Alex Richey

Software Engineer @ Amazon

Against Pessimism

One glass half full and another glass half empty

My article about pessimism originally published on 3QuarksDaily.

Pessimism is on the rise among members of the older generation. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, only 36% of Americans aged 50 to 64 believe that today's youth will have better lives than their parents. And another poll conducted in 2013 by Rasmussen says that just over half of Americans think that their country's best days are in the past.

There are two ways of explaining this kind of negativity. According to the first view, it is understandable that such attitudes have formed, given both the political and economic turbulence of the last decade, and other long-term social and economic trends.

Recent literature is replete with explanations of this sort. In Thomas Frank's article "Storybook Plutocracy," he classifies more than 30 recent books as members of what he has dubbed the "social-disintegration genre." This genre includes George Packer's The Unwinding, Charles Murray's Coming Apart, and Hedrick Smith's Who Stole the American Dream?, among many others.

Although the authors of these books may differ in political orientation and policy prescriptions, they agree in matters of methodology and share a basis of facts. Moreover, they tend to agree that, with the right policies, America's situation can be improved and that the general mood of the country can be ameliorated.

The second type of explanation is bleaker.  Its proponents argue that the worsening mood of the country is not due to transient events such as the Great Recession or to reversible political policies, but rather to permanent and essential elements of modernity itself.

Because of the cynicism intrinsic to this sort of view, its written expressions are comparatively rare among professional writers; its cultural manifestations, however, are prominent.

Members of the so-called the Prepper's Movement, for example, carefully pack and maintain "bug-out bags," receptacles whose contents are intended to "see them through the collapse of civilization." Preppers, as the movement's adherents call themselves, preach the virtues of preparedness and some of their more extreme members – people who build underground bunkers and stockpile things like gasoline, guns, ammunition, and Meals Ready to Eat – have been featured on National Geographic's reality TV show "Doomsday Preppers." Many members of this movement believe that civilization itself is unsustainable and that the apocalypse is likely occur in our lifetimes.

Until recently, it has been difficult to apprehend the reasons that motivate such activities; however, in the last few months, authors Jonathan Franzen and David Mamet have published essays that express some of the reasoning which seems to inform this and other Malthusian endeavors.

Franzen's "What's Wrong with the Modern World," which appeared in The Guardian a few months ago, bemoans the age of information, calling it a "media-saturated, technology-crazed, [and] apocalypse-haunted historical moment," while Mamet's "Entropy," which was published in Playboy's 60th Anniversary issue, predicts the "dismantling" of the West. Both of these essays articulate the standard rationale for being pessimistic about the future, but in a way that is confused and uninformed.

One often heard criticism, expressed by Franzen, is that we are becoming too dependent on technology.

[N]ow it's hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain's responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I'm enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces' birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.

Franzen's notion that using an iPhone or other technologies means buying into "a global corporate system of control" is, on more careful consideration, pretty laughable. The only thing these corporations – Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. – are interested in getting people to do is spend more money. The suspicion that they have some special interest in individuals beyond their patronage steams from an inflated sense of self-importance or paranoia.

As for the notion that outsourcing certain mental faculties to computers is somehow dangerous, there is ample research that suggests otherwise. Franzen's worry here is reminiscent of the claim that outsourcing computational ability to calculators impedes mathematical proficiency. A 2011 research brief from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, which synthesized nearly 200 studies from 1976 to 2009, found that "the use of calculators in the teaching and learning of mathematics does not," in contrast to what Franzen might predict, "contribute to any negative outcomes for skill development or procedural proficiency, but instead enhances the understanding of mathematics concepts and student orientation toward mathematics."

Clive Thompson's new book Smarter Than You Think sets out a similar conclusion about "human-computer symbiosis." He asks, "What's the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us? Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?" Walter Isaacson writes in his review of the book that "[Thompson's] answer is that our creative minds are being strengthened rather than atrophied by the ability to interact easily with the Web and Wikipedia. ‘Not only has transactive memory not hurt us,' [Thompson] writes, ‘it's allowed us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us alone.'"

One observation that Thompson offers in support of this conclusion is that our culture is now more literate than it was in the past. "Before the Internet came along," he writes, "most people rarely wrote anything at all for pleasure or intellectual satisfaction after graduating from high school or college." But now, of course, with the advent of blogs, texting, and constant status updates on Facebook and Twitter, it is the norm.

