Would an insightful futurist please stand up?
Perhaps I move in the wrong circles online, or perhaps I’ve read too deeply in a shallow subject. Perhaps I’m limited by culture or that there’s only so much that a layman like myself can take in, but lately I’ve found myself asking the question: Where have all the insightful futurists gone?
That’s not to say that the bulk mainstay of talking points from the pop-futurist movement aren’t worth looking at or are in some way discredited. I’m not above them, I find them as interesting as anyone else, but why is it that we as a forward-thinking community find ourselves returning to the same talking points over and over?
Take self-driving cars for example. In the futurist space this topic has been beaten to death. We’ve talked about the implications for fuel-efficiency, the prospect of ride-sharing, the danger it faces for the employment status of truck drivers, the legislative difficulty of bringing them into being, and so on and so on. It’s all well-trodden ground, but who’s beating the path to new viewpoints? It seems to me that all it takes is one in-depth look at a particular topic in the futurist canon and you’ve ruined any experience that you may have listening to any discussions in the future. I don’t want to have to listen to one hour of podcast to eke out the three sentences of talking point that any half-brained futurephile hasn’t already mulled over (and I say this with no offence intended to half-brained futurephiles in whose number I count myself).
The most acclaimed content, it seems, is not exempt from rehashing either. I recently picked up the audiobook version of The Second Machine Age by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. In it, the two spend the first 90% of the time pointing at an awkwardly select set of software and hardware tech products saying “Look, isn’t that great?”, as though publishing what amounts to Verge-esque articles strung together on a narrative washing line is what counts for a book these days. Only when we get to the closing sections do we find out why we had just been regaled with stories that anybody half-paying attention to tech news had already heard from other people: a economic formulation of Universal Basic Income and the Negative Income Tax. Great, exactly what I was actually looking for from McAfee, but why did it take so long to get to this point? This is problem number one with futurist writing. Padding. God knows I’m guilty of it in this post alone.
Similarly, I was reading a great piece by Brett Scott lately that I had found on Reddit. In it, he describes the subtle and insidious shift in automation from tools that aid, to services that mollycoddle, and how that might affect the financial sector in the coming years. It was intellectual, eye-opening and exactly the type of material I enjoy reading, but what was I greeted with in the comments section on everyone’s favourite content aggregation site? See for yourself. Off-topic bulldozing of the real subject and attempts by the community to drag conversation back onto the straight and narrow, back to where the path is beaten and the talking points have been rehearsed ad infinitum. This is problem number two: comfort zones. Futurism is meant to challenge and thrill. It’s meant to make you think. Firing the same old neural pathways is never going to help us reach new perspectives, just reinforce the old.
So that’s where I stand. Mildly frustrated in a ballroom of chatter feeling like I might have been to exact same soirée two years prior.
If anyone knows of any great resources out there in the futurist community, where the mind expands never to be shrunk, where they’re repeatedly challenged, then I’d love to know. You can find me at @SpeakMouthWords on Twitter.
For now, I’ll have to go back to panning for gold nuggets of originality in the river of futurist repetition and fluff.