Telling the Future

When it comes to predicting the future, most of what we read skews apocalyptic. If we somehow escape natural disaster then we’ll inevitably do the deed ourselves – whether it’s nuclear war or wayward artificial intelligence. So the narrative goes.

These predictions strike me as naive, not because they lack the serious consideration they deserve, but because they severely underestimate the resilience and versatility of the human race. It’s highly unlikely natural disaster or robots will be the end of us. But it’s the fact that there’s a non-zero chance of these events occurring that allows the clickbait brigade to spread fear.

We can of course only speculate. But what I strongly believe is that the changes taking place on a social and technological level will increase the quality of life for the average person. And these changes will occur on two levels: work and play.

Here are my two predicted ‘macro’ scale shifts that I think are already in motion:

1. Work

I went surfing the other day. I got talking to the guy on the board next me. It turns out he’s a neuroscientist who also runs an avocado farm and teaches ancient history to high school students. A few days later I went to a dinner party. The girl sitting opposite me has started a healthy energy drink company, is a writer and yoga teacher, and has acted in five films. Both of these people were under 30.

The 9-5 job is dying. We are seeing the beginnings of a society that rewards the jack of all trades over the master of one – converse to the system that has existed until now. This is a welcome change. Such diversity of thought and talent is surely a recipe for open-mindedness, tolerance of differing opinions, and breeds genuinely interesting people from whom society can learn.

The emergence of this new form of nomad – the wandering, multi-faceted entrepreneur – is, I believe, a bold yet increasingly common defiance of convention. Society has taught us to categorise people. Our education was designed to pigeonhole us into specialist roles. We are finally seeing a rejection of this tired mantra; the modern economy is beginning to recognise the value of interdisciplinarity.

As we move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs we will be able to define ourselves much more loosely. That is, as technology begins to fill the roles humans would otherwise inhabit, we expand our horizon of curiosity.  

In the long term, perhaps 20 to 40 years from now, we will all be working for ourselves. The information revolution is reversing the industrial revolution. The industrial age placed workers into groups, creating mechanistic hierarchical ways for humans to work together. By contrast the information revolution is breaking down these communication barriers, as Naval Ravikant has put it. The optimal size of a workforce is no longer hundreds or even dozens. It’s shrinking to one.

We see this shift already happening online. Social media, for example, has helped people to build individual brands that allow, for better or worse, for an almost unmediated freedom of expression. We’ve reached a point whereby journalists at top media outlets like the New York Times can have individual brands that will exceed that of the outlet itself. In startupspeak, we’re all becoming founders.

Thankfully, we’re moving away from jobs in which we are constantly told what to do with our time, jobs that have us serving someone else’s interests rather than our own. Through the noise and clutter of bureaucracy is emerging a lifestyle in which each of us has autonomy over how we spend our days.  

But what is the upshot of this? A rejection of this systemic categorisation signals a shift in mindset from the competitive to the autonomous. The conventional desk job is a product of society’s tendency towards competition. To be successful, we are told, we must compete with others, whether on the football field, in the classroom or at the office. But we often fail to ask ourselves whether the end goal is one we genuinely care about, or whether it is the one society values and benefits from.

Breakthroughs arise out of a rejection of convention. We cannot think originally if we are always competing with others. Why try to beat others in the game when you could start your own game and rewrite the rules? So the question we should be asking ourselves, to paraphrase Peter Thiel, is, “How can I become less competitive so that I can become more successful?”

2. Play

So much for work. When we take control over how we spend our days, work can feel less like work and more like play. “Work is more fun than fun,” said Noel Coward, and we ought to aspire to such a state.

As technology becomes more ubiquitous and we rely ever more on artificial intelligence to perform tasks, we find ourselves looking at that which AI cannot touch. Namely, art.

With the abundance of automation will come a revival of the creative arts, and the prospect of a second artistic revolution. Art is a thing without which we cannot live, by definition a work deriving from the human in us that evokes an emotional response in others. Robots sketching a Matisse is not art. Nor, on this definition, are paintings churned out in the thousands by workers in a Peruvian warehouse for western restaurants.

Art is anti-automation in every sense. In a world in which everything becomes mindlessly reproduced, we naturally place greater value on that which derives from the unique element in us, the human need to create.

In our consideration of what is meaningful – of a life lived by design rather than by default – we learn to prioritise the question of how we spend our time. The creation and appreciation of works of art will become more valuable as automation becomes the norm. 

As we move away from a passive mindset, once we detach ourselves from the blind adherence to another’s goals, we create a life in which the line between work and play is blurred – perhaps even becoming one and the same.

 

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