Contributed by David Wood, a pioneer of the smartphone industry, full-time futurist speaker, commentator, analyst and writer.
First, an introductory Q&A interview with Mr David Wood
Q: what is a futurist?
A futurist is someone who thinks it is worthwhile to try and anticipate the future by plotting out different possible scenarios, and consequentially enact change in the present. Through this approach, futurists believe that we can work now towards the realisation of certain scenarios over others, and prepare ourselves for change.
This movement began in 1960s America, when people were shocked at the Cuban Missile Crisis and how close the world had come to nuclear war and thought “could we do better? Could we think ahead? Could we do some more systematic planning?”.
I call myself a radical real world futurist, radical because I take seriously the possibility that the future may be very different from the present. We might, in a couple of decades, be in a world that’s ten times different from today in the sense of a much cleverer AI, much more powerful quantum computers. I take these radical scenarios seriously, but I also call myself a real-world futurist, because I believe that there is no definite outcome. If we want to understand how technology may develop we have to understand human reactions and especially political reactions.
Q: Is the power of technology going to corrupt our society or make it more equal?
I think it’s going to do both at the same time, it’s going to put more ability in peoples’ hands to do corrupt, stupid, selfish and angry things. And at the same time, it will allow people to be wiser, more informed, and more in control. Which of these tendencies is going to win?
I think there is a 65% probability that humans will triumph, we will lead much healthier lifestyles, there will be complete abolition of any kinds of poverty and hunger, and we will all enjoy sustainable abundance.
However, there’s a 35% chance that the powerful forces that we unleash will unintentionally bring us back to a new dark age. That’s a real scenario too, inequality gets worse, people get angrier and follow populous politicians like Donald Trump, simplistic solutions like Brexit, or worse. In this case, we will end up arguing with each other, stop building bridges, and things will go downhill. This probability is far too big.
This is why I want to talk to people about these scenarios, to make sure that they are credible and not just an impossible science fiction prediction. I want to point out that what’s happening with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is much more than what people say, it’s not just ‘we can do it more efficiently’, it’s a transformation through nanotechnology, biotechnology, genetic editing, cognotechnology, and of course information technology.
Q: From what we experience nowadays, especially through social media, it seems that technology is inducing ego-centrism and loss of empathy accompanied by disconnection, as the platforms we use allow us to engage mostly at a superficial level. In which ways can technology bring us closer and allow us to be more empathetic in our online interactions? What benevolent human traits can technology enhance?
When we see each other’s’ face it helps us to behave better, but if we just see some text we often go into another mode of social interaction, where we assume the worst about each other more quickly, rather than considering the other side. There is evidence that digital interactions are more quickly prone to getting us into anger and negativity, whereas when we meet in person we are more considerate and respectful.
Ideally, technology will point out to us what is fake news and what are incorrect statements, but it will also lead us gently to build bridges. Perhaps the most important technology is bridge building technology, a way to realize that even though we are saying different things there are some common underlying values. In the same way Microsoft Word underlines our written work in red when it’s grammatically wrong and in blue when things could be rephrased in a better way, I imagine that intelligence will be able to point out ‘this is fake news’, or ‘you could rephrase this differently for the person you’re talking to’.
At the same time, why do we behave this way? Because we are often more concerned about our group status, our standing into the group which we identify with, rather than trying to find out the truth. So, we need to use our reasoning and our rationality to find evidence to support our arguments. Through this approach, technology can help us say things in a more constructive way and will give us a sense of meaning and value.
We need to say more than ‘have a new politics’, we need to say more than ‘put humans first’, we need to understand more carefully why we have gotten in this situation.
Q: Why is it that a tool that is supposedly empowering us, is also weakening us and making us feel loss of control?
The first thing is the pace of change, it is happening more quickly and in more spheres of life than we had expected, so people don’t know where this change is going. Secondly, propaganda is spreading much more quickly and powerfully. Thirdly, there’s technology platforms, the companies that own them are the wealthiest in the world. It’s no longer the oil, financial or the retail giants that have the highest share valuation, it is Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, etc. These are the most powerful companies in the world now, and people are nervous about this because no one knows what these companies will do, do they really have the best interest of consumers in their mind? Often, they don’t.
For all these reasons people are fearful: the pace of change, the extent of it into our lives, and the rise of new powerful companies.
Q: Many argue that we are simply miss-using technology, and that if we use it properly we won’t be so negatively affected by it. What do you think is the proper way to use technology?
