kelly’s antiheroes

It’s been quite a few years from the last time I was suffiently wound up by Kevin Kelly’s cyber-Amish techno-optimistic sermonising to write a blog post rebutting it, but it seems some things are more reliable triggers than others.

So, here’s Kelly’s latest salvo, entitled “The Case for Optimism”, and my step-by-step rebuttal of it—which, for the avoidance of doubt (and—rather optimistically perhaps, hahah!—for the deflection of reply-guy criticisms) is not an argument in favour of pessimism. Optimism and pessimism are equally useless, because they both argue for a fixed attitude to any and every circumstance and issue, while largely sweeping aside any subjectivities or subtleties that may be in the mix.

OK, let’s get on with it. The first half of the piece provides what are meant to be “the general case for optimism at any time”, and I’ll take each of them in the order they appear.

Pre-visualise success

“History is filled with accounts of people who held an optimistic belief others thought unlikely, or even impossible.”

History is also, for the most part, devoid of accounts of people who held optimistic beliefs others thought unlikely, or even impossible, that ultimately came to nothing. History is written about the winners, if not always by them.

“… the deep history of new ideas makes it very clear that the optimistic stance of believing something is possible is a requirement to make anything new real, and is thus more powerful than pessimism.”

I’ll concede it might be necessary, but the implication that it is sufficient is what pushes this dangerously close to that ‘manifesting’ credo, which in much the same way propagates because the few who seem to succeed because of it get asked how they did it all the time, and those who didn’t, don’t. This is a surprisingly woo theory for someone who claims to be a rationalist. It’s also a sort of survivorship bias.

Civilisation requires optimism

“Civilization depends on an implicit degree of general optimism. It is a collaborative exercise. Civilization amplifies and accumulates cooperation between strangers. If you expect that you can trust a stranger, that is optimism.”

Circular reasoning, and/or begging the question. Civilisation goes undefined except in terms of the phenomenon claimed to be central to it. You could make the same argument, but swap in pessimism for optimism, and it would be just as unfalsifiable.

Long-termism

Hard to believe this isn’t a whistle for the rebranded transhumanist gang. But leaving that aside, you could argue the opposite just as easily: early sedentary grain states didn’t build grain stores because they were optimistic about next year’s harvest or the disposition of their neighbours.

Asymmetric possibilities

“Every question answered by science generates at least two new questions, two new territories of unknown things that we now know we don’t know. In this way our ignorance expands faster than our knowledge, which is healthy. Because behind this expansion there is a great asymmetry: what is knowable but still unknown will always be larger than what we already know, meaning there are more possibilities waiting to be discovered than have already been discovered. This asymmetry in knowledge is reason to be optimistic, because it means there are no limits to our improvement.”

This asymmetry is just as much reason to be pessimistic; the possibilities waiting to be discovered are not necessarily good or beneficial possibilities for “civilisation”. You might also say that it indicates a huge limit to our improvement in that, if this theory holds, then we progressively know less of the sum total of what there is to know even as we learn more things. But then the theory assumes that “knowledge” is like some sort of loot box in a FPS, out there waiting to be picked up and made use of, rather than something we construct and refine and (crucially) continually supersede in a rolling scientific metaproject. Scientometrics, Kev! Half-life of facts, innit?

Historical progress

“A fair and rational evaluation of the scientific evidence demonstrates that progress is real over historical times.”

Long arc of history, blah blah. Pinkerism, only absent even Pinker’s handwavey definition of progress.

Deeper currents

A three-parter:

“1) Progress is mostly about what does not happen.”

Pinkerism again.

“2) Bad things happen fast, while good things take longer.”

This is too facile to deserve a counter-argument.

“3) The solutions to most problems will create new problems. But if we can create 1% more solutions than problems, that 1% compounded over decades equals civilization. However 1% of almost anything is invisible in the now, lost in the noise. Such a small differential is really only visible in accumulation and seen in retrospect.”

See above re “civilisation”, and also “asymmetric possibilities”.

“Optimism is therefore inherently hard to see in real life.”

I dunno, Kev, I see optimism every damned day. Perhaps that’s my availability bias… but hey, if we’re checking for beams in one another’s eyes?

“Optimism looks past the superficial to reckon with the essence of deeper change.”

Again, with the right audience, you could swap in “pessimism” here and get a round of applause. I’ll concede that you may believe this after the manner of a secular faith, but it is neither demonstrable nor falsifiable.

Now, if you wanted to argue that optimism as a form of faith is worthwhile—which is pretty much your first point in this list, really—I think that’s an interesting claim that’s worth discussing. But it’s a metaphysical claim, not an empirical one.

Healthy resilience

“Optimism yields happier and more resilient people. Optimism equips people a greater ability to deal with hardship, and less stress in their lives. Optimism can be learned, especially by children.”

Effects confused with causes. Happy, resilient people find it easier to be optimists, because they are unencumbered by Shit Life Syndrome.

