If you’ve been listening to season one of Future Rising, you’ll know that most podcast episodes are short and hopefully insightful and engaging readings from the book Future Rising.
This episode is different – it’s a lot longer for a start. As we’re currently in between seasons, I thought I’d post a bonus episode that captures some of the thinking and reasoning behind the book and the podcast.
This episode is based on a TEDx talk that was scheduled to take place in early 2020, but was cancelled due to COVID. It draws on the back-story behind the book Future Rising as it riffs off the idea of thinking about the future as an object. But at its heart it’s about the importance of thinking differently about the future in the increasingly complex and interconnected world we live in.
If you enjoy it, please do check out season one of the podcast, and subscribe on your favorite podcast platform so that you don’t miss season two when it comes out this fall.
And if you’re interested in more of my work around society and the future, check out my website at http://andrewmaynard.net.
Until then – take care!
Professor Andrew Maynard
Andrew Maynard: Hi, my name is Professor Andrew Maynard and I’m the host of the podcast Future Rising. As you’ll know if you’ve been listening to season one, the podcast consists of short, engaging, and hopefully thought-provoking insights into the future and our relationship with it.
I’m currently working on season two, which will be airing this fall. But in the meantime, I thought you might enjoy this bonus episode, which captures some of the thinking and reasoning behind the podcast and the book that it’s based on.
Here, I should be clear that this bonus episode is a little different from the usual ones – it’s a lot longer for a start. The episode is actually based on a TEDx talk that was scheduled to take place early in 2020, but that was cancelled due to COVID.
In preparing that talk, I wanted to capture the inspiration behind the book, and how this led to some of the ideas that underpin it.
What emerged was a talk that plays with the idea of thinking about the future as an object, but that is ultimately about the importance of thinking differently about the future in this increasingly complex and interconnected world we live in.
I hope you enjoy it as you wait for season two to air – and please do remember to subscribe so you don’t miss the new season when it does!
Andrew Maynard: What exactly is the future? And what is our responsibility to it?
These may seem like odd questions, but it’s surprising how little most of us actually think about what the future is. And this in turn has a quite profound impact our relationship with it.
These are questions that I tackle in my latest book, Future Rising – a Journey from the Past to the Edge of Tomorrow. And yes this is a blatant plug – you should totally go out and buy it!
But before you do, I wanted to share a bit of the story behind the book. And this is a story that begins with coffee with a colleague, and a rather unusual question.
Andrew Maynard: We were sitting chatting in a coffee shop, catching up on a bunch of things, and the conversation turned to my next book. And this is when my colleague turned to me and asked “why don’t you write a book about the future as an object”
OK I thought, this is a little weird. But I humored him and asked “What sort of object?”
“You know” he said, “an object … like a spoon, or a ball … or a shoe even.”
At this point, I was thinking “this is insane! The future’s this weird, intangible, unknowable thing. It’s not an object!”
Of course, being British, I merely said “mmm, interesting …”
Looking back, this may be a bit of an over-dramatization, but this is how the conversation went in my head.
The thing is though, now it was there, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. And as I chewed it over, I began to think, maybe there is something to thinking about the future as an object. Not a real object necessarily, but a metaphorical one, and one that can inspire us to collectively build a better future, rather than simply accept the one we end up with.
Andrew Maynard: Part of what persuaded me, is that my work involves thinking about the future, and how our accelerating technological abilities potentially affect it. And I’m acutely aware that we’re at a point in history where humans have an unprecedented ability to imagine, to design, and to engineer the future.
Of course, every generation thinks this. But things are different this time around.
For example, through nanotechnology we’re designing new materials by quite literally coding with the atoms and molecules they’re made of.
We’re doing the same with DNA, as we design and engineer with the underlying code of living organisms.
And of course, in the cyber domain we are learning to create machines that may one day be more intelligent than us.
This is heady stuff to the scientist in me! And yet, if I’m being honest, we have no idea how to use these technologies responsibly. And because of this, we’re standing on the precipice of a future that could so easily fail, because we didn’t understand how to build it well.
Andrew Maynard: OK, so admittedly, this is not the sort of existential angst I was expecting from a casual, if somewhat weird, conversation about imagining the future as an object. And yet it made me think: Is there some way to use this idea of the future as an object to refocus how we think about our relationship with the future, and our responsibility to it?
And the answer, to my surprise, turned out to be “yes!” – sort of, at least. And this started me down the road to writing Future Rising.
Andrew Maynard: In 1968, the astronaut William Anders was circling the moon in the Apollo 8 mission, and he took what was possibly one of the most influential photos of the past 100 years. His photo became known as “Earthrise”, and it showed a vibrant, fragile, beautiful Earth rising above the horizon of the Moon. And it inspired a generation to think differently about the future of Earth, and their responsibility to it.
Earthrise was a photo of an object. It was an object that encapsulated the idea of a shared future for a generation, and one that inspired them to think differently about their responsibility to it.
In a very real way, Earthrise, and the Earth it portrayed, became a future-object to people that inspired them to do better.
Of course, the world has changed almost beyond belief since 1968. And with it, our ability to create a better future, has also been transformed.
And this got me thinking: As we stand here between our past and what comes next, how do we ensure we take the right steps to building a better future?
And then I got distracted.
What distracted me was the realization that, before we can even begin thinking about the future as an object, we need to go back in time to come to grips with what this “future thing” is in the first place, and how we as humans fit in with it.
And so I started out on a metaphorical journey that began nearly fourteen billion years ago.
Andrew Maynard: 13.8 billion years ago to be precise, there was nothing, nil, nada. The very idea of the future, or even the past, simply did not exist.
And then, everything quite literally exploded.
