The future is a giant bubble inflated by our expectations, doomed to burst and leave us with little else than floppy bits of worn balloon. Because we think the future is about technology. But the future is not about technology. The future is about whoever lives in it. People. Animals. Plants. We’re paving the road to our future with backlit Corning glass mirrors while we should really be thinking about something other than our own reflection for a change. Because when we run out of fuel and food and water, the last thing we’re going to want to look at is ourselves. We’re not going to look to good then. No amount of avatar preening will help. No network effects will mold society for the greater good. Unless, of course, by network effects you mean who you know that knows how to garden, or make fabric, or has leftover medicine, or who can fix things that break. A purely technological future is bankrupt. It borrows from the future to pay for the present. We ask too much of the future when we imagine it to be just like today, but more. Instead, we need to ask more of today for tomorrow’s sake.
It’s not that we need some kind of technopuritanical revolution, or that we should be ashamed of everything we’re doing today. As apocalyptic as I’m prone to get about technology and the future, the fact is that there are many possible futures that are, compared to today, downright utopic. And bear in mind that today — as petulant, cruel, paranoid, sexist, racist, decadent, diseased, starving, war-torn and fear-wracked as it is — is pretty close to utopic when compared the entirety of human history before it. There is a future we could envision that is a continuation of the actual progress we’ve made so far, one that continues to work out all those flaws of today. But what got us here won’t get us there. We need to go after the big ideas that are outside the box of our present-day successes and triumphs. Like, outside of the phone and the tablet and the watch. Outside of the app. Outside of the internet, even. We’re inside the echo chamber and all we hear is our own status anxiety.
We need to take some risks and think some crazy thoughts. We need to do that publicly and not worry about looking ridiculous. We need to go after the advances that seem impossible. The things that sound like magic right now because we don’t yet know how to make them work. We know how the internet works. Describing an app as “magical” because you can use it without thinking is
bullshit marketing. Not needing to know how something works and not actually knowing are two very different things. We need more of the latter because that’s where creativity kicks in. We all have a role in that, regardless of what meaningless task is at the top of our job description today.
Of course, there is one sad alternative. Try an experiment: Search for any theoretical advance you can think of. Not the iPhone 7 specs, or the next curved screen thing. I mean something nuts. Like, oh, I dunno, antigravity propulsion. That kind of thing. I bet you’ll find someone who believes that thing is no longer theoretical, but actually exists, made possible — on the small scale — by some secret, black-budget project or — on a larger scale — by what has become a breakaway civilization. (I’ll let you Google that on your own.) But what is that really? It’s just a form of nihilism, isn’t it? That the big, crazy, quantum leap forward future is actually already here and is being kept secret from us. Which, of course, implies we won’t be able to replicate that stuff on our own — they won’t let us — and makes the conclusion of why-bother-anyway much too easy.
Look, you’ve heard this rant before. There’s more to the future than screens. We need to snap out of it and do something useful. Where’s that kid who made the plastic bag-eating algae for his science fair project? Yadda yadda yadda. It’s like every third newsletter from me. But this time, let me show you a couple of things that are great indicators that maybe we should be doing something else with our time, money, and ingenuity. Oh, and I’m going to do this recklessly, so prepare your annoyed/outraged replied. Remember, I’m talking into a phone here.
So, you might say, “OK, Chris, you luddite in tech clothing, what about Tesla? Tesla isn’t just making some new screen to waste our time with!” To which I’d say, sure, OK, but most of what Tesla is capitalizing on are old ideas finally brought into the mainstream by the urgency of other social and environmental factors. And the point here isn’t just that we need to define progress more broadly than how fast a picture loads on my phone. We need to define it as broadly as our crazy ideas will allow it. But can we expect one company — and really, on the strength of one person’s vision and charisma — to do that? Of course not. We can’t expect one company to shoulder the burden of funding the future. It’s not sustainable. And really, why would we be content to dream vicariously through such a relatively narrow filter? After all, even meeting their wildest expectations, there’s only so much Tesla alone could accomplish. Meanwhile, I love their car, and love the house battery, and I love the hyperloop, but Tesla is $2.6B in debt and reported a $184mm loss last quarter. Yikes. Won’t the money run out before the shiny Tesla future arrives? Don’t get me wrong, I want them to succeed. I’m just saying it doesn’t look that good.
