Debunking doomerism: 4 futurists on why we’re actually not f*cked | Kevin Kelly & more
What are we doing that outlives us way beyond our own lifespan to build another future for generations to come, that makes you a great ancestor? This is a world we have as many, if not more problems, but those problems themselves are opportunities. It is much, much harder to create a future that we would like to live in- unless we can imagine it first. But maybe we're entering this new phase of American existence becoming fundamentally different in a way it had not been doing for several decades. And we're gonna see how well we respond. Yes, there are ups and downs. There'll be setbacks, there'll be wars and panics, and pandemics and so on.
That will happen. But the great arc of human progress and the gain of prosperity and a better life for all, that will continue. But then the question becomes if it can be anything, how do you decide which one you wanna move to? What are the futures? The future isn't this distant place, it's not a noun. It's actually a verb, it's something that you make. If we wanna steer away from this iceberg that we're heading towards, we don't need a great man to do it for us, we need collective action.
If we are to move forward as a people, as a species, we have to plant trees whose shade we'll never know. I'm Peter Schwartz, the Chief Future Officer of Salesforce, and Head of Strategic Planning. I've written a book called the "Art of the Longview" and I've been studying the future for the last 50 years. - It's very easy to imagine how things go wrong.
It's much harder to imagine how things go right than to see, oh, you could have a pandemic or a war or a terrorist act. That's easy to come up with. It's a big act of imagination, constructing a believable scenario of how all these forces come together to create a better future. When I meet someone new and they ask, what does a futurist do? I basically say, I help study the future so people today can make better decisions. I'm an explorer of the future trying to imagine the possibilities that lay ahead. In fact, Steven Spielberg asked me, to bring together a team to create all the details of the future that you saw in the film "Minority Report."
Advertisements that knew who you were, doors that recognized you, hydrogen-powered vehicles, electric cars. It is not the goal to get everything right. It's almost impossible but you test your decisions against multiple scenarios, so you make sure you don't get it wrong in the scenarios that actually occur. I was born in a refugee camp in 1946, came to the United States as an immigrant in 1951, but fell in love immediately with science, my father was an engineer, and with technology.
What I knew was that I wanted a better world. I'd studied politics and everything like that and I still didn't understand what a better future was. The way in which my career evolved was I ended up at a place called Stanford Research Institute. It was the early days that became Silicon Valley. It's where technology was accelerating. I was one of the first thousand people online.
It was the era when LSD was still being used as an exploratory tool. So everything around me was the future being born. And we were part of a group that was studying where all this technology might go, and what the consequences would be for the world. So at the end of 1981 I left SRI and joined Royal Dutch Shell in London. And there, I had the opportunity to apply these tools to real business decisions, helping one of the biggest companies in the world navigate uncertainty. And shortly thereafter, I launched a company with a group of friends called Global Business Network.
And it was basically to create a membership organization of companies and remarkable thinkers to think together about the possible scenarios for the future. What I realized was that the right question was not what did I think about the future, but what did everybody else think about the future? And that's when I was involved in helping to create something that is known as 'Scenario planning.' And so my question shifted to what are the tools that people need to think more intelligently and thoughtfully about the future? To do scenario planning you have to have a number of skills. First of all, when I hire, I'm looking for something I call 'Ruthless curiosity.' One of the interesting stories that has always fascinated me, that kind of set the stage for how I think about the future and the challenge of making decisions, was the map of California. If you look at maps of California beginning around the year 1605, and going for almost a century and a half, you'll find that it shows California as an island.
What actually happened was that when the Spanish were exploring the western side of North America, they sailed up into the Gulf of Baja, and then later all the way up the coast to the Puget sound and they thought these must be connected. Now the truth is this would only be a historical curiosity were it not for the problem of the missionaries. Because the missionaries actually use these maps and they would arrive at Monterey Bay.
They had to cross California, and take their boats over the Sierra Nevada mountains and down to the beach on the other side. And that beach unfortunately went on and on and on, until they realized they were in the middle of the deserts of Nevada, and there was no sea of California. And the weird thing is they actually wrote back to the map makers in Spain and said, "Hey, listen your bloody map is wrong." And the mapmakers wrote back and said, "No, no, no you are in the wrong place. "The map is right."
