Pessimist Definition Essays

Pessimism is a mental attitude. Pessimists anticipate undesirable outcomes from a given situation, which is generally referred to as situational pessimism, or believe that undesirable things are going to happen to them in life more than desirable ones. Pessimists also tend to focus on the negatives of life in general or a given situation. The most common example of this phenomenon is the "Is the glass half empty or half full?" situation. In this situation a pessimist is said to see the glass as half empty while an optimist is said to see the glass as half full. Throughout history, the pessimistic disposition has had effects on all major areas of thinking.[1]

Philosophical pessimism is the related idea that views the world in a strictly anti-optimistic fashion. This form of pessimism is not an emotional disposition as the term commonly connotes. Instead, it is a philosophy or worldview that directly challenges the notion of progress and what may be considered the faith-based claims of optimism. Philosophical pessimists are often existential nihilists believing that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. Their responses to this condition, however, are widely varied and often life-affirming.


The term pessimism derives from the Latin word pessimus meaning 'the worst'. It was first used by Jesuit critics of Voltaire's 1759 novel 'Candide, ou l'Optimisme'. Voltaire was satirizing the philosophy of Leibniz who maintained that this was the 'best (optimum) of all possible worlds'. In their attacks on Voltaire, the Jesuits of the Revue de Trévoux accused him of pessimisme.[2]

Philosophical pessimism[edit]

Philosophical pessimism is not a state of mind or a psychological disposition, but rather it is a worldview or ethic that seeks to face up to the distasteful realities of the world and eliminate irrational hopes and expectations (such as the Idea of Progress and religious faith) which may lead to undesirable outcomes. Ideas which prefigure philosophical pessimism can be seen in ancient texts such as the Dialogue of Pessimism and Ecclesiastes (which maintains that everything is hevel, literally 'vapor' or 'breath', but could also mean 'senseless' and 'absurd'.)

In Western philosophy, philosophical pessimism is not a single coherent movement, but rather a loosely associated group of thinkers with similar ideas and a family resemblance to each other.[3] In Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit, Joshua Foa Dienstag outlines the main propositions shared by most philosophical pessimists as "that time is a burden; that the course of history is in some sense ironic; that freedom and happiness are incompatible; and that human existence is absurd."[4]

Philosophical pessimists see the self-consciousness of man as bound up with his consciousness of time and that this leads to greater suffering than mere physical pain. While many organisms live in the present, humans and certain species of animals can contemplate the past and future, and this is an important difference. Human beings have foreknowledge of their own eventual fate and this "terror" is present in every moment of our lives as a reminder of the impermanent nature of life and of our inability to control this change.[5]

The philosophical pessimistic view of the effect of historical progress tends to be more negative than positive. The philosophical pessimist does not deny that certain areas like science can "progress" but they deny that this has resulted in an overall improvement of the human condition. In this sense it could be said that the pessimist views history as ironic; while seemingly getting better, it is mostly in fact not improving at all, or getting worse.[6] This is most clearly seen in Rousseau's critique of enlightenment civil society and his preference for man in the primitive and natural state. For Rousseau, "our souls have become corrupted to the extent that our sciences and our arts have advanced towards perfection".[7]

The pessimistic view of the human condition is that it is in a sense "absurd". Absurdity is seen as an ontological mismatch between our desire for meaning and fulfillment and our inability to find or sustain those things in the world, or as Camus puts it: "a divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting".[8] The idea that rational thought would lead to human flourishing can be traced to Socrates and is at the root of most forms of western optimistic philosophies. Pessimism turns the idea on its head, it faults the human freedom to reason as the feature that misaligned humanity from our world and sees it as the root of human unhappiness.[9]

The responses to this predicament of the human condition by pessimists are varied. Some philosophers, mainly Schopenhauer, recommend a form of resignation and self-denial (which he saw exemplified in Indian religions). Some followers tend to believe that "expecting the worst leads to the best." Rene Descartes even believed that life was better if emotional reactions to "negative" events were removed. Others like Nietzsche, Leopardi and Camus respond with a more life-affirming view, what Nietzsche called a "Dionysian pessimism", an embrace of life as it is in all of its constant change and suffering, without appeal to progress or hedonistic calculus. Albert Camus indicated that the common responses to the absurdity of life are often: Suicide, a leap of faith (as per Kierkegaard's knight of faith), or recognition/rebellion. Camus rejected all but the last option as unacceptable and inauthentic responses.[8]

Philosophical pessimism has often been tied to the arts and literature. Schopenhauer's philosophy was very popular with composers (Wagner, Brahms and Mahler).[10] Several philosophical pessimists also wrote novels or poetry (Camus and Leopardi respectively). A distinctive literary form which has been associated with pessimism is aphoristic writing, and this can be seen in Leopardi, Nietzsche and Cioran. Writers which could be said to express pessimistic views in their works or to be influenced by pessimistic philosophers include Miguel de Cervantes, Lord Byron, Charles Baudelaire, Gottfried Benn, Sadegh Hedayat, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, Charles Bukowski, Thomas Mann, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Mihai Eminescu, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Cormac McCarthy, Samuel Beckett, Dino Buzzati, Jorge Luis Borges, H. P. Lovecraft, Michel Houellebecq, Thomas Ligotti, Thomas Bernhard and Camilo Pessanha.

Notable proponents[edit]

Ancient Greeks[edit]

In Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the pre-socratic philosophers such as Anaximander, Heraclitus (called 'the weeping philosopher') and Parmenides represented a classical form of pessimism. Nietzsche saw Anaximander's philosophy as the "enigmatic proclamation of a true pessimist". Similarly, of Heraclitus' philosophy of flux and strife he wrote:

[Heraclitus] denied the duality of totally diverse worlds—a position which Anaximander had been compelled to assume. He no longer distinguished a physical world from a metaphysical one, a realm of definite qualities from an undefinable "indefinite." And after this first step, nothing could hold him back from a second, far bolder negation: he altogether denied being. For this one world which he retained [ . . . ] nowhere shows a tarrying, an indestructibility, a bulwark in the stream. Louder than Anaximander, Heraclitus proclaimed: "I see nothing other than becoming. Be not deceived. It is the fault of your short-sightedness, not of the essence of things, if you believe you see land somewhere in the ocean of becoming and passing-away. You use names for things as though they rigidly, persistently endured; yet even the stream into which you step a second time is not the one you stepped into before." The Birth of Tragedy. 5, pp. 51–52

Another Greek expressed a form of pessimism in his philosophy: the ancient Cyrenaic philosopher Hegesias (290 BCE). Like later pessimists, Hegesias argued that lasting happiness is impossible to achieve and that all we can do is to try to avoid pain as much as possible.

