Up with Armageddon
Irrational Exuberance, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Arsenio Hall Effect


The recently deceased Pasadena-born conservative cultural historian Paul Fussell once said, “I find nothing more depressing than optimism.”  Fussell died on May 23, 2012 and although his stepson Cole Behringer said the cause of death was “natural,” I suspect Fussell succumbed to depression brought on by the misplaced optimism embedded in Mark Zukerberg’s May 17 initial public offering of his dot com Facebook.

In my estimate, Fussell saw the now iconic photo of Zukerberg signaling the start of Facebook’s IPO and dropped dead on the spot.  In the photo, Zukerberg is surrounded by his irrationally optimistic Up With People happy face overpaid staff.  Optimism like that could depress a curmudgeon like Fussell to death.

The buoyant buzz surrounding the IPO was based on Facebook’s worldwide popularity and projected, by desperate enthusiasts in the media, as a golden moment that would rekindle popular interest in Wall Street.

Zuckerberg, rather than make the trip to New York, kicked off the public offering by pressing a button at his Menlo Park headquarters that simultaneously rang the New York NASDAQ opening bell and triggered a cell phone signed in to his Facebook account.  That cell phone automatically added this entry to Zukerberg’s Facebook Timeline:  “FB – Founded in 2004.  Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected.”  

Apparently, Zukerberg thinks that pushing a button is more connected than appearing in person.

At the end of the day, and I really mean “at the end of the day,” (specifically May 17) Facebook’s stock-market debut was historic… in a pathetic way. Irrational exuberance came home to roost.  The stock flopped.  Instead of boosting interest in Wall Street investment, Facebook's debut made us all feel worse about the stock market.

And yet there is the photo, frozen in time — a moment of unbridled rejoicing with enough impact to surely cause Fussell’s death by depression.

Unlike Fussell, however, I don’t lump all optimism into one depressing ball.  I was raised to be prepared for the best, yet expecting the worst. You might say I’m a pragmatic optimist.  As for enthusiasm, I feel it’s best expressed as the result of the fates of good fortune, not the preamble to cheerleading.

The origin of the word enthusiasm is from the Greek “entheos” meaning "having the god within.”   However, by the year 1650, Puritans, through their now all too familiar actions, had reframed the word into a description for religious extremism.   Today, the word “enthusiasm” isn’t so much about the god within, as it is the hype outside.  Fixation, mania, excitement — that’s enthusiasm today.  It’s what I call The Arsenio Hall Effect. Arsenio, you may remember, had a way of flattening reactions for anything, or anyone at anytime to one overamped repetitious hoot. That’s contemporary enthusiasm.  I long for the day that we lose it.  It’s the kind of enthusiasm that produces overconfidence.  And unfortunately, researchers at the University of California, San Diego have added fuel to The Arsenio Hall Effect claiming that overconfidence brings more success than accuracy. People with unbiased, realistic perceptions, like me, according to the research, usually fare worse than the cheerleaders. The implications are that, over a long period of time the evolutionary principal of natural selection is likely to favor Arsenio Hall.

However, these same researchers also claim that overconfidence can cause “ever-greater havoc” and that overconfidence “becomes greatest when we face high levels of uncertainty and risk.” Uh-oh.  That does not bode well for the future.  Irrational exuberance, optimism and overconfidence will not solve the world’s problems.  And pairing havoc with risk sounds like the back story for the End Times.

In fact, I suspect that optimism will be the end of us.  It will be our enthusiastic, overconfident, Arsenio Hall selves that will push us to the edge and over.  Brimming with overconfidence, happy to crash, cheering on Armageddon, we will all be very excited.  We will all be smiling.  We will, I’m afraid, all look like Zukerberg in that fateful frozen moment.  And that’s deeply, fatally, optimistically depressing.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast June 8, 2012

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