The Optimist

The Optimist

In the 17th century, it was fairly optimistic to believe that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Alas! Humanity has reached the ultimate knowledge concerning astronomy. 

When Galileo started to promote a heliocentric theory, he indirectly challenged the Catholic Church’s authority and their interpretation of the Word of God. At the time, few things were regarded as more pessimistic than this.

But Galileo has proven to be an optimist. We now know that, after centuries of observation, the Earth is merely 1 of many planets orbiting the Sun. Humanity was lightyears from achieving ultimate knowledge.

John F. Kennedy beautifully demonstrated Galileo’s optimism when he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

What Kennedy meant by “hard” was facing the unknown. The success of the moon landing depended on “solutions not yet discovered to problems not yet known.”

This is optimism: knowing that problems are inevitable but having the means to solve them, even though we might not know how yet.

The world is scattered with optimistic missions challenging “ultimate knowledge”. At some point, few could imagine a phone without a physical keyboard, Kodak cameras seemed undeniable, and NASA’s non-reusable space ships were standard. 

Today, woolly mammoths are extinct, and it’s hard to imagine ever living amongst them one day again.

Martin Rees feared that humanity was on the same trajectory as the woolly mammoth. In his book, Our Final Century, he came to the depressing conclusion that we now only have a 50% chance of surviving this century. One of the things he feared was that a genetically modified organism would escape a laboratory, resulting in a pandemic of an incurable disease. And no, he didn’t write this in the past few years; he wrote this almost 2 decades ago.

Rees didn’t intend to prophesy, and, as Deutsch explained in his book, The Beginning of Infinity, “[He was] warning that unless we solve certain problems in time, we are doomed. But that has always been true, and always will be. Problems are inevitable, and progress consists of solving them.”

Stephen Hawking contrasted Rees’ sentiment by echoing Deutsch:

I don't think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I'm an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.

All optimistic missions are initially countered as lunacy or heresy. Ask Galileo. “But he’s dead.” That’s precisely my point. Problems are inevitable but soluble.

Prehistoric animals couldn’t help themselves, but we can.

So, with this as a backdrop, here’s to my fellow product designers, managers, engineers, et al: The work we put into the world will inevitably have problems; we’ll misinterpret customer needs, software will break, people will complain, and we might end up doubting ourselves.

We could be pessimists, but we can also use criticism and creativity to solve these problems. 

We could be optimists.

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