Solutionism: ratcheting towards a much better world…

Debates about technology and progress are often framed in terms of “optimism” vs. “pessimism.”

The constant drumbeat of “the world is coming to an end” has the strange effect of simultaneously causing me to think that might be true while also demoralizing me from doing anything about it. I also believe (inconsistently I guess with the prior statement) that the world is as good as it has ever been and is only getting better. Sort of the whole Progress Studies spiel/rhetoric.

Jason Crawford (author of The Roots of Progress, a website about the history of technology and industry) wrote a cool historical case study looking at times when commenters have predicted their would be an imminent crisis in producing enough food to feed everyone. The contingent alarmism and unexpected innovations that confounded pessimistic and optimistic forecasters show how a “solutionism” mindset can temper optimistic complacency with pessimism and pessimistic defeatistism with optimism.

The risk of adopting an “optimistic” or “pessimistic” mindset is the temptation to take sides on an issue depending on a general mood, rather than forming an opinion based on the facts of the case. “Don’t worry,” says the optimist; “accept hardship,” counters the pessimist…

To embrace both the reality of problems and the possibility of overcoming them, we should be fundamentally neither optimists nor pessimists, but solutionists.

Solutionism sort of acts as a ratchet mechanism towards a better future. We still have to work hard to apply force but once you push past the next “click,” you can work towards the next one from a position of security. Rather than yo-yoing between unbridled optimism and pessimism, we can crank along acknowledging the difficulty of progress while feeling confident that we can figure out the next thing too.

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