Franzen, as one might expect, disapproves of this increase in cultural participation. "One of the worst things about the internet," he says, "is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking." But where Franzen finds reason for contempt and pessimism, Thompson finds reason to be hopeful. "It's easy (and not altogether incorrect) to denigrate much of the blathering that occurs each day in blogs and tweets," paraphrases Isaacson. "But that misses a more significant phenomenon: the type of people who 50 years ago were likely to be sitting immobile in front of television sets all evening are now expressing their ideas, tailoring them for public consumption and getting feedback."

David Mamet's criticisms of the modern age are less ornery than Franzen's but are far more apocalyptic. Mamet attempts to explain what he sees as a nearly religious "return to chaos" by appealing to the second law of thermodynamics, which says that, in closed systems, entropy increases with time. Entropy is a measure of "order" or "chaos." Speaking somewhat metaphorically, the second law can explain how, when left alone in a kitchen, an egg on the counter will crack and splatter, creating disorder where there was previously order.

Mamet's idea of appropriating this concept from physics and applying it to social phenomena is not original. "All we have to do is look out the window/internet to see disorder running rampant all around us," says the Caltech physicist Sean Carroll in his blog post "Social Entropy":

So people from Henry Adams and Oswald Spengler to Thomas Pynchon and Norbert Wiener have suggested (with different degrees of seriousness) that maybe the social chaos around us is merely the inevitable outcome of some grand dynamical principle.

Mamet's own appropriation of the concept fits this mold. In the space of just a couple thousand words, he gives a reading of history from the beginning of time through the present day and concludes that "Life then, human and otherwise, may be understood not primarily as the desire to perpetuate life (which just begs the question "Why?"), but as an attempt to maximize [the dispersal of energy or entropy]."

In this way, he supports his conclusion that the western world – or humanity in general – is in an inevitable decline.

This argument fails and the reasons for its failure are twofold. First, the second law of thermodynamics only applies to closed systems. Since the universe and human civilization are not closed systems, the law does not apply. What's more, even when entropy does increase in a system, chaos need not reign everywhere. "The Earth radiates lots of high-entropy radiation into space, but its own entropy can easily decrease," says Carroll. "It's not just allowed — it happens quite readily. Order is spontaneously generated in subsystems as the larger world increases in entropy."

The second reason the argument fails is that it is baldly contradicted by evidence. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that violence, which is surely a relevant measure of social decay, "has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species." This conclusion may sound surprising given the bad news we receive every night on the evening news. But even cursorily recalling "the genocides in the Old Testament and the crucifixions in the New, the gory mutilations in Shakespeare's tragedies and Grimm's fairy tales, the British monarchs who beheaded their relatives and the American founders who dueled with their rivals" – all this suggests that violence, at the very least, is condoned to a lesser extent in our society.

What's more, by nearly every metric, quality of life has been improving. Between now and a hundred years ago, many horrific diseases such as polio, tuberculosis, measles, and others have been largely eradicated in developed countries. In America, segregation and many other racist policies have been abolished; and, for newborns, average life expectancy has increased from just 49 years in 1900 to nearly 78 in 2008. Average income has also increased from roughly $15,000 in 1914 to a little over $50,000 in 2004 (in 2004 dollars), while, at the same time, working conditions have improved and child labor has been eliminated.

I do not mean to suggest that the western world is doing fine or to minimize the significance of our current environmental and economic problems. On the contrary, these problems are substantial, if not epoch defining. What I mean to say is that, even though these problems are enormous, they do not justify the kind of pessimism expressed by Franzen, Mamet, and others. All of our problems are soluble and very likely will be solved. They're not going to stop human history in its tracks and bring about the apocalypse.

It seems to me that, in writing his article, Mamet started with a certain feeling and then formed a reading of history to justify it, picking out the facts that supported his view. That's shoddy reasoning. Sound reasoning moves in the opposite direction: You start by investigating the facts, form an interpretation that fits them, and then adjust your feeling accordingly.

If the trends of history are in any way prognostic, then optimism is the sounder view.

(Image via Evolllution.)