Now, many people who work in large organizations understand that logic very well. If you get your facts wrong, you get your map wrong. If you get your map wrong, you do the wrong thing.
Good scenario planners are desperate for data and information. They read widely, they read about science. They read about economics. They read about politics. They read about the environment. So they're data junkies, but you also need to bring a lot of imagination, be able to break the boundaries of those trends, because trends change direction.
One of the early examples of, how shall I say, bad decision making that shows why you need good scenario planning was a crucial decision that IBM made in 1981 about whether to go in the business of making a new product, the personal computer. And they said, "Well, look, we need to forecast demand. "Is there a really big demand for this product? "Is this going to be important?" And the forecast showed that it would peak at about 200,000 units and then decline pretty close to zero within a couple of years. So this was not a very viable product.
So we'll buy the chips from Intel, we'll get the operating system from Bill Gates, and we'll put it in a box and we'll call it an IBM PC. That was their idea. And they thought, this will last two or three years and it'll kill off Apple. Unfortunately, they were a little wrong. It wasn't 240,000 units, it was 25,000,000. It was that failure of imagination that pointed to the need for scenarios.
They needed to imagine what people could actually do when they had a bit of computing power in their hands. So you have to have the trends, but then you also have to see the imagination about how it can change direction. And part of the way you do that an important ingredient is the ability to collaborate and learn from others. 'Cause you almost always do this with other people and work together.
And I'll give you a concrete example. One of the earliest projects that Global Business Network did was for AT&T, on the future of the information industry. And we brought in a number of interesting, outside people. One of those was Peter Gabriel, the British rockstar. He brilliantly used technology to make his music.
And one of the AT&T executives said, "Peter, look they're just starting to do digital CDs, "which means you can get perfect copies of your music. "And now we're gonna have lots of piracy around the world." And he said, "Look, I can't stop it.
"I know they're gonna do that. "So what I'm gonna do is treat that pirate CD "as free advertising. "And I'm gonna follow it with a concert. "I'll make my money on the concerts, not the CDs."
And that became the model in the music industry within about five years. Peter saw that before everybody else 'cause he understood the implications of the technology and how to compete with this rather dramatic change. And so can you have a thoughtful dialogue and learn and adapt your thinking from other people? So are you curious and gather lots of information? Are you imaginative? And are you collaborative? If you have those three skills then you're gonna be a pretty good scenario planner. I think fear of the future is one of the worst problems that we have today.
We live so much better today than any time in human history. Yes, there are ups and downs. There'll be setbacks, there'll be wars and panics, and pandemics and so on. That will happen.
But the great arc of human progress and the gain of prosperity and a better life for all, that will continue. I like to think about the next 50 years, 100 years even a thousand years or more. What happens in the development of human evolution, of human societies? Will we be able, for example, to build star drives that allow us to explore the stars as in "Star Trek." Could we reinvent physics so that we can go faster than the speed of light? So for me, the interesting questions are based on an understanding of history on the one hand, and on the possibilities created by science. And these two combine together to give me a kind of long arc of human history, from the last few hundred years to the next few hundred years.
I think the really big thing is gonna be genetic engineering. And what we're gonna start doing is getting rid of genetic diseases, for example, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, all these things that have genetic roots, new forms of cancer treatment. But beyond that, which I'm excited about, is improving people, smarter, stronger, longer lives. I believe people being born today will have the option of living many centuries, and that will obviously change life rather fundamentally.
So if you have a young child today, make sure you tell them to choose their spouse wisely because a couple hundred years with the same person, I love my wife, but I'm not sure about centuries. I'm Kevin Kelly, I'm Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine, and author of a bunch of books, including "What Technology Wants." - I'm definitely not the foremost technology historian. I don't even call myself a futurist.
I like to say, I like to predict the future. I have pinned to my Twitter profile, "Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists." This is not a world we have fewer problems.
This is a world we have as many, if not more problems, but those problems themselves are opportunities. It is much, much harder to create a future that we would like to live in- unless we can imagine it first. Imagine if I had a magic wand, and I could make the world 1% better. You wouldn't be able to tell. Nothing would really change very much. But if I took that 1% and compounded it year by year, over time we would notice that.
