Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 1
Good Indicators: A Bird’s Eye View of 2023
Featuring Zachary Karabell & Emma Varvaloucas
What’s going on with “the economy”? Is now the best time to be in love in all of human history? Should we be worried about the global state of democracy? “What Could Go Right?” hosts Zachary Karabell, founder of The Progress Network, and Emma Varvaloucas, executive director of The Progress Network, take a look at the world as it currently is and as it could be in 2023.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And we are kicking off our fourth season, although it’s sort of a adumbrated fourth season in that it’s really over the past two years of our ongoing series of conversations, What Could Go Right?, sponsored by our Progress Network, to try to inject a different sensibility into the collective discourse, one which I think most of us find is largely defined by a kind of despairing doomscrolling. One thing we would ask of every listener, because we’re trying to crowdsource this as well as trying to figure this out ourselves, is what would be the opposite of doomscrolling. If doomscrolling is the obsessive relentless pursuit of all that is wrong with the world, what would the alternative be in a social media scrolly context? What kind of word would it be? Hopesurfing? Anyway, we’re trying to figure out a good phrase because insofar as that doesn’t even exist as an idea, that’s part of the problem as to why we are in such a collective doom loop. And by collective, I certainly mean the United States, but to some degree, that could be said of Europe. And one of the, I think, results of the past three years of pandemic and its aftermath has been that most parts of the world have become much more culturally negative about the present and certainly about the future. A lot of the point of The Progress Network was also based on a simple concept that isn’t entirely provable, but is certainly observable historically, which is that societies that are convinced that their future is going to be worse tend to be caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you really believe that the future is corrupt, that the present is a morass of dysfunction, and that it’s only gonna lead to worse things going forward, you’d tend not to believe in your collective capacity to solve problems. And we know there are plenty of cultures around the world, plenty of states at one time or another that get locked in their own dysfunction. And often, that leads to intense short-termism. I wanna get mine while I can. It leads to high levels of collective distrust. If everyone else is trying to get theirs while they can in some sort of Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world, then why should I bother working with people? I’m gonna try to work with my clan and my tribe and my people if I have those and get what I can. And it’s also– raises the whole question of why would you invest in a business? Why would you do a startup? Why would you try to work for government? Why would you try to attend to the commons if you don’t believe that there’s any point? If you believe it’s all gonna go downhill quickly, you might as well pursue your own self-interest because there’s no point in pursuing a collective interest. And I think societies that get mired in that have a hard time getting out of their own way. And certainly, there are elements of that in the United States now, there are elements of that in Europe now, there are elements of that throughout the world. And I would like our future to be a more uplifting place. I would like our future to be the manifestation of our dreams and that there has been progress over the past centuries in terms of human capacity to solve for disease, not all disease, to solve for war, not all war, to solve for how do we live together without killing one another? Or how do we live together in a way that creates our future and our hopes and our dreams? And so that’s what is behind The Progress Network. It’s not a pollyannish disregard for the problems. It’s a sense that the sensibility that we bring to those problems matters hugely in whether or not we can solve them. So Emma and I will be having conversations, as we have for the past seasons with, with people who are writing books or whose ongoing work is applicable with that sensibility to science, to politics, to religion, to global affairs, to economics, to culture, not with any particular animating principle other than an animating sensibility that we can solve our problems and that outrage and fear and despair are not usually a good foundation for constructing a society and building a future. So what do you think, Emma?
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): I mean, that sounds pretty good. I hope people are gonna be along for the ride with us. I’m certainly ready for season four. I’m ready to pass our infectiousness and our excitement along as far as we can.
EV: Are you ready to start our first episode of the season?
ZK: I am, especially given that this one’s just going to be a conversation between the two of us and not involve an interview. Most of the subsequent ones will, but this one we thought, to set the stage, it would just be us musing on the world as it is and a little bit about the world as we think it might be.
