I know, I know, it’s been a rough year. Fury, discord, and hatred seem to be on the rise. The super-elite keep getting richer, while young workers keep getting poorer, and economic mobility has plummeted. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
And yet. Quietly, stubbornly, defying the headlines, bit by bit, around the world, slow shifts are underway towards a better world. Could they be erased by some kind of sudden disaster? Sure. And yet it’s hard to deny that profound changes for the better keep happening. I don’t mean to minimize the bad things. But minimizing the good things is just as misleading. Let’s itemize a few of them.
Renewable power costs have fallen off a cliff
The world got 9% more new renewable energy in 2016 … while spending 23% less on it. “Wind, solar, biomass and waste-to-energy, geothermal, small hydro and marine sources added 138.5 gigawatts to global power capacity in 2016, up almost 9 per cent … Investment in renewables capacity was roughly double that in fossil fuel generation; the corresponding new capacity from renewables was equivalent to 55% of all new power… The proportion of electricity coming from renewables excluding large hydro rose from 10.3 per cent to 11.3 per cent,” reports Science Daily. In a single year. That is amazing. From the same report: “Unsubsidised wind and solar can provide the lowest cost new electrical power in an increasing number of countries, even in the developing world — sometimes by a factor of two.” While you aren’t even looking, solar and wind are eating fossil fuels’ lunch.
Electrical self-driving cars are around the corner
Sure, you may sniff, but I still fill my car up with gas. Not for all that much longer. Everyone, not just Tesla, is going electric. Though admittedly only Tesla afaik is launching an electric transport truck, oh, yes, and several new Gigafactories. As for cleanly charging your electric car, I mean, they did buy SolarCity…
The culture wars are over, and freedom won
It’s easy to think that we’re in the midst of some kind of Neanderthal movement against greater liberty for individuals in the West. Let me remind you: this isn’t an overwhelming authoritarian tide, this is futile backlash against unprecedented progress. Twenty years ago, the notion that same-sex marriage would both be legal and wildly popular was unthinkable. The notion that broad swathes of America would legalize marijuana was a joke. The notion that people could build businesses around talking frankly about sex was, likewise, laughable. But here we are today: marriage freedom, THC freedom (I don’t even like the stuff myself, but it’s obviously a win for everyone), and sexual freedom, as personified by eg walking force of nature Cindy Gallop:
The era of privacy ignorance has ended
The NSA is ending some of the surveillance it performs on US persons. As a non-US-citizen, this strikes me as a half measure — but it’s a moot point, since this is clearly driven in part by the fact that, post-Snowden, the world is taking its privacy much more seriously. Vastly more Internet traffic is encrypted by default. More than a billion people now communicate via hardened end-to-end encryption by default (despite deeply irresponsible and ignorant hatchet jobs by publications that should know better.) I mean, people may still consciously choose to bug their homes with devices over which they have essentially no administrative control
but hey, at least now it’s a choice.
Poverty relief is getting better and more direct around the world
I have been anti-aid-industry for many years. Now, at last, a valid alternative has arisen: the radical notion of letting aid recipients decide how to spend the money allocated to them. Charities like GiveDirectly are doing just that, with a really admirable focus on gathering as much data as possible to test their thesis that this is effective aid and poverty relief, rather than claiming defensively that whatever they do must be unquestionably wonderful, which so often appears to be the aid-industry default. Meanwhile, in the developed world, my home province of Ontario is allocating a whopping C$150 million to a universal basic income pilot project. It’s an idea whose time has come.
My friends are doing awesome things
OK, this is personal and idiosyncratic and obviously doesn’t scale, but I’ve noticed that there’s been a huge upswing in people I know launching really excellent pro bono projects in the last six months, almost as if they feel there’s a sudden altruism vacuum that needs to be filled. For instance:
- My friend Christine, who spent the last year studying/tending a massive satellite dish at the South Pole, is now spending her summer launching the Summer App Space school, which will pay L.A. students to learn to program at Caltech, with a special focus on underprivileged students, and also immerse high-school teachers in their programming curriculum.
- My friend Star, who spent the last year building drones for Otherlab, has just launched Project Alloy, an initiative which offers financial grants for early-career tech people from underrepresented groups to help them attend tech conferences.
- My friend Al has quietly, over the last several years, published a really impressive shelf of Python programming books — all profits from which are donated to the EFF.
- Uh, he said uncomfortably, not to be entirely left out, I’m working on a pet-project open-source community-time-banking site myself, although it’s a long way and a bunch of work away from being ready for a beta launch.
YIMBYism is slowly taking root
This is pretty specific to the Bay Area, but I live there, so: there seems to be, finally, an understanding that supply and demand do in fact apply to Bay Area real estate, and that being against building more housing is, basically, morally wrong. Of course huge swathes of people, especially homeowners, are still against building more housing. But they’re defensive about it now; they realize that their stance is becoming socially unacceptable. That’s at least a start.
Everyone accepts that web ads are terrible
Most display ads today are noxious and awful. Mobile pages are the worst; they freeze your browser, autoplay, dump you into videos when you try to X them out, and occupy both most of your real estate and most of your bandwidth. Admitting that you have a problem is the first step, right? Facebook is trying to improve the ads that it shows. (Yes, I know, Facebook, but still.) Google is apparently planning a built-in ad blocker for Chrome. (Yes, I know, Google, but still.) Brave keeps doing really interesting things with their browser. Maybe one day we will look on this era of the mobile web as some kind of laughable nadir. That seems to be, at least — as with all of the above — a legitimate hope.