Why We Need To Think Harder About The Future

The current way we see the future scares us as much as it scares those who will actually live in it. In a world where we have the technology and know-how for making life vastly better than right now, we are afraid we are too “cautious” to make the most of this technology.

In my latest book, I call the “New Optimism” a fallacy. As someone who has been skeptical of the technology and its benefits, I was happy to find an explanation for why my skepticism was not wrong. For those who are not so skeptical, I present 10 facts proving the New Optimism is, in fact, a fallacy. If you are already a believer, these fact will have the opposite effect to the one you expected.

1 The New Optimism Is A Failing Argument: In a recent speech, the former Chief Technology Officer of IBM was discussing the need for a future with high technological adoption. “We’ve got to get smarter at building the machine.” he noted. “We’ve got to get smarter at building the Internet. We need to get smarter at building the cloud…” He went on, “We will have an Internet of Things, a new Internet that is the Web, the future of software. We are now entering to this period of extraordinary innovation where it has never been seen before, where it’s not just a question of building the thing but being able to share and collaborate on the thing. We need to get smarter at making these things happen, we need to get smarter at connecting all these things… We need to develop the tools that are going to make it easy for people to build the future. If we don’t develop these tools, then what will happen? We will have a new world… I don’t know a single example. I’ve never seen one, or I know of a single case.”

I can understand why he believes this. The last decade has been a lot like what he is describing. We have built some incredible things, but we are creating a very real possibility that those remarkable things may not just exist, but exist at an exponential rate. What do these technologies have in common? They are software. If “we didn’t develop those things then what will happen?” is your question, then you are asking a simple question, in fact, the first one, of the New Optimism. It’s a question that is easy to ask. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that question yet.

2 The New Optimism Is An Illusion: There is a simple concept, known as the “imitative effect” that is a big part of the New Optimism. Take the following sentences for example:

New Optimism: I am building the Internet of Things

Imitative Effect: That is why we do what we do.

New Optimism: If we stop trying, then the Internet will no longer come to us

Imitative Effect: That is why we try.

These are both correct sentences, and yet they have different meaning due to the way they are framed. The first is not true because the Internet does not come to anyone, nor does it beget anything. The second is true, but the sentence is false because it implies something else. To understand what, it is necessary to examine what the imperative effect is and how it is actually measured.

In his book The Future of Optimism, John Leonard describes the imperative effect as follows: “The imperative effect is similar to the standard effect but with one important difference. Whereas the standard effect measures the percentage of people who believe a statement because it is repeated in the media, the imperative effect measures whether people believe the statement in light of what other people have said.”

To illustrate the problem, you can think about these two examples of the same statement but with two very different results.