Category Archives: Future: Visions of

Journal: Dear Future Generations

Originally published in 2015 on my personal Facebook page.

Dear Future Generations:

I’m sure it’s obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight — but I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.

I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.

Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”

We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)

Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)

Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.

We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.

But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.

Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.

But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Recently, they finalized a new deal on climate change that was better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.

We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.

Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.

It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.

So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.

We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.

Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.

But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.

I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.

But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.

Love,

Alan

 

Video: Norman Bel Geddes

Norman Bel Geddes was a highly influential American designer who created a certain streamlined vision of the urban future. These two videos explain his legacy and influence. The first is a 3-min intro to a 2012 museum exhibition of his work called, “I have seen the future.” It includes a number of his iconic representations of futuristic cities, cars, etc., in a “Disneyland” style (as the narrator describes it). The second is a longer, narrated PowerPoint lecture (38 min) by a teacher of industrial design history, providing a more complete picture of Geddes work.

Notes: Utopia is Dead

The original cover illustration for Thomas Moore’s “Utopia,” from 1516, courtesy Wikipedia

In 1516, Thomas More — a lawyer and councilor to the notorious English king Henry VIII — published a little book called Utopia. More’s account, written in the form of a Socratic dialogue, centered on a fictional island, on which a country reminiscent of an updated vision of Plato’s perfect Republic had been discovered by a mysterious world traveler named Raphael. The book was not, strictly speaking, about the future. Utopia was a place that was imagined to be far away in space, not time. Nevertheless, the word “utopia” has become synonymous with the vision of a perfect, future society.

More’s fictional Utopia had not evolved organically to perfection. It was designed, in meticulous detail, by a man named Utopos — a foreigner who had conquered the place and its “ignorant savages” centuries earlier, transforming them in the process. Considering that the real “New World” and its “ignorant savages” had been discovered by Europeans just a few decades previously, this aspect of More’s Utopia reveals a great deal about Europe’s future vision for that New World and its peoples. In its all-but-inevitable conquest of the Americas, which still lay a few decades in the future, Europe imagined that it would play a role like that of Utopos, the designer of a perfect civilization. As we now know, their impact was the very opposite of utopian: existing human societies in the real New World were rapidly destroyed by the European lust for gold, profit, and geopolitical power.

Meanwhile, back in More’s innocent, fictional Utopia, the politics might strike us as socialistic, or even idealized communism; in fact, they sound something like the universe of Star Trek. There is no money in Utopia. Not even gold is considered to be valuable; the ultimate pleasure in life is not the ownership of possessions, but good health. There is no hunger or poverty: “Recognition of individual merit is combined with equal prosperity for all.” The Utopians have learned to work the land effectively, on an island of relatively scarce resources and poor soil quality. In fact, they are so efficient that people work only as much as they want to, at their chosen trades, and are otherwise free to spend their time in “some congenial activity” (though not “in idleness or self-indulgence”). Utopian society is even wealthy enough to donate a significant fraction of its total exports to the help the  in other countries.

At first glance, More’s Utopia sounds like a future Scandinavia, where the idea of a basic “citizen salary” (a social payment that a citizen receives regardless of whether she works or not) is gaining traction as a social experiment in some countries, and where up to 1% of the national GDP is already committed to overseas development aid. But one should not jump to the conclusion reached by More’s fictional alter-ego, “More,” who concludes that “there are many features of the Utopian Republic that I should like … to see adopted in Europe.” (p. 132)

For example, there is plenty of slavery in More’s Utopia. The slaves are convicts, or poor people from other countries who have volunteered to be owned, in order to have work. And there is absolutely zero tolerance for premarital sex. “The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing, because they think very few people would want to get married — which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves — if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise.” (p 103)  And by the way, monogamy is a strict requirement in Utopia: marital infidelity, or even attempted seduction, is a crime. The punishment: slavery.

More’s depiction of the perfect society is quite unconvincing today; but the influence of his book on Western society was enormous and lasting. The idea of utopia became so ingrained in the Western tradition that even computer modelers, centuries later, use that word to describe the best possible outcome of their future-trend simulations. But like More’s “More,” thinking out loud about Europe’s prospects in the final sentence of his surprisingly modern-feeling work of fiction, the word “utopia” has also come to mean a fantasy future that one “hardly expects” to become real.