It is hard to define the proper way, it takes time and involvement in quite a lot of details, and through each discussion we are getting closer. We must gather the evidence keeping in mind that many people offering evidence are biased with commercial interests. Finding solutions requires proper democracy, it requires taking the time to have deliberate discussions on the issues at hand one by one. We need to take decisions together.
I describe this through the concept of techno progressive decision making. This involves deliberation, openness, accessibility and involvement, so these conversations should not involve just the experts, but should be shared with everyone.
It takes time to work out these things, and unfortunately, many of the current discussions are naïve and misleading, so we should work hard on it by educating more people. It is the most important discussion of all to understand what technology can and cannot do.
Q: In the article, you mention how politics will become more authentic in the future, but given our current chaotic and overwhelming nature of politics, how do you envision technology bringing us from where we are today to where you are expecting we’ll be at in the future?
Amid all the chaos there must be oases of calm and thoughtfulness, what The Fourth Group is doing is one example of gradually carving out some insight in terms of understanding. We need to extend and enhance that, we need to gather the best arguments to which sensible people will respond. That’s what the academic journals are meant to do, although they are often caught one in their own issues as well. So, groups like The Fourth Group, can gather a better understanding of these issues in a way that’s accessible and trustworthy so that when people get confused they will know where to turn to find truths.
It is about building up a database of reliable knowledge which is also aware uncertainties and receptive to questions. This is something that I am also trying to do through H+Pedia, a platform similar to Wikipedia, but that is more open to radical ideas.
Q: Is it up to people and institutions to be the regulators of knowledge and politics rather than technology platforms?
Yes, and that is what I call Super Democracy. This is a variety of insights of the whole community and from all different backgrounds, helped by technology with suggestions, research and answers, but ultimately humans must look at these answers and make decisions. The best rationality is not developed by one person sitting alone thinking, it’s very much through discussion and dialectic.
Q: Do you believe that by achieving Super Democracy we can not only confront ourselves with other like-minded people, but also reach out to those that didn’t have access to the same knowledge and share different views?
People who criticise my viewpoint vary, sometimes they are open to discussion and we can find a way to sit down and have a sensible conversation. Sometimes it really seems pointless. Building bridges, as I mentioned earlier, is probably one of the most important skill set of all. It should be taught in schools, we need to learn how to be agile and flexible with our minds, we need to grow our emotional intelligence to understand the emotions driving ourselves and those of the people we are talking with.
Now, the article…
Power tends to corrupt, warned Lord Acton, the nineteenth century historian and politician. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
What is worrying is that never before have we humans held so much power in our hands. Science and technology have provided us with spectacular capabilities. We can redirect mighty rivers, hasten the formation of storm clouds, cool down the earth by blotting out sunlight using aerosols, and, through hydraulic fracturing, trigger massive earthquakes. We may soon recreate in the midst of our countryside the same sustained nuclear fusion as takes place deep inside stars. Hardware and software robots are transforming the workforce and threaten human redundancy on unprecedented scale. Pills are at hand that profoundly modify personal mood. We can cut and splice genetic solutions from one species into others that are far distant on the tree of life. And, grown emboldened from re-engineering nature, we are now poised to re-engineer human nature.
Whether these near-absolute powers will corrupt humanity, ruinously, or instead uplift humanity, wonderfully, remains an open question. Given the pace at which breakthrough change hurtles around the world, frequently with cascading unintended consequences, it’s also an urgent question.
We may not like to be reminded of this, but our increasingly powerful superhuman capabilities coexist, precariously, with ugly subhuman proclivities carried forward from prehistoric times. This potent, deadly combination may be on the point of veering completely out of control.
Eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson has put it well:
The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.
Ages-old primal human traits, such as vanity, envy, self-righteousness, tribalism, and alienation, are being aggravated by the blistering pace of modern-day social change. These traits are being fanned by divisive ideologies of retrenchment and separation. They’re being magnified by all sorts of accelerating technological breakthroughs and societal dislocation. With their newfound unprecedented vigour, these traits are poised to wreak existential havoc. All that we hold dear could perish.
That forecast may seem melodramatic. But observe that, as humanity becomes smarter, it’s far from clear that we’re also becoming wiser. Greater strength doesn’t automatically bring greater kindness. More intelligence can make us more narrow-minded, rather than more thoughtful. It gives us a terrifying capability to discover or invent new reasons to justify us doing whatever it is that we’ve already decided we want to do.
