Essay

President Kennedy's topper

IN JANUARY 1961, nobody on earth symbolised the future like John F Kennedy. At his inauguration the youthful president took to the microphone on a raised dais outside the Capitol Building and spoke of change and renewal, and of a ‘torch being passed’ to a younger generation. He was the embodiment of a new beginning.

And yet, when you look back at the official photos from that event, the story they tell is a far more complex one. There is Kennedy, both before and after his speech, dressed in the most old-fashioned attire: a top hat, black morning coat and grey striped trousers. Symbols not just of another era, but of a past he was busy reassuring the American people they had just put firmly behind them. 

The future, as it transpired under Kennedy, took many new directions, but it was also loaded with baggage: out-of-date and erroneous assumptions about world communist solidarity coming immediately to mind; as well as an attitude towards South-East Asia and South America that was both neo-colonial and dismissive. As the Australian design academic Tony Fry once told me, the future is not a clean slate; it’s already filled with the stuff of the past.

If nothing else, Kennedy and his topper should remind us that the future, present and past aren’t concretely delineated, and the links are many and varied. Of all three concepts, the future is perhaps the most difficult. The past and the present can be analysed and itemised, measured and claimed – despite the conjecture and argument that might inevitably result. But the future remains entirely speculative. 

The human response to such uncertainty takes several forms: we fantasise and obsess about what might lie ahead; we begin to fear the unknown that stretches before us; and/or we give up on trying to determine what the future might hold and simply hand over responsibility for imagining it to another entity entirely. Most of us don’t think about the concept in any sophisticated or serious way. And when we do, we rarely see it as ours to create. 


GIVING OVER OUR agency for thinking about the future has a lengthy tradition. Such acquiescence is the basis of the social construct we call religion; and it’s long been a feature of both politics and our relationship with technology. Returning to Kennedy for a moment, one could argue that JFK became a sort of totem for many in the early 1960s – both in the United States and the wider world. He made a lot of people feel comfortable about the future, that he was somehow taking responsibility for leading them towards it.

Many leaders – good, bad and disastrous – have done the same. But in democracies, the tendency to leave the heavy forecasting work to others is problematic. In liberal societies we like to pride ourselves on our adherence to the notion of the primacy of the individual. Each of us, through the vote and by our ability to make independent decisions, is ultimately responsible for creating our own future. 

And yet, during the past three decades in particular, Western democracies have repeatedly shown themselves to be defined more by public apathy and disinterest than by public engagement. In countries like the US, the UK and Canada, much of the effort around election time is directed not at getting people to vote in a certain way, but in getting them to vote at all. In Australia, the compulsory nature of elections masks that lack of interest, but it hardly provides for more informed decision-making when people enter a polling station. 

Most of us vote according to a ‘how-to-vote’ card, where the decisions about which candidates we should preference are decided by somebody else. And if you can’t even be bothered to find out who is standing for election in your particular area and whether or not you like their policies, don’t worry, because that too is taken care of.

During the 2015 national election campaign in Canada, the website Vote Compass prompted users to fill out their online questionnaire with the promise that, in return, it would show the potential voter ‘how your views align with those candidates running for election’. The tagline read, ‘Explore how you fit in the political landscape.’ A similar platform operated in Australia in 2013. Such an exercise in the outsourcing of personal decision-making suggests that many shirk basic democratic responsibilities, or simply fail to realise how important the individual’s role really is in creating positive change. 


THIS FAILURE OF engagement, I would argue, represents one of the major reasons why we repeatedly stumble in addressing the significant challenges that lie before us, both as individuals and collectively – challenges such as climate change and growing social inequality. 

Even in technology circles, where user-generated content and audience engagement is highly prized, analysts still talk about the 1-9-90 rule: 1 per cent of the population actively create online; 9 per cent engage in some way, shape, or form occasionally; and 90 per cent are content simply to watch, click and consume. Annelise Riles, professor of both law and anthropology at Cornell University, also sees a similar trend in our relationship with big data – the collection and analysis of vast amounts of online information by computer algorithms. Professor Riles theorises that the modern obsession with big data reflects what she calls a ‘crisis in expertise’. That we increasingly look to big data to provide the answers that once came from society’s ‘experts’. 

