Americans are pessimistic about the future. Opinion polls confirm what most of us get from daily news; because of profound political disagreements, we are unlikely to reach any consensus on issues like health care, immigration, climate change, guns, abortion, and many others.
That depressing tune dominates in Medium’s recommendations. America is declining into a dystopian nightmare, as claims the article that Medium editors recommended to me recently on the top of their daily emails. Every day brings a new dose of the doomsday scenario porn, as some call it.
The future has the splendid past
That was the mantra of the late Stefan Bratkowski, one of the brightest minds of contemporary Poland. The written human history reaches a few thousand years back. We might have fancier toys, but whatever challenges we face today, they are variations of problems others encountered before. I worked with Stefan half a century ago and can say that the challenges we faced then, at their core, were similar to issues Americans deal with today.
At that time, Poland was a part of the Soviet bloc. There was an overwhelming conviction that, due to political constraints, there was not much we could do to shape our future. The unofficial but common mantra was that individuals should go into survival mode, milking the system and hoping that one day a knight on a white horse would arrive and fix everything. I find that mood akin to the doomsayers in the United States today, claiming that our political system has reached the point of dysfunctionality that is not even worth trying to fix.
Bratkowski was one of those who had no illusions about the knight on the white horse. Success does not arrive as a gift. One needs to work for it.
For most of us, prosperity means affordable conveniences. Bratkowski often provocatively stated that there should be nothing political about making cars or breeding pigs. We know the right ways to do it at a given stage of science and technology.
Everything is political
About a year before I joined Bratkowski’s team, I had a chance to ask a well-informed politician what the Polish government intended to do about permanent food shortages. That politician was stupid enough to tell me the truth. Most farms in Poland were tiny family operations not suitable for modern agriculture. Large private farms would be more efficient. If the government allowed that, in every county, several of the wealthiest farmers would soon have more political power than the ruling party had. That politician candidly stressed that the ruling party would never give up its political power.
From petty everyday experiences, most Poles got the same message despite not being told that so explicitly. At that time, buoyant, young baby boomers were entering adulthood. In his flagship venture, Życie i Nowoczesność, (Life and Modernity), a weekly insert to Życie Warszawy (Warsaw’s Life), the main daily in the Warsaw region, Bratkowski tried to leverage the energy of the youth to modernize the nation by implementing new technologies and science. He knew that in Polish reality, even pig breeding could be political, but he tested the system in the public view.
His support for a Polish minicomputer K-202, which was abreast with the worldwide state of the art, became that “one drop too many” for apparatchiks. Bratkowski and his team were fired and got “wolf tickets,” banning them from being published in major publications. They lost their jobs but won in public opinion by proving that the political system was the main obstacle to a better future. The genie was out of the bottle.
When we look at the United States today, the most comparable would be the attempt to make the health care system work, proudly announced in January 2018 by the three pillars of American business – Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Jamie Dimon. Three years later, they gave up. Buffett said they “were fighting a tapeworm in the American economy. And the tapeworm won.” They lost, acknowledging politics as having been the major obstacle.
Paul Krugman was right
Some may argue that comparing the United States to Poland under Soviet domination is a stretch. I would disagree because the cases of politics obstructing prosperity might be different, but the mechanics are the same.
Interestingly, Paul Krugman compares the current political situation in the United States to the 18th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. By the end of the 16th century, it was the largest and wealthiest regional superpower. Then it gradually weakened. For most of the 18th century, it was apparent that the nation would collapse if not reformed. Despite much lofty talking, none of the attempts prevented its ultimate loss of independence in 1795. In his column “America Is Not Yet Lost,” Krugman saw the gridlock of the current political system in the United States as analogous to Polish indolence in the 18th century. Sadly, no one at The New York Times or any other major media outlet can let the genie out of the bottle by explaining the cause.
The third rail on the railroad to the future
Hot political issues are like that third rail; touching it could be deadly. It would be safer to get rid of that third rail, but we have it because it is the most efficient way to power the trains. Engineers are not afraid of the third rail. They know how to use that rail to propel trains. Why can we not use politics the same way to thrust us as a society to achieve a better future? What are we missing?
We fail to communicate in times of phenomenal development of communication technology
We need more than technology for a better future. Despite better communication abilities than any prior generation, we do not resolve our problems faster or better. The opposite has happened; more falsehoods are spreading, or at least more of us do not trust what others proclaim as the truth. What happened, and how can we get out of it?
