Given recent events, 2019 may now seem to us like the distant past. But to those who were thinking hard about the future the year before last, nothing that has happened since has been wholly unexpected — and especially not to those who’d already been thinking hard about the future for decades. Take Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired magazine and writer on technology as well as a host of other subjects. It was in 2019 that state telecommunications company China Mobile commissioned him to give a series of 36 short video lectures on the “Future of X”: not the future of the internet in China and the future of India in competition with China, but a range of topics that will surely affect us all, no matter our part of the world.
Self-driving cars, virtual reality, 5G, robots: Kelly has given consideration to all these much-discussed technologies and the roles they may come to play in our lives. But the important thing about them isn’t to know what form they’ll take in the future, since by definition no one can, but to develop habits of mind that allow you to grasp as wide a variety of their possibilities as you can right now.
The future, as Kelly frames it in his talk on uncertainties, consists of “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns.” Those last, better known as “black swans,” are events “completely unexpected by anybody” that “change the world forever.” As examples of possible black swans to come he names World War Three, the discovery of cheap fusion energy, and, yes, a pandemic.
Societal preparation for the future, to Kelly’s mind, will involve developing “a very systematic way of collecting these unknown unknowns and turning them into known unknowns.” Personal preparation for the future, according to his talk on schools and learning, will involve ceaseless acquisition and refinement of knowledge and understanding.
If we want to thrive in an uncertain future, he argues, we should “adopt a method of learning called deliberate practice, falling forward or failing forward,” in which we keep pushing ourselves into unknown intellectual territory, always remaining “newbies” at something, assisted all the while by technology.
Just a couple of decades into the 21st century, we’ve already caught a glimpse of what technology can do to optimize our learning process — or simply to enable learning where it wouldn’t happen otherwise. “I don’t imagine that we’re going to go away from a classroom,” Kelly says, but we also “have the online video world, and more and more people today are learning how to do an amazing variety of things, that we wouldn’t have thought would work on video.”
Of course, since he spoke those words, one black swan in particular has pushed much of humanity away from the classroom, and we’ve found out a good deal more about what kind of learning works (and doesn’t) over the internet. The future, it seems, is now.
You can watch the full playlist of videos, all 36 of them, below. We also recommend his very insightful book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.