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

If You Could Time Travel to 1950 Could You Tell People What 2014 Is Like?

Over the the Classic Science Fiction Book Club Dwight proposed the following fascinating question:

If, somehow, you were confronted with a resident of 1950. (USA, large city). He/she would be a college grad working in a mid level management job. He/she would have a layman’s understanding of the state of science in 1950.

You have been given the task of explaining the present to this person. What do you think the hardest thing (Technological, social, political, and or environmental) would be to explain?

Explain, if you would, your assumptions as to the state of knowledge and experience that an adult might have had in 1950. Would you difficult items be different with a man or woman? Would race or religion matter? Would where they lived be an issue? Would their political/religious background be an issue as to what they would find hardest to accept/understand?

I find this to be a very clever question to stir up the book club discussion.  1950 is a very good year to choose too.  It’s before science fiction kicked in big time, but after WWII and the atomic bombs.  It was also after the 1939 World’s Fair where futurism  made a big splash and got people thinking about the world of tomorrow.  Having someone show up from the future would be understandable to them, although I doubt they would believe any time traveler without some substantial proof.


What if Klaatu had landed in Washington in his flying saucer, but it wasn’t from space, but a time machine.  The Day the Earth Stood Still came out 9/28/51, so it’s around Dwight’s target date.  Dwight imagined you or I magically talking to a person from 1950, but I’m not sure he figured out how that might happen.  If you were just dropped into the past, and could only verbally describe the future, I’m not sure anyone would believe you.

Let’s imagine on 1/1/1950 a big flying saucer lands in Washington DC and out pops a 2014 person.  They announce that they’ve come in peace to warn Earth about the future.  That inside the saucer  are twelve theaters, each showing a TV network in sync with one in 2014—CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, HBO, CNN, FOX News, Discovery Science, MTV, HGTV, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera.  To make this equal to other cultures and languages, other flying saucers show up in their capitals with cable channels from their part of the world.  The time travelers tells each host site that the machine will be there for one year and the government can allow whoever they want to view the screens.  I think this is a sufficient scenario to assure that 1950 people will believe what they see.  Remember Klaatu’s ultimatum?  Our time travelers could give a similar warning.  They could say humans are consuming the Earth, destroying the environment, killing off all the other life forms, and dooming life on Earth.  They can brag that personal freedoms have never been more widespread and many have found material wealth, but we don’t know how live disciplined lives, and we’re breaking down into more and more polarized factions.

Now the big question is:  How will they react?  Will the white people of the United States believe there is a black President in 2014?  What will they think of women’s behavior, gay marriage and legalized drugs?  Could they even comprehend personal computers, the Internet and smart phones?  If they caught episodes of Breaking Bad, Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, Shameless, etc. could they even understand the shows without freaking out?  What would they think of the nudity, bad language and ultra-violence in entertainment?  What about the music, visual art, computer animation, etc.?  What would they think of the rise of Geek culture?  Or the sexual revolution and The Pill?

Would they hate the future?  Or would they be dazzled.  Would they see the future as an extrapolation of the present, or a total surprise?

And what would they think about global warming?  Or the war on terrorism?  Or the rise of religious right.  The motto “In God We Trust” wasn’t adopted until 1956, and didn’t show up on paper money until 1957, or coins until 1964.  Would they even understand ecology and environmentalism?  Jim Crow and sodomy laws were the norm back then, as were all kinds of censorship.  If they watched Two Broke Girls or The View, or read an issue of Cosmopolitan would they be baffled by the change in women?  Would the women of 1950 cheer?  What would they think of food ads, and news stories about obesity?  Would they admire the science and technology, or fear it?  Would they get excited about all the new kinds of sports?  Would they be outraged by women’s fashions and surprised that men’s suits don’t look that much different?  Would they be amazed by our houses and how big they are compared to 1950’s houses.

Would they take notes about the destruction of the environment and enact laws to avert global warming?  Would they stop the invention of junk food?  Would they reign in the misuse of antibiotics?  2014 TV shows should show them how we evolved, but also show all the mistakes and suffering we went through to gain whatever wisdom we do have.  Could people from 1950 absorb the wisdom without paying the price of suffering?

This is a fascinating idea.  But it’s a fantasy.  What if we could see 64 years into the future, what would we do?  How many science fiction stories written before 1950 prepared the world of 1950 for our times?  Is there a chance that modern science fiction writers can prepare us for the year 2078?  Is that expecting too much?

JWH – 5/22/14

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