*

Fast forward five hundred years. Along the way, we pass dozens, growing to hundreds and finally thousands of imaginary utopias, all written, drawn, and — beginning in the early 20th century — rendered into motion pictures by the mind of man.

For it is principally men who have busied themselves with thoughts of a future utopia over the past five centuries. As late as 1998, in a comprehensive book-length study of Ecological Utopias by the Dutch political scientist Marius de Geus, there was not a single female thinker or author, in all of history, with a model of utopia that he considered important enough to mention, let alone analyze. (In fact, only three women are quoted or cited by name, as commentators on the concept of utopia, in the whole book.)

De Geus made a useful distinction between two types of utopias, and that distinction was still highly relevant twenty years later. On one side, there are utopias of abundance, where technology advance has provided ever-increasing access to resources, machines, and opportunities, such that everyone is living a life of comfort and even luxury.

On the other side, there are utopias of sufficiency, where humanity’s material appetites and desires have been tamed, minds are enlightened, and nobody is in need because nobody wants (or gets) more than their modest, sustainable share. Thomas More wrote the first of these “sufficiency utopias”: his Utopians wore simple clothes, eschewed excess, and avoided killing animals. The iconic modern example of the genre was Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia — a green-politics dream of a book that inspired a generation of activists and innovators and that, like Thomas More’s Utopia, gifted the world not just with a provocative future vision, but with a useful new word.

Most “ecotopias” — whether they are fictional stories like More’s and Callenbach’s, or theoretical constructions of green-tinged social and economic theory such as those put forth by the modern “degrowth” movement — fall into this second, “sufficiency” category. But de Geus, an environmentalist professor whose concern was to help rectify “a blatant lack of new ideas … concerning the future of our society,” considered this green tendency toward sufficiency-utopia thinking a flaw: “ecotopian thinkers underestimate the advantages and pleasures of luxury and comfort,” he wrote, “and are inclined to exaggerate the positive aspects of austerity and moderation.”

De Geus’s academic writing style tends to be dry, and one wants to shout, “What an understatement!” But then he continues, even more drily:

“Their general assumption is that by living more simply, attaching less value to material goods, by simplicity, frugality, and doing without luxury and affluence, a happy and environmentally friendly life is possible. This assumption appears to disregard the fact that most people in contemporary society are extremely fond of ease, convenience and comfort.”[1]

Now one wants to shout, “Exactly!” This misplaced belief in both the corrective and the attractive power of a sufficiency utopia has been the Achilles heel of the environmental movement for decades. It is demonstrably true that some people find joy and satisfaction in a monastically-inspired or a consciously-chosen simple life; but most people, very evidently, do not.

In fact, most people in this world do live a simple life: material simplicity is all one can afford on $3,000 or less per year (the approximate median annual income for the world as a whole).[2] Visions of downscaling our material way of life have so far proven appealing to a tiny minority of relatively wealthy people, whose annual incomes — even when modest by the standards of their surrounding societies — are nonetheless great enough to place them in the top one percent of all humanity. (By example: earning a salary of just under $35,000 in the United States, a level that might be considered “lower middle class,” still places that wage-earner in the top one percent, globally).[3]

It is empirically verifiable that the “abundance utopia” is far more attractive to the vast majority of humanity. It is also the official policy goal of most nations. Prosperity, opportunity, the pleasures of technology and travel and entertainment for all: this is the vision that guides the overwhelming majority of the world’s governments, organizations, institutions, and decision-makers. In fact, this dream of a world that is universally wealthy (while acknowledging that some people will always be more wealthy than others) has long since moved out of the domain of science fiction and into the halls of government, the boardrooms of investment banks, and the central offices of aid agencies and large foundations. It is no longer seen as “utopian” — a word derived from the Greek for “no place.” It is seen as humanity’s all-but-inevitable destination.

