The Future, This Election, and My Anti-DespEration Plan

No one knows what the future holds. Anyone who tells you they do know is making stuff up.

That’s one clear lesson from yesterday’s upset win by Donald Trump, which stunned mainstream media outlets in part because their data-dweeb pollsters and analysts had been confidently forecasting the opposite for months.

As Nathan Robinson wrote today in an insightful Current Affairs piece chiding Nate Silver and his peers: “It is crucial that the following lesson be learned well by progressives: these people do not know anything. Do not believe predictions, whether from this website or anywhere else. No political commentator or forecaster can offer you any real certainty, because they don’t have any special magic that the rest of us don’t have access to.”

But that doesn’t mean thinking about the future is a waste of time. On the contrary, progressives (and I count myself one of them) spent the last 16 months obsessing about the future—and how to sway it in a specific direction—because the stakes felt so high, and because the future is malleable.

After all, the past is frozen and gone. We have some small amount of control over the present, principally over the way we choose to experience it; the present is also when we make decisions and start acting on them. But for the most part the present unfolds inevitably from previous moments, from the decisions we’ve already made.

But the future: now, that’s something we can really alter, since it doesn’t even exist yet.

So, we worked to prevent a future in which our fellow citizens would vote to hand the nuclear codes to an orange-faced xenophobe with fewer scruples than Voldemort and Emperor Palpatine combined.

Alas, we failed. And now we have to think about what we can do to defeat Trump next time around, and to head off the worst of the many worst-case scenarios that could emerge from his ascension to power.

This may seem like an odd moment to be starting a journalistic podcast about the future and how it’s shaped by the technological choices we make.

But that’s what I’m doing. The first episodes of the show, which I’m calling Soonish, will be released in mid-January.

I’ve always been intrigued by the future and how we invoke, describe, and debate it through literature, movies, advertising, architecture, and other forms. But this summer I decided to go deeper and produce a show where each episode tells the story of an important technological choice already made or yet to be made.

And after an election like yesterday’s, the explanatory tagline I dreamed up for Soonish—“How we think about the future, what we can to do shape it, and why it always defies our expectations”—feels even more topical and urgent.

I’ll confess to feeling some doubts about the project. At an election-night party last night, as the electoral map filled up with red, there was a moment when I thought my fellow citizens were basically saying, “There’s no more room here for people who are different from us.” It felt like the American experiment was ending. Exasperated, I complained to a friend: “How can you start a podcast about the future when there is no future?”

But that’s a strain of defeatism that I’m ashamed to feel in myself, and that nobody who cares about the planet and its inhabitants can afford to indulge for very long.

So, like many others, I’m moving forward. I stewed in my angst for a little while this morning, I commiserated with friends, I listened to Hillary’s classy and courageous concession speech, I went for a long run to clear my head, and then I sat down and made some decisions.

The world hasn’t ended. As President Obama remarked today, everybody is sad when their side loses an election. Millions of Trump supporters would have felt equally alienated had Hillary won. People who supported Clinton have a lot of work to do to figure out how this election went so wrong, how to start taking the grievances of Trump voters seriously, and how to rebuild a viable progressive political movement.

And when it comes to technology, the choices we make during the coming Trump administration on issues like energy, transportation, automation, education,  infrastructure, AI, and privacy will be deeply consequential for the environment, for our jobs and economic prosperity, and for our shared future.

Somebody needs to tell those stories. For me, the only worthy way through all of this is to recommit to the thing I feel called to do, using the talent and/or privilege granted to me, and try to do it better and with more purpose, compassion, and generosity.

All a podcaster or a journalist can really hope to accomplish, of course, is educate, inform, and maybe entertain his or her audience. Sometimes, listeners might also pick up a few new tools for understanding and improving their world. That’s the best-case scenario I’m going to work toward.

Wade Roush

Science and technology journalist