Tuesday, June 10, 2014


     To a great extent, life as we get older becomes more about how to spend the time available. Other commitments have kept your author away this year, and there is no foreseeable change to those priorities. Additionally, some reading last year (chiefly, books by Matt Ridley and Peter Diamandis) has caused a major shift of perspective. The value of historical models in assessing our current predicaments may be lower than ever before, given the frame-breaking technology developing around us. It is quite likely no one outside the tech fields understands the profound implications that recent developments create for society and politics. It is equally likely the same thing is true of most people working in the tech fields. The human species has a realistic chance of effectively overcoming all material resource constraints in under a century. How could such a development not invalidate our historical wisdom? How long will the past remain useful as a lens for bringing the present into focus? To the extent one has leisure, is it not better spent looking forward than back?

     There is optimism behind these questions. If technology stopped developing today, or even dropped to a linear rate of expansion, there would be every reason to expect the American Republic and her sister democracies to slide into collapse followed by dictatorship. However, technological innovation and discovery continue on an exponential development curve. As Diamandis says, we are not wired to understand the implications of exponential growth. In predicting worldwide abundance, Diamandis and Ridley and a few others may see more clearly than the rest of us. And because innovation both depends on and empowers liberty, it is plausible that our future will be both abundant and free. Most of us will squander that freedom; but not everyone. In any case, continuing to apply a moral or historical touchstone to current events, like a latter day Livy or Machiavelli, may be wasted effort under the regime of accelerating change. Even Heraclitus is an inadequate guide.

     This is not to say peace will break out all over, or that we will enter a Star Trek future without war or poverty. Yet even here, Steven Pinker has documented a persistent, worldwide decline in violence across a relevant historical period, and nothing about his evidence is obviously invalid. There will be pain and crime and misery for many people for many years to come; but the old demons no longer have power to dance in all our dreams. The nightmares are on the wane, and we sleep much better after we look past the headlines and see what is happening unnoticed by the purveyors of despair on the Left and the Right. Really, it is a splendid opportunity to be alive just at this point.


  1. I needed to hear something optimistic this year. Actually it's my default point of view, but it's been under assault far too much, and in a minute I was about to compose an uncharacteristically dark and brooking rant. A smile for you today, my friend.

  2. Glad to help. We (homo sapiens alive today) are on many relevant measures (lifespan, violence, wealth) much better off than homo sapiens of any previous era. Not individually in all cases, of course, but statistically. Whenever the gloom-mongers get going, it's useful to recall fundamental measures like these to balance the equation. Mindless optimism is just as foolish as mindless pessimism, but we hear the latter all day long in the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads" media. Rational optimism sees a more hopeful picture in the data.