EV: Right. So this little bird’s eye view of, let’s say, good indicators of things that have just happened and things to come. So I’m gonna start us out with something– since it’s so close to Valentine’s Day probably when people are listening to this or within the last few weeks, you know, we have someone writing an article for us on The Progress Network named Tony Morley. And he came to us with the premise of now is the best time ever to be married or unmarried [laughs], right?
EV: Like, more people than ever can get married if they want to, and it’s also easier to leave bad and abusive marriages. So along that premise, I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the LGBTQ rights that have been trending across the world. It’s interesting because in the US, we kind of seem to be in this mindset of we’re kind of going backwards a little bit or like things are really messy with that, but actually, there’s a really strong global trend towards better LGBTQ rights. So, just in the last few weeks, Slovenia passed same-sex marriage. They legalized same-sex marriage. And also now, the Church of England, as of February, will also bless same-sex marriages, which is like, wow, like, you know, the church.
Audio Clip: – a two-day debate in the Anglican church’s parliament, but it’s an issue that’s been wrangled over for years.
We’ve spent decades even trying to argue for the church to say anything positive in a corporate way about same-sex relationships. Today was that day. Today, General Synod said and affirmed there is good in same-sex relationships. This is part of God’s good creation. And for me, that’s a wonderful first step.
EV: So those are some things that just happened, and then looking into 2023, Sri Lanka said it will decriminalize gay sex, which is fascinating because most of the places that still criminalize gay sex, it’s about a little over half of Africa, a lot of the Middle East and some parts of Asia. Like these are kind of the holdouts, so to speak. So it’s fascinating to see Sri Lanka move in that direction, and India is also gearing up. Their top core is gearing up to see whether they’re gonna grant legal recognition of same-sex marriages. And then also we have Brazil, and my country, Greece. They seem to have some things on the docket for this year, which is really exciting because [laughs], I think a lot of people don’t know how conservative of a country Greece is when it comes to that. So Bloomberg called 2022 a banner year for LGBTQ rights and maybe 2023 will be as well.
ZK: Well, I think that is clearly an unequivocal good thing, especially from the perspective of the state, any state trying to use force and violence as a way to enforce morality. And well, I should pause before I say that full-throatedly, obviously the state often enforces morality. Morality often is one that we like, the morality of don’t kill someone. So it’s not all morality, it’s a certain type of morality. And the frameworks around the world of we are gonna define how people express their love and we’re gonna criminalize certain expressions thereof, that, I think, speaks to another culture and another time, and the degree to which there is more opening in that, which in no way prevents people from expressing their version of love and intimacy exactly as “they have traditionally”, right? None of these laws substitute one rigid, enforceable morality for another. It doesn’t say you cannot be a man and a woman in a monogamous marriage sanctified by a religious authority. It just says you don’t have to be, and you can be all these shades of alternatives. And I don’t even know that there’s much regression in the United States. There may be a halt to some progression toward transgender and certain types of rights around that, but I don’t see much backsliding of anything, even in, you know, “very red conservative states” support for same-sex marriage and rights that go with that, even for adoption, I think remain substantially higher than they were 20 years ago. They may be, I guess, somewhat less than they were a few years ago.
EV: Yeah, I agree with you about the lack of regression in the US, but sometimes the narrative seems to be like, “The fight goes on”, and in a way, you know, it does, but as you’re saying, I think because there’s so much that gets caught up in the culture wars, you know, about drag queen shows and this, that, or the other thing, it feels kind of like the topic is still being turned over and turned over when in fact, as you just said, when it comes to same-sex marriage anyway in the US, it’s kind of a done deal.
ZK: Let’s hope so.
EV: Yeah, let’s hope so. Right. I guess.
ZK: I think it is probably a done deal. I mean, there’s no massive movement the way there was to turn back abortion rights. I mean, there are certainly groups that want to turn back same-sex marriage, but it doesn’t have the depth or kind of support. I mean, abortion has always been, you know, a much more controversial issue as it is in most societies.
