Feb 18Liked by Dave Karpf


Techno-optimism is just another form of gaslighting to amass and consolidate wealth and power. Pragmatism isn't sexy....it's not a glitzy media story...Wall Street can't package it as the Second Coming.

It lacks all the bells and whistles we've been conditioned to expect. It simply has the benefit of working.

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Feb 18·edited Feb 18Liked by Dave Karpf

"What bugs me about this line of reasoning (which Kevin Kelly echoed just last year in his TED talk, “The future will be shaped by optimists”) is how sure it is of its conclusions."

Yes, optimism shapes the world, but it may result in dystopian disasters. Many people forget that nazism offered people hope, and it had a thoroughly 'positive' streak, heaven-on-earth like. It also had a very nihilistic side, but not so much at the start. When optimists fail, they may react strongly and nihilism seems a logical reaction, the angry reaction to a (expected) paradise that is lost. Pessimists already assume things will fail, so no big reaction at failure, but when something goes well nonetheless, they are surprised and relieved.

So, yes, optimists shape the future, but not in the way they expect.

Both optimists and pessimists are essentially shallow, 'quick'. Realism — especially accepting uncertainties — is not our forte as humans. And it definitely doesn't sell well.

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From a good book by Cheryl Misak (who, unlike Menand, is a philosopher) called THE AMERICAN PRAGMATISTS: "While Menand is to be thanked for amassing a rich collection of historical detail about the pragmatists and portraying their personalities so well, his story is philosophically misguided." (p. 2)

This is not to say that Menand isn't worth reading: he is a great introduction, and he really does a good job of painting the historical context. But if you want to understand the philosophy of the Pragmatists, you'll have to dig further. (Misak is a good second book.)

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Feb 18Liked by Dave Karpf

"Isn’t it just as plausible that, if you think things are getting better, you will grab everything you can, guilt-free, confident that a rising tide will inevitably lift all boats?"

Timothy Snyder calls this "the politics of inevitability". He identifies this with neoliberalism (if democracy is, as Thatcher claimed, "the only alternative", then we don't have to do anything special to bring it about or maintain it), but also dialectical Marxism (the course of future history is constrained to follow a fixed sequence of steps; we can hasten or retard this progression but not alter it.) An important element of this politics is the belief that history is ordained by vast structural forces and that consequentially individual action is irrelevant. All this is contrasted with "the politics of eternity" which I won't get into here, except to dumb down to the politics of fascism.

The pragmatic view he paints in light of this is that, while the scope of individual action is of course constrained by circumstances, nothing happens without individual agents making it happen. We all have the opportunity and also the duty to shape the future, a little bit. In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he remarks that IR theorists expected Zelenskyy to cut and run. When he publicly stated that he expected the opposite, he was politely but uniformly contradicted ("while I respect the work that professor Snyder has done" etc.) He unkindly but probably accurately says that there was a simple reason why they thought Zelenskyy would run: it is what they would have done. If you believe in the politics of inevitability, it is the only rational thing to do. How can one individual oppose cosmic structural forces? But when he asked Zelenskyy about this, the reply was "I couldn't have run and remained the same person." There's a lesson there, I think.

On an unrelated note, have you been reading Manu Saadia's substack "Against Mars", on the techbro dream of extraterresrial colonization? I recommend it.

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Feb 27Liked by Dave Karpf

Been reading your exploration of late and this recent item from MIT Technology Review sort of seems to add to your exploration?


I must confess that I still haven’t found my comfort seat between the optimism and the tempered realism … (the will to bend reality with the power of the will is really seducing story no? Shelley and Ozymandias always come to mind…)

Best rr

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I think optimism of this kind is not temperamental. It is ideological. It is why most of the Davos set love someone like Steven Pinker arguing that the world is getting better all the time and that for the most part that doesn't even take deliberate effort--or all it takes is powerful heads of state and corporations just doing their thing. People become optimists as they ascend to the top of oligarchic social hierarchies. People are planners and pragmatists when they're part of the professional and managerial classes who have to actually do the work that keeps the world running, unless they're auditioning to be the court jester for the optimists at the top of the pyramid.

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How about picking up a copy of WIthout Marx, WIthout Jesus. It describes the US in the 1950s and 1960s, before the ideological rot set in. It's from the era of Servan-Schreiber's American Challenge. Back then, the US was pragmatic. If there was a problem or challenge, it was dealt with directly, without ideological blinders. If a market solution would work, the Americans would use a market solution. If the solution required government control and intervention, then the government would intervene and control. The book was all about how the US became a superpower by avoiding all the smelly ideologies that were competing for men's souls.

The US changed a lot starting in the 1970s and adopted an ineffective and even harmful market ideology that almost immediately crushed productivity growth and ended the long period of rising living standards. That's why I like your idea of return to pragmatism. Look at things for what they are. Techno-optimists are big on expanding the possibilities, but then crushing them for a big payday. New technologies can raise living standards, but so often it requires a violent movement for those benefits as with the Chartists and the union movement.

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