This past week, on a radio show, I was asked to weigh in on the question, “Are things getting better or worse?”
(It must still be January! Have you ever noticed: Once February comes, it’s no longer acceptable to step back and assess the course of history…)
Moderator: “So, are things getting better or worse? Chris, let’s turn to you. What do you think?”
“Yes,” I replied.
I hope these reflections help spark your own.
Say No to Simple Truths
In a talk I gave at TED last year, I highlighted our addiction to simple truths as the social cancer that we need to beat in the 2020s. For me, this interview question is a great example of that addiction, and of how dangerous it can be.
Are things getting better or for worse? Either way we try to answer that question, we are highlighting some proofs, and ignoring others.
First Complication: The Whole vs The Parts
One academic on the panel argued the optimistic side of the question. Just take life expectancy. Globally, on average, “how long we can expect to live” has improved by 20 years over the past two generations. Similarly dramatic gains have been made in education, in climbing out of poverty, in access to clean water. I could go on and on and on.
But right now the big picture looks very different from the perspective of winners versus losers. So are we talking about things in aggregate, or in contrast? That’s the first complication we need to add back to the conversation. Because right now, for example: the difference in life expectancy between the best- and worst-performing districts in the United States, is two full decades. Global gains disappear on the other side of town. Up until the opioid epidemic, life expectancy across Canada and the US was rising as much as four hours per day, on average. Now it’s falling in both countries. So, just like in business, improvements in the bottom line can mask big problems higher up the ledger.
Second Complication: Opportunities vs Risks
The second complication we need to add back is: Are we focusing on opportunities or risks? Take A.I. and machine learning. The opportunities fill us with so much hope. Imagine: every small-town clinic gaining access to the same expert medical diagnosis to look through your test results that right now you can only enjoy in big cities, or at the Mayo Clinic. But the risks are just as mind-boggling. What about the algorithm that are getting so good at diagnosing (and mimicking) online behavior, that I can’t tell what’s real and what’s machine-generated?
We are naïve to think that we will take preventive steps — individually, as businesses, as society — to avoid these risks entirely. More likely, we’ll learn the hard way. But upon whom, specifically, will that burden of learning fall?
Third Complication: My Values vs Yours
Are things getting better or worse? The third complication this question invites us to bring back is a conversation about values. Take immigration. Myself, I tend to think that diversity is a good thing. The less same, the more different, our communities become, the more resilient we become — to everything from infectious disease to infectious ideologies.
Not everyone thinks the way I do. Many people worry that too much diversity puts important values at risk — values that have grown out of our community’s unique history and experience. Maybe that value some dimension of equality: religious, racial, gender, sexual orientation. Maybe that value is a social behaviour, like orderliness, or traditions, or reverence for our holy sites.
So where I see progress, others see loss.
Fourth Complication: My Agenda vs Yours
Are things getting better or worse? The fourth complication the question invites us to reveal is our own agendas. As a political scientist whose main area of study has been China’s rise in the 21st century, I can’t help but see the power at stake on both sides of this question. If I am in power and trying to keep it, then let me tell you: things are getting better — and will keep getting better so long as I’m in charge. If I’m out of power and vying for it, you can bet that things are getting worse by the day.
How to Search for Stronger Truths
A Call To Question
So are things getting better or worse? There is an answer to this question. But we can’t possess it. We can only search for it, together. The answer is simple and divisive. The search is complex and demands cooperation. And, if undertaken in the spirit of discovery, can lead to a stronger, more complete and collective truth.
What is a simple, divisive truth that you see or hear? Can you turn it into a collective search for something stronger?