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Future Overwhelmed

Greeting my friends, we are all interested in the future because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. — The Amazing Criswell (opening to Plan 9 From Outer Space)

That classic line came to mind* as I read the piece in this morning’s Post on the history of the future as forecast by the designers of Disneyland.

They have the problem of keeping the Tomorrowland section of the park out in front of real life while still making it fun, comfortable, and Disney-like (not to mention profitable).

But this is absolutely not the future in the research pipeline. No genetically modified critters here that eat carbon dioxide and poop gasoline. No nanobots smaller than blood cells, cruising our bodies to zap cancer. No brain implants that expand our memory. No cellphones that translate Chinese. No dragonfly-size surveillance bots, no pills that shut off the brain’s trigger to sleep, no modified mitochondria sustaining our energy while making obesity as quaint as polio.

Apparently that tsunami of change doesn’t sell. That disturbing but dazzling future rumbling our way is distinctly different from the soothing one Disney thinks we crave.

I’ve seen a couple of iterations of Tomorrowland at Disney parks and it certainly was a clean, orderly, utopian view of the future… and very difficult to believe.

However, that was also a time when it was much easier for the general public to accept such a vision, when we only had a few media outlets like Disney filtering information and playing the role of futurist for us.

Now that we have the thousand-channel flow of information and speculation, we can see for ourselves all kinds of stuff coming at us that the Disney people never told us about, a view that is much, much scarier.

Danny Hillis, one of the smartest people I’ve ever heard or read, is probably right that “Americans feel very little connection to the future anymore.”.

We are future overwhelmed. I don’t think people try to imagine the year 2050 the way we imagined 2001 in 1960. Because they can’t imagine it. Because technology is happening so fast, we can’t extrapolate. And if they do, it’s not a very positive thing to imagine. It’s about a lot of the unwanted side effects catching up to us — like global ecological disaster. The future views are kind of negative. The most positive future-oriented stuff in the United States is around global ecology and sustainable living and that sort of stuff. It’s a counterpoint to that ecological disaster future.

“Future overwhelmed”. Excellent phrase! And a concept that I think ties directly into our problems with the American education system.

As educators, one of our traditional goals has always been to help prepare our students for the future and, a few decades back, when the Disney model of the future prevailed, it seemed pretty easy to do that.

Not any more. Many of us are now “future overwhelmed”.

We want very much to believe that the time kids spend with us will prepare them for the world after graduation. But how can we have any certainty of that when we have no clear picture to work with?

Knowing what the world will look like in 2050, much less what kinds of skills and knowledge our students will need, is not something we can discover by strolling down Main Street and taking a right turn at the circle.

[* And the fact that such crap is swirling around in my head probably says something about me. :-)]

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1 Comment

  1. Dave

    I’ll take it a step further: people are Current-Overwhelmed. Most people don’t really understand where we are now, so they can’t begin to fathom where things are going.

    In the 50’s, innovation was in hardware and things anyone could see, and somewhat in physical processes and making physical processes easier. The future of the 1950s was making robots and machines to do physical processes, and making everything else fly and look sleek and shiny.

    Innovation now is in information and communication, which aren’t easy to visualize. Usability is really the biggest influence in technology today, but most people don’t even know the concept exists (it’s not taught in schools, for sure). To most people, the Internet is a magical program that happens when they click on a certain icon on their desktop, so of course there’s no way for them to predict future technology.

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