Complete happiness cannot possibly exist; for that the body is full of many sensations, and that the mind sympathizes with the body, and is troubled when that is troubled, and also that fortune prevents many things which we cherished in anticipation; so that for all these reasons, perfect happiness eludes our grasp.[11]

Hegesias held that all external objects, events and actions are indifferent to the wise man, even death: "for the foolish person it is expedient to live, but to the wise person it is a matter of indifference".[11] According to Cicero, Hegesias wrote a book called Death by Starvation, which supposedly persuaded many people that death was more desirable than life. Because of this, Ptolemy II Philadelphus banned Hegesias from teaching in Alexandria.[12]

From the 3rd century BCE, Stoicism propounded as an exercise "the premeditation of evils" — concentration on worst possible outcomes.[13]

Baltasar Gracián[edit]

Baltasar Gracián (1601–1658) was Schopenhauer's favorite author and Gracián's novel El Criticón was his favorite book[citation needed]. Schopenhauer's pessimistic outlook was influenced by Gracián, and he translated Gracián's The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence into German. He praised Gracián for his aphoristic writing style (conceptismo) and often quoted him in his works.[14] Gracian's novel El Criticón (The Critic) is an extended allegory of the human search for happiness which turns out to be fruitless on this Earth. The Critic paints a bleak and desolate picture of the human condition. His Pocket Oracle was a book of aphorisms on how to live in what he saw as a world filled with deception, duplicity and disillusionment.[15]


Voltaire was the first European to be labeled as a pessimist[citation needed] due to his critique of Alexander Pope's optimistic "An Essay on Man", and Leibniz' affirmation that "we live in the best of all possible worlds." Voltaire's novel Candide is an extended criticism of theistic optimism and his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster is especially pessimistic about the state of mankind and the nature of God. Though himself a Deist, Voltaire argued against the existence of a compassionate personal God through his interpretation of the problem of evil.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau[edit]

The major themes of philosophical pessimism were first presented by Rousseau and he has been called "the patriarch of pessimism".[16] For Rousseau, humans in their "natural goodness" have no sense of self-consciousness in time and thus are happier than humans corrupted by society. Rousseau saw the movement out of the state of nature as the origin of inequality and mankind's lack of freedom. The wholesome qualities of man in his natural state, a non-destructive love of self and compassion are gradually replaced by amour propre, a self-love driven by pride and jealousy of his fellow man. Because of this, modern man lives "always outside himself", concerned with other men, the future and external objects. Rousseau also blames the human faculty of "perfectibility" and human language for tearing us away from our natural state by allowing us to imagine a future in which we are different than what we are now and therefore making us appear inadequate to ourselves (and thus 'perfectible').[17]

Rousseau saw the evolution of modern society as the replacement of natural egalitarianism by alienation and class distinction enforced by institutions of power. Thus The Social Contract opens with the famous phrase "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." Even the ruling classes are not free, in fact for Rousseau they are "greater slaves" because they require more esteem from others to rule and must therefore constantly live "outside themselves".

Giacomo Leopardi[edit]

Though a lesser known figure outside Italy, Giacomo Leopardi was highly influential in the 19th century, especially for Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.[18] In Leopardi's darkly comic essays, aphorisms, fables and parables, life is often described as a sort of divine joke or mistake. According to Leopardi, because of our conscious sense of time and our endless search for truth, the human desire for happiness can never be truly satiated and joy cannot last. Leopardi claims that "Therefore they greatly deceive themselves, [those] who declare and preach that the perfection of man consists in knowledge of the truth and that all his woes proceed from false opinions and ignorance, and that the human race will at last be happy, when all or most people come to know the truth, and solely on the grounds of that arrange and govern their lives."[19] Furthermore, Leopardi believes that for man it is not possible to forget truth and that "it is easier to rid oneself of any habit before that of philosophizing."

Leopardi's response to this condition is to face up to these realities and try to live a vibrant and great life, to be risky and take up uncertain tasks. This uncertainty makes life valuable and exciting but does not free us from suffering, it is rather an abandonment of the futile pursuit of happiness. He uses the example of Christopher Columbus who went on a dangerous and uncertain voyage and because of this grew to appreciate life more fully.[20] Leopardi also sees the capacity of humans to laugh at their condition as a laudable quality that is able to help us deal with our predicament. For Leopardi: "He who has the courage to laugh is master of the world, much like him who is prepared to die."

Arthur Schopenhauer[edit]

Arthur Schopenhauer's pessimism comes from his elevating of Will above reason as the mainspring of human thought and behavior. The Will is the ultimate metaphysical animating noumenon and it is futile, illogical and directionless striving. Schopenhauer sees reason as weak and insignificant compared to Will; in one metaphor, Schopenhauer compares the human intellect to a lame man who can see, but who rides on the shoulder of the blind giant of Will.[21] Schopenhauer saw human desires as impossible to satisfy. He pointed to motivators such as hunger, thirst and sexuality as the fundamental features of the Will in action, which are always by nature unsatisfactory.

All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is really and essentially always negative only, and never positive. It is not a gratification which comes to us originally and of itself, but it must always be the satisfaction of a wish. For desire, that is to say, want [or will], is the precedent condition of every pleasure; but with the satisfaction, the desire and therefore the pleasure cease; and so the satisfaction or gratification can never be more than deliverance from a pain, from a want. — The world as will and representation, pg 319

Schopenhauer notes that once satiated, the feeling of satisfaction rarely lasts and we spend most of our lives in a state of endless striving, in this sense, we are, deep down nothing but Will. Even the moments of satisfaction, when repeated often enough, only lead to boredom and thus human existence is constantly swinging "like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents".[22] This ironic cycle eventually allows us to see the inherent vanity at the truth of existence (nichtigkeit) and to realize that "the purpose of our existence is not to be happy".[23]

Moreover, the business of biological life is a war of all against all filled with constant physical pain and distress, not merely unsatisfied desires. There is also the constant dread of death on the horizon to consider, which makes human life worse than animals. Reason only compounds our suffering by allowing us to realize that biology's agenda is not something we would have chosen had we been given a choice, but it is ultimately helpless to prevent us from serving it.[21]

Schopenhauer saw in artistic contemplation a temporary escape from the act of willing. He believed that through "losing yourself" in art one could sublimate the Will. However, he believed that only a resignation from the pointless striving of the will to life through a form of asceticism (as those practiced by eastern monastics and by "saintly persons") could free oneself from the Will altogether.

