Trying to imagine a future beyond 2020

Humdrum 75

I’ve been thinking a lot more lately about the future. It started with money. The pandemic has thrown many things into sharp relief and long term financial stability is one of them. But imagining what that magical time of retirement will be like completely overwhelms me. This year crashed into me, into all of us, like a freight train. How do you plan for the decades ahead when it feels like anything can actually happen?

By future I mean beyond the next few years. I mean the next decade, I mean the next 20, 50, 100 years. What will the world of your golden years look like? What sort of world will your great grandchildren see, hear, smell, experience? I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles with long-term thinking. New technologies and ways of communicating with each other keep pushing us to the bounds of what we understand, and are comfortable with. 

In the 1950s computers were huge machines that could weigh over 2,000 pounds. Nowadays we carry tiny computers (that can also make phone calls!) in our pockets. It took 182 years to build Notre Dame. There’s this particular kind of awe that washes over you when you stand at the foot of some huge and solid structure, knowing it’s been around for centuries, knowing it will out last you. Notre Dame, though charred, still stands. I know my pocket-sized computer will not outlast me, or maybe even next year. It, along with Facebook and Twitter, were invented after I graduated from college. Kids these days apparently don’t know how to use a rotary phone. So who can easily think in terms of 100, 200 years when tremendous shifts in something as basic as how humans communicate happened in less than 20 years?

So I marvel at the people who could continue showing up to work on one piece of Notre Dame, knowing they wouldn’t live to see the finished result. Maybe their great grandchildren would see it finished. But would they have pictured the world that those great grandchildren lived in as very different from theirs?

Trying to predict the future

We always want to know what the future will bring. We’ve used fortune tellers, crystal balls, oracles, our own imagination. Now we’ve added technology and sophisticated math, algorithms and polling and modeling, to the mix.

The worlds we try to predict are informed by our knowledge of and experience of what’s occurring now, if not what happened in the past. In some instances, software created with AI that we use to help make decisions, such as who should get a bank loan, who should or should not get parole because they’re more likely to commit a crime, are designed with reams of historical data that predict what might happen. Because the data is historical and because the programs are created by humans (often white, male humans) the results are algorithms that can be loaded with racial bias, gender bias, bias of any kind. Real harm can come to people because of these baked-in biases. You might not get that loan, or be denied parole not because of you but because of the algorithm. (I oversimplify, but see Weapons of Math Destruction for an eye-popping exploration of these topics).

On the other hand, programs using AI that are created and integrated into systems with thought and care, can literally saves lives. My point here isn’t to get into good or bad AI (I will do that in another letter). My point is, it’s hard to envision the next decade, the next generation, even at times the next few hours, but we’re harnessing as much computing power as possible to help see through that fog. If only we knew what would happen we could be better prepared. If only we knew who would actually commit a crime. If only I knew how long I needed to save money for, if only if only, I could make smarter decisions.

It’s scary not to know. We can only really make good guesses and bad guesses. Even the most informed are still guesses. 2020 has shown this to all of us. The future is murky, and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by it, and how my tiny little world will be affected.

However, far more imaginative people than me have clearer visions of the decades ahead, and are stretching their imaginations way beyond the next month, the next year. 

Imagining the future

Trying to figure out things like bank loans and saving money are like small potatoes compared to climate change. Even as we see, if not experience ourselves, the effects of climate change (more hurricanes, more fires etc), it’s still difficult to connect that experience to a greater whole, like to the polar ice caps melting. And then, what can you do about it, since individualist action alone will not save us? The sheer scale of this problem can be shattering whereas a few hundred years ago, the scale of our world was the size of Notre Dame. However, Greta Thunberg, climate change activists, scientists, the incoming Biden administration, are thinking decades ahead, to what the state of our whole planet could be, and they’re pushing the rest of us to do the same.

In another example, the protests over the summer brought national attention to the movement to defund the police (meaning reallocating money in police budgets to social, health, and community services). It seems to me the activists who’ve been pushing for these measures have a vision of what the future could look like, depending if we maintain the status quo or if we try something new. They have been posing tough questions: what might our cities and our communities look like if there was more funding for community health programs? If instead of calling the police for wellness checks, we called social workers, mental health professionals, crisis intervention teams? They’re asking of us, can you imagine a world where anyone who needed mental health support actually received it?

There are plenty of other writers, artists, thinkers who have been thinking long and hard about what the future could be. You probably know some.

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to think more deeply about the future, about the future we want to have, not the one we’re stuck in. Maybe it’s a little too early to broach this conversation with COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and many other parts of the world rising as they are. But I’m jumping in anyway. The pandemic has shaken up our routines, changed our behavior, and thoroughly upended the idea of “normal.” Scientists have been able to listen to the Earth in new ways, there’s been a sudden drop in CO2. Maybe there’s something in all the chaos and stress and anxiety we can learn from. Michele Norris on The Michelle Obama Podcast said something like, “Let’s not reach for normal, let’s reach for better.

So what is better? Climate activists, the movement to defund the police, have visions for what is better. There are surely others looking ahead and imagining the possibilities. That is something I want to take with me into 2021: possibility instead of the lonely havoc of 2020. My world right now feels really small, like I can only see the end of my own nose. Perhaps that’s part of the problem, thinking so narrowly in terms of what I want and I need.  The people who built Notre Dame, I doubt they thought so narrowly. To work on such a grand project for so long I would think they imagined beyond their own bubble. Activists certainly aren’t thinking in bubbles.

So here’s a not-bad thing about the pandemic, I hope: more imaginative thinking. We aren’t able to use a crystal ball or algorithms to predict the exact future we’ll end up with. But we have the smarts and tools and resources to progress toward a future we do want.

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A fun thing on the internet

A rehabilitating beaver is practicing for his release back into the wild with household objects! The play button might not work, but see TikTok or here for the full thread.

Still thinking about. . .

🎶 Getting more and more into K-pop with articles like this, on the boundless optimism of BTS

🤑 We will not get the kind of products/services we really need if the end goal of building those products is to make money for shareholders.

🤓 I write surveys for work sometimes, so I am nerding out with the post-election analysis of how the polls failed, and what it means for other kinds of surveys.

🤖 Seriously, opt out of the creepy networks of Amazon Sidewalk.

🍲 Where the government has failed, community mutual aid networks have sprung up to provide food assistance during the pandemic. (This article was written by one of my favorite journalists and newsletter writers, Anne Helen Petersen. Be sure to checkout her Culture Study newsletter!)

☃️ Holiday cards ☃️

I’m sending holiday cards/postcards to Humdrum readers this year! It’s a little thing, but I wanted to say that I appreciate your support over the years. If you’d like one, just respond to this email with your address by December 19. I will put them in the mail end of the month!

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Humdrum is written by me, Christina Brandon! Based in Chicago, I’m a writer and user experience researcher working in the civic space. I am ever hopeful at heart. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this newsletter (or you can just say “hi!”). Reply to this email, or jump over to Twitter or Instagram.

As a thank you for reading, you can download a free copy of my book, Failing Better.