Events like the global financial crisis have so shaken confidence in the institutions, markets and regulators that once shaped the world that our trust in them has evaporated, and in turn they too have lost confidence in their own judgement. As a result, says Riles, it is now fashionable to believe that the answers to questions about where our lives are heading and what we should be doing can only be resolved by the collection and analysis of mass data, be it from a personal Fitbit bracelet, traffic records or even polling results.

Moreover, suggests Professor Riles, we now not only seek the answers to our questions in big data, but also the very questions themselves. ‘That is the hope and fantasy,’ she said during a symposium on data and public policy at the University of New South Wales Law School in 2015. ‘We don’t know what we are looking for, but maybe the full data set can tell us what we should be looking for.’

One of the downsides of human technological ingenuity is that devices and systems have been developed that appear to enhance people’s lives in the short-term, but in the longer term actually make individuals more dependent.

There is a significant de-skilling aspect to the modern digital world: the apps that we purchase, the online services we use, are all designed to save us effort. Their appeal is one of freeing people from the mundane minutiae of life. Facebook recommends who you should ‘friend’ and its algorithms decide which of those friends will have their posts seen in your newsfeed. Siri reminds you that you need to call someone, or transcribes your text messages, because you’re just too busy to do it yourself. Google second-guesses your search requests because…well, because it saves you time. Saves you time to do what? Saves you time to spend more time on Google, naturally enough.

These tools can be incredibly useful, but the accumulation of so many decision-making apps and platforms should give pause for thought. That we acquiesce to being spoonfed is hardly a surprise to political strategists, technology developers and marketers. It’s the basis of consumerism. And consumerism is the basis on which much of the digital technology we use is designed. 

In allowing ourselves to become defined by consumption, we have surrendered a large part of the personal agency that was once the stated hallmark of liberal democracy. And that change is profound: in the parlance of politics it has become commonplace these days to refer to the public as ‘consumers’. To call them ‘citizens’ would seem decidedly old-world.

Reflecting the observations of many before her, the American novelist Toni Morrison once declared ‘all good art is political’. And so it is with technology. The devices we use, the platforms we inhabit all carry with them an underlying politics. Social, cultural, historic and ideological factors all help determine what technology is developed and why and how it is used. The developers of technology understand this all too well. So too do the marketers. But many people have probably never heard of an algorithm, nor have any understanding that the main reason their iPhone only lasts a few short years is because of a manufacturing practice and philosophy called ‘product obsolescence’, which promotes product churn and therefore ongoing sales.

That even the smartest of us can lose sight of such realities reflects the power of marketing and manipulation in modern society. 


THROUGH OUR APATHY in this hyper-consumerist world, we show ourselves to be content with a shrink-wrapped and flat-packed version of the future, one styled and given function by a handful of technology companies – would-be monopolists who masquerade as altruistic, but who, in reality, have very traditional notions of profit at their core. 

People like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are often hailed as modern-day saints, but all made their vast fortunes not just from developing innovative new technologies and platforms, but from ruthlessly squashing or co-opting competitors. The future that they, and others in Silicon Valley, have marketed is one designed to suit the corporate bottom line. And yet, the influence of such people on our notions of agency with regard to the future has been enormous. Read the popular press or follow social media, and the future is invariably whatever new technology or platform Apple or Google or Amazon or Facebook determines it to be.

In the early 1930s, the writer HG Wells fretted over the lack of serious academic interest in all things futuristic. ‘It seems an odd thing to me,’ he wrote, ‘that though we have thousands of professors and hundreds of thousands of students of history working upon the records of the past, there is not a single person anywhere who makes a whole-time job of estimating the future consequences of new inventions and new devices. There is not a single Professor of Foresight in the world.’

Today, of course, there are professors of future studies, and multitudes ready to give their opinions and predictions about what lies ahead, concisely diced into TED-style bites for easy ingestion. 

Many call themselves ‘futurists’, or sometimes even more pompously ‘thought-leaders’ or ‘change-instigators’, and they embody not so much a move towards a rigorous analysis of trends and potential, but the pseudo-professionalisation and commercialisation of foresight. Most of them, of course, are shonks: hired product spruikers who quietly work for large technology companies, or self-employed professional opinion-givers featherbedded by kickbacks and freebies. 