Friedrich Nietzsche[edit]

Friedrich Nietzsche could be said to be a philosophical pessimist even though unlike Schopenhauer (whom he read avidly) his response to the 'tragic' pessimistic view is neither resigned nor self-denying, but a life-affirming form of pessimism. For Nietzsche this was a "pessimism of the future", a "Dionysian pessimism."[24] Nietzsche identified his Dionysian pessimism with what he saw as the pessimism of the Greek pre-socratics and also saw it at the core of ancient Greek tragedy.[25] He saw tragedy as laying bare the terrible nature of human existence, bound by constant flux. In contrast to this Nietzsche saw Socratic philosophy as an optimistic refuge of those who could not bear the tragic any longer. Since Socrates posited that wisdom could lead to happiness, Nietzsche saw this as "morally speaking, a sort of cowardice...amorally, a ruse".[26] Nietzsche was also critical of Schopenhauer's pessimism because in judging the world negatively, it turned to moral judgements about the world and therefore led to weakness and nihilism. Nietzsche's response was a total embracing of the nature of the world, a "great liberation" through a "pessimism of strength" which "does not sit in judgement of this condition".[27] Nietzsche believed that the task of the philosopher was to wield this pessimism like a hammer, to first attack the basis of old moralities and beliefs and then to "make oneself a new pair of wings", i.e. to re-evaluate all values and create new ones.[28] A key feature of this Dionysian pessimism was 'saying yes' to the changing nature of the world, this entailed embracing destruction and suffering joyfully, forever (hence the ideas of amor fati and eternal recurrence).[29] Pessimism for Nietzsche is an art of living that is "good for one's health" as a "remedy and an aid in the service of growing and struggling life".[30]

Albert Camus[edit]

In a 1945 article, Albert Camus wrote "the idea that a pessimistic philosophy is necessarily one of discouragement is a puerile idea."[31] Camus helped popularize the idea of "the absurd", a key term in his famous essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Like previous philosophical pessimists, Camus sees human consciousness and reason as that which "sets me in opposition to all creation".[32] For Camus, this clash between a reasoning mind which craves meaning and a 'silent' world is what produces the most important philosophical problem, the 'problem of suicide'. Camus believed that people often escape facing the absurd through "eluding" (l'esquive), a 'trickery' for "those who live not for life itself but some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it".[32] He considered suicide and religion as inauthentic forms of eluding or escaping the problem of existence. For Camus, the only choice was to rebelliously accept and live with the absurd, for "there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn." Camus' response to the absurd problem is illustrated by using the Greek mythic character of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill for eternity. Camus imagines Sisyphus while pushing the rock, realizing the futility of his task, but doing it anyway out of rebellion: "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Other forms[edit]


There are several theories of epistemology which could arguably be said to be pessimistic in the sense that they consider it difficult or even impossible to obtain knowledge about the world. These ideas are generally related to nihilism, philosophical skepticism and relativism.

Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743–1819), analyzed rationalism, and in particular Immanuel Kant's "critical" philosophy in order to carry out a reductio ad absurdum[citation needed] according to which all rationalism reduces to nihilism, and thus it should be avoided and replaced with a return to some type of faith and revelation.

Richard Rorty, Michel Foucault, and Ludwig Wittgenstein questioned whether our particular concepts could relate to the world in any absolute way and whether we can justify our ways of describing the world as compared with other ways. In general, these philosophers argue that truth was not about getting it right or representing reality, but was part of subjective social relations of power, or language-games that served our purposes in a particular time. Therefore, these forms of anti-foundationalism, while not being pessimistic per se, rejects any definitions that claims to have discovered absolute 'truths' or foundational facts about the world as valid.

Political and cultural[edit]

Main article: Cultural pessimism

Philosophical Pessimism stands opposed to the optimism or even utopianism of Hegelian philosophies. Emil Cioran claimed "Hegel is chiefly responsible for modern optimism. How could he have failed to see that consciousness changes only its forms and modalities, but never progresses?"[33] Philosophical pessimism is differentiated from other political philosophies by having no ideal governmental structure or political project, rather pessimism generally tends to be an anti-systematic philosophy of individual action.[34] This is because philosophical pessimists tend to be skeptical that any politics of social progress can actually improve the human condition. As Cioran states, "every step forward is followed by a step back: this is the unfruitful oscillation of history".[35] Cioran also attacks political optimism because it creates an "idolatry of tomorrow" which can be used to authorize anything in its name. This does not mean however, that the pessimist cannot be politically involved, as Camus argued in The Rebel.

There is another strain of thought generally associated with a pessimistic worldview, this is the pessimism of cultural criticism and social decline which is seen in Oswald Spengler's 'The Decline of the West'. Spengler promoted a cyclic model of history similar to the theories of Giambattista Vico. Spengler believed modern western civilization was in the 'winter' age of decline (untergang). Spenglerian theory was immensely influential in interwar Europe, especially in Weimar Germany. Similarly, traditionalist Julius Evola thought that the world was in the Kali Yuga, a dark age of moral decline.

Intellectuals like Oliver James correlate economic progress with economic inequality, the stimulation of artificial needs, and affluenza. Anti-consumerists identify rising trends of conspicuous consumption and self-interested, image-conscious behavior in culture. Post-modernists like Jean Baudrillard have even argued that culture (and therefore our lives) now has no basis in reality whatsoever.[1]

Conservative thinkers, especially social conservatives, often perceive politics in a generally pessimistic way. William F. Buckley famously remarked that he was "standing athwart history yelling 'stop!'" and Whittaker Chambers was convinced that capitalism was bound to fall to communism, though he was himself violently anti-communist. Social conservatives often see the West as a decadent and nihilistic civilization which has abandoned its roots in Christianity and/or Greekphilosophy, leaving it doomed to fall into moral and political decay. Robert Bork's Slouching Toward Gomorrah and Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind are famous expressions of this point of view.

