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Thursday
Mar032011

Pushing the Boundary: Becoming a Possibilist

I am neither an optimist nor pessimist, but a possibilist.
– Max Lerner

The recent debate over the importance of social media in particular and the internet in general for collective action and revolutions made me think about the different ways in which people seem to approach that question.

The optimist's point of view

First, there are what might be called the optimists. These are internet evangelists who think that the internet will naturally improve every branch of society and every aspect of life. That the paradigm shift brought along by the internet and the power of digital connection and communication is in itself sufficient to make our lives better over time.

I think I might have considered myself part of that camp when I was younger. Internet optimists have a natural tendency to overestimate the velocity at which certain changes will happen and to underestimate or even neglect the risks inherent in these changes. Optimists tend to believe that things will somehow turn out all right in the end.

The pessimist's point of view

The pessimists are characterized by just about the opposite point of view, namely a perception of the internet's significance that overstates the risks and understates possible benefits. Most of the time, a technology pessimist worries about possible bad consequences of new technologies and about how to mitigate them.

Advanced pessimists publish frequent apocalyptic prophecies and warnings, using a language that is designed to instigate fear and hysterical reactions. Cyberwar and cyberterrorism come to mind. Often, internet pessimists are just as far off in their predictions as comparably radical optimists.

What optimists and pessimists have in common

Both optimists and pessimists have a hard time making the right trade-offs. Since they overestimate the importance and probability of either positive or negative outcomes as opposed to different outcomes, the consequences drawn from their premises do not match well with what is happening in reality. By getting the trade-offs wrong, they are operating with a skewed perception of reality and often miss important opportunities or risks diverging from their mental framework.

I stated above that I might have considered myself an optimist once. That is because I, too, am an internet evangelist. I believe that the internet changes nearly all aspects of our lives and that it opens up tremendous opportunities for improvement. But I am also a scientist, and the optimist's point of view does not fit the scientist's mindset very well. That is why I would not consider myself an optimist anymore.

Scientific judgments are based on actual data. The whole debate over whether or not the internet helps revolutions unfold or not is a pretty irrational one since there is almost no data that might be used to support either point of view. What we need instead are in-depth analyses and scientific studies to measure the impact of digital tools such as social media on the ability of groups of people to successfully overthrow a coercive government. So which point of view could a scientist have?

The realist's point of view

Very common among rational people is what might be called the realist's point of view. The realist acts in good faith and tries to get the trade-offs right. He reasons in a way more compatible with the scientific mindset and urges not to draw the wrong conclusions whenever the available data is inconclusive or insufficient.

Besides the good intentions, the realist often acts and talks just like a pessimist, albeit without the exagerration and hysteria of a pessimist. Why is that? Realists tend to think about the past more than about the future. They tend to evaluate present developments based on what has been possible in the past and, just like pessimists, they are unable to assess the new possibilities the future might bring. In short, they lack imagination. The problem is that a lack of imagination often leads to inaction.

The possibilist's point of view

Enter the possibilist. The possibilist constantly imagines the seemingly impossible and pushes the boundary to see for himself what is possible. The possibilist expects opportunities everywhere but is neither sad nor angry when an opportunitity cannot be realized. Possibilists learn from failure and move on, seeking the next possibility.

While realists are characterized by constant assessment, possibilists are characterized by action. While realists sit in think tanks, possibilists sit in do tanks. Possibilists never assume that they are right. They do not deny risks or dangers. Instead, they know that every development can turn either way, good or bad. They work hard to make sure that outcomes are good.

While realists try to debunk the prophecies of both internet optimists and internet pessimists, possibilists like Wael Ghonim and Shervin Pishevar try to push the boundary to invent new tools, drive change, amplify social transformation, and make the impossible possible. Whether Facebook or Twitter are actual shields against future genocide is irrelevant. What counts is the mere possibility that they might be, and the actions we take to devise even better tools to help people live in freedom and peace.

If anything, I would like to be a possibilist.

Note: The term possibilism refers to certain branches of philosophy and political history. What I refer to here is the idea of a pragmatic possibilism advocated, among others, by Hans Rosling.

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References (3)

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