Got optimism?

The Edge question for 2007 is “What are you optimistic about?
It’s an important question in an era where many are fearful.

Are we worrying too much?
For example, these thoughts from WorldChanging sum a common feeling of worry.

As a general principle, it seems that the older we are, the more difficulty we have wrapping our brains around the truly alarming timetable accelerations we’re now being given by experts in everything from climate change to species loss to poverty alleviation.

To put it simply, things are getting worse more quickly than we thought, and much more quickly than we’re making things better.

Prospects of planetary collapse we once thought native to the next century, or the century after that, are looming as possibilities for the next decade or two.

Things are spiraling seriously downwards, so we need to change our thinking and move with a speed unseen since World War Two.

Can our projections be wrong?
Nassim Taleb sees a more optimistic future, and it depends on randomness. As one of Taleb’s dedicated fans, Arlene Goldfarb might say, our future is chaos coagulating into life. I’ve posted about Nassim Taleb’s popular work in probability and randomness, author of Fooled By Randomness and the Black Swan.

Taleb’s essay at the Edge warns us, once again, to be very cautious about our trust in projections about our future. Taleb says,

“Alas, we are victims of the narrative fallacy. The pattern-seeking, causality producing machine in us blinds us with illusions of order in spite of our horrifying past forecast errors.”

Experts are seldom accurate
As if we are growing suspicious simultaneously, Marc Andreessen asserts similar caution. Experts too often are wrong. He recommends Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? as one of the most important books you’ll ever read.

Madame Charlatania at Bolinas FaireCiting the following review of Tetlock’s book, Andreessen warns us that we are witnessing the downfall of “the whole edifice of expert forecasting and the idea that the future is predictable in any meaningful way at all.

From the New Yorker review:
It is the somewhat gratifying lesson of Philip Tetlock’s new book that people who make prediction their business — people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables — are no better than the rest of us.

When experts and pundits are wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it.

We should learn to expect the unexpected
Against the grain, as usual, Taleb’s essay argues for optimism.

I am convinced that the future of America is rosier than people claim — I’ve been hearing about its imminent decline ever since I started reading. Take the following puzzle. Whenever you hear or read a snotty European presenting his stereotypes about Americans, he will often describe them as “uncultured”, “unintellectual” and “poor in math” because, unlike his peers, they are not into equation drills and the constructions middlebrows people call “high culture”. Yet the person making these statements will be likely to be addicted to his Ipod, wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, and using Microsoft Word to jot down his “cultural” statements on his (Intel) PC, with some Google searches on the Internet here and there interrupting his composition. Well, it so happened that the U.S. is currently far, far more tinkering an environment than that of these nations of museum goers and equation solvers — in spite of the perceived weakness of the educational system, which allows the bottom-up uncertainty-driven trial-and-error system to govern it, whether in technology or in business.

It fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional and theoretical studies is where it very strength lies — it produces “doers”, Black Swan hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, or others with a tolerance for risk-taking which attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners. And globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas, that is, the scalable and fat-tailed part of the products, and, increasingly, by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable and more linear components and assign them to someone in more mathematical and “cultural” states happy to be paid by the hour and work on other people’s ideas. (I hold, against the current Adam Smith-style discourse in economics, that the American undirected free-enterprise works because it aggressively allows to capture the randomness of the environment — “cheap options”— not much because of competition and certainly less because of material incentives. Neither the followers of Adam Smith, nor to some extent, those of Karl Marx, seem to be conscious about the role of wild randomness. They are too bathed in enlightenment-style causation and cannot separate skills and payoffs.)

The world is giving us more options,
and options benefit from uncertainty.