Is the future bad for us?

Cross posted from my normal LinkedIn home for ruminations as less business-centric than usual. Thoughts welcomed.

This photo, by Photo by Tim Käbel on Unsplash, is my favourite of the ‘future’ stock photos I could find, mainly because it looks like a post-modern flux capacitor. “I’ve been to the year 3000… not much has changed, but they lived underwater…”

This is, I think, one of the perennial glass half empty questions.

I’ve spent most of my life being curious and excited about the next innovation. Often these have been digital technology oriented — I still remember the day we got our first real PC, when I was about seven, and since then I’ve been quick to discover and experiment with each new thing that’s comes to market that a) I can afford and b) impacts my particular microcosm, currently occupied by my long suffering wife, PR and marketing consultancy, some cars, three daughters, a puppy, a piano, some guitars, a neglected vegetable garden and even more neglected Xbox. Not necessarily in that order.

And now we read about how digital technology is resulting in isolation and emotional disorder; we see pictures of crowds gathered at events, not living in the moment but holding up their phones to capture the proceedings for digital archives without apparent purpose. We hear of rising suicide rates. I was told of a company that has an app that rewards kids for ignoring their phone for 20 minutes, as our children grow up in a world where your value is measured in how many likes you get on Instagram. The news can be singularly depressing. It’s why I prefer to read Wired Magazine than the Daily Mail, on balance, which at least attempts to focus on the wonder and despair of innovation in equal measure.

Does that mean that all the progress we’ve made is for nothing? Does that mean, broadly, that the future is rubbish? And that life, as it was prior to digital technology, was a relative nirvana?

Of course not. Technology is also facilitating connections, helping in many cases with loneliness, ending corrupt democracies (look at Malaysia and the role of the web in facilitating that regime change; look at Arab Spring), facilitating collaboration across continents and time zones, helping treat a widespread variety of physical and mental illness, helping us build a new future.

But it isn’t nearly as commonplace to read about these innovations as the risks and dangers.

An obsession with darkness

Human society will always obsess with, and be fascinated by, the dark stories. The disasters and the horror made possible through the two-sided coin of human hubris and innovation. The boundary between success and failure is razor thin. In client conversations, we frequently must explain that good news is, by definition, not news. Two billion internet users today did not suffer depression, cyber-bullying, commit crimes or otherwise use the web for nefarious purposes — well, that’s a useless headline, isn’t it? (…although it’s an amazing fact IMHO; as are all the things they accomplished, in terms of making human connections, sourcing goods and services, sharing information, collaboration on projects, educational experiences and more.) And yes, it’s horrible that tens of millions did suffer from some or all of the other list; we mustn’t ever be unaware of that.

What value, nostalgia?

But things weren’t picture book perfect in any decade prior to the current one. In the 1950’s, women were subservient to men (ok, so we have a plus ça change problem there we really need to sort out), segregation was still a thing (this is getting a bit better), and cigarettes were good for you (think we’ve finally figured out this one). The 60’s and 70’s were rife with the same kinds of global wars we have today, and we saw a societal rebellion against the strict social mores of the 50’s with such heights of hedonistic excess that many still look back on the period with only the fuzziest of memories. The 80’s were peak season for class A drugs and some of the worst indulgences in the financial services sector we’ve ever seen (Wall Street was a docudrama, right?). The internet decades may have lots to answer for, but it’d take a very good historian to unequivocally state that they have been better or worse than those that have gone before.

“The invention of the ship was also the invention of the shipwreck.”

A colleague went to the current V&A exhibition, the Future Starts Here, which is built around the above quote from the French Cultural theorist Paul Virillio. I’d not heard of it, but it stands to reason; anything brings risk, and reward. Brings opportunity and danger.

In some instances, we figure out the dangers straight away. They are easily anticipated and mitigated.

In others, communities come together to agree the best way to manage those risks. That’s where regulation and law come into it. The debate around Facebook’s rights to our data, the emergence of GDPR — this is society’s response to innovations introducing heretofore unanticipated risks and hazards. Even how much meat can go into a pork sausage, and it still be called a pork sausage, is regulated (one of my favourite Yes Minister debates). Sometimes private businesses self-regulate responsibly, but sadly this is rare; our capitalist context rewards financial returns over societal nicety (which generally has a cost). But perhaps, thanks to the immediacy and transparency of the internet, and the way it can impact corporate reputation — this too will change? Cue the emergence of corporate purpose with fierce determination in recent years.

In other instances, we just carry on. There are no rules required to manage the length of turn ups on hipster jeans (or perhaps there are? Is two inches too much?), or on how big a satchel must be to not be labelled a man-purse.

Change is hard

Every time something new comes around, it requires adaptation and change. This is not easy. The human condition is one of habits and habituation. Introducing something new, even if it is easier, better, stronger, faster in the long term — requires rewiring your brain from what is inevitably a very comfortable groove. Older people say to me, “you’ll understand when you’re our age,” but really, I don’t think I will. I have persistently restless neural pathways that always want to reach for and discover new things, and new connections. My context is fluid; it’s one of the reasons why people can still change my mind, should they choose to engage me in debate, as new ‘facts’ change my perception of reality. Depending on the validity and source of those facts, of course.

And here’s the rub: belief is a social construct. Most fact is a social construct, of a sort, something society is still getting its head around (not me, I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at university). If you are a community of one, and you believe the moon is made of cheese, then it is effectively so. But if you are part of a broader community and you all reinforce each other’s beliefs, then those facts become true. That’s how there are still flat-Earthers, that’s why the NRA maintains that guns don’t kill people, that’s why fake news is, and Donald Trump is President of the United States. It’s why Facebook and Google are under so much scrutiny around their role in propogating ‘fake news.’

Where does that leave us?

It leaves us where we’ve always been. In a society of fractured belief and faith, disunited but all caught in a river of progress that is too wide and too fast to leave any but the most isolated free of its influence. You can swim for the shore and try to stay clear of its sway, hoping that the flow will slow, and the past will live on through the choices that you make and the community you keep.

There’s a delightful and very apropos quote from Seth Godin this week:

“When you put the right idea into the world,people can’t unsee it. It changes our narrative. The existence of your product, service or innovation means that everything that compares to it is now treated differently.”

Alternatively, there are those that try to race the river, sometimes getting lost and hitting rocks as they enter uncharted stretches. Or people do what most of us do; try to navigate it with a dose of caution, looking ahead to what’s possible but trying to remember what we’ve been through, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of history.

I think the Doctor might appreciate this interpretation of the passage of time and the inexorable nature of the future becoming the present. For all without a Tardis. And perhaps even those who have one.

The future isn’t good or bad. Any more than the past is.

It simply is. I choose to make the best of it, and maybe occasionally taking the boat a little further upstream to scout ahead for others. That’s my nature. As I get older, I hope I’m getting more context and wisdom from the mistakes of the past, rather than fearful and nostalgic from some imagined perfect point in history. But who can say?

After all, I am too old to see the point of Snapchat.