We have a set of novelty glasses in our house on which are etched the Italian words “Ottimista” and “Pessimista”; the glasses are split across the middle by a line, with the first above the line, the second below it. These are truly “glass half-full” glasses.

It turns out that whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about communication and information technology might also describe you in another way. A recent article in the New York Times talks about how new information technologies are viewed over time, from writing itself to the printing press to the handheld calculator to Twitter. In the article, futurist Paul Saffo (why do futurists always have cool names?) is quoted as saying he can divide the technology world into two kinds of people: engineers and natural scientists.

. . . the world outlook of the engineer is by nature optimistic. Every problem can be solved if you have the right tools and enough time and you pose the correct questions. Other people, who can be just as scientific, see the natural order of the world in terms of entropy, decline and death.

(“There are two kinds of people in this world — those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” — Robert Benchley)

The Times article does a nice job of illustrating how technologies save time and free our minds, but also fill the newly acquired time with new distractions and amusements. Armed with cell phones, email devices, and Google, we push aside mundane activities and fill the “found” time with entertainment and diversions. We are human. We’re a little nuts.

It would be interesting to profile our audiences as technophiles or technophobes, as optimists or pessimists, as engineers or natural scientists. I wonder if a meta-analysis of adoption rates between domains (IEEE comparing uptake of technologies with FASEB, for instance), would reveal differences.

Or are these people just spouting optimism?

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


4 Thoughts on "Optimists and Technology"

If you take a look at the recent science fiction written by those who (almost by definition) technology optimists, you will see that in fact they are writing fairly dark tales. One case in point is Cory Doctorow’s most recent work, Little Brother. Even Vernor Vinge, professor emeritus in the field of computer science as well as award-winning science fiction writer, saw both the up- and the down-sides to the technological environment he saw being created. (As an example, go read his novella, True Names, a work that has influenced geeks and engineers for decades.)

I personally prefer to see myself as someone who likes playing with the new tools of technology, but not one who thinks they represent a panacea for all of our problems in this industry and outside of it.

I agree, writers are likely to write stories that illuminate both sides of an issue. Stories aren’t much fun without conflict or dramatic tension. However, I think both Cory Doctorow and Vernor Vinge, in their personal lives, are likely technology optimists. I can’t prove this, but a professor of computer science? He’s gotta be an optimist!!

When engineers write the history of technology, they only write about the successes, giving us a false impression that technology solves problems. (Remember that most technological innovations are never brought to light, of those that make it, most are never adopted.)

A naturalist, on the other hand, views the world in terms of both successes AND failures. Those technologies that have been adopted are done so because society was ready to adopt them, not because technology drives what people adopt.

In sum, ignore the engineers, and scorn the futurists. Look what irrational exuberance has gotten our economy into!

Kent, are those rose-colored glasses in your matched set? 🙂

I imagine a diorama similar to your set of glasses: Pollyanna on the left, Cassandra on the right, arguing with each other about whether to open Pandora’s Box in the middle.

I agree with Jill, there is a lot of dark stuff in recent science fiction and fantasy. The dystopian view is also certainly reflected in a number of movies (starting with Blade Runner and as recently as the latest Batman movie — which I haven’t yet seen). I’ll admit that I don’t like reading/watching this. Which probably says something about me.

But now that several F&SF magazines are on the Kindle, I somehow don’t feel so bad about skipping those stories.

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