Far from the public eye, a battle is raging over abstractions. It touches our hearts and minds. And although it's
a battle with consequences, it's a battle that really shouldn't be
fought at all.
The battle I'm referring to is the one between the optimists and
On one side are the optimists. They believe that in spite of
everything, things are getting better. The pessimists, as everybody
knows, believe that things are inevitably getting worse.
Ironically, it's the point that both sides agree on that's the most
dangerous: that historical momentum makes human effort unnecessary. Both views imply an inevitability that is, not only inaccurate, but paralyzing. In short, they offer excuses that many people are consciously or subconsciously looking for, reasons for not getting involved.
But, with apologies to Shakespeare, if neither an optimist nor a
pessimist be, who or what should we be? Is there a word for a better way to think about the future?
Luckily, such a word exists. The word is meliorism -- the belief that the world can be made better by human effort. (But note that the flip side -- that human effort can make the world worse -- is also true.)
What does all of this have to do with the evolution of the
For one thing, the Internet inspired the optimists to some of the
greatest rhetorical heights of all times. The optimists convinced
many people that a Golden Age was imminent. The governed would
achieve parity with the governors. Knowledge would flow equally to
all and education would be transformed. The wisdom of crowds would rule the land. And censorship was impossible because information
wants to be free.
On the other hand, cynical utopia deniers -- dour pessimists --
continued to assert that things will always be unequal, the Internet will change nothing at all, and that the human race will never develop the civic intelligence that it needs, Internet or no
But little-by-little, people are breaking free of the optimism/pessimism trap. They are realizing the Internet is not magic after all. They are learning that it's not immune to the forces that
created the commercial television or radio we know today.
The fact remains that the Internet represents an extremely rare
opportunity. For one thing, it's a meta-medium that can assume many
shapes. Because it's becoming a tool that billions of people use,
it could help people of the world work together to address their shared concerns.
The "coulds" could be multiplied ad infinitum: The
Internet could be used to help mediate discussions between adversaries; it could be used to develop solutions to problems of environmental degradation, oppression and intolerance, and violence. It could...
A critical question surfaces in relation to these issues: Is
there a role for business in building the information and communication infrastructure that promotes the civic intelligence that the world needs? And if not, why not?
Unfortunately, the standard rules might not apply. For one thing,
who is interested in building capabilities for people with few
economic resources? And while the costs of despotism and anarchy
are high indeed, democracy has no immediate ROI. And would venture
capitalists bother with ventures that have dubious aims like developing social imagination or improving collective problem-solving capabilities?
Clearly, people in business can be counted on for innovation for
economic gain. My presumption is that they could retool themselves
intellectually for social innovation as well.
Meliorism, unlike optimism or pessimism, doesn't allow us to wriggle
out of our responsibilities. In the case of the Internet, meliorism
compels us to imagine what the Internet could be and to work for those possible outcomes.
We have the imagination and the resources to build the Internet
that the utopians may have envisioned and the dystopians swore we'd
never see. It will take the meliorists who have gotten tired of the
silly debate over optimism and pessimism to roll up their sleeves
and actually make it happen.
ó Douglas Schuler is a faculty member at The Evergreen State College, where he teaches interdisciplinary programs such as Community Information Systems, Global Citizenship, and Civic Intelligence in the Real World.