Analog – June 1962 – cover artist – John Schoenherr


 “The single most important thing that could be done would be to substitute reasonably accurate positive images of the future for the depressing images that now prevail, especially in the Advanced Capitalist nations.”

futurist Herman Kahn in the 1970s


It is just as deterministic to say “if we build social media, the world will be a more connected place” as it is to say “social media will destroy democracy.”

Danah Boyd


“We saw Cyndi Lauper convincing a gentleman in a suit to put down his newspaper and dance, I saw a world of possibility, one in which adulthood could be fun, with surprise waiting around every corner.”

Shane O’Neil on the 1980’s & 90’s


I almost called this ‘refinding technological optimism.’ Okay. Maybe it is more about anti-technological dystopia. I am not suggesting we be utopian, just that I question why we should ditch optimism. I thought about this in a conversation with Faris Yakob as we pondered our possibly naïve optimism about technology in the early 2000’s. Anyway. Two of the books I consistently pluck off my shelf to remind myself that technology dystopia has not always been the norm: The Cluetrain Manifesto and anything by Jaron Lanier. And while I imagine the Cluetrain authors may suggest that they were naively optimistic, I don’t agree with them. In those heady days technology was going to offer us many of the things that would solve, or resolve, many of the societal issues at hand. And technology, for its part, has held up its end of the bargain. Where things go a bit awry is with humans. And if you agree with that, fundamentally, anything humans make can be unmade. Just because some of the Cluetrain and Lanier positive possibilities have not occurred, doesn’t mean they cannot.

But let’s get to the optimistic part.

The roots of technological optimism arise way before the internet and computer technology. Its roots are grounded in technology (a) better utilizing resources against growing demand and (b) easing some of the societal issues through more efficient productivity/use of human time. Technological growth, in the minds of the optimists, meant technological advance where humanity got more output per unit of input – rather than simply more of an old technology. The optimism gained some momentum with the idea of ‘exponential.’ Technology was to provide exponential benefits rather than a more plodding additive or even multiplicative. In other words, today’s limits would look silly in the future because of the accumulation of a seemingly endless amount of breakthroughs. For the most part, this happened. But. We were also offered a blueprint for what could go wrong at this time. Toffler and McLuhan outlined the cognitive issues (human limits) and Anderson outlined the market issues in The Long Tail theory. Fragmentation in the market, profited exponentially, and humans, cognitively, didn’t quite profit as much. The exponentiality was indifferent to symmetry and asymmetry can be a motherfucker to humans and their minds.

But let’s get back to optimism. Distorted market incentives are solvable, businesses and institutions structured to exploit technology can be solved, even societal expectations and objectives can be solved. None of those things have anything to do with technology; they are human issues. That said. Constructive technological advances could enhance human solutions to those things. Technology, in the right hands, could even combat some of the negative features of existing technology.

To be clear, this optimism is not utopian (although I do believe we should do some more utopian thinking). This optimism is rooted in what we know and what we can actually do. To make a point, almost everyone who signed the AI “pause” letter could, if funded well, could develop technological solutions to much of what dystopians lose sleep over. I say that to suggest we should have technological optimism … as long as the right humans are involved in technology’s future. I imagine my grander point on that is technology has not failed us, we have failed technology. And within that we should find some optimism because no matter how bad people can be, good people have a gravitas that bad can never attain.

“In the long run, optimists shape the future.”

Kevin Kelly

Which leads me to shaping.

An optimist almost has to believe, in some form or fashion, that exponential technological growth will expand resources and minds ahead of exponentially increasing issues. This is a tough thought in today’s world because from most people’s perspective technology is an aggravating factor – amplifying all that is bad – rather than an expansive factor – amplifying possibilities and imagination to be mined. But once again, the problem isn’t the technology; its us (humans). The undesirable, aggravating characteristics, consequences of technology are reflections of humanness which many of us simply ignored or submerged under a variety of other things (results, altruism, etc.). Market forces are most typically a reflection of humanness. That is not to say technology doesn’t tweak our worst instincts, just that technology is equally a force for good and bad and only pursues what we want to pursue. The consequences are more us than it is ‘them’ (technology) so if we optimistically shape our technology we can shape a more optimistically good world.


“I don’t think our goal should be to create conscious intelligent machines. Everything that makes a machine useful are generally the things that are not human, why do we need to create an emotional, unpredictable, volatile, machine and put it in charge of something mission critical. The whole point of machines is to do they can do the things we don’t trust humans to do consistently.”

Mike Walsh


The fact of the matter is, McLuhan was right: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” Technology is not just about things and devices; it is about processes and verbs and attitudes and people. You have to be a little careful about what technologies you adopt, because each technology is, broadly speaking, a way of doing things. Maybe we place optimism on top of these questions L.M. Sacasas suggests:

  1. What sort of person will the use of this technology make of me?
  2. What habits will the use of this technology instill?
  3. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of time?
  4. How will the use of this technology affect my experience of place?
  5. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to other people?
  6. How will the use of this technology affect how I relate to the world around me?
  7. What practices will the use of this technology cultivate?
  8. What practices will the use of this technology displace?
  9. What will the use of this technology encourage me to notice?
  10. What will the use of this technology encourage me to ignore?

Which leads me to suggest technological optimism is about faith and craft.

