Image by Aron Van de Pol, Unsplash

onward

This is the final chapter in a series of pieces about our modern relationship with time and the future. Titled Hourglass, It’s an exploration into how our abstract view of time has changed in modernity, how it has met (or has yet to meet) the needs of the present, and what we can do to better prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

First Chapter / Previous Chapter / End.

Things have changed a lot since the dawn of the Industrial Age. As we stepped into modernity, our very concept of time and the future changed. Throughout this series, we have seen how science, art, and technology have worked together to bring us into modernity. This current moment is a testament to our tenacity and the vast interconnectivity of the narratives that have brought us here.

The present moment isn’t perfect — it has its deals of challenges, many of which we are either facing today or will face in the near future. But then again, the present was never perfect, and likely never will be. Contrary to what it might seem, I’m not a pessimist about the future; what fool would spend eight chapters to write about the inevitable? No, no. Quite the contrary. To dismiss our current problems as unsolvable is the only way to ensure that it’s true, and equally dangerous is to forge ahead without thinking first about the consequences of our actions.

Every point in time is marked by its own struggles. The struggles we face today and tomorrow will someday give way to a new set of challenges, ones which we will be forced to face. This is the nature of progress, I daresay the nature of existence. Our time on this planet will either be marked by these challenges, or, should we choose to face them, marked by our solutions to them. While I have no better idea than any other person what lies ahead, I have a few pretty good guesses about what tools we’ll need to carry forward. And it’s with these tools that I’d like to begin the ending of our journey.

For Us

The future is, and has always been, a collective effort. Our ability to face challenges lies in our collective ability to roll up our sleeves and get shit done. Here are a few things that we need to do, and do well:

  1. Better Forecasting. In chapter 3 we talked about the invention of the weather forecast and how systematic, data-driven forecasting revolutionized our ability to foresee the weather. We talked about how superforecasters used evidence-based techniques to hone their forecasting abilities, and how such techniques could be applied in real-world settings. Today, businesses and governments can utilize these techniques to better evaluate the likelihood of future events and respond to them effectively. Simply put, it’s hard to know how to respond to something you don’t know is coming.
  2. Better Communication. It’s a common trope to promote awareness of an issue after it is brought up, as if it were a panacea to the problem itself. Not so. Communication is a necessary but insufficient component to change. On issues like AI, climate change, and polarization, the solution lies in effective education of the public paired with appropriate actionable items. This might seem straightforward, but if you take five minutes to read about fears of artificial intelligence “waking up and taking over”, you’ll quickly realize how far we have left to go in communication, particularly when it comes to new technologies. This involves partnerships with the government and experts in the field who can help dispel myths, address relevant concerns, and communicate the path ahead.
  3. Collective Action. This sounds wishy-washy, but it really isn’t. As we saw in the chapter on AI (chapter 6), standards-setting and guidelines can only be effectively selected through collective action. No single company or country can meaningfully regulate the actions of all players, so it requires collaboration across all major players. This is especially true of issues that deal with societal and ethical implications, such as artificial intelligence or climate change. Collaboration is difficult, but possible — and most importantly, necessary.
  4. Government Action. Groan, groan. I know, I know. Again. Not a popular one, but a necessary one. Government action is separate from collective action because there are certain powers the government has that citizens and corporations don’t — namely, the power of broad-based national regulation. While free-market enthusiasts may shake their fists at the concept of regulating industry, it’s important to recognize the possible benefits to having a unilateral set of guidelines for controversial issues. The U.S. Government, in particular, has been hesitant to commit to any meaningful courses of action on AI ethics, climate change, or gene editing. Given how prevalent these issues will be in the near future, the government and its electorate would do well to pay attention. The second role of government is to assist those negatively impacted by these changes — what will we do to help people who are unemployed due to automation, or homeless due to rising sea levels? Some people have proposed universal basic income or a wealth tax to solve these issues, but no concrete solutions have been made.
  5. Funding Research. Research is the basis by which we accumulate more knowledge. Simply put, the most foolhardy thing a government can do is to shut off the research pipeline. It’s the institutional equivalent of closing your eyes and hoping others can’t see you. The key phrase is proceed with caution, not stop altogether. In chapter 6 I go into more detail on how funding research into algorithmic ethics can be deeply insightful; this is generalizeable to other domains as well.

For You

But of course, collective action requires time and coordination. Thankfully, there are plenty of things that we as individuals can also do to prepare for the future.

