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Using Science Fiction to Invent the Future
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When I worked at TCV, our office used to be in downtown Palo Alto at the corner of Emerson and University. Every day, we would go to lunch at the Palo Alto Creamery, or the Sweetgreen on Ramona (or Nobu if Howie got his way). Regardless of which option we chose, we always ended up walking past the corner of Emerson and Hamilton.
Across the street from the Creamery, I would walk past the windows of The Institute For The Future. I would see displays showing off trinkets of the past: Walkman, Gameboys, and other 80s and 90s paraphernalia. I had no idea what the organization did, but I was always fascinated seeing gear like this:
One day, I got curious enough that I went inside to learn more about what they did. I don't know what I expected (time machine manufacturing, maybe?) But turned out the business was pretty normal. Advisory services, partnerships, and a pretty cool 10-year forecast that they've been doing for 50 years! I still have the flyer they gave me when I walked in.
Turns out, the IFTF was a spin-off from the RAND Corporation setup in 1968 to help organizations with "future studies." In the original mission statement of the organization, they laid out three key focuses:
To explore systematically the possible futures for our nation and for the international community.
To ascertain which among these possible futures seems desirable, and why.
To seek means by which the probability of their occurrence can be enhanced through appropriate purposeful action.
That was one of my first exposure to the idea of futurology, futurism, and futurists. From there, it became one of my portfolio ideas. I've found myself collecting writing, experts, and resources to understand how people have predicted the future, what they got right, what they got wrong, and why.
The longer I've been an investor, the more I've found myself dancing with this idea of predicting the future. Is that what we're supposed to be doing as investors? As founders? The simplest idea comes from Alan Kay:
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
That might be the approach. Just build it, and the future will come. But I think there is an intellectual opportunity to better understand how the future comes to be. Sometimes the future is much more simple than we expect it to be, but sometimes the future requires a lot more work to make it better than it would be otherwise.
"Our job is not to see the future, it’s to see the present very clearly."
In a Quora AMA, Matt Cohler elaborated on what he meant by that:
"First of all I should clarify that when I talked about noticing the present first, I meant it in the context of surfacing and pursuing new investment opportunities. Once a venture investor is actually working with a company it's critically important for that person to be able to see around corners — not to predict the future many years out, but to have the experience, pattern-recognition and judgment to know what's coming next and to help an entrepreneur and company make good decisions by making use of that knowledge."
So first? We see the present clearly. Then? We see around corners. But as important as it is to turn the next corner, that's something ants can do too. If you want to make meaningful changes to how the future plays out, you need to be able to zoom out.
So today I want to unpack the art and science of futurism, the literature of dreaming, and try and make sense of how best to apply those principles to investing, company building, and generally trying to make the world a better place.
What Is Historical Futurism?
If you've read my writing long enough, you know that I love storytelling. It's probably the topic I've written about the most. Stories can be fact, or fiction. But sometimes, great stories can start as fiction and build into fact. Imagine if, instead of a 24 hour news cycle, you had a 50 year news cycle (a publication that only came out every 50 years). You wouldn't take up the pages catching up on 50 years of gossip or tragedy. As you laid out the most important details, you would see that the curve of history bends towards progress.
There's a lot you can learn about the future from looking backward. The future is a relative term. Understanding how the people in the "present day" of the past saw their future, and how it became our "today." One element of using the past to predict the future is making sure that you have a correct understanding of how yesterday's future unfolded to help you understand how things often go.
Writers like Paleofuture and Investor Amnesia are doing God's work using history to unpack lessons from risk-reward environments in 1761 France, and glass banks in 1931. A lot of people thought COVID would forever alter all the things it impacted.
But when you look at the lessons from previous epidemics you see how much things can simply revert back to normal.
If a lot of history is about appreciating the force of gravity that forces things to stay the same, there is plenty of optimism that people feel about the future and how things may not stay the same. You look at predictions from the late 1800s and they saw an exciting future. We have artists renditions predicting the year 2000 from the year 1900.
Another example, Arthur C. Clarke's timeline of predictions for the 21st century that he wrote in the 1960s. He optimistically laid out a rapid evolution from the lunar landing to colonizing planets by the year 2000. He thought fusion power would come in the 80s or 90s.
