The story we’re telling is all about the future.
A 2014 national survey by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine asked Americans about their perspectives on the future. The results show an impressive consensus—the future is coming, and it’s going to be great. In fact, three in five Americans (59%) “feel that technological advancements will lead to a future in which people’s lives are mostly better.”
How enthusiastic are we about the future? Consider:
- Fully four in five (81%) of us “expect that within the next fifty years people needing new organs will have them custom grown in a lab.”
- Half (51%) of us “expect that computers will be able to create art that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans.”
- Almost one in four of us (39%) “expect that scientists will have developed the technology to teleport objects fifty years from now.”
- One in three (33%) expect that “humans will have colonized planets other than Earth.”
- One of every five people (19%) surveyed even believed that “humans will be able to control the weather in the foreseeable future.”
What’s the overall takeaway from the survey? We have “long-term optimism” for the future that is inextricably intertwined with “high expectations for the inventions of the next half century.” Today we are more enthusiastic, optimistic, and demanding of the future than any people ever before.
“The word ‘innovation’ has become a buzzword and it’s been drained of much of its meaning,” notes bestselling Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. All around us, writes critic Thomas Frank, there are “TED talks on how to be a creative person.” There are “‘Innovation Jams’ at which IBM employees brainstorm collectively over a global hookup,” and ‘Thinking Out of the Box’ desktop sculptures for sale at Sam’s Club."
Trees on Mars
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Google. These companies are not just the new middlemen, the monopolistic cultural arbitrators of their day, the new judges, the new Hollywood, the new record company A&R. They are also our touchstones, verbs, and identities. They are the twenty-first century.
In 2006, inspired by the empowering possibilities of connectivity, the Time Magazine Person of the Year was “You.” The 2010 Time Person of the Year was Mark Zuckerberg. “You” aren’t good enough anymore.
Today it’s not just the present that we are repeatedly urged to shape and control; today, the future, too, is something that individuals are being told to contest, buy, sell and bring into being.
We used to talk about living in the moment—carpe diem; just do it. But even that doesn’t cut it anymore.
Pursuing your dreams with wild abandon, seizing the day, living fast and dying young, going big or going home—that’s not big enough anymore. Achievement in the age of the Internet has been super-sized. Rags-to-riches is now app-to-global domination. More and more, owning the future permeates our psychological space.
Expectations change. Redesign your city, your park, your life, your policies, to be about more than just the prosaic present. An artist team doing an elaborate installation in a London, UK, park says: “We wanted to encourage people to see their lives, the future, the city as an idea that they can positively participate in the writing of.”
Bay Area’s Marin County holds a public forum: “Choosing the Future We Want: Environmental, Equity and Climate Solutions for Marin.” When the Rio+20 Earth Summit in Brazil wrapped up in summer 2012, its delegates titled its nonbinding agreement, “The Future We Want”—an evocation of a near future “we” can all have input into, perhaps through the sweep of a finger down the luminescent screen of a third grader’s iPad.
“The future we want can be ours—if we act now,” exhorts United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the start of the 67th General Assembly Session in Fall 2012. Or as Barack Obama implored us in what seemed like a groundbreaking campaign in 2008: Change.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
But Obama very quickly went from hero to not-quite-zero: just another president, forced by the strictures of the job to spend far too much time in the present. How quickly we turned on him. When he represented “change” he was our hero. But then he became mired in the present, in the time before change. Our heroes are no longer those who seized the day, the warriors and tycoons and presidents and pop stars of yesteryear who shone so bright in the moment. The new heroes are the ones who are perpetually on the cusp of seizing tomorrow.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is a hero. The late Steve Jobs, whose autobiography was a best seller throughout 2011 and who was all but canonized after his death, is a hero. A six-year-old given the “Most Likely to Be the Next Zuckerberg” award at the Seattle Startup Weekend for his ideas about a water-dissolving sticker business is a potential hero. (“He was definitely the youngest and most articulate entrepreneur in training that I know of at a Startup Weekend,” Marc Nager, the executive director of Startup Weekend, tells a tech commentator.)
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is a hero. As Facebook investor Paul Madera, managing director at Meritech Capital Partners, puts it: “He always knew before the rest of us what Facebook could be.”
He knew before the rest of us. Mere mortals live in the now. Presidents and elected officials, besieged by the moment, are no longer heroes (at least not for long). Even scientists and engineers toiling in their laboratories, slowly and painstakingly coming up with the formulas and reactions and equations that might lead to new cures and technologies, are forgotten in our rush to celebrate the new innovator-technologists.
In the case of twenty-first century postindustrial society, the message is clear: the now is not where you want to be. If you want to truly achieve at the highest levels of our society, you have to be altering the future.
“People in tech, when they talk about why they started their company, they tend to talk about changing the world,” notes Joe Green, a roommate of Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard who now leads a Silicon Valley–funded political advocacy group. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, describes it like this: “I can make a multibillion-dollar company with a little bit of investment. Why can’t the whole world do that?” Speaking about his company’s research into the driverless car, Google cofounder Sergey Brin says: “We want to fundamentally change the world with this.”
New Yorker writer Jill Lepore writes, “The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption.” Or, as Jeff Bezos once told Charlie Rose: “Amazon is not happening to book selling. The future is happening to book selling.”
You can’t resist the future, you can only take advantage of it.
As a result, “not knowing the future,” notes Brendan Keenan, business columnist for the Belfast Telegraph, “is now widely taken as a sign of inadequacy.”
Excerpted from the new book Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future by Hal Niedzviecki (Seven Stories Press, 2015).
Hal Niedzviecki is a writer of fiction and nonfiction that explores life at the intersection of technology, individuality and society. His books include The Peep Diaries: How We're Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors and the short story collection Look Down, This is Where it Must Have Happened. Find out more about Niedzviecki's work at www.alongcametomorrow.com.