EV: Yeah. And I should say too that the cases of true regression, for instance, Indonesia, they passed a law that got a lot of play, primarily I think because of so many people in the West like to go to Bali, but they passed a law that that said, you know, you can’t have marriage, you can’t have sex outside of marriage at all. And since gay marriage isn’t legal, you know, effectively, you can’t have gay sex either. That got a lot of press. For good reason, that got a lot of press. But these other, you know, points of progress, like I mentioned Sri Lanka, India’s fight gearing up, Slovenia being the first Eastern European country to legalize same-sex marriage did not get nearly as much coverage. So that’s what we’re trying to do here, as we always do.
Moving on from there, I’m gonna talk about another global trend, one that– I presented the LGBTQ stuff with like, there’s a trend of a narrative of regression in the US and you were like, eh, I’m not so sure. Another narrative that I do think there is a strong story of regression is the global democratic decline. There’s been a lot of headlines, you know, in the last five or so years, or especially around and after the 2016 election in the United States, because things got so fraught and volatile, about democratic backsliding, you know, that we have erased all of our gains of the last 50 years, you know, that the world is getting progressively less democratic. These two researchers just came out with a paper that I thought was so interesting that I wanted to highlight about how we measure democratic health and what’s been driving some of those headlines about democratic backsliding when they found that because our standards keep getting higher of what counts as, you know, good governments and good democracy, that our standards are getting higher and so we’re more and more severe about what we grade as backsliding. But actually, if you look at more objective measures that are essentially like, is the incumbent getting voted out of office? Are people allowed to vote? Then in fact, there hasn’t been as much backsliding as there seems to be at first. So I wanted to highlight that.
ZK: Right. And there’s also a difference between countries that elect governments or individuals that one set of people find highly objectionable and democratic backsliding. So I think particularly on the left, there’s been a tendency to conflate those two things in a way that isn’t helpful. So if Marine Le Pen had been elected in the French presidential election instead of Macron, while she is nationalist and talk more about France first rather than the European Union, it’s not at all clear in her case that there would’ve been any democratic backsliding, right? There was no questioning of regular elections and parliamentary elections, and the framework of the French Republic. Brazil maybe is a slightly different story, right? Bolsonaro, I don’t think ever actually accepted the results of his defeat to Lula.
Audio Clip: –of rioters charged through Brazil’s Congress, Presidential Palace, and Supreme Court. Supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro smashed windows and ripped up documents. The scenes reminiscent of the January 6th riot on the US Capitol came amid protest over Brazil’s election results and days after the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
ZK: Even so that election, it happened, it went through, Lula was sworn in, Bolsonaro, you know, de facto stepped aside. Places like Peru, where there’s been this huge series of kind of coups and countercoups between the president and the parliament and strikes, you know, on the one hand, you can see that as democratic backsliding, but on the other hand, a lot of that democracy has been dysfunctional, and there’s a real strong populist demand for a more functional democracy, not for a strong person to come in. So in many countries, there is governments, we, whoever the we is, often, you know, the ones I’ve talked about, if it’s a nationalist leader, the we is the left or progressives, and then there are countries like India and Turkey, where, yeah, one does get the sense that those leaders in Modi and in Erdoğan would prefer more sham elections or elections where the outcome is a pre-ordained conclusion and probably aren’t as committed to democracy. And yet, certainly in the case of India, you know, elections continue fairly openly regularly. Turkey, we’ll see this year whether Erdoğan actually allows for himself to lose. The very fact that I can say that means there’s real questions about democracy in Turkey, but those have been in place for a long time. You know, same thing with Hungary and with Poland. So, like everything else, the devil’s a bit in the details, and again, I know I’ve repeated myself now, but I’m gonna do it one last time on this topic, that governments who we find odious are not the same as democratic backsliding. In fact, often one of the results of democracy is one side comes into power that another side finds completely objectionable, morally, you know, competently, whatever, finds abhorrent. That doesn’t mean that’s democratic backsliding. It just means one side won that another side hates.
