‘A Brief History of the Future’ offers a hopeful antidote to cynical tech takes

Cynicism is an almost acquired quality in tech journalism, and we’re certainly as guilty as the next publication. But the risks and promises of technology are real, and a new documentary series attempts to emphasize the latter without neglecting the former. “A Brief History of the Future,” hosted by Ari Wallach, also has the compelling quality of being completely free, as a PBS production.

The thesis of the show is simply that while the dangers and disappointments of technology (often due to its subversion by commercial interests) are worth examining and documenting, the other side of the coin must also be highlighted not out of naivety but because it is truly important and convincing.

I spoke with Wallach, who has unabashedly embraced the “futurist” moniker from the start, suggesting that we run the risk of blinding ourselves to the transformative potential of technology, startups, and innovation. (Full disclosure: I met Ari many years ago while visiting Berkeley with my brother, although it was just a coincidence.)

“The theory of the case is that when you ask 10 Americans, ‘What do you think about the future?’ 9 out of 10 people will say, “I’m afraid of that,” or they’ll say it’s a technology thing. Those are two things that this show is sort of an intervention for,” Wallach explained.

The future, he said, is not just what a Silicon Valley publicist tells you, or what the “great dystopia” warns you about, or even what a TechCrunch writer predicts. .

In the six-episode series, he speaks with dozens of individuals, businesses and communities about how they are working to improve and secure a future they may never see. From mushroom leather to ocean cleanups to death doulas, Wallach finds people who see the same scary future we do, but who choose to do something about it, even if that thing seems hopelessly small or naive.

“We wanted to bring the future into the living rooms of people who don’t normally think about it critically and openly, in terms of the future that you create,” he said. “People just aren’t exposed to it. Because right now, there are a whole host of reasons why, culturally, to be critical and cynical is to appear intelligent and aware. But now we’re at a point where if we continually do this, we’re going to lose track. We will lose the narrative of the entire larger human project.

In other words, it’s not about pretending that the problems don’t exist, but rather that there are already enough people talking about them. Shouldn’t we focus on what people actually do to solve them?

Of course, the expected themes of AI, automation and climate are there, but so are food, art and architecture, as well as more philosophical concerns like governance and value.

The most common objection raised by my cynical mind while watching was the classic “how is this evolving?” And Wallach was quick to admit that this was largely not the case.

“How does this evolve and how do you monetize it – it’s sort of the Silicon Valley-ization, the Sand Hill Road of looking at the future.” And there is a time and place for that! It may go forward, but maybe not. That’s not the point. We’ve tried to inform and educate on how to think differently tomorrow, and here are examples of people doing it. This is model behavior and action to give people a sense of agency. For example, are we all going to live in 3D printed houses? Maybe not. But if we think about the 2 to 3 billion unhoused people on the planet and how we’re going to house them, that could be part of it,” he continued.

“This is a solution-centric approach that is not purely focused on a venture capital solution. It’s about how to solve the problems we face today through an opportunity lens, as opposed to a “we’re all going to die” lens that usually grabs headlines, isn’t it? what not?

Wallach’s thesis earned his team a golden ticket to travel the world and talk to many interesting people and companies. Vertical farms, mushroom leather, coral propagation. Pete Buttigieg, Emmanuel Macron, Reid Hoffman, Grimes, footballer Kylian Mbappé. And everyone seems relieved to be able to talk about the promise of the future rather than its threat.

When I asked Wallach where and with whom he would have liked to spend a little more time, he gave three answers. One of them, a professor from northern Japan, has a theatrical but apparently quite effective way of asking seniors to envision the future, making them pretend they’re from there. Second, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, where the level of innovation and ambition was, he said, too high for words. And third, the “death doula” who helps people overcome the anxiety of the end of their own existence. (Although technology is often discussed, it is far from the only topic.)

Image credits: PBS

In case you’re wondering what special financial interest is trying to placate you with this feel-good presentation of a kinder, wiser future… don’t worry, I asked. And the obscure company behind this remarkably well-produced documentary is none other than the infamous Public Broadcasting Service. Which means, as noted above, it’s not only free to stream on and YouTube (I’ll add the first episode below as soon as it’s live), but it will appear also on normal linear television every day. Wednesday at 9 p.m. – “just after Nova”.

The general audience that a show like this is aimed at, Wallach reminded me, doesn’t engage on TikTok or even often on streaming services. Millions of people, especially older people who are not yet embittered by the promise of the future, turn on the television after dinner to watch the local news, a TV show, and maybe a documentary like this one. .

Wallach and his team also developed a classroom-specific version of the show that includes educational materials to follow students through the topics covered.

“This will be the first nationwide Futures Curriculum, accessible to more than 1.5 million teachers on the PBS education platform. This represents approximately 20 million children. It’s cool. And it’s free.

As a farewell, Wallach highlighted the shows he grew up with and how “cutting edge work” it is to be able to create something in emulation – although he was careful not to compare the their own – from classic shows like Cosmos, The Power of. Myth and connections.

“Cosmos changed the way I see the universe; The power of myth, my way of thinking about faith, meaning, psychology; I hope that A Brief History of the Future will change the way people think about the future and tomorrow. This is the company we wanted to be in.


Back to top button