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Why We’re All Futureblind

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Why We’re All Futureblind

August 20, 2020

 

What do you think the world will look like 50 years from now?

It’s fairly likely you probably imagine that world to be pretty much the same as the world right now. Yes, maybe with some cooler apps and gadgets. Maybe with a climate crisis here and there. Maybe another celebrity as president.

We humans are avid scenario builders. We make mental models of the world around us all the time. They constantly inform us consciously and unconsciously on which decision to make or to avoid.

And up till the modern age, this has worked wonders. However, this evolved imagination brings forth an interesting challenge in the coming decades. Technological change is rapidly revolutionizing industries and is transforming all parts of our lives. And it is doing so exponentially.

Our way of thinking, linear and local, will blind us from seeing what’s to come.

And how rapidly.

Primer on Exponentials

Let’s start with a quick recap on what exponential change means in terms of technological development.

Ray Kurzweil, the current Head of Engineering at Google has a very simple way to explain the implications of exponential change. He calls it the 30 steps example.

If you take 30 linear steps, you are at 30. That feels obvious. If these were physical steps, you would be at the other side of a big room. We all kind of intuitively know how far that would be.

But what if you would take 30 exponential steps?

When we imagine taking 30 steps exponentially: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 .., most of us have no idea where we would end up after 15 steps, or 25, or let alone 30. The answer: at around a billion. Or in other words: you would have traveled the Earth 26 times.

This exponential growth is the reason why computers used to be the size of a house now fits in your Apple Watch while being a million times more powerful.

 

We see the future as the recent past. Image by Laurens Martens

The Linear Lense

As humans we evolved on this planet over the last hundreds of thousands of years in an environment that could be described as linear. From generation to generation, nothing really changed.  

It was linear in that the life of your great grandparents, your grandparents, you, your kids, their kids, nothing changed generation to generation. Everything was pretty much the same: the same food, the same tools, the same dangers.

We based our capacity for mental modeling on this linear world. We learned that if we would speed up our pace slightly, we would reach the river earlier than that that tiger would catch us. We knew that if we would throw stones and other tools at animals, a couple meters in front of them, we would hit them in their run. The ability to make linear projections was crucial: it meant diner and death.

If you live in a busy area, you intuitively know that when you speed up your walking pace just a little bit, you can cross the road before you bump into that biker that is coming from left.  It’s simply how we intuitively project forward.

The Local Environment

Our brains have also evolved to prioritize short-term thinking. We were driven by immediacy.

How to avoid being eaten by a tiger – today. How to find enough food to feed my family – today. If there was any long-term thinking, it was the “how do I find someplace warm to winter” variety. In other words, evolution shaped our time horizons to see about six months into the future.

As we grew up on plains of Africa, everything was within a day’s walk. Something would happen on the other side of the planet 100,000 years ago, you wouldn’t never know. We we’re evolved to see the future as the recent past.

For a long time, that was accurate.

The Exponential Global Village

Today change happens at exponential rates, on a global scale. Technological innovation will affect all parts of our lives in ways we can’t imagine now. Our brain just isn’t wired for it. To be fair: our brain hasn’t really which really had a hardware update in two hundred thousand years.

Unless we properly keep educating ourselves on these trends and force ourselves to look at the actual numbers, we will forget how much things will change. We will inevitably fall back into our comfortable biases thinking that it won’t be that different.

But the future ain’t what it used to be.

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