The Future of ________? A Cautionary Tale


What is the future of publishing? How will people read in the future? How will people find new books to read in the future? How will books be produced in the future, and who will produce them? How will books be written and edited in the future? How will the concept of the book evolve in the future? What will the economics of authorship be in the future? In what new ways will authors engage with their readers?

These are all wonderful and engaging questions. But before we begin searching for examples of the future happening today, let’s start with a cautionary tale. The future is a tricky thing….

I Upset a Room Full of Journalists

It was my first time in Oslo, Norway and I was super excited. My father’s family actually comes from the city. I emailed Dad before I left and asked him to send me a list of the ancestors that lived there. I arrived on a cold clear day and took a walk around to get my bearings.

I had come to Oslo to talk about the future of entertainment and computing to a group of journalists, business leaders and students. I arrived a day early to prepare for the talk and take in a few sights. The harbor and downtown were lovely. The sun was out and the Norwegians were not shy about soaking up every little bit of it. They laid around like well-dressed seals on the steps and piers of the manicured harbor, sunning themselves and chatting. But the most exciting part of my trip was the cemetery.

Vår Frelsers graveyard is set in the middle of the city. Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen are both buried among its rolling hills. I crept around the gravestones with my father’s list of names in my hand, searching for ancestors. It was a bit haphazard. I didn’t really do my prep work, but it was exciting to wind my way through the lovely ground looking for familiar names. I found a few Johnsons and a few Johansens, but no exact matches.

The next day I rose bright-eyed and ready to meet the Norwegians. On stage I started by reading out the names of the ancestors that my father had given me, asking anyone who knew them to raise their hand. That slayed them. They loved it and laughed the entire time, but no luck – nobody raised their hand.

During the question and answer session, a tall, thin journalist with blond hair asked me, “What happens when the machines get too smart? Do you see a future where we humans might be at risk?”

I smiled and replied, “I’m an optimist. You see….”

“You’re an optimist?” the reported stopped me. He seemed shocked and began to write furiously.

“Yes,” I said. “The future isn’t an accident. I believe the future is made every day by the actions of people. And if that’s true, then why would we build a future that is bad? How about we build a future that is awesome?”

“But how can you be a futurist and an optimist?” another reporter asked. I had clearly hit a nerve.

“I’m an optimist because I choose to be an optimist,” I answered. “I believe you have to make a decision about your point of view, and I made the decision to be an optimist and to try to build the best future possible.” This turned out to be the most radical statement I’ve ever made as a futurist.

“But what about the rapid advance of technology?” the first journalist asked. “Don’t you think that things are moving so quickly that we can’t possibly keep control of the machines?”

“I don’t think technology is moving that fast,” I explained. “I live my life 10 to 15 years in the future. From that perspective, that rapid progression isn’t so drastic. The dirty little secret about the future is that it’s going to look a lot like today.” The place instantly became a madhouse.

“How can you say that the future is going to look a lot like today?” A third journalist stood up, recorder in hand. “You are a futurist. Do you really mean to say that the future will look like today?”

“That’s exactly what I mean. The look of the future doesn’t change all that much,” I started.

“But…” the third journalist tried to break in.

“The world around us doesn’t change that fast,” I kept going. I knew that I had a perfect example to make my point.

“Look: we are here in your lovely city. There are buildings in this city that are older than my entire country. Of course the future will look like today. And the reason is that people don’t want it to change that fast. If you woke up tomorrow and your entire world had been transformed into a science fiction future, you’d be living a nightmare.”

The room erupted into laughter. Two of the journalists sat down with smiles on their faces. The third still looked a little upset.

The Hardest Thing about Being a Futurist

The hardest thing about being a futurist and doing the serious work of futurecasting is something called metacognition. This is simply thinking about thinking. It’s what many people think makes us individuals, and what makes us human. But the hardest thing about my job is thinking about thinking about the future.

As we begin to think about the future of books, publishing, narrative and how we act and interact with each other, let’s be careful not to Jetson-ize our visions for the future too much. Let’s make sure to embrace the inexorable complexity of people and cultures. Can we hold two different futures in our heads – even if those visions are diametrically opposed to one another? Can we explore the extremes of technological progress while maintaining a rich historical perspective? If we can, then we’ll be able to map to the middle and explore the beauty and the contradictions of the future we will find ourselves inhabiting.

Here’s my caution: the future is going to look a lot like today. Our challenge is to be courageous to populate that future with amazing new experiences and stories that none of us could have imagined before today.