This is why I believe it is time to declare: utopia is dead. As a concept, it has been absorbed into the globalized industrial culture and has evolved into, or replaced by, a different dream. This new dream still encounters scoffers and critics and enemies, but it has nonetheless has been formally endorsed by 193 heads of state, at a United Nations summit meeting held in 2015.

We call that dream “sustainable development.”

[1] See “Median GDP per capita: how much does the typical person earn in different countries?”, by Hauke Hillebrandt, Giving What We Can, 25 May 2016, https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/post/2016/05/giving-and-global-inequality/

[2] Marius de Geus, Ecological Utopias: Envisioning a Sustainable Society, International Books, Utrecht, The Netherlands, 1999, p. 242.

[3] See: http://www.globalrichlist.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes: Television – “Window to the Future”

Click to enlarge

In the 1920s, television was not just a new, futuristic technology; it became a symbol of the future itself. The print ads and magazine covers of the day celebrated the advent of TV with breathless descriptions of new developments and potential video services that were coming “Soon!” or even just “Maybe!” — such as this cover from “Radio News,” a very popular US periodical in its time. (Note that television was thought of as an add-on to radio in those days. Note also that it took nearly a hundred years for this magazine cover’s vision of getting medical care via audio-video transmissions to be realized, via a technology no one in the 1920s saw coming: the fusion of video and telephony that we call the “smart phone”.)

But television didn’t really take off until after World War II, and by the 1960s, when reasonably priced color sets from Japan began to swamp the global market, TV was such a normal part of industrial-world households that it called less and less attention to itself, as a technology. Ads for televisions focused more and more on the sensual experience it was there to provide. TV was no longer “the future” — it was “magic,” a “wonderland of color” and a “thrilling” window to a world of entertainment and distraction.

And occasionally, a window to visions of the future itself, for it was television that introduced the world to Star Trek — the first  series built around an imagined future where humans had conquered the galaxy with starships.

The original 1960s series “Star Trek.” Collage with images courtesy Wikipedia.

Source: Window to the Future: The Golden Age of Television Marketing and Advertising, by Steve Kosareff, Chronicle Books, 2003

Notes: The Foundation Trilogy

My battered copy of Asimov’s trilogy

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (1951) is a remarkable piece of science fiction not just because of its future vision of a galaxy full of humans, or its iconic stature in the genre. It is “future fiction” about predicting the future.

Asimov builds the tale around the work of an imaginary psychologist, Hari Seldon, who uses mathematical equations and statistical analysis of human social behavior (called “psychohistory”) to predict the rise and fall and recovery of the galactic empire over the course of a thousand years.

The action of the story revolves around just how clever Seldon and his colleagues were at planning, in detail, what needed to happen to restore the galaxy. The “Foundation” of the title is a special planet, where a kernel of rationality and science is preserved as war and economic collapse ravage the galaxy — just as Seldon predicted. In Asimov’s fantasy, even the unpredictable, in the form of a mutant with the power to control people’s emotions, is somehow accommodated in this homage to (exceedingly male) rationality and planning.

Foundation was enormously influential in its time. As a small reflection of that influence, two co-authors of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth — Dennis and Donella Meadows, who used computers and equations at MIT to try to understand what was likely to happen if the global growth trends of the 1960’s and 1970’s persisted — named their countryside residence in New Hampshire “Foundation Farm.” To be clear, they were under no illusions that they were preserving civilization there; Dennis Meadows has said it was simply a “sardonic reference” to a book they both admired.

When re-read from the perspective of the early 21st century, the Foundation trilogy seems impossibly dated. Men still carry briefcases, smoke cigars and run the world from small conference rooms, even 20,000 years after humans have fanned out across the galaxy.

And yet, there are aspects of Foundation that seem hauntingly familiar, in the age of global social media and populist politics. Apparently, great masses of people are predictable, and potentially manipulable, given the right psycho-technical tools. At the moment, we call those tools “Facebook” and “Big Data.”

Footnote: In a later 1980s novel, Foundation’s Edge, which expanded on his original trilogy, Asimov invents a planet called Gaia, where the humanoid “Mentalic” inhabitants are completely integrated with both the living and inorganic material around them, and each other, to the extent the entire planet functions as one mind. I wonder what dreams that Gaia would have? 