EV: Yeah. We talked a little bit about this with Giorgia Meloni’s election in Italy in the podcast last season, and we had talked a little bit about, like, to sum it up a little flippantly, like let’s give her a chance, you know, and I was worried when we recorded that episode, that, you know, in three months or so, we would sound complete buffoons. But actually, what happened was that the first 100 days of Giorgia Meloni’s term, the coverage that came out was like, well, it turns out Giorgia Meloni is constrained by reality. She is acting much differently than her fiery rhetoric would portray. And it’s like, well, yeah, sometimes that happens because sometimes people do get into office in our face by financial restraints. That is a powerful thing.
ZK: Yep. And institutional ones, you know, the shape of the government isn’t really amenable to kind of bending to one individual party or one individual mantra. And there’s gonna be an election in Indonesia this year too. So that’s gonna be one of the largest democracies in the world that’s also messy and huge and complicated. So yes, I think reports of democracy’s death have been loudly overstated, doesn’t mean that it’s not tenuous in multiple places. And on top of it all, it doesn’t always mean that democracies deliver in a way that is meaningful for constituents. And so there’s good reasons for people at times to start questioning democracy if that framework is either corrupt or inept. I’m not suggesting therefore we should ditch it. I’m saying some of the discontent is the discontent with the individuals and the structures that are currently in place. And so it’s a discontent that can lead to constructive reform because it’s people saying, hey, this isn’t working for me. You know, there certainly was an element in the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 that was a huge cry of many people saying, hey, this just isn’t working for us, that the promises offered are not promises delivered, and that’s not acceptable. And that’s true in a lot of parts of the world.
EV: Yeah. And I’m sure we’re gonna be talking a lot more about that since the 2024 announcements for, you know, who’s running on the Republican side have already started, so I’m sure we’ll be talking about that this season. But since you brought up also US politics, you know, a quick thing about democracies and democracy’s health in the US, which we didn’t get to talk about last season when we talked about the midterms, now that, you know, the dust has settled a little bit, we’re in a really cool place when it comes to representation in the US government right now. It’s the most diverse Congress we’ve ever had by many measures, minorities, LGBTQ, women. We’ve had the most female governors ever elected. Colorado’s House of Representatives became the second legislative body after Nevada to be majority female. So I think this is really emblematic of the progress that we’ve made when it comes to race in the US. I love this. Of the 60 black lawmakers, and I’m quoting from Axios right now, elected to Congress this year, 30 now represent states or districts with a plurality of white voters. It’s a huge difference from when black lawmakers hailed from majority minority districts specifically drawn to elect them. That’s the kind of, you know, devil’s in the details thing that I think a lot of people are gonna miss because it doesn’t get a ton of attention. But it is a huge difference.
ZK: And again, you would totally not– I think if you asked most people of all political stripes, that reality would be counterintuitive, that most people feel the opposite has happened, that gerrymandering has led to less representative districts. And that’s also true, right? In many of these things, you know, our attempt in highlighting these things is not to say you thought X, but Y is actually true. It’s often the reality of you thought X and X has a lot of truth, but there’s also a Y that has a lot of truth that you’re not paying attention to. And trying to figure out which of those often completely opposite factors, which of those should be part of the story, a fundamental part of the story, the key part of the story. Multiple times over the past seasons, we’ve tried to highlight, and we’ve done this with a few politicians we’ve had on the podcast, that there is a lot of bipartisan legislation, at the state level and at the federal level, doing things all the time across the aisle by people who otherwise seem like they totally detest each other. I was talking to some congressman a few weeks ago who– I mean, I’m not gonna name the names ’cause I don’t think the bill is front and center, but there are two people who, if you watched Fox and MSNBC, constantly badmouth each other, and you would assume it would be the last two people in Congress to ever co-sponsor a bill. And yet they are, about, you know, something that– you know, access for healthcare, I think, for women. And they’re not gonna tout that because it messes with their brand, right? Their brand being I’m a progressive hero or I’m a Fox News hero, and yet they still have constituents who care. And I think that more stories of that reality would be helpful, even if it does mess with their brand, because it would show that there’s one reality, which is this kind of optic contest of extremes, and then there’s another reality, which is there are actually people in public service who are trying to get stuff done, even if they have absurd brands on cable news.
