TED talk transcript: “Optimism”

February 2006

I’ve got apparently 18 minutes to convince you that history has a direction—an arrow. That in some fundamental sense, it’s good; that the arrow points to something positive. Now, when the TED people first approached me about giving this upbeat talk—(Laughter)—that was before the cartoon of Muhammad had triggered global rioting. It was before the avian flu had reached Europe. It was before Hamas had won the Palestinian election, eliciting various counter-measures by Israel. And to be honest, if I had known when I was asked to give this upbeat talk that even as I was giving the upbeat talk, the apocalypse would be unfolding—(Laughter)—I might have said, “Is it okay if I talk about something else?” But I didn’t, OK. So we’re here. I’ll do what I can. I’ll do what I can.

I’ve got to warn you: the sense in which my worldview is upbeat has always been kind of subtle, sometimes even elusive. (Laughter) The sense in which I can be uplifting and inspiring—I mean, there’s always been a kind of a certain grim dimension to the way I try to uplift, so if grim inspiration—(Laughter)—if grim inspiration is not a contradiction in terms, that is, I’m afraid, the most you can hope for. OK, today—that’s if I succeed. I’ll see what I can do. OK?

Now, in one sense, the claim that history has a direction is not that controversial. If you’re just talking about social structure, OK, clearly that’s gotten more complex a little over the last 10 thousand years—has reached higher and higher levels. And in fact, that’s actually sustaining a long-standing trend that predates human beings, OK, that biological evolution was doing for us. Because what happened in the beginning, this stuff encases itself in a cell, then cells start hanging out together in societies. Eventually they get so close, they form multicellular organisms, then you get complex multicellular organisms; they form societies.

But then at some point, one of these multicellular organisms does something completely amazing with this stuff, which is it launches a whole second kind of evolution: cultural evolution. And amazingly, that evolution sustains the trajectory that biological evolution had established toward greater complexity. By cultural evolution we mean the evolution of ideas. A lot of you have heard the term “memes.” The evolution of technology, I pay a lot of attention to, so, you know, one of the first things you got was a little hand axe. Generations go by, somebody says, hey, why don’t we put it on a stick? (Laughter) Just absolutely delights the little ones. Next best thing to a video game.

This may not seem to impress, but technological evolution is progressive, so another 10, 20,000 years, and armaments technology takes you here. (Laughter) Impressive. And the rate of technological evolution speeds up, so a mere quarter of a century after this, you get this, OK. (Laughter) And this. (Laughter) I’m sorry—it was a cheap laugh, but I wanted to find a way to transition back to this idea of the unfolding apocalypse, and I thought that might do it. (Applause)

OK. So, what threatens to happen with this unfolding apocalypse, is the collapse of global social organization. Now, first let me remind you how much work it took to get us where we are, to be on the brink of true global social organization. Originally, you had the most complex societies, the hunter-gatherer village. Stonehenge is the remnant of a chiefdom, which is what you get with the invention of agriculture: multi-village polity with centralized rule. With the invention of writing, you start getting cities. This is blurry. I kind of like that because it makes it look like a one-celled organism and reminds you how many levels organic organization has already moved through to get to this point. And then you get to, you know, you get empires.

I want to stress, you know, social organization can transcend political bounds. This is the Silk Road connecting the Chinese Empire and the Roman Empire. So you had social complexity spanning the whole continent, even if no polity did similarly. Today, you’ve got nation states. Point is, there’s obviously collaboration and organization going on beyond national bounds. This is actually just a picture of the earth at night, and I’m just putting it up because I think it’s pretty. Does kind of convey the sense that this is an integrated system.

OK. Now, I explained this growth of complexity by reference to something called non-zero sumness. Assuming that a few of you did not do the assigned reading, very quickly, the key idea is the distinction between zero-sum games, in which correlations are inverse: always a winner and a loser. Non-zero-sum games in which correlations can be positive, OK. So like in tennis, usually it’s win-lose, it always adds up to zero-zero-sum, but if you’re playing doubles, the person on your side of the net, they’re in the same boat as you, so you’re playing a non-zero-sum game with them. It’s either for the better or for the worse, OK. A lot of forms of non-zero-sum behavior in the realm of economics and so on in everyday life often leads to cooperation.

The argument I make is basically that, well, non-zero-sum games have always been part of life. You have them in hunter-gatherer societies, but then through technological evolution, new forms of technology arise that facilitate or encourage the playing of non-zero-sum games, involving more people over larger territory. Social structure adapts to accommodate this possibility and to harness this productive potential, so you get cities, you know, and you get all the non-zero-sum games you don’t think about that are being played across the world. Like, have you ever thought when you buy a car, how many people on how many different continents contributed to the manufacture of that car? Those are people in effect you’re playing a non-zero-sum game with. I mean, there are certainly plenty of them around.