To be clear (because my ire here may imply otherwise) but I believe Kelly’s belief in this stuff to be quite sincere and well-intentioned. But nonetheless, this is just a few steps of reasoning away from the classical conservative assumption that sick people are basically malingerers, and that those who haven’t succeeded just haven’t tried hard enough.

Future ingenuity

“Optimism is not utopian. It’s protopian — a slow march toward incremental betterment.”

Protopian? I see someone’s come up with a marketable label for critical utopianism… though there’s a lot more to it than “a slow march toward incremental betterment”, which is not utopianism or protopianism but Whig history.

The rest of this section is a reiteration of the metaphysical argument for optimism… and again, considered as a form of faith, well, there’s plenty of worse ones about.

But to get on a horse that regular readers here have seen me flog time and time again: optimism, like faith, is passive. It assumes that it’ll all come out in the wash if we carry on doing basically what we’re doing. But the problem with that position is that it refuses to engage with the possibility that the problems coming down the pipe are not simply new hazards in new levels of a game called Civilisation, but are actively produced by the paradigmatic approach to playing that game which we call Progress.

Kelly almost sees this, too, but falls in to the solutionist trap yet again, into a faith in a deification of human ingenuity:

“… the cost of that overall betterment is a barrage of bewildering new problems brought on by progress. […] But as bad as the world’s future problems will be, the reason we can and should be optimistic is that our estimates of future woes don’t take into account our ability to solve them.”

On a finite planet, in a finite universe governed by entropy, we cannot assume that we will always be able to “innovate” our way out of the consequences of all the previous “innovations”.

This also contradicts Kelly’s earlier argument about “being a good ancestor”; what sort of ancestor deploys “solution” after “solution” in the full and admitted knowledge that said “solutions” will inevitably produce new and greater problems? An ancestor who is short-selling the future, that’s who.

Again, it’s a paradigm problem. Do I have to use the C word?


Now we get to the “concrete reasons for optimism” section, which at least gets us out of the metaphysical-masquerading-as-empirical. What have we got, then?

Total Urbanization

“The first driver of optimism is therefore simply a continuation and completion of the on-going industrial revolution.”

Well, the industrial revolution was a pure and unalloyed good for all concerned, wasn’t it? <checks notes> OK, ah, some disagreement on that one, it seems.

“Urbanization provides the benefits of density, such as higher bandwidth, and more diverse jobs. These improvements are desired by most young people around the planet. Ask them what their dream is and they will tell you they want t-shirts and sneakers, an air-conditioned room with plumbing and wifi, and a job doing something of their choosing.”

So the ideal future is the continuation of consumer capitalism; OK, that’s a goal, that’s concrete. But let’s assume that all those young people get that fly drip and the air-con and a job they want to do. First of all, who’s gonna empty the bins? (Yeah, I know—smart robots, right? We’ll get to that one in a bit.)

Secondly, where’s the cotton for those T-shirts getting grown, and whose water rights will be bought out to grow it? Will the kids who get their dream job of sewing the new Yeezys also be able to afford the new Yeezys? Not under the current system, they won’t! If you’re going to be pro-capitalism, you should at least do yourself a favour and familiarise yourself with how that wonderfully fecund production of novelty is achieved, and at what price.

(To recognise that exploitation of human labour is the engine of capitalism is not a Marxian position, to be clear; the Marxian position is to both recognise that and to believe it to be monstrous.)

Universal Connectivity

“[W]hen all adults on a planet connect, they can cooperate at a scale and speed never before possible. Existing large institutions are also enhanced by this acceleration, while entirely new forms of collaboration are now possible. In the next two decades we will likely witness at least one grand project created by one million people around the globe working together on it in real time — a feat enabled by universal connectivity. When all 8 billion people are connected together we have more of a chance to prosper together.”

Hey, Kev; 1994 called, and it wants its old WIRED magazines back.

Ubiquitous AI

“A zoo of hundreds of different species of new types of mind will be working with humans to solve problems. These non-human minds (sometimes with bodies we call robots) will do work humans don’t want to do, or can’t do. Humans and AIs together will co-create new desires and new jobs. The long-term driver of progress — automating physical jobs — will continue, and then begin to take over non-physical chores as well. The three chief consequences of AI will be the liberation of humans from their unwanted jobs, the explosion of new services and formerly impossible products that are co-created with AIs, and new occupations and desirable tasks for humans. AIs and robots are designed for efficiency and productivity, while these millions of new human jobs are primarily tasks where inefficiency is tolerated.”

Two possibilities here: 1) you’re right that AI’s are “minds”, and that means we’re essentially going to build a non-human slave class; 2) AI is really just a suitcase word for branding new technological gimcracks, which will require vast amounts of energy to run and vast amounts of natural resources to build.

