Thinking like a Futurist with Jane McGonigal

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I’ve been a fan of Jane McGonigal for a decade, after being introduced to her via her Cruel 2 B Kind game in New York City. I also played her Lost Sport game around the 2008 Olympics, and have play tested a couple other of her games over the years. I’ve been following her career, and she has been successful as a futurist at the Institute for the Future, and published two well-received books, Reality is Broken (on how gamers and gaming can make reality better) and Superbetter (on how to use a gaming mentality to improve oneself).

So when she announced that she was teaching a class at Stanford on How to Think like a Futurist, I signed up.

The class just finished last night, and I really enjoyed it. I liked that she emphasized that the work of a futurist is not to predict the future accurately, but to lay out scenarios of the future, and then we can decide whether we want to work towards or avoid that future scenario.

She taught us several techniques to help generate future scenarios – one I particularly liked was having everybody bring an ordinary object to class, and then she handed out potential futures (e.g. everybody out of work due to AI, or living on a Martian colony), and thinking how that specific object would be used in that future. Somebody on my team brought in a bird sculpture, and our scenario was the one where jobs had been automated with AI, so we suggested that the sculpture could be a talisman, a description of one’s personal values, as we would need some way to start conversations in that future other than “So, what do you do?”

Another technique was to collect signals from the future, c.f. William Gibson’s quote that “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” That involves scanning for things in the present that might be clues as to how the future might develop. Of course, that requires judgment to distinguish between interactive TV and CD-ROM encyclopedias from the World Wide Web and Wikipedia.

The final project was to write up a “preferred future”; in her words, “a description of a specific future you would like to see come to pass, including potential actions we can take now to make it more likely, and actions that would make it less likely.” So I thought I’d share what I wrote, as it’s a post I’ve thought about for the blog (e.g. following up on whether Amanda Palmer’s model of asking scales and thoughts on globalization and automation). Let me know what you think!

WHEN: 2036
WHAT: The future of art as a replacement for work
WHY: Flowing, Remixing, Sharing, Filtering, Cognifying
Signals:, Kevin Kelly’s 1000 true fans idea, automation/AI replacing the need for work, bitcoin, centaur chess, Alaska oil fund, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning

It is the year 2036, and unemployment in the US has risen to 75%. Jobs that depend on labor have been offshored to countries with cheaper labor, and most routine jobs have been automated with artificial intelligence. The only people remaining working are those that work in a synergistic way with AI, such that their combined output is better than the AI would be by itself – the 2016 equivalent would be the “centaur” chess teams that are the current world champions that involve computer chess programs being managed by humans with intuition.

This wave of massive unemployment led to huge cultural disruptions in the 2020s, as US culture has been driven by work since the beginning (e.g. the Protestant work ethic). Everything has been tied to work, from the primary definition of one’s identity being one’s occupation, to getting health insurance through work, to getting money for life’s basic necessities through work compensation.

Fortunately, the major companies who controlled AI technology disrupting the economy (Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple) banded together (after pressure from the US and EU governments) to “invest” their profits from AI into citizens in the form of an “AI dividend” (aka universal basic income). This, tied with the passage of universal health care in the US, made it so that US residents did not _have_ to work to live.

However, the culture of work did not disappear as fast as employment did. So what did all those newly unemployed people do with the time they suddenly had available? Not too surprisingly, they did more of what they were doing before with their free time.

  • Some played video games.
  • Some wrote music or formed bands. In 2016, there were on the order of 500,000 bands – by 2036, it was 20 million bands, as almost half of the unemployed in the US spent at least some of their time creating music in combination with others
  • Some created YouTube videos; in 2016, 300 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute – by 2036, that number was 30,000 hours per minute.
  • Others wrote – unleashed from having to spend their time writing emails in their office jobs, the number of blogs and fan fiction sites and novels exploded.

In short, everybody became an artist.

This led to two challenges:

  1. Finding good content in this deluge of original work became nearly impossible, far harder than finding the needle in the proverbial haystack.
  2. Once you found good content, how could you ensure that the creator continued to create that content?

For challenge 2), the answer was micro-patronage. Much like the Patreon site in 2016, people could support artists in whatever amount they wanted. They didn’t have much to spare from their “AI dividend”, but collecting $100/year from even 1000 fans would make a big difference to the creator in terms of their ability to live beyond the basic means enabled by the “AI dividend”.

And challenge 1) actually had the same answer. Some people became mavens (in the Gladwell Tipping Point sense), able to sift through the flood of content and find great art, and point others to the artist. Since nearly all behavior online was now being tracked, it made it easy to see how consumers found their way to artists, and the artist would donate a referral fee back to mavens who were pointing people towards their work. Mavens who developed a devoted following could also earn patronage directly from their followers, earning additional income on top of the referral fees.

It was not a smooth transition from work being the basis for one’s identity in the US to art being the centerpiece. The older generation in the 2020s (GenX and older) disdained the millenials and Gen-Z’s for not working for a living. It took the passage of the “AI Dividend” act and universal health care, and nearly ten years of collective soul-searching before art as a way of life became accepted. It also took the leadership of celebrities and experts who championed the democratizing the creation of art – the older generations tended to be more respectful of authority, and thus were encouraged by those same authorities to open their minds to the new possibilities.

While it seems hard to imagine now, the belief in 2016 was that if people didn’t have to work that they would lie around and be lazy. That belief missed the importance of meaning and purpose to the continued survival of humans (c.f. Viktor Frankl). Without deriving that meaning and purpose from work, people were forced to find new sources of meaning. While in centuries past, artists were special and different from the rest of people, this drive for meaning unleashed the artist in everybody, and we found that everybody had something to share. What they shared may not have been a message that appealed to the masses in the way that mass media celebrities did in the 1900s, but micro-patronage and bitcoin enabled people with any size audience to get some level of support, feedback and encouragement. This created a positive feedback loop where everybody supported everybody else as artist, creating new meaning and value as a result.

What can we do today to create this future?

  • Become micro-patrons for artists on platforms such as Patreon and Kickstarter
  • Tearing down the idea that artists and consumers are separate, and encourage everybody to find their own voice, whether in music, video, writing, games, VR, etc.
  • Start doing the culture work to separate life meaning from work
  • Push for universal health care
  • Push for universal basic income or its equivalent

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