EV: And this is my favorite story of this, and again, another one that flew, I think, under a lot of people’s radar when the House was trying to elect Speaker McCarthy, right? And we were going through that multiple rounds of voting, something happened with the C-SPAN cameras that I didn’t know was a thing until this happened. When there’s no speaker of the House and no party has taken control, the C-SPAN cameras usually belong to that political party, that they get to say the cameras go here, the cameras go there. If no one’s in control, the C-SPAN cameras belong to C-SPAN. So all of a sudden you have like these free C-SPAN, you know, camera men and women, and what did they do? They pointed the camera at this really interesting moment between AOC and a representative, I’m forgetting his name right now, that had tweeted out that video, you know, a year or two ago with her getting decapitated and it was like bloody violent or whatever. And there was a whole hullabaloo about it. And then what do you know? C-SPAN turns to them and the two of them are leaning in together, they’re chatting, they’re clearly talking about something, they don’t really seem to be having issues with one another. And that was such a great moment, again, that I think a lot of people miss, that, you know, these people show up to work with one another and they have to deal with each other every day at their workplace. It just happens to be Congress.
ZK: Yeah. And on the podcast last season, we talked to Congressman Eric Swalwell and he told a story of like in the middle of the impeachment hearings, he has to go to the bathroom and Ted Cruz is in the bathroom, Senator from from Texas, who’s about the, you know, diametric opposite on the whole impeachment and Donald Trump issue. And for the cameras, they’re like, you know, you’re an idiot, or they said it more more eloquently and with greater poise than that, but essentially, that was the message, you’re the enemy and you’re the idiot. While doing whatever they do in the restroom, they were like, hey, how’s it going? How you doing? Hey, good job out there. Nice speech. Well done. Right, good one, good on you. Because, as you just said, they’ve gotta work with each other and there’s a degree to which the externalities are not a game, but not the only game.
EV: Let’s move into something very much so in your wheelhouse, Zachary, which is the economy. Recently, in January, the unemployment rate hit 3.4%, which is the lowest rate it’s been since May 1969, and The Dispatch added this and I love it, the month who released the rock opera, Tommy [laughs]. So if you could get that, you know, cultural moment in your mind, that’s the last time we’ve had an unemployment rate this low in the US. Inflation’s been falling for the last six months, and interestingly enough, although not surprising to listeners of the podcast, that’s matched with a really strong pessimism from the American public, a Gallup poll, 67% expect inflation to rise and a record high 48% say that the stock market will decline over the next six months. But actually, the US economy is in like a weirdly fairly decent place with inflation going down and unemployment being low. So what say you, Zachary? What do you think?
ZK: Well, first of all, apropos the employment rate being the lowest it’s been since The Who’s Tommy premiered, there’s a revival of Tommy in 2023 opening in Chicago and maybe moving to Broadway. I think it got delayed by the pandemic, but it just occurred to me that there clearly is like a Tommy effect going on that no one until this moment on our podcast has adequately noted. Causal? I don’t know. Maybe.
EV: [Laughs] Synchronicities.