Notes: Future Shock

In 1970, Alvin Toffler (and his wife Heidi, they wrote as a couple but used only his name) published a book that took the world by storm, selling millions of copies and introducing a phrase — “Future Shock” — that soon earned a place in the dictionary.

Future Shock was not just a book about what was likely to happen, based on trends and patterns (though it did plenty of predicting). It was a book about how human beings were reacting to a feeling that the future was arriving faster than they could prepare for it. The principal thesis of the book is preserved in its dictionary definition: “the physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes” (Merriam-Webster).

The Tofflers (Alvin died in 2016) were surprisingly skilled at extrapolating from the trends of the 1960s into the world that later emerged, accurately predicting personal computers, the Internet, “Information Overload,” the sharing economy, telecommuting, the role of artificial intelligence in the workplace, and the rise of informal and less-hierarchical organizational structures. Their famous “errors” look wise in hindsight: Heidi predicted throwaway paper clothes, which did not happen; but the throwaway society certainly did. Today’s “fast fashion” garments may not be made out of paper, but they are not much longer-lasting.

Future Shock was not the first book to claim that “This lifetime is … different from all others because of the scale and scope of change,” nor was it the last. But it was the first to bring the speed of change into global public discourse as a topic of debate, and to highlight the counter-intuitive features of exponential growth — a topic that would stand at the center of another mega-bestseller that followed just two years later, The Limits to Growth. The Tofflers noted that accelerating economic expansion — Japan was the China of their day, its GDP growing at an average of 9.8% per year — translated into “a doubling of the total output of goods and services in the advanced societies about every fifteen years.” The individuals coming of age in the 1960s might live to see a world 32 times as “big” in economic terms (after five doublings) because of the compounding impact of exponential growth.

As it happens, the world economy has doubled in size more than four times since 1950. Graphs of that growth resemble rocket launches.

The Tofflers were not the world’s first futurists — the term had emerged during World War II, in connection with US think tanks — but they were the first to popularize the profession on the world stage. Alvin even taught the first known university course on the subject of “future studies” in 1966.

In introducing the systematic study of the future to a mass audience, they were careful not to let it be reduced to mere trend-spotting and prediction. Instead, they gave the popular understanding of future studies a decidedlhy philosophical and analytical character. Here they are writing on the advancement of technology, in words that seem to presage the significantly more developed and coherent theories of contemporary thinkers such as W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, 2009):

“[T]echnological innovation does not merely combine and recombine machines and techniques. Important new machines do more than suggest or compel changes in other machines — they suggest novel solutions to social, philosophical, even personal problems. They alter [humanity]’s total intellectual environment — the way [we think and look] at the world.” (Future Shock, p. 29)

The Tofflers noted that for humans to avoid the “shock” part of “future shock,” they would need to become more adaptable, flexible, and ready for the unfamiliar and unpredictable. It was wise advice then, and it also seems to have anticipated the emergence of an entirely new area of scientific inquiry, which is today called “resilience”. Becoming more resilient was imperative, wrote the Tofflers, because the advancement of technological civilization “offers no surcease from change. It offers no return to the familiar past. It offers only the highly combustible mixture of transience and novelty.”

While the Tofflers are usually remembered as cheerleaders for the future, their agenda was far more radical. In their book’s final pages, they called for a massive slow-down in the pace of economic, industrial and social change in order “gently guide our evolutionary destiny.” Their diagnosis of where “this wild growth, this cancer in history” was leading reads less like a prediction, and more like a hauntingly accurate premonition of the early decades of the 21st century:

“[B]efore we can build a humane future, [we must] halt the runaway acceleration that is subjecting multitudes to the threat of future shock while, at the very same moment, intensifying all the problems they must deal with — war, ecological incursions, racism, the obscene contrast between rich and poor, the revolt of the young, and the rise of a potentially deadly mass irrationalism.” (Future Shock, p. 486)

Today’s “ecological incursions” are happening at the scale of planetary ecosystems. The global “contrast between rich and poor” is wider and more obscene than ever. Phrases like “climate change” or “mass migration” or “school shooting” were not even in our lexicon when “future shock” was invented, nor was “social media,” which has become the most powerful technology ever known for spreading “mass irrationalism” in the form of conspiracy theories and fake news.

