Listen to any technology evangelist, business leader, politician, educator, futurist, or "cultural influencer" these days, and you'll hear the same refrain. Anyone who wants to be successful has to innovate, disrupt, and "own the future."
And what is that future? In keeping with the mythologizing of the Silicon Valley ethos, it's a future where every single industry and market is disrupted. A future where technology is leveraged to prepare children for a life of, yes, more innovation, and more disruption. A future where big data makes government more efficient. And a future where technology empowers the poor through technology like 3D printing and digital finance. Whatever the market, whatever the political, economic, and social ideology, the future is becoming the only operative.
Journalist and author Hal Niedzviecki has been exploring this fascination with a nebulous idea of "the future." His most recent book, Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future, introduces the idea of future as fetish: "We’re extending the idea that human beings should have provenance over all aspects of life—we’re extending that idea to include knowledge of and control of the future, and that doesn’t seem like a good idea given what we’ve done with the present."
The history of innovation, says Niedzviecki, started with trying to solve real problems produced by lack of resources, or to prevent resources from disappearing. For most of human history, people sought continuity and social certainty—to maintain things as they always were. Niedzviecki cites the Chumash people of California's Channel Islands as a prime example of a very traditionally "present" mind-set among pre-industrial revolution humans.
"They have ancestry that can be traced back to the region for a remarkable 13,000 years," Niedzviecki says. "Studies of their culture show that up until contact with Europeans, they barely changed their society or their technology at all. When they did make a change, it was due to the necessities of survival—overfishing and a change in climate that led to food scarcity, which led to increased trade with the mainland, which led to improvements in their dugout canoes."
When Niedzviecki looks at the time period between the invention of agriculture and the industrial revolution, he sees technological innovations that mostly emerged out of necessity for subsistence farmers and, to a lesser extent, hunter-gatherers. The major technological innovations of the period, like levers, nails, Archimedes' screw (the first water pump), concrete, and aqueducts were designed to address the problem of housing and feeding growing populations. "Many of the solutions were ingenious, but there were vastly fewer of them, and they were clearly motivated by need, as opposed to the idea that human beings inherently seek to disrupt the old and invent the new," Niedzviecki says.
"The future" as an overall societal goal grew out of the industrial revolution, a reflection of several factors, chief among them the deliberate way humans arranged economic systems, particularly in the Western world. By fashioning an industrial society, then by a creating a postmodern society of "artificially generated wants and needs" that were constantly upgradeable and must-have, Niedzviecki thinks that humans have come to accept the notion that they can and must own and create their own futures.
The need to "own," "win," and "get to" the future, often spoken by today's political and corporate leaders, has its roots in the post-enlightenment notion of technological improvement and universal education, says Niedzviecki. The notion being that such ideas could help foster wealth and growth in society, which would presumably enhance equality and societal happiness. But to really locate the ground zero of the future ownership mentality, Niedzviecki believes one must look to the post-WWII 1950s era, where rhetoric surrounding the "space race" and "arms race" gradually gave way to a more general race to own the future. The bigger winners, as he sees it, are corporations who engaged in "spin" and "branding," while heavily investing in the idea of a product cycle. You know: The annual launch of new styles and features that Steve Jobs basically perfected with Apple—a reality where to claim the future, a person must buy the latest bit of device or risk getting left in the dust.
Another recurring theme in Trees on Mars is Niedzviecki skeptic's view of the futurist. He sees the ascension of the futurist to a preeminent place in society—and the idea that all should become futurists for individual and collective progress—as deeply problematic.
Should everyone be a futurist? Niedzviecki doesn’t think so, but he is seeing a massive revolution in how societies are positioning themselves around technological success, a repositioning of education around technology; a reorganization of societal goals around the "latest chimeras of success"—the best futurists who knew what was going to happen before it happened, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. In doing this, Niedzviecki believes we run the risk of condemning those people who really don’t feel it's necessary or interesting to think as futurists.
"It’s self-satisfying bullshit from a small set of people who were able to take advantage of this and sell this," Niedzviecki says. "And my line of frustration runs through the whole book and perhaps culminates when I go to SXSW Interactive."
There Niedzviecki sat in on a panel dealing with disruption, where he listened to "high-priced, famous gurus" tell attendees that if they can’t keep up with the pace of disruption then they are failures that will be left behind. Niedzviecki recalls sitting there thinking: "That’s not the way it is—that’s the way you have made it."
"I think the vast majority of people who preach disruption do not understand the ramifications of what they’re saying," Niedzviecki said. "Generally they mean a technology that goes into what is already being done and has the effect of somehow centralizing it in a way that makes it tremendously easier to implement, more profitable, more streamlined, but also completely centralized and destabilizing to local communities."
Niedzviecki is struck by the banality of disruption. Humanity faces the biggest problems in its history—climate change, clean water, energy and resource scarcity—and many of these are, as he points out, were created through the "willy-nilly implementation of technologies without the slightest regard for their impact." Yet people seem to think the best way to tackle problems is to find new ways to disrupt. Instead of having fewer cars on the road, for instance, people want to disrupt the automobile industry by championing Tesla and self-driving cars as solutions: The solutions are really just new means of generating profit.
"It’s the emperor has no clothes, and when I talk to people in Silicon Valley about this, it takes about two minutes to realize they haven’t even thought about it," Niedzviecki says. "They have incredibly narrow tunnel vision, in which they are developing a new way to order drinks at a bar where the drinks will already be there when you arrive, and that’s it."
"Any other questions you might want to ask them about the implications of why they are doing what they are doing, where they got their ideas from, the efficacy of this development given the plight of human beings overall—there’s nothing there," he added. "It’s just, ‘Yeah, but . . . people will use this, it will be great. We already have 100,000 downloads. We have five investors.'"
"Once we acknowledge that as a species we are in a slow but steady decline, which we refuse to acknowledge," he says, "we'll be in a much better position to assess which so-called technological upgrades are just big shiny distractions and which actually might matter to the project of helping to shape whatever comes next for the planet and the species."
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