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 Already

 “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be—you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman—if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born you’d choose now.”

Pres. Barack Obama, 2016

It’s been a good month for optimists in my reading pile. Utopia is already here, they say, and we’ve got the facts to prove it.

Enlightenment NowHarvard Professor Steven Pinker is his own weather system. Bill Gates called Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now  “My new favorite book of all time.”

Pinker begins cautiously:  “The second half of the second decade of the third millennium would not seem to be an auspicious time to publish a book on the historical sweep of progress and its causes,” he says, and follows with a recitation of the bad news sound bytes and polarized blame-shifting we’ve (sadly) gotten used to. But then he throws down the optimist gauntlet: “In the pages that follow, I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong — wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong wrong.”

He makes his case in a string of data-laced chapters on progress, life expectancy, health, food and famine, wealth, inequality, the environment, war and peace, safety and security, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge and education, quality of life, happiness, and “existential” threats such as nuclear war. In each of them, he calls up the pessimistic party line and counters with his version of the rest of the story.

And then, just to make sure we’re getting the point, 322 pages of data and analysis into it, he plays a little mind game with us. First he offers an eight paragraph summary of the prior chapters, then starts the next three paragraphs with the words “And yet,” followed by a catalogue of everything that’s still broken and in need of fixing. Despite 322 prior pages and optimism’s 8-3 winning margin, the negativity feels oddly welcome. I found myself thinking, “Well finally, you’re admitting there’s a lot of mess we need to clean up.” But then Prof. Pinker reveals what just happened:

“The facts in the last three paragraphs, of course, are the same as the ones in the first eight. I’ve simply read the numbers from the bad rather the good end of the scales or subtracted the hopeful percentages from 100. My point in presenting the state of the world in these two ways is not to show that I can focus on the space in the glass as well as on the beverage. It’s to reiterate that progress is not utopia, and that there is room — indeed, an imperative — for us to strive to continue that progress.”

Pinker acknowledges his debt to the work of Swedish physician, professor of global Factfulnesshealth, and TED all-star Hans Rosling and his recent bestselling book Factfulness. Prof Rosling died last year, and the book begins with a poignant declaration:  “This book is my last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance.” His daughter and son-in-law co-wrote the book and are carrying on his work — how’s that for commitment, passion, and family legacy?

The book leads us through ten of the most common mind games we play in our attempts to remain ignorant. It couldn’t be more timely or relevant to our age of “willful blindness,” “cognitive bias,” “echo chambers” and “epistemic bubbles.”

Also this week, professional skeptic Michael Shermer weighed in on the positive side of It's better than it looksthe scale with his review of a new book by journalist Gregg Easterbrook — It’s Better Than It Looks. Shermer blasts out of the gate with “Though declinists in both parties may bemoan our miserable lives, Americans are healthier, wealthier, safer and living longer than ever.” He also begins his case with the Obama quote above, and adds another one:

“As Obama explained to a German audience earlier that year:  ‘We’re fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history,’ adding ‘that it’s been decades since the last war between major powers. More people live in democracies. We’re wealthier and healthier and better educated, with a global economy that has lifted up more than a billion people from extreme poverty.’”

A similar paeon to progress begins last year’s blockbuster Homo Deus (another of Bill Homo DeusGates’ favorite books of all time). The optimist case has been showing up elsewhere in my research, too. Who knows, maybe utopia isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fact, maybe it’s already here.

Now there’s a thought.

All this ferocious optimism has been bracing, to say the least — it’s been the best challenge yet to what was becoming a comfortably dour outlook on economic reality.

And just as I was beginning to despair of anyone anywhere at any time ever using data to make sense of things, I also ran into an alternative to utopian thinking that both Pinker and Shermer acknowledge. It’s called “protopia,” and we’ll look at it next time.