Digital Optimism, “Techlash,” People and Their Future, and more

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Volume 5,
Number 11
November 5, 2019

Prospects for a Better Digital Future

Digital technologies will change life for the better over the next 50 years, according to many of the experts responding to the latest survey from Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. However, this optimistic future will require the public to embrace reforms that promote cooperation, security, rights, and economic fairness, the report’s authors conclude.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the birth of the internet, Pew and Elon researchers queried more than 500 futurists, innovators, academics, developers, and business experts, including many of the technology’s pioneers, about prospects for the next 50 years of digital life. About 70% of the respondents were based in North America.

With the caveat that the survey was not based on a random sample, the authors report that 72% of respondents foresaw improvements, 25% said there would be change for the worse, and 3% anticipated no significant change.

Among the anticipated improvements digital technologies will bring, the respondents suggested, are longer lifespans, more leisure, and more equity in wealth and power. Respondents also warned about growing problems with surveillance and data abuse practiced by governments and corporations.

The Millennium Project co-founder Theodore Gordon observed, “We will have Watson-like capabilities for data and analytic reasoning in our pockets. False or suspect news will be rejected or marked with a skull and bones. The internet seems likely to splinter into specialized networks that communicate with each other. Big data will be a given and important in determining epidemics in health and in ideas.”

Jennifer Jarratt, owner of Leading Futurists consultancy, commented, “We need new regulation now that can protect users and the digital world from themselves and itself. With those we could also have a fully digital government that might be able to handle some of the planet’s big problems. Expect also new activism and new social orders.”

Among the other respondents were Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet Protocol, now vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google; Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and author of Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future; Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF); author Jamais Cascio, distinguished fellow at IFTF and senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies; writer Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media at City University of New York; and Amy Webb, founder of the Future Today Institute and a professor of strategic foresight at New York University.

Read:Experts Optimistic About the Next 50 Years of Digital Life” by Kathleen Stansberry, Janna Anderson, and Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center and Elon University Imagining the Internet Center, October 28, 2019.

Does Backlash Against Big Technology Threaten Innovation?

“Techlash”—the growing fear and loathing of big technology companies—could stifle the innovation and economic development such companies offer, warns a new report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). As a result, slower economic and wage growth will also stifle progress on a variety of society’s priorities, such as education, equality, and human and environmental health.

The report analyzes 22 claims about social and economic issues associated with techlash, including loss of privacy, threats of consumer exploitation and manipulation, the effects of social media on the well-being of children, the rise of extremism and hate speech, the dissemination of disinformation (“deep fake”), and the fear that IT is both destroying our jobs and “making us stupid.”

“Techlash has created a mob mentality, and the mob is coming for innovation,” says Robert D. Atkinson, ITIF president and co-author of the report. “Rather than techlash, we need a pragmatic ‘tech realism,’ recognizing that today’s technologies, like virtually all past technologies, are a fundamental force for human progress. To be sure, they can pose real challenges in some instances, and those deserve smart and effective responses.”

Read:A Policymaker’s Guide to the ‘Techlash’—What It Is and Why It’s a Threat to Growth and Progress” by Robert D. Atkinson, Doug Brake, Daniel Castro, Colin Cunliff, Joe Kennedy, Michael McLaughlin, Alan McQuinn, and Joshua New. ITIF, October 2019.

In other ITIF news, the Washington, D.C., think tank for science and technology policy has moved to new facilities with improved event space for holding presentations, panel discussions, and debates. The new address is 700 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20001. [Learn more].

