If You Are Old, What Would You Tell The Young?

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” – Alan Kay

“It’s easier to invent the future than to predict it.” – rephrased by Jeff Bezos

“Study new inventions to anticipate the future.” – me

Teens aren’t open to advice from people other than their peers, but if I could influence them of anything, it would be to read nonfiction books about emerging trends that aren’t required reading in school, and think up their own advice.  We burden the young by making them catch-up on all the knowledge of the past, but I think their education needs to be more present and future oriented.  These are books young people could read that might give them an edge.  For example, I wished I had read and understood The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell when I was in elementary school – although that wish would require a time machine, but if I had only known about early discipline, practice and mentors I would have had more success in life.

the outliers   

No one can predict the future, but many try.  According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book The Second Machine Age we are on the cusp of new age of economic activity, but they are warning that society is going to radically change.  Like I said, people can’t predict the future, but we can study trends, both past and present, and generate something akin to a weather forecast.   What Brynjolfsson and McAfee are saying is the industrial revolution kick-started the biggest change in human history by machines giving us vastly multiplied muscle power.  They feel a second machine age is emerging because humans now have vastly multiplied brain power.

the second machine age

Unfortunately this will put a lot of humans out of work.  The industrial age transformed human society, and the second machine age will transform the world again, with even greater impact than the first machine age.  What Brynjolfsson and McAfee write about is how to prepare for that change.  This is going to be painful.  Like global warming and wealth inequality, most of what economists and futurists are saying about the future is bleak.  I heard the same bleak forecasts over fifty years ago when I was growing up when I read The Population Bomb, The Limits of Growth and Future Shock.  We can look back on those books and see the future became far brighter than what those writers imagined – yet they weren’t wrong either.

People don’t usually like getting advice, especially teenagers, but if you’re going to spend the first third of your life on education, and tens of thousands of dollars on college, it might be wise to consider some future trends.  More than ever “what will I be when I grow up” could be taking a very long trip down a dead-end path.  Evidently, there is no job that can’t be automated.

Humans can’t compete with machines, but they can coexist with them.  We could choose not to deploy machines, but that seldom happens.  If there’s money to be made, we never interfere with progress.  We will need to rethink capitalism and democracy.  People might nitpick Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but overall, Piketty’s data shows obvious trends.  The implications of this book go way beyond brilliance.  We can no longer support an economic and political system that rewards few winners and expects billions of losers to take care of themselves.


“Plastics” -  The Graduate (1967)

At one point in the film The Graduate, an old man advises the young college graduate, Dustin Hoffman, about the future with one word:  “Plastics.”  If I was to whisper one word to young people today it would be “Statistics.”  I was only so-so at math, and that held me back from my ambitions, and the branch of mathematics that I think is the most useful today for understanding the world, science, technology and change is statistics.  Science really is a statistical analysis of reality.  Understanding the rapidly unfolding events here on Earth requires a second language to comprehend, and that is statistics.

the black swan

In The Black Swan:  The Impact of the Highly Improbable the 2007 book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains partially why I whisper “statistics.”  Taleb explains how we constantly fool ourselves about reality by being hard-wired to create “the narrative fallacy” which is the system that we bullshit ourselves into believing all kinds of crap about reality, and constantly deceive ourselves about the future.  What current science is teaching us is we’re not who we think we are.  That our conscious awareness is only a small part of the whole of our mind, which leads me to the next book to read, Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  Kahneman is a professor of psychology who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for this work.  That little fact should tell you a lot right there.

Thinking fast and slow

These books, The Outliers, The Second Machine Age, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, The Black Swan and Thinking Fast and Slow are just some of the books I’d recommend that savvy young people to read if they really wanted to prepare themselves for the future.  I’ve listed them here in the order of how hard they are to read and understand.

JWH – 8/29/14

3 thoughts on “If You Are Old, What Would You Tell The Young?”

  1. Okay, “The Second Machine Age” is now in my queue. All of the other books you mentioned in this post, I’ve read and enjoyed. I’m always amazed by our similar taste in non-fiction books (and also in old movies). Yes, each of the books you recommend should be read by a young person. I would add a Dennett book any of his would be okay, but “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” would be my preferred recommendation.

    1. The Second Machine Age is light weight, so don’t expect too much. It’s a fun report on the current state of several types of inventions. It’s valuable for predicting the next machine age. I would include Darwin’s Dangerous Idea if we expanded the list, or started one for science. By the way Greg, I looked to see if you had reviewed The Second Machine Age before I started it.

  2. I just finished The Second Machine Age. I clearly see why you recommend it for the young of today, I would to. The Androids are coming and the combinatorial effects are changing society.

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