The future has become a marketing tool. The respected American technology and culture analyst Douglas Rushkoff once wrote derisively of futurists, exclaiming that they ‘use their authority and our timidity to shape a future that keeps them in business’.

At its most banal, this reduces the idea of the future to mere product placement or branding – marketing speak used with such repetition that it no longer has bite. A new-model SUV becomes the ‘future of motoring’, as if every other vehicle has been frozen in time or that private vehicle ownership in a world of exponential urbanisation is guaranteed.

And politicians are no better. For many in politics, the future has become a fallback cliché, a word to be deployed with almost careless desperation. Like ‘productivity’, ‘revolution’ and ‘innovation’, it is used to invoke a sense of purpose and direction. And because a declared embrace of ‘the future’ is difficult to argue against without appearing negative or pessimistic, it is sometimes used to close discussion: governments declare themselves ‘future-focused’ and justify their actions and decisions – regressive or not – by talking of the need to ‘future-proof’ or to make things ‘future-ready’.

All of this matters because when we surrender individual agency for creating the future, we give over a privilege that is fundamental to our freedom.


PICKING UP ON Douglas Rushkoff’s point then, why are we so timid in our understanding of the concept of the future? There are many reasons, but I would like to suggest just two. The first is that in Western societies we have what could be termed an ‘optimism bias’. Being optimistic is not a problem in and of itself; it’s a virtue, unless it blinds us to harsh realities.

Immediately after the election of Justin Trudeau’s government in Canada in October 2015, US-based academic and Guardian columnist Jason Wilson wrote about the tendency of liberals like Trudeau and Barack Obama to describe themselves as ‘progressives’. That label, said Wilson, was counterproductive to true reform because it conveyed a simplistic and erroneous message ‘that modernity delivers not only change, but also betterment’. Wilson theorised that this kind of mindset led inevitably to the belief that time itself ‘brings moral advancement, that history points in one direction, and that the mere passage of the years is enough to deliver certain the political outcomes you find congenial’. He went on to say: ‘Despite everything modernity has taught us about the savagery that lurks just under the surface of even the most technologically advanced societies, or which is built into their structures, we want politicians to testify to their belief that human history has a singular, forward momentum.’

As he noted, one need only look at the bloody history of the Middle East or South America to dispel such unrealistic expectations, and to comprehend that the future can sometimes mean a return to a dark, almost medieval past. At its worst, such an exaggerated sense of optimism allows people to avoid making personal decisions, or to get involved in defending the rights and social conditions hard won by previous generations: we are content to ‘like’ a Facebook protest page rather than join a political movement or physically engage in dissent. With a Panglossian shrug, we as consumers rather than citizens opt to let others lead, and to make choices on our behalf, in the complacent belief that it will all work out in the end. 

We see this mode of thinking most evidently in the general public apathy towards the growth of the surveillance state in Western democracies. Despite the enactment of ever more regressive measures, there are very few voices of public protest. Our belief that everything will work out okay in the end leads us not just to disengagement, but to passive acceptance and, moreover, to passive approval.

The second reason for timidity in actively shaping our own destiny relates to the fact that the modern concept of the future has become far too wedded to technological gadgetry. Almost without fail, media projections of life in the future centre on trinkets and devices. With regular monotony, journalists and technology writers trot out a collection of futuristic clichés: driverless cars, retro hoverboards and robots of all shapes and function.

That there have been amazing advances in automated vehicle technology and sophisticated robotics is beside the point. Such technologies may well play a major role in the future – indeed, are likely to play a major role in the future – but it is a mistake to believe that they will define it.

Truly amazing technology was developed in the twentieth century – television, personal computers, supersonic aircraft and nuclear weapons, to name a few. But looking back, it’s clear that such devices do not explain the history of the century. To think that they could ignores the great social, political and philosophical changes out of which those technologies were nurtured.


HISTORY IS ABOUT people and so is the future. Yet we acquiesce to the notion that the future is all about technology because such a proposition is relentlessly thrust upon us by technology and communication companies, by marketers and by politicians keen to appear young, hip, relevant and forward-looking. 

