Up and Up: A Closer Look at Wired's History of Posi-trolling

With its September issue, Wired is telling us to chill out, and not freak out about the end of the world, and we'd be happy to take their advice by keeping calm, carrying on, and all that good stuff  if, well... You know, if they weren't somewhat wrong before.

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With its September issue, Wired is telling us to chill out, and not freak out about the end of the world, and we'd be happy to take their advice by keeping calm, carrying on, and all that good stuff  if, well... You know, if they weren't somewhat wrong before.

"Apocalypse Not ... Why the world won't end in 2012 ... or anytime soon," reads Wired's cover (above left). Inside the magazine, writer Matt Ridley writes (skeptically) about the wars, nuclear winters, fish, bees, mad cows, epidemics that dominate the news cycle and pretty much says pffffft to all of that:

So far all of these specters have turned out to be exaggerated. True, we have encountered obstacles, public-health emergencies, and even mass tragedies. But the promised Armageddons—the thresholds that cannot be uncrossed, the tipping points that cannot be untipped, the existential threats to Life as We Know It—have consistently failed to materialize. To see the full depth of our apocaholism, and to understand why we keep getting it so wrong, we need to consult the past 50 years of history.

Ridley goes on to point out and detail that his "four horsemen of the apocalypse": chemicals, disease, people (too many), resources (too few) are actually all paper tigers--urban myths and scare tactics with no basis in truth. But more on that in a tiny bit.

What Ridley's article, reminded us of was ... no, not our optimistic friends who look on the bright side of things like, say, 4,000 birds randomly diving to their deaths in a parking lot. It reminded us of Wired's own cover story from 1997 (above right), which proclaimed: "We're facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?"

Okay, so nevermind the fact that 1997 is 15 years ago and that makes you feel old. Writers Peter Schwartz Peter Leyden wrote at the time that:

  • "Around 2005, 20 percent of Americans teleshop for groceries" (Forbes reported in 2010 that Fresh Direct only had 250,000 customers)
  • "By 2000, online sales hit US$10 billion" (Direct Marketing News reported online sales in 2000 were approximately $24 billion)
  • "Around 2012, a gene therapy for cancer is perfected" (nope)
  • "A new media industry also explodes onto the scene to take advantage of the network's unique capabilities, such as interactivity and individual customization. Start-ups plunge into the field, and traditional media companies lumber in this direction." (okay, so maybe they were sort of right)
  • By about 2005, animals are used for developing organs that can be donated to humans. (nope, not yet)
  • "The biotech revolution profoundly affects another economic sector - agriculture. The same deeper understanding of genetics leads to much more precise breeding of plants. By about 2007, most US produce is being genetically engineered by these new direct techniques."  (We have tomatoes, apples, and salmon but a lot is being hung up in legislation.)
  • "By 2000, chronic unemployment and mounting government deficits finally force leaders on the continent to act. Despite widespread popular protests, especially in France, Europe goes through a painful economic restructuring much like the United States did a decade before." (True, but about 11 years off.)

Okay, you kinda get the point. What's going on here is a different kind of trolling--for lack of a better term, we'll call it Posi-trolling: Putting on an aggressively—almost tauntingly—smiling face in the face of mounting bad news. Anyways, unlike the snarky kind of pessimistic trolling that we've grown accustomed to (oh, Tina Brown), Wired takes it in the opposite direction--15 years ago and today. The problems of the present are no big deal, they say. Be the cheerleader and save the world, they suggest. And the beauty of it is that it's hard to throw a wet blanket on these claims until 15 years or so later:

But back to Ridley, among his claims are that:

  • There's nothing to worry about with the hole in the ozone layer
  • "The truth is, a new global pandemic is growing less likely, not more. Mass migration to cities means the opportunity for viruses to jump from wildlife to the human species has not risen and has possibly even declined, despite media hype to the contrary."
  • "With improvements in seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, transport, and irrigation still spreading across Africa, the world may well feed 9 billion inhabitants in 2050—and from fewer acres than it now uses to feed 7 billion"

Got that? Well, for our bird-flu susceptible, easily sunburned and generally hungry selves--we kinda hope he's right. As for "The Long Boom" authors, their futures turned out pretty OK: chwartz  is now the Senior VP for Salesforce.com and actually advised Wired readers about their rocky futures in 2009 and Leyden eventually became Wired's managing editor for a time and is writing books and speaking now. Matt Ridley has a site called Rational Optimist and has spoken at TED: So, we're pretty sure his future is rosy, too.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.