Writing in Bloomberg View:
The reason mid-20th-century Americans were optimistic about the future wasn’t that science-fiction writers told cool stories about space travel. Science-fiction glamour in fact worked on only a small slice of the public... People believed the future would be better than the present because they believed the present was better than the past. They constantly heard stories -- not speculative, futuristic stories but news stories, fashion stories, real-estate stories, medical stories -- that reinforced this belief. They remembered epidemics and rejoiced in vaccines and wonder drugs. They looked back on crowded urban walk-ups and appreciated neat suburban homes. They recalled ironing on sweaty summer days and celebrated air conditioning and wash-and-wear fabrics. They marveled at tiny transistor radios and dreamed of going on airplane trips.
Then the stories changed. For good reasons and bad, more and more Americans stopped believing in what they had once viewed as progress. Plastics became a punch line, convenience foods ridiculous, nature the standard of all things right and good. Freeways destroyed neighborhoods. Urban renewal replaced them with forbidding Brutalist plazas... Little by little, the number of modern offenses grew until we found ourselves in a 21st century where some of the most educated, affluent and cultural influentially people in the country are terrified of vaccinating their children. Nothing good, they’ve come to think, comes from disturbing nature.
Optimistic science fiction does not create a belief in technological progress. It reflects it. Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people -- that, in short, leaves out consumers. This perspective is particularly odd coming from a fiction writer and a businessman whose professional work demonstrates a keen sense of what people will buy. People are justifiably wary of grandiose plans that impose major costs on those who won’t directly reap their benefits. They’re even more wary if they believe that the changes of the past have brought only hardship and destruction...
Storytelling does have the potential to rekindle an ideal of progress. The trick is not to confuse pessimism with sophistication or, conversely, to demand that optimism be naive. The past, like the present and the future, was made by complicated and imperfect people. Recapturing a sense of optimism requires stories that accept the ambiguities of history -- and of life -- while recognizing genuine improvements.