Humans might crave instant gratification — that quick dopamine hit when we check our phones or eat the last cookie in the box — but that doesn't mean we're not equipped to think beyond the here and now. Bina Venkataraman says we're equally wired to plan ahead as we are to satisfy our immediate desires. After all, she points out, civilization and cities grew from the human capacity for long-term thinking. In conversation with Round, Venkataraman, a futurist and author of The Optimist's Telescope, shared insights and strategies for thinking long-term with particular emphasis on what that means for those of us in tech. Here are three key takeaways.
Outside of Silicon Valley’s utopian bubble, predictions for the future often skew toward doom and gloom. While some might argue that dystopian visions of climate catastrophes, super-pandemics, and unruly AIs prepare us for realistic, worse-case scenarios, Venkataraman argues that focusing on our fears about the future keeps us stuck in the present tense. She says what we all need to act and plan ahead is a sense of agency (and a little bit of optimism). Why? Because without it people feel like their actions don’t have consequences. If a chaotic and catastrophic future is inevitable, what difference do our choices as individuals, communities, or corporations make?
Venkataraman believes in a healthy level of optimism when thinking ahead, but she cautions against creating sanitized visions of the future. “We cannot assume that the future will be good no matter what,” she says, pointing to the tech space as one that could benefit in particular from more tempered expectations. Consider, for example, the tech entrepreneurs who ushered in social media. They were confident that these platforms would change the world for the better, and in certain respects, they were right — social media allowed people across the globe to connect on an unprecedented scale and facilitated political movements like the Arab Spring. However, these tools and platforms have also generated a host of other problems and social ills. Today, says Venkataraman, there’s a sense that the technologists who built these products, and the policymakers who were supposed to regulate them, didn’t express enough skepticism about them or spend enough time anticipating their potential harms. We shouldn’t make the same mistake in the future, especially when considering rapidly advancing technologies like artificial intelligence.
Like all animals, humans are viscerally driven, says Venkataraman; that’s why the here and now captures so much of our attention — we can perceive it with our senses. If people need a sense of agency to think long-term, then they also need the ability to conjure the future in their minds. Venkataraman recommends the following tools to help people anticipate threats and envision future possibilities or opportunities.
Try role-playing: Assemble a group of people to try and imagine everything that could go wrong in a given situation without dismissing any outcomes the group wants to avoid. The game should also include a designated bad actor whose goal is to wreak as much havoc as possible.
Use history as a guide: Venkataraman says that our risk modeling needs to include large data sets. When planning for the future, we should look to longer spans of history for examples of what went wrong in similar situations.
Consider diverse perspectives: People who think differently can come into a room and anticipate different kinds of dangers than other people.
Conduct a premortem: By imagining that an event has already happened, a premortem engages in what Venkataraman calls “prospective hindsight.” Companies can use a premortem to anticipate all possible outcomes for a product (both positive and negative) before it launches. Think of yourself as an ancestor: If you regularly think about your life in terms of your legacy (and how the young people in your life will remember you), Venkataraman suggests you’ll make choices with more awareness of their long-term impact.
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