This morning’s entry was inspired by a post from my friend Cynthia titled, rather hubristically, “Here’s What It’s Going to Take for Augmented Reality to Take Over the World.” It got me to thinking a bit about how I look at the future and, as a side effect, how the future might affect my career. Are you better off fearing, just trying to cope with, or embracing whatever comes next? As an amateur futurist, I offer these thoughts for your consideration.
Fearing the future
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
–Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Snappy political rhetoric or not, when FDR said those words at his inauguration speech in 1933, the U.S. was not in great shape: unemployment and economic chaos were everywhere, and there were growing threats to stability around the world. It would have been easy to succumb to fear–and the worst of the Great Depression and World War 2 were still on the horizon. And fear itself is still something that can infect us quite easily in the form of pessimism.
You want some things to be pessimistic about in the 21st century? Okay, sure: there’s political and economic instability, the threat of war (those sound familiar?), terrorism, cultural clashes, climate concerns, computers and machines becoming sophisticated enough to replace jobs and creating permanent unemployment, and increasingly sophisticated and dangerous tools being put into the hands of people who don’t always have the best intentions in mind.
A fearful reaction involves retreating further from the world as you see it. It might involve staying at home, barring the doors, or hoarding guns, gold, and groceries. You might join groups of people sharing the same fears and take to the streets to denounce what you see. On the other hand, these sorts of reactions also can contribute to the overall negative state of the world. Is that what you really want?
How many of the problems I described can you control? Not too many, unless you are personally taking a dangerous tool out of the hands of the insane; and as I noted, going into hiding or banding together with other scared, angry people is unlikely to make things better, so let’s move on.
Coping with the future
Coping is a little more practical and constructive than fearing it. It’s still a fearful posture to the extent that it assumes you’re being overwhelmed by whatever you’re seeing in the world. However, coping is something you can do that is within your sphere of knowledge and control. You can take action on your own behalf to cope with anxiety, depression, or fear by talking with friends, taking up constructive hobbies, or seeing a medical practitioner or counselor.
Or, more realistically, you can identify areas where social and technological change are likely to put you out of work, get some more education somehow, and change careers willingly before you’re forced into it.
Embracing the future
Right now people are developing computer programs to do a lot of the things I do (or am attempting) now: aggregate/report the news, write technical documentation, and even movie trailers and scripts, as well as design architecture. I’m fairly certain the creative industry was and is not prepared for humans to be replaced so quickly.
Still, for the ambitious and creative, these sorts of tools present opportunities. It’s worth pursuing work with those organizations developing the high-tech tools in order to make them better. For those of you thinking that “embracing the future” means giving ourselves over willingly to our future robotic overlords, I would gently say no, that’s not what I have in mind. There are still things human beings can–and I would argue should–do that computers cannot. These include opinion writing, editing for emotional content, and making tools and software user friendly.
Human beings develop technological tools to serve human needs and ends. The technical communicator is in a perfect position to join high-tech groups and be the voice of the user, the consumer, or the potentially displaced worker. We need to be incorporated into design teams to help them understand the social functions of writing that a computer cannot fully grasp. We can ensure that human agency to use an academic term from my grad school days, is still present in the machines we create in the future. Regardless of what machines create in the future, we need to ensure that human beings are still the ones making the decisions until we can be certain that the machines are operating with human values and concerns in mind. We might, through our ingenuity and insistence upon meeting human needs, create new jobs and opportunities to replace those that are lost.
We’re a long way from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but as one of the voices of conscience in the high-tech industry, technical communicators could help thinking machines better serve human business ends without sacrificing human needs and values.