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As if all that weren’t enough, there’s another complication to fold into the chaos: Technology isn’t stopping.
The pace of technological change is in many cases too fast for anyone of us to comprehend or get used to; as a result, just as the world seems to get its head around one new force unleashed by tech, another comes along to discombobulate our efforts to respond to it.
The background sensation of uncertainty that has pervaded much of the last two years isn’t going to abate. Thanks to reams of information–sensors and surveillance everywhere, and computing capacity to make sense of it all–it looked as if we were entering a “Minority Report”-type world, where much of the future could be foretold in our numbers.
Google could predict flu trends, election-stats nerds could predict political outcomes, and predictive policing algorithms were going to give us a handle on crime. Instead of revealing unseen order and predictability in the world, technology has unleashed a cascade of forces that have made the world more volatile–and thus made the future hazier and more open to out-of-the-blue results. In 20, the world began to appreciate how smartphones and social networks can upend what we once considered the natural order.
But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in [yourselves,] neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in.” Matthew NY Times Expect 2018 to Be More Sane?
Soon artificial intelligence and augmented reality software will make it trivially easy to create not just text-based misinformation but entirely fake audio and video, too.
A single confessional blog post by Susan Fowler, a former employee of the ride-hailing company Uber, led to a swirling online campaign that eventually brought down Travis Kalanick, Uber’s once indomitable chief executive–an outcome that, as far as I can tell, not a single observer of Uber predicted would happen long before it did.
But it’s not just that one-off stories cause huge cascades; it’s that in a connected world, there are now so many one-off stories capable of setting off cascades, and no one knows which ones will hit. Trump was not brought down by the series of sexual harassment claims against him during the presidential campaign–and yet just a few months later, claims against a host of other powerful men spiraled into a culture-shaping movement that has upended many parts of the economy.
To continue the butterfly-effect analogy: “It used to be that there were a trillion butterflies each in their own weather system, but we have now connected all those butterflies into one planetary weather system–and you never know which one is going to have some kind of autocatalytic effect, and which one isn’t,” said Alexander Rose, executive director of the Long Now Foundation, an organization that aims to promote a long-term outlook on the world.
Thanks to phones and Facebook, anything really could happen tomorrow. “Think about how a single tweet from Donald Trump can have all these strange reverberations across the world.
“I will tell you that as someone who does this professionally, my job has become a lot harder in the last few years,” said Amy Webb, a futurist who runs the Future Today Institute, a firm that helps big companies think about the possibilities of tomorrow. You can almost apply chaos theory to Donald Trump’s Twitter account.” One of the touchstone ideas of chaos theory, which is the study of dynamic systems, is the “butterfly effect”–the idea that small changes in initial conditions can lead to huge differences in outcomes, like how a butterfly flapping its wings in Peru can cause a hurricane in Houston.