August 15, 1971, marked the end of a golden quarter. Faced with the mounting debt of the Vietnam War, rising unemployment, and a worsening balance of payments, US President Richard Nixon suspended the convertibility of the dollar into gold. Though widely considered a political success, the decision heralded a new era of lower growth and greater uncertainty. The end of an exceptional cycle not only caused economic concerns, it also marked the end of innocence for the promise of post-war progress.
Years later, on September 15 2008, when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, popular sentiment took a similar turn, wavering between disbelief and devastation. It is against the backdrop of a new era where rapid technological change meets a chilling fear of economic stagnation that the World Economic Forum will hold its 46th Annual Meeting in Davos.
Under the theme “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” more than 2500 leaders from all walks of life will be invited on a journey to imagine the sort of futures a new wave of progress could hold.
The Struggle against Cynicism and Apathy
In the heady years after the end of the Cold War, accelerating technological progress made the world more flat and egalitarian; now it makes it spiky, smoggy and risky. Some fear that the exploitation of old will be resumed with new means: we got betrayed by our banks, now we get beaten by our machines and then dismissed by their owners. This is the fear of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised; the left-behinds of contemporary capitalism.
Others fear the erosion of the familiar, the unravelling of industries, maybe even the end of order as such. This is the fear of those who fared well under the status quo, including well-educated workers in industries from financial services to healthcare whose workplaces begin to be invaded by intelligent machines. Both stories depict progress as a problem, as “disruption”.
In an odd way, we seem content with the idea that “disruption” is the “norm”. Like Joseph K., Kafka’s pitiable protagonist in The Trial, we accept a world we are powerless to control. Herein lays the real challenge. It is not the proverbial fight between man and machine, recounted myriad times since the Luddite era. It is the struggle against cynicism and apathy, the toxic by-products of trust that have been squandered in the crises of our decade. It is the struggle against a societal and technological discourse that stifles our ability to write our own version of the future, making us passive subjects in a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity –the top watchwords of our days.
From Progress to Disruption
In a period marked by fascination with science and technology, it is easy to forget that almost everything that defines our modern world came about or had its seeds sown in the first two decades of the post-war era: from television, electronics, computers and the early beginnings of the internet, to space travel, nuclear power and the birth control pill.
For over two decades, GDP in Europe and the US skyrocketed, Germany experienced its Wirtschaftswunder, and Japan became an industrial powerhouse. The developed world seized progress, unleashing far-reaching changes in politics, society and popular culture; the UN came into being, and initial plans for its headquarters foresaw a new “World Capital” twice the size of Manhattan; millions of colonised peoples in Asia, Africa and the Middle East won political independence; the civil rights movement was born, and “Star Trek” beamed its viewers into a future where liberty, equality and the rule of law were intergalactic governing principles.
But as of the late 1960s, things went sour. Vietnam and Watergate damaged trust in national power, whilst inflation, oil shortages, and unemployment hurt trust in the economy. Fears over environmental devastation, nuclear war and a ticking “population bomb” picked holes in an almost religious belief in technological progress. In 1972, one year after the Nixon Shock, the Club of Rome released the influential report “Limits to Growth” which portended the collapse of societies around the world unless leaders constrained the use of resources and industrialization. Suddenly technology was speeding up in terrifying ways, straining the limits of the planet and the mind. Alvin Toffler’s bestseller Future Shock hit a nerve, stating that our brains are ill-prepared for such pace of change. “Progress” turned into “disruption”.
The Nixon and the Lehman Shock years seem closer than the passage of almost half a century suggests. The global threats we face, from climate change to overpopulation, resemble the dangers the Club of Rome highlighted in 1972. Now as then, economic uncertainties abound, as do questions about the willingness and ability of states to address them: trust in the economy is fading; trust in governments is battered by rising inequality and worsening levels of security; and trust in technology is hollowed out by job polarization and environmental catastrophe. According to the Edelman, a public relations firm, the number of countries with trusted institutions has fallen to an all-time low among the informed public.
“The beta version of a science fiction dream”
Yet in both periods, a challenging context also inspired a new generation of scientists and entrepreneurs to break new ground and build better societies. In the 1970s, nanotechnology and the promise of space exploration became the new frontier of science dreaming; brilliantly recounted by Patrick McCray in his book Visioneers. Today, technologies from quantum computing to synthetic biology make us feel again as if the present is just the beta-version of a science fiction dream. Virtual Reality devices are juddery precursors of a time when our physical and digital worlds converge. Humanoid robots are clumsy but herald an era when machines become true team mates and companions. Personal 3D printers produce mostly useless plastic junk but carry the promise of anyone being able to craft anything. Self-driving cars are banned from normal roads, but they are harbingers of a time when we will be embedded into a web of devices which know our destination long before we do.
Much ink has been spilled over these beta versions; what worries me is the ambitions beneath them. Courageous economic and industry visions are rare; instead we risk a new form of technology fetishism, the worshipping of tools for their supposed magical powers. When we treat technology like a fetish, tools turn into “game changers”, and we get locked into simplistic oppositions: utopia vs dystopia; oppression vs liberation; order vs chaos; “Star Trek” vs “Star Wars”.
We’re not the first generation to fall into the trap of placing our faith in fantastical machines. In 1961, Khrushchev promised the Russian people that the computers developed in the party’s research labs were finally creating a socialist paradise. At the 1964 New York World Fair, DuPont’s Wonderful World of Chemistry celebrated American scientists’ contributions to society with songs like The Happy Plastic Family and GE’s Progressland Pavilion put up an impressive installation heralding a new era of free energy through nuclear fusion. Business was building a better American future. Silicon Valley’s story of the digital revolution is the most prominent example of this today. As soon as everyone is connected, goes the idea, participatory democracy and cooperative creativity will be the order of the day. But, as a recent World Bank report showed, there is nothing in digital technologies that make them prone to more or less inequality, aggregation or disaggregation, liberation or domination, efficiency or bureaucracy. Only people, not technologies, can decide.
We need to “defetish” our dialogues about future technologies; instead of predicting “The Future”, we need to engage with many possible futures as way to better understand the present and discuss the kind of future we want. At this year’s Annual Meeting we partnered with the Victoria & Albert Museum on the interactive exhibition “This Time Tomorrow” which features speculative designs from the infinitesimal scale of DNA to the distant horizon of outer space; around these objects we created speculative debates exploring futures where, for instance, neuro-evidence is allowed into the courtroom, autonomous weapon systems replace soldiers and generals, or death has been defeated; the underlying intent is not to pinpoint “The Future” but to open up a dialogue on how technology could serve us better.
The World Economic Forum was founded in the Nixon Shock years, at a time when fear over accelerating change overtook the belief in human progress; in a period marked by the twin-realization of human ingenuity and immoderation. Today we are again at an inflexion point; at a moment where social, economic and political crises meet rapid technological change, where progress feels like disruption, not promise.
More than ever it is critical to remember that technology is giving us powers which we constantly need to learn to master. The Lehman shock triggered a new desire for finding new ways of managing our lives and the relationship among state, market, citizen, and consumer. The onset of a new era of “limits” is a chance we must not miss to imagine and engineer the futures we want.
Illustration: Matteo Baracco