As anyone who checks the date will recognize, life sucks right now, for almost everyone. There is a pandemic. Many countries have failed to control the pandemic. The American government’s response has been a mixture of incompetence and outright sabotage. Confidence in many institutions is at a record low. It’s normal to be pessimistic.
However, there’s a particular form of pessimistic writing which, although it seems natural, is just making everything worse. I call this Vague Pessimism, and I think of it as negative writing that:
a) tells the reader nothing which he doesn’t already know;
b) makes no specific or falsifiable predictions, and doesn’t outline the “bad” scenario in any real detail;
c) suggests no courses of meaningful action, either explicitly or implicitly.
For example, there have been thousands of articles describing Trump’s authoritarian tendencies. Most of them aren’t wrong, exactly. However, the large majority contain no real new information – they are just punditry, or new examples of patterns that have been rehashed hundreds of times. The overwhelming majority have no suggestions for action, beyond just voting against Trump, which most readers already will. And, remarkably, I can’t remember reading one plausible analysis of what would happen if Trump did win. How would the US function in 2030, if Trump were President-for-Life? What would happen to state governments? Companies? Congress? Left-wing voters and political groups? Such a scenario would inevitably have wrong details, but if one is so concerned about it, one should at least try making a sketch.
Likewise, there have been thousands of articles describing the US government’s pandemic failure. It might be interesting to discuss the details of how a particular failure occurred (eg., what, exactly, happened inside the CDC). It would be good to predict the eventual outcome of the virus, so people know what to expect. And, of course, it would be great to either fix the government, or discover better ways around it, so fixes are less necessary. But a general diagnosis of “failure”, or a general prediction of “doom”, doesn’t add anything to anyone’s life. It’s the mental equivalent of playing Starcraft for fifty straight hours, only less fun.
The purpose of an alarm, the reason why anyone would build an alarm, is so that people can listen and change their thoughts or behavior. When there are too many false, repetitive, or non-actionable warnings, people develop alarm fatigue, and stop doing anything – a car alarm is not a heroic call to action, but an terrible noise that everyone hates. Unfortunately, market incentives have still driven the creation of ever-louder, ever-more-useless alarms, which might be part of why Trump was elected to begin with. Just as fast food companies have invented snacks that make you hungrier, the Internet has invented writing that seems to inform you, but quickly gives you a stomach-ache, and leaves you wanting more. I’m not sure how one could eliminate this trend – use GPT-4 to write the articles, so people take them less seriously? – but one can at least recognize it when it pops up, and then stop wasting time.
There are many sources of Vague Pessimism, but I’ll highlight Twitter as an especially egregious offender. Twitter almost functions as a Venus fly trap – it has enough good content to lure you in, but then uses machine learning to slowly pull you towards outrage, repetition, clickbait, and fake news. It looks controllable by the user, but this is largely an illusion. If you unfollow accounts that post bad content, Twitter will insert “suggestions” from stuff you don’t follow. If you get rid of those, Twitter will still show the “what’s happening” and “trending” tab. If you block that, maybe with a browser extension, it will still show loud controversies from tangentially-related accounts (even ones you don’t follow) below any given thread. If you set the feed to “most recent first”, it will automatically un-set it for you every few days. Once the person is in, it’s then easy for content to be dominated by Vague Pessimism, since it’s easier to compress vagueness than concreteness. It’s terrible, and I would pay serious money for a Twitter -> RSS converter for the good authors on there.
Leaving aside Vague Pessimism, there are many real, valid reasons for specific pessimism. The world is not great right now. But it’s worth being aware that almost everyone sees the world through a tinted filter. Just as Chinese state media only prints good news, many American outlets will only print bad news; there were tons of articles about the mask shortage, for example, but no one said anything when masks became freely available on Amazon in mid-April. Despite being a professional nerd with an interest in biotech, and even though I specifically searched for (non-COVID) vaccine trials several months ago, I only learned today that there were two late-stage HIV vaccine studies now underway (source, source, H/T Laura Vaughan). And almost no one runs stories about systems that don’t fail; there were no headlines reading “Power Grid Remains Operational”, “Europeans Still Not Starving”, “Peace Treaty Continues to Hold” or “Internet Backbone Not Overloaded”. Something to keep in mind.