Future optimism: wishful thinking or the only way to do it?

Talking about current technology trends and what they mean for us as a society is provocative. It's a topic that gets people thinking, arguing and often disagreeing, and many of the conversations that start at our events continue in the bar afterwards and even in some cases into the weekend. I've been doing a bit of thinking about how those conversations play out and also some reading, because there's a common thread running through many of them. The best way of explaining this is to pose it as a question: 

What is the right way to think about the problems facing humanity?

For many people the answer is of course, to be realistic. Someone who works for the renewable energy industry, for example, recently told me that they thought that I was too positive and that my analysis wasn't grounded in reality. It's all very well to tell us about these wonderful inventions that are going to change the world, but how likely are they to actually happen? People talk about some kind of imaginary future all the time and we're always promised amazing things which never materialise. Marty McFly got a flying skateboard while we're still stuck with bicycles.

At its most innocent critics suggest that this is a form of 'techno-utopianism'; a type of wish fulfillment, and it's got a long and embarrassing history. Every few decades we get promises of flying cars, or mail sent by vacuum tubes to every home, or Jetsons-style homes with robot maids and mono rail in all our cities. Sociologists suggest that our visions of the future tell you more about the world we currently live in, and are rooted in escapism. That's why over-enthusiastic predictions often emerge in times of economic downturns or political turmoil; they're a reflection of a preferred world, one in which we don't have to deal with drudgery of household tasks or the lies of our politicians. And they're not always correct. In the words of Peter Thiel (a techno-utopian skeptic) "In our youth we were promised flying cars. What did we get? 140 characters."

A more sinister interpretation suggests that techno-utopianism is a symptom of a deeper malaise, one rooted in our belief that technology can solve all our problems. We look around us and see that we live in a world of greed, of inequality, poverty and war. People are becoming increasingly disconnected, capitalism has undermined our notions of fairness, consumerism is rampant, our forests and oceans are being pillaged and we are changing the climatic conditions that allowed human civilisation to emerge in the first place. Faced with these enormous challenges a focus on an imaginary future is a cop-out, because it means we aren't engaging with the issues at hand. It means you effectively concede the fight to the greedy and powerful, those who serve only their own interests. 

I disagree. Far from being wishful thinking or a cop out I think that thinking positively and focusing on a better future is a powerful way to create change. This is not an easy mental leap to make, especially for someone like myself who spent years researching the causes of big problems like deforestation and global poverty. After all pointing out the threats we face and saying we should do something about it makes sense right? If I'm driving a car and my passenger points out an obstacle in the road, I'll take action and swerve to avoid it. And sure enough as a way of highlighting issues, talking about threats is really effective. By scaring people, by telling them we are headed for disaster unless we do something about it, you bring that issue into sharp focus. It's the reason why climate change is such a hot topic of conversation at the global level and why a book on inequality by an obscure French economist can become an international bestseller. Thanks to decades of research and campaigns we now have a very clear idea of what the problems are. 

Unfortunately as a way of actually making things better, you couldn't think of a worse tactic. George Monbiot, one of my favourite environmental journalists, explains why in a recent column, where he says "if we had set out to alienate and antagonise the people we've been trying to reach, we could scarcely have done it better." Psychologists and cognitive linguists have been telling us for years that an emphasis on threats promotes people's extrinsic values (an attraction to power, prestige, image and status) while suppressing intrinsic values (intimacy, kindness, self-acceptance, independent thought and action). That of course is exactly what conservative politicians do - they emphasise threats such as crime, terrorism and immigration in order to get you to suppress your concern for other people and focus on your own interests. Put simply if you terrify the living daylights out of people, they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world.

Image courtesy of Lost in the Bamboo Forest

Image courtesy of Lost in the Bamboo Forest

That's why we prefer to focus on a positive message. As a really wise person once told me, you don't get people to change by telling them what not to do and pointing fingers. Instead, give them an alternative that's so compelling they have no choice but to change anyway. Buckminster Fuller once said something very similar which is why we've placed that quote front and centre on the 'About' page of Future Crunch. When thinking about how things might change for the better, my bets are on technology innovations over politics. I believe improvements in renewable energy technologies are our best chance to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. I think that the spread of mobile technologies offers the best promise of getting healthcare to those that need it most. And I remain convinced that the internet is the most powerful tool we have for promoting political openness and transparency. 

Here's the really key point though: not only is optimism a better way of creating change, it's also self-fulfilling. Think about what happens when we set ourselves goals as a society. In 1962, John F Kennedy announced that the United States planned to put a man on the moon before the decade was out. At the time this was almost inconceivable. The US had only just managed to get an astronaut into orbit earlier that year; nobody was even sure that a moon landing was possible. JFK admitted as much himself. 

If I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.

So how did NASA manage to pull off this feat in less than seven years? The clue of course is in the final sentence. By announcing the goal, by projecting a vision of a preferred future in which the US was capable of unimaginable feats of technological prowess, JFK made it possible to start mapping out the steps to get there. As he said in the same speech:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

That of course, was more than 40 years ago. Today however a new breed of visionaries are mapping out the future for us and it looks remarkably like the dreams of science fiction geeks. I've talked about this before - people with money and power have now decided to take matters into their own hands and they're forging ahead on renewable energy, nanotechnology, the space race, electric vehicles, internet connectivity and drone technology. They've had enough of waiting for our leaders to get it right. And having outlined their vision of a preferred future they're now actively going out and making it happen. This is happening at every level - from influential investors like Warren Buffet to schoolgirls in Nigeria.

It's also worth bearing in mind the difference between 'utopias' and 'dystopias' when thinking about this topic. Dystopian visions of the future are always popular; most people think we're far more likely to end up in a world like Cormac McCarthy's The Road than Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge. In my mind though, dystopias work better as a criticism of what we're doing right now than as a guideline for where we're headed. That's why they work so well as political satire, from HG Well's Time Machine to George Orwell's 1984  or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and even today's lighter offerings in the form of entertainment events such as The Hunger Games. I recently read Kazuro Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, a beautiful meditation on the relationship between three young people caught in a dystopian nightmare. And what was so interesting was how it worked not just as a criticism of the modern day organ donor trade, but also as an indictment of accepted practices such as locking up refugees in contravention of international human rights law as currently happens in Australia. 

The warnings that come to us from dystopian fictions cast what we call modern day 'civilisation' into a terrible light because they extrapolate based on the worst things we currently do. And that's important because it gives us the perspective (and the language) we need to engage with our dark side. Debating government surveillance and privacy concerns is a lot easier when you've got a common understanding of what's meant by 'Big Brother.' But the problem with dystopias is that they only serve half the purpose - they tell us what's wrong, but they don't offer us an alternative vision. That's the function of utopias of course - and they don't have to be perfectly realistic or even likely, they just have to give you a guiding light by which to steer. If you don't have that guiding light then, like Marvin Gaye, you're doomed to keep on repeating the question.

Oh where are we going?
Oh oh, what's the future showin'?
Where are we headed?
With all that's goin' on where are we gettin'?

That's why I passionately believe that it's important to project a positive vision of the world we'd like to live in. We need a yardstick since the way society evolves isn't deterministic, it's self-fulfilling. If people decide that they'd prefer to live in a place where their energy is clean and renewable, where political decision-making is open and transparent and where personal mobile technologies help people access knowledge and markets then the battle is already won. It doesn't matter if this sounds idealistic or unrealistic. What matters is that hundreds of thousands of people want to live in a cleaner, fairer and better world. And given increased connectivity, the democratisation of the means of production, the power of crowd-funding and the emergence of the sharing economy, we now have a really good chance of getting there.