I’ve been off discussing the future at the World Future Society this month. It’s a topic I engage in fairly regularly online and other places. This is the most important conversation we can have a society. Perhaps telling your family that you love them or walking your dog and chatting with neighbors is more important on some daily soul-building level. But I believe that dinner and water cooler and political conversations should be at least partly consumed by the tsunami of change we’re riding. Yet, I’m amazed at how often I am finding mistaken thinking or lack of thought around our future (including, I’m sure, in myself). I hear us carrying our own false knowledge forward or falling into sound-bite land. When I catch myself doing this, its usually because I haven’t taken time to stop, talk, and think.
We’re living in a decade when the rate of change is increasing quickly, and as we climb the curves of this change, the things we know become outdated really fast. Things we “know” become untrue a few years after they were the best truth we had available. For example, I was just talking to a friend about desalination, and she mentioned that it was very difficult to figure out what to do with the extra salt. I did some research and in fact, the leftover brine has been (and in some cases is) a problem. But plants in Tampa have figured out how to return it to the ocean safely, and others have suggested ways to perhaps use that salt on roads in the winter. This is a rather pedestrian example, but in many cases things that were problems have been turned to opportunity, or had acceptable workarounds created for them. It’s important to assume our knowledge at any given point is wrong, and to go proof it. The knowledge we thought we owned may no longer be true. It’s not new math, it’s a new world.
We spend a lot of time on the Internet, which means we’re bombarded by misinformation constantly. Depending on where we spend that time, the signal to noise ratio can be pretty awful. I’ve always tried to avoid commercial television because the commercials are created by people who spend a lot of money (a LOT of money) to influence my thinking. There’s no reason to assume I’m immune to that. The Internet appears to have MORE advertising than a typical half-hour TV show used to have. So it’s even more dangerous. Add the polarized political atmosphere and corporate money flowing into politics like an engorged river of lies, and we probably intake more junk than real information. Let’s take a non-pedestrian example this time. People have conflated a single company’s business practices (much of which I disagree with, but which aren’t actually as evil as they’re made out to be) with a whole technology, and have turned GMO foods and animals into evil, no matter who created them or for what. Yet we’re almost certainly going to need this tool in the fast-changing adjustable climate-dominated world of tomorrow. The vitriol, hover, is so thick that it’s nearly impossible to have a rational conversation even in places where the audience is generally rational and thoughtful. On the internet, lies abound, and truths get picked up and exaggerated until they become lies.
Knowledge itself is changing and lies are regularly presented to as facts. There isn’t much we can do about that – it’s an external reality. But we can stop and think and talk. We can take quiet meditative time. We can make ourselves read whole essays and articles instead of skimming them for titles. I started this post yesterday, partly in reaction to a sound-bite of mine which has been getting retweeted (“What we grow up knowing and what we will die knowing will be different.”) Yesterday morning, I read an excellent essay in the New York Times, “No Time to Think,” by Kate Murphy. She did a nice job of expanding on something that disturbs me. Often it feels like I get up, give myself half an hour to read or FaceBook over coffee, and then I’m off and running with no real stops until I pass out for the night. On a good day, I get in an hour of dog walking, which is good thinking time. Many days, even that is rushed.
The best thing we can do for the the future is to spend some time with it, either in quiet contemplation or in thoughtful conversation. We have big problems to solve, and running around distracted by someone else’s soundbites isn’t going to solve them. Stopping and thinking clearly is more likely to help.