One of the biggest questions to answer in developing a strategy for achieving an ideal future world is how we keep up during this period of rapidly increasing change in society while staying true to ourselves. It's the question I sought to answer in the TEDx talk I gave in October 2023 below.
Be proactive. Be you. Be curious.
This message will only grow in importance as the world gets weirder. I intended this talk to be a 15-minute introduction that can also be a quick refresher (only 10 mins at 1.5x speed!) once per year or so as we all build this muscle. Please share this with those you care about - I genuinely believe we all need to hear it.
As it isn't always easy to see the presentation in the video I have shared the slides below for easy reference. I have then shared the transcript and the list of sources in order of when they are referenced in the talk.
Who will you be in twenty years’ time?
Take a moment, maybe close your eyes, and really picture yourself in 2043.
I bet not many of you think you might be a very different person.
That you'll have different interests, opinions, even values.
But now think of yourself 20 years ago, or 10 even. Are you really that same person today?
I bet even fewer of you thought about how changes in society might affect who you'll be.
20 years ago less than half of us had an internet connection and we were still four years away from the first smartphone - would you say those inventions haven’t changed you at all?
Today we’ll see how the world is changing at an ever faster pace, and that we all need to keep up or we risk being left behind.
I’ll argue that adapting to our rapidly evolving world doesn’t have to mean changing who we are, and I’ll share three ways everyone can develop authentic adaptability.
You can be authentic and keep up.
To show how the pace of change is increasing, let’s take a whistlestop tour through human history, using transformational technologies to highlight the level of ‘change’ in society.
Hold on tight!
In our hunter gatherer times, society didn’t change that much. Now somewhere around eighteen-thousand five-hundred BC clay pottery was invented which must have seemed kinda crazy at the time, but historians would say that 10,000 BC felt pretty similar to 200,000 BC.
Then a gradual shift to agrarian societies and we got the wheel! A big day, but the next 7,000 years rolled on kinda slowly.
Over the next three-and-a-half thousand years we see civilization emerge.
In the next fifteen-hundred we ask what the Romans ever did for us, and it was, frankly, a lot!
We then enter the middle ages, where you might think things slowed, but here we get the printing press, arguably the most important invention of all time
Next is the Renaissance with the telescope and the telegraph
Then the invention of the steam engine enabled the industrial revolution, with remarkable improvements in quality of life, all in fewer than two-hundred years.
And in the last fifty we’ve seen the impact of the semiconductor, the personal computer, the internet, mobile phones, video games, reusable spacecraft, satellites, gene editing, and the pinnacle of progress, the TED talk.
We know that adapting to the change within our lifetimes has been far from smooth sailing. The turbulence of adopting each new technology, and the uncertainty over whether they will cause great good or great harm, is frightening.
And as we look forward to the next twenty years, just .01% of our human history, this change will only get faster.
In this period, experts anticipate significant developments in self-driving cars, genetic engineering, brain-computer interfaces, nanotechnology, quantum computing, abundant renewable energy, and artificial intelligence. The world is about to get much weirder.
In the face of this many of you might wish to concede defeat, and say how could I possibly keep up? Maybe you have already felt left behind.
In my research, on the impact of AI on society, I’m exposed to the scariest things, like how AI only needs three seconds of your voice to clone it, or that it can guess your password just by hearing you type it or seeing how the power light flickers on your laptop when you do. The people in these stories are young, smart, and tech savvy. If it can happen to them, it can happen to you.
It seems that it’s no longer good enough to just adopt new technology, we’re being forced to adapt, just to coexist with it.
Take my Grandma. She has more than adopted the smartphone - we’re frequently telling her off for checking her messages at the dinner table. But she’s struggling to adapt to the world of the smartphone. My grandma grew up a trusting person, fostered by close, trusting communities. She’s not in that world any more. She’s increasingly targeted by scammers impersonating bank managers and police officers even. She’s clinging on to this identity of being a ‘trusting person’...and putting herself at grave risk in doing so.
I’ve always been a techno-optimist, but to be honest, more than once I have considered getting away from it all; and living off the grid, driven by a fear that the world will make me interpret every new technology not as an opportunity, but as a threat. Make me be someone I’m not.
But, as you can see, I’m still here.
I realised the world isn’t going to stop changing, and that instead all I could do was look inward, and ask:
Is there a way to continuously adapt while staying true to who I am?
What does it mean to be authentic? The definition I prefer is ‘being true to your own personality, values, and spirit, regardless of the pressure that you're under to act otherwise.