To be optimistic is to believe in human ingenuity with no foreseeable limit. Technology can be crafted as an unending cascade of advancement. What this means is a belief that each advancement can not only eliminate the present technological issues, but also stretch the limits of what is currently possible. In its constant stretching both good, and bad, can occur but the good is constantly erasing the bad. Yeah. It’s an understanding that technology is both empowering/enabling and oppressive/constraining; often simultaneously. But within optimism is a rejection of a conclusion that the world is ugly and the people are bad. Optimism rejects dystopia as well as the status quo. I believe the status quo never invents the future, and vision, creativity and innovation crafts the future. Yeats is correct, the center cannot hold, so the center may be the status quo and who’s happy with that today? Instead of griping about what’s deplorable, it seems a discussion about the future would be much more interesting. We can wring our hands all we want, but there’s no going back, so what’s ahead?

“Well, that’s the universal law of technology, that it can be used for good or evil.”

Michio Kaku

“Ahead” technology discussions today careen between an anticipation of doom or deliverance. All of today’s technologists, while they craft for utility, power and profit, appear to have as their north star as rationality. Somewhere along the way the technologists lost the distant dreams and aspirations for a better world. Sadly, I believe this is a reflection of business and society in general (it is a tough time for dreamers these days). While tools could have been shaped to shape a better society and world, the tools were shaped – by human hands and minds – to serve financial objectives (which, obviously, is the easiest way to pay for the technology). So. While we should expect far more from our technological innovations then convenience and efficiency, or even cognitive survival, we do not. It gets a bit worse. We also demand deliverance from problems, even the problems that technology creates, from technology. Yeah. Technological growth clearly aggravates real human problems and it is silly to optimistically count on technological advance to solve all of them. Technology is a mixed blessing capable of producing undesirable as well as desirable consequences. The mixed consequences of technological development is an issue that becomes more critical the more technological advance entails risks with catastrophic potential. That said. There is only “ahead” and we should be focused on delivery (and deliverance from dystopia), and not doom.

Which leads me to why dystopia is so much easier than optimism.

Part of the issue is that technology has become a God-like tool for, well, everything to, well, everyone; not just technological optimists.  As Alan Turing said:

“(Turing) predicted in about 50 years time it will be possible to program computers to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than a 70% chance of making the right identification after five minutes of questioning. It is at that point we would start deeming a machine’s performance as intelligent.”

The truth is we are at the 70%, if not higher, now. But go on the internet and you can find all the tech nerds and philosophical thinkers adamantly stating all the ways a computer is not human and cannot mimic a human and, in fact, it is not intelligent. Well. The issue is the majority of the world are not tech nerds and philosophical thinkers. To the majority of THAT world the computer is intelligent. In fact (an aside to all the tech nerds and philosophical thinkers), that imitation technology is more easily understood than the tech nerds and philosophical thinkers.

What this puts us at is what complexity theory calls The Edge of Chaos. This refers to the exploration zone of complex systems where interesting things happen. In this zone systems are not so rigid that they cannot change at all, but not so chaotic that they immediately dissolve into useless disorder. The edge of chaos is the fertile ground for possibilities to emerge. It describes where we live in today’s world. It is from this space where optimists thrive and progress towards something better can thrive.

It is time to explore.

I believe there about the same number of neurons in the brain as there are a number of stars in universe. We have used technology to explore space, to explore the brain, to explore the body, to explore the capacity of humans. Technology is the ship which can carry us to the farthest parts of the universe. My real fear and pessimism reside not with technology, but with ourselves – human beings. We have met the enemy and it is us. The truth is technology simply amplifies all the worst things of human beings. I’m not speaking of evil, although it lurks in the depths of the Internet, I’m speaking more about conformity. The internet defines how things should look like and scores of people line up to conform to that likeness. The same thing occurs with ideas and, well, everything. We are imitation machines. More access to all this information and imagery and words just simply encourages us all to become average, i.e., to all become the same. At some point we will all look like each other, speak like each other, and even use all the same words. That is my fear. My optimism resides in the belief that people are not average, they do like to be distinct, and they like progress to something new and better. Yeah. All progress is grounded in some spectacular risk, some spectacular mistake, or some spectacular idea that encourages everybody to zig while everyone else is zagging. And my optimism also encompasses technology because technology mirrors humanness.

Which leads me to end with a thought Pamela McCorduck had: “this thinking machine amplifier would amplify these qualities as other as other as other machines have amplified the other capacities of our body.” The development of AI continues to promise to provide an extension of the human capacities we value most like, well, conversations and exchanges and connections:


“The first markets were filled with people, not abstractions or statistical aggregates; they were the places where supply met demand with a firm handshake. Buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met, and connected. The first markets were places for exchange, where people came to buy what others had to sell — and to talk.

The first markets were filled with talk. Some of it was about goods and products. Some of it was news, opinion, and gossip. Little of it mattered to everyone; all of it engaged someone. There were often conversations about the work of hands: “Feel this knife. See how it fits your palm.” “The cotton in this shirt, where did it come from?” “Taste this apple. We won’t have them next week. If you like it you should take some today.” Some of these conversations ended in a sale, but don’t let that fool you. The sale was merely the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence.”

Cluetrain Manifesto

Of course, there are reasons to be concerned especially when pondering latency where effects are manifested long after the initiation of their cause coupled with irreversibility, or a resistance to correction. Or the zero-infinity characteristic which refers to effects that are extraordinarily unlikely to occur, but catastrophic if they do.

Look. I am certainly not suggesting gambling our future on an optimistic point of view, just that optimism can shape the future we want. And I believe optimism is actually the only way to forge our way to a better future. Let’s go explore. Ponder.

Written by Bruce