Imagination and Creating a Future

It strikes me as odd how we have been brought up to use our imagination backwards.

Imagination is one of the most powerful ways of thinking. It helps us create new things, to figure out new ways to solve problems, to shape the world into new shapes. Imagination is, as Einstein put it, more important than knowledge; knowledge is limited, but imagination contains the entire Universe. Yet we use it upside down.

Most of our imaginary moments are spent in filling in the blanks of everyday life. If a friend won’t answer your call, your imagination kicks straight in. Maybe she’s mad at you for something? Maybe she’s been in an accident and is now lying by the highway? Maybe she has decided to take a surprise retreat in Tibet, and you won’t hear from her in the next ten years? Of course, it could also be that she’s forgotten her phone home, but that would be, well, way too unimaginative.

And yet this kind of blank-filling is at best useless and at worst detrimental. It is not a rare relationship that has started to unravel at these imaginary musings. We are quite economical creatures knowledge-wise, and where we don’t know we usually imagine. Since imagination usually taps into the more emotionally laden visions, it does not serve us that well in filling up the blanks of the everyday life.

On top of this, there is the fact that we rarely use imagination where it actually serves us well: in imagining the future.

We have been led to believe that things stay more or less the same. But they don’t. And those people who are crazy enough to imagine a new world are the ones who actually end up creating it. Yet it seems that not that many people do.

In imagining the future, we can envision new products, new social settings – a better life for ourselves and our loved ones. Even the entire planet if one dares to dream.

And this is where imagination really shows its brawn. It is the compass for the future that can show us things we could maybe one day build. Without this imaginary vision, we will keep on sailing through a fog, towards a destination that nobody knows about.

We need more epistemic humility in our everyday life. We really know dreadfully little both about the big things in life, but also about the little things, like your friends’ not answering the phone. And we should really be wary of our imaginary reactions in filling up the unknown blanks between what we know.

We need more imaginary foresight too. While we know dreadfully little about how things stand now, and even less about how they will be in the future, we are not quite as helpless about the future as one might think.

As Peter Drucker once said, the best way to predict the future is to create it.

And the best way to create it is to imagine it first.


Reality is Breaking Down

Our reality is breaking down. It is becoming more virtual by the day.

In a sense, reality has always been partly virtual, at least ever since we learned to use language. By being able to reference times past, we bring them to play in the present moment.

Constructs such as national borders or even money are to a great extent more virtual than real. If we had not agreed to a complex behavioral pact, they would not exist.

But with the advent of technology, the borders between the virtual and the real are starting to blur unlike we’ve ever seen before.

Like Ray Kurzweil said in a recent article, even telephone is a type of virtual reality. It brings the person far away from you virtually close. But the telephone is a baby step compared to what is about to shake the very foundation of our reality.

With the advent of wearable tech and augmented reality, the next generation of computing is around the corner. The scope of this leap is similar to moving from huge computers to desktops, from desktops to laptops and from laptops to mobile.

New digital layers will permeate our everyday life.

And what with the advent of augmented reality, these layers will be harder and harder to tell apart from our physical world. With something like Google Glass, you can have virtual objects to manipulate.

You can have overlays such as translations displayed in real time over what you see. I tried the Spanish translator Word Lens with Google Glass. It was spooky to see an English text scramble into Spanish right in front of me.

Our lives will have more and more virtual elements. Maybe a virtual pet one day, like a real life Tamagochi. Or overlays displaying you the very headlines you want to see, instead of the tabloid attention grabbers. Perhaps, as Vernor Vinge riffs in his novel Rainbow’s End, even building facades designed according to your preferences.

But the real and the virtual are merging on a far deeper level than just a digital overlay.

3D printing will also make the reverse true. Whereas wearable tech and AR bring the digital layer as an integrated part of physical experience, 3D printing will also convert parts of the digital layer into actual objects when needed.

So the road from the real to the virtual is getting shorter, as is the road from the virtual to the real.

What the combination of the two brings one can only speculate. Already, prototype cases exist, where an object has been designed using AR (i.e. simulating the physical object) and then reproduced using 3DP. What happens when these two technologies become a part of our everyday life is anybody’s guess.

However these developments do pan out, one thing is for sure. What we used to think of as reality is breaking down as we speak.

The reality of the future will be more virtual than we can imagine.


Towards a Post Work Society

Western countries have two problems. Problems, which I suppose may have quite a similar solution to.

The first problem is the constantly looming economical crisis indicated by economic problems especially in the Southern EU and the USA. It seems that we are constantly on the verge of an economic crisis in the West, owing mostly to the offshoring of heavy industry, to the fluctuations in the financial market and to the constantly more skewed demographic structure of our nations.

The second problem is the prospect of automation in the job market. It is practically guaranteed that with the second wave of automation, a huge amount of jobs will simply vanish. Just as no horse cart drivers exist anymore, in the future we’ll have no bus drivers, service clerks or call center assistants. If a job can be replaced by a robot, it will be replaced by a robot.

The first problem is a productivity problem. If we are losing our industry, if we cannot operate in the financial market and if we are running out of able bodied workforce, our productivity is going to tank. And at the end of the day, it is not the hours we pour into our work that create the revenue that makes our pay, but what we get done. So we need to get more done with less legs, with less time to do it in.

The second problem is a social and a moral problem. If we are growing towards a situation where there will simply not be enough work to go around for everybody, how should we treat those who do not get to work?

Like I said, the solution to both problems is probably the same: we need to help our people figure out what they really want to do, and we need to let them do exactly that.

In order to meet the productivity demands of the near future, we need to get more things done in less time. And as studies show, people who are really into what they do can get a huge amount done compared to those who are not. Like the ex-CTO of a major corporation said a couple of weeks ago, an enthusiastic coder can be a thousand times more productive than a frustrated one.

And if we are truly entering a post work world, those people not working are in an even more pressing need to figure out something fun and engaging to do with their time. Right now, people without jobs can tap into welfare, at least in Scandinavia. While that may be enough to pay the bills, if unemployed people don’t find new jobs soon, they’ll become frustrated and alienated. This frustration can, with time, create a massive social problem.

If a post work world segregates people into the valuable people who do work and the not-so-valuable who don’t, we’ll still have a problem. Even if we can get everybody’s stomach full and give them roofs over their heads. But if, instead of economic success, we learned to emphasize the importance of doing interesting things, of passion, of finding one’s vocation, the situation might be different.

By going through the trouble of directing one’s passion towards an immediately pressing need people could, in addition to working with interesting things, also boost their material well being over the minimum provided by the society. But also people who would not or could not contribute in such a way would not only be a welfare burden, but in fact a valuable part of the society in another way.

Much of innovation works like this: in order to create something new and useful, you first have to fool with a lot of old and unuseful stuff. People dedicated to non-work activities might in fact boost the innovative capacity of the human race massively.

A post work society could distribute the labor so that people could tap into what truly interests them and work on that, eventually either producing something of compensatable value or not. We could have generative people who are not immediately productive, and executive people who are, with the two working even in some kind of unison.

By encouraging people to work with what truly interests them, the work itself would be of value, even if it did not immediately enter the marketplace. And by this I do not only mean some intrinstic human value, but also the very bottom line. In a changing world we need to be constantly innovative to keep up with the market.

I believe that the impending productivity crisis will require us to rethink the way we work pretty soon. And while I am not entirely sure as to how we should start to address the moral conundrums involved in letting some people grasshopper their way through their lives, while the ants provide, it is certainly interesting to think about it.

A new world needs new perspectives. Be it a world without jobs, or a world without work.