  1. Better Planning. In chapter 2 I talk about how trains invented our modern concept of scheduling. Since then, computer science has given us incredible new insights into how to optimally schedule tasks and ensure that they get done efficiently. If you’re curious about these, or other algorithmic optimizations you can perform at home, you can read Algorithms to Live By, a fantastic book written by CS professors at U.C. Berkeley¹.
  2. Self-forecasting. We’ve talked about how forecasting can benefit organizations — thankfully, you can do it on your own, too. If you’re curious what other superforecasters think about the future (and I hope you are, because some of their predictions are fascinating), here’s a link to the Good Judgement Project website. If you want to learn more about Prof. Tetlock’s findings, you can read his book on Superforecasting³.
  3. Curiosity. In case you haven’t made the connection across these different chapters, a common underpinning of human progress is curiosity. It’s what led Einstein to his understanding of relativity, Cajal to his discovery of the neuron, and Shelley to the plot of Frankenstein. While curiosity isn’t something that you can instill in yourself in a day, it’s possible to start in one place and expand your knowledge from there. For a general look into the universe and the wonderful mysteries it holds, I recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson⁴. Also by Bryson is a marvelous book that looks inward into the human body, The Body: A Guide for Occupants⁵.
  4. Activism. There are a lot of ways you can make your voice heard, on a number of issues. After you’ve well-acquainted yourself with a topic, it can be helpful to engage in local activism. Here’s a link to find your local representative⁶. Even if you don’t intend on calling your representative, I encourage you to visit the link so you can familiarize yourself with their names and faces.
  5. Self-awareness. Both Yuval Noah Harari and Ezra Klein have suggested that we engage in mindfulness in the modern age⁷ ⁸. Unfortunately, mindfulness has become such a loaded word in recent years that it has almost lost all meaning, so I’ve opted to go with an alternate term, self awareness. Adapting to the modern age will require acute self-awareness and introspection on our part, especially in a world where there is too much information and too little processing time. Our ability to filter information, reflect on our emotions, and develop an enriched understanding of ourselves is paramount for our individual success and wellbeing. Why did that news article make you so angry? What about that social media post made you anxious? What identities are those advertisements trying to target? These questions, and more, are an integral part of self-development, one that requires intense effort — dare I say vigilance — to maintain.
  6. Simplification. This goes hand in hand with self-awareness. Now, more than ever, we are dealing with a world full of noise. It should come as no surprise that entire industries have blossomed out of our need to organize, self-regulate, and minimize our contact with this firehose of information. It’s more important than ever before to simplify the present so we can have some clarity in the future. More isn’t always better. Modern content wants us to consume, react, and respond immediately to everything from email to tweets to Instagram posts. Resist that temptation. The overwhelming amount of content can lead to cognitive overload or even fatigue on the issues that really matter. Take things one step at a time — it’s not possible to do everything in a day, but it’s possible to do something. Make that something count.

The End

This marks the end of our journey — but also, the beginning of yours. My hope is that this series gave some insight into how we’ve used and molded our little slice of time here on Earth, and how we might be able to better chart a path forward from here on out. These changes take time, and they take practice — just like any skill, the future is hard to master, and no doubt we will fall over and over again until we get it right.

But that’s our story, isn’t it? Falling down, getting back up, then falling down again. There’s a rhythm to it, a tempo of improvement that resonates down that infinite thread. A heartbeat of persistence. If you tug at it just a little, you’ll feel a hint of resilience, a tensile strength extending from the very first what if? all the way to the edge. It’s enough to make you think, looking out at the clouds floating peacefully below.

Enough to make you realize, standing here, how far we’ve come since the days when we would look up at the sky and wonder, without a clue in our minds, whether the rain would come.

[1] Christian, Brian, and Tom Griffiths. Algorithms to live by: The computer science of human decisions. Macmillan, 2016.

[2]

[3] Tetlock, Philip E, and Dan Gardner. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. , 2015. Print.

[4] Bryson, Bill. A Short History Of Nearly Everything. New York : Broadway Books, 2004. Print.

[5] Bryson, Bill. The Body: a Guide for Occupants. Anchor Canada, 2020.

[6]

[7] Klein, Ezra. Why Were Polarized. Avid Reader Press, 2020.

[8] Harari, Yuval N.. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. First edition. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2018. Print.

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Jordan Lei

Jordan Lei

Neuro x Machine Learning x Art. PhD Student in Neuroscience @ NYU. Penn M&T 2020. www.jordanlei.com