Protopia: Progress Step by Step

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds.
The pessimist fears it is true.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, creator of the atomic bomb

“In the long term, optimists decide the future.”

Kevin Kelly, founder of Wired Magazine

Last week we heard professional skeptic Michael Shermer weigh in as an optimistic believer in progress (albeit guardedly — I mean, he is a skeptic after all) in his review of the new book It’s Better Than It Looks. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to stake a homestead claim on the Utopian frontier:  the title of a recent article tells you what you need to know about where he stands on that subject:  “Utopia Is A Dangerous Ideal: We Should Aim For Protopia.”[1]

He begins with a now-familiar litany of utopias that soured into dystopias in the 19th and 20th Centuries. He then endorses the “protopian” alternative, quoting an oft-cited passage in which Kevin Kelly[2] coined the term.

“Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict.”

Doesn’t sound like much, but there’s more to it than appears. Protopia is about incremental, sustainable progress — even in the impatient onslaught of technology. Kelly’s optimism is ambitious — for a full dose of it, see his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future (2016). This is from the book blurb:

“Much of what will happen in the next thirty years is inevitable, driven by technological trends that are already in motion. In this fascinating, provocative new book, Kevin Kelly provides an optimistic road map for the future, showing how the coming changes in our lives—from virtual reality in the home to an on-demand economy to artificial intelligence embedded in everything we manufacture—can be understood as the result of a few long-term, accelerating forces.

“These larger forces will completely revolutionize the way we buy, work, learn, and communicate with each other. By understanding and embracing them, says Kelly, it will be easier for us to remain on top of the coming wave of changes and to arrange our day-to-day relationships with technology in ways that bring forth maximum benefits.

“Kelly’s bright, hopeful book will be indispensable to anyone who seeks guidance on where their business, industry, or life is heading—what to invent, where to work, in what to invest, how to better reach customers, and what to begin to put into place—as this new world emerges.”

Protopian thinking begins with Kelly’s “bright, hopeful” attitude of optimism about progress (again, remember the thinkers we heard from last week). To adopt both optimism and the protopian vision it produces, we’ll need to relinquish our willful cognitive blindness, our allegiance to inadequate old models and explanations, and our nostalgic urge to resist and retrench.

Either that, or we can just die off. Economist Paul Samuelson said this in a 1975 Newsweek column:

“As the great Max Planck, himself the originator of the quantum theory in physics, has said, science makes progress funeral by funeral: the old are never converted by the new doctrines, they simply are replaced by a new generation.”

Planck himself said it this way, in his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Progress funeral by funeral[3]…. If that’s what it takes, that’s the way protopian progress will be made — in the smallest increments of “better today than yesterday” we will allow. But I somehow doubt progress will be that slow; I don’t think technology can wait.

Plus, if we insist on “not in my lifetime, you don’t,” we’ll miss out on a benefit we probably wouldn’t have seen coming:  technology itself guiding us as we stumble our way forward through the benefits and problems of progress. There’s support for that idea in the emerging field of complexity economics — I’ve mentioned it before, and we’ll look more into it next time.

[1] The article is based on Shermer’s recent book  Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

[2] Kelly is a prolific TED talker – revealing his optimistic protopian ideas. Here’s his bio.

[3] See the Quote Investigator’s history of these quotes.

Utopia For Realists

“Progress is the realization of utopias.”

Oscar Wilde

utopia for realistsDutchman Rutger Bregman is a member of the Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe Class of 2017. He’s written four books on history, philosophy, and economics. In his book Utopia for Realists (2016), he recognizes the dangers of utopian thinking:

“True, history is full of horrifying forms of utopianism — fascism, communism, Nazism — just as every religion has also spawned fanatical sects.

“According to the cliché, dreams have a way of turning into nightmares. Utopias are a breeding ground for discord, violence, even genocide. Utopias ultimately become dystopias.”

Having faced up to the dangers, however, he presses on:

“Let’s start with a little history lesson:  In the past, everything was worse. For roughly 99% of the world’s history, 99% of humanity was poor, hungry, dirty, afraid, stupid, sick, and ugly. As recently as the seventeenth century, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-62) described life as one giant vale of tears. ‘Humanity is great,’ he wrote, ‘because it knows itself to be wretched.’ In Britain, fellow philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) concurred that human life was basically, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’

“But in the last 200 years, all that has changed. In just a fraction of the time that our species has clocked on this planet, billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, smart, healthy, and occasionally even beautiful.[1]

“Welcome, in other words, to the Land of Plenty. To the good life, where almost everyone is rich, safe, and healthy. Where there’s only one thing we lack:  a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Because, after all, you can’t really improve on paradise. Back in 1989, the American philosopher Francis Fukuyama already noted that we had arrived in an era where life has been reduced to ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’[2]

“Notching up our purchasing power another percentage point, or shaving a couple off our carbon emissions; perhaps a new gadget — that’s about the extent of our vision. We live in an era of wealth and overabundance, but how bleak it is. There is ‘neither art nor philosophy,’ Fukuyama says. All that’s left is the ‘perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’

 “According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gaze on the farthest horizon and rehoist the sails. ‘Progress is the realization of utopias,’ he wrote. But the farthest horizon remains blank. The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing this rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead.

