The Paranoid Optimist by Charlie Jane Anders at TEDxHarvardCollege (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of author of All The Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders’ TEDx Talk titled ‘The Paranoid Optimist’ at TEDxHarvardCollege conference.

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All the Birds in the Sky



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Charlie Jane Anders – Writer

I am an unflinching optimist. I’m also convinced that awful things are going to happen and everything is going to suck. A lot of my work as a creative writer of science fiction and other kinds of fiction is kind of an attempt to come to terms with that apparent contradiction. I believe that people mostly do their best and that the world is inclined towards progress.

Every day on, which is the site about the science and science fiction that I edit, we feature stories about amazing discoveries, and part of what I love about being a science fiction writer is getting to imagine all the incredible things that we’re going to learn, and build, and create. Science fiction to me is in part the literature of problem-solving. Just as a detective solves murders, the science fiction hero solves scientific problems, and I love that. And our ability as a species to solve problems has had a huge impact on my life personally. There are people I care so much about who are only alive today because of medical breakthroughs that we’ve made pretty recently. And I’m only standing here in front of you as a whole person because society has started opening its collective mind to gender differences, and science has radically changed what’s possible for the human body. How could I not believe in progress?

But I also spend a lot of my time freaking out about all the ways that this could all go to hell. We built the most complicated economic system the world has ever seen, and we overlooked huge major vulnerabilities in that system. Meanwhile, we’ve been screwing around with another incredibly complex system that we didn’t fully understand: our own climates.

I’ve studied enough history to know that everything fails eventually, and that this is an inevitable thing, and I stay up late at nights sometimes, just thinking about the ways that that could happen to us. For billions of people around the world, this already doesn’t feel like some kind of shiny future in the making. I think that all of our shit could come tumbling down at any time. And the fact that pop culture, which we write about on io9, is full of apocalypses and medieval dystopias makes me think that I am not alone in this. I think that we have a lot of checks that are going to come due; we have to be aware of that. So I obsess about this and the ways in which we’re probably doomed.

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So when I’m writing these stories and making up these fictions, I’m kind of creating a sort of creative active will. I am imagining people solving problems and figuring things out. I’m sort of figuring things out at the same time that my characters do, and that sort of helps me to kind of grapple with my total hyperventilating paranoia about all the floods, and plagues, and wars, and famines, and death camps that could be in our near future. And it’s my way of trying to reconcile my faith in progress, and my total dread and paranoia about the potential horrors that could wait us.

So part of what I do is: sometimes I actually pit human ingenuity against the actual apocalypse, and show how we can deal with it. Also, I will take two very different ways of looking at the world and the future, and try to bring them together and put them side by side. Probably my best-known short story, “Six Months, Three Days”, is about a man who sees a fixed unchanging future and a woman who can see many different possible futures and choose among them. They’re both clairvoyant, but in different ways. Superficially, that’s about fate and free will, but when you scratch the surface one layer below, it’s all about fatalism and optimism, and trying to reconcile those two things.

And then, building on that my new novel, “All the Birds in the Sky”, which comes out in January, is about a witch named Patricia and a mad scientist named Laurence, and they have very different ways of looking at the world and their relationship. So it’s about magic and science, and sort of looking those as two ways of seeing everything.

And what I found in the course of writing that book “All the Birds in the Sky” is that a lot of our optimism about the future really comes from science, and technology, and our faith in invention, and a lot of our paranoia and dread about the future comes from our feelings about nature. You either believe that we are going to invent our way out of the problems that we’re facing as our population hits incredible nine billion people, or you think that nature is going to exact a steep price for our hubris.

So, I’m writing about a witch who sees herself as connected to nature, and a mad scientist who’s all about computers, and machines, and devices. What I sort of decided in the course of that is that these things that seem to be opposites are actually not really opposites at all, and this dichotomy between science and nature, or technology and nature, is like most dichotomies, a false one. You know, nature is actually a human construct. We invented nature to describe things that we did not make ourselves. That’s not even true, because what we think of as “nature” was actually shaped by our ancestors over tens of thousands of years using tools. We are nature and nature is us. I’m a huge, huge believer in the thesis-antithesis-synthesis thing and also in the “I contain multitudes” thing, and in the idea that reconciling our oppositions, our apparent contradictions, makes us more sophisticated as people.

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So when I think about an optimistic view of the future, I think of one where we stop thinking of nature and technology as opposites, or separate, and start thinking of them as two parts of the same thing. I don’t believe that computers are going to become super-brilliant and turn us into cybernetic gods who are going to live forever on the Internet. I wouldn’t actually want to live on the Internet. Would you? Show of hands who wants to live on the Internet forever. OK, nobody. Yeah. God, that sounds like hell.

You know, I believe that the cities of the future will look more like wild spaces rather than the shining spires you see in classic futurism. And I believe that technology will be cultivated as much as built, and that we are going to have to start trying to see nature as part of us. And that’s part of what happens in my novels, that even if you have magical powers, and you can talk to birds and other creatures, and can turn into a bird, and can commune with the spirits of nature, you’re still projecting your own human ideas onto nature, and kind of anthropomorphizing everything, and you have to learn to kind of see nature as part of yourself in a way in order to understand it. So I really think that we need to adapt ourselves to nature at the same time as we continue to adapt nature to ourselves, because that’s the process that’s been going on for tens of thousands of years, and ideally then, synthesis becomes symbiosis.

So I think we really do need to be pessimistic about the problems that we are facing as we reach 9 billion people, and yet optimistic about our ability to solve them. As one of the characters in “All the Birds in the Sky” says, “Humans build machines the way spiders spin silk.” That’s our nature. But the thing about nature is, it’s adaptable. And in order to survive the future, and what’s coming next, we really have to start thinking about the world in a whole new way, and that’s going to be a brand new journey of the imagination, and I, for one, cannot wait to see it.

Thank you.