paul_saffo's picture
Technology Forecaster; Consulting Associate Professor, Stanford University
Technology Forecaster; Consulting Associate Professor, Stanford University

Humankind Is Particularly Good At Muddling

I am a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. History is on my side for the cause of today’s fashionable pessimism lies much deeper than the unpleasant surprises of the last half-decade. In fact, both our pessimism and the rise of fundamentalisms that so bedevil global society at the moment share a common source—the year 2000 and the roll-over into this century. The approach of each New Year inevitably, predictably, causes us to look back and wonder what lies ahead.  It is no coincidence that you pose the annual Edge Question in December and not July.

Moreover, contemplation of the New Year amplifies our predispositions; pessimists become more certain that things are falling apart, while optimists see greater hope than ever. Opinion inevitably clusters at the extremes. This tendency is amplified by the number of zeros in the year to come. Decade ends affect the zeitgeist for a year or two, while century endings reverberate for 10 years or more, as demonstrated by the impact of the Fin de siècle a hundred years ago.

We have less experience with millennium roll-overs, but we are learning fast.  With perfect hindsight, the influence of the approaching millennium can be seen throughout the 1990s and even earlier. Millennial anxieties contributed in no small part to the rise of religious fundamentalism, while millennially-inflated hopes encouraged the touchingly innocent optimism overlaid atop the internet revolution and emergent globalization.

Inevitably, the greatest impact of our calendric angst occurs after the triggering date has passed. The year 2000 is still affects—perhaps even dominates—the zeitgeist today. Eschatologically-obsessed believers like Muqtada al-Sadr stand astride events in Iraq, convinced by the calendar that the Madhi redeemer will finally reveal himself. Closer to home, an astonishingly large population of Americans are equally convinced that the Apocalypse will arrive at any moment, and there is little doubt that fundamentalist apocalyptic beliefs directly affect US policy. There also is no shortage of millennially-inspired optimists (some whose answers are on this site) confident that the wonder machines of science and technology will allow us to live forever, power our devices with puffs of hydrogen, banish terrorism, and usher in a new age of human understanding and world peace.

I am a short-term pessimist because the Millennium is still clouding our collective thinking and may yet inspire the addled few to try something truly stupid, like an act of mega-terror or a nuclear exchange between nations. But I am a long-term optimist because the influence of the Millennium is already beginning to fade. We will return to our moderate senses as the current uncertainties settle into a comprehensible new order. I am an unshakable optimist because in its broadest strokes, the future will be what the future has always been, a mix of challenges, marvels and endless surprise. We will do what we have always done and muddle our collective way through. Humankind is particularly good at muddling, and that is what makes me most optimistic of all.