Thoughts at the End of the Year

I thought I’d wrap up the year by looking forward instead of backward. Because looking back on 2009 isn’t all that much fun.

A lot of people have had a tough go of it for some time now, and the last year was not a great one (heck, the Yankees even won the World Series). We’ve seen plenty of examples of bad behavior from prominent people, and a lot of victims left behind. We’re also still recovering from the near-collapse of big and important parts of our economy. And we’re facing huge challenges related to climate change, two wars being fought in the Middle East, and (in the US) altering the health care system.

And yet I find myself optimistic as I look ahead. I try not to be blithe or naive, and I know that soulwise, these are trying times. But I believe that we’ll get through them, and that we’ll address with some level of effectiveness the challenges we’re facing.

My optimism has two sources, one general and one more specific. Generally, I think people are good problem solvers, and are more inclined to be helpful than harmful to each other. Combine these two traits and what results is a world where, as the economist Julian Simon phrased it “The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely.”

I realize that sounds incredibly blithe, naive, and at odds with the facts, but my read of the evidence tells me that it’s not. Climate change might well be an important exception to this happy trend and I don’t mean to be cavalier about it, but I’m with Bjorn Lomborg on how to best address it: invest more in basic energy R&D and unleash human creativity on this human-caused problem.

My more specific reason for optimism springs from my work on the impact of technology, and in particular the emergent social software platforms I’ve written about. Thanks to these technologies, the global Internet, and the explosive growth of wireless bandwidth and mobile devices around the world, we’re entering a really interesting period, and one we should be hugely excited about.

To characterize this period, I’ll rely on the writings of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest, paleontologist, and visionary who died in 1955. Tielhard de Chardin worked to fuse two strains of thought be believed in deeply: Catholic doctrine with the theory of evolution. I won’t even try to summarize his strange and wonderful arguments, except to say that like Simon he was an optimist, and thought that we are on our way to someplace better.

Tielhard de Chardin held that an important step in mankind’s progression was the interconnection of the world’s people, and he was confident that this would take place. In his book The Phenomenon of Man, he wrote

We are faced with a harmonised collectivity of consciousness equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth not only becoming covered in myriads of grains of thought, but becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the sidereal scale, the plurality of individual reflections grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in the act of a single unanimous reflection.

In Man’s Place in Nature, he was specific about how this grouping and reinforcing might take place:

And here I am thinking of those astonishing electronic machines (the starting-point and hope of the young science of cybernetics), by which our mental capacity to calculate and combine is reinforced and multiplied by the process and to a degree that herald as astonishing advances in this direction as those that optical science has already produced for our power of vision.

More than fifty years after Tielhard de Chardin’s death, his ‘astonishing electronic machines’ are being deployed all over the world, and our abilities to calculate and combine are being multiplied just as he said they would be.

I am incredibly heartened by this. I give us people enough credit to believe that more good than bad things will come from the ‘harmonized collectivity of consciousness’ we’re creating at present, and that we’ll use it to help overcome the challenges we face. Including the ones we ourselves create.

I’ll end this post with a sentence allegedly uttered by Benjamin Franklin just before he signed the Declaration of Independence: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” We have better tools for hanging together than we’ve ever had before, and I’m confident that they’ll help us get through our current hard times and on to better ones.

Happy Holidays, all.