Many economic conservatives and libertarians believe that the expansion of the state and the role of government in society is inevitable, and they are at best fighting a holding action against it.[citation needed] They hold that the natural tendency of people is to be ruled and that freedom is an exceptional state of affairs which is now being abandoned in favor of social and economic security provided by the welfare state.[citation needed] Political pessimism has sometimes found expression in dystopian novels such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.[36] Political pessimism about one's country often correlates with a desire to emigrate.[37]

During the financial crisis of 2007–08 in the United States, the neologism "pessimism porn" was coined to describe the alleged eschatological and survivalist thrill some people derive from predicting, reading and fantasizing about the collapse of civil society through the destruction of the world's economic system.[38][39][40][41]

Technological and environmental[edit]

Technological pessimism is the belief that advances in science and technology do not lead to an improvement in the human condition. Technological pessimism can be said to have originated during the industrial revolution with the Luddite movement. Luddites blamed the rise of industrial mills and advanced factory machinery for the loss of their jobs and set out to destroy them. The Romantic movement was also pessimistic towards the rise of technology and longed for simpler and more natural times. Poets like William Wordsworth and William Blake believed that industrialization was polluting the purity of nature.[42]

Some social critics and environmentalists believe that globalization, overpopulation and the economic practices of modern capitalist states over-stress the planet's ecological equilibrium. They warn that unless something is done to slow this, climate change will worsen eventually leading to some form of social and ecological collapse.[43]James Lovelock believes that the ecology of the Earth has already been irretrievably damaged, and even an unrealistic shift in politics would not be enough to save it. According to Lovelock, the Earth’s climate regulation system is being overwhelmed by pollution and the Earth will soon jump from its current state into a dramatically hotter climate.[44] Lovelock blames this state of affairs on what he calls “polyanthroponemia”, which is when: “humans overpopulate until they do more harm than good.” Lovelock states:

The presence of 7 billion people aiming for first-world comforts…is clearly incompatible with the homeostasis of climate but also with chemistry, biological diversity and the economy of the system.[44]

Some radical environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, and Neo-luddites can be said to hold to this type of pessimism about the effects of modern "progress". A more radical form of environmental pessimism is anarcho-primitivism which faults the agricultural revolution with giving rise to social stratification, coercion, and alienation. Some anarcho-primitivists promote deindustrialization, abandonment of modern technology and rewilding.

An infamous anarcho-primitivist is Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber who engaged in a nationwide mail bombing campaign. In his 1995 manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future he called attention to the erosion of human freedom by the rise of the modern "industrial-technological system".[45] The manifesto begins thus:

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries.

One of the most radical pessimist organizations is the voluntary human extinction movement which argues for the extinction of the human race through antinatalism.

Pope Francis' controversial 2015 encyclical on ecological issues is ripe with pessimistic assessments of the role of technology in the modern world.

Entropy pessimism[edit]

See also: Heat death of the universe, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen § The relevance of thermodynamics to economics, and Ecological economics § Methodology

'Entropy pessimism' represents a special case of technological and environmental pessimism, based on thermodynamic principles.[46]:116 According to the first law of thermodynamics, matter and energy is neither created nor destroyed in the economy. According to the second law of thermodynamics — also known as the entropy law — what happens in the economy is that all matter and energy is transformed from states available for human purposes (valuable natural resources) to states unavailable for human purposes (valueless waste and pollution). In effect, all of man's technologies and activities are only speeding up the general march against a future planetary 'heat death' of degraded energy, exhausted natural resources and a deteriorated environment — a state of maximum entropy locally on Earth; 'locally' on Earth, that is, when compared to the heat death of the universe, taken as a whole.

The term 'entropy pessimism' was coined to describe the work of Romanian American economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, a progenitor in economics and the paradigm founder of ecological economics.[46]:116 Georgescu-Roegen made extensive use of the entropy concept in his magnum opus on The Entropy Law and the Economic Process.[47] Since the 1990s, leading ecological economist and steady-state theoristHerman Daly — a student of Georgescu-Roegen — has been the economists profession's most influential proponent of entropy pessimism.[48][49]:545

Among other matters, the entropy pessimism position is concerned with the existential impossibility of distributing Earth's finite stock of mineral resources evenly among an unknown number of present and future generations. This number of generations is likely to remain unknown to us, as there is little way of knowing in advance if or when mankind will eventually face extinction. In effect, any conceivable intertemporal distribution of the stock will inevitably end up with universal economic decline at some future point.[50]:369-371[51]:253-256[52]:165[53]:168-171[54]:150-153[55]:106-109[49]:546-549[56]:142-145

Entropy pessimism is a widespread view in ecological economics and in the degrowth movement.


Bibas writes that some criminal defense attorneys prefer to err on the side of pessimism: "Optimistic forecasts risk being proven disastrously wrong at trial, an embarrassing result that makes clients angry. On the other hand, if clients plead based on their lawyers' overly pessimistic advice, the cases do not go to trial and the clients are none the wiser."[57]

As a psychological disposition[edit]

In the ancient world, psychological pessimism was associated with melancholy, and was believed to be caused by an excess of black bile in the body. The study of pessimism has parallels with the study of depression. Psychologists trace pessimistic attitudes to emotional pain or even biology. Aaron Beck argues that depression is due to unrealistic negative views about the world. Beck starts treatment by engaging in conversation with clients about their unhelpful thoughts. Pessimists, however, are often able to provide arguments that suggest that their understanding of reality is justified; as in Depressive realism or (pessimistic realism).[1] Deflection is a common method used by those who are depressed. They let people assume they are revealing everything which proves to be an effective way of hiding.[58] The pessimism item on the Beck Depression Inventory has been judged useful in predicting suicides.[59] The Beck Hopelessness Scale has also been described as a measurement of pessimism.[60]

Wender and Klein point out that pessimism can be useful in some circumstances: "If one is subject to a series of defeats, it pays to adopt a conservative game plan of sitting back and waiting and letting others take the risks. Such waiting would be fostered by a pessimistic outlook. Similarly if one is raking in the chips of life, it pays to adopt an expansive risk taking approach, and thus maximize access to scarce resources."[61]


Pragmatic criticism[edit]

