less progressive by Andrew Betts
- Progressive web apps – let’s not repeat the errors from the beginning of responsive web design by Michael Scharnagl
The real question that comes out of those posts is whether it’s good or bad for the future of progressive web apps—and by extension, the web—to build stop-gap solutions that use some progressive web app technologies (Service Workers, for example) while failing to be progressive in other ways (only working on mobile devices, for example).
In this case, there are two competing hypotheses:
- In the short term, it’s okay to build so-called progressive web apps that have a fragile technology stack or only work on specific devices, because over time they’ll get improved and we’ll end up with proper progressive web apps in the long term.
- In the short term, we should build proper progressive web apps, and it’s a really bad idea to build so-called progressive web apps that have a fragile technology stack or only work on specific devices, because that encourages more people to build sub-par websites and progressive web apps become synonymous with door-slamming single-page apps in the long term.
The second hypothesis sounds pessimistic, and the first sounds optimistic. But the people arguing for the first hypothesis aren’t coming from a position of optimism. Take Christian’s post, for example, which I fundamentally disagree with:
End users deserve to have an amazing, form-factor specific experience. Let’s build those.
Never make any decision based on fear.
Saturday, October 31st, 2015
Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.
Echoing Margaret Atwood’s observation:
If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.
Wednesday, August 12th, 2015
The death of the web has been greatly exaggerated.
There’s nothing else like it. It’s constantly improving. It’s up to you what you do with it.