One of the most profound results of that explosion, the Big Bang, was the emergence of a universe that was governed by time. And with this, the future was born.
If things had gone to plan, this future would have been, I have to admit, pretty boring. It would have gone something like this:
Big Bang happens; universe expands; universe runs out of steam and stops; End of story.
And yet, to channel the late great Douglas Adams, on a seemingly-insignificant planet, “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy”, something quite amazing happened.
A bunch of molecules coalesced into what we now know as DNA, and everything changed.
DNA held the blueprint of organisms that could ride the wave of time between the past and the future, that could sense and adapt to what was coming down the pike, and that would ultimately be able to imagine and create new futures.
Through billions of years of evolution, all of it built on the backbone of this incredible molecule, creatures emerged that had a rudimentary understanding of cause and effect. They instinctively knew that what happens in the past affects the future.
And then came evolution’s masterstroke: intelligence.
Of course, intelligence means different things to different people. I like to think I’m intelligent because I can do math – or at least I used to be able to. But I suck at languages. And believe me, if there was an IQ test for following directions, I’d be in single digits.
But through the process of evolution, a particular form of intelligence began to emerge that was deeply rooted in the connections between past and future.
It’s an intelligence that was based on remembering what had happened before, learning from this, using this memory and applying it to solve problems, and using this to create a better future.
Most animals ended up really good at this. Cats and dogs, for instance, have an incredible ability to remember what they did in the past to get humans to feed and look after them, and to manipulate us so that we keep on doing this.
Andrew Maynard: This chain of events from the big bang to the present day has led to us emerging as a species that has an unprecedented ability to predict what will happen in the future because of what occurred in the past, and to use this link between cause and effect to our advantage.
This is the basis of the science we do, and of engineering. And of course, it underpins technology innovation.
But these just capture the “how” of our relationship with the future; they don’t really get to the “why.”
If we were to think of the future as an object based solely on this “how,” it might look something like a hammer, an object that can change the future, but not something that necessarily inspires a vision of a better future.
In other words, as well as the “how,” we also need the “why” as we think about what sort of an object the future is.
The good news is that we have an utterly astounding set of future-skills that can help us make sense of the “why.” These encompass our ability to not only imagine different futures, but to play out in our minds how these have the capacity to bring about what is important to us.
This is where human creativity and art, our aspirations and visions, our hopes and desires, coalesce to make us future-builders with a purpose.
If we were to capture this as an object, it’s more likely to be a piece of art, and probably a piece of abstract art – something that forces us to think beyond the obvious, rather than a mundane object like a spoon, or a shoe.
This ability that we have to imagine different futures is part of the “secret sauce” that makes us architects of the future. But it also has a dark side—a couple actually. In fact, if I’m being honest, there are lots of dark sides here. But let’s focus on just two of them.
Andrew Maynard: The first is the despair that comes from being able to see what the future could be, yet not being able to get there.
This, tragically, is a state that millions, even billions of people face as they struggle to feed themselves, to live with dignity, and to overcome the constraints that others seek to impose on them.
If we’re serious about imagining the future as an object, this object should reflect the pitfall of despair, and remind us that we all have a responsibility to create pathways toward a better future for everyone, not just the privileged few.
The second dark side that’s important here is the danger of trying to build the future on the back of ideas that don’t match reality.
Sometimes this is as plain as the nose on your face.
If you imagine, for instance that the future consists of a flat Earth being carried through space on the back of four elephants and a large turtle, you’re really going to struggle to be an effective architect of the future.
That’s an extreme example of course. But we all have our biases and blind spots that stop us from seeing the world as it is, and the pathways to futures we can actually achieve, whether this is denying that humans affect the climate, claiming that vaccines cause diseases like autism, or even insisting that technology can solve everything. (Hint: it can’t!) And in the increasingly complex and interconnected world we inhabit, failing to spot and navigate these can lead to sometimes-devastating unintended consequences.
Andrew Maynard: There is hope though, as long as we learn how to match our prowess as future-changers with the maturity that’s needed to learn how to change the future for the better.
This hope depends on us having the humility to recognize the limits of our understanding and abilities; Tthe responsibility to imagine, design and build a future where everyone thrives; and a commitment to being good stewards of a future that we have increasing influence over.
And this is where the idea of the future as an object, one that can inspire us to do better, becomes so important.
Of course, there’s never going to be a single object of the future that we can all rally around. Rather, we’re going to need many objects that represent the future as we continue on our journey.
Or maybe we each need to find and hold in our mind’s eye our own personal idea of the future as an object, to keep us true to what we aspire to.
If this is the case, I wonder what your personal image of the future as an object is?
Maybe it’s a strand of DNA, or a stunning landscape. A child’s toy even. Or a cute kitten
Perhaps it’s a cyber truck! Or a colony on the moon, or cities on Mars
Or maybe it’s something that grabs your imagination in unexpected ways, like a soap bubble. For instance.
Andrew Maynard: This, I must confess, is my personal future as an object, and it’s one that captures the idea of a chaotic, fragile yet beautiful future, full of promise.
The thing is, despite how crazy I thought the idea was when my colleague first suggested it, we cannot escape the reality that we are all exquisitely talented architects of the future, and yet to be responsible architects, we need something that guides us forward.
We all need some way to think about the future as an object – something to help us keep our eyes on the ball of building a better future.
Andrew Maynard: And so as we stand at the edge of tomorrow, caught in the flux of time between what was, and what’s to come, let me ask you this: what is your object of the future?
Andrew Maynard: Season two of Future Rising will be airing in the fall. Please subscribe on your favorite podcast platform to make sure you don’t miss it. And as always, take care!