(Actually there’s a third possibility, namely that “AI” is currently and will remain for the most part in perpetuity a way to black-box poorly-paid human labour in a way that makes it seem more like magic than exploitation.)

Until such a point as a coherent and testable definition of “AI” is established, recourse to “AI will fix it!” will remain the purest and most marketable form of technosolutionism available—so long as you can bring yourself to overlook the growing catalogue of failures and abuses and biases embedded into vital systems under the banner of “AI”, that is.

Sustainable Energy

Now, this is a category where I definitely see cause for hope. But still:

“We can double our energy efficiency simply by decarbonizing the economy. In fact we can achieve 50% of what we need for climate change simply by powering all of our machines, furnaces, and vehicles with electrons instead of oxidation.”

[citation needed]

Also, sure, efficiency seems like a good idea, but there’s this thing called the Jevons Paradox. If we switch 100% to renewables but keep following the curve of energy consumption increase we’re already on, we just land ourselves with a different problem—or rather the same problem with a different expression.

Accelerated Innovation

Constantly claimed, at least as far back as Alvin Toffler, if not further—but only demonstrable by recourse to spurious metrics, e.g. patents granted per year. A shibboleth of the Hot Take Futures Factory.

Innovation has, if anything, slowed down to a crawl; the last serious innovation was heavier-than-air- flight. You bring me a good case, I’ll bring the counterposition.

Bio-Engineering

Lots of optimistic stuff about our expanding knowledge of DNA and whatnot here, and so I redirect you to the scientometrics point above, and also note that for all the celebration of the sequencing of the human genome, surprisingly little has come of it, with the arguable exception of transhumanist arguments regarding genetic code as intellectual property and/or genetic capital. And I’m sure Kev knows the arguments I mean… he should do, given he thinks that “[i]ncreasing control of living systems at their foundational level will provide great progress in our own longevity and wellness.”

And then there’s some stuff about lab-grown meat, which as far as I’m concerned is still at the driverless-car stage of “technological readiness”: hypothetically possible, even demonstrable, but as yet not shown to be capable of “scaling”. And if you think that the lab-meat folk won’t find as many corners to cut as the real-meat industry does under the incentives of surplus accumulation, well, I guess that’s optimism at work, eh? But the arc of history you’re so keen on doesn’t look quite so rosy when plotted along that particular axis….

Generational Handoff

“The world-wide Boomer generation will be retired and made redundant in 25 years.”

This is by far the least optimistic thing you’ve written so far, Kev. But carry on.

“The next generation will come of age. This is good news for the world, because the young have better ideas, and the ambition to see their change come about.”

Well, possibly, but OK; where are you going with this? <reads on>

Ah, so every young person in the world will have equal access to the same educational resources, and real-time translation will overcome the obstacle of their not necessarily speaking English, which is good because we know the only decent employers in the world are gonna demand English speakers, amirite?

Though I’m a bit fuzzy on this one, because I thought we said earlier that every youngster would get their Yeezys and aircon and dream job—howzat work if everyone’s still competing for the presumably plum jobs at Anglophone employers? Lotta folk gonna end up with their second, third or nth-choice jobs, it seems to me… and that’s gonna mean pay differentials, because you can’t have a hierarchy of desirable jobs to compete for without the incentives for competition working to sustain it… ah, but what do I know? A World Economic Forum survey says 18-35 year-olds believe the world is better provided with opportunities than struggles, and I guess if I can momentarily unlearn everything I know about survey design—not to mention the WEF—then maybe I can take refuge beneath that comfortingly quantitative claim.)

And that’s the lot… apart from a closing caveat which is really a mea culpa that doesn’t recognise itself as one:

“I am talking about the state of the world and its future on average global terms. […] Local harms are the norm. In the same way, even in a world of indisputable progress not all regions will experience the same health. Parts of the globe may suffer war, disease, famine, unrest in times of prosperity. It may be very bleak in some areas, where pessimism seems totally appropriate. History suggests these bleak times are temporary, and that on average, better times will come.”

For whom, exactly, are the bleak time temporary? For whom are the better times a-comin’?

“The case for optimism is a longer-term view, and a bigger-place view.”

The case for optimism is, it seems, the view from a nice coastal town in California.

“Based on the evidence, we should be able to picture progress at the scale of two decades around the planet for the average person, even if there are scars of inequality throughout it.”

The average person does not exist. The average person is a statistical fiction. And it’s real easy to wave away those scars of inequality when they’re seen on some sidewalk-dwellers face through the windows of your Uber Prime. Progress looks great from where you are, because you are sat atop the pyramid of inequality upon which is is predicated.

This is not an argument for optimism, or even for change. It is an argument for business as usual, from someone for whom business as usual has turned out pretty damned nicely. So why not do the next generation a favour, as per your own argument, and remove one particular Boomer influencer from intellectual circulation a quarter-century early?

I’m not optimistic that’ll happen, mind you. But I can still hope.

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