Thursday, July 11, 2013

Book Review: The Nature of the Future

Reposted from Stanford Social Innovation Review

The Nature of the Future: Dispatches From the Socialstructed World by Marina Gorbis

Near the end of the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) held this past March, I read this tweet: “Somewhere between Musk and Morozov is where the rest of us will find our futures.”
Those few words say a lot about where the boundaries of enthusiasm lie when it comes to all things futuristic. Elon Musk—founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX—is an unabashed proponent of the power of technology to better the human condition. He spoke at SXSW about the potential for building human colonies on Mars. Evgeny Morozov inhabits the other end of the futurist spectrum. An Open Society Foundation Fellow, he has established himself as the reigning curmudgeon of Twitter and a debunker of cyber-utopianism, “solutionism,” and Internet-centrism in every form. As the tweet noted, somewhere between Musk’s utopia and Morozov’s dystopia, the rest of us are trying to find our way forward.

In The Nature of the Future: Dispatches From the Socialstructed World, Marina Gorbis offers one such path. Morozov, no doubt, would find much to dislike about the book; Musk, for his part, would probably question its relatively measured tone. Gorbis runs the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Institute for the Future, where she spends her days helping people think about what lies ahead. That work requires enthusiasm about the future, of course, but Gorbis also brings to it a personal respect for the past. Amid her exposure to the shiniest new gadgets that Silicon Valley has to offer, Gorbis has honed her ability to spot patterns across disciplines while also weeding out (some of) the hype.

The key to understanding this book is that it appears to be about technology, but it is actually about people. The unfortunate neologism “socialstructed” refers to the role that social relationships play in economic and community life. Gorbis starts from a model that has nothing to do with high technology—her mother’s shrewd use of personal relationships to provide for her family when they lived in the Soviet Union. (Gorbis grew up in Odessa, Ukraine.) Bartering, service exchanges, mutual aid: These are age-old human practices that depend on no particular technology.

Gorbis argues that we have entered a transitional period in which those pre-modern practices are returning to prominence—and are doing so in larger, faster, and more inclusive forms. She notes that we are “living simultaneously in two worlds, one in which almost everything is still done through formal institutions, be they corporations, large R&D labs, banks, universities, or governments, and another in which people are joining up to create something new outside of traditional boundaries, in the process displacing these decades-old institutions.”

This is not a new observation. And Gorbis’s explanations for why it is happening (global connectivity) and why now (expansion of broadband and Wi-Fi) are neither surprising nor, in my opinion, complete. There are other factors—from regulatory structures and corporate protectionism to demographic shifts and wealth inequality—that help to explain why we use technology in the ways that we do. But Gorbis is less interested in “How did we get here?” than in “What does it mean now that we are here?”

And in that regard, she does a solid job of describing the huge middle ground that lies between Musk and Morozov—even as her dispatches are all positive and her description skews toward utopianism. When she extols citizen science, crowdfunding, and more-participatory government, Gorbis comes across as similar to many other futurists. A few stories become “data,” three examples make a trend, and countervailing evidence rarely makes an appearance. Even at her most exuberant, however, Gorbis focuses on the human behaviors enabled by technology. She is careful to point out that new forms of inclusivity are not universal. She notes that gift exchanges, reputational economies, and voluntary behavior are not new, and they certainly did not spring forth from the Internet. (In fact, the writer David Bollier and others have argued convincingly that these practices are the mother of Internet culture, not the other way around.)

For social entrepreneurs and philanthropists, the book will be most relevant when it addresses the issue of scale. Gorbis, for example, notes the tension between big investors and crowdfunded startups. But in place of the usual binary choice between “too big” and “too small,” she presents a three-tiered approach to thinking about institutional size and scope. Think of it as the Goldilocks analysis. Some problems are simply too small for established institutional structures to solve; others are too big for those structures to handle. The emerging networks of a “socialstructed” world, therefore, might be “just right.” Gorbis doesn’t focus on the challenges inherent in this framework— such as out-of-sync regulatory systems and the power of incumbents—but neither does she imply that those challenges do not exist.

Gorbis’s modulated approach gives her room to explore stories that have a bit more nuance than the cherry-picked-to-make-a-point examples that often figure in books of this kind. In addition to her experiences as a futurist, Gorbis draws lightly on anthropology, sociology, and political science to help explain her observations. Ironically, the book’s greatest shortcoming (other than its clumsy title) may be the fact that it’s a book. Although Gorbis presents several examples from the future, the innately static quality of the book medium leads her to oversell the positive and to underplay the negative, and it leaves no room for engaging in a conversation about all that lies in between those poles.

1 comment:

Brad Smith said...

What a beautifully written review, Lucy. On your point about gift exchanges, reputational economies, and voluntary behavior being the Mother of the Internet, I seem to remember reading about these things way back in Anthropology 101. It is good to remind ourselves that Time did not begin with the advent of the internet, though it greatly accelerated.