Optimism or Bust

January 1st, 2009 | Posted by paul in Uncategorized

I was just released from the hospital yesterday after having my gallbladder removed. This followed several months of debilitating pain that was difficult to diagnose.  I will write about this in more detail later, but today, the first day of 2009, I wanted to pass along some good ideas to kick start 2009.

First I’d like to quote extensively from Alex Steffan over at Worldchanging.

The first is from the highly acclaimed Worldchanging book:

Optimism is a political act.

Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.

Optimism, by contrast, especially optimism which is neither foolish nor silent, can be revolutionary. Where no one believes in a better future, despair is a logical choice, and people in despair almost never change anything. Where no one believes a better solution is possible, those benefiting from the continuation of a problem are safe. Where no one believes in the possibility of action, apathy becomes an insurmountable obstacle to reform. But introduce intelligent reasons for believing that action is possible, that better solutions are available, and that a better future can be built, and you unleash the power of people to act out of their highest principles. Shared belief in a better future is the strongest glue there is: it creates the opportunity for us to love one another, and love is an explosive force in politics. Great movements for social change always begin with statements of great optimism.


More from Alex in his post titled, The Apocalypse Makes Us Dumb:

Courtesy of fear-mongering=money Hollywood, we have the following largely false precepts:

1) The Apocalypse is coming. There is a tendency to believe that big, catastrophic and singular events are going to come and destroy everything: that the Bird Flu or whatever is going to suddenly happen and immediately life will be hell. (The funniest example of this is climate change in The Day After Tomorrow, where sea level rise is so sudden that water rushes down the streets of New York in great rolling waves.)

2) The Apocalypse is forever. In disaster movies and such, people seem to lack the ability to regroup and rebuild.

3) The Apocalypse is everywhere. In the movies, collapse makes the whole world a wasteland. Everything crashes and burns; everyone dies; knowledge and law are driven entirely from the planet, or at very least confined to some very distant semi-mythical outpost paradise for which the survivors year

But reality is quite different from this. In reality, even the worst large-scale disasters come in variable speeds; in even the worst disasters, effects are uneven, with some places devastated and others left only mildly scathed; and in almost all disasters, rebuilding begins almost immediately (even the Black Death killing a third to half of the population didn’t put much of dent in Europe’s evolution — indeed some argue it accelerated trade and innovation).

In reality, in a disaster those with the largest stable group and the highest degree of cooperation come out on top, and, in fact, it is often those places which are best governed and most socially coherent that assist other places in the rebuilding… and those hard-hit places are generally quite receptive to good ideas for putting the pieces back together.

Because the intelligent response to looming crisis is a mix of all-out efforts toward prevention and widespread societal preparation. It’s foresight, planning and cooperation, good investments and strong public service capacities. The smart move, when you’re worried about the end of the world end, is to change it.


Alex then makes some insightful comments in his post Lazy Dystopia’s, which echoes much of what I’ve been saying for years:

Why is the dystopian future always literally dark? Why is it always raining or overcast? Why is the architecture always a mix of hyper-modernism, brutalism and squatter slum? Why is the politics always so transparently totalitarian, so fascist-plus-rebels? Why is it so retro and abstract?

Why doesn’t the dystopian vision ever include sunshine and children playing in its ruins? Why does it not include the constant, untiring efforts of most people to do what they can with what they have to improve their situations? Why are most people in the dystopian future always powerless to change anything? I could go on, but you get the point.

Jason Stoddard proclaims the need for speculative fiction that is strange and happy:

The world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve read about active corneal overlays for augmented reality and Russian chatbots good enough to pass simple Turing tests (and immediately being used for sex chat.) Where we live is getting strange. But this doesn’t mean it’s a dystopia, or that we’ll be bowing to evil corporate overlords whose only mission statement is to rape the planet, or that we’ll have mind control installed against our will, or that we’ll all die because of climate change or slowing economic growth or whatever the cause du jour is. So why can’t we be strange–and happy?