Two immediate reactions to some of those ideas. The first is it can be easy to extrapolate progress. Americans were watching Sputnik rush through space in 1957, so the race was on. The Wright Brothers had flown just 54 years before and already we were getting ready to put people into space. So was it that unreasonable to believe we'd be able to get to other planets in ~40 more years? Maybe not. Limitations, like the energy required for space travel when you have to take fuel with you, wouldn't have been as easy to factor in.
Disasters would represent another complexity. The 1950s and 1960s showed "remarkably high approval of nuclear energy." It wasn't until disasters like Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) that everything changed. When dreamers dream of the best case, its often difficult to factor in the potential worst case, and how that changes the trajectory of things forever.
In fact, there was a lot of changing forces to the powers of optimism that happened in the 80s and 90s. You always see some optimistic predictions, like this one from Popular Mechanics in 1988:
“You’ve just had a big weekend in Las Vegas… you contemplate the drive back to Los Angeles. Then you remember: This is the year 2050, and you don’t have to drive back LA. Instead, you can take Amtrak’s 300-mph bullet train… you’ll be home in an hour.”
But looking back on that vision, you might feel more bummed than excited because you're more likely to see 20 years of committee squabbling just to build one more parking garage or shade structure, rather than achieve high-speed rail. You have predictions like The Long Boom in Wired, July 1997. That piece predicted a new Cold War between China and the US, Russia devolving into a kleptocracy, a new pandemic, crime and terrorism leading to de-globalization, and on and on. Shockingly spot on.
Looking at the curve of predictions in the past, there is a distinct shift in the narrative. There is a solid argument to make that Reagan ruined everything, but I won't make that here. But the shift does seem to happen around the 80s and 90s. The eventual destination in that shift in narrative is an overwhelming focus in defining the future as dystopian. Here’s just a smattering:
Blade Runner (bio-engineered humanoid clap back, 1982)
The Terminator (killer AI, 1984)
Gattaca (eugenics-driven society, 1997)
The Matrix (murder assimilation robots, 1999)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (robot child love and human extinction, 2001)
Minority Report (criminal justice system built on determinism, 2002)
The Day After Tomorrow (climate change disaster, 2004)
I, Robot (robot rebellions, 2004)
Idiocracy (education downfall, 2006)
Children of Men (population collapse, 2006)
WALL-E (earth abandonment and fat space bodies, 2008)
The Road (post-apocalyptic wasteland, 2009)
Ready Player One (sad VR bummer-fest, 2018)
There were certainly pessimistic takes before the 80s (Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in 1949!) There have also been some optimistic science fiction portrayals of the future like Her, or Arrival... but the list is actually quite thin. I think we've developed a shortage of dreams in the wake of our collective fictional nightmares.
A Failure To Dream
There really is this very limited amount of storytelling that portrays an optimistic view of the future. And while that is likely downstream of a lot of the things going on in the world that leave limited room for optimism, it also has a downstream impact. Fewer optimistic stories about the future lead to fewer people wanting to invent the future. The negative view of the future also leads to poor perception of technology in the media, and an overt pessimism in people's lives.
David Perell has commented a number of times on this failing in inspiration:
"The vast majority of science fiction is dystopian and negative. People underestimate how much this hurts economic growth and technological expansion. To innovate, we need to be inspired to do so. Innovation is more likely when people are given inspiring visions of potential futures. We don’t need utopias, but we do need hope and enthusiasm. That’s where Science Fiction helps — it injects people with imagination."
The impact on everyone is meaningful, but young people in particular. We might hope that movies like Oppenheimer would inspire kids to be physicists, but that one might have missed the mark. AI could be a moment to catalyze that excitement about building the future, but it doesn't just happen.
David Perell talks about that as well:
"The only certainty is uncertainty. 65% of students entering primary school today will end up working jobs that don’t exist yet. To enable students to realize the American dream, school should prepare students for the world of the future in ways our incumbent school system isn’t made for. Today’s school system was built for the industrial revolution, not the digital revolution."
We've got an educational system trapped in the past most well-suited to produce factory workers, a political system that is more intent on ripping people apart than building anything, and a sliver of excitement in AI that has shadows of doomerism on either side. We need a new paradigm of inspiration: open source imagination.
