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Know Thy Futurist

Linked by Paul Ciano on October 18, 2017

Cathy O’Neil:

A futurist is a person who spends a serious amount of time—either paid or unpaid—forming theories about society’s future. And although it can be fun to mock them for their silly sounding and overtly religious predictions, we should take futurists seriously. Because at the heart of the futurism movement lies money, influence, political power, and access to the algorithms that increasingly rule our private, political, and professional lives.

My hope is that by better understanding the motivations and backgrounds of the people involved—however unscientifically—we can better prepare ourselves for the upcoming political struggle over whose narrative of the future we should fight for: tech oligarchs that want to own flying cars and live forever, or gig economy workers that want to someday have affordable health care.

Q1

Generally speaking these futurists are hobbyists—they have the time for these theories because, in terms of wealth, they are already in the top 0.1 percent. They think of the future in large part as a way to invest their money and become even wealthier. They once worked at or still own Silicon Valley companies, venture capital firms, or hedge funds, and they learned to think of themselves as deeply clever—possibly even wise. They wax eloquent about meritocracy over expensive wine or their drug of choice (micro-dosing, anyone?).

With enormous riches and very few worldly concerns, these futurists focus their endeavors on the only things that could actually threaten them: death and disease.

They talk publicly about augmenting intelligence through robotic assistance or better quality of life through medical breakthroughs, but privately they are interested in technical fixes to physical problems and are impatient with the medical establishment for being too cautious and insufficiently innovative.

These futurists are ready and willing to install hardware in their brains because, as they are mostly young or middle-age white men, they have never been oppressed.

The problem here, of course, is the “I win” blind spot—the belief that if this system works for me, then it must be a good system. These futurists think that racism, sexism, classism, and politics are problems to be solved by technology. If they had their way, they would be asked to program the next government. They would keep it proprietary, of course, to keep the hoi polloi from gaming the system.

And herein lies the problem: whether it is the nature of existence in the super-rich bubble, or something distinctly modern and computer-oriented, futurism of this flavor is inherently elitist, genius-obsessed, and dismissive of larger society.

Paul Ciano

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