Today the “runaway acceleration” of human history appears to be speeding up rather than slowing down. The ever-faster arrival of “the future” may have become less and less shocking to us since the Tofflers’ time. It may even be that the majority of humanity is not just accepting, but even desiring, of the “novelty and transience” they worried about.

But that does not mean that we have solved the problem of collaboratively making the future that we are creating more humane, more livable, more sustainable. In fact, we appear to have just caught up to the Tofflers’ vision of how we might start.

In the closing pages of 1970’s Future Shock, the Tofflers laid out a suggested program of activity that bears a striking resemblance to something that finally occurred, at the international level, in the years 2012 to 2015. They called for “a movement” that would “broaden and define in social, as well as merely economic terms, the goals of ‘progress.'” They imagined gatherings happening “in each city, in each neighborhood” whose purpose was to “assign priorities to specific social goals for the remainder of the century.” They even proposed the use of large-scale, participatory simulation games, involving thousands or even millions of people at a time, to help us “formulate goals for the future.”

In 2015, the largest-ever gathering of heads of state convened in New York City, at the United Nations headquarters, to formally approve a document that had been developed with the input of hundreds of thousands of people, from all around the world. Called “Transforming Our World,” the document included 17 broad “Sustainable Development Goals”, and 169 prioritized sub-goals, to guide global development through the year 2030.

It was not exactly what the Tofflers had in mind. But it was astonishingly close.

 

Additional sources to review:

Future Shock at 40: What the Tofflers Got Right (and Wrong)

https://www.fastcompany.com/1695307/future-shock-40-what-tofflers-got-right-and-wrong

Future Shock on Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Future_Shock

“Future Shock” Documentary Film on YouTube (starring Orson Welles):

Notes: The Viridian Design Movement (1999-2008)

In 1999, science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling gave a speech in which he called the growing problem of greenhouse gas emissions “an aesthetic problem.” Our reliance on fossil fuels and other pollutants was creating an ugly world, even though it was largely invisible to our senses. He believed the best hack for starting an environmental revolution was not technical or political, but artistic.

“We’re in trouble because we live in filth and we can’t see it,” said Sterling. “We’re like eighteenth century people who lived before germ theory. We’re ignorant of the squalor that surrounds us, and we have bad taste.”

Sterling determined to attack the problem head-on, and he single-handedly launched a new design movement to “Change what people see. Change how they see.” Sterling wanted to use art and design to help people visualize a future that was a brighter and more attractive shade of green — and start making it real.

He called the movement “Viridian” because that was the name for a shade of green that was slightly unnatural — cool, techy, and  environmentally friendly without being predictably so.

Sterling’s initiative was bold and quirky, and he was well-known in sci-fi and futurist circles, so he immediately attracted a following. He wrote a manifesto and a set of design principles, and he declared himself the Viridian Movement’s “Pope-Emperor.” Then he appointed a “Curia” of friends, advisors and fellow-travelers, to help spread the word. (I was lucky enough to be one of these.) The Viridian Movement, operating through Sterling’s email list, quickly spawned a number of design competitions, whose purpose was to call into being the kinds of design innovations Sterling felt to be lacking — things like spore-based ink to help people “embrace decay,” or a graphic symbol to highlight the fact that we were already in a state of “greenhouse disaster.”

Being on the slightly more practical side, I decided to organize an international Viridian Design Competition around one of Sterling’s best-loved ideas (conceived with colleague Stefan Jones): an electricity meter that was actually fun to look at, and that would tell you clearly when you were destroying the climate, and when you were saving it.

With a $10,000 grant from an enlightened philanthropist, I ran the contest though Donella Meadows’ Sustainability Institute (where I was the unpaid Director of Arts & Culture) and in partnership with a prominent international sustainability network known as the Balaton Group. That group’s global experts in climate science, modelling, renewables, and energy efficiency were the judges. And our winner, Inci Mutlu’s “Wattbug”, went on to receive media exposure in the New York Times and Wired magazine.