Through history, some have concluded that a pessimistic attitude, although justified, must be avoided in order to endure. Optimistic attitudes are favored and of emotional consideration.[62]Al-Ghazali and William James rejected their pessimism after suffering psychological, or even psychosomatic illness. Criticisms of this sort however assume that pessimism leads inevitably to a mood of darkness and utter depression. Many philosophers would disagree, claiming that the term "pessimism" is being abused. The link between pessimism and nihilism is present, but the former does not necessarily lead to the latter, as philosophers such as Albert Camus believed. Happiness is not inextricably linked to optimism, nor is pessimism inextricably linked to unhappiness. One could easily imagine an unhappy optimist, and a happy pessimist. Accusations of pessimism may be used to silence legitimate criticism. The economist Nouriel Roubini was largely dismissed as a pessimist, for his dire but accurate predictions of a coming global financial crisis, in 2006. Personality Plus opines that pessimistic temperaments (e.g. melancholy and phlegmatic) can be useful inasmuch as pessimists' focus on the negative helps them spot problems that people with more optimistic temperaments (e.g. choleric and sanguine) miss.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ abcBennett, Oliver. Cultural pessimism. Edinburgh university press. 2001.
  2. ^Dienstag, Joshua Foa (February 17, 2009). Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit. Princeton University Press. p. 9. 
  3. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 7
  4. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 19
  5. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 22
  6. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 25
  7. ^Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts
  8. ^ abCamus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus
  9. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 33-34
  10. ^Wicks, Robert "Arthur Schopenhauer" , The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  11. ^ ab Laërtius, Diogenes (1925). "Socrates, with predecessors and followers: Hegesias (subsection of Aristippus)". Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. 1:2. Translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (Two volume ed.). Loeb Classical Library. 
  12. ^Cicero, Tusculanae Quaestiones i. 34
  13. ^Burkeman, Oliver (2012). The Antidote: Happiness for people who can't stand positive thinking. Text Publishing. pp. 32–33. ISBN 9781921922671. Retrieved 2013-01-22.  
  14. ^Cartwright, David E. (2005). History dictionary of Schopenhauer's philosophy. Scarecrow press, Inc. 
  15. ^Gracian, Balthasar (2011). The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence. Penguin books. 
  16. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 49
  17. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 60
  18. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 50
  19. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 67
  20. ^Leopardi, Giacomo. Dialogue between Columbus and Pedro Gutierrez (Operette morali). 
  21. ^ abSchopenhauer, Arthur (2007). Studies in Pessimism. Cosimo, Inc. ISBN 1-60206-349-4. 
  22. ^Schopenhauer, Arthur, The world as will and representation, pg 312
  23. ^Schopenhauer, Arthur, The world as will and representation, vol II, pg 635
  24. ^Nietzsche, Friedrich, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, book V
  25. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 167
  26. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 172
  27. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 178
  28. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 181
  29. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 191
  30. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 199
  31. ^Albert Camus, Pessimism and Courage , Combat, September 1945
  32. ^ abCamus, Albert (1991). Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Vintage Books. ISBN 0-679-73373-6. 
  33. ^Cioran, Emil. A short history of decay, pg 146
  34. ^Dienstag 2009, p. 7
  35. ^Cioran, Emil. A short history of decay, pg 178
  36. ^Lowenthal, D (1969), Orwell's Political Pessimism in '1984', Polity, JSTOR 3234097 
  37. ^Brym, RJ (1992), The emigration potential of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Russia: recent survey results(PDF), International Sociology 
  38. ^Pessimism Porn: A soft spot for hard times, Hugo Lindgren, New York, February 9, 2009; accessed July 8, 2012
  39. ^Pessimism Porn? Economic Forecasts Get Lurid, Dan Harris, ABC News, April 9, 2009; accessed July 8, 2012
  40. ^Apocalypse and Post-Politics: The Romance of the End, Mary Manjikian, Lexington Books, March 15, 2012, ISBN 0739166220
  41. ^Pessimism Porn: Titillatingly bleak media reports, Ben Schott, New York Times, February 23, 2009; accessed July 8, 2012
  42. ^"Romanticism". Retrieved 2010-06-02. 
  43. ^The New York Review of BooksThe Global Delusion, John Gray
  44. ^ abThe New York Review of BooksA Great Jump to Disaster?, Tim Flannery
  45. ^The Washington Post: Unabomber Special Report: INDUSTRIAL SOCIETY AND ITS FUTURE
  46. ^ abAyres, Robert U. (2007). "On the practical limits to substitution"(PDF). Ecological Economics. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 61: 115–128. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2006.02.011. 
  47. ^Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1971). The Entropy Law and the Economic Process(Full book accessible in three parts at SlideShare). Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674257804. 
  48. ^Daly, Herman E. (2015). "Economics for a Full World". Great Transition Initiative. Retrieved 23 November 2016. 
  49. ^ abKerschner, Christian (2010). "Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy"(PDF). Journal of Cleaner Production. Amsterdam: Elsevier. 18: 544–551. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2009.10.019.
Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality was an attack on the enlightenment idea of social progress which he saw as morally decadent.
Schopenhauer had an influence upon later thinkers and artists such as Freud and Wagner
Camus used the punishment of Sisyphus to represent the human condition.
Luddites destroy machines (1812)
Natural resources flow through the economy and end up as waste and pollution.

[I’ve been working on an outline for a book I hope to write surveying technological skepticism throughout history. I first started thinking about this topic two years when I noticed that a great number of recent books about Internet policy could generally be grouped into one of two camps: Internet optimists vs. Internet pessimists. I subsequently penned an essay on the subject that generated a fair bit of attention. So, I figured I must be on to something, and the more Net policy books I read, the more I realized that the divisions between these two camps were growing wider and increasingly heated. Thus, I thought I would share this very rough draft (much of it still in outline form) of the opening chapter of that book I want to write about this great intellectual war over the impact of technology on society. I invite reader input. Update Jan. 2011: I finally published a full-length essay on this topic. You can find it here. ]


The impact of technological change on culture, learning, and morality has long been the subject of intense debate, and every technological revolution brings out a fresh crop of both pessimists and pollyannas. Indeed, a familiar cycle has repeat itself throughout history whenever new modes of production (from mechanized agriculture to assembly-line production), means of transportation (water, rail, road, or air), energy production processes (steam, electric, nuclear), medical breakthroughs (vaccination, surgery, cloning), or communications techniques (telegraph, telephone, radio, television) have appeared on the scene.

The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped).  Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.

The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order.  If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.

Our current Information Revolution is no different. It too has its share of techno-pessimists and techno-optimists. Indeed, before most of us had even heard of the Internet, people were already fighting about it—or at least debating what the rise of the Information Age meant for our culture, society, and economy.

Web 1.0 Fight: Postman vs. Negroponte

In his 1992 anti-technology screed Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, the late social critic Neil Postman greeted the unfolding Information Age with a combination of skepticism and scorn.  Indeed, Postman’s book was a near-perfect articulation of the techo-pessimist’s creed.  “Information has become a form of garbage,” he claimed, “not only incapable of answering the most fundamental human questions but barely useful in providing coherent direction to the solution of even mundane problems.”  If left unchecked, Postman argued, America’s new technopoly—“the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology”—would destroy “the vital sources of our humanity” and lead to “a culture without a moral foundation” by undermining “certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.”