ZK: It seems a little too perfect for comfort. So I wrote a piece years ago, and I’ve sort of been saying this as a provocative but something I believe statement, that there is no the economy, meaning this idea that there’s this static entity that really can fully describe in any meaningfully fashion the lived experience of, in the United States, 330 million people, or in almost any country other than maybe Singapore or Denmark, where you probably can have an economic statistic that applies to enough of the people in that aggregate, although even in a place like Singapore, you know, whatever Singapore’s GDP and unemployment rate is, it doesn’t apply to the million plus migrant workers who are living, you know, 16 to a room in a dormitory. So even then, what we consider to be descriptive numbers are only descriptive of a system. They don’t really tell us a lot about the vagaries of who’s living in what way. This was true right after The Great Recession in 2008, 2009, where you had massive unemployment numbers in places like California, New York, and Illinois, but in a place like Nebraska, they never went high because they were an agricultural state. They weren’t really exposed to the financial shenanigans of collateralized debt obligations. And even now, you know, on the negative side of this incredible strong unemployment number, low unemployment number and really robust job growth as well as moderate but still significant wage growth, we have a labor force participation rate of about 62% now. It was actually lower in 1969, but it was way, way higher for men and there were far fewer women in the labor force. So you had that as an issue as well. So in some sense, the employment picture was better in 1969 for men, but it was way, way less good for women, and certainly there were just fewer women participating in the labor force so it’s hard to make apples to apples comparisons even over that. What I will say is incredibly positive is that in spite of all the prognostications that we were heading into a major recession in 2023, based on the Federal Reserve raising short-term interest rate targets and the waning of all this stimulus money that was injected into both the American and European economies on the heels of COVID, both in the spring of 2020 and in the spring of 2021, that, you know, that may not be an actual scenario. And there are some negatives out there, which insofar as the Federal Reserve is so focused on inflation, that they’re willing to raise the unemployment level, i.e., they’re more concerned about inflation getting out of hand than people losing their jobs. That’s gonna be a political issue if people start perceiving the Federal Reserve as the cause of unemployment. But the reality is, you know, you’re in a much more stable economic environment than most people expected. I mean, yeah, stock markets have been crappy and people’s 401(k)s have gone down because of that, which is not a positive economic factor, but the level of stability versus the language of hysteria remains a massive disconnect that I’ve talked about for years and that I still feel is a real issue, again, driven by some of the same factors that we’ve talked about with news cycles, that you need hyperbole to attract the attention of social media, of broadcast, of whatever’s left of it, of cable. And so there’s a tendency to make hyperbolic even small things like Federal Reserve might raise interest rates another quarter of point higher the market expects, oh my God, the sky is falling, when what you basically have is a rather static situation, even in Europe, right? The expectations of energy collapse, of prices just going so high that people were gonna have energy rationing throughout Western Europe because of the removal of Russian natural gas and oil supply, none of that’s really come to pass and it may still come to pass. So I’m sort of struck by the benign economic climate, and I think that’s likely to be the case throughout much of 2023, even if there is a modest recession ’cause, again, back to there is no the economy, most people’s lives are not gonna be dramatically impacted by whether or not the economy grows by 1% as a numerical statistic or shrinks by half a percent, right? Like if you’re doing okay, you’re probably gonna be doing okay. If you’re doing badly, you’re probably gonna be doing badly, irrespective of which of those two numbers play out. And we’re not looking at like a collapse. We’re looking at a potential small GDP contraction. People whose wages are constrained are still gonna be constrained, but you still have wage growth. The one great news of the past three years, it’s the first time since the ’60s that there’s been sustained wage growth for American workers particularly. And that’s a really good thing. And I would think the Fed should be more cautious about squelching that, given that if that comes with some modest inflation, what exactly is wrong with that picture? It’s not runaway inflation. My concerns are more that we, we meaning us government, us in the form of regulators in Congress, halt what is a benign economic climate or create problems in a benign economic climate rather than there being a benign economic climate.
EV: I do really like that phrase, that it’s a benign economic climate. And just to add a little point about, you know, what you’re saying, that there’s not one economy and sort of everyone’s in a different, you know, personal position or regional position, whatever the case may be, I have also noticed someone made this point, and I was like, oh, this is an excellent point, that in a lot of journalism coverage, in particular about the economy, they will write articles, right? That are like, the economy is not such in a bad shape. We have low unemployment rate. However, there are a lot of layoffs right now in media and tech. And you’re like, well, I see why you’re paying attention to that because you’re in media and like kind of tech, but most people aren’t, right? So, you know, if you don’t kind of have your critical glasses on when you’re reading those, you think, ah, not so good actually after all, right? And you kind of forget, there’s also lots of variations when you talk to people about their outlook on the economic situation as a whole versus their personal economic outlook. A lot of the time, they have a much stronger pessimistic outlook about it as a whole when themselves, you know, they’re doing okay. And I do kind of wonder about our ability just generally to be able to mitigate that a little bit and to think a little bit more as a whole about what you’re saying, that it’s not just one economy. There are many economies.
