Weekly Dose of Optimism #4
Brain-Computer Interface, Mars Mission, Climate, Hard Work, Kim Stanley Robinson
Come for the Optimism, stay for the in-depth analyses of tech companies and trends:
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday! Welcome to our 4th Weekly Dose of Optimism, where we celebrate the incredible accomplishments humans manage to pull off and the progress that we’re — unsteadily and windingly — making.
Let’s get to it.
Ashlee Vance for Bloomberg
I feel like we are at the beginning of a renaissance around brain decoding.
In early July, a startup called Synchron implanted a device into the brain of a patient with ALS that will let the patient use the internet, text, and email, just by thinking. This is sci-fi happening in real-time, and benefiting people afflicted with crippling diseases first. Synchron has already implanted devices in Australian patients, and there’s a long way to go before we live in the world Tim Urban described in Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future, but it’s an incredible step.
Kenneth Chang for The New York Times
Timothy Ellis, the chief executive and a founder of Relativity, said the way that SpaceX aspired to do things “at the edge of crazy and ambitious and audacious” was an inspiration.
“Those kinds of goals attract the best people to work on them,” Mr. Ellis said. “We are more audacious than some of the other companies.”
“I feel like if it’s not something that’s challenging and that people think is difficult and you may not be able to do it, it’s not hard enough,” [Impulse Space Founder] Mr. [Thomas] Mueller said. “We need to do stuff that people think can’t be done.”
Two startups, Relativity Space and Impulse Space, announce that they’ve teamed up to attempt the first private space mission to Mars, which they hope to launch as soon as two and a half years from now, when Earth and Mars line up next. An announcement ≠ a successful mission, and a lot needs to go right for the two companies to pull it off, but I love the audacity of the plan.
It is now time to conclude that the “scare people into making a big push” strategy that climate activists and leftists have been using over the last few years has decisively, utterly failed. People ought to be scared. They ought to support a big push. But this is simply a thing that is not going to happen in the time frame we need it to happen.
I enjoy Noah Smith’s writing because he’s a pragmatic optimist who proposes realistic solutions to the problems at hand. In this piece, he rails against the degrowth, anti-capitalism, and doomerism of much of the environmental movement before proposing a path forward: “A technology-focused, bottom-up, whole-of-society effort.” Fighting climate change, and creating abundant energy, will require both capitalist efforts and government subsidies, national, state, and local action, and individual efforts, coming together in what Robinson Meyer calls a “green vortex”: “how policy, technology, business, and politics can all work together, lowering the cost of zero-carbon energy, building pro-climate coalitions, and speeding up humanity’s ability to decarbonize.”
Smith’s climate plan is a piece of what Derek Thompson calls the Abundance Agenda: a non-partisan push to create more of all of the things that we need, including housing, healthcare, and of course, energy. What I love about both Smith and Thompson’s approaches is that they focus on benefits instead of fear.
Pair with: What Joe Manchin Cost Us by Leah C. Stokes in The New York Times
Brie Wolfson in Every
It’s more about missing that universal agreement that it’s really, really cool to devote yourself fully to your work. And to expect that from your colleagues in a way that makes you feel that “we’re all really, really, really in this together” kind of way.
Over the weekend, I started writing a piece, inspired by The Bear, about the importance of working really hard and giving a shit about the quality of your work.
Simply put: achieving great things — like building Stripe, running a world-class restaurant, or pulling off anything that we’ve linked to in Weekly Dose of Optimism — requires passion bordering on obsession and a boatload of hours.
Wolfson’s piece is a celebration of the magic that comes from being a part of a team that’s working incredibly hard together and a good reminder that great progress requires great effort.
In our culture, to say you’re optimistic is maybe not the right thing, but hope, optimism… this attitude is a necessary political stance to take because we are in a position of privilege and the situation can be saved and given those two, it’s dereliction of duty to be pessimistic, to be cynical. It’s just a chicken thing to do.
We need to be strong in a moment of crisis by saying, yes, it can be done. And if we’re in a race between bad catastrophe and some kind of beginning prosperity for all — when you’re in a race that intense, you don’t want to sit down on the ground and start crying. Oh, we’ve lost already. That would be a bad thing to do, because you’re in a race.
You actually need to run as hard as you can. If you lose the race, well, that is a dystopian novel. And I don’t really want to go there. If we lose the race, we’re in terrible trouble, and we’ll be in emergency mode for years. But if we win the race, it’s a big win for the biosphere, for the other creatures, for humanity. So it’s worth pretending to be optimistic, or using optimism as a club, and beating it with people. Yes, we can succeed. Bang, bang, bang.
Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of The Mars Trilogy and The Ministry for the Future, and is quickly becoming one of my favorites. His near-future sci-fi paints imaginable worlds. His conversation with Ezra Klein is delightful, and while I don’t agree with him on everything, few people have used writing to help create a better future as beautifully as KSR has. A great podcast for a little weekend walk outside.
Jason Crawford’s Roots of Progress is one of the progress studies movement’s home bases. Its mission is to “establish a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century and beyond—one based on the ideas of humanism and agency, and one that puts forth a bold, ambitious vision for the technological future.” The organization is expanding beyond its blogging roots to become a non-profit research organization and career accelerator for public intellectuals in progress studies. If you like what you’re reading in the Weekly Dose of Optimism, this is a chance to go study and do the kind of work that we talk about here!
Double Bonus: The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything
Matthew Ball is my favorite Metaverse writer, and his new book is the deepest dive yet into the what, how, why, and when of the Metaverse. Early in the book, Ball writes “The Program is More Optimistic Than the Pen” — while the Metaverse typically appears in novels as a dystopia, the reality will likely be that we spend time in the Metaverse not to escape a hellish meatspace, but to replace TV and 2D screen time with something more useful, richer, more connective, and more fun.
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Thanks to Dan for editing, and to all of you who submitted optimistic content!
Humans are pulling off some pretty incredible things every week. Whenever you find examples, share them here and we’ll feature some in the newsletter.
Have a great weekend, and see you on Monday!