That very mild 1% progress is 'Protopia.' We are very slowly crawling towards betterment. Protopia is a direction.
It's not a destiny. I bought into the hippie perspective. I wanted that small is beautiful, the Henry David Thoreau, simplified "Walden" life.
It was the big systems that I didn't trust. The big technology, the big corporations- but I did go to Asia, and there, things began to change. I began to live in very remote parts of Asia that had no technology.
It was like being on a time machine. I was transported back centuries- a city like Kathmandu that had no vehicles whatsoever- to Northern Afghanistan. These towns there without electricity.
And then there were these cities, Hong Kong, Tokyo, right before my eyes, were emerging out of the ground. So I would go by a rice patty, and then I would come back a couple years later, and there would be like factories and people who had money. Right before my eyes, I saw what technology was bringing people. So that was the first glimmers of changing my mind about what this stuff was really about. Part of Protopia is to envision a desirable future. The problem so far is that a lot of those visions of the future are dystopian.
People have trouble imagining a world filled of technology, where it's a world that they want to live because the robots are gonna take over and kill us all: the rogue AI, or AI taking over, AI trampling us. The problem with dystopia is that it's just not sustainable. In history, dystopias just don't last long. The first thing that happens is the war lords, in their greed, install some form of order. It's not an order that we prefer, but it's a form of order.
Utopia has a similar problem, in that it's actually not a desirable place. First of all, it's impossible: there can't really be a world that has no problems. I think if you made an eternal world that was forever getting worse, and an eternal world that never changed, the way you punish someone eternally is you put 'em in the world that doesn't ever change. There is a role, if not a duty, for Protopia, in helping us to imagine what that preferable future would be like.
After almost a decade traveling, I came back. I decided to ride my bicycle across to see the U.S., which I'd never seen.
I was attracted to the Amish. In my initial interactions with them, they weren't anti-technology. They actually liked to hack technology to work around their own rules. I became interested in how did they actually decide which technologies to accept and which didn't. Americans, and my friends, and myself, we are also choosing technologies. Should I have Twitter or not? Should I have a phone or not? Do I wanna have an electric car or not? But we aren't choosing very deliberately, and we are certainly not doing it collectively.
That's what I discovered the Amish are doing- is they actually have criteria to help them make those choices. And their criteria is: 'Will this technology keep our communities together and spend as much time with our communities versus going out?' And that's one of the reasons why they're actually embracing cell phones. They've been very slow, but they are embracing cell phones, because their communities are not contiguous, they're actually kind of broken up.
And they found, big surprise, that the phone actually brings their communities together. Everything is optimized. And technologies, they feel, take them away from that, they're going to reject.
And technologies that would enable them to do that, they're going to embrace. The more important point for Protopia is that they have those criteria that they use to govern what technologies that they want to use. Most of the problems in the future are gonna be caused by the technologies today- that's the Protopian view. But, the solution to the problems made by those new technologies is not less technology.
It's not to dial back the technology. It's not to stop AI. It's to make better AI. I want to emphasize, of course, that this is not a prediction, because every prediction is wrong. These are scenarios. These are wishes.
This is aspirational. But just like "Star Trek" has been an inspiration to so many people making things, because they said, "I wanna make that communicator." And that's basically what we got with smartphones. They can be instrumental and powerful, to actually have a picture of something that we're aiming for in order to actualize it. - [NASA OPERATOR] 'We have ignition.' - I don't think there is a dark side.
Part of Protopia is it incorporates pessimism. It actually says the problems are valuable. When you drive a car down the road, you need an engine to move it forward and you need brakes to steer. The vehicle technology requires both the engine of optimism and the breaks of pessimism in order to steer. The entire world should endorse Protopia.
I don't believe in an endpoint- that we're moving in some way to some final endpoint, some perfection. We are moving, rather, in directions. And Protopia is a direction, which is moving towards increasing options. More choices in the world.
My name is Ari Wallach and I'm a futurist. And I'm the author of "Longpath: Becoming The Great Ancestors Our Future Needs." - When we think about our own life, we think about from birth to death. We have what I call a 'Lifespan bias.' We're the only known sentient species that at a very early point in time, realizes one day we're actually going to cease to exist.
