Escaping the “Cult of Pessimism.”

yellow smile in field of blue frownsMy Comments: Is the glass half full, or is it half empty? That’s a classic question, to help determine if someone who answers is optimistic or pessimistic.

Personally, my natural response is to suggest the glass is half full. For me the past is past; the only criteria becomes the present and the future. To which you apply whatever experience and wisdom you possess to create a better outcome for yourself and those around you.

I’m not always successful, but I have few regrets about the life I’ve lived.

By Frank W. Spencer, May 31, 2016

As someone who has worked tirelessly in the field of foresight, innovation and strategy for the better part of the last two decades, I am well aware of the need for everyone of us — no matter what position we occupy in life — to look at the future with a critical eye. This means that we must all be wary of the impact that political decisions, environmental actions, technological inventions and economic systems will have on our collective future. We must be diligent in our fight for a future that gives a voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. And we must not let a select group of individuals create a future that benefits only the wealthy or shamelessly marginalizes those who are “not like us.”

I am also a strong proponent of the optimistic side to thinking critically about the future. As much as we must warn the world about the dangers of a future in which we do not mature as a species, we must also constructively build pathways to the aspirational tomorrows that we desire. This means that we must intentionally and purposefully frame those better futures for all to see in the form of inspiring stories, human-centric technologies, aspirational prototypes, new business models, generative cities, emerging governments, alternative economies and new social architecture. And thankfully, many are doing just that.

However, this optimistic side of critical thinking has gotten a bad reputation over time as being naive and simplistic. And, in its place, many have joined what might be called the “cult of pessimism,” believing that an emphasis on potential negative outcomes is a position of intellectual superiority.

Take a look at just about any news report in both popular and emerging media, and you will see why the cult of pessimism is unrelenting in beating the drums of apocalypse: mass extinction, killer robots, unparalleled economic divide, insect-borne pandemics, physical and digital terrorism, government surveillance, gender inequality, job loss, erosion of human connection, corporate corruption and more. We’re drowning in a sea of pessimistic scenarios.

This is not to say that you can’t find news of amazing progress in health and medicine, new economic systems, social and city development, technological improvements, scientific discoveries, democratized learning, agricultural breakthroughs, etc. It’s just that those transformational advancements don’t tend to excite us. They don’t allow us to feel victimized. They don’t stir the emotions of outrage or fear. And let’s face it — fear still sells.

But anger and fear have a short lifespan, and they fail to really change anything long-term. Once we find something that makes us more angry or more afraid, we divert our attention to that new thing. We use our anger and fear to make short-term decisions and stop-gap measures. Anger and fear can temporarily motivate us, but they don’t inspire transformational thinking and grand solutions.

I’m certainly not saying that the problems I’ve mentioned do not exist, or that we shouldn’t point out their potential near and far-reaching negative implications. As an academically and professionally trained futurist, it is imperative that I take an agnostic approach to every possible outcome if I want to build a useful roadmap to better futures. In other words, acknowledging both the positive and negative alternatives are important if we are going to create a better world.

What I struggle with is understanding why academics, professionals, thought leaders and generally intelligent people think that a locus of pessimism is ever going to lead humanity forward. Critical foresight is most definitely agnostic in its research, but should work to uncover obstructing and immobilizing biases rather than giving into the zeitgeist of the prevailing culture. Critical thinking shouldn’t bend to the emotional narratives of the lowest common denominator that are popularized via the masses on Facebook and Twitter. And intelligent people shouldn’t allow themselves to be manipulated by the popularity of the “in-crowd” message of doom and gloom.

Just as acknowledging possible negative futures doesn’t make someone a pessimist, working to build a culture of optimistic and aspirational transformation does not make someone a naive, pie-in-the-sky utopian. In many ways, the world has been getting better than it was 100, 50 and even 10 years ago. It can get even better if we invest our time and energy in envisioning and building transformational futures rather than wallowing in the quicksand of today’s prevailing pessimism that has disguised itself as intellectualism.

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