Time’s Up: Silicon Valley’s Urgent Reckoning

Marina Gorbis
4 min readAug 8, 2018

We are living in a long overdue moment of technological reckoning — a time of critically re-examining how social media, artificial intelligence, task-based work platforms, and many other technologies we’ve created are re-shaping our lives, our livelihoods, and our democracy. In many cases, not for the better. Not surprisingly, this moment is wrought with anxiety and confusion. We seem to be suffering from what Alvin Toffler had aptly described as the “future shock,” a condition akin to a culture shock experienced by travelers to foreign countries. Some fifty years ago, Toffler sounded a warning about forthcoming “revolutionary transitions” causing widespread symptoms of disorientation, resentment, and loss of balance in our society.

The solution Toffler and others envisioned was to diffuse the skills for futures thinking widely in the population and in all of our institutions, in order to prepare for the transition and prevent paralysis. This is what the Institute for the Future has been dedicated to doing for the past 50 years — disrupting short-termism and spreading the literacy of long-term thinking in order to help us make better decisions today. But over the years of doing such work, we learned another important lesson: the best of futures thinking requires a deep understanding of history.

You can’t be a good futurist without being a good historian. You can’t imagine plausible long-term possibilities without understanding how we got to the present, and the larger patterns that have shaped the past and are likely to shape the future.

Thomas Pynchon, the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, coined the term “temporal bandwidth” describing it as an awareness of our experience as extending into the past and the future. “The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are,” one of Pynchon’s characters said.

Today too many among our technology elite are “tenuous,” living within a narrow bandwidth, disconnected from the past or the future. Too often their bold pronouncements about our ability to live on Mars, enjoy great luxury and abundance, and achieve immortality are conjured up in a vacuum, disconnected from social realities and ethical dilemmas that generations throughout history have had to grapple with and work through. Emboldened by calls for “presentism” — forget about the past and future (the latter you can’t predict anyway), build a bold new world, destroy outdated and inefficient institutions of the past — their rhetoric eerily mirrors the proto-fascist pronouncements of Italian futurists of the 1920s and 1930s: to build the great future you have to destroy the past and create something completely new. Such pronouncements totally ignore the human side of destruction, disruption, innovation, whatever the current fad term one chooses to use. The reality is that we never get to destroy the past, we superstruct, do what The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “build over or on a structure: erect on a foundation.” Of course, there are revolutions and collisions that destroy the past and force us to pick up the pieces and start from scratch, but the human costs of such events are extremely high. From the humanistic and humane perspective, this is not the desired path. That is, of course, if you believe that we want to live in a human-centric economy and society.

To lessen our society’s Future Shock, we urgently need to foster a generation of enlightened technologists, people with wide temporal bandwidths, deep understanding of not only programming and artificial intelligence but also of humanities — history, philosophy, anthropology, and futures thinking. And a few ethics courses are not going to cut it. Today, our technologists are not only building tools, they are building social systems. Algorithms powering Uber, Lyft, or TaskRabbit shape how work is distributed, who gets what tasks, how much one gets paid. Social media platforms determine the shape of political discourse. Data aggregators and analytics platforms determine our purchasing options and prices we pay. These are not simple technological choices; they are the new foundation on which our society, our economic and governance systems rest. And building out such foundational infrastructure has to be done in a pro-social and human-centric way, it cannot be left to narrowly trained technologists and engineers.

We urgently need a generation of technology leaders with wide temporal bandwidths, those who can connect the visions and aspirations of their predecessors with the realities of today and best human-centered hopes for the future. People who can rightfully follow in the footsteps of Vannevar Bush, a public servant and a great visionary largely responsible for the creation of the National Science Foundation; Doug Engelbart, an inventor who dreamed of creating technologies for the purpose of augmentation of human cognition (not getting rid of humans through automation); Mark Weiser, father of ubiquitous computing and a proponent (along with John Seely Brown) of Calm Technologies — technologies that instead of “panicking us, would help us focus on things that were really important to us;” Howard Rheingold, who combines deep understanding of technologies and social dynamics of groups to create better real online communities. So much promise in their visions, so much potential still unfulfilled.

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Marina Gorbis

Executive Director, Institute for the Future; author, Nature of the Future. www.iftf.org