Pessimism Is Rife, Optimism Naive. What's Left?

(A version of this post first appeared in The Conversation.)

Within every news story and talking point that floods our present awareness, the same question emerges over and over. We hear it in the World Bank's poverty estimates, in the increasingly frequent headlines of gun violence and terrorism in the US and Europe, in the press releases logging Google's latest achievements with artificial intelligence. It's a question so pervasive to our discourse, we barely register its existence. And yet it shapes the frame through which we interpret most of the information we consume daily.

Should we be optimistic, or pessimistic, about where the world is headed?

Our recent book, Age of Discovery, argues that the present is a second Renaissance. That sounds solidly optimistic -- but only until one digs deeply enough into history. One then recognises that the first Renaissance struggled with the same doubts and uncertainties that we face today as new maps, new media, and a flourishing of genius and risk transformed European society and the world.

The early Renaissance artist Brunelleschi, who introduced linear perspective into European art (showing depth on a flat canvas by drawing far-away objects smaller), taught his generation that what they saw depended on how they looked at it. Right now, that seems true in every domain of human endeavour.

Economic convergence or divergence?

Take economic development. Step back and view humanity as a whole, and the absolute story is broadly positive. The emerging global middle class -- the middle third of humanity by income -- have seen real incomes rise some 60% to 70% since 1988. The bottom third have seen theirs rise over 40%. But the relative view is sharply different. Rank humanity by wealth, and in 2015 the top 62 people in the world held more wealth than the bottom 3.6 billion.

Move one step closer. Break humanity down into component countries, and the picture changes once again. In aggregate, over the past quarter-century, the average income in poorer, developing countries has been catching up to the average income in richer, advanced economies -- and quickly. Since 2000, the number of countries classified as 'low income' by the World Bank has halved, from more than 65 to 33. But as with people, so with states: the relative fortunes of the global top and bottom diverge widely. Since 1990, the average income in the world's 20 poorest countries has risen some 30% in real terms, from about $270 to $350 -- an increase of $80. Income in the twenty richest countries has also risen about 30%, from $36,000 to $44,000--an increase of $8,000.

Finally, take one more step closer to peer within countries, and divergence once again dominates the picture. Within almost all countries, from the least developed to the most, the gap between rich and poor has widened over the past few decades. In the US, the top fifth have seen their real incomes rise over 25% since 1990; the bottom fifth have seen theirs fall 5% . Put another way, America's bottom fifth were earning more money back when the US economy had 40% less income per person to spread around.

The above suggests that our current ills are 'merely' a matter of distribution. If we could but better spread the gains being registered we'd realise a world in which we're all much, much better off than just a generation ago. And surely recent political events -- notably Brexit and the rise of populists like Trump and Sanders -- have strengthened the case for that redistribution to happen. The case for optimism may be getting stronger every day.

Connected or tangled?

But wait. Even brushing aside the political and institutional obstacles to making that redistribution a reality, such optimism oversimplifies humanity's present picture. To see our aggregate situation fairly, we must first discount our absolute gains by the additional risk -- environmental, biological, financial and, increasingly, cyber. These are the risks that we are all suffering as an unintended but unavoidable byproduct of global economic opening and connecting up. The growth-plus-entanglement of everything from bank balance sheets to air passengers to data traffic has strained virtually every natural and social system. This has made their malfunction or collapse more likely to occur, harder to see coming and more devastating when it does happen.

Consider that in just two years, from 2007 to 2009, the global financial crisis tallied up direct losses of over $4 trillion, across every market in the world, forced 50 million people out of work and forced another quarter-billion into the ranks of the 'working poor'. Consider recent pandemic simulations showing that a contagious airborne pathogen (like H5N1) carried into any major airport, on any continent, would be global within three days at most. Or consider the global migration of data onto the internet, which has enabled another pandemic -- cybercrime. In 2014, roughly one-half of small businesses, two-thirds of medium-sized companies and four-fifths of large enterprises worldwide were specifically targeted by a cyberattack. Beyond corporate losses ranging from $300 billion to $400 billion per year, these attacks harm us all by exposing our personal data. It is no longer a question of whether we will become a victim of cybercrime, but when.

Beautiful mind or evil genius?

What about the scientific realm? Is there a clear case for either optimism or pessimism within the present pace of scientific and technological advancement?

Again, the headlines pose more questions than answers. On the one hand some economists, led by Robert Gordon, argue that innovation is slowing down. If productivity statistics are any guide, the computer and the Internet have done less so far to lift people's incomes than the flush toilet. But that pessimism may say more about the limits of economic forecasting than the present scale or pace of scientific discovery.

The unimpressive economic data is difficult to square against the profound new powers that science seems poised to put into human hands. Genetic medicine and synthetic biology are flipping medicine's whole paradigm from treating disease to transforming organisms. Quantum computing promises to break through the physical limits that our ever-shrinking transistors will quickly run up against by instead scaling up the weird entanglements that exist at quantum scales. Artificial intelligence is already here and steadily growing stronger.

The stronger case for pessimism may be to worry that these fresh technological powers will outstrip our collective wisdom for wielding them. If we automate away half of all jobs in the current economy, as some studies suggest we are on track to do, to whom will the gains of this wrenching retooling flow? To those who own the machines, or to those whose jobs have been destroyed? If biologists experiment more aggressively with the human genome -- to help us live longer, resist chronic disease better or think smarter -- who will have access to such enhancements? Such difficult policy and ethical questions may divide humanity more profoundly than the Atlantic Ocean ever did in the pre-Columbus era.

The contest we're in

Optimism or pessimism? Either stance can be backed by solid argument, but we argue that neither suits the Renaissance age we live in so much as a third frame: activism.

The present is best understood as a contest: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement and human development; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks. In a general way, of course, this is always true, but the truth has never been more urgent.

The scale of the risks that threaten global well-being have never approached their present gravity, and the opportunity costs of being excluded from humanity's aggregate flourishing have never been higher.

We need to champion critical thinking in a time of irresponsible rhetoric. To celebrate diversity and stamp out prejudice. To raise public and private patronage. To dare failure, and strengthen public safety nets in ways that embolden us all. To build new crossroads and welcome migrants. To tear up the (mental) maps that unhelpfully divide people according to national, race, gender, religious or other stereotypes and replace them with new ones that recognise our common humanity and interests. To stoke public trust in democratic institutions, so that we may vest them with the powers to meet new transnational threats.

Luminaries of the first Renaissance saw their own time in a similarly urgent light. There is "no greater harm than that of time wasted". "People of accomplishment rarely sit back and let things happen to them. They go out and happen to things." Tradition attributes these words to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, respectively. In his conclusion to The Prince, Machiavelli urged the rulers of Italy that 'everything has converged for your greatness. The rest you must do yourself.'

They recognised that their age offered blinding possibilities, but that any gains would have to be achieved amid relentless shocks. What we all do now to promote the possibilities and dampen the dangers that this moment brings will determine whether we repeat the glories of the first Renaissance, the miseries, or both.

If the present climate of instability is any guide, "neither" is not one of the options before us.

(Chris Kutarna is the author with Ian Goldin of Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, published by St Martin's Press.)