Americans enjoy a robust and durable heritage of ambitious optimism; of believing in ourselves as leaders in invention, innovation, and moral virtue. From John Winthrop’s declaration to his pilgrims in the early seventeenth century at the Massachusetts Bay Colony that “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” to Barack Obama’s campaign mantra, “Yes, we can!”, Americans believe they have both the responsibility and the capacity to change the world. We are the chosen people in the chosen land. A designation supported by the many iterations of American Christian sects that rose to prominence throughout the nineteenth century. In 1835, the Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher, in his sermon A Plea for the West was unabashed in his view of American magnificence when he said,
There is not a nation upon this earth which, in fifty years, can by all possible reformation place itself in circumstances so favorable as our own for the free, unembarrassed applications of physical effort and pecuniary and moral power to evangelize the world.
His forecast proved mostly true. By the late nineteenth century, after America survived its own Civil War, it was well positioned to emerge as a power on the world stage; helped mightily, I might add, by an enormous influx of immigrants who brought both strength and diversity to a melting pot of humanity.
However, the phrase that probably best captures this notion of American exceptionalism, which was a new imagining of American identity at the time was put forward in 1845 by the writer John O’Sullivan. He gave us the identifier “manifest destiny” to describe and to justify the annexation of Texas and subsequently America’s claim to Oregon over similar claims by the British as “our manifest destiny to overspread the whole of the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” In his statement, he suggests a divinely bestowed entitlement to proliferate and thereby spread our blessed specialness. This is when American exceptionalism first turned away from its exemplar character as setting the example for others to follow (as in Winthrop’s “the eyes of all are upon us”) to the missionary version of American exceptionalism that reached its pinnacle during the administration of George W. Bush and the neoconservatives who sought to remake the world in the image of the United States.
For the most part, this ambitious optimism and high self-regard has served America well. At the foundation of this fundamental American character lies our penchant for unbridled imagination. There are mountains of evidence to argue America is the most inventive and innovative culture in the last several hundred years. We are upside addicts. Our glass remains stubbornly half-full. After all, would humans be flying without us? Travelling through space? Able to effectively vaccinate millions against horrible pandemics? Put ten thousand-plus songs in your pocket? Successfully classify rap as music? Where would we be without Levi’s jeans? Our culture—now heritage—is to turn the impossible into the possible. It is no accident that our greatest rival, China, that has more than three times our population of human beings can do little more than steal our inventions and innovations rather than tapping into their obviously repressed imaginations. Freedom of the mind has its benefits.
Our great imaginary vision has, however, a huge blindspot. We routinely and systematically underestimate downside risk. Our rose-colored glasses make us vulnerable to evil, cruelty, and catastrophic outcomes. We only see white swans while black ones haunt us. In the last two decades this has cost us dearly. We only saw upside in the digitization of everything. Higher productivity; curing the once incurable; an expansion of wealth that would certainly eradicate poverty once and for all. And, while elements of each of these promises did indeed come to pass, we were also left with bigger—not smaller—gaps in equality and justice. A healthcare system more inaccessible and tragically inefficient than ever in the contemporary era. Thousands of deaths of despair as depression has become an entrenched epidemic. Social media that shames, blames, and disparages us rather than its stated intention to connect us and inspire us. Our psyche has flipped in two decades from victors to victims.
Today, unprecedented, unbelievable, and unimaginable have become dominant adjectives in our discourse. Believing the office of the presidency would modify Trump’s character and behaviors is one obvious example of our failure of imagination. His actions to affect a coup after the election in 2020 amplified these failures further. We knew—scientifically—that Covid-19 would be the disaster it became. But we ignored the science. Surely, Putin wouldn’t be stupid enough to invade Ukraine and take on the entire western alliance of democracies! And, most recently, there is no way China’s Xi can broker rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but he did. (Among other things, is now the time to ignore Israel’s Netanyahu currying favor with Putin?)
And now, on our doorstep, is the exponential acceleration of artificial intelligence (AI) that, like the digitization of everything, promises to revolutionize our world for the better. Maybe it will. It most certainly will improve some things. We arguably controlled the digitization of everything that is, today at best, a mixed bag of blessings and curses. We will have much less control over AI. We must immediately begin the necessary thought experiments and imaginings of downside risk to protect ourselves from our ambitious optimism. It served us very well in our first two hundred twenty-five years of history. We don’t need to throw it away, but we had better turn the lens around to imagine what else lurks beyond the borders of our divinely bestowed specialness.
The English poet, John Keats, wrote, “I am certain of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.” As we consider the future of AI, we would be well served to heed all the truths of imagination for better, or worse. The future of not just America, but of humanity itself may well be at stake.