And this is not just a glib point; becoming too fixated on technology can have dire consequences. One of the reasons given by military and political analysts for the coalition of the willing’s military’s failure in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, was that the US government and the Pentagon were convinced that future conflicts could and would be won by new weaponry, not by troops on the ground. 

Similarly, when the ‘Arab Spring’ began in 2011 many media, political and technology commentators allowed themselves to lose focus on the reality of what was occurring in the Middle East, because of a fixation with the idea that they were witnessing the first ever ‘Twitter revolution’ – ascribing to the social media platform the power to change regimes and bring about democracy. Such techno-optimism now looks deluded given the way in which underlying ideological, political and religious factors have since turned that region into a cauldron of conflict and misery.

Even more worrying in the unquestioning embrace of technology as the central driver of future direction is the tendency to talk down human skill and ingenuity. To devalue the very qualities that make us human – emotion, reason and an ability to make nuanced decisions based on personal assessment. 

Driverless cars, we are repeatedly told, will save lives in the future because they will reduce the chance of ‘human error’. The same is said of automated planes, while computer algorithms are ascribed with a rational detachment that makes them more analytic and less ‘influenced’ by emotion. And yet, history tells us that systems and individuals who are devoid of emotion and who base their actions on rational detachment are more often a curse than a blessing – both for humanity and the planet. 

To this end, in 2015 the noted and influential British physicist Stephen Hawking issued a warning about the dangers of going too far in the development of advanced machine learning or AI. ‘The development of full artificial intelligence,’ he told the BBC, ‘could spell the end of the human race.’

He was joined in that sentiment by Elon Musk, the billionaire technology developer and founder of the rocket-manufacturing company Space X, who described AI as ‘our biggest existential threat’.


SO HOW BEST to assess the future?

Those who look in a measured and academic sense at trends and developments tend to look no more than five to ten years ahead in making their predictions. William Gibson once famously said: ‘The future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.’ The inference being that the technologies we will use in the near future already exist in one form or another in a lab, or in someone’s imagination.

Because such trends and developments represent the cutting-edge of what already exists, they can be understood and anticipated, even if their full influence may be years coming. Gibson’s dictum is an iterative notion of the future – the future is defined by graduations of change. That may sound obvious, but that’s not the way many talk about the future. 

We often mistakenly describe the future as though its features, while still largely unknown, are almost mystically predetermined. Like the idea of heaven, the future is often imagined as some sort of existential destination where things are very different. This is why those 1940s and 1950s visions of the twenty-first century now look so corny and absurd, with their silver jumpsuits and death-rays. As Kennedy’s topper demonstrated, the reality is that much of what will happen in the future will be determined by present-day factors and by the influences of the past.

So regaining a sense of personal agency is crucial for our ability to make the most of the future. But that’s not to say that we should be colourless in our imagining – far from it. Used not just as a marker of time but also as a device for strategising, the concept of the future can have a powerful impact.

Organisations like NASA and Intel have regularly engaged science fiction writers to help them imagine what lies ahead. Effectively deployed as a tool of imagination, the future allows us the ability to create contending scenarios. It provides a sort of theoretical testing ground for trial and error, and that, in essence, is why science fiction has proved such an enduring genre. And why sci-fi has often proved so prescient. 

In fact, over the past decade, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)has often used sci-fi as a kind of forward predictor of disputes and violations. ‘It’s an implicit part of how we think about things,’ Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project told me back in 2011. ‘We’ve seen technologies emerge – such as body scanners, biometrics and radio frequency or RFID chips – and we’ve seen them go from being sexy media issues that really are very future looking and theoretical, to very real civil liberties issues; to technologies that are being used by the authorities.’

The challenge in developing a better understanding of the future is to first acknowledge that it isn’t a clean slate, that it isn’t some sort of magical new world in which we will all one day find ourselves – it’s essentially a variation of what exists in the current time and what has come before. Vested interests included. What this ultimately means is that the future will not only be affected by the decisions and actions that we take today, but that it will be directly defined by those actions and decisions. 

That is, of course, if we actively choose to regain our sense of agency over our individual and collective destiny; but if we continue to leave it to others? Well, to paraphrase an old political axiom: ‘the people will get the future they deserve.’

 

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