So, you might also say, “Chris, you Debbie Downer, what about Google? What about Google X? What about Alphabet!” To which I’d again say, sure, they’re doing some interesting things. And Alphabet is the sort of meta-move that is necessary to make capitalization on those ideas possible. But that Tesla and Google are the go-to examples for the most aggressive show-me-the-innovation, show-me-the-future challenge speaks to the real problem: there’s not enough of it going on! No, we can’t expect every company to be taking moon-shots — after all, we have an ever-growing need for all kinds of basic, mundane technological production as “first-world” ideals and preferences are adopted by the rest of the world — but we could expect more than two! What I think we have here is a cultural problem manifest in the paucity of real examples of truly big thinking put to work, and the abundance of interest in that sort of thing being wasted on making and marketing the mundane. (Anectdata this may be, but I find the number of bios I’ve read for marketing professionals that express an interest in high technology, the sciences and/or science fiction, yet represent a person whose job is writing copy for some entertainment product or yet another half-baked app that lets us ping each other truly depressing.)
Let’s say I concede the point — that Google, for example, is moving the needle, however slowly or slightly that may be, and that, perhaps, I’m just being impatient. Fine. But how sad is it that a company has to become a multi-billion dollar publicly traded one on the back of dumb, automated, text-based advertising before they can do anything good in the world? That in order to change one aspect of culture, they have to completely capitulate to some other portion of it first? In creating the search engine — which, yes, in many ways is something we can feel good about — Google sent the biggest trojan horse of all time into the biggest economic Troy of all time, and you know what? They just stayed there! Troy didn’t burn. Which has made the company that started out with a great organizational idea and a motto to not be evil completely beholden to the parasitic — gasp, evil! — nature of the advertising industry. Poor Google, Pooh bear to advertising’s honeypot. And as for the rest of us, we who just want to write or sell something, we’ve been made into soulless SEO-crazed idiots.
But suppose, as far as simply building a profitable business is concerned, all of this is OK. Suppose we don’t care that an interesting company became a fundamentally boring one with a bright, candy coating of yeah-that’s-kind-of-interesting-but-is-it-real? Fine. But how long will that candy coating shield them from the vulnerability of being a fundamentally boring advertising company? Take a look at Google’s financials. About 90% of their revenue still comes from advertising. Like I said, thin, candy-coating, people. And while the revenue numbers look pretty great — after all, Google’s income line is definitively climbing over time — there’s going to be an increasing urgency to increase and diversify the “other” revenue streams to reduce that vulnerability. There are threats all around them. On the ad front, from Facebook. Facebook has the largest attention share of any other internet property, period. As for social, same thing. Google tried to build a social network and we all know how that turned out. Mobile devices and software? Ditto, but this time the threat is Apple. Android is, in many ways, far bigger than iOS will ever be, and increasingly better designed, but because it’s an open software platform, Google can’t come close to turning the profit on Android that Apple does on iOS and probably never will. As much as I love my Nexus 6, Google is just not of the same caliber as Apple when it comes to hardware. And anyway, Google isn’t really a hardware maker. My Nexus 6 has a big Motorola logo on it for a reason. What about infrastructure? Amazon has the largest claim to cloud services. Google has their version of that, but Amazon Web Services is going to be hard to beat. How about video? Once the largest video platform on the internet, YouTube is facing competition from just about every other source of video that exists and every box that will play them. On the one hand, this is purely a matter of attention and content, meaning that anything we might watch other than YouTube content is competition: Netflix, Hulu+, HBO Now, whatever. So it’s a massive aggregate of “other” vs. YouTube. On the other hand, it’s also a matter of attention and context, which means that the more video is embedded and watched on Facebook, regardless of what it is, the less money YouTube will make.
