Past and futures

From this terrible hotel room in this unlovable town, the outlook is bleak. The twin disasters of Brexit and Trump look not just possible but likely. Orlando is still naming its dead. The Euro 2016 football tournament has fractured into violence.

To ascribe common cause is to oversimplify, but in all of these acts I see the influence of the past. The Trump and Leave campaigns alike fixate on restoring former glory. Some people wish so much to deny LGBT people their contemporary freedoms that they will murder to revoke this progress. Even the Russian hooligans have targeted English fans based on a reputation twenty years out of date.

Meanwhile, youth culture continues to fetishise bygone eras, and when the kids grow up they emerge into a thriving mainstream retro culture. Garden parties for the Queen. The infantilisation of adult colouring books. Keep Calm cupcake fascism.

The past has a lot to answer for.

We technologists prefer to focus on the future, sketching out how things might be, wondering how to improve matters both trivial and significant. Imagining bright futures can make us prone to melancholy about the present, and today that sadness feels particularly strong. To see the world take conscious steps to mimic a past that has evaporated (if it ever existed at all) … it’s agonising.

Part of that agony comes from realising it’s partially our fault. We’ve failed to convince millions of people the future will be better. Our intentions and excitement have left people cold, or even hostile, to the extent they would rather chase an impossible reversion.

Progress will always create winners and losers, but we ignore the scary and disenfranchising potential of our work at our peril. What Silicon Valley wants is often not what the wider world needs. The past has a lot to answer for, but then, so does the future.