The year isn’t two days old and already we are dealing with climate change fires in Australia, half the city of Hong Kong is still protesting after 8 months, and the US is still practicing diplomacy via remote controlled contract killings. The world’s democracies are electing strong men once again to somehow control a changing world. In times like these, there’s only one thing I can do: Look for the future.
I’ve looked to the future my whole life for answers. They were right there in that Usborne book of the future I took out of the elementary school library. I learned that yes, some day Star Wars could be real. For a while, this last decade, I thought I was living in it for a while. We got computers that fit in our pockets, we had access to all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, and we communicated through social networks where everyone, no matter how small or marginalized your identity may be, had a voice. Computer power accelerated exponentially according to Moore’s Law. I just assumed that humanity would get better along with the technology. It didn’t.
It turns out all those wonderful computers, materials, and software were bankrolled by old money trying to “create value”, as it were. The goods and services that we take for granted are being optimized beyond the point of uselessness. Our search results are choked with ads. Our social media feeds are filled with racism and mysogyny because it “drives engagement”. The gig economy that was supposed to liberate workers from the drudgery of 9-5 office jobs instead places them in servitude to giant tech monopolies. The blockchain, the technology that was supposed to automate ownership, is inefficient and deadly to the environment. Bitcoin alone emits 22 million tonnes of carbon every year. In every sector of the economy, the profit motive has ceased to make our world better. The pundits tell us to just not buy from Wal-mart, Amazon, McDonalds, or any other company that’s having a PR team off-day, but what’s the point of voting with your dollars if your wages are being depressed?
To illustrate how much corporations have ruined the web, take this essay posting on my obsolete website from 2005. I’ll have to copy and paste it as a facebook post and twitter thread, because those companies hate it when users follow links off their website. I’ll get buried by the algorithm in favor of some minion meme. So technology, in and of itself, is not the future. Neither are the corporations, or the business of billionaire-making.
Anyway, if that’s not the future, what is? I think we got a few glimpses of it in this last decade. The internet was at its best when it put you in contact with people outside your social circle. I’ve got whole extended found family in Seattle thanks to cheap and easy instant messaging. Anything that stretches the boundaries of your social skills is going to be crucial. It’ll take breaking some rules. Look at that facebook friends list for example. What if you sent any of those friends a message? Or hit that video call button by mistake? Think of how that would change your day. We’ve been duped into thinking that maintaining all these acquaintances is friendship, but there is no real maintaining going on. Only 10% of those contacts post regularly anyway.
The way we relate to ourselves and each other is going to change a lot in this decade. New conflicts are going to erupt. Others are going to be resolved. This is not some half-hearted call for a return to civility. The concept of respect itself is going to be redefined. We cannot simply defer to some abstract idea of objectivity. In the past this was the person in the room who talked the whitest and malest. Marginalized voices will be crucial to this change. Facts may not care about your feelings, but feelings are also facts. There will perspective taking, but also boundaries drawn. I know I’m speaking in vague soothsaying generalities, but we are dealing in the ugly, exciting, and unpredictable world of human contact. Where we are going, we don’t need roads.
And what does that mean for me? 40-year-old James Strocel with his job, family, and mortgage to pay down? At the beginning of the decade, I was having lunch with more people. I’d like to do that again. I want to stop being so precious about my writing. Get out there, say stupid stuff, and pay the price in my twitter mentions. I understand the economics of those platforms, and what they are doing to society, but right now, it’s where the people are. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to talk to more people regularly via text message or signal, my paranoid secure instant messenger of choice. Lots of times I send out texts and get no response other than existential dread in return. I think it means I need to send more memes. It’s going to be a lot of cancelled plans and awkward silences, but I think this is the direction I want to grow. It’s a direction that fills me with that nervous excitement that I felt before, so long ago. It is the future.