All of that means that the massive, boring, profitable center of Google isn’t going to shrink easily. Facebook’s challenge to their advertising monopoly notwithstanding, it’s still the thing they do best, sad as that is. Of course there is one other chink in the armor. And that is the fact that 56% of all their ads weren’t even seen by humans. Oh the irony. The company that gave the web the greatest bot of all time — the one that made every page on the web findable and put Yahoo’s team of human web librarians out of work — is now threatened by an army of fraud bots doing the exact same thing their bot does, technically, but for a very different reason: to inflate traffic and impression stats. How many billions of dollars have been wasted on bots?
The point here isn’t to vilify Google. I like Google. I like their search engine. I like their web browser. I like their email, calendar, and docs. I like their phones and mobile operating system. I like their ebooks and music services. I even like their TV. I like the design woven throughout all of it. What I don’t like is that it’s all made possible by advertising. And that means that our little technological utopia — this wonderful time of free email and free productivity apps and free entertainment — has been borrowed. Who knows what it would have cost if we’d just paid for it outright. But we could probably come close to guessing by just looking at the digital ad spend for the last decade.
And the problem there is twofold. The obvious part of problem is making up the difference. If digital advertising is as bankrupt as it appears, then things are going to start costing more and companies are going to start failing. But the more subtle part of the problem is the one I care about even more. It’s the setback in meaningful progress. You can’t fund progress by way of something inherently retrograde. That doesn’t get you progress. It gets you a feedback loop. If advertising pays for content, then eventually content pays for advertising. So if advertising is the rotten core of most of what we’ve gained in the last decade, then, if we’re willing to see it, we haven’t gained much.
Here’s one last index of technological stagnation I can’t resist (yet again): what does it say about us that we finally have the Dick Tracy watch — and really, it’s the Dick Tracy watch on steroids, the entire computer stuffed into something you can strap on your wrist — and it’s not even interesting? People are already bored by it.
Well, it’s because it won’t be interesting until we can’t see it anymore. Until it gets out of our way! I composed this entire newsletter using Google Keep — by talking into my phone on my drive to work. I didn’t have to look at anything. That is interesting. Not because it came from Google — there are many non-Google versions of this; everyone’s going after it right now — or because it’s a thing I can do with my phone, or because it uses natural language processing and parallel computing (hooray!). All those things are cool, but they’re cool because they’re a means to an end. They increase my productivity and remove the many natural and technological barriers between me and you. Which, of course, makes it easier to get things done. The question is, what are those things going to be? That’s a huge question. Think it over.
Heavy Rotation: A friend of mine told me about this U2 podcast called U Talkin’ U2 to Me?, created by Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman. Specifically, he recommended listening to the latest episode, where they actually interview U2 for a couple of hours. The rest of their episodes follow them going through U2′s discography album by album and talking about anything other than that album until the last fifteen minutes of the episode where they sort of talk about the album. So I’m not really recommending the podcast in general. But, listening to the U2 interview reminded me that I used to like U2 an awful lot, and still adore some of their albums. So I went back and listened to my favorites — October, The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby, and Zooropa. I know, not popular picks. But man, Achtung Baby and Zooropa are really, really great. I adore the sound of those albums. I love the grit of them. I love the influence of industrial and electronica. I love the risk-taking. Oh, and both of them have incredible opening tracks! (And honestly, I even like Pop, though I agree that some of that album probably didn’t need to be made.) So anyway, I’ve been listening to some old U2 this week.
Recent Tabs: Where are all the aliens? Where are all the secret networks? Where are all the traditional sign-makers? Where are all the unforgettable New Yorker covers? Where are all the non-racist apps? Where has all the ice gone? Where is all the ancient Mayan influence on contemporary graphic design? Where are all the cool music videos? Where are all the tentacled aliens hiding out in our oceans? Where are all the slow-burning, multi-decade apocalypse scenarios? Where are all the cool Android experiments? Where’s all the Tufte CSS? Where is all the free, adaptable curriculum? Where’s all the righteous anger?