[The first in a series of articles about one of the key issues for the Emerging Future Institute : “What is your relationship with the future?”]
Many futurists focus on scenarios, which are incredibly important because they allow us to tell stories about how the world could be. But often times we fixate on extremes, aspiring towards something great but preparing for the worst, which leaves us with a marginal outcome. Or we look at exponential growth curves without questioning if they will ever slow down.
One challenge is that behavior goes in cycles. We get excited about something new, and then get bored or cling to the familiar. There is a kind of expansion and contraction, repeating over and over. For example, digital e-books and mp3s almost put bookstores and music stores out of business, and many pronounced the death of these physical products. But in 2016 books outsold e-books for the first time in years and records (LPs) are making a comeback – especially among millennials.
How do fluctuations over time impact our relationship with the future? How should futurists consider and take them into account?
Many futurists estimate machines could take 50% of jobs in the next 30 years, but they will open up a new universe of creativity including an unlimited number of free, shared digital experiences via augmented reality and AI. An entire new economy could be built creating and trading digital goods and services layered on top of what we now call the “real world.”
When we can access most of these digital goods and services for free, we may not want to own much stuff. The irony of this scenario is that retail sales and commerce could slow down tremendously, and much of this content will be sponsored and subsidized by retail brands. We can expect a giant content war for attention, like social media on steroids.
All of this disruption and blurring of reality could lead to a kind of backlash or return to nature, creating a strong desire to feel grounded. Meditation, yoga, and contemplative practices have been on the rise for years. Likely his trend will continue, and we will see a massive interest in awakening (to the spiritual) in part as a response to the overwhelming need to feel balance from digital immersion and also as a result of people simply becoming tired of being always connected to digital devices.
In my Ph.D. studies in religion at Princeton, I remember studying immigration patterns. First generation Americans often teach and speak to their children in English in an attempt to assimilate. They do not pass on their language. Third-generation Americans often become nostalgic and disappointed about feeling disconnected from their heritage. They take language classes or want to visit their homelands.
This same basic pattern repeats itself, over and over. Adoption, assimilation, yearning for what feels ‘authentic.’ I think our relationship with technology and innovation follows similar cycles. Consider so-called hipsters are really the third generation being mass marketed to by brands. And they reject them en masse in favor of more meaningful communities and self-expression. They also reject religion in favor of spiritual practices.
The current wave of VR/AR will baptize humanity into a reality that is impermanent and changing, and this will eventually catalyze a profound need to be more grounded followed by possible backlash. Our children and grandchildren may be incredibly frustrated at our lack of concern for preserving wisdom traditions and national heritages. They won’t all become cyborgs in some geeky techno-utopian vision of the singularity.
We are the last generation to grow up in an analog world. Instead of thinking about the future in terms of technology, we might be better served through a focus on our shared purpose and be mindful of wider cycles and fluctuations in behavior. This raises a number of questions to consider, including possible scenarios futurists often don’t think about:
If there is more to human behavior than exponential growth curves and cycles are natural and perhaps inevitable, how should futurists think about our relationship with the past in an effort to co-create a better future? At what point do exponential growth curves slow down and behavior cycles start to factor in? What is the balance between technology and human purpose? How should we think about our relationship with the future?
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