I think we've been deprived of a lot more than flying cars and Mars colonies.
I think civilization is currently burdened by a debilitating pessimism.
Not just prophecies of doom, because they've always existed.
The term technological fix has become as pejorative as luddite used to be.
The aspiration for technological solutions is now widely regarded as naive, a fantasy that
ignores the inevitability of missteps and side effects.
And that naivety is labeled optimism, because optimism has come to mean something like
the assumption that the best will happen, or probably will, and pessimism that the worst will.
They're both false, as general principles, no one adopts them.
They're irrationalities that people accuse each other of having, and everyone classifies
themselves as somewhere in the middle, perhaps admitting to a slight bias in one direction
or the other, and therefore admitting to slight irrationality.
In fact, both ends of the spectrum and the middle are predictions of success or failure,
maybe probabilistic, derived only from an attitude or a principle, not from explanations
of why reality should match them, and prediction without explanation is prophecy.
Conventional pessimism is right that civilization has no guaranteed future.
The overwhelming majority of civilizations and species that have ever existed on our
extinct, including significantly, every one of our cousin species, every species that has
ever tried to survive by creating knowledge that was not in their genome, how to make clothes
and fire and farming, and to live the new ways of life that that enabled.
That is our biological niche to survive through the exercise of creativity, and we are
We conquer problems by creating knowledge or they conquer us.
So there's nothing new in our situation of all sorts of existential danger.
It's undeniable that the worst can happen because the very worst has already happened
many times, all those civilizations who believed that their famines and droughts and disasters
were divine punishment for their wickedness or whatever.
In reality, it was just that they didn't know enough about irrigation, medicine and
so on if the ancient Athenians had known about antibiotics or just about hygiene, they
could have prevented the plague that contributed to the fall of their nascent optimistic
If they had, then as Carl Sagan speculated, we might now be at the stars and technology
would be regulating trivialities like the planetary climate as automatically as it's
We know that's possible because of a momentous dichotomy that follows directly from
the rejection of the supernatural, namely every transformation of physical systems that
is not forbidden by laws of physics is achievable given the right knowledge.
And hence, the rational attitude to the future is what I call optimism, the principle
of optimism, namely that all evils are caused by lack of knowledge.
That isn't a prophecy of success, it's an explanation for failure.
If we fail at anything that's physically possible, it's because of some knowledge that
Admittedly, some of the dangers that we currently foresee are themselves side effects
But trying to slow that down won't help because what do you slow down?
In 1900, no one could possibly have foreseen that research in pure physics into the
esoteric properties of the element uranium would within 50 years become the centerpiece
of everyone's existential fear, or that another half century later, the centerpiece
In our future too, the greatest dangers will inevitably be unforeseen.
And the only type of knowledge that's capable of dealing with those is fundamental knowledge
Any area of fundamental research could suddenly become essential to our survival, biology
We also need knowledge of how to structure human institutions to retain the miraculous property
of keeping civilization stable under rapid change, traditions of criticism and error correction,
and we need wealth, meaning the ability to deploy technology in practice.
The world doesn't just contain optimists and pessimists, and wise and unwise technology
It contains enemies of civilization as well, and knowledge is impartial.
It can be used for good or evil, but the enemies of civilization all necessarily have
And so they fear error correction and truth, and that's why they resist changes in their
ideas, which makes them less creative and slower to innovate.
So our defense against the existential danger from malevolent uses of technology is speed.
The good guys must use their only advantage to stay ahead.