Now, this sounds like an intrinsically upbeat worldview in a way, because when you think of non-zero, you think win-win, you know, that’s good. Well, there are a few reasons that actually it’s not intrinsically upbeat. First of all, it can accommodate: it doesn’t deny the existence of inequality exploitation war. But there’s a more fundamental reason that it’s not intrinsically upbeat, because a non-zero-sum game, all it tells you for sure is that the fortunes will be correlated for better or worse. It doesn’t necessarily predict a win-win outcome.

So, in a way, the question is, on what grounds am I upbeat at all about history? And the answer is, first of all, on balance I would say people have played their games to more win-win outcomes than lose-lose outcomes. On balance, I think history is a net positive in the non-zero-sum game department. And a testament to this is the thing that most amazes me, most impresses me, and most uplifts me, which is that there is a moral dimension to history, there is a moral arrow. We have seen moral progress over time.

2,500 years ago, members of one Greek city state considered members of another Greek city state subhuman and treated them that way. And then this moral revolution arrived, and they decided that actually, no, Greeks are human beings. It’s just the Persians who aren’t fully human and don’t deserve to be treated very nicely.

But this was progress—you know, give them credit. And now today, we’ve seen more progress. I think—I hope—most people here would say that all people everywhere are human beings, deserve to be treated decently, unless they do something horrendous, regardless of race or religion. And you have to read your ancient history to realize what a revolution that has been, OK. This was not a prevalent view, few thousand years ago, and I attribute it to this non-zero-sum dynamic. I think that’s the reason there is as much tolerance toward nationalities, ethnicities, religions, as there is today, you know. If you asked me, you know, why am I not in favor of bombing Japan, well, I’m only half-joking when I say they built my car, OK. We have this non-zero-sum relationship, and I think that does lead to a kind of a tolerance to the extent that you realize that someone else’s welfare is positively correlated with yours. You’re more likely to cut them a break.

I kind of think this is a kind of a business-class morality. Unfortunately, I don’t fly trans-Atlantic business class often enough to know, or any other kind of business class really. But I assume that in business class, you don’t hear many expressions of, you know, bigotry about racial groups or ethnic groups, because the people who are flying trans-Atlantic business class are doing business with all these people; they’re making money off of all these people. And I really do think that in that sense at least, capitalism has been a constructive force, and more fundamentally, it’s a non-zero-sumness that has been a constructive force in expanding people’s realm of moral awareness, OK. I think the non-zero-sum dynamic, which is not only economic by any means—it’s not always commerce—but it has driven us to the verge of a moral truth, which is the fundamental equality of everyone. It has done that. As it has moved global, moved us toward a global level of social organization it has driven us toward moral truth. I think that’s wonderful.

Now, back to the unfolding apocalypse. And you may wonder, OK, that’s all fine, sounds great—moral direction in history—but what about this so-called clash of civilizations? Well, first of all, I would emphasize that it fits into the non-zero-sum framework, OK. If you look at the relationship between the so-called Muslim world and Western world—two terms I don’t like, but can’t really avoid—in such a short span of time, they’re efficient if nothing else. It is non-zero-sum. And by that I mean, if people in the Muslim world get more hateful, more resentful, less happy with their place in the world, it’ll be bad for the West. If they get more happy, it’ll be good for the West. So that is a non-zero-sum dynamic.

And I would say the non-zero-sum dynamic is only going to grow more intense over time because of technological trends, but more intense in a kind of negative way. It’s the down-side correlation of their fortunes that will become more and more possible. And one reason is because of something I call the growing lethality of hatred. More and more, it’s possible for grassroots hatred abroad to manifest itself in the form of organized violence on American soil. And that’s pretty new, and I think it’s probably going to get a lot worse—this capacity—because of trends in information technology, in technologies that can be used for purposes of munitions like biotechnology and nanotechnology. We may be hearing more about that today.

And there’s something I worry about especially, which is that, this dynamic will lead to a kind of a feedback cycle that puts us on a slippery slope. What I have in mind is: terrorism happens here; we overreact to it. That, you know, we’re not sufficiently surgical in our retaliation leads to more hatred abroad, more terrorism. We overreact because being human, we feel like retaliating, and it gets worse and worse and worse. You could call this the positive feedback of negative vibes, but I think in something so spooky, we really shouldn’t have the word positive there at all, even in a technical sense. So let’s call it the death spiral of negativity. (Laughter) I assure you if it happens, at the end, both the West and the Muslim world will have suffered. OK.

