Optimism is out of fashion. Since the global economic crash in 2008, there has been a corrosive and growing sense that the world is getting worse. For many, 2016 was proof of this: the relentless carnage in Syria, America's retreat from reason, climate change, terrorism, the return of polarised politics and leadership on the basis of fear, not hope. Extremists have always claimed that they can deliver a return to a mythical time when the world was somehow better. In much of the world, people are no longer taking for granted that our children's lives will inevitably be better than those of our parents.
Inevitably, it is technology that most divides the optimists and the pessimists. The pessimists worry that technological advances will harm our security, our society and our humanity. It will do to 21st-century weaponry what it did to the musket, bayonet and pikestaff. The North Pole will melt by 2100. Harvests will decline in the least stable parts of the world. Tens of millions of the angriest and hungriest people will migrate. Automation will strip huge parts of the population of their dignity and livelihoods. An age of pandemics, conflict over resources and terrorists equipped with increasingly deadly weapons of mass devastation.
All sound overblown? Most experts in the 1910s, on the eve of the devastating conflict that Europe is remembering again this week, said that a massive war was impossible – the interconnected webs of trade and finance prevented it. Now, as the United Sates retreats from global leadership, the risk of conflict increases. The power vacuum in the Middle Ages in Europe created space for religious fundamentalists, pirates and vandals. Communities fell back on protecting themselves in smaller and smaller units. Einstein suggested that we don't know how the Third World War will be fought. But the Fourth World War would, he predicted, be fought with rocks.
Pessimists also predict that the internet will increase, rather than decrease, inequality. We will have a world in which we prioritise consumer experience over jobs, wages, dignity and rights, with victims yet unseen. The cult of the amateur prevails, culture is dumbed down, trust in authority evaporates. Imagination, idealism and creativity are replaced by economic calculation. Our ability to think is decayed rather than built by the way in which we interact with the internet.
Yet I feel more hopeful. It is sometimes said that a pessimist is an optimist armed with facts. But in fact, it turns out that an optimist is a pessimist armed with facts. The average human lives twice as long and grows six inches taller than our great, great grandparents. We have access to a life that they could never have imagined. As 19th-century English historian Thomas Macaulay, seeing pessimism spreading among his peers, wondered: “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
Extreme poverty has halved in the past 15 years. We are becoming collectively richer, living longer, understanding the world better and dying less of disease, poverty or violence. Sadly, barbarism is all too visible in a 24/7 news cycle that surrounds us with a sense of doom, terror and violence. But in fact it is receding. Before states emerged, war killed more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. In the 20th century, including genocides, it fell to 60. Today it is 0.3. So we are 200 times less likely to die in war than a century ago. This is little consolation to a civilian in Syria, Gaza or Chad, but it is remarkable. We are living in the most peaceful year since records began.
We should also be optimistic because new technology can, in fact, reinvigorate our creativity and politics. The internet brings us greater diversity, choice and opportunities for genuine citizen engagement. Our desire to network and connect is not just a fad or blip, a short-term response to a surge in connectivity. Instead, networking is a natural way to order the world.
Another reason for optimism - we have been here before. Humanity has in the past responded to waves of change and it can do so again. Resilience is in our DNA. We have genuine form, honed over millennia, in solving problems. At key moments, we face a race between transformation and collapse. So far, we have always managed to respond: hunter gatherers turned to domestication; farmers created cities; states created empires. When millions lost their agricultural jobs, nobody knew that they would find industrial work. At some point, my Fletcher ancestors stopped making arrows and adapted to new economic conditions.
Of course, technology will change us, and we will change technology, as we always have. It won’t always be empowering and enlightening. But it can often be if we hold our nerve. Even as we become phono sapiens, we can change the way we communicate without changing what it means to be human.
The countries that can navigate these trends will be those that do three things well. They must innovate relentlessly. They must ensure that policy makers prioritise overall wellbeing rather than just economic statistics. And they must find a way to protect those who lose from technological progress as well as creating space for those who win from it. Easy to say, hard to deliver. The key is to build a programme based not on blind, naive optimism, but on an optimism grounded in the ingenuity and endeavour of the human spirit at its best, and a society that judges its progress by the condition of the most vulnerable not the most successful.
At a similar moment of uncertainty and pessimism, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus urged the population to look forward with hope rather than fear. “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present”.
If we can weaponise reason, we have every reason to be optimistic.