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Who is Inventing the Future? Is Anyone Paying Attention?

For about a year now I’ve been taking a fresh look at the ‘digital revolution.’ We hear a great deal about ‘the next big thing’ such as driverless cars, robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and the so-called ‘Internet of things’ – the list is literally endless. My working conclusion, however, is that the much-hyped high-tech future has major drawbacks. It is being vastly oversold and therefore we should be far, far more careful before we agree to any of it. I use the term ‘oversold’ advisedly. For example, a recently renovated shopping centre near where I live recently erected a huge 3 x 7 metre full colour digital screen displaying pop culture factoids and ads in an endless and repetitive loop. When I looked around the whole building I found over 90 smaller – but equally hard to miss – screens each of which is devoted to exactly the same kind of high-impact visual assault. While thoughtful people have known for some time that consumerism rests on shaky moral grounds (let alone perverse assumptions about human beings and their world) the owners of ‘marketing central’ are one of a number of powerful and well-resourced groups selling that redundant view more ferociously than ever. But they are part of a world, and worldview, that should have been abandoned long ago.

It’s been clear for some time that ‘the future’ was being invented elsewhere. One of most influential places is Silicon Valley in California. It is here that the IT behemoths cluster in close embrace with the Internet Oligarchs (not that they are entirely separate). I’ve considered what some of the leaders and opinion makers from these organisations actually say about what they think they are doing and the justifications they unreflectively offer. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I found levels of self-belief and self-confidence that set a new low point for institutional arrogance. An ABC program on Google and the World Brain added further evidence. For example, a couple of young Google execs flew to Paris in an attempt to obtain the support of the Director of a leading French library for their bid to digitise the world’s books. But they misread the situation completely. Their idea of a suitable gift for this sophisticated European was a small portable Thermos designed to keep drinks warm on train journeys. They were way out of their depth at a cultural level and were no doubt surprised that their ‘gift’ and proposals were declined. Google’s self-reinforcing view of the world provides it with few or no concerns about being a prime source of disruptive innovations, the consequences of which may well reverberate around the world. Those working there seem not only believe that they are building the future, they also think they have a right to do so. Moreover there’s no end in sight.

On the other hand, Australia, like so many other countries, has little or no capacity to either take part in designing such technologies, or greatly influence their use. Rather, it has a worldwide reputation for being among the first and fastest to adopt them regardless of consequences. I then discovered that Google Australia itself has some 500 engineers working here on various projects. If anyone can be charged with ‘inventing the future’ it surely has to include these high end engineers. Yet there is virtually no one in the nation, no organised capability at all, to facilitate the kind of high quality foresight that world-changing innovations clearly require. That is, the ability to think far enough ahead, think widely or deeply enough, to even begin to evaluate the technological wonders that are expected to emerge from this apparently endless pipeline. Yet that is not the case everywhere.

During mid-2015 the Australian government made much of forming a new and closer relationship with Singapore, a nearby northern neighbour. Around the same time an Op Ed article by Singapore’s High Commissioner in Canberra made much of the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries and, indeed, they have a lot in common. Sadly, however, what they don’t share is the ability to engage in high quality risk assessment and horizon scanning. Known simply as RAHS, the program exists not as a poorly funded marginal unit buried in the depths of some remote bureaucracy but as an essential component of the Singapore Government. In fact the office where it resides was deliberately positioned right next to the Prime Minister’s office. Which tells us a lot about that government’s view of the centrality of high quality, purposeful, foresight. By contrast in Australia we have a right-wing government that retains an irrational and Pollyanna-ish belief in the power of markets to resolve a great many issues and problems. This is despite the fact that market-led ‘solutions’ have proved disastrous in so many different contexts.

It is long past due that the civil administration of this country re-engages with and learns from earlier foresight-related work (including that of our own much maligned Commission for the Future) and from contemporary Institutions of Foresight around the world. Viable futures do not arise autonomously – they require sustained work over time and wide public involvement. They have to be discerned, negotiated, worked toward and eventually achieved. There are no quick fixes – especially in light of two significant shifts have occurred over recent decades. First, and for good reason, the shared image of the future has become progressively darker and more Dystopian. Second, given the magnitude and nature of global forces that are clearly at work in the world, the near-term future looks increasingly turbulent and unstable. It’s simply not credible to deny either of these facts. Yet that’s what happens each day in government and in commerce. The passivity of government and the unjustified self-belief of engineers, marketers and IT gurus reinforces the view that we can somehow buy, consume or innovate our way forward. This view permeates contemporary culture. The error is compounded by the withdrawal, or cocooning, of whole populations from the dynamic and demanding reality that surrounds them.

Our collective failure to re-engage in the multi-faceted tasks of cultural and generational renewal suggests to me that viable, sustainable and humanly compelling futures will not be easily achieved. We are certainly kidding ourselves if we think that Australia can secure any sort of future worth having by sticking with the familiar refrain of ‘lifestyle in – tonnage out’. The penny has not really dropped anywhere that the high-tech consumerist future we are being groomed to accept actually undermines any real prospect of liveable futures. But this kind of in-depth interrogation of choices and options is largely absent from our national conversation, discourse and life. We can do better than this.

(C) Richard Slaughter. July 2015.