As I commented to Alex Steffan today:

I believe the current and extended dark spell got it’s start in the early Rea years of 1981-82, with movies like Blade Runner and Mad Max, and was further exacerbated by the works of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling who cemented us into Legacy Futures (courtesy Jamais Cascio) of dystopian cyberpunk and steampunk dead ends. This dystopian way of thinking became so pervasive, that even Star Trek started it’s irreversible decline toward bleak dystopianism with the advent of Deep Space Nine shortly after Roddenberry died.

Alex adds to this sentiment and says

The fault lies with a few other people as well, including Ridley Scott, Alan Moore, William Gibson, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Masamune Shirow. Scott brought us “Blade Runner,” and pioneered a vision of the future that used postmodern pastiche not as a clever device (as in Nouvelle Vogue films like “Week-end”), but as a worldbuilding tool. In the same year “Blade Runner” was released, Moore published “V for Vendetta,” and followed it up with “Watchmen” four years later. Both stories feature totalitarian regimes infecting previously-democratic societies and exacerbating systemic poverty and oppression. The result is a bricolage aesthetic of mingled opulence and detritus. But you could say the same about Gibson’s novels from the same decade, as well as Otomo’s and Shirow’s manga — “Blade Runner,” “V for Vendetta,” and the “Akira” manga all came out in the same year, and since then, anyone dealing with dystopian futures has struggled with the glorious burden of that heritage.

Alex made a point of talking to Syd Mead, the designer who did much of the worldbuilding for the movie Bladerunner.

I asked him this very question: what would it take to make a movie of Bladerunner’s imaginative power, set in a positive future? He paused for a second and said he thought it’d be very difficult, that catharsis is so important to people, and people are so terrified of the future, that you’d need some completely new vision of what the future will look like to even set the scene for a new narrative… and that is obviously no mean feat.

Most science fiction sucks, as Norman Spinrad said, precisely because it’s too lazy to imagine let alone devise workable solutions to how these futures can either be diverted or ameliorated should we find ourselves in them. This pessimistic malaise that afflicts so many otherwise intelligent thinkers continues to motivate me today to keep writing, inspiring and working towards better solutions.  As Spinrad says,

‘What’s wrong with science fiction is part of the same damn crisis, and I’m not kidding. What’s wrong with science fiction ultimately is an aspect of what’s wrong with conglomerate corporate capitalism, the publishing part, because in terms of how many good books are being written every year, there’s nothing wrong. The last ten years, there are 20 or 30 good-to-great novels every year, and you really can’t complain. The problem is, they’re buried in an avalanche of cynical commercial crap. That’s a dysfunction of the publishing industry, and it affects what writers write.

”There’s another thing wrong with science fiction, and I think it comes from the culture too. How much science fiction is being published now that’s set in worlds that are better than ours? Not that have bigger shopping malls or faster space ships, but where the characters are morally superior, where the society works better, is more just? Not many. It becomes difficult to do it, and that’s a feedback relationship with what’s happening in the culture, with science fiction being the minor note. People don’t credit it anymore! Not just better gizmos and more virtual reality gear, but better societies. People don’t believe the future will be a better place. And that is very scary.

‘Providing hope is something science fiction should be doing. It sounds arrogant to say it, but if we don’t do it, who the hell will? One of the social functions of science fiction is to be visionary, and when science fiction isn’t being visionary, it hurts the culture’s visionary sense. And when the culture isn’t receptive, neither is science fiction. It’s a downward spiral.’

Alex concludes and says, “We may be at the turning point, however, if other readers are feeling the same sense of saturation that you are.”

I think we are.  During the Depression, people didn’t go to the movies to see more downers, they went to see the grand musicals and spectacles to uplift and inspire them. If recent box office failures like the dreadfully bad remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still are any indicator, Hollywood better get their asses in gear and start making bright, green, optimistic, and convincing stories of the future if they to continue getting movie goers.

I think we are long overdo for a radical change in narrative.  We have a new president on the way, and problems that can be solved now if we are willing to work our asses off to make them a reality.


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