Postman opened his polemic with the well-known allegorical tale from Plato’s Phaedrus about the dangers of the written word.  Postman reminded us how King Thamus responded to the god Theuth, who boasted of how his invention of writing would improve the wisdom and memory of the masses relative to the oral tradition of learning.  King Thamus shot back, “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  King Thamus then passed judgment himself about the impact of writing on society, saying he feared that the people “will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.”

And so Postman—fancying himself a bit of a modern King Thamus—cast judgment on today’s comparable technological advances and those who would glorify them:

we are currently surrounded by throngs of zealous Theuths, one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo. We might call such people Technophiles. They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future. They are therefore dangerous and to be approached cautiously. … If one is to err, it is better to err on the side of Thamusian skepticism.

Nicholas Negroponte begged to differ. An unapologetic Theuthian technophile, the former director of the MIT Media Lab responded on behalf of the techno-optimists in 1995 with his prescient polemic, Being Digital.  It was a paean to the Information Age, for which he served as one of the first high prophets—with Wired magazine’s back page frequently serving as his pulpit during the many years he served as a regular columnist.

Appropriately enough, the epilogue of Negroponte’s Being Digital was entitled “An Age of Optimism” and, like the rest of the book, it stood in stark contrast to Postman’s pessimistic worldview.  Although Negroponte conceded that technology indeed had a “dark side” in that it could destroy much of the old older, he believed that was inevitable, but also not cause for much concern. “Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped,” he insisted, and we must learn to appreciate the ways “digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.” (This sort of techno-determism is a theme we would see on display in many of the works by other Internet optimists that followed in Negroponte’s footsteps.)

To Postman’s persistent claim that America’s technopoly lacked a moral compass, Negroponte again conceded the point but took the glass-is-half-full view: “Computers are not moral; they cannot resolve complex issues like the rights to life and to death. But being digital, nevertheless, does give much cause for optimism.”  His defense of the digital age rested on the “four very powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing, globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering.” Gazing into his techno-crystal ball in 1995, Negroponte forecast the ways in which those qualities would revolutionize society:

The access, the mobility, and the ability to effect change are what will make the future so different from the present. The information superhighway may be mostly hype today, but it is an understatement about tomorrow. It will exist beyond people’s wildest predictions. As children appropriate a global information resource, and as they discover that only adults need learner’s permits, we are bound to find new hope and dignity in places where very little existed before.

In many ways, that’s the world we occupy today; a world of unprecedented media abundance and unlimited communications and connectivity opportunities.

But the great debate about the impact of digitization and information abundance would not end with Postman and Negroponte. Theirs would only be Act I in a drama that continues to unfold, and it is growing more heated and complex with each new character that comes on the stage.

Web War II


The disciples of Postman and Negroponte are a colorful, diverse lot. The players in Act II of this drama occupy many diverse professions—journalists, technologists, business consultants, sociologists, economists, lawyers, etc.—and they are disagreeing even more vehemently and vociferously about the impact of the Internet and digital technologies than Postman and Negroponte did.

In Exhibit 1, I have listed the Internet optimists and pessimists and list their key works.

Theuthian Technophiles
(aka “The Internet Optimists”)
Thamusian Technophobes
(aka “The Internet Pessimists”)
Nicholas Negroponte,
Being Digital
Neil Postman,
Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Virginia Postrel,
The Future and Its Enemies

Andrew Keen,The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing our Culture
James Surowiecki,
The Wisdom of Crowds
Lee Siegel,Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob
Clay Shirky,Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected AgeNick Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Yochai Benkler,The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and FreedomMark Helprin,
Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto
Chris Anderson,The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of MoreCass Sunstein,
Kevin Kelly,Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic WorldTodd Gitlin, Media Unlimited: How the Torment of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives
Jeff Howe,
Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business
Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)
Don Tapscott & Anthony D. Williams, Wikinomics:
How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything
Steve Talbott,
Devices of the Soul:
Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines‎
Jeff Jarvis,
What Would Google Do
John Freeman,The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox
Tyler Cowen,Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered WorldJaron Lanier,
You Are Not a Gadget
Dennis Baron, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital RevolutionDavid Trend, The End of Reading: From Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto

In Exhibit 2, I have sketched out the major lines of disagreement between these two camps and divided those disagreements into (1) Cultural / Social beliefs vs. (2) Economic / Business beliefs.


Cultural / Social beliefs

Net is participatoryNet is polarizing
Net facilitates personalization (welcome of “Daily Me” that digital tech allows)Net facilitates fragmentation (fear of the “Daily Me”)
“a global villagebalkanization and fears of “mob rule
heterogeneity / encourages diversity of thought and expressionhomogeneity / Net leads to close-mindedness
allows self-actualizationdiminishes personhood
Net a tool of liberation & empowerment Net a tool of frequent misuse & abuse
believe Net can help educatefear dumbing-down of masses
anonymous communication is a net good; encourages vibrant debate + whistleblowingfear of anonymity; say it debases culture & leads to lack of accountability
welcome information abundance; believe it will create new opportunities for learningconcern about information overload; esp. impact on learning & reading
Economic / Business beliefs
benefits of “Free” (increasing importance of “gift economy”)costs of “Free” (“free” = threat to quality & business models)
mass collaboration is generally more importantindividual effort is generally more important
embrace of “amateur” creativitysuperiority of “professionalism
superiority of “open systems” of productionsuperiority of “proprietary” models of production
“wiki” model = wisdom of crowds; benefits of crowdsourcing“wiki” model = stupidity of crowds; collective intelligence is oxymoron; + “Sharecropper” concern @ exploiting free labor

When you boil it all down, there are two major points of contention between the optimists and pessimists:

  1. The impact of technology on learning & culture & the role of experts vs. amateurs in that process.
  2. The promise—or perils—of personalization.