I love this idea of open source knowledge, and I've written about it before. People are inspired by different ideas, so we need to be more deliberate about which ideas we build into our ecosystem. What imagination repos are we most dependent on? And this might sound like an obvious idea, but I actually think its relatively new in the course of human history.
Ancient Rome had history museums, but I don't think they had SciFi as a genre. Dreaming up the future is a skill, a discipline even. The observable is so much more concrete than the imagined, even though 10,000 years ago is almost as imagined as 10,000 years in the future. The same level of scholarly rigor and commitment of resources could fruitfully be contributed to understanding the future as it is to understanding the past. Building the discipline of futurism.
So lets build the infrastructure of the discipline. First up? The foundation.
In an interview between Reid Hoffman and Sam Altman, Altman answers the question about what he sees as the best utopian universes we have so far. He lists a few:
Star Trek: "I love the universes where we turn our focus to exploration and understanding the universe."
He also makes a similar point that I've made where there are very few science fiction universes where you’re able to say "it's all great, I'll take it all!" But there are corners of science fiction that are optimistic and great, and even in some of the universes in movies I listed above, there are aspects of the future that are exceptional! WALL-E might be a condemnation of our abuse of the planet, but we managed to create perpetual civilizations in space that could last 700 years!
By identifying the futuristic universes we most want to idolize, or even the aspects of more dystopian worlds that we can learn from, we start to form the basis of a future we want to create. More people would do well to read “A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls, and then write science fiction not knowing who they'll be in the world they've created.
People are already starting to push back on the common narrative of dystopia and seek to revitalize the potential for inspirational views of technological progress. We need more of this energy:
The Martian might be one of the few movies recently that, while it has drama, takes an optimistic view on science, technology, and the indomitable human spirit generally! And, in the spirit of open source, the book that movie is based on was actually written in part by an online community helping the author, Andy Weir, to work out some of the technical details in the most accurate way possible.
So find the foundational futures that you’re most excited to see! As we seek to build on the foundations that Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov, Iain M. Banks, and Andy Weir have laid, we can immerse ourselves in an even broader library of futurism literature. And remember the point I made earlier; even from the more dystopian nightmares, we can take inspiration from the good, and learn from the cautionary tales of the bad.
The Literature Of Dreaming
While there may be a shortage of optimistic dreaming in the general popular culture, the great thing about the internet is you can find niche perspective in all sorts of places. I love looking for collections of interesting works and perspectives on the future. Here are just a few that I've stumbled on:
Daniel Ek's Reading List
Ben Reinhardt's Thread on "Where's My Flying Car"
EigenGender's Reading List
There is just such a wealth out there of side-pocket ideas concocted by people desperate to dream of a different future. They're not dulling their imaginations with Murder docudramas, endless political culture wars, and celebrity gossip. There are people out there that have more fun trying to make up realistic renditions of how the world can actually get better.
I can't capture everything, but I try and track interesting notes on things to read, watch, listen to, etc. as I seek to build the literature of dreaming. Again, some of these are dystopian versions. But I really do believe we can learn as much from what could be as we can from what we hope will never be. If you're interested in more, I keep track of it on my personal website here.
So we've got some foundational futures to look up to, and a wealth of literature that can inspire dreams of what the world can be. What are we missing? The dreamers.
The Dreamers of Dreams
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the Disney Imagineers. I've always been a sucker for Disneyland and the imagined world that it represents. There is something magical about people who leverage the physical world to recreate the sense of wonder you can get from watching a movie. These people are builders.
Sometimes, when I find myself drawn to enthusiastically cheer for the dreamers and imagineers and builders, I have this voice in the back of my head. The voice sounds like me, cause I don't know what Kurt Vonnegut sounds like out loud. But this is what the voice says:
“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
That quote from Kurt Vonnegut that sounds like my voice has a point. Sometimes the path of progress leaves behind a lot of people simply trying to get by. We need to be cautious of sacrificing the every day person in pursuit of progress. Means and ends, you know?