A lot of you might hear that definition and say yeah - this rapidly changing world is applying too much pressure to be true to those things.
Maybe you can already hear the voices of those you know to be set in their ways, saying that you've changed, that you're being inauthentic.
Maybe you’re resigned to thinking authenticity and adaptability are opposites.
I’ve come to disagree. It all comes down to how you view yourself. The reflection exercise we started with Psychologist Dan Gilbert calls the "end of history illusion." We all recognise that our desires and values changed a lot in the past, and yet believe they won’t change much in the future. In Gilbert's terms, we are “works in progress claiming to be finished”.
You are in control of your identity. You can choose to say that your personality, values, and spirit can evolve as you grow and learn. That doesn't mean conceding all of your values or seeing nothing as important - but rather, not letting ‘perceived threats’ stop you from engaging with new things.
Adaptability - the ability to adjust to changing circumstances - is a learnable skill.People who have higher adaptability report greater happiness and life satisfaction, cope better with stress, and are more resilient to changing and difficult situations. Rather than feeling inauthentic in being flexible to our changing world, you can authentically say that you are an adaptable person. And that you still will be in twenty years time.
This authentic adaptability is what enables the engagement that I believe is so important, and that will allow us to shape the world to be not quite so exhausting. In particular, I think we all need to be authentically engaged if we are to develop artificial intelligence for the good of humanity.
A technology that could transform society and grant unforeseen power to those that control it, should be governed democratically rather than by a handful of billionaires in Silicon Valley. If you don’t engage, then you surrender your ability to help steer society to the wealthy technologists that do. And you might not like the direction they choose. For example, we already have the resources to end world hunger… if only we collectively agreed to do so.
We must stay engaged and give voice to how we want our transformed world to look. That’s why I created What Future World?, a project to democratically create a vision for an ideal future world and the strategy for achieving it. It’s impossible to predict the future, but regardless of whether we’ll cure cancer, achieve clean energy abundance, or have robots tending to our every need, the simple act of co-creating a positive vision can give us the hope and mental energy we need to stay engaged.
Together we can navigate this period of profound uncertainty and change.
So, how can we develop authentic adaptability? I promised you three ways:
One. Be proactive. Follow technology news, or stay in touch with friends or relatives who do, so a transformative technology isn’t such a shock when it reaches mass adoption. Take the time to get comfortable with it and reflect on how it might change your world. Do this with the people closest to you, so you can support one another on this journey.
This engagement takes meaningful time and mental energy that many people sadly don’t have. When you’re working three jobs to make ends meet, where’s the time to consider how a personal AI assistant might make your life easier?
We can all help increase our collective mental bandwidth by voting for representatives who prioritise social welfare programs. History tells us that with increasing job automation we will see ever greater concentration of income and wealth.We must have higher taxation and redistribution to ensure that we all share the benefits of these incredible technologies.
Two. Be you. Monitor your use of filters, and resist the pressure to project your perfect self. Capitalism preys on our insecurities, creates anxiety, and sells us things to soothe the pain. I urge you all to reclaim the joy of authenticity. You are all beautiful enough as you are
Don’t let the world tell you that you need a filter to show up.
Educate the children in your life on this too. They are growing up with these pressures without the wisdom to navigate them. 71% of UK teens report that filters affect their self-image, 43% say they use filters to significantly alter how they look and, 40% say Instagram makes them feel “unattractive”. While Gen Z are beginning to push back, teen mental illness is still at crisis levels. We need to do everything we can to role model online authenticity.
Three, be curious. As I said, things are about to get weird, and we all have a tendency to dismiss things we don't understand. Psychologist Adam Grant says "Authenticity is not about expressing every opinion you hold. It's about ensuring that what you voice reflects what you value." Before you wade into that comment thread with your argument, take a breath and get curious.As technology presents ever more confusing, and polarising, ideas - use your limited, precious mental bandwidth to learn, not judge, and do what you can to help those you observe being paralysed by this fear of inauthenticity.
Another way of framing that, keep your identity small. Writer Conor Barnes says that the phrase “I’m not the kind of person who does things like that” is not an explanation, it’s a trap. It prevents nerds from working out and men from dancing. Don’t ever think of yourself as the kind of person that can’t keep up with technology. Be the kind of person that tries, even if it’s really hard sometimes.
Because it will be hard. The world is changing rapidly, but it will never be this slow again.
The world getting weird is a really scary thought, but, embraced authentically, it’s so exciting that we get to shape it.
So, who will you be in twenty years’ time?