In the cove below our window a pair of loons returns each spring from their distant travels. For many months we are lulled to sleep by their cries of homecoming, renewal, and protection. Green turtles hatch on the beach and go down to the sea where they travel thousands of miles for a decade or two before they retrace the path to that patch of beach and lay their eggs.
This theme of “nostos”, finding home, is at the root of all things human too. We yearn for the place in which life has been known to flourish. Humans can choose the form of home , but it is always where we know and where we are known; where we love and are beloved. Home is voice and sanctuary— part freedom, part solace.
When we look to the digital future there is one anxiety from which all others derive: What kind of home will it be? Will we be masters in a community of masters, or some-thing else—guests, fugitives, or perhaps unwitting slaves subdued by interests beyond our influence or understanding? If the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so.
There are three points about this prospect that I want to explore. First, that we are at the very beginning of this journey. Second, that the future is made in specific ways. If we understand these better, then perhaps we can step into the river more effectively and shape it to good purpose. Third, that you, your colleagues and their colleagues, have a pivotal role, a privilege of responsibility in this time of contest.
II. THE BEGINNING
When it comes to „big data“ and the digital future, we are at the very beginning. Despite the rapid pace of connection and the oceans of data it generates, our societies have yet to determine how all this will be used, to what purpose, and who decides. The big tech companies want us to believe that the future will roll out according to their visions and the so-called “objective requirements” of technological development as a driver of economic growth in a free market. Their scenario is straight from the playbook of the neoliberal theorist Frederich Hayek—what he called a self -determining “extended order” that individuals cannot understand but to which they must submit.
I have suggested that the iPod is to the Internet era what the Model T was to the mass production era. But what defines an era is far more than its technology. For example, the mass production era was only partially about machines. First, mass production required employees and consumers. People mattered. Second, the era was shaped by the gradual development of legislative, legal, and social institutions to amplify capitalism’s pro-social dynamics and tame its excesses. This is what Karl Polanyi called the double movement.
Our new era will be ultimately be shaped by the ideas around which we mobilize for new market forms and new institutions. Life in 2050 will depend on developments like these that have not yet occurred, and we will look back to see this time, our time, as the beginning.
III. HOW THE FUTURE IS MADE
How is the future made? The philosopher John Searle answers this question in his re-markable book Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. I want to share a couple of his ideas— just enough to provide us with a few key tools.