Imagine the future, now pull it forward

“I would also like to take a moment to acknowledge the context within which we gather. We meet at a time when the human species is having an unprecedented impact on the planet.

We acknowledge this at the beginning of this gathering as a reminder that the discussions we have here, the decisions we make and any actions we take as a result will have consequences for other people and other species — both those living now as well as future generations.” Matt Wicking, Acknowledgement of Context (Purpose, Sydney, 2015)

“We are in perilous times. Our planet and the human race face multiple challenges. These challenges are global and serious — climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans”.

Such pressing issues will require us to collaborate, all of us, with a shared vision and cooperative endeavour to ensure that humanity can survive. We will need to adapt, rethink, refocus and change some of our fundamental assumptions about what we mean by wealth, by possessions, by mine and yours. Just like children, we will have to learn to share.” Stephen Hawking

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

“If AI power is broadly distributed to the degree that we can link AI power to each individual’s will — you would have your AI agent, everybody would have their AI agent — then if somebody did try to something really terrible, then the collective will of others could overcome that bad actor” Elon Musk

“What does it feel like to stand here?” Wait But Why

I remember when I saw my first PDF as a print producer (yes I’m that old). I realised then that my skills would soon be replaceable.

My career has been a trajectory of outrunning obsolescence ever since.

The next big shift for me, was when I moved into social media in 2008. I felt like I was leaning into something exciting. I saw the potential for democratisation of communication and creativity. And there was hope for a new level of corporate transparency and accountability. On some level, it has delivered on both counts.

Now, in late 2016, I genuinely feel like I am leaping towards a future of unbounded possibility.

Of course, there are the obligatory obstacles.

There are the incumbents. They are either ignoring what is happening, or are pulling out all the stops in a futile effort to ensure the future doesn’t happen. This is the big end of town (Big Finance, Big Mining, etc.) and their political enablers shoring up the sunken cost of their investments and power.

Then there is the new elite of Silicon Valley. They have their lofty dreams about how their apps are going to save the world from itself.

And then there is the rest of us. Many fall in under either one of these points of view, but most are of us are cynical enough to fall for neither. We know that the future is going to fall somewhere between a utopia and dystopia.

The question is: Where?

If we don’t change direction , we may end up where we’re heading

All mountain bikers know this. If you see a large rock on the path ahead, you best eye a route around it. If you keep looking at it, you will hit it.

Sure enough.

I’m neither a techno-utopian nor a techno-dystopian, but I am a techno-optimist. We all have to be. If we obsess about hurtling towards a dystopia, we will hit that rock. If we believe we are sailing into a digital utopia, we haven’t seen the rock.

Vision needs a frame

Trickle-down economics has left us with rampant inequality and decimated ecosystems. Redistributive socialism has proved an ineffective add-on to a shot duck of an engine. This is not a political post, but we must heed the warnings of Farage in Britain, Trump in the US and Hanson in Australia.

There is a tendency for those left behind to want to dial back the clock. Back to the warm bosom of monoculture and protectionism.

We must ensure that the promise of the digital economy is inclusive. That automation and AI enable humans to do more amazing things than ever, rather the replace them.

What we do in the next five to ten years will be of unparalleled importance.

I, for one, do not welcome our new digital overlords

We’ve known for some time that we can’t rely on our politicians to lead us in these times of uncertainty. But, we need to be careful of putting too much stock into the titans of Silicon Valley too.

As Douglas Rushkoff called out at this year’s SXSW, the dream of the digital economy was sold up the river. And it’s fast becoming capitalism on digital steroids.

As exciting as these innovations are, no sooner does a new vertical open up than it becomes a platform monopoly (or oligopoly at best). Hoovering all the value out and annihilating the opposition, or leaving them at the margins to pick up the scraps.

As a society, we can’t just blindly feed off the teat of these platforms like we did with TV and expect anything to change.

If we’re not careful, soon we’ll be living in a world where we’ll have all our:

  • News sourced from Facebook
  • Consumables bought from Amazon
  • Holiday accommodation booked via Airbnb
  • Transport hailed via Uber
  • Data tracked, stored and accessed by Google

We are going to have to make some radical changes if we don’t want a world that looks or works anything like this.

At least the parliamentary system has alternative points of view to balance out the worst of its excesses (most of the time).

A world of monopolies won’t have that.

Make the future ours again

One of the reasons why Elon Musk has set up Open AI, is to ensure that AI’s power isn’t monopolised in this manner.

It’s not so much that Skynet will become self-aware and kill us all, but to ensure that the power of AI is distributed. If its power is accessible to all of us, the potential for the technology to facilitate leaps and bounds for humanity is unimaginable.

But to have that power in control of one organisation is almost too frightening to think about. As the adage goes — power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

It is now upon us to imagine our future for ourselves. To take the democratic principles that we hold so dear and upgrade our operating system, so it’s fit for the digital age.

Then we need to pull that future towards us, into the present.

The future is distributed and distributive

While Open AI has been set up by titans of Silicon Valley, it is in the fine tradition of open source. It contains elements that we need to embrace across every single vertical to go up against the monopolies:

  • Open source
  • Principled
  • Distributed
  • Distributive
  • Decentralised
  • Networked
  • Autonomous
  • Sustainable
  • Co-operative

And of course, the glue that binds all this together, an open mind.

In this, we have the beginnings of an alternative model. A framework that develops the preconditions for prosperity and value to be spread throughout the network.

We have a unique opportunity to make this happen. It’s one of the reasons why I love Medium so much. Each morning I get to read through the ideas, thoughts, ponders and brain pickings of some of the smartest people in the world — in real time.

We need to grab all of the incredible tools like this that are being thrown at us and make them work for us. Then we can shake off failed ideologies and move into an ideonomy, where new ideas travel at the speed of send.

In The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly says that we will soon all be working with AI. Let’s not just sit around and passively wait for it. Let’s harness existing tools and lay the foundations for a distributed and distributive architecture. Jury-rig them together into co-operative models. Then spread and re-circulate value and prosperity for all players.

Then, when AI really does take hold, we have the framework and governance to make another great leap. A leap towards genuine global equality, while drastically reducing the impact we have on the planet.

A new leadership

Instead of politics or silicon valley, we need to encourage change makers to consider this potential and take another path. That of the boundary rider. Galloping around the margins of society, tech and culture. Mustering the best ideas into the mainstream to help fix this hot mess we’re in.

Instead of running for office where party ideology binds them, they set up a community network.

Instead of making widgets and apps that mother us, they start up a social enterprise that fixes a social issue.

Instead of aiming for the billion dollar exit, they set up a B Corporation that solves a global problem that changes a billion lives.

A new generation spurred on by the Benefit Mindset, collaborating and co-creating new ideas for a new ideonomy.

It’s already happening. It’s gaining momentum and it’s exciting.

We need to imagine this future, ensure that it includes everyone, map it out, and bring it forward to the present.


Matt KendallStartup, Tech, Life