Ernest Becker says though, that this is actually the greatest challenge that homo sapiens face. What death does is it kind of puts an end state to what we think is possible. If you're death-anxious, you're gonna be very short-termistic.
If you're death-aware, you're gonna recognize that it's not just about your life, it's about the lives that came before and the lives that came after. What are we doing that outlives us way beyond our own lifespan to build another future for generations to come, that makes you a great ancestor? We are in a moment of unbelievable flux and change in society. Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, nuclear weapons and obviously climate change. The level of trust in major institutions and narratives is an all-time low. What that says to me, as an anthropologist, is we are deep in an 'intertidal.' So an intertidal is a moment in time where the old ways of doing things, the institutions, the narratives, and stories are no longer working- but the new ones are yet to be born.
And I take that from an ocean metaphor. The intertidal is this place between where a high tide and low tide exist. It's an area of high chaos, but also magnificent creativity. And here's the thing, unlike previous intertidals, this is the first major intertidal where we're actually self-aware enough to know, 'Hey we're in an intertidal, we're in the middle of something.' And so how we are and act during this moment sets the stage for the next several thousand years.
The issue is we are biologically prone to short-term decision making. 15,000 years ago, if you and I were walking and we came across a tree laden with fruit, we would gorge ourselves cause we didn't know where the next meal was gonna come from. We were being short-termistic; that's okay.
But now we're using that kind of short-term thinking and applying it everywhere. But if we are going to skillfully navigate this intertidal, we need a mindset that allows us to be future-conscious. Longpath is one of many solutions to help us skillfully navigate through this intertidal.
What Longpath asks us to do is think about the ramifications of our day-to-day actions and the impact they will have on future generations. So more often than not, I say, "Hey I have this mindset called Longpath," and people say, "Oh great, we're all gonna get into a room, and we're gonna put post-it notes up and we're gonna design the future we want. I say, "No, actually what we're gonna do is we're gonna talk about empathy." Now, when we think of empathy we often think about empathy in the present moment. It's also about empathy for the future or empathy for the past. We call this 'Transgenerational empathy.'
Transgenerational empathy with the past, asks us to look at our parents or at the society and place them in context. There are things that my mom and dad used to say, that today would be called out as wrong. The fact of the matter is that's gonna happen to us, I guarantee you, in 400 years, 500 years.
Allowing us to look at the past and reconcile with it in some ways actually cleans the slate. So I know there are certain ways that I am in the world that are because that's how my dad was and his grandfather and their great-great-grandmother. It doesn't mean we don't hold them accountable, it means we put it within a context that allows us to process it, integrate it, and then move forward. We then say, "What attributes do you wanna pass on?" So we use empathy, 'cus it allows us to actually connect with folks in the future in a way that will actually drive actions in the present by us. On the other hand, there's 'Futures thinking.' Futures thinking is an invitation to imagine something more than just a singular tomorrow.
We live in this idea of an 'Official future.' And the official future usually is a set of assumptions, mostly unsaid, about what tomorrow will be. Well, who makes the official future? Back in the 1930s at the World's Fair, there was this exhibit called "Futurama," and was built by General Motors. - [VOICE-OVER] Let's travel into the future.
- [ARI WALLACH] Now they had these amazing displays about what the world of tomorrow would look like. - [VOICE-OVER] And now we have arrived in this wonder world of 1960. - [ARI WALLACH] From education, into kitchens, universities- but the one thing across the entire exhibit were eight-lane highways. - [VOICE-OVER] Accommodating traffic at designated speeds of 50, 75, and 100 miles an hour.
- [ARI WALLACH] Well that's GM, so it makes sense that the official future would have a lot of cars in it. The official future of today is mostly driven by technology or kind of a Silicon Valley way of thinking. More often than not we live in someone else's official future. - [ELON MUSK] Eh, not bad.
