Hope, Not Optimism

Fatalism has no theory of change

Green tree ants on a leaf, Daintree rainforest, northern Australia (author’s photo)

I’ve been an activist all my life — literally, I attended my first demonstrations in a stroller — and that’s reflected in my work, from the essays and blog posts I’ve published for 20 years to the dozens of books I’ve written, both fiction and nonfiction.

To be an activist is to want to change the world. To change the world, you need two things: first, an understanding of what’s wrong with it, and second, a theory of how to make it better.

Much of my work focuses on the former: documenting, analyzing, and tracking injustices, dysfunctions, and emergencies — my essays are a form of public note-taking that helps me break down and understand complex phenomena.

I’m keenly aware that a steady diet of my nonfiction is a little bleak. In my novels, the characters generally chart a course from a bad world to a better one — that’s how fiction works, after all. “Plots” are smooth, ascending gradients in which people try to solve problems of increasing complexity and urgency until they reach a climax — a moment where the stakes cannot be raised any higher — and either succeed (comedy) or fail (tragedy).

Plotting versus activism

That’s not how the real world works. The real world is messy in a way that novels are not because the real world has so many confounding factors, contradictory impulses, and unknowable hidden variables that we cannot “solve” it the way we might solve a plotting problem in a story.

It’s a fool’s errand to even try. Mapping out the terrain — all the things we might do to make things better, all the ways they can go wrong, and what we should do in response — is an exercise that would take so long that merely outlining the process is a waste of time. By the time that outline was done, the terrain would have been changed so drastically that you’d need to start over.

Computer science to the rescue

If you’ve ever studied computer science, this might sound familiar. There are a lot of problems we try to solve computationally that we can’t ever fully optimize: complex datasets that are so large that fully analyzing them is a nonstarter. By the time the program finished running, the data would have changed, the output would be useless, and you’d have to start over.

Long ago, computer scientists made their peace with the inability to determine perfect solutions to complex problems. In computer science, it’s normal to “solve” complex problems nondeterministically. Rather than computing the best route through a complex problem, we compute a good enough route through the data, trading efficiency for flexibility and rules for rules of thumb.

Consider the ant

There are many of these rules of thumb (“heuristics” in computer science jargon) but the one that informs my approach to social problems is hill climbing.

To understand how hill climbing works, think of an ant trying to find high ground. The ant is constrained by its forward-facing eyes: It can’t just look around and find the highest peak in its vicinity.

Instead, the ant can poll its many legs and determine which leg is resting on the highest ground — that is, which step it can take to most steeply ascend the gradient it’s adjacent to. It climbs one step in that direction and repeats the process: now which of my legs is on the highest ground?

One step at a time, the ant can climb to the highest local peak, without any foreknowledge of the terrain.

The hill-climbing theory of change

As activists, we are on unknowably complex, constantly shifting terrain. Worse, the terrain is adverse to us — it doesn’t change randomly, our opponents take steps to alter it to block our ascent toward our social goals.

Reactionaries roll back voting rights, labor rights, reproductive rights, and other human rights, with the goal of hemming in our freedom of action, forcing us to squander our precious energy and resources just to live.

Even if voter suppression efforts don’t stop you from voting, the extra day you have to spend traveling to a distant DMV for your driver’s license or the missed wages you lose from having to line up all day at an overburdened polling place steals hours and resources you might spend organizing with your allies or just taking care of sleep, nutrition, child-rearing, and other essentials.

This complexity means that there isn’t a clear — or even plausible — path from where we are to where we want to be. We’re stuck at the bottom of a mist-shrouded hill whose frequent rockslides and unpredictable weather mean that we can’t plot our ascent — we can’t even see it.

This is where hill climbing fits in. If you can see just one way —any way — to improve your situation, no matter how seemingly small, then you will ascend a step up the hill, you will find a new vantage point, and new courses of action will be revealed. Take note of these, determine which one gets you the furthest toward your goal, take another step, and reassess.

One step at a time, ascend the gradient.

The four food groups

In his 1999 classic Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lessig argues that our social outcomes are determined by four forces:

  • Code: That which is technically possible or impossible.
  • Law: That which is legally permitted or prohibited.
  • Markets: That which is profitable or unprofitable.
  • Norms: That which is socially acceptable or unacceptable.

In my theory of change, these are the four cardinal directions for our metaphorical ant’s journey, the four legs we can poll at each juncture that tell us which step we can take to most swiftly climb the gradient toward a better world.

For example, if you’re worried about the unfair market for creative labor, you could try something normative (like asking people to buy music on artist-friendly platforms like Bandcamp, rather than streaming it on monopolistic dirty-dealers like Spotify); you could try something commercial (like founding Bandcamp and offering artists a better shake), or technological (like building more accurate metadata services so that payments can be fairly dispersed), or legal (like reforming copyright reversion rights so artists can exercise leverage over monopolistic entertainment companies).