“In fact, most people in wealthy countries believe children will actually be worse off than their parents. According to the World Health Organization, depression has even become the biggest health problem among teens and will be the number-one cause of illness worldwide by 2030.[3]

“It’s a vicious cycle. Never before have so many young people been seeing a psychiatrist. Never before have there been so many early career burnouts. And we’re popping antidepressants like never before. Time and again, we blame collective problems like unemployment, dissatisfaction, and depression on the individual. If success is a choice, so is failure. Lost your job? You should have worked harder. Sick? You must not be leading a healthy lifestyle. Unhappy? Take a pill.

“No, the real crisis is that we can’t come up with anything better. We can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got. The real crisis of our times, of my generation, is not that we don’t have it good, or even that we might be worse off later on. ‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,’ a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.[4]

After this assessment, Bregman shifts gears. “The widespread nostalgia, the yearning for a past that really never was,” he says, “suggest that we still have ideals, even if we have buried them alive.” From there, he distinguishes the kind of utopian thinking we do well to avoid from the kind we might dare to embrace. We’ll follow him into that discussion next time.

[1] For a detailed (1,000 pages total) history of this economic growth from general nastiness to the standard of living we enjoy now, I’ll refer you again to two books I plugged a couple weeks ago:  Americana:  A 400 Year History Of American Capitalism and The Rise and Fall of American Growth.

[2] See here and here for a sampling of updates/opinions providing a current assessment of Fukuyama’s 1989 article.

[3]  World Health Organization, Health for the World’s Adolescents, June 2014. See this executive summary.

[4] This Tech Bubble is Different, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 14, 2011

Utopia

utopia-fox

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

John Maynard Keynes

We met law professor and economics visionary James Kwak a few months ago. In his book Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality (2017), he tells this well-known story about John Maynard Keynes:

“In 1930, John Maynard Keynes argued that, thanks to technological progress, the ‘economic problem’ would be solved in about a century and people would only work fifteen hours per week — primarily to keep themselves occupied. When freed from the need to accumulate wealth, the human life would change profoundly.”

This passage is from Keynes’ 1930 essay:

“I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue–that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanor, and the love of money is detestable, that those who walk most truly in the paths of virtue and sane wisdom are take least thought for the morrow. We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not neither do they spin.”

The timing of Keynes’ essay is fascinating:  he wrote it right after the original Black Friday and as the Great Depression was rolling out. Today, it seems as though his prediction was more than out of time, it was just plain wrong. Plus, it was undeniably utopian — which for most of us is usually a warning sign. Someone says “utopia,” and we automatically hear “dystopia,” which is where utopias usually end up after “reproduc[ing] many of the same tyrannies that people were trying to escape: egoism, power struggles, envy, mistrust and fear.” “Utopia, Inc.,” Aeon Magazine.

commune family

It’s just another day in paradise
As you stumble to your bed
You’d give anything to silence
Those voices ringing in your head
You thought you could find happiness
Just over that green hill
You thought you would be satisfied
But you never will-

The Eagles

To be fair, the post-WWII surge truly was a worldwide feast of economic utopia, served up mostly by the Mont Pelerin Society and other champions of neoliberal ideology. If they didn’t create the precise utopia Keynes envisioned, that’s because even the best ideas can grow out of time:  a growing international body of data, analysis, and commentary indicates that continued unexamined allegiance to neoliberalism is rapidly turning postwar economic utopia into its opposite.

But what if we actually could, if not create utopia, then at least root out some persistent strains of dystopia — things like poverty, lack of access to meaningful work, even a more even-handed and less unequal income distribution? Kwak isn’t alone in thinking we could do just that, but to get there from here will require more than a new ideology to bump neoliberalism aside. Instead, we need an entirely new economic narrative, based on a new understanding of how the world works:

“Almost a century [after Keynes made his prediction], we have the physical, financial, and human capital necessary for everyone in our country to enjoy a comfortable standard of living, and within a few generations the same should be true of the entire planet, And yet our social organization remains the same as it was in the Great Depression:  some people work very hard and make more money than they will ever need, while many others are unable to find work and live in poverty.

“Real change will not be achieved by mastering the details of marginal costs and marginal benefits, but by constructing a new, controlling narrative about how the world works.”

Rooting out the persistent strains of economic dystopia in our midst will require a whole new way of thinking — maybe even some utopia thinking. If we’re going to go there, we’ll need to keep our wits about us. More on that next time.