Idealists, cynics, and the fate of humanity – why we’re so bad at predicting the future

The Future
The Future

This is the latest guest post from Adam Fletcher and Paul Hawkins, collectively known as both The Hipstery and “those two guys who should really get real jobs”…

The Future

As Tech Open Air rolls into Berlin next month with the theme of ‘Retro-Futurism,’ a whole assortment of movers, shakers, visionaries, and – errr – us, will be pointing out and laughing at the lovable, naive ideas that the people of yesteryear had about the future – ie our now.

While we all like nothing more than mocking the absence of robot servants and flying cars in our lives, we also know that the people of the future are probably looking back at us from some conference in which they’ll get together (virtually) to watch (via retina display) people (AI-infused humanoids) sharpening their satirical pencils (digital) in front of presentations (PowerPoint – that shit’s immortal) about all the dumb stuff that we, the people of 2013, believed would happen.

Just as Henry Ford once said, “If you asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses.” So the inventor of 2031’s revolutionary, world-changing Wazzock Technology™ will say, “If you’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster internet.”

Google GlassHe’ll be lying in an anti-gravity hammock in space, and laughing at that weird phase in human history when we still used the internet and petrol. He’ll cackle in front of a delightfully retro poster of Google Glass, just like we cackle now when someone reminds us that we used to check cinema times by pointing a plastic thing with buttons at our televisions, while our confused grandmothers watched on, saying stuff like, “Oh, marvellous, when I was your age we had to get our cinema times by riding a Penny Farthing to the village sundial and putting a leech on it.”

So, why are we so bad at predicting the future?

Well, let’s look at the last twenty years. We’ve witnessed as much technological transformation and innovation as in the previous two thousand years combined. That change is interesting, because it’s also built on top of something called the Law of Accelerated Returns. Our inability to comprehend “accelerated returns” is the main reason we’re so bad at future-gazing.

Try telling a farmer in the 1800s that one day he’d own a huge machine that could do the work of a hundred men, fuelled only by black liquid dinosaur. Then try telling the same farmer it would only be a fraction of that time again, before he was ploughing his huge machine over vegetables he’d designed himself on a computer. THEN try telling that same farmer that in just a few more years, he’ll have to get a job in Tech Support because everyone just downloads and 3D-prints Soylent.

Ancient farming

Accelerated Returns dictate that not only are things changing ever-quicker, the time between those significant changes is also reducing. In short: more change, more often. It’s a term coined by Ray Kurzweil: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns’, such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.”

The fact that we know things are going to be so radically different is interesting. The result should be that when someone asks us to predict the future, we know we’re so unqualified to speak that we reply with something like, “I don’t know, I’ll know even less in four minutes time, and by tomorrow you might as well ask an abandoned road-side chair.”

Yet, it sometimes seems that the knowledge of all the great unknown in front of us tries to tempt us towards two, distinct camps of weird certainty: idealism and cynicism.

Idealists vs Cynics

Idealists tend to see our generation as the children of infinite potential. That we are uniquely different to any generation that came previously, because we’re all connected like never before.

Idealist

They sign petitions, buy Bitcoins, take courses on Udemy, and share optimistic infographics with their Facebook friends. Their homepage is set permanently to TEDTalks. They’ve just joined The Zeitgeist Movement. They believe everything is going to be “exponential” and “nano” and “crowd-sourced” in the future, and have set their Inner Worldview Dial permanently to ‘Blind Optimism.’ Their arguments mostly boil down to the wide, sweeping belief that everything’s going to be fine “because… TECHNOLOGY!”

On the other hand, there’s the cynics. They mostly sit in dark rooms, smoking roll-ups, and watching documentaries about global warming, super volcanoes, 9/11, population growth, peak oil, the Zionist global conspiracy to enslave all humanity by putting mind-control chemicals in Coca-Cola. Their second favourite movie is Children of Men, though they thought it was “a bit too cheerful.” Their first favourite movie is 1600-hours long, and just consists of ice caps melting in real time.

Cynics understand intuitively all of the world’s resources, natural processes, and the economic forces that interact with society, and have set their Inner Worldview Dial accordingly to ‘Who cares? Just give up.’

Cynic

Once we’re in these camps – or even show a passing affinity to one of them – tech’s wider algorithms, filter bubbles, and recommendation engines whirl into gear and drag us further into those corners; suggesting us people, products and services aligned to our new worldview. This makes it a little harder for us to stumble upon and become exposed to opposing, yet equally rational viewpoints. It all goes either black or white. After all, It’s hard not to think like this.

We’ve seen a lifetime of sci-fi movies promising us either a magical, technological utopia, or a million flavours of self-caused apocalypse. Our religions and our politics and our news media all deal with extremely binary systems of classification: they thrive on – and purposefully perpetuate –narratives of Good and Evil.

The ramifications of one belief system

If you genuinely believe that all of humanity is doomed in fifty years, it’s hard not to let it affect your entire attitude towards life and the future.

Why live sustainably? Why recycle? Why have children? Why pursue science? Why try? Why not close down any avenue of personal exploration that doesn’t involve napping, drinking, or eating handfuls of cake in the bath? Why not treat the whole earth and its resources like you’re one last seagull amongst many, preying on a bag of dropped seaside chips, just trying to get some for yourself before they’re all gone forever?

recycling

Believing everyone and everything you’ve ever known is swirling unstoppably into a toilet of nothingness isn’t the most motivating worldview for a Monday morning.

On the other hand, if you believe technology will solve all of humanity’s problems, you’ve just extended the sell-by-date of civilisation to the borders of the infinite. Why worry at all? Why change? Why adapt? Maybe we can just stumble blindly forwards on whatever dumb path we’re on now, and let the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs of tomorrow pick up our mess when the profit incentive catches up.

It’s like the ultimate secular religion – if we believe we will somehow overcome all of our problems, the ‘Will They, Wont They’ uncertainty of humanity’s survival is gone.

Instead, the only uncertainty remaining in the future is, how will we transfer our thoughts and feelings into readable information? Who will invent the technology that uploads that readable information into a single cloud of consciousness? And which Fortune 500 company will patent God Technology™ first, which we can then use to initiate the Big Bang, thus, creating ourselves, and sealing the infinite loop of time and space that we call reality.

Ahem. Sorry, got a bit deep there…

What’s important is that the outcome of following either of these two worldviews blindly is roughly the same: a divorcing from responsibility.

Yet, because we know from the past that we’ll probably be horribly, horribly wrong about the future, relaxing our sense of responsibility even a little in the shaping of it is both incredibly naive and incredibly dangerous.

hope

We’re neither inherently fucked, nor inherently safe. We’re neither doomed, nor blessed. The universe is not loving, or cruel – just casually indifferent. The future will probably be much more like today than we would like to admit: somehow stranded in the middle of good intentions and bad results. With some people trying, some people failing, and most people hoping to do better.

Where exactly it all ends us, of course, will depend on us. We’re as active participants as anybody else – in shaping it, guiding it, defining it.

We should just try to remember how bad we’ve been at predicting the future in the past, and how much space that gives us to create a better one.

Image credits:
featured image – flickr user x-ray delta one
Google Glass – flickr user tedeytan
farming – flickr user Jon McL
optimist – flickr user Camdiluv
cynic – flickr user nosha
recycling – flickr user epsos.de
 sky – flickr user Jhong Dizon | Photography

For related posts, check out:

Fake it ‘til you make it – 10 of the most dangerous pieces of startup advice
Love, muesli and Nigeria – how the internet changed everything
“Us” – A practical pep talk on our unique cosmic awesomeness