Steven Pinker and optimism

The Breakthrough Dialogue 2017 was held in Sausalito, California, exactly a year ago (and the 2018 Dialogue is happening as we speak). The Breakthrough Institute describes its annual Dialogue as the “anti-Davos”, and I can think of few more appealing recommendations.

One of their speakers last year was Steven Pinker with a talk called “Why do progressives hate progress?” which title seems to suggest that it was at least partly airing matters covered in his latest publication Enlightenment Now.

It is no idle accident that Amazon brackets Pinker’s book with Factfulness, by the late Hans Rosling. Rosling, with his legendary and hilarious use of creative visuals, appeared twice on this blog – here and here – and preached a similar optimistic message that despite what is too often implied life for humanity is getting measurably better.

Why do I keep sensing signals of nervousness? Pinker is a hugely experienced lecturer: I have watched many of his outings. Yet he seems here not entirely at ease. Could it be something to do with an unaccustomed audience? Most of his speaking that I have found was to universities, and I know how easily you can find yourself adopting a wavelength that works with familiar demographics.

When I say ‘works’ I mean things like response to humour. You get used to a particular type of bounce-back to the way you phrase and time things. Then when that bounce-back is different you start imagining that this audience isn’t getting you.

Or it can happen with unfamiliar technology. You are so comfortable with a certain variety of – e.g. – slide projection that you can almost make it sing! Then one day you are faced with a remote control whose buttons are in the wrong place, and that can be stressful. I notice that he clearly has a ‘slave screen’ below him to his left, and he constantly checks that the audience is seeing what they are meant to be seeing.

Or perhaps I’m the one that’s imagining it? There’s little, if anything, wrong with the way this talk is prepared and delivered. I just sense an undercurrent of edginess.

Its message is wonderfully optimistic and fascinating. I am especially captivated by the ‘tone-mapping’ graph telling us that the media and other opinion-pundits consistently offer a depressing view of a world that is constantly improving. Pinker proposes a range of explanations that seem to make sense (and slightly exonerate those pundits). It’s a very good speech, and ends with a satisfactorily up-beat tone.

And for the reader who follows this blog in the hope of learning something about speaking, there is the moral that if you find yourself out of your comfort zone and in some way in unfamiliar territory, then trust your game and relax.

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