As the above example shows, each tactic opens up space for others: Change the normative expectation about whether eating meat is responsible given its carbon footprint and you create a market for low-carbon, plant-based meals, and you encourage food scientists to create better meat alternatives, which opens political space and creates political will for stricter regulation of meat production.

This suggests a method: If you feel hopeless and out of options, stop to check whether you can switch directions and still climb the gradient.

Do you despair because you’ve been writing free/open source software for decades but all your friends are still locked in walled gardens? Maybe you need to switch to volunteering at the local library or maker space to teach people how to use free software (from code to norms); or maybe you need to help a refurbisher outfit laptops with Ubuntu or another free OS (from code to markets); or maybe you need to talk to your town council, school board, or other local authority about changing their procurement rules so favor free/open code (from code to law).

Solutionism, consumerism, proceduralism, and political correctness

It also provides a new gloss on critiques of “technological solutionism,” “consumerism,” “proceduralism,” and “political correctness.” Each of these critiques zeroes in on the foolishness of relying on a single tactic to solve a complex problem — like banning predatory lending (law), or boycotting an exploitative company (markets), or extracting and publishing a transparency report (code), or marching for justice (norms).

It’s true! None of these tactics, on their own, will address complex, deep-rooted social problems. But each of them represents a potential pathway that we can ascend when other routes are blocked.

When Washington gridlock lets predatory lenders exploit your comrades, a mutual aid society can save your neighbors from usury. That not only keeps them out of debt traps but also frees them to join the political project of banning payday lenders and agitating for a living wage. Of course, mutual aid and other forms of organizing depend on communications and coordination tools, so maybe you can write some code to make that happen (and if you’re not a coder, maybe you can be a tester who helps toolsmiths by producing detailed accounts of where and how their code confused you so that other people will have a smoother road).

Small pieces, loosely joined

Finding a tactic and pursuing it is hard — but convincing other people to pursue it with you can be even harder. Establishing consensus on what needs doing can take longer than doing it, and tactical splits have broken many movements.

The hill-climbing method doesn’t depend on unity of tactics or close coordination between different groups. Instead, it allows each individual or collective or affinity group to pick a tactic that moves them up the hill toward their goal, with the understanding that allies with different priorities, skills, and vantage points can leverage their successes for more success.

Your investigation calling attention to a gig economy company’s poor labor practices can help me raise funds to legally challenge its business model, while someone else organizes a boycott and a third person builds tools to help gig workers defeat the app’s most exploitative tricks.

The less time we all have to spend agreeing on tactics and timing, the more time we have to actually advance those tactics.

Fuck optimism

It’s easy to be discouraged by the genuinely fucked-up state of the world and the giddy power of its monsters. The point of this method isn’t to make you optimistic about where things are headed.

Optimism is just a form of fatalism, a view of the world in which our deeds are irrelevant to the outcome: “No matter what I do, things will get better.”

It may seem like optimism is the opposite of pessimism, but at their core, optimists and pessimists share this belief in the irrelevance of human action to the future. Optimists think that things will get better no matter what they do, pessimists think things will get worse no matter what they do — but they both agree that what they do doesn’t matter.

Fuck optimism. The hill-climbing method isn’t optimistic, it’s hopeful.


Hope is a method: If I do something about this situation, I might change it enough so that I can do something else about this situation.

An optimist decides not to equip the Titanic with lifeboats because it is unsinkable. A pessimist doesn’t bother to swim when the ship sinks and is lost at sea.

To be hopeful is to tread water because so long as you haven’t gone to the bottom, rescue is still possible. It’s not a sure thing, and you might have to try something else if you can figure out another tactic, but everyone who gave up sank, and everyone who was fished out the sea kept treading water.

Hope is the necessary, but insufficient, precondition for survival.

Stranger than fiction

Novelists have the luxury of radically simplifying the world to create streamlined, toy worlds where you can map a satisfying, direct path from start to finish.

Take it from a novelist, that’s not how the real world works. Here in the real world, the terrain is unknowably complex, adversarial, and can only be traversed by rules of thumb because any map we create will be out of date before the cartographer’s ink dries.

As we grope our way up the hill, we will meet with many dead ends that cause us to descend a ways to see if another approach will take us to a higher peak — hill-climbing only gets you to the top of whatever hill you find first, and to find a taller one, you’ll have to go to the bottom and strike out in another direction.

It’s a frustrating, even painful method. It’s inefficient and messy. But then, so is the world. And the alternative is hopelessness — and sinking straight to the bottom.