Some of us are wired to think the world is going to hell in a handcart. And some of us are not

[Update: See note at bottom.] First, I love you all. I love you Obama supporters and you McCain supporters. I love you Macs and I love you PCs. I love you economists who think the credit crisis “rescue plan/bailout” is a necessary thing and I love you economists who think it’s too little, too late — or too much, too early. I love physicists who build particle colliders and I love luddites who convince themselves particle colliders will set off a chain reaction that will suck the earth into a black hole.

I love you all because you bring a balance to the world. A ying and yang. And comic relief.

Take the stock market last week. You buyers (I love you) and you sellers (I love you, too) drove the market up and down in a historic way — and yet the market ended the week at nearly the same spot it began. That’s comic relief. And that’s why I love you.

I hope it’s apparent that I’ve declared myself to be a member of the glass-half-full side of the equation. I’ve read and experienced enough history to believe that Franklin Roosevelt summed it all up in a statement that could be fit into a less-than-140-character Twitter tweet: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

But I hope it’s apparent that I have respect for those who disagree with me. I get it. I understand your fear and your proclivity to view the world in terms of entropy, decline and death. I understand why people buy books and attend seminars on why and how they should store up food for Y2K and build giant fences along borders. I disagree with them, but I get it.

Which brings me to why I started writing this post. I read this piece in today’s New York Times called, “Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds.”

And while I think technology does both, I am clearly in the “innovation is good” camp. The article refers to a quote by one of my go-to thinkers, Paul Saffo :

“Paul Saffo, the futurist, says he could divide the technology world into two kinds of people: engineers and natural scientists. He says the world outlook of the engineer is by nature optimistic. Every problem can be solved if you have the right tools and enough time and you pose the correct questions. Other people, who can be just as scientific, see the natural order of the world in terms of entropy, decline and death.”

Perhaps that’s what this is all about. Some of us view the world as physical scientists: we see everything breaking, declining and dying. We see that even about ourselves (and for most of us, our bodies are breaking as we age). We see it about institutions like government and media. We see it about our cities and our economies and our churches and schools — and all social structures. And some of us view the world as engineers: we see all things — especially broken things — as something that needs improving or fixing — and that can be fixed. And we start looking for the right tools.

We need scientists and we need engineers.

I love them both but I was wired to be an engineer.

Followup: I e-mailed Paul Saffo to see if he could point me in the direction of where he discusses the natural scientist vs. engineer comparison. He told me he is working on a follow-up piece, but that this article about global warming that appeared last year on is what is being referred to. Sidenote: Corresponding with Paul also helped me discover that, while he doesn’t blog (something I’ve wished publicly on this blog he would do), he does maintain a dead-tree journal and essays from those journals are showing up here , complete with RSS feed. Thanks, Paul.

  • An excellent post, Rex, but it misses the point that human behavior really isn’t amenable to engineering. Just look around! I love you too. Ha!

  • Rex, this is a wonderful piece about the natural balance life itself seeks. As a natural observer, I have enjoyed watching the proverbial seesaw on the playground tilt back and forth in my limited studies of history and review of today’s news.

    Let me ask, I was most likely born a glass is half-empty kind of personality, but have been rigorously training my mind to seek opportunity rather than defeat. Obviously, when times get tough, and our behavioral energies get sapped, we resort to our most natural behavior patters. Would you think there are some role our environment plays in our mentalities?

    Warmest Regards,

  • You know what I struggle with?

    How can I distinguish “fearless” from “careless”.

    (That sound you just heard was me falling into the depths of existential depression.)

  • I always knew there was a reason that even though my major is Computer Science I prefer the title of Software Engineer 🙂

  • @Ken, @Jackson: It’s a good thing we have optimists and pessimists. I think that both responses are baked into our DNA as our ancestors needed both to survive. I think fear (and the fight or flight response) is good and keeps us from being careless. I think having some folks who are crazy enough to see opportunity in any situation are termed “fearless” only when they succeed, often against great odds. I think most people are best served by following their own instincts, be it pessimism or optimism.

    Oh, and here’s one of my observations of life: Engineers marry Scientists.

  • It is said that there’s as much spiritual growth in the final years of life as there is physical growth in the first. Growth and decline together.

  • I find I’m always thinking, no matter how inexorable the slide to hell is, that there’s something to be fixed and the eventual possibility of a reversal, even if that possibility is infinitesimally small. I guess that makes me an Engineer.

    One of the things I find when talking to (or arguing with) Scientists is that they regard that possibility as idle, or that the existence or absence of that possibility has little bearing on their actions. It’s something not often worth considering, certainly not worth considering to any great extent. Engineer friends, on the other hand, seem to take that possibility as a starting point and extrapolate a whole net of natural consequences, almost unconsciously it seems, that are the basis of actions in the now. Both approaches quite often lead to the same action, especially if the Scientist and Engineer are arguing at the time. Exchange of ideas.

  • I think the world is going to hell in a handcart (I had never heard anyone say “handcart” before. I always thought it was “handbasket.”) but I don’t think it’s because of technology.

    I also think that the people who allow themselves to be dumbed down by technology would be dumbed down anyway by something else, even if technology never came along. Innovation is always good, we just need to be willing to take responsibility for its side effects.