Sadly, we often choose to harness our intelligence to bolster our biases and reinforce our prejudices. Lacking a compelling bigger vision, people wrap themselves in small-minded cleverness.
Without a better understanding of the layout of the landscape ahead — without a trustworthy vision of how technology can best serve human needs — we risk unwittingly stumbling our way into some kind of Armageddon. Through blinkered haste and collective naivety, we could trigger hideous twenty-first century equivalents of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Each of us is already under frequent hostile attack, if not from apocalyptic equestrians, then from multiple commercial and political forces that seek to exploit us, manipulate us, or diminish us. We are the victims of ingenious pressures that operate on our minds as well as on our bodies — weapons, if you like, that warp not only our physical infrastructure but also our cultural fabric and our perceptual frameworks.
Techniques honed in the advertising industry are being strengthened by machine analysis of the multiple data streams we emit. As a result, we are presented with exactly the kind of message (and at exactly the right time) to cause us to take actions against our own best interests. Since the slickest adverts are the ones that influence us in ways where we say “of course I made up my own mind”, we are left only with a gnawing doubt that something is profoundly amiss.
Social media prioritises messages that grab our attention — the sensational, the outrageous, and the bewildering. Slow deliberation is bypassed by a stream of “this is terrible!” and “how crazy is this”? Without the eye-to-eye contact of real-world interactions, we quickly move from intellectual puzzlement to denouncing our online interlocutors as perverse and deplorable.
With political discussions dominated by hostility and suspicion, it’s little surprise that the conclusions of these discussions fail to take full advantage of the collective insight latent in the community. Our best ideas are drowned out by the loudest voices or flashy distractions. The unwarranted certainty of true-believers leaves little space for the collaborative exploration of more nuanced solutions. “The people have spoken”, we hear. “You lost. Get over it!”
It is no wonder that so many people perceive they are losing control of their lives.
To summarise: on their present trajectory, technology and business are actually making politics worse, rather than better. Together, without intending it, they are fuelling increasing dysfunction within politics. In such a setting, technological innovations and aggressive business corporations might end up harming humanity much more than they help us.
It needn’t be this way. Politics and technology, aligned well, should be powerful allies in the quest to elevate humanity to our true potential. But first we need to put in place the right social and philosophical frameworks to guide the development and deployment of breakthrough technologies.
Escalating competitive stakes mean that the pressures from commercial and political influences are more likely to intensify than to diminish.
These pressures cannot be turned off. But, thankfully, they can be steered.
The critical task in steering is to establish the appropriate direction. That direction cannot simply be “more technology”, “more trade”, or “more wealth”. It’s my conviction that the vision should be “more humanity” — an increase in human flourishing — with a strong emphasis on quality rather than quantity. It’s also my conviction that technology, wisely guided, has an enormous positive role to play in the fulfilment of this vision.
Let’s step back a moment. Politics arises wherever people gather together. Whenever we collectively decide the constraints we put on each other’s freedom, we’re taking part in politics. Politics also covers incentives — the encouragements we apply to each other to take action we believe will be in our collective good interest.
In today’s fast-changing world, the legal frameworks that stipulate which activities are restricted, and which are, instead, encouraged, need updating more and more quickly. As new technological possibilities arise, laws and standards that made good sense in previous times no longer make such good sense. As technological innovation becomes more pervasive, legal reform needs to accelerate. In some cases, frameworks need loosening; in others, tightening; in yet others, whole new concepts are required. But how will these changes be agreed and overseen? And how can we prevent powerful vested interests from defining and manipulating these regulatory and legal frameworks for their own narrow benefits? These are key tasks for twenty-first century politics.
Ideally, political decision processes should draw on the best insights of the entire community. Ideally, society’s regulatory and legal frameworks, which constrain how we all operate, should serve society as a whole, rather than narrow cliques. Where there are conflicts of interest, these should be addressed and resolved rationally, rather than by brute power or hidden skulduggery.
The bad news is that politics is failing at this task — due in part to incompetence, and in part to malice. Misconceived actions by out-of-touch politicians threaten to derail necessary reforms in these frameworks. Obstructive actions by self-serving politicians further hinder the reform process. The sorry result will be to stunt or even strangle important positive humanitarian initiatives — initiatives in multiple fields of life, involving engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, futurists, community-builders, and other social reformers. Not for the first time in history, what is mediocre about humanity will obstruct what is potentially best about humanity.
