Looking for Unicorns

Maggie Greyson
Maggie Greyson

Maggie Greyson has written her second post in our Emerging Fellows program for the Association of Professional Futurists. She envisions the future through the metaphor of unicorn. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

The Unicorn Tapestries circa 1500
The Unicorn Tapestries circa 1500

The alluring and untameable unicorn is a cultural symbol of purity and grace, wealth and prosperity, or love and independence. It is said that this extremely rare, wild creature would rather die than be captured. This fantastic beast appears in the history of many civilizations yet there has never been any evidence of a metaphysical existence.

Canadian Sasquatch stamp
Canadian Sasquatch stamp

Bigfoot is the name of an Ape Man that lives deep in the forests of North America. Governments in both Canada and the US are currently being sued by believers for not protecting this hairy 800-pound legend. In retaliation, the government of British Columbia is calling the group’s leader Todd Standish a “vexatious litigant” tying up valuable court resources defending a folklore. What if the courts prove a bipedal primate with feet 24 inches long does not exist? Who wins if the Sasquatch habitat is not protected from a deforestation rate of 6,000 acres of open space each day? What is really going on here?

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.” The future is envisioned for us every day by traditional media and social media. At best we have a blurry fragmented image of the future punctuated by dystopian tales that outnumber utopian ones. Unfortunately, a positive ending is like the elusive Sasquatch, invisible to the untrained eye.

Ralph Waldo Emerson also said, “We become what we think about all day long.” For example, headlines in mainstream media about the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report released September 18, 2018, say that AI will cause 75 million people to be out of a job by 2022. Words like warning, displace, loss, and “robots taking over jobs” often accompany announcements like this. Fewer people will ever read that report but it also says that in the same time frame, “133 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms.” We cannot yet imagine what all of the jobs are going to be. If we think about the 75 million lost jobs conventional logic might suggest that the future looks like mass unemployment of the Great Depression. Collectively we need to spend time preparing to see something we have never seen before, which is more nuanced than haves/ have-nots.

In 2014, Wired Magazine reported that about 100,000 people were content moderators paid a meager sum to remove objectionable content such as beheadings, child porn, and hate speech in people’s newsfeeds. Seeing the most egregious acts of humanity hundreds of times a day caused emotional breakdowns with symptoms similar to PTSD. In the last four years, developments in AI and fact-checking tools replaced many of these toxic jobs and offensive materials are removed more efficiently. Before the elections in Mexico, over 60 publishers, universities and civil society organizations collaborated on a platform called Verificado 2018 to help reveal hoaxes faster.

No dejes que… jueguen con tu mente: difunden cartel falso del cierre de campaña de López Obrador

Verificado spread news literacy videos to help close the gap between what can be detected by their platform and what memes are being shared quickly through social media without critical thinking. From day one, they set the expectations that the technological solution will work better if critically thinking humans participate.

Humans have special powers of ingenuity, imagination, and the ability to interpret nuance. What if we don’t look for the unicorn, but seek inspiration from it. Humans have always demonstrated that when we believe, we don’t need evidence to overcome. How might we help people think the unthinkable? What examples will prepare to us see the future as anything other than blurry, menacing and unknowable?

© Maggie Greyson 2018

Originally published at https://www.apf.org.

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