Future Cool

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and former derivatives trader, is doing a tour for his new book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.  As part of that tour he has an excerpt up on Salon entitled The Future Will Not Be Cool.  Go read it, I’ll wait.

I have some issues with the Salon piece, though I think it’s being spun as something it isn’t, and probably makes more sense in the context of the book.  The central thesis is that the future we see in films and sci-fi books is not the future we get, and having attended a bunch of TED style events, Mr. Taleb wants us to remember that in the end the future looks a lot like the present, just with things taken away.

The arguments Mr. Taleb makes are fair, but he may be overstating the problem, and he may not be in a position to see the more exotic future he’s arguing against.

When people write science fiction, come up with TED talks or make movies, they’re looking for a hook, an idea that fires the imagination.  If Jules Verne had written about the washing machine, people would not have been slack-jawed, but you can’t deny the impact that it has had on society.  The fact that the waitress, hostess or even chef at the restaurant mentioned in the excerpt might have been a minority mother of young children attests to the fact that things have changed considerably for a lot of people.

The thing that Nassim Taleb and I have in common is that we’re privileged non-repressed-minority men.  For us, things have generally been good for a while, and radical change hasn’t presented in our lives.  If you can afford to send your kids to a good school, Khan Academy and Wikipedia aren’t as big of an innovation as if you’re working two jobs and can barely afford to keep food on the table.  Perhaps the future is the privileged past, more evenly distributed.  For people it impacts, that future is pretty cool, and more cool than robotic butlers or flying cars.

I accept Mr. Taleb’s argument that people should pay more attention to the past, but to be fair, Mr. Taleb’s grandfathers were deputy prime ministers, his parents were academics, and he went to the University of Paris and The Wharton School.  My parents were missionaries and I went to public school in Texas, but had access to the Internet and a computer.  One of us has the ability to appreciate and understand literature and literary culture and one of us has the ability to appreciate technological innovation and create a little bit of that future.

I’d love to be more aware of literary culture, but I can’t go from where I’m at directly to Plato and Homer and appreciate it like I can appreciate a new Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson or William Gibson book.  To be totally honest, I’ve even had a hard time appreciating some of Bruce Sterling’s recent work.  Maybe what I need is a Code Academy or Khan Academy for Plato or Phidias, and maybe in the next few years that will happen.  If the kids down on the block are comparing graffiti tags to Canova, maybe that will be the future Mr. Taleb’s looking for.

My copy of Antifragile is on it’s way from Amazon, and I’m sure I’ll appreciate it as much as I did The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness.  Hopefully this excerpt will make more sense in context.