Several weeks ago I found myself in an unexpected debate on Facebook when I posted an article which claimed the world is in better shape and yet hardly anyone knows it. As my commenters confirmed, only 6% of Americans believe things are better now than in the past, even though extreme poverty around the globe has dropped from 75% in 1950 to 10% today, currently over 80% of the planet can read (80%!) and infant mortality, once a very real concern has, mercifully, become a rare one … just a few examples.
Why such a focus on gloom? First, while this kind of human progress is very much worth celebrating, it also has had a costly impact on our environmental and emotional well-being. Also, the rates of progress are not being doled out in proportion, which makes perspective a key lens in our storytelling right now (e.g., who wins with autonomous vehicles.. and who faces the threat of loss from the same?). And frankly, how do we find balance — and literally stay sane — with a media machine incentivized to focus on the worst and scariest outcome vs the best … “reporting” these immediately, and then over and over and over again for emphasis. Sheesh!
All of this is making it that much more difficult to see, respect and embrace the very symbiotic dance between dark and light and overall to feel encouraged and engaged. So as we launch into 2018, what direction is the world really heading in?
“Things are getting better and better and worse and worse, faster and faster…”
This quote, from Tom Atlee in Crisis Fatigue and the Co-Creation of Positive Possibilities, seems to sum things up pretty neatly.
On the one hand poverty in the US continues to increase, excruciatingly neither the suicide rate for children or opioid epidemic for adults are slowing down, and tragically we keep having to recalibrate “the worst shooting ever” … and this is just in the US. Even the increasingly super rich are worried enough to buy luxury apocalypse bunkers, evidence that many people are scared and hurting as anxiety rates continue to climb, especially among Millennials and teens.
On the flip side, however, the breakthroughs in medicine, agriculture and even distributed (crypto) software applications point to the potential for a very bright future. Imagine: healthy, plentiful, more affordable food, life without the threat of cancer or fear of loneliness, and the weaving of a more human, more resilient internet. Seriously, these all give me tremendous hope!
Ready for a brain implant? The answers aren’t easy…
At this past year’s SXSW, I was invited to moderate a panel on the Future of Intelligence with three of the boldest, most optimistic innovators out there; are you ready for a truly ambient AI assistant? A neural brain implant? Or to grow a new chair?? Both the possibilities and the ethical implications are staggering as machine learning and bio-technology, among so many other advances, continue to emerge … and merge.
At the Space Economy Summit, we debated whether we should invest in Mars, the Moon or Earth [the answer: all three] and I spent time with Google’s Retail leads, who believe we’re only 1% into the tech shift to come. I also toured Samsung’s new concept store and Microsoft’s Tech Center, which were both engaging [VR surfing!] and kinda frightening [envision cameras that read everything about us as we enter a store and use an artificial intelligence assessment of our “sentiment” to imperceptibly adjust the lighting on the shelf to entice us to buy].
Ummm….! While some of this innovation freaked me out, my questions spurred a thoughtful debate among retail execs who countered back whether this is any different than putting more red on a package or placing candy right at check-out? Maybe not…though while I continue to believe in the tremendous value business brings this planet, it’s not hard to argue that we have built distorted systems that incentivize extraction (vs systemic value creation), handsomely rewarding shareholders and investors often by arousing and then exploiting consumer desire… even, as we are seeing now, at the cost of our overall health and planetary well-being.
So one of the big questions we face: are we ok expanding these behaviors as the tech makes it even more possible to use sensors and data tracking to surveil, interpret and potentially manipulate, guide or serve our every move? Is this in our best interest or not? For a taste of what’s possible check out this provocative view on the potential of “free” autonomous rides and the rising use of “social credit scores” in China that rate how valuable we each are as a human (yikes! who needs Netflix sci-fi Black Mirror stories?). And what about our environment as breakthrough technologies like Bitcoin require astronomical amounts of energy?
Whether to champion these advances or not isn’t always clear, as this same tech we often fear has the potential to add tons of relevance and new opportunities — from AI to robots to gene-design to blockchain-inspired innovation. Even when debating whether we should place brain implants in infants someday (much the same way we choose to vaccine these days), my kids say they’d be really mad if they found out their classmates had one and they didn’t. Fair enough.
So… should ethics be in the eye of the beholder (or innovator)? And how do we make these quite personal choices [eg. “yes, you can mine my data to give me more relevant offerings” or “no, I want to protect my privacy”] both more transparent and easily actionable?
A plea for Compassion…
Clearly I’ve been thinking a lot about these competing narratives and the questions they raise. They’ve also come into tangible focus as I’ve met folks in a really wide range of roles and industries this past year… from successful sellers on eBay working hard to keep up with the escalating demands Amazon creates. And labor-strapped construction executives eager to communicate that significant tech advances are making the skills learned here more transferable and open to far more diverse workers (yep, a wheelchair bound person can virtually operate a crane these days… from any location). I’ve met small town community bankers wondering how to stay relevant as the tide continues to roll to megabanks… and helped build an awesome customer conference for a great company working to make that possible. And I was thrilled to meet interior designers recalibrating their work as wellbeing architects (yes!).