So, what do we do? Well, first of all, we can do a lot more with arms control, the international regulation of dangerous technologies. I have a whole global governance sermon that I will spare you right now, because I don’t think that’s going to be enough anyway, although it’s essential. I think we’re going to have to have a major round of moral progress in the world. I think you’re just going to have to see less hatred among groups, less bigotry, and, you know, racial groups, religious groups, whatever. I’ve got to admit I feel silly saying that. It sounds so kind of Pollyannaish. I feel like Rodney King, you know, saying, why can’t we all just get along? But hey, I don’t really see any alternative, given the way I read the situation. There’s going to have to be moral progress, OK. There’s going to have to be a lessening of the amount of hatred in the world, given how dangerous it’s becoming. In my defense, I’d say, as naive as this may sound, it’s ultimately grounded in cynicism.

That is to say—(Laughter)—thank you, thank you. That is to say, remember: my whole view of morality is that it boils down to self-interest. It’s when people’s fortunes are correlated. It’s when your welfare conduces to mine, that I decide, oh yeah, I’m all in favor of your welfare. That’s what’s responsible for this growth of this moral progress so far, and I’m saying we once again have a correlation of fortunes. And if people respond to it intelligently, we will see the development of tolerance and so on—the norms that we need, you know. We will see the further evolution of this kind of business-class morality.

So, these two things, you know, if they get people’s attention and drive home the positive correlation and people do what’s in their self-interests, which is further the moral evolution, then they could actually have a constructive effect. And that’s why I lump growing lethality of hatred and death spiral of negativity under the general rubric: reasons to be cheerful. (Laughter) Doing the best I can, okay. (Laughter) I never called myself Mr. Uplift. I’m just doing what I can here. (Laughter)

Now, launching a moral revolution has got to be hard, right? I mean, what do you do? And I think the answer is a lot of different people are going to have to do a lot of different things. We all start where we are. Speaking as an American who has children whose security 10, 20, 30 years down the road I worry about—what I personally want to start out doing is figuring out why so many people around the world hate us, OK. I think that’s a worthy research project myself. I also like it because it’s an intrinsically kind of morally redeeming exercise, Because to understand why somebody in a very different culture does something—somebody you’re kind of viewing as alien—who’s doing things you consider strange in a culture you consider strange, to really understand why they do the things they do is a morally redeeming accomplishment because you’ve got to relate their experience to yours. To really understand it, you’ve got to say, “Oh, I get it. So when they feel resentful, it’s kind of like the way I feel resentful when this happens, and for somewhat the same reasons.” That’s true understanding. And I think that is an expansion of your moral compass when you manage to do that.

It’s especially hard to do when people hate you, OK, because you don’t really want to completely understand why people hate you. I mean, you want to hear the reason, but you don’t want to be able to relate to it. You don’t want it to make sense, right? You don’t want to say, “Well, yeah, I can kind of understand how a human being in those circumstances would hate the country I live in.” That’s not a pleasant thing, but I think it’s something that we’re going to have to get used to and work on. Now, I want to stress that to understand, you know, there are people who don’t like this whole business of understanding the grassroots, the root causes of things; they don’t want to know why people hate us. I want to understand it. The reason you’re trying to understand why they hate us, is to get them to quit hating us, OK. The idea when you go through this moral exercise of really coming to appreciate their humanity and better understand them, is part of an effort to get them to appreciate your humanity in the long run. I think it’s the first step toward that. That’s the long-term goal.

There are people who worry about this, and in fact, I myself, apparently, was denounced on national TV a couple of nights ago because of an op-ed I’d written. It was kind of along these lines, and the allegation was that I have, quote, “affection for terrorists.” Now, the good news is that the person who said it was Ann Coulter, OK. (Laughter) (Applause) I mean, if you’ve got to have an enemy, do make it Ann Coulter. (Laughter) But it’s not a crazy concern, OK, because understanding behavior can lead to a kind of empathy, and it can make it a little harder to deliver tough love, and so on. But I think we’re a lot closer to erring on the side of not comprehending the situation clearly enough, than in comprehending it so clearly that we just can’t, you know, get the army out to kill terrorists.

So I’m not really worried about it. So—(Laughter)—I mean, we’re going to have to work on a lot of fronts, OK, but if we succeed—if we succeed—then once again, non-zero-sumness and the recognition of non-zero-sum dynamics will have forced us to a higher moral level. And a kind of saving higher moral level, something that kind of literally saves the world. If you look at the word salvation in the Bible—the Christian usage that we’re familiar with, saving souls, that people go to heaven—that’s actually a latecomer. The original meaning of the word salvation in the Bible is about saving the social system. “Yahweh is our Savior,” means “He has saved the nation of Israel,” which at the time, was a pretty high-level social organization.

Now, social organization has reached the global level, and I guess, if there’s good news I can say I’m bringing you, it’s just that all the salvation of the world requires is the intelligent pursuit of self-interests in a disciplined and careful way. It’s going to be hard. I say we give it a shot anyway because we’ve just come too far to screw it up now. Thanks. (Applause)