That’s only the start of what’s wrong with contemporary politics. It’s not just that bad politics can impede vital civil improvement projects. Equally worrying, political machinations can distract society’s attention, side-line critical resources, provoke divisions rather than unity, inflame the disaffected into acts of gross sabotage, and, in the worst case, plunge nations into cataclysmic war with each other.
In short, we ignore politics at our peril.
The good news is that a better politics awaits us, beckoning us forward. It’s up to us — all of us — whether we recognise that call and take the required actions. Key to these actions will be to harness technology more wisely and more profoundly than before.
In this envisioned technoprogressive politics of the near future, decisions can take place informed by the best insight of the population as a whole, rather than being subverted by partisan vested interests. Viewpoints and information that deserve more attention will rise to the top of political discussion, untarnished, rather than being pushed aside or deviously distorted by those who find them inconvenient. Political discourse will become authentic, rather than contrived. Our politics will become animated by the spirit of constructive curiosity and open collaboration.
Evidently, that’s a far cry from the present situation. Our politics has grown dysfunctional in recent times — frustratingly, dangerously dysfunctional.
The underlying reason for this dysfunction is because our mainstream mental worldviews and cultural frameworks are unable to handle the accelerating pace of change. To cope with this intense twenty-first century pace, we sorely need new worldviews and new frameworks. We are overdue for a decisive move beyond formerly dominant thought patterns such as economic neoliberalism, market-led capitalism, worker-led socialism, nation-state conservatism, technological determinism, and backward-looking “natural is best” eco-primitivism. We urgently require a twenty-first paradigm that can supersede and transcend these ailing predecessors.
In response to our current conceptual crisis, I offer transhumanism. Just as I believe that the journey to a healthier society inevitably involves politics, I also believe that journey inevitably involves transhumanism.
Transhumanism asserts that humanity can and should take wise and profound advantage of technology to transcend the damaging limitations and drawbacks imposed by the current circumstances of human nature. As a result, humans will be able to transition, individually and collectively, towards a significantly higher stage of life — a life with much improved quality.
Transhumanism is sometimes expressed in terms of the so-called “three supers”:
● Super longevity: significantly improved physical health, including much longer lifespans — overcoming human tendencies towards physical decay and decrepitude
● Super intelligence: significantly improved thinking capability — overcoming human tendencies towards mental blind spots and collective stupidity
● Super wellbeing: significantly improved states of consciousness — overcoming human tendencies towards depression, alienation, vicious emotions, and needless suffering.
My advocacy of transhumanism actually emphasises one variant within the overall set of transhumanist philosophies. This is the variant of transhumanism known as technoprogressive transhumanism.
The technoprogressive variant of transhumanism in effect adds one more “super” to the three already mentioned:
● Super democracy: significantly improved social inclusion and resilience, whilst upholding diversity and liberty — overcoming human tendencies towards tribalism, divisiveness, deception, and the abuse of power.
Taken together, these four supers provide a integrative vision for harnessing technology for sustainable progress — a vision that can inspire coordinated action in support of that profoundly positive future.
Note: this essay contains excerpts from the opening chapters of the author’s recently published book “Transcending Politics: A technoprogressive roadmap for a comprehensively better future”.
Before becoming a futurist consultant, speaker and writer, Wood was one of the pioneers of the smartphone industry.
This includes ten years with pioneering PDA manufacturer Psion PLC, and ten more with smartphone operating system specialist Symbian Ltd, which he co-founded in 1998.
By 2012, his software for UI and application frameworks had been included on 500 million smartphones from companies such as Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Fujitsu, Sharp, Siemens, and Panasonic.
From 2010 to 2013, Wood was Technology Planning Lead (CTO) of Accenture Mobility, where he co-led the company’s Mobility Health business initiative.
As Chair of London Futurists, Wood has organised regular meetings in London since March 2008 on futurist and technoprogressive topics. Membership of London Futurists reached 7,000 in February 2018.
Wood’s most recent book is Transcending Politics: A technoprogressive roadmap to a comprehensively better future. His previous books include Smartphones and Beyond: Lessons from the remarkable rise and fall of Symbian (published in September 2014) and The Abolition of Aging: The forthcoming radical extension of healthy human longevity (May 2016). He was also the lead editor of the volume Anticipating 2025: A guide to the radical changes that may lie ahead, whether or not we’re ready (June 2014).
In 2009 he was included in T3’s list of “100 most influential people in technology”. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) in London since 2005, a Director of Humanity+ since November 2013, and a Fellow of the IEET (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) since January 2015.