“The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps.” - Carl Sagan
What Future World? aims to create a better future by developing a detailed vision for an ideal future world and the strategy for achieving it. To learn more, read the other introductory posts: What is 'What Future World?'? and WFW?: Principles.
For some time, I have thought we as society ought to place greater emphasis on what we want our world to look like. This may be a function of growing up a millennial in the UK and only experiencing political figures standing against things (higher taxes, lower taxes, immigration) and never being 'for' a definable, better future. I then lived in the US for five years during my twenties and found the situation even worse. The world lacks inspirational, progressive voices grounded in reality and I hope that What Future World? can prove to be just that.
We already have the means to have a much better world if we collectively agreed to do so. We could eradicate world hunger, we just haven't, and I believe the lack of cohesion and coordination around a shared vision for the future is a big reason why. This becomes all the more urgent when you realise that new technologies - artificial intelligence in particular - have the potential to transform society in ways that we should really want to be the result of democratic design, rather than tech industry emergence.
Answering hard questions
One reason I believe there isn't more focus on envisioning an ideal future is that it is really hard. Our world is complex and messy, and there's a common understanding that there are no 'right answers' to a lot of questions. Someone may believe, for example, that we should lower taxes for high earners, and while they may strongly disagree with those that think the opposite, it is rare for them to suggest this is based on objective truth rather than value differences.
I believe this culture lacks ambition and is destined for polarisation and conflict. It takes courage and a strong evidence base to say, for example, that it is 'wrong' to lower taxes for the wealthy, but I think there is value in accumulating such objective claims into a single vision of an ideal future world. Many will disagree that such a vision is 'ideal' - some, I imagine, vehemently - but the purpose of this work is to build the strong evidence base needed to make such claims while being humble enough to correct-course when the evidence indicates such. As much as possible I'll lean on rationalist discourse and attempt to strip what are often emotionally-charged topics down to their nuts and bolts to examine the extent to which a 'right answer' can be found.
I believe that a significant driver of this difficulty is the fact that, to do this effectively, we would need input from everybody and we don't currently have the technology or systems for true democratic participation. While WFW? will start as a blog, I have a vision for how it could develop or leverage the best in democratic participation technology to make this a potentially globally co-created project.
To participate effectively we need to know where we currently stand, which is becoming ever harder as the rapidly increasing pace of change in society is making it more difficult to keep up and as an ever greater proportion of the population doesn't have the bandwidth to engage in such future design and discussion. WFW? will provide accessible, educational resources for anyone to quickly get up to speed on relevant topics as well as advocate for changes that will bring greater mental bandwidth to more people.
We also need to be able to picture the vision we're painting. It requires much more bandwidth to parse policy white papers or academic journals, and even then such methods of communication do little to inspire people. It's important to trade-off some of the density of such forms to share the ideas in a much more accessible form. It's also important to weave all of these ideas together into a single tapestry - it's great to say that everyone is equal but if that seems incongruous with an 'ideal' taxation strategy then the vision loses it's appeal. The more detailed the vision, the more compelling it will be. It is for me (and, in time, the community) to work out how all of the pieces can fit together without losing such detail.
We lack excitement about the future. More people than ever cite 'concerns about the future' as the reason for not having children. Thankfully new research has proven the success of positive-future envisioning.
The Smithsonian Institution, and the Institute for the Future have released a new analysis based on the museum's "FUTURES" exhibit, which seems to prove that if people can better envision a detailed possible future, they're capable of taking actions to make it a reality. "We know that most young people feel anxious about their future and the fate of humanity," says Jane McGonigal, IFTF's director of Urgent Optimists. "We also know that politics, arts, science, and the public sector have all failed to provide believable images of positive futures''. This aligns with Rutger Bregman's claim that progressive thinkers have lost their ability to engage and uplift. As he says in Utopia for Realists, "[their] biggest problem isn’t that they’re wrong. Their biggest problem is that they are dull. Dull as a doorknob. They’ve got no story to tell, nor even any language to convey it in." Rather than say 'this is a terrifying problem that could kill us all, we must work to fix it', we instead need to say 'we can decide to use this technology for positive ends, what do we want to do with it?'. The "FUTURES" research shows how futures-prompts and storytelling can help people imagine the future more clearly and feel more ready to take action.
Beginning a (not so) Long Reflection
Toby Ord in his book The Precipice introduces the idea of the 'Long Reflection' - "A sustained period in which people could collectively decide upon goals and hopes for the future, ideally representing the most fair available compromise between different perspectives". In his view, humanity can enter this historical epoch after tackling existential threats and when we have the stability to stop and think for "perhaps...a million years". I think there is nothing holding us back from getting started on the work today. In fact, it is imperative that we begin today given how much work there is to do and the risk that such a stable period proves impossible.
Building a progressive manifesto
One seemingly logical end-point of creating a vision and strategic implementation plan is that this project becomes a political manifesto. It's not a big leap in terms to from a vision and strategy to "a public declaration of policy and aims", the definition of a manifesto.
I believe there's an opportunity to refresh politics by standing for something, not just being against things. By painting a detailed, positive vision of the future I think we can unite in hope rather than along tribal lines being against an 'other'. As we've seen, such an exercise can itself be a source of inspiration and motivation to execute the strategy and make it a reality. That's why it's vital that the plan be pragmatic. The vision is only as effective as it is practically achievable. How refreshing would it be to have a political party lay out a clear, detailed vision for the future and clearly demonstrate its ability to execute upon it?
Do I want to go into politics? Not especially. Do I want to improve the structures of our current society? Absolutely. Would I pursue a political path if it seemed the best option for enacting such changes? Potentially.
Living better, happier lives
On the journey to an ideal future vision, some change will be societal in scale but a lot of it is personal. In fact, what is societal change if not an aggregation of all the changes we collectively agree to make? Some change will require long timescales, and yet some can be done today. If you feel that an ideal future society believes that everyone should be treated equally then you can ensure you're treating everyone equally today. If you think everyone will live fulfilled lives you can learn what it takes to be happier today. WFW? will focus as much on the immediate, personal changes we can make to live better, happier lives as on long-term, societal level changes.
What Future World? aims to create a better future by developing a detailed vision for an ideal future world and the strategy for achieving it. To learn more, read the other introductory posts: What is 'What Future World?'? and WFW?: Principles. If you believe in this mission of growing the community then please email me to discuss opportunities to get involved.
Please share your thoughts if you have any feedback on our theory of impact.