Futurist Research and Writing Opportunities

  • The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation currently has two research positions open at its new D.C. office (see above): (1) A research analyst for ITIF’s Center for Data Innovation “should have a background in technology and public policy, as well as exceptional writing skills ... [and] a strong interest in public policy issues related to artificial intelligence, open data, and the Internet of Things.” (2) A research assistant in technology policy “should have a demonstrated interest in tech policy, as well as exceptional writing and copyediting abilities … [and] a strong interest in Internet policy debates, including privacy, security, and platform regulation.” [Learn more]
  • The Association of Professional Futurists is accepting applications for its Emerging Fellows 2020 program. APF Emerging Fellows are futurists at the beginning of their career interested in sharpening their research and writing skills, forming a cohort, and blogging regularly on critical issues that define the future. The theme for the 2020 program is the geopolitical future to 2050. [Learn more]

Mack Report: People and Their Future

In his latest post for the Foresight Signals Blog, AAI Foresight Managing Principal Tim Mack observes that it is not enough to think about how the future might change; futurists must also consider how people might react to that change.

“More interesting is people’s response to change in general, especially those changes they perceive as unsettling or threatening, as a loss and not a gain,” Mack writes. “One type of change trend is an increase in fear of diversity. … The rise of intolerance could be seen as a catalytic response to cultural shifts that were previously unheeded or even ignored by those most likely to be affected by them until these shifts were pointed out to them.”

The lesson for futurists is that “knowing your audience (or its stakeholders) is just as or more important than understanding sector dynamics or the basic mechanics of change.”

Read:People and Their Future” by Tim Mack, Foresight Signals Blog (October 27, 2019).

Rebuilding America’s Civic Fabric: Event Report

The Brookings Institution convened a panel discussion October 10 to mark the release of its new report on national service, prepared with the Service Year Alliance. The report found that public trust in the United States has declined over the last quarter century, including trust in the media, government, and the courts. Universal national service, the authors conclude, offers a way “to rebuild our civic bridges.”

Among the event’s participants was former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who warned about the consequences of our distrust of one another. The Russian disinformation campaign in the 2016 elections were “insidious and brazen,” he said, and “shocking how easy it was because we don’t know each other.”

Read:Event Report: Rebuilding National Service” by Cindy Wagner, Foresight Signals Blog (October 16, 2019).

Learn more: National Service: Rebuilding America’s Civic Fabric (Brookings Institution event page).

Future Well-Being in Wales

Did you know … Wales passed the Well-being of Future Generations Act in 2015, establishing a Future Generations Commission. The act requires “public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.”

The inaugural and current commissioner is Sophie Howe, who previously served as the first deputy police and crime commissioner for South Wales. The commission includes several staff “change makers” on its team, tasked with coordinating with public departments to meet well-being goals for prosperity, resilience, health, equality, cohesive communities, global responsibility, and a vibrant Welsh culture and language, “where we have lots of opportunities to do different things and where lots of people can speak Welsh.”

The commission recently released a guide to help young people understand and make use of the legislation intended to ensure their well-being “and live a happy, healthy life.” [Learn more]

Foresight Resources and Publications

  • The October issue of author Karen Sands’s Ageless Beat e-newsletter addresses the author’s personal experiences with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease. “Alzheimer’s is fast becoming the bad news story of our age,” she writes, offering an overview of emerging treatments. Sands is author of The Ageless Way (2016).
  • Futurist Dick Samson’s EraNova Institute blog is available on the platform at Recent posts focus on a “Smart Green Deal”—a term Samson has registered for trademark—which is a private sector strategy that can “make money and save the planet too!” Examples of the strategy Samson cites include former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts “mobilizing mayors around the world to fight climate change through private-public initiatives” and Google Alphabet Sidewalk Labs’ plans for creating smart green cities in places like Toronto. [Learn more]
  • Victor V. Motti, director of the World Futures Studies Federation, has launched a new YouTube channel, accessible through his website Vahid Think Tank. The inaugural video initiated an ongoing conversation with Thomas Lombardo on the “intricate relationships” among futures studies, science fiction, mythology, religion, integral thinking, and the future of everything. Motti has created two playlists for the channel: “Distant Futures of Everything” (discussions with Lombardo) and “Let’s Connect the Dots,” videos covering cryptocurrencies, the green economy and energy futures, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.