Is the future now? Is it tomorrow, as it should be? Or is the future just an accelerated version of the past and present? Uhhh, have you heard the rapper Future’s new What a Time to Be Alive mixtape with Drake? And does any of this future-speak sound like absolute gibberish? Regardless, it seems that many of us bibliophiles and non-bibliophiles alike have become thoroughly obsessed with what’s to come.
Admit it. You spend a considerable amount of your time wondering where you will be in five to seven years. Or what your next book’s theme might be. But what about right now? Do you have a firm grip on today? Have you fully figured out how to get some good writing in today, and get through the week, much less prognosticating on how you’ll be 11 years from now? Has the idea of today become passe? And if we attempt to reconcile our past, is that yesterday’s news?
There’s too many questions, and too little blog column space, but what I will say is that I too have my Marty McFly moments of looking ahead and ignoring today and yesterday. In fact, I’ve even received remuneration from a few for profit and non-profit companies over the last few years who seem keen on wanting to try to figure out what’s next. They pick my brain, I invoice them. Whether pop culture pundits call this activity trendspotting, cool hunting, or just simply a brave act of futurism, so long as the cheque clears, it’s like whatevs.
Anyways, I’m usually juggling (reading) two to three books per month, and Toronto-based author Hal Niedzviecki’s clinical tackling of our obsession around what’s Next in his new book Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future is quite profound. As an aside, my future seeking self is reading this tome in soft cover format, and not on a tablet, mobile device or e-reader (am I a traitor to the digerati, and are the gods of holy electronica frowning down upon me?). Niedzviecki’s compelling and provocative read might leave you feeling that your self-proclaimed forward-thinker and innovative guy / gal schtick has become a bit cheesy and is more rooted in ego than anything.
In plain terms, Niedzviecki tallies up the nauseating multitude of times some kinds of wording (e.g. “innovate”) and the accompanying ideas around innovation have become an omnipresent part of our societal ideologies. These words show up in speeches by a wack of CEO’s all the way to American presidents. I’m not exactly sure how the word innovate became such a highly overused buzzword. But what I can say is that after reading the book, its overuse has seemingly rendered it meaningless and toothless. The idea of peering into the future and innovating things has almost become a cottage industry unto itself. Niedzviecki craftily points out how all of these pop culture artifacts (e.g. “the future of” magazine themes, museums flaunting exhibits about how “the future is here”) might start to feel trendy and inauthentic with their laser-like focus on what they presume the future to be.
This is not an idea that I’d previously given much thought to—the rampant commercialization of the future—but if you were to mine the web for references to the future and innovation, you might be astounded (there’s some good raw research data on this in the book). I did my own quick google search on the future and was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of prominent scholars, authors, philosophers and human rights advocates who had coined some slick one-liner about the future. Everyone from the late political leader and activist Mahatma Gandhi (“the future depends on what you do today”) to best-selling Brit novelist Zadie Smith (“the past is always tense, the future perfect”). But never mind all of that. Nike will be releasing these self-lacing Back to the Future themed sneakers in 2016.
So what gives? How did the future and this idea of futurism become such an incredibly haute topic? Who’s got next? You do apparently. According to some research in the book, it’s estimated that on average, we are thinking about what we are going to do next, an average of 59 times a day. Maybe we should blame it on the millennials. Everything else seems to be blamed on this cohort nowadays, so why not pile it on. Think about it. The rise of tech driven business incubators, mobile work forces, gadget imbued workspaces falls directly in line with how Niedzviecki describes today’s futurist as “highly successful people who start their own businesses, solve their own problems, create and reject authority as they see fit, and never take their eyes off the big picture—the what-is-going-to-happen-next.”
Despite popular perceptions and North American mass media propagandizing, not everyone living on this planet is obsessing over the new Apple iPhone 6S. In fact, one of the more interesting sections in the latter half of the book dives into that part of the digital divide debate that seems to either get fully ignored or is only addressed with some disingenuous altruistic give back schemes (“let’s give computers to the needy, their poor souls need technology!”).
The author takes a trek to the other Ontario, in California, where the response to high tech gadgetry from the low paid mostly Latin American immigrants toiling away in questionable work conditions in warehouses that supply our tech needs is mostly meh. Through a range of conversation-styled interviews with the general laborers, you get an interesting birds eye view on how the other unwired half of the planet might view or think about new Apple devices. And that’s not very much. Which makes perfect sense when putting food on the table trumps any desire to add new selfies to one’s Instagram account.
And I would be remiss to not mention that there is always this gut feeling in some work sectors that human beings might be feeling that perhaps one day they will be replaced by machines or robots. I can’t tell you how many times annually I go to my local financial institution and correspond with a bank teller face-to-face nowadays. It’s very rare and far less than say five years ago. ATM’s allow you to do pretty much everything, as does e-banking, so the idea of being social with my friendly neighbourhood banker is not so much a part of my life anymore. For good or evil.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Dalton Higgins is an author, publicist and live music presenter whose six books and 500+ concert presentations have taken him to Denmark, France, Curacao, Australia, Germany, Colombia, England, Spain, Cuba and throughout the United States. His biography of rapper Drake, Far From Over, is carried in Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame & Museum collection, and his Hip Hop World title is carried in Harvard University’s hip hop archive. His latest book is Rap N’ Roll. For updates on Dalton Higgins’ writing, follow him on twitter: @daltonhiggins5