Part thought experiment, part call to action, Dan Wang’s 2017 essay “Definite optimism as human capital” has crept into my thoughts over the past year whenever I’ve developed a new piece of software or watched a sci-fi movie.
It starts with a question: does optimism contribute to innovation? Rather than grapple with this question directly, Wang refers the reader to the economic historian Anton Howes, who believes the answer is yes:
People innovate because they are inspired to do so. And when people do not innovate, it is often simply because it never occurs to them to do so.
If Howes is right, what can we do to raise the level of optimism in our society? Wang has two suggestions.
The first is to focus less on bits and more on atoms. Most of the major improvements in our quality of life have come not from apps and software, but from manufacturing and industry. To imagine a better future, we all need to understand more about the material world.
Go ahead and pick an industrial phenomenon and learn more about it. Learn more about the history of aviation, and what it took to break the sound barrier; gaze at the container ships as they sail into port, and keep in mind that they carry 90 percent of the goods you see around you; read about what we mold plastics to do; meditate on the importance of steel in civilization; figure out what’s driving the decline in the cost of solar energy production, or how we draw electricity from nuclear fission, or what it takes to extract petroleum or natural gas from the ground.
Wang’s second suggestion is to “ask for more direct, unironic celebrations of innovation in popular culture.” In particular, we can ask for more optimistic science fiction:
Alas, for some reason, science fiction movies have taken a bleak turn in the last few decades. The dominant mode in modern sci-fi movies is dystopia, and perhaps even nihilism. Today, the contrarian project is to present an earnest, joyful vision of the technological future.
He suggests reshooting some of the biggest sci-fi movies of the past decade:
Elysium, with a focus on the logistics behind the smooth functioning of a satellite habitat. Ex Machina, featuring an artificial intelligence whose greatest desire is not acceptance in human society. Gravity, with greater marveling of space and the desire to explore, not the aftermath of random mechanical failure. Her, in which artificial intelligences decide to improve humanity, instead of migrating en masse to a higher spiritual plane.
Dystopian tales do have their place, and we can of course benefit from learning about the natural and digital worlds. But overall I’m convinced: if we want to continue innovating, we would do well to cultivate happier visions of the future, and to learn more about the literal nuts and bolts of our world. (A good way to get in the mood might be to watch this incredible time-lapse video of massive container units being transported around the world.)