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A short talk with a long-term thinker- POLITICO


Last week I wrote about a particularly prescient bit of future-casting from 1997 — a list of potential global crises (pandemic, terror, political retrenchment) that a quarter-century on feels eerily similar to today’s headlines.

When that list was originally published in Wired magazine, it was wrapped in a larger and more optimistic package called “The Long Boom” that was prescient in its own way: it made a strong case that the tech industry’s growth would lead it to dominate the American economy over the past 25 years.

The whole package was accurate enough that I thought DFD readers might want to know: What does the author think now?

So I called Peter Leyden, the former Wired managing editor who co-authored the piece and a follow-on book, to talk about what he foresaw in 1997, and how he sees futurism in general. Governments and corporations put a lot of stock in highly contingent projections of our global future. What do they need to know? What are they missing?

Leyden himself left journalism to become an all-purpose futurist advising various companies on how to prepare for tomorrow’s crises and challenges. An edited excerpt of our conversation follows:

How did you approach writing this “The Long Boom,” and why do you think it was so successfully prescient?

I was coupled with Peter Schwartz to write a positive narrative about what would happen from the mid 1990s if you played out the digital revolution, as we were starting to see the contours of it evolving, entwined with globalization.

It’s hard to remember this, but people didn’t understand at the time — how would a digital economy work? How would these startups grow, and why would anyone want to do half the stuff these companies wanted to do, like selling books online?

The narrative we came up with has largely played out. We went from 25 million people on the internet to 60 percent of the planet, and these little startups now run the world, and China went from a GDP of about a trillion dollars to what it is now.

But we said a totally positive scenario is not going to happen. We weren’t saying one or two of these could stop the “long boom,” but that quite a few of them probably would happen, and the drivers of the digital revolution and global integration would keep going.

This reminds me of Fukuyama’s “The End of History” —the thesis is not quite as simple as it’s perceived by the general public.

We completely fell into the same cultural trap that Fukuyama did.

The economy will always be fraught with ups and downs and stock market crashes and reboots and overvaluation; that’s how the world works. It’s the same thing Fukuyama ran into. He wasn’t saying history was going to stop, but “Hey, we just finished a century-long battle with communism, and liberal democracy has emerged victorious, and how much better are we going to get?”

Like our thesis about the economy, that’s a reasonable thing to say that isn’t invalidated every time Russia does something stupid.

How has the world of professional futurism evolved since 1997?

GBN [consulting firm Global Business Network] was pioneering this space at the time. There weren’t a lot of people who could say much about the future, most companies were just going blind, short term stuff, one to three year planning, but they weren’t understanding the long term.

The heyday of GBN was essentially the beginning of globalization. That world of strategic foresight is now an industry: GBN was absorbed into Deloitte, and you can now go get master’s degrees, or PhDs, in futures thinking or strategic foresight. And today about 25 to 50 percent of major companies are involved in those fields, because there are 190 countries you’re dealing with, and you’re a $60 billion market cap company, and you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 10 years.

It’s the combination of the U.S. government and its defense agencies, and global companies that expanded after the Cold War that created the demand for this stuff. But it’s still under the radar for most people, so I do a lot of public speaking about it because it’s valuable — now even more than ever, because the world is moving too fast, especially with the pandemic.

What’s your prediction for the next 25 years?

I wrote five stories about a “long boom” from 2020 to 2050, called “The Transformation.” It’s about how the world could solve climate change, among various other challenges. There are so many new technologies and trends that we’re actually going to look back on this era and see how much we’re about to solve over the next 30 years, without being “Pollyanna”-ish about it.

The latest example of the federal government getting its arms around crypto: A two-page report from the Government Accountability Office about NFTs.

The report is short and to the point, a remarkably succinct and effective description of what NFTs are and how they function — if you’re still fuzzy on the concept beyond “expensive pictures of ugly cartoon apes,” you could do a lot worse than to read it. But more notable than that is the warning, common for the GAO, that the report offers to the federal government: Get wise about this technology before it gets past you.

“Another concern is the federal government’s long-standing difficulty with hiring and retaining a highly qualified science and technology workforce,” the authors write, adding that the status quo could “make it harder to identify and address statutory and regulatory challenges.”

That follows a study the GAO published in March 2021, highlighting the need for the federal government to beef up federal science employee pay and improve working conditions. They might soon get their wish, at least in part: The forthcoming America COMPETES Act contains major funding boosts to NIST, the NSF, and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Happy dinosaur week: “Jurassic World: Dominion” romped to a nearly $150 million box office opening last weekend, sparking both nostalgia for the original films and the expected bout of scientific introspection about whether or not the original story’s “Frankenstein”-like lesson about man’s technological hubris has been fully learned.

But what if that’s not the point — what if today’s institutions are so preoccupied with whether or not they should, they didn’t stop to think if they could? That’s the thesis Matt Yglesias laid out in a Substack post this morning that argues: “We should build Jurassic Park.”

“The idea that our thinking should be dominated by downside risk and wholesale abandonment of promising ideas if something goes wrong strikes me as deeply misguided,” Yglesias writes, noting that the “Jurassic Park” ethos is similar to that in real life that led the world to abandon nuclear power. “I’d love to see a Jurassic Park reboot in which the point of the story is, yes, they face sabotage and their lives end up at risk but ultimately they defeat their adversaries and get the park up and running. Because a park full of real, live dinosaurs would be amazing.”

He’s not wrong! But it must be noted — In the original “Jurassic Park” the park’s creator carries out his doomed experiment on a remote Central American island, free from the watchful eye of government, supported only by private investors hoping to make a fortune on his renegade technological experiment… not an altogether unfamiliar set of circumstances.

Stay in touch with the whole team: Ben Schreckinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson ([email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]);  and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us on Twitter @DigitalFuture.

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