For those who come to South by Southwest every year to figure out what the future holds, Cory Doctorow has some bad news.
“Prophesy is for con artists,” the science fiction writer said. “No one knows the future.”
That doesn’t mean that Austin wasn’t chock full of futurists offering perfectly reasonable-sounding advice that gave the lie to Jim Dator’s famous aphorism, “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” Over the course of the SXSW Interactive Festival, a philosophical divide emerged between those who recommend figuring out the future as we go along and those who say that if we don’t fix today’s problems then technology will only magnify those problems in the future.
On the optimistic side of this debate is Katie Joseff, Research Manager at the Digital Intelligence Lab at Institute for the Future, who spoke to a gathering of mayors at SXSW. She recommended a system of tools and checklists so they could prepare their cities for future problems.
“It’s especially important for you to be aware of these ethical frameworks because you can make an immediate difference in the regulatory structures to protect these really important public goods like truth, privacy, democracy, and humanities wellbeing,” said Joseff.
Count Doctorow as being extremely doubtful that checklists can create a better future. “No one can build you a road map from here to the livable smart city of the future,” he told the mayors. “That may not exist. The future is unknowable.”
An example that both speakers independently brought up was facial recognition, which has in the past produced racially fraudulent results as in 2015 when Google Photos misidentified black people as gorillas. These and other incidents prompted U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to famously dub the algorithms that produced those results as racist, leading for calls for reform.
Joseff seemed to side in favor of public opinion that wants “companies that are making decisions based on facial recognition to be transparent with their users on how they are making those decisions.”
On the other side is Doctorow, who said, “There’s definitely algorithms that produce models that embed and magnify racial bias, but sometimes the answer to that is not making the algorithm less racist, it’s just not using the algorithm.”
Quantitative Futurist Amy Webb, author of “The Big Nine,” came down on the determinist side of last weekend’s meta debate, differing from Doctorow in espousing the belief that things might not be perfect now but can be improved upon over time.
“Like a great marriage, great futures take a lot of work. Wonderful, amazing, happy futures are the result of really hard work,” she said.
Or put another way by leading auto designer Gorden Wagener, “The future is not written. We can only design it.”
One person who is designing it is a 16-year-old student from Austin who took home the SXSW Student Innovation Award for designing something that perhaps proves Doctorow’s imperative to get the basics right before technology spins out of control. He designed a graphene brain-computer interface. Future applications could include immersive gaming and helping the disabled regain use of their bodies through computerized prosthetics.
Being able to control devices with brain waves through an interface that can fit under your cap provides yet another example of a fundamental question about our future: Is the internet a tool, or is it the entire workshop? It’s the pervasive nature of the internet that drives Doctorow to argue against a “we’ll figure it out along the way” approach to the future.
“The internet after all, is not a glorified video on demand service,” he said. “It is the nervous system of the 21st century, the thing that combines together everything we do, and everything we do today involves the internet, and everything we do tomorrow is going to require it, and so getting this policy right is arguably the most important thing you can do for your city not because technology policy is the most important thing in our world – we have way more important issues out there, climate change, gender and racial bias, inequality and so on – but every one of those fights will be won or lost on network communication platforms, and so if we lose those, we loss all those fights even before they’re joined.”