The future, it seems, is broken. We are caught between the operating systems of two quite different civilizations. Our old twentieth-century system doesn’t work anymore, but its replacement, a supposedly upgraded twenty-first-century version, isn’t functioning properly either. The signs of this predicament are all around us: the withering of the industrial economy, a deepening inequality between rich and poor, persistent unemployment, a fin-de-siècle cultural malaise, the unraveling of post–Cold War international alliances, the decline of mainstream media, the dwindling of trust in traditional institutions, the redundancy of traditional political ideologies, an epistemological crisis about what constitutes “truth,” and a raging populist revolt against the establishment. And while we are all too familiar with what is broken, we don’t seem to know how we can get anything to work anymore.
What is causing this great fragmentation? Some say too much globalization, others say not enough. Some blame Wall Street and what they call the “neoliberalism” of free market monetary capitalism, with its rapacious appetite for financial profit. Then there are those who see the problem in our new, unstable international system—for instance, the cult-of-personality authoritarianism in Russia, which they say is destabilizing Europe and America with a constant bar- rage of fake news. There’s the xenophobic reality television populism of Donald Trump and the success of the Brexit plebiscite in the United Kingdom—although sometimes it’s hard to tell if these are causes or effects of our predicament. What is clear, however, is that our twentieth-century elites have lost touch with twenty-first-century popular sentiment. This crisis of our elites explains not only the scarcity of trust bedeviling most advanced democracies but also the populist resentment on both left and right, against the traditional ruling class. Yet it also feels as if we are all losing touch with something more essential than just the twentieth-century establishment. Losing touch with ourselves, perhaps. And with what it means to be human in an age of bewilderingly fast change.
As Steve Jobs used to say, teasing his audience before unveiling one of Apple’s magical new products, there’s “one more thing” to talk about here. And it’s the biggest thing of all in our contemporary world. It is the digital revolution, the global hyperconnectivity powered by the internet, that lies behind much of the disruption.
In 2016, I participated in a two-day World Economic Forum (WEF) workshop in New York City about the “digital transformation” of the world. The event’s focus was on what it called the “combinatorial effects” of all these new internet-based technologies—including mobile, cloud, how to fix the future artificial intelligence, sensors, and big data analytics. “Just as the steam engine and electrification revolutionized entire sectors of the economy from the eighteenth century onward,” the seminar concluded, “modern technologies are beginning to dramatically alter today’s industries.” The economic stakes in this great transformation are dizzying. Up to $100 trillion can be realized in the global economy by 2025 if we get the digital revolution right, the WEF workshop promised.
And it’s not only industry that is being dramatically changed by these digital technologies. Just as the industrial revolution transformed society, culture, politics, and individual consciousness, so the digital revolution is changing much about twenty-first-century life. What’s at stake here is worth considerably more than just $100 trillion. Today’s structural unemployment, inequality, anomie, mistrust, and the populist rage of our anxious times are all, in one way or another, a con- sequence of this increasingly frenetic upheaval. Networked technology—enabled in part by Jobs’s greatest invention, the iPhone—in combination with other digital technologies and devices, is radically disrupting our political, economic, and social lives. Entire industries—education, transportation, media, finance, health care, and hospitality—are being turned upside down by this digital revolution. Much of what we took for granted about industrial civilization—the nature of work, our individual rights, the legitimacy of our elites, even what it means to be human—is being questioned in this new age of disruption. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley is becoming the West Coast version of Wall Street, with its multibillionaire entrepreneurs taking the role of the new masters of the universe. In 2016, for example, tech firms gave out more stock-based compensation than Wall Street paid out in bonuses. So, yes, our new century is turning out to be the networked century. But, to date, at least, it’s a time of ever-deepening economic inequality, job insecurity, cultural confusion, political chaos, and existential fear.
We’ve been here before, of course. As the “digital transformation” WEF workshop reminds us, a couple of hundred years ago the similarly disruptive technology of the industrial revolution turned the world upside down, radically reinventing societies, cultures, economies, and political systems. The nineteenth-century response to this great transformation was either a yes, a no, or a maybe to all this bewildering change.
