Jaron Lanier said something interesting about optimism

A few years ago I read Jaron Lanier’s book “You are Not a Gadget,” and I felt like I was listening to someone with a rich understanding of technology take a fairly critical view of it – a position not as many people were arguing at the time. Lanier is fully entrenched in Silicon Valley and big-tech, but he is also a thoughtful voice who often questions the less scrupulous ways internet technology is “helping” us. When Google and Facebook let their profits take precedence over their ethics, Lanier counters with accessible arguments of why the ethics matter more.

In a recent interview with Kara Swisher on the “Too Embarrassed to Ask” podcast, Jaron said something that jumped out at me for the way it subverted common thinking about criticism, and its relationship to optimism & pessimism. When criticism is poorly expressed, it’s just complaining, or being mean, or being stubborn. It can quickly shift from making productive observations to mockery and insult. But good criticism is something else: it’s optimistic.

“Things have generally gotten better over time, although its been rocky. The reason it’s gotten better is because of critics, because of people being demanding. The way to be optimistic is to be critical… The criticism has the optimism built in. Complacency does not. Complacent people are pessimists.

Criticism and optimism, complacency and pessimism – I don’t think I’ve ever associated the concepts this way before, but it makes sense. Critics often get a bad rep, but Lanier is on to something. Being critical doesn’t have to mean you aren’t hopeful.


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