- [ARI WALLACH] Futures with an 's', opens that up again and says, "Well, there are many possible futures that could happen." So futures thinking explodes the idea of an official future. But then the question becomes if it can be anything, how do you decide which one you wanna move to? What are the futures? That's where 'telos' comes from: it's from the ancient Greek of "ultimate aim." What is the future that we want? So our telos is always about thinking, 'Am I becoming a great ancestor?' This is a big time for homo sapiens. We can't just kind of let the future wash over us or be dictated by people who say, "Well, the future is going to be X." The future isn't this distant place, it's not a noun.
It's actually a verb, it's something that you make. If we wanna steer away from this iceberg that we're heading towards, we don't need a great man to do it for us, we need collective action. We may not all run companies that can feed the world or build spaceships, but it's really our behaviors and our values that we have to start changing.
If we are to move forward as a people, as a species, we have to plant trees whose shade we'll never know. That's it, that's Longpath. It's a mindset that instills that agency into the individual to help us kind of navigate this moment skillfully. I'm Tyler Cowen.
I'm a professor of economics at George Mason University. My latest book, co-authored with Daniel Gross, is called "Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creators, and Winners Around the World." - The rate of progress in American society has been fairly uneven throughout our history.
Every now and then, there's a truly enormous breakthrough in human history. Much earlier, it might have been fire, language, the invention of settled agriculture, the printing press. You get a breakthrough and then many particular advances follow. So in the mid to late-19th century, the big advance was combining fossil fuels with powerful machines. From that, we did locomotives.
Later, cars. Later, airplanes, electrification. The period of greatest material progress was probably the early to mid-20th century. In those years, it would be common for American living standards to rise by 3 or 4% a year. That was a fantastic pace.
It made America world leader, world's richest nation for a while. But along the way, something happened: something went wrong. Starting in about 1973, our rate of progress fell.
A lot of the easier tasks, we had already accomplished. So bringing electricity to most parts of America- that was transformational-wonderful that we did it. That's a hard first act to top. I think another factor is we started regulating a lot of our economy, more than we had before: sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad reasons.
But those regulations slowed down growth. Also, energy prices, for a while, become higher. For many classes of Americans, income growth slows. Parts of the 1990s, you have rapid growth again, but for the most part, we have not matched our earlier performance.
My earlier book, "The Complacent Class" argued that Americans had become too risk-averse and not sufficiently entrepreneurial. Politically, we are more sorted into states, into cities, into countryside towns by Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, however you want to talk about different categories. We are more sorted.
There are many parts of our nation where segregation by race has been increasing rather than decreasing. This, I also find a worrisome trend. I think we have been in moments of true political chaos. We've definitely been in moments of pandemic chaos: a lot of school closures, just much harder to travel around, less convenient. And we are in some kind of serious crisis of human capital. Too many people staying at home, not getting the stimulation of differently minded others.
But there's a sense of crisis or needing a change today that we did not have in the 1980s or 1990s. And you're seeing many of the most vulnerable people in American society doing worse. And that's a kind of 'canary in the coal mine,' that, "Hey, something isn't working here." But maybe we're entering this new phase of American existence becoming fundamentally different in a way it had not been doing for several decades. And I tend to think that crux moment of emergency, in some degree of chaos, has been upon us for the last few years. And we're gonna see how well we respond.
It is up to us. I am hopeful, but I'm also sure the final answer is by no means assured. So I recall reading a symposium in the New York Times: April of 2020, they asked a group of experts, "When are we gonna get the vaccines?" The most optimistic one said, "In four years." Of course we had a working vaccine in less than one year. So people had not understood that when there's true urgency, our societies are capable of becoming more heroic, of truly prioritizing some projects over others, and getting some very important things done.
I see the major advances we're making with computing power, the internet, in biomedicine. I see the greater political chaos. And often, when new technologies come, it disrupts your politics as well.
It changes who wins, who loses. Changes what the coalitions are, which parts of the country are more influential, and why? So all of that we're remixing right now, but we're doing it at a faster pace than what we're comfortable with. And for American progress to resume at a higher rate, the number one factor is we need to stop taking our prosperity for granted. We need to stop telling ourselves we are always Number One. We need to get our act together, understand the urgency of our situation, and take on more of the attitudes that a lot of immigrants coming to this nation come with almost automatically- because they, very often, grow up in settings where prosperity simply cannot be taken for granted.