Our future depends on our ability to address that conundrum. We might use modern technology to address it, but AI will not do this for us. To figure out what to do and how, we need the same technology that Socrates had.
How is the sausage of gloom and doom made?
CNN has its truth, and so does Fox News. Their respective gullible viewers swallow everything unconditionally and condemn their adversaries without even checking.
Skeptics trust neither and seek the truth from the galaxy of self-professed prophets all over the internet. All of them preach the truth, their truth. But those closer to the truth do not make more money than the liars. The money goes to those who can lure a bigger audience for their chant.
Americans are in a decadent mood because most of them smell the rotten meat in the media. They feel they are lied to and do not know whom they can trust.
Part of the problem is that with technological advancements, our economy and social life have become more complex. Many Americans have a poor general education; they do not understand the technology they use and lack basic knowledge of the economy and finances. They are easy targets for all sorts of misinformation.
Stone Age politics
In 2009, I was involved in the public debate about the proposed health care reform, now known as Obamacare. I soon realized that in a country proud to be founded on reason, feelings and emotions guided the critical discussion of our times.
Mobs were called to action and brought to the public square to shout whatever they were told to yell. It looked like a world where a decision table was an invention thousands of years from being discovered. It looked like a nation without universities, where most people could not conduct a basic logical deduction. Microsoft and Google seemed galactic distances away. It was a reality where fears, prejudices, and other emotions dominated over reason. It was a Stone Age society in action.
No one even attempted to use the knowledge about decision-making that is used daily in commerce.
There will be no prosperity in the future without the truth in the present
Our dysfunctional health care is just one of our fundamental problems that, if not resolved betimes, can make irrelevant even the most exciting investments that the all smart Silicon Valley investors make in new technologies. We will be too poor to afford it.
A business needs the truth to succeed. It means accurate information about the market and the competition. For the leaders, the company’s best interest should be the priority. Transparency in communication should build trustful relationships with employees, customers, and business partners. The lack of permeable communication leads to falsehoods. It never goes unpunished.
The same principle applies to the welfare of the nation. Societies that can genuinely discuss their problems are wealthier than those that do not. There is no way to build prosperity on falsehoods. The New York Times recently reported that political elites realize that misinformation paralyzes our abilities to function. But the article concludes that the problem itself makes us unable to talk about the problem.
That article describes the failed attempts by the administration in trying to determine what the truth is. It conveniently avoids the question of whose job is it to inform Americans? It is not the job of the government. It is the job of the media, foremost the major outlets, like the NYT. We have the disinformation problem because the editors at The New York Times do not do their job. It is not an excuse that other media giants are not better. I posted a comment on the NYT website with that message, but moderators there did not approve it for publication. By doing that, they confirmed that the problem itself makes us unable to talk about the problem because they are part of it. It means they will do nothing to fix it. Who will?
The money is in the truth
Most media experts would disagree. They do not see profit in delivering the truth but in aggregating followers and telling them what they like to hear.
The experts are wrong. People are sick and tired of being lectured. They do not want to hear again what someone else believes the truth is. Americans feel competent in sorting the data and verifying the logic of any argument. They want convenient access to the relevant information. They yearn for a modern application allowing easy comparison of different points of view.
The money is not in telling the audience what one believes the truth is. It is in assisting people in fulfilling their inner desire to find out what the truth is for them.
Strictly speaking, not everyone who spends endless hours chatting about nothing on Facebook cares about finding the truth. But we have civilization because among us are enough people with the drive to learn and improve life. Disinformation impedes their abilities. Without them thriving, the future is hopeless.
The iPhone moment in media
A few recent technological developments have brought us many everyday conveniences and made our work more efficient, ergo made most of us richer, but none so much as the smartphone.
Now we know that engineers at major mobile phone manufacturers had prototypes of smartphones years earlier. Managers killed the idea. They saw the public fascination with the big-screen TVs and the industry’s chase to make cellular phones as small as possible. They could not imagine why people would want awkwardly large mobile phones with inconveniently small screens.
Steve Jobs saw an opportunity to turn a phone into a personal assistant; the rest is history.
One can see an analogy to the situation in media today. As those managers who killed the smartphone idea, the minds of today’s media leaders are locked in the concept of proclaiming the truth and shielding the audience from the alleged falsehood.
The truth is not a static revelation that needs professing and protection from challengers. It emerges from the never-ending process of us challenging what we know so far. The concept of the truth as it is dominating in the American media is false.
Unless we figure out a way to change it, the future of America is gloomy.