Packy McCormick frames the perspective of Vonnegut when it comes to futurism in his piece "The AppetiZIRP" when he said:
"Is automation going to lead to a depressing, meaningless future of work or a beautiful world of aristocratic abundance for all? It depends if you believe Kurt Vonnegut or Isaac Asimov."
You should read his comparison! But in general, I think to every thing there is a season. And as much as we need maintenance and measured care, we cannot afford stasis. I think back to that piece from Popular Mechanics about the high-speed rail getting you from Vegas to LA in an hour. The same can be said of so many elements of progress.
"The doctors told me my mother had inoperable cancer, and she'd be unable to live. But then we realized that the year was 2055 and all cancer could now be eradicated by targeted sub-carbon lasers."
"The nation was running out of food, and would soon starve. But then they remembered that the year was 2081 and all food could be synthetically grown in perpetual flying machines hovering above each nation, with food delivered by zero-emissions hover platforms to anyone who needed food."
That is the kind of dreaming framework we want more people to be capable of. But to create that world, it is a matter of taking the foundational futures and the literature of dreaming, and allowing that to inspire a generation of dreamers.
Visual Storytelling: The Artists Rendition
As we inspire more dreamers, we want to build the feedback loop. Optimistic science fiction inspires builders. The builders build. They imagine a future. Then, the artists come full circle and they take those dreams, and communicate them to everybody else.
Few images have inspired me more than drawings of the original EPCOT design. That was a dreamer (Walt Disney) inspired by technology (World's Fair) who set out to build, and an artist (Walt Peregoy) captured that dream in a way that would go on to inspire a generation of young people just at the possibility of such a place.
Years ago, I saw a display where something like the World Economic Forum or some such organization had a big futurism conference where scientists, architects, technologists, and more came and discussed the future. Meanwhile, they had artists attending sessions and drawing images of the future they heard described.
I've never been able to find those drawings, but the one that stuck so firmly in my mind was an all-terrain robot that could drive into the most remote villages on earth, stacked with medical supplies, and a dedicated satellite that enabled a medical professional to video-in on a monitor attached to the robot to deliver remote care.
Those kinds of artistic displays are a powerful part of feeding the imagination flywheel. Some of those efforts are out there. SciFi author, Ken Liu, hosted The Story Summit. Cameron Wiese is trying to build a new World’s Fair to inspire people. Some exhibits, like Science Fiction: Voyage to the Edge of Imagination, have attempted to bring these types of efforts together.
Though they've been met with some controversy based on their choice of sponsors, leading some digital artists, like Q1R0Z, to release their futuristic renditions online for free.
The Feedback Loop of Futurism
We need a new recipe for inspiring dreamers, whether they dream in fact or fiction. And no matter how hard you try, I don't think its going to come from improved math textbooks. That inspiration can only come from wonder.
But dreaming is the preface to action. The cycle I've described up until now is a sort of practice; practicing the art of imagination:
"Science-fiction writers don’t know anything more about the future than anyone else. Human history is too unpredictable; from this moment, we could descend into a mass-extinction event or rise into an age of general prosperity. Still, if you read science fiction, you may be a little less surprised by whatever does happen. Often, science fiction traces the ramifications of a single postulated change; readers co-create, judging the writers’ plausibility and ingenuity, interrogating their theories of history. Doing this repeatedly is a kind of training. It can help you feel more oriented in the history we’re making now. This radical spread of possibilities, good to bad, which creates such a profound disorientation; this tentative awareness of the emerging next stage—these are also new feelings in our time." (The New Yorker)
But what happens when you actually start to play the game? In my mind, the act of participating in the discipline of futurism starts in forecasting, making predictions, and eventually seeking to bring those predictions to fruition.
To Err Is Human, But To Dream Is Divine
I remember years ago I got to attend a talk by Ray Kurzweil, a computer scientist, author, inventor, and futurist who works for Google. It was, quite possibly, the most powerful talk I have ever attended. Not because of anything he said, but because of the willingness with which he bandied about the potential realities the future could bring. He was so fluent in what had gone before, and what could come from now on.
Packy McCormick has another great piece called "The Enchanted Notebook," that will give you a taste of Kurzweil's futurist magic. He speaks powerfully about the skills we can use in the discipline of futurism to try and imagine the future:
"I think the key issue that I would tell younger people is to put yourself in the position that what you’re trying to create already exists. And then you actually imagine you’re giving a speech about how you created this. Well you’d have to then work backwards about how you created it to make it work.”
