Sharing the Fire

When Thomas Jefferson wrote about the American imagination, he chose the metaphor of fire. Ideas should flow like light in the darkness, “as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” Jefferson was one of the original American dreamers, a man with many faults but also an explosive mix of creativity and ambition. His passions ranged from gardening and architecture to the framing of constitutions and he doubled as our first patent officer and secretary of state.

Jefferson and the other founding fathers knew that the new republic needed to balance optimism and pragmatism if the experiment was going to last. The separation of powers and the Declaration of Independence toe a line between human folly and human progress: a belief that the world can become better, but that its improvement and its stewardship depend on us.

You might say that the spirit of thoughtful optimism has infused some of our greatest achievements. The Internet and the Apollo missions were born out of nuclear anxieties and Cold War paranoia but transformed those impulses into startling victories for the species. Living out Jefferson’s language, they lit up the globe, igniting the imaginations of billions.

In recent years, the spirit of thoughtful optimism has struggled to overcome the challenges of political infighting and cultural malaise. When we do contemplate big thinking today, it’s almost never something to take on personally. Instead we rely on well-funded entrepreneurs and major corporations to do our dreaming for us, content to wait for the new update or the latest sequel to appear and make us marginally happier, for a while.

That kind of thinking has gotten us a world obsessed with incremental improvements in a few key areas while we ignore entire systems that are stagnating, crumbling, or just destructively churning along. We have spent untold billions in researching a few high profile diseases while hardly bothering to invest in new antibiotics or basic preventive medicine—drugs that actually work aren’t as profitable as those that merely treat the symptoms. We agonize over gas mileage improvements while hundreds of new coal-fired power plants open around the world. The people who are changing the world either invest massive amounts of their own capital, like Bill Gates, or they perform end runs around existing social structures in order to achieve specific goals, like the X Prize Foundation.

It’s not that we’ve forgotten how to change the world. Barack Obama did it in 2008. Mark Zuckerberg did it when he founded Facebook in 2004. This year NASA landed a one-ton machine on Mars with automatic piloting.

But what we’re missing is a sense of collective agency, a shared narrative of the American dreamer. We need to recognize that nobody is going to build the world we want but us.

We think thoughtful optimism means recognizing that putting a man on the moon and building better social systems here on earth are equally challenging and equally important. It means better stories about sustainability and justice as well as artificial intelligence and space vehicles. When we say imagination we don’t just mean that initial spark of a new idea—we’re talking about the human engine that keeps at the problem, adapting tools and creativity to build complete solutions. We’re not interested in “somebody should invent that…” but rather “we can do this better.”