(Roughly) Daily

“You say you’re a pessimist, but I happen to know that you’re in the habit of practicing your flute for two hours every evening”*…

The Harrowing of Hell, Hieronymus Bosch

A couple of weeks ago, (R)D featured a piece by Jonathan Haidt, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” in which Haidt critiqued, among others, Robert Wright and his influential book, Non-Zero. In the spirit of George Bernard Shaw (who observed: “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.“) Wright responds…

… There are three main culprits in Haidt’s story, three things that have torn our world asunder: the like button, the share button (or, on Twitter, the retweet button), and the algorithms that feed on those buttons. “Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people.”

I would seem uniquely positioned to cheer us up by taking issue with Haidt’s depressing diagnosis. Near the beginning of his piece, he depicts my turn-of-the-millennium book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny as in some ways the antithesis of his thesis—as sketching a future in which information technology unites rather than divides…

Well, two things I’m always happy to do are (1) cheer people up; and (2) defend a book I’ve written. I’d like to thank Haidt (who is actually a friend—but whom I’ll keep calling “Haidt” to lend gravitas to this essay) for providing me the opportunity to do both at once.

But don’t let your expectations get too high about the cheering people up part—because, for starters, the book I’m defending wasn’t that optimistic. I wrote in Nonzero, “While I’m basically optimistic, an extremely bleak outcome is obviously possible.” And even if we avoid a truly apocalyptic fate, I added, “several moderately bleak outcomes are possible.”

Still, looking around today, I don’t see quite as much bleakness as Haidt seems to see. And one reason, I think, is that I don’t see the causes of our current troubles as being quite as novel as he does. We’ve been here before, and humankind survived…

Read on for a brief history of humankind’s wrestling with new information technologies (e.g., writing and the printing press). Wright concludes…

In underscoring the importance of working to erode the psychology of tribalism (a challenge approachable from various angles, including one I wrote a book about), I don’t mean to detract from the value of piecemeal reforms. Haidt offers worthwhile ideas about how to make social media less virulent and how to reduce the paralyzing influence of information technology on democracy. (He spends a lot of time on the info tech and democracy issue—and, once again, I’d say he’s identified a big problem but also a longstanding problem; I wrote about it in 1995, in a Time magazine piece whose archival version is mis-dated as 2001.) The challenge we face is too big to let any good ideas go to waste, and Haidt’s piece includes some good ones.

Still, I do think that stepping back and looking at the trajectory of history lets us assess the current turmoil with less of a sense of disorientation than Haidt seems to feel. At least, that’s one takeaway from my argument in Nonzero, which chronicled how the evolution of technology, especially information technology, had propelled human social organization from the hunter-gatherer village to the brink of global community—a threshold that, I argued, we will fail to cross at our peril.

This isn’t the place to try to recapitulate that argument in compelling form. (There’s a reason I devoted a whole book to it.) So there’s no reason the argument should make sense to you right now. All I can say is that if you do ever have occasion to assess the argument, and it does make sense to you, the turbulence we’re going through will also make more sense to you.

Is Everything Falling Apart?@JonHaidt thinks so; @robertwrighter is not so sure.

Apposite: “An optimist’s guide to the future: the economist who believes that human ingenuity will save the world,” and “The Future Will Be Shaped by Optimists,” from @kevin2kelly at @TedConferences.

* Friedrich Nietzsche (criticizing Schopenhauer)


As we look on the bright side of life, we might send darkly-tinted birthday greetings to Oswald Spengler; he was born on this date in 1880. Best known for his two-volume work, The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), published in 1918 and 1922, he was a historian and philosopher of history who developed an “organic theory” of history that suggested that human cultures and civilizations are akin to biological entities, each with a limited, predictable, and deterministic lifespan– and that around the year 2000, Western civilization would enter the period of pre‑death emergency whose countering would lead to 200 years of Caesarism (extra-constitutional omnipotence of the executive branch of government) before Western civilization’s final collapse. He was a major influence on many historians (including Arnold Toynbee and Samuel “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington).


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