As innovative as these business leaders are, however, being aware of this need to adapt is really taxing, as most I meet these days are also feeling a huge sense of overwhelm and undefinable anxiety as they bravely navigate growing ambiguity for themselves, their families, their teams and, for some, their entire industries. In response, I have developed tremendous compassion for both myself and every person I meet and come to believe we are placing way too much pressure on the individual to be strong enough to manage these necessary adaptations and demands for constant growth and learning.
For all of society to thrive, the weight needs to shift, and we must build much better guidance systems, more effectively align incentives and create much bolder scaffolding between the structures we have in place now and the new realities the future holds. My friends sometimes struggle to reconcile my belief in self-determination, progress and even Ayn Rand with my desire (and my work) to level playing field for everyone. But here’s the deal: things are going to change — in how we work, learn, live, pay and play; this can be great news if we prepare — and quite painful if we do not. If curious, here is recent 25 min talk I gave at this year’s eBay OPEN.
I often conclude my talks these days with a plea that we become kinder to ourselves, our co-workers, our partners, our customers… as well as to those we believe we have nothing in common with, or from whom we are taking power. We are all in need of being much better held — by each other, the systems we have designed and the technologies we advance. And I encourage you to watch this beautiful 16 min presentation of “A Letter to All Who Have Lost in this Era” , for the future will only be bright if those who want to be are included in it.
… And the power of a positive narrative
Above all, our kids and teens MUST believe the future is not only safe but that they have a meaningful place in it. As rates of anxiety, depression and even (heartbreakingly) suicide continue to grow, I invite you to consider how you talk about the future, especially around them. Both those “at risk” and those loaded with privilege deserve to feel confident, prepared and optimistic as they look ahead. At home and at school, I encourage us to actively fuel their creativity, sense of empathy, belief in their own agency and respect for grit, for these are the attributes that will prepare them for any future and hold them much more safely today. They are paying attention and need to know (and see) that we are doing all we each can to light a bright way for them.
So what ideas excite me most heading in to 2018?
1) The growth and promise of vertical/hydroponic farming as, for example, Shanghai is planning a massive 100 hectare city-center vertical farm to feed 24 million people!
2) Intentional Communities and their ability to address the very real loneliness epidemic.
3) Universal Basic Income and other innovative ways of distributing prosperity and reshaping societal structures.
4) The record-breaking numbers of women now running for office! — in the 10 months before the election in 2016, around 1,000 women contacted Emily’s List about running for office or getting involved in other ways. Since the election the number has exploded to more than 22,000! The more diverse the voices we have at all levels of decision-making the better.
5) And the potential of a distributed web and responsible cryptocurrencies such as Holo. And while I’m not running for office or building a vertical garden (yet), I am currently helping some very visionary friends launch an alternative to the blockchain, called Holochain, that will allow for a truly peer-2-peer, much more flexible, scalable and energy efficient web to emerge. Though quite paradigm shifting (imagine flipping the internet inside out), it’s so exciting to imagine the advantages of an “Ourbnb” and being able to not only divert from centralized servers that hold (and sell) our data, but to reward all who participate, not just the owners of the algorithm. If you haven’t already, you can become a visionary backer of this too!
These are all examples of the transformative light born of frustration and growing concern.
Embracing the dance between dark + light
I’ll close (finally) by sharing that I find real comfort in believing these two forces remain in some kind of symbiotic harmony, for the greater the dark, the more brilliant it seems the light shines in response — on both personal and societal levels. While it is true that many dark and painful experiences are happening, I’m learning that facing vs fearing them ensures we can offer more support and hold the space for these to also catalyze or make visible something we never knew was possible. I also encourage us to become better at anticipating that light invites dark and have compassion for those who are acting out of fear or dislocation, for much the same way that dark catalyzes light, bright light and big (hopefully positive) change often ignites those who are afraid of losing control.
I’d like to also offer that we more calmly look ahead at the ways that big waves of progress might also unwittingly create pain (i.e., gentrification), and build in better safeguards… or even whole new approaches. The key, in my quite passionate opinion, is never to feel victimized as things change (at least not for long) and to truly believe we each can impact how this all takes shape. And though pretty damn literal, I admit, I find this story of a legally blind artist who create such enchanting art an inspired example. :)
As always, I’m grateful my path has crossed yours! Thank you for playing so big. Warm wishes for an encouraging start to a bright year in which we are all fueled by whatever dark surrounds us to create the light that makes this ride so beautiful… and our future together that much better.
With love + light,