ZK: And again, that’s part of what we’re trying to do because you have a news climate or you have a social media, you have a public discussion climate that latches onto things like Google’s layoffs and Microsoft’s layoffs and Meta/ Facebook’s layoffs ’cause those are news, but of course, most people don’t work at any of these companies. And the layoffs at places like Microsoft, which does employ hundreds of thousands of people, are not in what most people do. They’re in very selective, tending largely higher paid jobs and not sort of the massive work that needs done, you know, not in the data service centers. So, you know, it’s hard to distinguish your own individual– this is my story versus this is our story. And the dynamic you just mentioned pertains to schools, it pertains to Congress, right? Congress is corrupt, but I like my representative. The American education system is a colossal failure, but I like my school. And you get a lot of that, locally versus collectively. And it is important to be able to go, look, if a lot of people are having a positive individual experience, then clearly, the narrative of collective doom is a problem, right? You can’t have a lot of positives adding up to one huge negative. It just doesn’t work that way. And I’d raised this question when I talk to audiences often, and they often feel good about their business or good about their jobs and really bad about the economy and really bad about the arc. And I’m like, well, if things were really as bad as you think they are collectively, you probably would be seeing it more individually. Like one of those things has to give as a reality or as a totalizing reality. You know, it can also be true that you’re doing well and everyone’s doing badly and it can be true that everyone’s doing well and you’re doing badly, but net net, it should at least lead to a somewhat different, much more nuanced, probably more frustrating ’cause it would be opaque and not very clear what’s going on, ’cause you wouldn’t be able to make one simple generalization, but it would be a hell of a lot more accurate.
EV: I’m gonna go into our last topic here, but again, it’s another one of those stories where I think journalists have kind of superimposed their own story upon the story of everything else. And that’s with tech. And particularly right now with AI. There’s so much stuff going on right now about ChatGPT and AI and what this means, right?
Audio Clip: In the world of artificial intelligence, there’s been one name that’s been on everyone’s lips lately.
OpenAI, the San Francisco-based startup that created ChatGPT opened the tool up for public testing in November 2022. In under a week, the AI model amassed over a million users according to OpenAI’s CEO. By the end of January, ChatGPT was averaging about 13 million visitors per day.
EV: You know, at TPN we did our own kind of playing around with ChatGPT, and it definitely has its limitations that a lot of people aren’t quite aware, that if you really push it, you know, you could definitely tell that it’s AI, but a lot of the coverage is like, oh my God, you know, they’re gonna take over the law industry, they’re gonna take over the journalism industry, copywriting. How are teachers gonna tell if, you know, essays are being written by AI or students? And it’s amazing actually how quickly a lot of this stuff has been solved. You know, if someone came up already with technology that can tell if something’s been written by AI ’cause they’re kind of like AI watermarks, the New York Times came out with this quiz like can you– Do you know that show that used to be Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? This was like–
EV: The New York Times, did AI write this or did a fourth grader write this, and it was supposed to impress you with the power of AI. What I took away from it was like, well, if AI is writing on a fourth-grade level, like is it really about to, you know, take everybody’s jobs? I would’ve liked to see a– I feel like this is one conversation where it does get a little bit too like stars in our eyes. You know, AI can do amazing things, you know, next to this like, oh my God, like the AI revolution is coming and everyone’s gonna be unemployed, and I would like to see some balance around that, that it can be excited but also a little, you know, sober-headed.
