Digital Optimism vs Digital Pessimism

Whatever your views on whether we should be broadly optimistic about the development of digital technologies, such as the Internet and mobile computing, or view them with varying levels of pessimism, it would be helpful, teaching-wise, if someone put together a useful summary of these two opposed schools of thought.

Digital Optimism or Digital Pessimism?

Luckily for us that’s just what Adam Thierer did (albeit in 2010 – so you might want to consider if there’s anything that needs adding to the list). To help you out, because I’m nice like that, I’ve appended a few ideas of my own that you might want to consider.

Alternatively, you might want to add your own ideas, or encourage your students to research possible updates. The choices here are limitless (presupposing your concept of “limitless” extends to “probably one or two”).

The first table (Table 1) reproduced below is taken from a much longer article that’s worth a read if you have the time and inclination. It develops some of the ideas listed below and puts them into an historical context, starting with the Web 1.0 Granddaddy-of-all-debates between Nicholas Negroponte and Neil Postman in the early 1990’s. It’s fairly student-friendly and there’s a useful section that frames the debate in a general cultural context while summarising some of the main arguments.

In this context Thierer orders what he calls the “lines of disagreement” between Optimists and Pessimists in terms of Cultural and Economic Beliefs, which I think is quite a handy way of categorising the two positions, so I’ve left it in.

If you prefer a different type of categorisation you can always change it by giving your students an edited, off-line, version.

Where I think it’s helpful and / or necessary I’ve added short clarifications / explanations / examples to the original text in mauve.

  Digital Optimists    Digital Pessimists
  Cultural Beliefs  
  Internet is participatory    Internet is polarizing
  Net facilitates personalization (the “Daily Me” that digital tech allows)    Net facilitates fragmentation (fear of the “Daily Me”)
  A global village  Balkanization (people retreat into their own groups and raise barriers to entry by outsiders) and fears of “mob rule”  
encourages diversity of thought and expression
leads to close-mindedness (“Them” and “Us”) and aggressive  responses to those “Not like Us”  
  Allows self-actualization:
(“the ability to become the best version of yourself”)  
  Diminishes personhood
(individual becomes less important than the collective)
  Net is a tool of liberation and empowerment    Net is a tool frequently misused and abused
  Net can help educate    Fear the dumbing-down of the masses
  Anonymous communication is a net good; encourages vibrant debate and whistleblowing    Fear of anonymity: it debases culture and leads to lack of accountability
  Welcome information abundance; believe it will create new opportunities for learning    Concern about information overload;
especially the impact on learning and reading
  Economic Beliefs  
  Benefits of “Free”; increasing importance of “gift economy” (people providing their services “for free” in exchange for publicity, experience, etc.)    Costs of “Free”; threat to quality and business models. (“Free” may be paid-for by a loss of privacy. E.g. Rather than selling products, social media sells the user – or their personal data)  
  Embrace “amateur” creativity
(The notion of the “gifted amateur” with untapped creativity)  
  Superiority of “professionalism
 (Those with expert knowledge and expertise).
  Superiority of “open systems” of production
(idea anyone can make products that interoperate with original product: the PC was an open system product)
  Superiority of “proprietary” models of production
(idea that the creator of something is its rightful owner)
  “Wiki” model = wisdom of crowds and benefits of crowdsourcing    “Wiki” model = stupidity of crowds; collective intelligence is oxymoron; exploitation of free labour

As I’ve just noted, Thierer’s original categorisations were developed and published around 10 – 15 years ago and since then there’s been a lot more to get optimistic or pessimistic about, depending on your particular ideological position.

For this reason I’ve added a second table (cunningly labelled “Table 2”) that consists of some more-recent ideas and observations I’ve been able to make about digital optimism and pessimism.

Table 2

  Digital Optimism    Digital Pessimism
  Cultural Beliefs  
  Mobile phones: all the world’s knowledge in your hand, digital observation and surveillance of the powerful      Mobile phones are most sophisticated State and Corporate surveillance devices ever invented: paid for by those who use them.  
  Access to knowledge and information widened making it more difficult for State and Corporate media to control how people think.  State surveillance increases and extends to all areas of personal and social life (the “1984” nightmare)    
  Homeworking: gives people the freedom and flexibility to work when they like, as they like and how they like.    Homeworking involves surveillance, isolation and a dual burden for women: work and childcare.
  Sousveillance: observing “from below” Digital tech allows for greater observation and control of harmful ideas and behaviours perpetuated by rich and powerful    Surveillance: observing “from above” Increased opportunities for observation and control of people’s behaviour – through physical means, such as CCTV, or digital means such as web / phone-tracking  
  Economic Beliefs  
  Cryptocurrencies (such as bitcoin) free people from the financial controls and tyrannies laid down by governments and financial institutions.      Mining cryptocurrencies is environmentally catastrophic: vast amounts of electricity used. Cryptocurrencies lure the gullible into investing in things that have no intrinsic value.
  Flexibility Digital tech that allows zero-hours contracts, self-employed contracting etc. gives workers freedom and flexibility over when and how they work.    Exploitation Digital tech is used to control and exploit workers in areas like the “gig economy”: no work = no pay

Finally, a couple of things you might want to keep in mind when getting your students to evaluate these ideas is, firstly, that Thierer is something of a digital optimist and this is reflected, to some extent, in his observations and arguments.

Secondly, this type of classification lends itself to the development of an “either / or” perspective on digital technology, whereby students are encouraged to see complex and nuanced arguments in relatively simple, fixed, terms. In this particular area, however, there’s plenty of room to be optimistic about some forms of digital technology while also being deeply pessimistic about others. This too might be a fruitful area for discussion.

If you want some more stuff to bulk-out your teaching in this area, have a look at the Notes on Digital Optimism and Digital Pessimism.

Finally, since WordPress doesn’t “Do Tables” very well (as you may have noticed…) I’ve included the two Tables featured here in a Word document if you prefer a little off-line clarity.


While there’s nothing inherently wrong with examining and evaluating new media in terms of Optimism or Pessimism, if you want to add a slightly more-nuanced reading of something like social media to the debate, Jurgenson’s (2012) novel reinterpretation / reinvention of the term “augmented reality” might fit the bill.

Stay Updated

Enter your email to be notified when we post something new:

Archived Posts