In a 2017 article titled “Definite Optimism as Human Capital,” writer Dan Wang made a compelling argument for why definite optimism — optimism with a goal in mind — is a vital component of “social capital” in the 21st century. We are an emotional species. We need things to look forward to, visionaries whose stories captivate and motivate us, narratives to tell and join. We are and have been driven forward by the ability to conceive of that which does not yet exist. If we cannot tell stories of greater futures and grander worlds, we will not realize them.
The stories they tell, too, are not so much about their products or services as they are about the problem their products or services will solve. For example, mouthwash would not have been successful had marketers failed to make the public aware of a previously unspoken — but nonetheless acknowledged — problem: bad breath. If we do live in a free market, there should be ample reason for definite optimism. After all, there are endless stories left to tell and problems left to solve.
Yet it feels as if the world of today has never been less optimistic. There is a tangible complacency among many people I know, a complacency I sympathize with because it feels like we’ve reached a point in society where all we’re doing is optimizing the distribution of everything via the few stories told by an elite minority — Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Reed Hastings (Netflix), and Sundar Pichai (Google) — rather than telling any of our own. Their four companies, collectively worth more than the GDP of all but 10 countries in the world, are market-enabled stories on the grandest possible scale, edited by thousands of employees and read by billions of users.¹ These stories are enabled not just by the free market, but by the internet-abetted free market. And I use all four religiously.
Perhaps that is why I propose that these platforms are contributing to the complacency I observe in myself and others. In order for that to be true, however, three assumptions must hold. First, never in history has it been more profitable to satiate the consumer by playing to their expressed desires. If there is an argument against this, I haven’t heard it. Google and Amazon receive expressed desires from us anytime we use them, and Facebook and Netflix somehow just seem to know.
In a society as dynamic as ours is, true optimization — not the back and forth of the economy in search of it — is stagnation, and stagnation is death.
Second, satiation is a precursor to complacency. (A caveat here is the difference between security and satiation; the former is an admirable societal goal and, I believe, inspires innovation through the encouragement of risk-taking, whereas the latter does the opposite.)
Third, there has never been a wider gap between those with and those without a technical understanding of the inner workings of the algorithms that determine the success of products on sites like Amazon or Google. Thus, even as niches and opportunities reveal themselves to potential creators and entrepreneurs, the boundless complexity of exploiting and profiting from them makes it hard to blame would-be creators for avoiding the headache and simply settling as a consumer at the best time in history to be one.
Two important reminders before continuing. First, we are experiencing a creative revolution as a result of these platforms. YouTube and others have catalyzed an explosion of user-generated content. I do not mean to say this isn’t happening — clearly, it is — just that the complacency I observe both within myself and those around me can be explained by how easy all these platforms make it to be a consumer.
Second, there’s nothing wrong with editing and improving upon existing infrastructure with platforms like Facebook or Airbnb or Amazon — in fact, I’d argue that doing so is a humanitarian obligation, especially now — but the dark side to these platforms is important to consider. Not only are their inner workings a mystery to those who use them (and in some cases, those who create them), but their existence relies on the status quo. Once their narratives are told — connecting people with people, or with lodging, or with *gasp* diapers shipped in two days at no additional cost — there’s nowhere else to go. And that matters. In a society as dynamic as ours is, true optimization — not the back and forth of the economy in search of it — is stagnation, and stagnation is death.