The Debate over Learning & Culture

  • Internet optimists and pessimists have engaged in heated debates over role of amateur production and benefits of abundant media
  • pessimists fear impact of Net and “cult of amateur” on “professional” media
  • without “enforceable scarcity” and protection for the “enlightened class,” the pessimists wonder how “high quality” news or “high art” will get funded and disseminated; and they worry about the decline of authority & truth
  • optimists argue that new modes of production (namely peer-production) will be an adequate (if not superior) alternative
    • or they believe new business models will evolve to support professional media
  • but pessimists argue that all the new choices are largely false choices
    • participatory democracy all bunk (“mob rule” and rumor mill mongering)
    • just more force-fed commercial propaganda; concerns about advertising
    • also worry about “digital sharecropping” where small group of elites make money off backs of free labor
  • optimists counter that Web 2.0 offers real choices and voices
    • optimists argue that many (perhaps most) aren’t in it for the money
    • they do it for love of knowledge & “free culture”
  • pessimists argue that “free” culture isn’t free at all; often just parasitic copying / piracy
    • could have profound ramifications for future of news, journalism, “high culture”
    • fear loss of trusted intermediaries & authorities
    • could “dumb down” the masses
  • the centrality of Wikipedia to the discussion serves as a microcosm of the entire debate
    • does Wikipedia mark the decline of authority?
    • what is “truth,” the pessimists ask? [“truthiness” fear, a la S. Colbert & Manjoo]
    • who and what can be trusted if everyone is considered an authority?
    • on the other hand, what if it works (at least reasonably well)?
    • what does that tell us about peer production / crowdsourcing?

The Debate over the Promise or Perils of Personalization

  • both optimists and pessimists agree that Net & Web 2.0 is leading to more “personalized” media experience
    • but they vehemently disagree on whether that is good or bad
    • what will it mean for participatory democracy?
  • pessimists fear Negroponte’s “Daily Me” (i.e., hyper-personalization) leads to:
    • homogenization
    • close-mindedness
    • an online echo-chamber
    • overload of choices + just more corporate brainwashing
  • optimists counter that personalization leads to:
    • heterogeneity / chance for everyone to be heard
    • openness
    • exposure to new thinking and opinions
    • abundance of choices = diversity of thought / participation
  • in the extreme, some pessimists fear the “mechanization of the soul” and the “surrender to the machine”
  • while that may sound a bit over the top, it doesn’t help that some optimists speak of the noosphere & “global consciousness” and seem to long for the eventual singularity

Who’s Got It Right?

  • On balance, I believe the optimists generally have the better of the argument today
  • But pessimists make many fair points that deserve to be taken seriously; they just need a more reasonable articulation of (some of) those concerns
  • The better approach is what I call “pragmatic optimism,” which attempts to rid the optimist paradigm of its kookier, pollyannish thinking while also taking into account some of the very legitimate concerns raised by the pessimists, but rejecting its Luddite fringe in the process.

Thoughts on the Pessimists…

  • First and foremost, the pessimists need better spokespersons! Or, they at least need a more moderated, less hysterical tone when addressing concerns raised by technological progress (many of which are quite legitimate).
  • It’s often difficult to take the pessimists seriously when they persist with their seeming outright hostility to most forms of technological progress / change. Every one of them claim they are not a Luddite, and often I believe them. But the tone of some of their writing, and the thrust of some of their recommendations, have clear Luddite tendencies.
  • Moreover, their endless name-calling and derision for the digital generation is, at times, just as insulting and immature as they “mob” they repeatedly castigate in their works. Too often, their criticism devolves into philosophical snobbery and blatant elitism. Constantly looking down their noses at digital natives and all “amateur” production doesn’t help them win any converts.
  • It’s quite shocking how the pessimists have almost nothing good to say about Wikipedia and demonize it endlessly. Much the same goes for open source and other collaborative efforts. They don’t appear willing to accept the possibility of any benefits coming from collective efforts. And they wrongly treat the rise of collective / collaborative efforts as a zero-sum game; they seem to imagine it represents a net loss of individual effort & “personhood.” That simply doesn’t follow.
  • Most importantly, the pessimists need to come to grips with the Information Revolution and offer more constructive and practical solutions to legitimately difficult transitional problems created by disintermediating influences of the digital technologies and Net.
  • The nostalgia the pessimists typically espouse for the past is a common refrain of cultural and technological critics who fear that the “good ‘ol days” are behind us and the current good-for-nothing generation and their new-fangled gadgets are steering us straight into a moral abyss.  The truth typically proves less cataclysmic, of course.  The great thing about humans is that we adapt better than other creatures. When it comes to technological change, resiliency is hard-wired into our genes.  We learn how to use the new tools that are given to us and gradually assimilate them into our lives and culture.  Indeed, we have lived through more radical revolutions than the Information Revolution. We can adapt and learn to live with some of the legitimate difficulties & downsides of the Information Age.
  • The pessimists are at their best when highlighting the very legitimate concerns about the challenges that accompany technological change, including the impact of the digital revolution on “professional” media and the decline of authority among trusted experts and intermediaries.
    • we absolutely don’t want to lose all that
    • there are real benefits associated with it
    • and we need to find a way to fund “professional” media / art going forward
  • But, practically speaking, what would the pessimists have us do if we can’t mitigate these problems? Would they roll back the clock with burdensome restrictions? As Ben Casnocha noted recently: “the wind at the backs of all techno-optimists … [is] the forward momentum of technological development. You cannot turn back the clock. It is impossible to envision a future where there is less information and fewer people on social networks. It is very possible to envision increasing abundance along with better filters to manage it. The most constructive contributions to the debate, then, heed Moore’s Law in the broadest sense and offer specific suggestions for how to harness the change for the better.”  That’s what many pessimists have failed to do in their works.

Thoughts on the Optimists…

  • The optimists currently have the better of the debate as the abundance of Web 2.0 riches is generally benefiting culture / society.
  • Relative to the past it is almost impossible to see how one could argue society has not benefited from the Internet and new digital technologies. The Digital Revolution has greatly empowered masses and offered them more informational inputs.
  • An age of abundance is certainly preferable to an age of information scarcity!
  • But optimists need to be less Pollyanna-ish and avoid becoming the “technopolists”  (or digital utopians) that Postman feared were taking over our society
    • Way too much Rousseauian romanticism at work in some optimist writings. All this talk of the Net “remaking man” or human nature is pure rubbish.
    • Not all change is good change; the optimists need to be mature enough to understand and address the occasional downsides of digital life without dismissing the critics.
    • And they need to acknowledge that sometimes the wisdom of crowds really can = the stupidity of crowds (when does collective intelligence devolve into herd mentality?) And all this crazy talk of “the hive mind” and the “noosphere” must end.  Some of optimists sound like they long for life in The Matrix; bring on the Singularity!  That’s when you know an optimists has crossed over into the realm of quixotic techno-utopianism.
  • Optimists often overplay the benefits of collective intelligence, collaboration, and the role of amateur production.  They need to frame Wiki / peer-production models as a complement to professional media, not a replacement for it.
    • Could The New York Times really be cobbled together by amateurs each day?
    • Why aren’t there any really compelling open source video games?
    • There is a big difference between “remix culture” and “rip-off culture”
    • “The Long Tail” is not “the future of all business”; but it is an increasingly important part of it, and it is wonderful that it is so much more accessible than it was in the past.
    • Will we really be better off if all professionals & intermediaries disappear? Optimists play the “old media just don’t get it” card too often and snobbishly dismiss all their concerns and efforts to reinvent themselves
  • Optimists need to place technological progress in context and appreciate that, as Postman argued, there are some moral dimensions to technological progress that deserve attention.
  • Of course, on the other hand, some of those moral consequences are profoundly positive, which the pessimists usually fail to appreciate or even acknowledge.

