radical Insights.

Weekly Research and Commentary on the Future of Business and Technology.

The Vision Still Matters.

Apr 23, 2024

I often wonder if we witnessed the last gasps of American techno-optimism about a decade ago.

Right around that time, “The Martian”—a story of one human’s resolve to “science the shit” out of his otherworldly predicament—was a huge hit at the box office. The idea of a fully interconnected and very online world still seemed like a thing of limitless potential. “Don’t be Evil” was still an official corporate philosophy at Google, and the oohed-and-ahhed over moonshot factory at Google [X] was near the peak of its cultural influence (and mystique) as a technologically-turbocharged problem-solving powerhouse. At least in theory.

Ten years ago, pundits were still talking about the transformative reorientation of a “sharing economy” rather than the grim social implications of gig work. The “millennial lifestyle subsidy” wave had yet to crest and crash, and the hype around lab-grown meat was still, um, cooking.

The press was only just beginning to dig into the fantastical claims of a little biotech startup called Theranos, and we were still a couple of years away from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and still more years from the FTX and Terra fraud meltdowns. It’s hard to believe now, but a decade ago, people were earnestly and favorably comparing Elon Musk to Marvel’s Tony Stark.

In other words, we had a long way to go—most of it down—to reach the skepticism-bordering-on-cynicism with which many today regard the idea of new technologies and technologically-enabled solutions to hard problems. Some of that skepticism is certainly warranted, and it can also be a good and useful posture aligned with that of the renowned roboticist (and sometimes tech-skeptic) Rodney Brooks. “Hope is a scarce thing,” he writes, “we shouldn’t squander it.”

True enough.

And yet, we should be careful not to throw our optimism regarding transformative solutions out with our former faith in tech as rendered by Silicon Valley. The default assumption that we can’t solve big problems might be even more dangerous than the blind faith that we can. That assumption of impossibility can ossify into a limiting and self-defeating worldview in a world that’s only becoming more urgently in need of bold solutions that might take advantage of new tools and new possibilities.

All of this has been on my mind since a conversation I had a few weeks ago with Danielle Stevenson, an applied environmental scientist whose work and research focuses on mycoremediation—processes using the power of fungi to decontaminate and restore polluted and damaged environments. Everything I learned about her work was fascinating and to my mind, quite inspiring and hopeful. But one thing she told me stuck out: An unexpected challenge to getting projects off the ground was the simple disbelief that anything could be done to restore some of the environments. The default assumption was a narrative of degradation and ruin that only ran one way and toward one end. Making any progress at all first required a belief that progress could be made—and an openness to the vision of a wildly different future.

This definitely struck a chord. And it’s left me wondering about our collective openness to positive visions as a society—and about the potential solutions we might forfeit with skepticism as our cultural default. I’m wondering if we can learn our way toward a resilient sort of pragmatic optimism regarding the future and back to a recognition that the vision still matters.