Why Hope Dies Last...and Why I Stopped Being an Optimist


Newsletter #200— January 23, 2023

Just a note that we're excited to have reached our two hundredth newsletter!  We really appreciate our growing audience, and particularly all of you who have shared your thoughts with us! 

One of the people who has shared several particularly insightful essays is Anne Leslie, who, perhaps surprisingly, is Cloud Risk & Controls Leader for IBM Cloud. Though her formal  background is not conflict resolution, she has some extremely insightful ideas about how we can all do that better, as you will see in her earlier Newsletter contributions: Embracing Ambiguity and  Know Thyself.  Anne first posted the following essay on LinkedIn, and it really struck a chord with me (Heidi), so we asked her if we could repost it here. We're delighted she said "yes." I'll let you read it first, and then I'll explain, at the end, why it so resonated with me right now.


Why Hope Dies Last

by Anne Leslie

January 11, 2024

I used to believe I was a die-hard optimist. But I stopped believing that this week.

Here's what happened.

Following through on a commitment I made to myself about being better at nourishing and moving my body and my mind, I have been doing a lot of reading.

Some of what I read is for work, some of it is for pleasure. And some of it is to make me feel less guilty about not doing the daily yoga practice I also committed to... but I digress.

A couple of days ago, I came across this nugget of AI-related 'wisdom' from management consulting firm, McKinsey, whose publications often have the effect of stretching my mind, just not necessarily in the most salutary way.

Reading this report ended up feeling more like self-flagellation than self-improvement. Here's the bit that really got me:

Ideally, AI systems should be developed and used as tools that serve people, uphold human dignity and personal autonomy... - McKinsey, 21 December 2023

Wait a second, what?

"Ideally"? Only "ideally" should we be developing and using AI in a way that serves people, and upholds dignity and personal autonomy?

Did I miss the memo? Since when did those things become optional? Are the world's movers and shakers truly considering the notion that AI systems can legitimately not serve people and simultaneously crush human dignity and personal autonomy?

Trying to digest this possibility chilled me to my core and gave me a reflexive full-body jolt of revolt that literally had me dribbling coffee down my chin.

(Sorry if that's too much information.)

Serving our fellow humans, preserving dignity, and protecting personal autonomy are not discretionary considerations. Not now. Not ever. They must not be allowed to become negotiable, written away ever so cavalierly by the digital pen stroke of a management consultant, and consigned to the nice-to-have-if-they're-convenient bucket of the requirements-gathering exercises that so many companies are doing as they march on, full-steam ahead, with their AI deployments.

How telling it is of the times we live in that one of the most globally influential strategic advisory firms should opine that this is what "good" looks like in the AI stakes. How dangerous it is that messages like this are circulating in the corridors of power; because left unchecked, statements like these somehow become acceptable; they somehow become 'true' until...

.. well, until the damage done is too enormous to ignore.

And by then it's too late.

My former self, the version of me who was almost permanently up in arms about some injustice and teetering on the brink of chronic cynicism, would say "Well, what do you expect from the company that advised Purdue Pharma on how best to unleash OxyContin for maximum profit and no consideration for the consequences on human life?"

While that is indeed a scandal of mind-blowing proportions, I'm not going to get into it right now because the passage of time and life has shown me that it's both unhelpful and bad for my health to be indiscriminately and incessantly outraged by everything wrong in the world.

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” - Rumi

I choose my battles more wisely now; I measure my response. This doesn't mean I don't care. If anything, I care more. But it's this investment in emotional and attentional self-regulation that allows me to preserve the energy I need to stand firm on core values and refuse to be cowed into becoming hard and apathetic.

I will not cede to cynicism.

I will not give up on believing in better.

And that's why it's enlightening to understand the subtle and impactful nuance between hope and optimism.

Yesterday, I was an optimist and I felt disenfranchised. Today, I am hopeful and I feel empowered.

"Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It is the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand." - Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

So, join me in being hopeful about artificial intelligence. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

None of us are so small that our opinion and our voice don't matter. When the issue is existential like it is now, we all have to care enough and be brave enough to be hopeful.

It might just be the greatest act of selflessness and self-care that we ever commit to.

Heidi and Guy's Response to Anne (and all our readers)

The reason this so resonated with Heidi is that you can replace the word "AI" with anything: political hyper-polarization, Israel/Hamas, Russia/Ukraine, China/Taiwan, authoritarianism, climate change, or anything else that scares us or worries us. This essay still makes sense. 

We might be "optimists," thinking everything will end up "okay." Or we might be "pessimists" and be sure that the world is doomed. But truly, we don't know.  So, we can set ourselves adrift and abandon our fate to the whims of a stormy sea, or we can join forces and help sail our ship into calmer waters. The second option seems vastly better. We have some agency (if only a little). We ought to use it. We can try to influence what happens and we can help chart our own destiny. So quoting again from Anne's ending: "None of us are so small that our opinion and our voice don't matter. When the issue is existential, like it is now, we all have to care enough and be brave enough to be hopeful. It might just be the greatest act of selflessness and self-care that we ever commit to."

As a postscript, Anne sent along a link to a wonderful letter written in 1973 by E.B. White (author of the much beloved Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little), on the topic of hope. (Author Maria Popova reports that White was both a masterful letter writer, and also a "professional celebrator of the human condition" who believed it was the "writer's duty to uplift people."  Pity Mr. White is no longer with us!  We need a lot more of that!


Lead Graphic Credit:  This is the photograph that Anne had on her LinkedIn post, which carried the caption: 'Woman sitting on the Edge of a Cliff' - original photograph by Tatiana Kolesnikova.

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