So did the Viridian Movement help create the future — that is, the present in which we are living now? Did it “introduce something new into the probability stream” as Elon Musk puts it? Or just accelerate what was bound to happen anyway?

Today, “smart meters” that provide immediate visual feedback on energy consumption are everyday items in the world’s electricity grids — though none are as cute as the Wattbug, and they would have arrived, eventually, anyway. Sustainable design is an increasingly normal part of life, though not in the radical ways described by Sterling at the end of the 20th century. New, more mainstream-friendly design movements for sustainability have emerged such as the one I helped launch with the Norwegian government’s Center for Design and Architecture, organized around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. (It’s called the Oslo Manifesto.)

In 2008, Sterling himself seemed to sense that the Viridian moment was over and abdicated from his self-appointed overlord position,  four years ahead of the movement’s scheduled “Expiration Date.” Having an expiration date was itself a Viridian idea; but the zeitgeist was also changing. Al Gore and the IPCC had won the Nobel Peace Prize, which reduced the need for specialized awareness-raising on climate change. The economic meltdown now called the “Financial Crisis” was hitting its peak, which reduced interest in flashy new design ideas for a time. Sterling had just published a thoughtful book on design, called “Shaping Things,” that he considered “very Viridian without coughing up that fact in a hairball.” (Sterling, who is from Texas, has both a large personality and a penchant for colorful metaphors.)

Meanwhile, both the ideas and many of the people from the Viridian list had been absorbed into a then-new thing, called a “blog”, that went by the name of Worldchanging and promoted the alternative phrase “bright green.” (I was part of that, too.)

So in his final “Viridian Note” — the epistles that Pope-Emperor Sterling had been regularly sending out to the masses for nearly a decade — he gracefully admitted that “the world has become a very different place,” and that the growing calls for change in finance and politics went a bit beyond the design focus of Viridian. But his parting words were still a broadside against traditional green thinking or the notion that we should just consume less, an approach that he disparagingly called “hairshirt-green” (after the very uncomfortable goat-hair garments that Christian penitents and ascetics used to wear).

“Hairshirt-green is the simple-minded inverse of 20th-century consumerism. Like the New Age mystic echo of Judaeo-Christianity, hairshirt-green simply changes the polarity of the dominant culture, without truly challenging it in any effective way. It doesn’t do or say anything conceptually novel — nor is it practical, or a working path to a better life.”

Sterling challenged his readers, in a more open-ended, less green-authoritarian way, to simply “re-think your relationship to material possessions in terms of things that occupy your time. The things that are physically closest to you. Time and space.” You spend a lot of time with your stuff, and it takes up space. So acquire quality. Ditch what you don’t need and don’t use. This was ultimately far more important, opined the author of the Viridian Manifesto, than whether the object in question was “green.”

From this future vantage point, I can see the “streams of probability” that Viridian touched, as it tried to create a certain quirky vision. It lifted the topic of green design out of the environmental muck and into flashy, digitized lights of Silicon Valley. It was a brilliant act of conceptual art, the impacts of which are impossible to measure. I know it affected a certain moment in my life, inspired certain of my actions, and that it did that for hundreds of other people, who then went on to affect (or infect) other people, with the idea of making “green” more attractive, cool, and relevant. It probably “accelerated the inevitable.”

But the boldness of Sterling’s vision — his willingness to just write a manifesto and launch a movement, armed with nothing but an email account and some name recognition — inspires me still today. I doubt, for example, that we would have thought up the Oslo Manifesto in 2016 if my Viridian memories hadn’t been lurking, quite unconsciously, in the background of my mind.

So hats off to Viridian! It may have expired — but like true design classics, it never actually went out of style.

Notes: Elon Musk’s vision of the future

Screenshot of Elon Musk’s 2017 TED interview. Click to view.

It is widely known that Elon Musk — founder of Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company (for revolutionizing tunnel technology), and most recently Neuralink (for developing computer-mind interfaces) — wants humans to live on Mars. Why?

Intellectually, he describes the reason this way: if we “stay on Earth forever, there will be some eventual extinction event.” [1] Apparently his biggest worry is “World War III”.[2] Musk and others believe that spreading humans out into the solar system is the only real insurance against these existential risks to humanity’s survival.

