Optimism

When I started my blog over a decade ago, I called myself a “technology optimist.“ I wrote:

I am excited to be living [at] a time when we are making tremendous progress on understanding aging, fighting cancer, developing clean technologies and so much more. This is not to say that I automatically assume that technology by itself will solve all our problems […]. Instead, I believe that – over time – we as a society figure out how to use technology to […] improve our standard of living. I for one am […] glad I am not living in the Middle Ages.

This book is fundamentally optimistic, which is partly a reflection of my personality. I can’t see how it would be possible to be a venture capitalist as a pessimist. You would find yourself focusing on the reasons why a particular startup would be unlikely to succeed and as a result would never make an investment.

I want to be clear about this apparent bias from the start. Optimism, however, is much more than a personal bias—it is essential for human knowledge. Acts of knowledge creation, such inventing a new technology or writing a new song, are profoundly optimistic. They assume that problems can be solved, and that art will impact the audience (which is true even for a pessimistic song). Optimism is the attitude that progress is possible.

Progress has become a loaded term. After all, despite our technological achievements, aren’t humans also responsible for the many diseases of civilization, for the extinction of countless species, and potentially for our own demise through climate change? Without a doubt we have caused tremendous suffering throughout human history, and we are currently faced with huge problems including a global pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis. But what is the alternative to trying to tackle these?

The beauty of problems is that knowledge can help us overcome them. Consider the problem of warming ourselves in the cold. Humans invented ways of making fire, eventually documented them, and have since dramatically improved the ways in which we can produce heat. We may take the existence of knowledge for granted, but no other species has it, which means whether they can solve a problem depends largely on luck and circumstance. So not only is optimism essential for knowledge, but the existence of knowledge is the basis for optimism.

There is an extreme position that suggests that we would have been better off if we had never developed knowledge in the first place [15]. While this may sound absurd, much of religious eschatology (theology about the ‘end times’) and apocalyptic thinking is associated to this position, asserting that a grand reckoning for the sins of progress is inevitable. And while they are rare, there have even been voices welcoming the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis as harbingers, if not of apocalypse, then at least of a “Great Reset.” Although there is no guarantee that all future problems will be solvable through knowledge, one thing is certain: assuming that problems cannot be solved guarantees that they will not be. Pessimism is self-defeating, and apocalyptic beliefs can be self-fulfilling.

All of this is also true for digital technology, which has already brought with it a new set of problems. We will encounter many of them in this book, including the huge incentives for companies such as Facebook to capture as much attention as possible, and the conflicts that arise from exposure to content that runs counter to one’s cultural or religious beliefs. And yet digital technology also enables amazing progress, such as the potential for the diagnosis of diseases at zero marginal cost. The World After Capital is optimistic that we can solve not only the problems of digital technology, but also that we can apply digital technology in a way that results in broad progress, including the knowledge creation needed to address the climate crisis.

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