Are we an optimistic society?

While hustling it gigs, I came to loathe what I considered the pessimistic view many individuals I met had. An idea was never enough, you had to have a veritable list of skills and qualifications for any kind of consideration. a degree from this university and not that one, mastery of this language and not that other one, knowledge of this library, that framework. And ultimately a queue of happy clients.

No one seemed to believe in the power of ideas or in possibility. At least not in the tech ecosystem. Pitching a product presented us with an opportunity to listen to another entire suite of doubts. I started to wonder, all these negative attitudes, were they representative of our culture in totality?

My research into this question led me to what was a surprising discovery. Kenya is not only optimistic, but we tend to be the very worst kind of optimists. The kind who believe things will turn out ok even when the evidence shows otherwise. This idea is manifest in many aspects of society. We elect criminals to parliament, block our drainage infrastructure, live in condemned buildings, and the unceasing call to entrepreneurship as the only aspiration all of us should possess.

Optimistic and Pessimistic societies

Optimistic societies expect the best from the unknown. They constantly overestimate the ability of an individual to be successful.
Pessimistic societies, on the other hand, avoid change. They emphasize conformity and obedience to authority. Pessimists believe every person is flawed and thus find it difficult to buy into the utopian promises of populist leaders. They invest in strong steady institutions that prevent too much power accumulating in an individual.
In his post, Alaine de Botton asserts that in optimistic societies

there are constant claims that everyone can be exceptional and, one day, awe-inspiringly successful. The charms and rewards of life are therefore fundamentally geared towards those who make it to the top. The best restaurants are superb, the private hospitals are outstanding, the most expensive schools magnificent, the richest residential areas delightful, the taxes for the rich very low. But, naively, such societies forget that, by statistical inevitability, most people are actually not going to be successful at all.

Kenya fits that description very well.

Go big or go home

For a young IT professional looking to sell or develop a solution, this optimism affects him in 2 ways.

  1. He is not expected to fail However, failure in business and bugs in programs are not only common but inevitable. To mitigate this fact and reduce the risk they are exposed to, many stakeholders deploy an extensive “filter.” They demand various proofs of competence and ability and only afterward is the idea evaluated in its own right.
  2. There is a push for your idea to “scale”
    There is little room for commonplace work in the tech ecosystem. Everyone is looking for the next big thing. The next Facebook, the next Google. No one is interested in the tedious work that underlies much of the foundational technology. The slogan of the tech ecosystem has become “Show me the money.”

This inadvertently leads to a generation of young productive people chasing unrealistic dreams. Young energetic individuals who instead of building a strong base for the economy, spend their energy and time gambling. Placing statistically improbable bets on sport and more destructively on hare-brained ideas that are doomed to go nowhere.

Anticipate the worst and prepare for it

We need to start being more pessimistic about the national outlook while developing new technology. There are serious risks in our future that technology can address. However, this is made difficult when society refuses to acknowledge them and chooses to remain blindly optimistic.

Technology that anticipates the worst is crucial to helping us avoid it. Like the surveillance cameras depicted above, technology can also be used as a preventative measure to mitigate against our baser human instincts. We can use tech to prevent corruption e.g the Huduma service centers or find other innovative ways to cut down our societal vices. For many in decision making roles across the country, we have to start thinking that things might go wrong and indeed will and prepare for that.

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