But that’s just the intellectual rationale. Musk’s most powerful motivations for heading to Mars appear to lie a bit deeper in his psyche.

In a revealing 2017 interview [3] on the TED channel, Elon Musk often seemed to be searching for the most efficient and effective words that would convey his thoughts clearly but in an entertaining fashion. As you watched him parse the interviewer’s less-than-clear questions, which were laced with hero worship (“Yeah,” Musk would say, in a disappointed tone that suggested he was thinking, “I guess you felt you had to ask that question that way, but you could have asked it much better”) one could easily imagine why he wants to create brain-computer interfaces. There was often a methodical jerkiness to this delivery, as though having to squeeze his big, fast thoughts through the slow, cumbersome instrument of an ordinary voice, in a body, on a stage, was just so damn slow.

Musk in public is one of the most future-focused people I have ever seen, though his passion for vision is deeply influenced by his sense of the past. He reminded the TED audience that past civilizations built up impressive technologies only to forget them later (the ancient Egyptians, the Romans). He summarized the history of the US space program in a few sentences:

“If you look at the progress in space, in 1969 you were able to send somebody to the moon. 1969! Then we had the space shuttle. The space shuttle could only take people to low Earth orbit. Then the space shuttle retired and the United States could take no one to orbit. So that’s the trend.” He made a gesture with his hand, slicing downward from left to right. “The trend is down to nothing.”

This trend greatly disturbs him. “People are mistaken when they think that technology automatically improves. It does not automatically improve. It only improves if a lot of people work very hard to make it better.” Without that continuous focus and effort, says Musk, technology often degrades.

Musk often appears in the media as a single genius, reshaping the future, but of course the greatest part of his accomplishment resides not just in “dreaming big,” as the TED interviewer kept insisting, but in building companies around those visions, hiring brilliant talent, and motivating them to “work very hard to make it better.”

But what motivates Musk, at least as he reports in this interview, is not a messianic urge to save humanity. It is his inability to live without the possibility of realizing his vision of the future.

“It’s important to have a future that’s inspiring and appealing,” he says. “There have to be reasons that you get up in the morning, and you want to live.” And what makes Musk want to live? He does not wake up in the morning torn, as E.B. White famously wrote, “between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” Improving the world is absolutely what matters most to Elon Musk. Because Elon Musk is in love with the future. 

“What do you love about the future?” he said to the audience at TED, though he was referring to himself, and to the question he wakes up with in the morning. “If we’re not out there — if the future does not include being out there among the stars, and being a multi-planet species — I find that incredibly depressing.”

Elon Musk is not trying to save the planet, or save humanity. “I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”

[1] Elon Musk, “Making Humans a Multi-Planet Species,” New Space, June 2017.

[2] Olivia Solon, “Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war,” The Guardian, 11 Mar 2018

[3] TED.com, “Elon Musk at TED: The Future We’re Building – and Boring“, April 2017

Notes: The city as a symbol of the future

King’s Dream of New York – Book Cover by Moses King, 1908

The city has been a visual symbol of the future for well over a century, and the “futureness” of it is always reflected in the same way: by increasing the density, verticality, and mobility. From “King’s Dream of New York” — the book cover from 1908 pictured here — to science fiction icons such as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, popular culture places us in a future vision by showing us a city that holds more people that we imagine possible, housed in gigantic buildings that dwarf any current city, flitting about in vehicles that do not yet exist (usually flying ones).

Although urban visions are changing to accommodate the needs of climate change, and green urbanism is a mainstream feature of both past and future city planning, people still think of the future as being “more of the same” in these classically urban terms: dense, vertical, mobile.*

And of course, we must add the word technological, for the city is the opposite of our agrarian, low-tech past. Agriculture and rural life is, in fact, a symbol of the past, just as the city is a symbol of the future — except when agriculture involves hydroponics powered by solar cells in a modern, urban building. This expanding practice is sometimes called “vertical farming“.

 

* With thanks to Jeremiah B.C. Axelrod who points out these qualities in Inventing Autopia: Dreams and Visions of the Modern Metropolis in Jazz Age, University of California Press, 2009