Tags: pessimism




I’m going to discuss Avengers: Infinity War without spoilers, unless you count the motivations of the main villain as a spoiler, in which case you should stop reading now.

The most recent book by Charles C. Mann—author of 1491 and 1493—is called The Wizard And The Prophet. It profiles two twentieth century figures with divergent belief systems: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. (Trust me, this will become relevant to the new Avengers film.)

I’ve long been fascinated by Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. It is quite possible that he is responsible for saving more lives than any other single human being in history (with the possible exception of Stanislav Petrov who may have saved the entire human race through inaction). In his book, Mann dubs Borlaug “The Wizard”—the epitome of a can-do attitude and a willingness to use technology to solve global problems.

William Vogt, by contrast, is “The Prophet.” His groundbreaking research crystalised many central tenets of the environmental movement, including the term he coined, carrying capacity—the upper limit to a population that an environment can sustain. Vogt’s stance is that there is no getting around the carrying capacity of our planet, so we need to make do with less: fewer people consuming fewer resources.

Those are the opposing belief systems. Prophets believe that carrying capacity is fixed and that if our species exceed this limit, we are doomed. Wizards believe that technology can treat carrying capacity as damage and route around it.

Vogt’s philosophy came to dominate the environmental movement for the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s something I’ve personally found very frustrating. Groups and organisations that I nominally agree with—the Green Party, Greenpeace, etc.—have anti-technology baggage that doesn’t do them any favours. The uninformed opposition to GM foods is a perfect example. The unrealistic lauding of country life over the species-saving power of cities is another.

And yet history so far has favoured the wizards. The Malthusian population bomb never exploded, partly thanks to Borlaug’s work, but also thanks to better education for women in the developing world, which had enormously positive repercussions.

Anyway, I find this framing of fundamental differences in attitude to be fascinating. Ultimately it’s a stand-off between optimism (the wizards) and pessimism (the prophets). John Faithful Hamer uses this same lens to contrast recent works by Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari. Pinker is a wizard. Harari is a prophet.

I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War, but there’s no getting around it—Thanos is a prophet.

Very early on, we learn that Thanos doesn’t want to destroy all life in the universe. Instead, he wants to destroy half of all life in the universe. Why? Carrying capacity. He believes the only way to save life is to reduce its number (and therefore its footprint).

Many reviews of the film have noted how the character of Thanos is strangely sympathetic. It’s no wonder! He is effectively toeing the traditional party line of the mainstream environmental movement.

There’s even a moment in the film where Thanos explains how he came to form his opinions through a tragedy in the past that he correctly predicted. “Congratulations”, says one of his heroic foes sarcastically, “You’re a prophet.”

Earlier in the film, as some of the heroes are meeting for the first time, there are gags and jokes referring to Dr. Strange’s group as “the wizards.”

I’m sure those are just coincidences.

A wager on the web

Jason has written a great post about progressive web apps. It’s also a post about whether fears of the death of the web are justified.

Lately, I vacillate on whether the web is endangered or poised for a massive growth due to the web’s new capabilities. Frankly, I think there are indicators both ways.

So he applies Pascal’s wager. The hypothesis is that the web is under threat and progressive web apps are a solution to fighting that threat.

  • If the hypothesis is incorrect and we don’t build progressive web apps, things continue as they are on the web (which is not great for users—they have to continue to put up with fragile, frustratingly slow sites).
  • If the hypothesis is incorrect and we do build progressive web apps, users get better websites.
  • If the hypothesis is correct and we do build progressive web apps, users get better websites and we save the web.
  • If the hypothesis is correct and we don’t build progressive web apps, the web ends up pining for the fjords.

Whether you see the web as threatened or see Chicken Little in people’s fears and whether you like progressive web apps or feel it is a stupid Google marketing thing, we can all agree that putting energy into improving the experience for the people using our sites is always a good thing.

Jason is absolutely correct. There are literally no downsides to us creating progressive web apps. Everybody wins.

But that isn’t the question that people have been tackling lately. None of these (excellent) blog posts disagree with the conclusion that building progressive web apps as originally defined would be a great move forward for the web:

The real question that comes out of those posts is whether it’s good or bad for the future of progressive web apps—and by extension, the web—to build stop-gap solutions that use some progressive web app technologies (Service Workers, for example) while failing to be progressive in other ways (only working on mobile devices, for example).

In this case, there are two competing hypotheses:

  1. In the short term, it’s okay to build so-called progressive web apps that have a fragile technology stack or only work on specific devices, because over time they’ll get improved and we’ll end up with proper progressive web apps in the long term.
  2. In the short term, we should build proper progressive web apps, and it’s a really bad idea to build so-called progressive web apps that have a fragile technology stack or only work on specific devices, because that encourages more people to build sub-par websites and progressive web apps become synonymous with door-slamming single-page apps in the long term.

The second hypothesis sounds pessimistic, and the first sounds optimistic. But the people arguing for the first hypothesis aren’t coming from a position of optimism. Take Christian’s post, for example, which I fundamentally disagree with:

End users deserve to have an amazing, form-factor specific experience. Let’s build those.

I think end users deserve to have an amazing experience regardless of the form-factor of their devices. Christian’s viewpoint—like Alex’s tweetstorm—is rooted in the hypothesis that the web is under threat and in danger. The conclusion that comes out of that—building mobile-only JavaScript-reliant progressive web apps is okay—is a conclusion reached through fear.

Never make any decision based on fear.