ZK: Yeah. And frankly, until there’s sentient AI, it’s still tools that people have to use well or use badly. I mean, I suppose it’s totally possible that it will lead to more plagiarism in ninth-grade classes in some types of essays, but then you can just do exams, right? If you don’t have smartphones next to you and you have a pen and paper or a, you know, computer that simply allows you to input your answers, you’re not gonna do very well if you’ve been relying entirely on AI to write your essays. So the degree to which this is a tool that can be abused is unequivocal. The degree to which it’s a tool that’s gonna upend everything I think remains completely hyperbolic until the singularity, right, until it’s clear that there’s not just AI but it’s sentient, right? And then it’s taking over the world and becomes some sort of weird matrixy threat to man’s existence as we know it, mankind’s existence as we know it, then it’s just yet another scare about the impending threats of technology, which tend to go hand in hand with the utopian promises of technology. And we’ve talked about that a lot and I’m sure we’ll keep talking about that.
EV: Yeah. And one thing that I know I should mention about the singularity, which I learned recently, Our World in Data did like sort of a comprehensive let’s talk to as many AI experts as possible about when they think the singularity is coming. They don’t know. There’s no agreement. Like it’s really like this one’s over here saying this many years, that one’s over here saying that many years and it’s just kind of all over the place. So we don’t know, humans are famously uncomfortable with uncertainty. And while I think there should be some planning and thought around this, there’s a difference between planning and thought and just [laughs], you know, lots of hysteria.
ZK: The singularity is always 15 to 20 years from now.
EV: Mm. Just like nuclear fusion, which-
EV: -I was gonna throw in here just at the end here since we did have that breakthrough at the end of 2022. Not sure what’s gonna happen in 2023. We’re still, you know, quite far away. But I find I am a little bit more– not that I’m bullish on it, but– there’s another joke, right, where like the tech is always 15 years away.
ZK: Right. No matter what point you’re in, it’s always a distant visible horizon that you’ll never actually reach. And maybe that’s true, but it does raise this point of let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves in what we think is gonna change the world. We know the world’s gonna change. I think unequivocally, we will look back on this moment 15 years from now and be aware of all the things that have happened that have shifted how we do stuff. We just don’t really know what that stuff is going to be. And we spent an awful lot of energy trying to guess.
EV: So our guess for this episode was we can do a little review here, probably good year for LGBTQ rights, benign economy, democracy, you know, some fluctuations here and there, but overall not going completely backward, question marks around some tech, you know, advancements. And I think that’s what we have going on.
ZK: Yeah, which kind of sounds like a boring year, but after 2020 and ’21 with the pandemic and then the fallout, I think a boring year would be such a delightful experience.
EV: Yes. Here is to a boring 2023. And I feel like we’ve had enough from the pandemic to have like at least a decade of boredom. So [inaudible]
ZK: Yeah. Now I know that may be an odd way for us to end. It’s not meant to be a downer ending to a initial podcast. It’s more of a, after a lot of drama, not just the pandemic, but, you know, obviously the culture of fear in the United States around the Trump administration, which was true no matter what side of it you were on, and some of, you know, the Ukraine invasion, while it continues to be completely tragic for that part of the world, you know, its stasis itself is probably better than the shock of what happened in February of 2022. So yeah, there’s something to be said for boring in conjunction with extreme turmoil over the past couple of years.
EV: Yeah. So–
ZK: Here’s to boring.
EV: Yeah, here’s to boring. And hopefully people were not bored by this podcast.
ZK: Yeah, no, no. The boring doesn’t apply to this podcast.
ZK: We’re gonna do a really interesting set of podcasts in a more static year,-
EV: There you go.
ZK: -which will actually make the podcast much more interesting.
EV: Maybe TPN 2023 is gonna take a turn to manufacturing drama [laughs].
ZK: Exactly. And again, anyone who has a good idea for the opposite of doomscrolling, please email us on the site. We want to hear, we want to crowdsource it, we want to know what the opposite of doomscrolling is. What’s a good catchphrase?
EV: Hopefully we have some brilliant minds out there to give us something good.
ZK: And we look forward to being part of these conversations with you for the next few months.
EV: Absolutely. And thank you, Zachary.
ZK: Thank you, Emma.
EV: What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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