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

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

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.

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Thank you.


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