Reactionaries, mostly Luddites and romantic conservatives, wanted to destroy this new technological world and return to what appeared to them, at least, to be a more halcyon era. Idealists—including, ironically enough, both uncompromisingly free market capitalists and revolutionary communists—believed that the industrial technology would, if left to unfold according to its own logic, eventually create a utopian economy of infinite abundancy. And then there were the reformers and the realists—a broad combination of society, including responsible politicians on both the left and the right, businesspeople, workers, philanthropists, civil servants, trade unionists, and ordinary citizens—who focused on using human agency to fix the many problems created by this new technology.
Today we can see similar responses of yes, no, or maybe to the question of whether the dramatic change swirling all around us is to our benefit. Romantics and xenophobes reject this globalizing technology as somehow offending the laws of nature, even of “humanity” itself (an overused and under-defined word in our digital age). Both Silicon Valley techno-utopians and some critics of neoliberalism insist that the digital revolution will, once and for all, solve all of society’s perennial problems and create a cornucopian post-capitalist future. For them, much of this change is inevitable—“The Inevitable” according to one particularly evangelical determinist. And then there are the maybes, like myself—realists and reformers rather than utopians or dystopians—who recognize that today’s great challenge is to try to fix the problems of our great transformation without either demonizing or lionizing technology.
This is a maybe book, based on the belief that the digital revolution can, like the industrial revolution, be mostly successfully tamed, managed, and reformed. It hopes that the best features of this transformation—increased innovation, transparency, creativity, even a dose of healthy disruption— might make the world a better place. And it outlines a series of legislative, economic, regulatory, educational, and ethical reforms that can, if implemented correctly, help fix our common future. Just as the digital revolution is being driven by what that WEF workshop called the “combinatorial effects” of several networked technologies, solving its many problems requires an equally combinatorial response. As I’ve already argued, there is no magic bullet that can or will ever create the perfect society—digital or otherwise. So, relying on a single overriding solution—a perfectly free market, for example, or ubiquitous government regulation—simply won’t work. What’s needed, instead, is a strategy combining regulation, civic responsibility, worker and consumer choice, competitive innovation, and educational solutions. It was this multifaceted approach that eventually fixed many of the most salient problems of the industrial revolution. And today we need an equally combinatorial strategy if we are to confront the many social, economic, political, and existential challenges triggered by the digital revolution.
Maybe we can save ourselves. Maybe we can better ourselves. But only maybe. My purpose in this book is to draw a map that will help us find our way around the unfamiliar terrain of our networked society. I traveled several hundred thousand miles to research that map—flying from my home in Northern California to such faraway places as Estonia, India, Singapore, and Russia, as well as to several Western European countries and many American cities outside California. And I interviewed close to a hundred people in the many places I visited—including presidents, government ministers, CEOs of tech start-ups, heads of major media companies, top antitrust and labor lawyers, European Union commissioners, leading venture capitalists, and some of the most prescient futurists in the world today. The wisdom in this book is theirs. My role is simply to join the dots in the drawing of a map that they have created with their actions and ideas.
One of the most prescient people at the 2016 WEF workshop was Mark Curtis, a serial start-up entrepreneur, writer, and design guru who is also cofounder of Fjord, a London-based creative agency owned by the global consultancy firm Accenture. “We need an optimistic map of the future which puts humans in its center,” Curtis said to me when I later visited him at the Fjord office near Oxford Circus in London’s West End. It’s a map, he explained, that should provide guidance for all of us about the future— establishing in our minds the outlines of an unfamiliar place so that we can navigate our way around this new terrain. This book, I hope, is that map.
From old carpet factories in Berlin to gentlemen’s colonial clubs in Bangalore to lawyers’ offices in Boston to the European Commission headquarters in Brussels and beyond, How to Fix the Future offers a new geography of how regulators, innovators, educators, consumers, and citizens are fixing the future. But there’s no Uber or Lyft–style service that can whisk us, with the click of a mouse or the swipe of a finger, into the future. No, not even the smartest technology can solve technological problems. Only people can. And that’s what this book is about. It is the story of how some people in some places are solving the thorniest problems of the digital age. And how their example can inspire the rest of us to do so too.