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Cynical Optimism: What is Cynical Optimism?

By Samantha Shokin

Section: Arts

March 26, 2009

I suppose it’s about time I explain myself. What, you may ask, is this curious concept that I have chosen to title my column after? Some people have noted that it is slightly paradoxical in nature, a borderline oxymoron. Some have tried to provide their own interpretations of its meaning. Others have just stared at me blankly whenever I mention it. So I am dedicating this week’s column to (attempt) to explain what, exactly, I mean by this strange phrase, “Cynical Optimism.”

I am a cynical optimist by nature, and it’s not just because I’m the peculiar product of a cynical mother and optimistic father. Nor is it because my parents came from a nation of skeptics (in Soviet Russia, government cynical towards you?) to a land of plastered-on smiles and endless opportunity. In fact, this whole thing has much less to do with me than it does with You.

Yeah, You. The You in the chem lab, the dorm room, the library. The collective “You” encompassing my generation. The “You” that I refer to in one of my past articles as “future movers-and-shakers” of America. You, my friends, provide me with much reason to be cynical, and also, optimistic. Many of you probably feel the same way as well.

First, to explain the cynicism: people have issues with our generation, and accordingly, they’re scared of it. God knows I’m one of them at times. This is because we are essentially guinea pigs of the information age. Never before have so many people been using computers, been hoarding so many gadgets and gizmos, been so absorbed by the words and pictures glaring back at them through illuminated screens. The next logical step would be to make the printing press obsolete.

Our generation is self-obsessed and short of attention, we spend more time socializing on the internet than in real life, and one of the most serious health epidemics plaguing the country is a product of over-abundance and easy access—something that 100 years ago would have been considered a good thing. We are narcissistic and materialistic, and though these are natural byproducts of human nature, the phenomena manifested by them with the advance of technology have elevated today’s overrated celebrities to overblown levels of demigods and goddesses. Sometimes it seems like man and technology are progressing exponentially, which is particularly frightening to me, because I was never good with numbers.

But, of course, with just the click of a TV remote we can see everything in a completely different, better hue—perhaps even in HD.

We know (or at least hope) that not everything is going to hell. Despite what some people may argue, our generation knows better, literally: more people now are going to college than ever before. We aren’t merely using our tech-savvy skills to waste time online—well, maybe we are—but by wasting time online we are actually creating new means and methods of social networking, constructing new ways to exchange information and opinions, and moreover, we are creating new and more exciting ways to waste time.

Those who dub us as the ADD generation are mistaken. This is just the first time in human history that the information sources at our fingertips can keep up with the extraordinary pace of our thinking. Finally, technology has caught up with our attention spans. We recognize all of the problems plaguing our planet and are working harder than ever to conserve and rethink our energy sources. So if the printing press becomes obsolete, at least we save paper that way. And when I get scared thinking about big numbers again, I take comfort knowing that history repeats itself, so everything now only seems revolutionary until our kids undoubtedly outsmart us later. Then they’ll have bigger and smarter fish to fry, until, well…anyway…

Our generation isn’t just at a crossroads between the past and the future. It is at a crossroads at the top of a very steep hill,

knowing that the speed downward is going to be faster than ever, and hoping it doesn’t trip over its own feet on the way. You are all cynical optimists by nature of your freshly disapproving perspectives on the present, and huge potentials for improving the future. And I am proud to be one of You.

So now that we are properly introduced, I’d like to take the time to ask any and all interested readers to contribute their cynically optimistic opinions to my column. If you have any nuanced observations about our time, about nostalgia for Polaroids or enthusiasm for Internet memes or whatever, write to me at sshokin@brandeis.edu . I’d love to read your insights, and I can even tolerate an occasional rant.

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