That act of making predictions forces you to conceptualize something, and open it up for argument. How do you make that thing a reality? There is some really interesting writing about how to predict the future. But there are also a lot of criticism for people who put themselves out there to make predictions (such as the massive meme account doing the opposite of whatever Jim Cramer tells you to do.)
To some extent, that criticism is a function of how much you double down or aggressively preach your predictions, especially if you're making money off of people believing you (ARK Invest has plenty of experience with that type of criticism.)
But I'm not talking about the cult personalities that use prediction as their marketing schtick. The art of attempting to formulate the future will often come from a place of academic curiosity that you're then willing to roll out into the real world and see what happens when you get punched in the face.
Sometimes you'll be wrong because the timing isn't right, or you focused on things that were laced with recency bias. But the reality is if you're attempting to make predictions in the right spirit, failed predictions don't matter as much. In a post by Nick Maggiulli, he shares two great quotes:
"The world isn’t watching you as closely as you think. Take more chances. Your failures will mostly go unnoticed. And those who do notice rarely care." (Four Pillar Freedom)
"I missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot, and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why…I succeed." (Michael Jordan)
The act of making predictions is an attempt at expanding your imagination, and then communicating the expanses of your grasp on reality. What can be true that isn't true yet, but I believe can be true based on X, Y, and Z?
The Eery Reality of Fiction
I've said it several times before in this piece, but I'll say it again. Science fiction can be a force for good, or for evil. For inspiration, or annihilation. My proposal for the practice of historical futurism is to form a discipline of how the future of the past has evolved, and how we can use that to inform the crafting of the future of today.
But much of science fiction has also been used as a cautionary tale. In a recent deep dive I did for Contrary Research called "The Openness of AI," we touched on the idea of "infohazards" and "malinformation." Here's an excerpt from the deep dive:
"In the broader context of disinformation, a new term has emerged. Malinformation, a combination of “malware” and “disinformation.” One definition of the term: ‘malinformation is classified as both intentional and harmful to others’—while being truthful.' In a piece in Discourse Magazine, it discusses the public debate on COVID, vaccines, and the way government, media, and large tech companies like Twitter attempted to control the spread of misinformation:
'Describing true information as ‘malicious’ already falls into a gray area of regulating public speech. This assumes that the public is gullible and susceptible to harm from words, which necessitates authoritative oversight and filtering of intentionally harmful facts... It does not include intent or harm in the definition of malinformation at all. Rather, ‘malicious’ is truthful information that is simply undesired and “misleading” from the point of view of those who lead the public somewhere. In other words, malinformation is the wrong truth.'
The idea of “undesired” truth starts to feel eerily similar to the idea of Newspeak and thoughtcrimes explored in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four."
Nineteen Eighty-Four was a cautionary tale of what happens when a society becomes too defined by a desired control over what ideas are "the right truth." There is room for fiction to tell the tales of what we want to happen, and what we want to avoid. Be cautious of both. We don't want more doomer-porn; but we should be open to cautionary tales.
Dreamers of the future must also be aware of the great responsibility they bear. The better you are at telling a story, the more likely people are to believe you. If you use that to craft false narratives, you're literally spinning nightmares into reality.
Dan Egan shared a post with excerpts from the book "Fall, Or Dodge In Hell", explaining that seeing things like this in fiction that so closely model reality are why he reads science fiction. One of the excerpts from the book has this line:
"The mass of people are so stupid, so gullible, because they want to be misled. There's no way to to make them not want it. You have to work with the human race as it exists, with all its flaws. Getting them to see reason is a fool's errand."
We have a responsibility to dream bigger dreams and then seek to bring those dreams into reality. We should think highly of those around us, and encourage everyone in their ability to dream a more optimistic dream.
We shouldn't be afraid of failure. And we shouldn't relentlessly seek progress at all costs. The goal is simply to raise the collective imagination of all those who may go on to find ways to make lives better for more people. We want to create a reality, where people can say "then I remembered that its the year 2023, and life is better than it otherwise would have been."
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