Conclusion: Toward “Pragmatic Optimism”


  • Generally speaking, I believe the optimists currently have the better of the debate. It is impossible for me to believe that we were better off in an era of information poverty & un-empowered masses.
  • But there’s a kernel of truth to what the pessimists predict about how the passing of the old order leaving society without some things that might be worth preserving.  And they are certainly correct that each of us should think about how to better balance new technologies and assimilate them into our lives.
  • The sensible middle ground position is “pragmatic optimism”: We should embrace the amazing technological changes at work in today’s Information Age but do so with a healthy dose of humility and appreciation for the disruptive impact and pace of that change. [See my “Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed” below]
  • We need to think about how to mitigate the negative impacts associated with technological change without adopting the paranoid tone or Luddite-ish recommendations of the pessimists.
  • And it is important for us to personally exercise some personal restraint in terms of the role technology plays in our life. While pessimists from Plato and Postman certainly went too far, there is a kernel of truth to their claim that, taken to an extreme, technology can have a negative impact on life and learning.  We need to focus on the Aristotelian mean. We must avoid neo-Luddite calls for a return to “the good ‘ol days” on the one hand, while also rejecting techno-utiopian Pollyanna-ism on the other
  • Regardless, the old Theuth-Thamus debate about the relationship between technological change and its impact on culture and society will continue to rage. There is no chance this debate will die down anytime soon. And just wait till virtual reality goes mainstream!  Oh brother, now that is going to be a lively debate. I might turn into a Thamusian once I find my son playing a virtual gangster or pimp in “Grand Theft Auto 12: The Immersive Experience.”
  • Nonetheless, generally speaking, I remain quite bullish about the prospects for technology to generally improve the human condition.


The Pragmatic (Internet) Optimist’s Creed

by Adam Thierer

I believe that the Internet and digital technologies are reshaping our culture, economy, and society in most ways for the better, but not without some serious heartburn along the way.

I believe that the world of information abundance that has dawned is vastly superior to the world of information poverty that we just left. But I also understand that not all information is equal and that that the rise of abundance raises concerns about information overload, objectionable content, and the role of “authority” and “truth.”

I believe the era of traditional Mass Media is coming to an end, but “professional” media institutions and creators continue to play a vital role in the creation, aggregation, and dissemination of news, information, culture, and entertainment. The Internet, however, will force gut-wrenching changes on traditional media institutions and some of the more traditionally vital ones (ex: daily local newspapers) will struggle to re-invent themselves, or may wither away entirely. And while I believe that “professional” journalism faces very serious challenges from the rise of the Internet and user-generated content, but I also believe that hybrid forms of news-gathering and reporting are offering society exciting new ways to learn about the world around them.

I believe Wikipedia is an amazing example of collection action / intelligence at work, but I also understand it is not without flaws and limitations. I believe Wikipedia is a wonderful complement, but not a complete substitute, for other media and information sources and inputs.

I believe that free and open source software (FOSS) has produced enormous social / economic benefits, but I do not believe that FOSS (or “wiki” models) will replace all proprietary business models or methods.  Each model or mode of production has its place and purpose and they will continue to co-exist going forward, albeit in serious tension at times.

I believe the Long Tail is a powerful phenomenon, but not “the future of all business.” It is now a more important part of the future of business, but not the entirety of it. But it is wonderful that it is more accessible than ever and that we have found ways to monetize it to benefit less well know creators and innovators.

I believe there is a difference between “remix culture” and “ripoff culture.”  Remix culture generally enhances and extends culture and creativity. Blatant content piracy, on the other hand, can discourage the creative efforts of the citizenry and deprive some of society’s most gifted creators of the incentive to produce culturally beneficial works. Likewise, hacking, circumvention, and reverse-engineering all play an important and legitimate role in our new digital economy, but one need not accept the legitimacy of those activities when conducted for nefarious purposes (think identity theft or chip-modding to facilitate video game piracy.)

I believe that the Internet has empowered the masses and created a world of “pro-sumers” that gives every man, woman, and child a soapbox on which to speak to the world. But that does not mean that all of them will have something interesting to say, and I won’t praise user-generated content as a good in and of itself. It’s quality, not volume, that counts.

I believe that the Internet’s empowering nature has changed much about society and culture, but I do not believe in the romanticism some espouse about how the Net “remaking man” or changing human nature in any fundamental way. The Internet does not liberate us from all earthly constraints and it cannot magically solve all of civilization’s problems.

I believe that the Internet is reinvigorating deliberative democracy and giving us increased exposure to a breathtaking diversity of views previously inaccessible. On the other hand, I understand that some will often seek out only those views that reinforce their pre-existing biases.

I believe in the liberating power of freedom of speech and expression, and appreciate that the Internet and the rise of user-generated content has given us a world of unprecedented information and cultural riches. I also understand, however, that unrestricted freedom of speech and expression permits an increase in the prevalence of objectionable, even loathsome, speech and content. On net, however, (excuse the pun) the Internet is the most important medium of human communication and expression yet.

In sum, there are more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic about the Internet and its role in shaping our lives, culture, economy, and society. But that doesn’t mean it will be all roses going forward.


Additional Reading (from me):

Additional Reading (from others):

  • and here’s a great video from 1995 featuring the late Neil Postman with his pessimistic take on cyberspace..

Also, courtesy of the Brain Pickings blog, check out this amazing 1972 documentary based on Alvin Toffler’s famous 1970 book, Future Shock. It perfectly foreshadowed so many of today’s technology policy debates.


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