A scientist looks at problems to solve, not at things that are well understood and running smoothly. Thus, if you scan downward through the titles of the sixty-some previous blogs on this site, you may get the sense that I turn my technical eye more toward social problems than social successes. This selection of topics has a purpose.
Many of these blog posts examine social problems as phenomena of a complex system—the complex system that is society. Society is not simply a collection of individual persons, as a can of almonds is simply a collection of nuts. Society is all the rules, written and unwritten, operating when individuals act upon the messages they exchange, whether by pundit, rumor, Facebook, or flicker of an eyelid. You can’t alter an unwanted behavior of a complex system by working on the symptom. You can’t generate an educated electorate by installing more blackboards and more chalk. Or more testing in schools.
Although society offers plenty of stressful situations to examine, the world is not hopeless—and furthermore, you can do something about whatever condition you find in your scene. Unless you choose to be hopeless. The complex system around you does not impose hopelessness.
There are amazing forms of hope everywhere. I just read (well, listened to) a recorded book, The Gold Hunters, by J. D. Borthwick (1824-1892). Borthwick was a well-educated Scottish adventurer who spent the years 1851-54 in the California gold rush, composing detailed descriptions of the rough-and-tumble life around him. He is upbeat, telling how men separated into clans by ethnic background, but tolerated each other and welcomed individuals—particularly anyone out of luck—so long as each person avoided criminal behavior. Criminal action brought immediate trial by a jury of any twelve available men, and immediate hanging for a serious offense such as murder. Or stealing a horse.
In his final chapter, Borthwick uses beautiful language to paint a picture of the Americans as contrasted with the native Indians, the Mexicans, the Chinese, the French, and other bluenosed Europeans. The Americans did whatever work was needed, claiming no social status from prior occupations. They cooperated, working together when engineering large structures like a half-mile flume to carry water. The Americans created their governance by open election, even to electing leaders for working teams and then obeying the leader—although also voting to replace the boss when necessary. The Americans lacked the ingrained marks of class structure and prescribed behavior that defined the other ethnic groups. Everyone lived by hope, hope to make it rich in the goldfields, and if not, to be enriched by the experiences. Borthwick obviously hoped someone would read his stories. I was enriched by Borthwick’s sharing of his experiences across the 150 years between us.
Hopeful things are all around. I downloaded the voice recording of The Gold Hunters from Librivox, a free library of books in the public domain, recorded by volunteer readers. And there’s other hopeful work by hopeful people, such as the biography of Borthwick available for free from Wikipedia, where experts donate encyclopedic information in hope that someone can use it. And there’s more hopeful work at The Internet Archive, a digital library in San Francisco with the stated mission of “universal access to all knowledge.” It provides free public access to websites, music, videos, and nearly three million public-domain books. It’s trying to archive the entire internet while most other folks would regard that as a hopelessly large job. Those shared efforts are done through hope for a good world, not idle inaction when what you see isn’t what you want. We work to earn our various livings, but we find meaning in hopeful work. Sometimes hopeful work generates pay, sometimes not, but hope is everywhere, even in grim circumstances.
Every good deed is an expression of hope. Be hopeful and act on it. May the season bless you with hope.