The most interesting thing about futurism is the stuff that happens that we could never see coming. Not just that we did not see it, but that we could not see it. There were no indications that anything like that would happen, until it did.
We look back to the famous 1899 quote, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
Did you see Back to the Future Part II? Characters from the Eighties venture to 2015. Since everyone reading this lived through that year, with the possible exception of a baby with advanced literacy skills, we can compare the movie to reality. It was quite right about a few things, though we can giggle at the omnipresent fax machines. What’s missing, though? What are the dogs that didn’t bark?
Anyone who wanted to predict our era and left out those two things would be missing probably the most dominant features of the age.
(They were right that we are constantly surrounded by news updates and instant communication, though!)
Something else that didn’t show up in the movie was the concept of the gig economy, with businesses like Uber and AirBnB so commonplace now that we hardly ever think back to when they were confusing new innovations. I remember that the first time I heard someone was contracting random people to deliver packages in their personal vehicles, I scoffed at it. That Will Never Work, I intoned. I was wrong. Not only did it work, it works for me on a regular basis and I hardly give it a thought.
Leave out the big stuff, and you miss the character and culture of a point in the timeline. It’s the hole that makes the donut, not just any old pastry.
What I’ve been trying to do lately is to think more about the hole. What would be something big and weird that might happen?
I’ve gotten pretty good at noticing trends and predicting stuff in the 10-15 year range. Of course, in most situations this is a useless skill. You can’t prove it to anyone unless you were smart enough to write it down; you’re still hanging out with them a decade later - and they care; or you just shrug and put your money where your mouth is in the stock market.
I nailed it with eye scanning tech and I got it again with pet insurance. I bought TSLA at $42.26. I won’t say I saw the crash of 2008 coming, but I broke even because I chose contra funds in 2007.
So what though. I didn’t predict my divorce in 2000 and I didn’t predict that I would get COVID-19 before the shutdown. The holes in the donut.
There are other things I didn’t predict. I have a degree in history, but I had no idea that fascism would be on the march again in my lifetime. I also had no idea that conspiracy theories and cults would take off the way they have, that people would gamble their own and their families’ lives to uphold their science denialism.
Possibly I started paying attention to it sooner than others, but then again, I’m only aware of most things because I read about them somewhere. That means someone else was looking into it somewhere ahead of me on the arc of change. For me to join them, I have to get better at scanning the fringe and finding my own patterns.
I think the most interesting things happen in culture completely outside of global politics, the economy, and in some ways, even technological change.
One thing that is interesting about change is that most things stay absolutely the same. As Nassim Taleb points out, if something was around 100 years ago, and it’s still around today, then it will probably still be around in another hundred years. Chairs have been recognizably chairs for a very long time, shoes more so, and knives even more so than that. You can go to a lot of museums and look at some very old lost socks, but also some truly ancient weapons.
Most material objects around us will continue to feel familiar. In a lot of cases the specific individual object will be familiar. I can still picture my grandmother’s kitchen, which probably looked almost identical for at least 30 years.
Something that changes is the prevalence of a thing, something that maybe pops up as a trend (Crocs, eyebrow piercings) and then gradually becomes more and more common. When I was a child I had never seen a facial tattoo, and now it doesn’t even occur to me to ask about them. Stuff grows familiar (Facebook, scratch-off lottery tickets, blue beverages) and in a way it feels like it’s been here always.
Culture moves on its own. It propagates itself. You can’t legislate it into or out of existence. For instance, people have generally decided that it is the correct thing to do to smash a car window if there is a dog trapped inside on a hot day. Likewise, if a terrorist tries anything on an airplane, there are enough people who will rush up and overpower him that this specific gambit is unlikely to work very often any more, if ever. Once an idea gets into popular culture, it is almost impossible to get it back out, and that is how folklore is born.
This is what I think about whenever there is an election. A president is only in office for a maximum of eight years, while people like Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg can do what they do for decades, and nobody elected them, and they are wealthier in absolute terms than any president ever has been or probably will be. Someone who could name and possibly recognize those men, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jack Dorsey, maybe a few other billionaires - someone who could name those people might not be able to name or recognize any five US presidents.
We’re living in a time of intense transition, a time when vast populations of humans and animals are on the move, a time of rapid technological and cultural change. It upsets people because we become less good at guessing what is going to happen next. We hate the sense of instability, even when it turns into something wonderful. A lot of crazy economic and political stuff was happening in 1980, the year that science won the two-century battle against smallpox. Is that a year of celebration? Course not. I had to look it up because nobody talks about it. We have our ways of absorbing incredible sights and wonders and shrugging them off, only to turn our attention back to the pettiest of annoyances. Verily, that is how progress is made.
The hole in the donut is that a lot of the things that bother us today will be gone in twenty years, and we’ll barely remember that they ever happened, and instead we’ll be irritated by something else. The funny thing is, we’ll be correct, because future generations will inevitably look back on our time today and feel sorry for us. It’s up to us to guess why, and set to work fixing whatever it is that we’re getting wrong.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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